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In 1961, CIA and Special Forces actions in the Central Highlands were a testing ground for U.S. counterinsurgency strategy

As the war with Viet Cong insurgents was heating up in 1961, South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, had a serious problem. His government’s influence rarely extended beyond the larger cities and towns, and Saigon’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam was simply not large enough to maintain an effective presence throughout the nation’s backcountry. This was especially true in the Central Highlands, a remote, mountainous 25,868-square-mile region dominating the country’s midsection.

This article is adapted from Death in the Highlands: The Siege of Special Forces Camp Plei Me, by J. Keith Saliba, Stackpole Books, 2020.

Historically, the Highlands, isolated from the lowland coastal population centers, had been a mostly unmanageable territory, with government influence confined to provincial and district capitals. Worse, the Western Highlands sat adjacent to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an ancient labyrinthine system of footpaths snaking from North Vietnam through eastern Laos and Cambodia. The rugged, untamed border proved ideal for infiltrating men and materiel into South Vietnam. Both factors had for years enabled communist cadres to operate largely unimpeded in the Highlands.

One by one, southern villages and hamlets fell under communist control, providing Hanoi supplies and fresh conscripts for its insurgency. By the end of 1961, the South Vietnamese government had effectively lost control over many rural provinces. Contemporary CIA estimates found that perhaps 50 percent of Western Highlands villages had gone over to the communists.

It was clear to both Washington and Saigon that something had to be done. Enter the CIA’s Combined Studies Group. In 1961, the clandestine organization, along with U.S. Special Forces, had begun experimenting with a program to organize a group of Highland tribes known collectively as “Montagnards.”

The moniker, roughly translating to “people of the mountains,” was a holdover from the French. The Montagnards were not ethnic Vietnamese but rather of Mon-Khmer or Malayo-Polynesian extraction. The Vietnamese despised the tribes, regarding them as uncivilized and disloyal. Historically, the more numerous lowland Vietnamese had steadily pushed the Montagnards inland to the less-desirable interior.

Things only became worse under Diem. His regime encouraged citizens to migrate to the Highlands as a means of replacing the Montagnards with “loyal” Vietnamese. Further, Saigon often denied the Montagnards basic government services like food, medical care—even protection. Still, U.S. advisers argued that the rapidly deteriorating situation in the countryside demanded that Saigon leverage every bit of manpower, even the despised Highlanders, to thwart a complete communist takeover.

There were 15 major Montagnard tribes, with the Jarai and Rhade the most numerous. Highlanders lived a rudimentary life of subsistence hunting and farming. Villagers dressed in simple loincloths and wore homemade bracelets of copper and brass, along with colored glass beads to indicate wealth and status. After centuries of discrimination and maltreatment, the Montagnards heartily returned the Vietnamese disdain. But they were fairly welcoming of Westerners. During France’s rule of Vietnam, the tribes had benefited from educational, medical and agricultural improvements. In the war between the French and communist-led Viet Minh independence fighters (1946-54), many Highlanders sided with the French and gained combat experience in guerrilla units called Montagnard “Maquis,” a nod to the French resistance fighters of World War II. They could conceivably become an anti-communist bulwark against the Viet Cong, but the CIA and Special Forces would need to overcome several obstacles first.

The origins of the CIA’s effort to court the Montagnards can be traced to Buon Enao, a Western Highlands village of approximately 400 tribespeople about 4 miles outside Ban Me Thuot, the capital of Darlac province. While Kontum and Pleiku provinces to the north were most threatened by communist activity in 1961, Darlac was beginning to feel the pressure too. Saigon exercised very little control along Darlac’s rugged border with Cambodia, and CIA intelligence suggested that a major branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail fed into the area. Travel outside of Ban Me Thuot was both difficult and dangerous. Government officials simply refused to go into some areas. The U.S. Embassy worried that such conditions, along with an overall lack of government presence, would convince the province’s isolated villages that their only hope for survival was to accept Viet Cong dominance.

It was within this cauldron of danger and uncertainty that the CIA in late 1961 attempted a bold plan to turn things around. Agency Director Allen Dulles, at the behest of President John F. Kennedy, had in October ordered the spy agency to refocus counterinsurgency efforts in the Central Highlands. Col. Gilbert B. Layton, head of the agency’s Military Operations Section in Vietnam, was one of many CIA officers in search of a new plan. He soon teamed with a young aid worker, David Nuttle, to lead one of the agency’s—and Special Forces’—most successful contributions to the Vietnam War effort: the Civilian Irregular Defense Group.

Nuttle, an official with International Voluntary Services, a nongovernmental peace organization, had been working with Rhade Montagnards on an agricultural project near Ban Me Thuot. The tribesmen confided that they detested the Viet Cong but feared that Diem’s government was alienating their people and driving them into communist hands. Nuttle realized something had to be done to save not only the Rhade, the largest ethnicity in Darlac, but the rest of the province as well. The aid worker happened to be dating Layton’s daughter at the time, so the men came into frequent contact. Over some weeks, the two developed a plan to help the Rhade help themselves.

The project involved training and arming villagers to defend themselves against the communists. The men believed the Rhade were ideal for several reasons. First, the tribe resented the Viet Cong’s demands for supplies, labor and taxes. Second, while the tribespeople were unlikely to fight for Diem, Nuttle believed they would fight for their own families and villages. Finally, the Rhade were seen as the most advanced of the Montagnard tribes, with several members having served effectively in government positions.

Convincing Saigon was another matter. Diem and the ARVN leadership viewed training and arming Highlanders with deep suspicion. Aside from the long-festering racial enmity between Montagnards and Vietnamese, the former had for years agitated for semi-independence. After the Highlanders short-lived Bajaraka autonomy movement in 1958, Saigon arrested the ringleaders and confiscated the tribes’ crossbows and spears—deeply humiliating for a culture steeped in subsistence hunting. The regime was unlikely to look kindly on putting weapons back into their hands.

Nevertheless, Layton pushed the idea up the chain on May 5 to William Colby, CIA chief of station in Saigon. Recognizing the plan’s potential, Colby followed up with Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who had taken a keen interest in the counterinsurgency effort. But like Diem, Nhu was wary of arming the Montagnards. Colby helped sell the idea by suggesting that the 1st Observation Group—forerunner to the Luc Luong Dac Biet, the Vietnamese Special Forces established on Jan. 15, 1963—act as the regime’s watchdog. Diem, through his Presidential Survey Office, closely controlled the nascent Vietnamese Special Forces, employing it as much to root out potential coup plotters as for counterinsurgency. Colby hoped the survey office’s watchful eye would assuage Diem’s doubts.

Nhu was receptive, but Diem remained unconvinced. Over the ensuing months, the strange bedfellows of the CIA, Nhu and U.S. Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting worked to gain Diem’s assent. Finally, Colby enlisted Sir Robert Thompson, a widely respected British counterinsurgency expert instrumental in defeating the communist insurgency during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). At Thompson’s urging, Diem at last relented—with caveats. The program was to be restricted to just one village. The Rhade initially would be issued only spears and crossbows. Firearms and training would be provided only after the tribesmen had erected a fence around the village and posted signs of allegiance to the government.

Nuttle, who had since signed on with the CIA, spearheaded what was to become the Village Defense Program. For several reasons, Nuttle and Layton soon settled on Buon Enao as the program’s pilot village. First, Y-Ju, the village chief, was Nuttle’s close friend. Additionally, the village was not presently under Viet Cong pressure, providing the program with breathing room. Finally, Buon Enao’s proximity to the government resources and protection at Ban Me Thuot was crucial. But Y-Ju and other village elders had their own conditions. After all, erecting fences and displaying signs of allegiance to the government would surely mark Buon Enao for Viet Cong violence. Elders insisted that all government attacks on Rhade villages stop, that any Rhade who had been forced to cooperate with the VC be granted amnesty and that the government guarantee the tribe medical, educational and agricultural assistance. After a minor back-and-forth, the deal was sealed in early November 1961.

Recruits were drawn from the village and carefully screened for Viet Cong affiliation, with tribal leaders vouching for their loyalty. Shortly thereafter, a squad of Vietnamese Special Forces arrived to train the 30-man village defense force. In the meantime, work began on the fencing, bomb shelters for villagers and a medical dispensary. For their part, the villagers displayed pro-government placards and even flew the South Vietnamese flag. A few weeks later, Layton and Col. Le Quang Tung, head of Diem’s Presidential Survey Office, flew in to inspect the progress.

They discovered that the villagers had fulfilled every aspect of the agreement. The men authorized the distribution of firearms. A shipment arrived just a few days later. Though antiquated, the 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifles and Madsen M50 submachine guns were welcome upgrades over the tribe’s crossbows and spears.

American servicemen in the Highlands imbibe Numpai, a potent Montagnard rice wine central to tribal life. / Richard "Dick" Shortridge

In early December, soldiers with Special Forces Detachment A-35, commanded by Capt. Larry Arritola, arrived to train the village’s “Strike Force.” Unlike Village Defenders, Strikers were full-time, paid soldiers and generally better trained and armed. The Strike Force, accompanied by Special Forces troopers, conducted regular patrols that provided additional security as well as intelligence on enemy activity. A third unit, the Information Team, was raised a short time later. Information Teams were also full-time, paid fighters, all of them Highlanders. The 30-man teams were primarily responsible for recruitment. Their members ranged far afield to entice other villages to join.

Another government delegation, including Nhu, soon arrived to inspect progress. The president’s brother was reportedly so impressed he authorized the program’s expansion to other Rhade villages throughout Darlac. Colby renamed the project the Civilian Irregular Defense Group. Buon Enao was soon designated the first CIDG Area Development Center and would serve as a training base for Rhade defenders. It also would take the lead in expanding the program throughout the province and in coordinating village defense. The Area Development Center’s dispensary became a de facto hospital for local Montagnards.

Soon after, interest in the CIDG program exploded. Forty nearby villages opted in over the ensuing weeks. The program was popular, especially when compared with Diem’s Strategic Hamlet Program, partly because it was voluntary. Unlike the Diem program, which involved the forced relocation of villagers, often to fortified hamlets far from their native lands, the CIDG program left the decision up to the villagers. When given the choice—along with training, weapons and support—the Rhade overwhelmingly chose to stand and fight the Viet Cong. Each new village raised its own cadre of Village Defenders, with the area Strike Force providing security until recruits could be trained.

By April 1962, nearly 1,000 Village Defenders had been armed and trained at the Area Development Center in Buon Enao and stood ready to protect some 14,000 villagers. A 300-man Strike Force based at Buon Enao added muscle to the program. Over the next six months, five more Area Development Centers were created in the villages of Buon Ho, Buon Krong, Ea Ana, Lac Thien and Buon Tah. By October, some 200 Rhade villages comprising about 60,000 tribespeople were protected by about 10,600 Village Defenders and 1,500 Strikers. This conglomeration became known as the Buon Enao Complex. Communist activity in the area soon fell to almost nothing. Indeed, by any objective measure, CIDG had so far proven an unqualified success.

The program became a victim of that success almost immediately. By summer 1962, Diem was already second-guessing an initiative he had authorized less than a year before. From his perspective, the Americans had placed an awful lot of weapons in the hands of people who harbored an animus toward the Vietnamese, had agitated for autonomy and displayed little allegiance to Saigon. Additionally, the Highlanders were reluctant to employ their newfound training and weapons to pursue the Viet Cong beyond the areas around their villages.

An exasperated Diem decreed that all but a few weapons provided to the Buon Enao Complex be confiscated. Ultimately, he wanted the program brought under tight control—or better yet, eliminated, with the Rhade disarmed and inducted into the ARVN, while their villages were rolled into his Strategic Hamlet Program.

The CIDG program was becoming too large, expensive and unwieldy for the CIA to handle. It had pushed beyond Darlac, bringing into the fold other Highland tribes. In May 1962, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, established that February to oversee all combat forces in South Vietnam, acquired joint jurisdiction over CIDG operations. Two months later, all Special Forces activity in Vietnam would be placed under MACV’s command.

The transfer took place under the code name Operation Switchback. Within a year, the CIA would be squeezed out entirely, with MACV controlling both Special Forces and CIDG. Operation Switchback was officially completed on July 1, 1963. By December, U.S. Special Forces and their Vietnamese counterparts had trained some 18,000 Strikers and just over 43,000 Village Defenders, the latter now simply referred to as village militia.

Under the new regime, the CIDG program took a decidedly militaristic turn. Out was the culturally organic program of Montagnard self-defense birthed by Nuttle, Layton and Colby. In was aggressive border surveillance, interdiction and VC hunting. No longer were Special Forces camps chosen based on affinity with local villagers. Instead, new camps were built deep in “Indian Country”—remote areas awash in enemy activity near the Laotian and Cambodian borders. Indeed, with their palisades and battlements, the camps resembled Wild West frontier forts of old. This scattered archipelago of strongholds was designed to gradually spread governmental authority throughout surrounding areas.

A typical camp garrison consisted of three to five companies of Montagnard Strikers totaling about 350 to 450 men, a 12-man U.S. Special Forces team and a roughly equal complement of Vietnamese Special Forces. While the Vietnamese were nominally in command, American Special Forces actually ran the show. Now, instead of defending their own villages, Strike Forces were led by Green Berets in offensive operations against the Viet Cong. Families of Strikers were usually quartered nearby in Montagnard longhouses. But it was common for Montagnard women and children to simply take up residence in gun trenches alongside their husbands and fathers, especially when the Viet Cong lurked.

Because of their remoteness and isolation from supporting forces, the Special Forces-CIDG camps were especially vulnerable to being overrun, particularly in the dark of night when close air support was nullified. The soonest that camp commanders could count on help was the next morning—and sometimes not even then. Nevertheless, by mid-1964, 24 Special Forces-CIDG camps had sprung up within the tri-border area alone.

In addition to outright attacks, another danger to the camps was enemy infiltration. Strikers were recruited from the local population (although some Strike Forces had to be relocated from other areas). With the CIDG program’s fast growth, however, there rarely was time to thoroughly vet recruits. As the program expanded into areas under heavy Viet Cong influence, communist infiltrators often slipped through the cracks.

Might the men trained and armed under the program one day turn those weapons against their benefactors? That is precisely what happened at the CIDG camps at Plei Mrong on Jan. 3, 1963, Hiep Hoa on Nov. 23-24, 1963, Polei Krong on July 4, 1964, and Nam Dong two days later, to name just four. The Nam Dong attack was particularly brutal, with VC infiltrators reportedly slitting the throats of loyal defenders as they slept. Perhaps 100 of the supposedly loyal Montagnard Strikers were Viet Cong agents, according to later estimates.

Even as the transmogrified CIDG continued to expand, the long-simmering resentment of the Rhade Montagnards finally boiled over in late summer 1964. Initially, the assassination of Diem and his brother Nhu in November 1963 offered the Rhade hope for better treatment from Saigon. Those hopes were soon dashed. Indeed, while Diem certainly perpetrated his share of mistreatment upon the Highlanders, the Montagnards discovered that not much changed once he was gone.

In some ways, things had gotten worse. The Highlanders generally worked better with province chiefs familiar to them, but Diem’s overthrow had ushered in a volatile carousel of government officials throughout the Highlands, as provincial posts changed hands with every shift in the political wind. Racial discrimination at the hands of the Vietnamese continued unabated, with food for Highland war refugees slow in coming. And medical care, when it could be obtained at all, was only reluctantly extended by ARVN dispensaries.

Eventually, remnants of the erstwhile Bajaraka movement decided the time had come for an uprising. The group now called itself the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, or FULRO. On Sept. 19, Highland Strikers from two CIDG camps in Quang Duc province and two from Darlac province arose. After restraining, but not harming, their U.S. Special Forces advisers, the Montagnards fell upon the ARVN and Vietnamese Special Forces, murdering some 55. The rebels, numbering between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters, soon converged on nearby Ban Me Thuot. The town, however, was defended by the ARVN 23rd Division, and the revolt’s momentum soon stalled. Other than a brief firefight at an ARVN roadblock resulting in 10 rebel casualties, more bloodshed was avoided. Still, ARVN and American forces prepared assaults in case the Strikers, who had taken some 60 Vietnamese captive, refused to surrender.

After a week of tense negotiations, the mutineers released the hostages unharmed and laid down their arms. Remarkably, and in spite of the rebels’ initial killing spree, no Vietnamese reprisals were forthcoming. Both sides pledged renewed commitments to peaceful coexistence. But the age-old animosity between Vietnamese and Montagnard soon returned. For the Montagnards, there would be no autonomy. And for Saigon, the fear that further Montagnard revolts might be forthcoming continued to color the way it viewed the Highlanders. This uneasy state of affairs would persist for another decade as the life-and-death struggle for the Central Highlands ground on. V

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J. Keith Saliba is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Jacksonville University in Florida. Saliba’s work on the Vietnam War has appeared in various print and online publications, including On Point: The Journal of Army History, as well as the Indochina book series published by Radix Press. He lives in in St. Johns County, Florida.

This article appeared in the December 2021 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe and visit us on Facebook.