Vietnam War
As the US rolls into the 16th year of its 'longest-ever' war, in Afghanistan - ostensibly against the Taliban, although no one really knows who they are anymore - and appears to be seriously considering another large-scale intervention on the Korean peninsula, it's worth recalling what took place the last time US forces amassed in East Asia.

The Vietnam War - known by Vietnamese as 'the American War' - was a long, protracted, bloody mess. Most histories of the war say it lasted either 10 or 20 years, depending on what phase is taken as its starting point: large-scale, regular US military forces were engaged from 1965 to 1975; alternately, US military 'advisors' under the auspices of the CIA first intervened there in 1955. But there was an earlier phase still to this war, one that blends it into occupation by imperial France, and WWII occupation by Japan before that.

At 20-30 years, this would certainly make Vietnam, and not Afghanistan, America's 'longest war'. In any event, some 2,600,000 American soldiers rotated through Indochina in the 1960s and 70s, 58,000 of whom lost their lives, while to up to 3 million Vietnamese died.

In most accounts of the war, it is represented as a relative blip in American history, a fight lost against a guerrilla communist force known as the 'Vietcong', an enemy comprising elusive forces capable of surprising and surrounding helpless American soldiers, then disappearing into the jungle as quickly as they appeared. They would use local inhabitants and villages as human-shields so that American napalm and machine-guns couldn't tell the difference between friend and foe. At least, that's one take on it.

If we go a little deeper into the reasons for the war, which saw the jungles, villages and people of Vietnam decimated by over 8 million tonnes of bombs - three times the quantity used during WWII - we find that the official justification for the war blends into the overarching narrative of the Cold War between the US and the USSR, as stated here for example:
"The causes of the Vietnam War were derived from the symptoms, components and consequences of the Cold War. The causes of the Vietnam War revolve around the simple belief held by America that communism was threatening to expand all over south-east Asia.

Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States could risk an all-out war against each other, such was the nuclear military might of both. However, when it suited both, they had client states that could carry on the fight for them. In Vietnam, the Americans actually fought - therefore in the Cold War 'game', the USSR could not. However, to support the Communist cause, the Soviet Union armed its fellow Communist state, China, who would, in turn, arm and equip the North Vietnamese who fought the Americans."
However, as noted, US intervention in Indochina began before the Cold War was even conceived, and before WWII had officially ended. During the last stages of the defeat of imperial Japan, and before nukes were used there, the US military was planning a major offensive to invade mainland Japan. This required huge stockpiles of weaponry that were stored on the island of Okinawa. But after Japan surrendered when the Soviets declared war on Japan - and the US responded by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a warning to the Soviets - that entire stockpile, enough to arm 300,000 soldiers, was shipped, not back to the United States, but to Southeast Asia. Half of that cache ended up in Korea, and the other half was shipped to Haiphong in Vietnam, and into the hands of Ho Chi Minh and his Vietnamese communist army known as the Vietminh.

This was the version of events explained by Fletcher Prouty in his seminal book The CIA, Vietnam and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy. Prouty was a pilot for the US Air Force during WWII, and described his involvement in making sure that that shipment - which was a well-kept secret - arrived in Vietnam under the direction of Brig. Gen. Philip E. Gallagher, who was there as support for the OSS (which later became the CIA), and was transferred to the Việt Minh (the 'League for the Independence of Vietnam').

The US had hitherto been sending weapons to the Vietnamese independence movement in its struggle to overthrow the Japanese, but Võ Nguyên Giáp, their top general, saved this enormous weapons cache for later use against French colonial forces, which sought a return to the status quo of French rule when the Japanese colonizers were defeated. The Việt Minh eventually defeated the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, despite US military assistance to the European colonialists. This loss marked the defeat of the French in the north, but they extracted the same concession the Americans received at the end of WWII with respect to Korea: the splitting of the country into two halves along a purely arbitrary line. The US backed the pro-Western regime of South Vietnam and soon thereafter began the 'official' introduction of the US - via the CIA (then still the OSS) - into the affairs of Indochina.

The Saigon Military Mission

The Saigon Military Mission (SMM), initially headed by Edward Lansdale, was the name given to the CIA's clandestine paramilitary (read terrorist) operations in Vietnam. Although its stated purpose was to 'help' the Vietnamese, it set about turning Vietnamese people against each other along 'north' versus 'south', and 'communist' versus 'freedom-loving' lines, and US set in motion the events that eventually led to the introduction of regular military forces and all-out war.

The Việt Minh independence movement led by Ho Chi Minh sought to make Vietnam a democratic republic modeled on the US. But the US had a problem with Ho Chi Minh: like most other independence movements in Western colonies at the time, the Việt Minh, besides being patriotic nationalists, were fond of socialist ideas. The US, victorious in WWII, was not fond of socialist ideas. It interpreted anyone who expressed such fondness as signalling alignment with Russia and China, which, as we know today, is the Ultimate Red Line for the US. It could be said that the extent to which foreign nations have 'gone socialist' during the 20th century is directly proportional to US global dominance, because the US has consistently used the 'Socialist/Communist threat' to justify imperial conquest.

After the 1954 Geneva Accords split Vietnam in half at the 17th Parallel, Ho Chi Minh became leader of the new 'North Vietnam' and Lansdale's SMM set about portraying Minh to the Vietnamese as an 'evil commie dictator'.

Ngo Dinh Diem

Eisenhower and Allen Dulles greet their favorite Asian democrat, Ngo Dinh Diem
In the newly created 'South Vietnam', the US brought in Ngo Dinh Diem (from US exile) as leader, initially to work under Emperor Bao Dai, which gave this new government some measure of legitimacy in the people's eyes. Fradulent elections were held in 1955 that gave Diem the chance to oust Bao Dai and become President. Following violence and voter intimidation, Diem officially won a stunning 98% of the vote. Few in South Vietnam believed the result. It should be noted that Lansdale, in his wisdom, recommended that Diem claim just 70% of the vote, but his client ignored his advice.

Emerging from eight decades of French colonial rule, both Vietnams had little in the way of effective government structure - the military, police and tax system needed to run a country. So the CIA set about buying an army for Diem, 'their' man in the South. Generals and leaders of local militias throughout the country were paid off with cushy retirements in the south of France while their soldiers were absorbed into the new South Vietnamese Forces (SVF).

Disastrous Decisions

After stealing the election, the Diem clique proceeded to evict the French from South Vietnam, which was a bad move because - as much as they had been colonial administrators - they were among the few capable of administrating at all. A case in point: Diem barred people from trading with Chinese merchants under the pretext that they were 'likely communist spies'. But the people of Vietnam had been trading with Chinese merchants for centuries. Their main export was rice, which they cultivated in abundance, and for which there was a huge demand in China to feed its vast population. The merchants would travel down the Mekong River and other tributaries while farmers would bundle up their crops and take them to designated areas. In exchange, the Vietnamese received drinking water, fabrics, tools and other essential items that sustained the population. So this particular decision hit the economy hard.

Meanwhile the CIA trained-up Diem's military and 'paramilitary' (i.e. terrorist) units in the 'art' of sabotage, guerrilla warfare, psyops, false-flag operations and other means of 'counter-insurgency' (i.e. terrorism). One of their first orders of business was to infiltrate North Vietnam and "raise hell", as then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles put it. Here's another passage from Prouty's book where he explains what exactly that meant:
"One of the first classes of these troopers was flown to the vicinity of Hanoi, put in native garb, and told to run around the city spreading anti-Vietminh rumors. They were ordered to pass out leaflets that had been written by members of the Saigon Military Mission and to perform various acts of sabotage, such as putting sugar in the gas tanks of Ho Chi Minh's trucks and army vehicles. Later, the Saigon Military Mission discovered that these "loyal" troops usually just melted away and lined up for soup with some of Ho Chi Minh's forces.

By midsummer more men had joined the SMM, and its mission was broadened. Its members were now teaching 'paramilitary' tactics - today called 'terrorism' - and doing all they could to promote the movement of hundreds of thousands of "Catholic" Vietnamese from the north with promises of safety, food, land, and freedom in the south and with threats that they would be massacred by the Communists of North Vietnam and China if they stayed in the North.

This movement of Catholics - or natives whom the SMM called 'Catholics' - from the northern provinces of Vietnam to the south, under the provisions of the Geneva Agreement, became the most important activity of the Saigon Military Mission and one of the root causes of the Vietnam War. The terrible burden these 1,100,000 destitute strangers imposed upon the equally poor native residents of the south created a pressure on the country and the Diem administration that proved to be overwhelming." p.66
Weapon of Mass Migration

Before the war, Indochina had been relatively undisturbed for hundreds of years, even throughout French rule. The refugees produced by this textbook case of 'forced migration as a weapon' had, naturally, strong connections to their homes and land. They stressed the importance of family and community above all else, and it was said that the Emperor's rule or power only extended as far as village borders. Village elders were held in high regard, were the pillars of each community, and were often consulted when it came to practical and spiritual matters.
Vietnam Refugees

Refugees from the north being transported south by the US Navy
However, this entire structure of 'natural governance' was upended by the dislocation of over a million Vietnamese from 'North' to 'South'.

The CIA's 'Civil Air Transport' and the US Navy transported the bulk of refugees, while the rest traveled upwards of 1,500 miles on foot. Most, being simple village folk, had no concept of communism or democracy and weren't particularly concerned about either. So one can imagine how efficient and terrifying the CIA's campaign must have been for them to leave their ancestral homes and unwittingly become Cold War cannon fodder.

They were eventually forced to fend for themselves amidst equally poor and struggling people in South Vietnam who saw the refugees as invaders. Fighting over the same meager resources, violent clashes, pillaging and banditry soon erupted.

Vietnam, once a leading exporter of rice, was now forced to import rice. Lack of drinking water became a serious problem. The countryside had plenty of brackish water, but villages in the South had only two ways of obtaining drinkable water - through trade with the Chinese merchants and giant earthen jars that each village used to collect and store rainwater. With the first option removed, the second option become the only real means of acquiring water.

This led to clashes between the native population and the refugees. Groups of raiding parties started to form and maraud across the countryside attacking villages in search of food, water or other vital resources. The Diem government could not handle this and began bleating that the country was being overrun by 'communist insurgents'. The very rationale used to induce the North Vietnamese to flee southwards in the first place - to get away from 'the communists' - was now what they themselves were accused of being.

Paranoia and distrust ripened between the people and the government and, with CIA help, the government resorted to violence and murder against its own people to quell the civil unrest. The politically correct term used at the time was 'pacification'. It was from this chaos that the 'Vietcong' popular Vietnamese resistance emerged. The people that made up the 'Vietcong' weren't so much 'pro-communist' or 'anti-democratic' as starving and thirsty. Ideology, after all, can't be eaten.

Terror Tactics


Winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people... by blowing up their villages.
One method drilled into Diem's forces was 'The Hand' or '5 Finger System', used frequently in the early years after the population transfer. Wherever there was unrest, a heavily-armed 'pacification' unit would attack a village suspected of 'sheltering sympathizers', then terrorize everyone in it, which usually consisted of burning down a certain number of huts and killing a certain number of villagers.

Diem's troops would then choose one person, often the village elder, to be the 'leader', then put him in 'Group 1'. His task was to point out to the troops which villagers he thought were closest to the French or Chinese. Those selected were put in 'Group 5'. Group 1 leader was then asked to point out who his 'enemies' were, or who he didn't trust in the village. Those were also placed in 'Group 5'. The remainder of the villagers were grouped between 2 and 4, depending on their affinity with the elder relative to 'Group 5'. The villagers in 'Group 5' were either killed or taken into captivity.

When northern refugees, desperate for work, began swelling the ranks of the South's army, many of them led these 'pacification' missions and very often chose other refugees as the 'leader' who then singled out many of the southern natives to be put into Group 5. This wasn't about determining who was a 'fifth-columnist' or 'foreign operative'; this was about terrorizing people into loyalty towards the new US-backed regime in South Vietnam. But it had precisely the opposite result to that intended: it spurred the creation in 1960 of the 'Vietcong' National Liberation Front in South Vietnam, which went from tens of thousands of Vietcong insurgents, to hundreds of thousands, and then millions.

Strategic Hamlets

The methods used to 'democratically-govern' the South Vietnamese soon became the madness of brutally suppressing legitimate unrest. Piloted by the French colonialists during the first Indochina War, the forced relocation of people to 'Strategic Hamlets' was supervised by Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. The official reason for these camps was to move all villagers away from communist hot-spots or areas where the threat of Vietcong 'invasion' was seen as imminent. As similar tactic was used by the British in their 'low intensity wars' in Malaya and Kenya. The strategic assumption was that this scheme would cut off the Vietcong's ability to gather resources and food, while cutting off villagers' sympathy for the Vietcong. The people would now be 'under the protection of' the South Vietnamese forces, 'winning hearts and minds' in support of the Diem regime. The reality was very different.

By the time the project was scrapped in 1964, one year before the full-scale US military invasion, millions of people had been forcefully relocated to tens of thousands of 'hamlets' (aka concentration camps) scattered across the country. They were designed with armed defense and perimeter systems to 'protect' villagers from any outside threat. What this meant was that each camp was surrounded by ditches, fencing, barbed-wire and booby-traps as a deterrent to keep anyone from entering or leaving; the surrounding areas were scorched and burned to facilitate tracking movements; and every 'resident' was given an ID card. A 'self-defense network' was set up to enforce rules and curfews in the camps, and to weed out potential 'communist' sympathizers. If anyone was caught moving around after curfew, or without an ID card, they were often shot or imprisoned.

Other camps outside the self-defense network's range were stockpiled with food and medicine, making them tempting targets for raiding parties, while the village elder was given a radio transmitter to call for help. If the Vietcong were seen or heard to have raided a village, the transmitter was to be used to contact the South Vietnamese Forces who would fly in on US military helicopters to 'save' the village. And if the village didn't radio for help, but was suspected to have contacted or traded with the Vietcong, the SVF would also fly in, guns blazing - also to 'save' it, of course.

Conditions in the camps were deplorable. Due to the speed at which the relocation program was moving, and the rampant corruption pervading the Diem government, it was very often the villagers themselves who were forced to build the camps' fortifications, while the government funds allocated for this were stolen and squandered by corrupt officials.

Little thought went into determining where the camps would be located, so they ended up being scattered across the countryside. Many were easily overrun by marauding refugees or the Vietcong - their supplies and food taken - and by the time South Vietnamese forces arrived on the scene, there were usually only frightened villagers left hiding in the jungles outside the camp walls. Due to the SVF's fervor in trying to justify the astronomically expensive and slow helicopter missions into dense jungle, the survivors were readily assumed to be Vietcong or VC sympathizers, and killed.

Military Intervention

By the time the US entered the fray with a full-scale military invasion, the Diems had managed to turn the entire countryside against them. The people were in essence fighting off an oppressive US-backed regime that had destroyed their homes, put them into prison camps, taken away their dignity, and wantonly killed anyone who resisted. Democracy was merely a label that masked a brutal authoritarian regime, while 'communism' was the propaganda buzzword used to explain away people's natural resistance to the regime. There were no liberties and freedoms to be had for the people, nor salvation from a fictitious communist threat. Instead they were forced to adapt and become fighters and guerrillas in order to survive the harsh new environment of Vietnam.

When Kennedy became President, there wasn't much he could do as the wheels of war had long been in motion, and his team understood very little about what was really going on, filtered as his perspective was through the minds of CIA advisers who shaped the narratives to further push their agenda towards proliferation of the war. They had been stirring the pot since 1945, long before Kennedy was elected, and with the agency's push for procurement and transfer of military helicopters to Vietnam in 1960, Pandora's Box had been opened and would not be easily shut.

During his three years in office, Kennedy was in the process of attempting to "shatter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds"1 by transferring control of clandestine operations over to the army and Joint Chiefs of Staff, which would have effectively neutered the CIA's capability of doing things in the dark and 'creating facts on the ground' for presidents to deal with. As Prouty put it:
"Over the years, the CIA has developed an efficient system of obtaining military equipment, manpower, overseas base facilities, and all the rest, ostensibly on a reimbursable basis, in order to carry out covert activities. The reimbursement is made by transferring hidden CIA funds in the Department of Defense accounts to DoD, thereby repaying all "out-of-pocket" expenses of the military. This complex but effective system has been in effect since 1949. For example, in Indonesia in 1958, the CIA was able, quite easily, to support a rebel force of more than forty thousand troops by using US military assets." ¬ p.216
Kennedy also attempted to reduce US involvement in Vietnam by enacting National Security Action Memorandum 263, which was to bring home 1,000 US 'advisors' to the Diem regime by the end of 1963, but before any of that could take effect, he was assassinated in Dallas, leaving no one to stand in the way of the CIA and the Military-Industrial Complex. Following his death, LBJ increased US troops in Vietnam from 16,000 to 23,000 in 1964, and once war was made official in 1965, the number jumped to 185,000.

NSAM 263

Kennedy's plan to start bringing the troops back home.
In an odd twist of fate, Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were also assassinated in 1963, just weeks before Kennedy was. A number of upper echelon Vietnamese generals, along with the CIA, orchestrated a coup to depose them and offered safe asylum if they surrendered. However, both were tied up and executed in the back of the convoy that captured them, which caused a rift between coup members who then attempted to portray the assassinations as suicides. When it finally came to light that they had been executed, no one wanted to take responsibility for it and the plotters pointed fingers at each other.

Once full military operations were under way though, Vietnam became a goldmine for US war corporations. Some 4.5 million acres of vegetation was sprayed with about 19 million tonnes of Monsanto's defoliant, Agent Orange, which led to serious health problems and an exponential increase in birth defects that became commonplace, a situation that persists today. The rape, torture and murder of women and young girls by US soldiers became rampant while the people as a whole were treated as subhuman and referred to as 'gooks'.

Throughout the war, the US was criticized for having no clear military objective in Vietnam. The military was struggling to fight a largely imaginary 'communist insurgency', and through their actions created conditions that only fomented more of the same. When the top brass began measuring success based on the body count of enemy combatants - the more dead bodies, the more successful a mission - the US acquired its macabre objective whereby, from the '5 Finger System' through to Operation Phoenix, computerized genocide itself became the 'war objective'. The ends became the means.

War, what good is it for?

Shortly after North Vietnamese troops and the VC recaptured Saigon in 1975, the capital of the re-united Vietnam was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. In the end, the US withdrew from Vietnam because anti-war pressure at home reached boiling point and the US post-WWII economic boom came to an end. Even supporters of the war eventually came to recognize its futility. Vietnam was left ruined; a once prosperous people and fertile land destroyed in service to the pathological power elite in the USA. The country recovered, but it took decades. While still nominally a communist country, most Vietnamese people have long since put the war behind them, having welcomed with open arms the free market capitalism the US was willing to go to such violent lengths to force them to embrace half a century ago.

The Vietnam War was a glorious opportunity for the US to learn from its mistake of trying to 'save' a country thousands of miles away from 'going bad'. Instead, the CIA quickly moved on to other clandestine projects in other countries, including "stirring up some Muslims" in Afghanistan by the end of the 1970s, and more recently invading and/or bombing the hell out of several Middle Eastern nations. One of the best definitions of madness seems to apply here: 'doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting different results'. Maybe that would be a more appropriate motto for the CIA.


1. This is not a direct quote from JFK. It was attributed to him by a New York Times reporter after he was assassinated. This doesn't alter the fact that JFK was locked in battle with Dulles' CIA, and that Dulles did arrange to have him killed. See The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government by David Talbot.