US-GVN bombardment 'generated" refugees because it destroyed those social arrangements which gave form to the lives of the villagers. In the countryside, just about everyone was tied to the land. As one defector explained, "A piece of property in the village, however big or small it was, represents the results of hard work and savings through many generations, and the villagers were very reluctant to leave it behind for an unknown future." Tailors,
carpenters, barbers, "also cultivate their land," noted a POW; "therefore, they are also considered farmers." The village medic was likely to be a landowner, and so was the schoolteacher, one of whom commented that he preferred his village to life in Saigon; "living on my garden," he af7 firmed, "I had enough to eat." Even the local cadres were peasants first, and when it seemed that the Front might be forced out of a village, they reacted like any other small holder. A defector from an area in which the NLF was on the defensive, noted that
The village cadres will have to live in other villages. This is exactly their biggest fear. How could they make a living in an alien village? They have no houses to dwell in and no land to till. They don't get any pay from the Front, either. They simply will have to starve. They couldn't assist their relatives, either. The prospect is frightening and their morale has declined.
Close relationship to the land was a trait shared by all members of the village. It was the basic element giving substance to rural society. US-GVN bombs and shells were supposed to sever this bond between peasants and their fields, and thus to demoralize and ultimately to disperse the community from which the Front drew its strength. For the peasants, land and subsistence went together. The decision to leave home was postponed because people were not sure they could survive without farming.
These villagers had moved from their orchards to the middle of the paddy fields to take care of their fields. If they moved further away it would be difficult for them to take care of their ricefields. This is why they had to cling to their land and run the risk of getting shelled and killed. The people there lived on farming, if they left their lands they would starve to death. They were families with many children to feed, If they moved to the New Life Hamlets, they would have no means of making
their living and they would not be able to feed their families. Even if the government distributed money to them, it would do so for a few months only, and after that they would have to be on their own. If they stayed with their land, they were sure of having rice to eat for a long time. Some of them who had gone to the New Life Hamlets to live for a while came back and said that the allowances that the government gave them were not enough. These were the reasons why they decided to stay with their ricefields in order to make their living.
The cautious peasants were not tempted by other ways of making a living. Wages or government doles were temporary devices, "for a few months only," but families with land "were sure of having rice to eat for a long time," indeed forever.
Living in an urban, wage labor economy, we may skip too quickly over these statements, without fully comprehending the depth of the villagers' concern about leaving home. Peasants were perplexed when confronted with the prospect of leaving the one resource from which they had always drawn the means of life. As a respondent recalled
Most of (the villagers) had a large family and they didn't dare to move elsewhere. How could they feed all their children without land to till? So they just resigned themselves to the conditions in the liberated area and clung to their land to make their living.
'If one has land, one can live easily, " affirmed another respondent. By contrast, those who were forced to depart seemed pitifully uprooted. The refugees "were in one place and their land was somewhere else," observed a third interviewee. 'Even though they received GVN assistance, their standard of living was still lower than before."
Leaving the village was not just a matter of economics, of balancing accounts and deciding which environment guaranteed the steadier income.
Everyone wanted to live, everyone was afraid of death, and everyone wanted to live in secure areas, but the people had to remain in the hamlet because the situation forced them to do so. They had never been outside their native hamlet, and they didn't know of any other means of making their living besides farming. They were afraid that if they moved to the GVN areas, they wouldn't have any means of earning their living, and they would be lost and starve to death.
The peasants sensed that "they would be lost" if they moved out of the village. In a strategic or new life hamlet or in the district town, in My Tho City or in Saigon, they found a new world, run according to a strange set of rules. A defector offered this analysis:
The Strategic Hamlets were too crowded and the cost of living was too high. The people would have to buy everything, a stick of firewood, a handful of vegetables, a red pepper, a tomato, things which had been abundant and taken for granted when the people were living in their own village. Yet once they moved into a Strategic Hamlet, those things became scarce and they'd have to spend hundreds of piasters to buy them. In the village, one could catch a few fish in just a moment in the swampy field and one's meal would be completed. In the GVN-controlled area, one has to buy practically everything.
In this respect, and in many others, such a move disrupted a thousand small routines. For example, according to one respondent,
The men wanted to move to the GVN areas, but the women didn't like the idea. They were used to life in the hamlet where their children had the run of the orchards. When they had some spare time they could go fishing and work in the fields or or-
chards. Whereas if they moved to the cities, they would have to rent a small house for 300 or 400 piasters a month, They would be very crowded and they couldn't do anything to help add to the income of their families. Their husbands would be the only ones to work and support the families, while they would just sit at home.
Refugees were not just changing one residence for another. Bombing and shelling compelled them to abandon a whole social world, with its network of habits and relationships, and to plunge into an alien environment for which they were radically unprepared.
The disintegration of rural society was particularly marked in the area west of My Tho City where in 1966 USGVN forces began to build the Dong Tam military base. The lands of many peasants were seized, and, in the process of construction, other adjoining fields were made unfit for cultivation. Meanwhile, countering urgency efforts in the District were escalated to a crescendo unmatched anywhere else in the Province. Bombing, shelling and sweep operations were intensified in order to drive the NLF back, and permanent garrisons camped in some villages to keep guerrilla forces away from the American military installation.
Many peasants had to move to make way for the base. Before they left, the Saigon dictatorship offered them a "compensation" for the property it had taken, an ineffectual gesture which crystallized the gap between the GVN regime and the villagers. As if peasants could be compensated for the loss of their land! In fact there was no way to 'compensate" rural dwellers for their stolen fields, except perhaps by providing them with another source of subsistence which they could count on for the rest of their lives and which could then be passed on to their children. "Fair" compensation would also include membership in a new community, with its own carefully developed and integrated culture, comparable to the old village community which they had been forced to leave. This "equity" on the part of the Saigon regime must have provided a bitter consolation for the villagers so catastrophically uprooted.
Saigon authorities also overlooked the fact that many property arrangements in the countryside were regulated by custom and oral agreement rather than written rules and contracts. As a worried peasant explained: "There were many villagers who rented land from the landlords without making any contracts, and, for this reason, they won't be able to obtain any compensation.' Some absentee landlords were thus provided with an unexpected windfall. When the NLF established itself in the village, it usually ordered either the confiscation of lands belonging to absentee owners or that no rents be paid to landlords who did not come personally to collect them. The Saigon government ended up paying "compensation" to many landlords for holdings which they had already written off as casualties of NLF land reform. In all these respects, the issue of compensation represents in a concentrated form the essence of USGVN social policy, People living in one culture, with its subsistence economy and semi - socialized property arrangements, its customary and face-to-face way of doing things, and its intimate relationship to nature, were being forcibly recruited into another, very different culture, based on wage labor, written law, private property and life in crowded urban slums.
Certain American academics have claimed that the United States has been speeding the "urbanization," the modernization of South Vietnam, (12) The interview transcripts document this process and give us a special insight into its consequences for the inhabitants of the countryside. The success of the "American style urban revolution" depended in part on its ability to create its own constituency among the transplanted peasants, And in fact the interviews inform us that a few villagers were able to make a successful adjustment. A respondent noted that, "Of the refugees, only those who had specialized jobs, such as tailors, merchants, alcohol makers, etc., became more prosperous easily." "Most of those who left my village to take refuge in town were middle farmers or richer people who could afford to live there," stated another respondent. A third remembered that, "Many left in 1965, especially those who had money. Still another witness pinpointed similar factors
The first who left their property to go and settle down in GVN-controlled areas were small landowners and middle-class farmers. They have some money and a trade, so when they were settled in the GVN-controlled areas, they did not fear unemployment, as they could live a decent life there.
For the commercially minded, life in Front areas was often difficult, since taxes were high and labor scarce and expensive, These villagers might actually profit from the new circumstances. "A few people earn their living by selling food, or trading in rice in the My Tho marketplace, and thus have some income, " remarked one respondent, 'These fortunate people are leading an easier life than most others." The peasants mentioned here, and others like them, might be ready to applaud the transformation engineered by the Americans.
But most refugees "didn't know anything about trading" and were at a loss when suddenly confronted with a strange world, so different from the one they had left behind. Even prosperous peasants might shrink from the prospects of such dislocation. The reflections of one woman defector bear this out:
My parents live on farming and they own quite a lot of land. They are afraid that they won't be able to make a living if they move to the city. At any rate, they don't want to leave their house and land. Besides they are old and they don't know what to do once they move to the city. My older sister has asked them to come here and promised to give them 2000 piasters per month, but my parents have refused.
For these peasants, the 'urban revolution" brought about by the war was a catastrophe, For as long as possible they shunned it, clinging to their lands in spite of endless bombing and shelling.
The economic stagnancy of the Saigon zone only made matters worse. The strategy of generating refugees was
socially disastrous for the Vietnamese not only because peasants were forced to abandon their land, and the culture which went with it, but also because there were almost no jobs in the areas where most refugees sought a new home. The main employer in the GVN areas was the government itself. The fact that so many defectors ended up as pacification cadres, spies, and GVN soldiers had little to do with the political appeal of the Saigon regime. Here is the way one defector approached the matter.
My aspiration is to work for some agency so that I can support my wife and children, I want to work at the American base -doing things like scooping dirt, or mixing cement, because I'm not a strong man, I think that I can make more money working for the Americans, but the only thing is that the job might not last long. If I work for the GVN Rural Reconstruction or Armed Propaganda teams I'll get paid less but the job will last longer. My specialty is farm work, but now I no longer have any land to till. Before, I rented my rice fields ... but this land has been seized, and besides, by next year the dredge will have blown mud all over it.
It would be interesting to know how this peasant really feels about working for the Americans building a base which, almost literally, lies right on top of the land he has just lost. In any case, we can see what he would most like to do. "My specialty is farm work," he observes laconically, the language grotesquely deforming the social and cultural existence of the peasant into a "job," one "specialty" among many. As a result of US-GVN pacification efforts, "farm work" is the one "specialty" no longer open to him. Once he has accepted this reality, the rest follows more or less automatically. If he wants to support his family, he must work for the GVN.
In fact, the genius of the American strategy lay precisely in the fact that it did not depend in any way on the political strength of the Saigon authorities. Once bombing and shelling intensified, circumstances would drive people into the
GVN zone no matter how its officials behaved, The testimony of numerous interview respondents indicates that the decision to leave home was seldom a matter of principle. One defector cited the words of his uncle:
There is too much bombing and firing here. If I was forced to stay here and I could earn 1,000 piasters a day, I still wouldn't stay, I'd rather go hungry, but live in a place where there is no war, no bombing, and no firing. If you keep on living here, I don't think that you can survive long.
A POW remembered his encounters with refugees who said the same kind of thing:
When the refugees returned to their hamlets to cultivate their lands, I met some of them and they said, 'We understand that there would not be enough land in the GVN-controlled areas for our cultivation, and our living would be more difficult than over here. However, if we remain in our hamlets, our lives and those of our children would not be safe.... "
When urged to return home, another refugee told a cadre: "I have my family charge to look after. Life in the hamlet has been so dangerous that I'm scared and have to move along the canal to live, but I'm always with the revolution." These refugees might still be "with the revolution" in spirit, but nonetheless US-GVN bombardment was inevitably forcing large numbers to "leave the VC behind."
Cadres who had unraveled so many other complex problems now found themselves unable to deal with the political challenge of U. S. escalation. A defector described the discomfiture of local officials in these terms:
At first, when only two or three families moved out to the new Life Hamlet and went back to the village every day to farm their land, the Front cadres kept asking them to return to the village
and making them attend one indoctrination session after another. But now that the majority of the people are doing the same thing, what can the cadres do? Now, they resort to political persuasion and heart-to-heart talks to win the sympathy of the people who had moved out of the village, They told the people: 'Please come back to the village, Why do you want to stay in that prison that the GVN has set up for you? " The majority of the people argued with them and said - "If we move back to the village and live here, will the revolution be able to protect us? The village is shelled every day, And then there are those bombings. Will the Liberation Front be able to protect us and our property from these shellings and bombings? " Of course the revolution couldn't protect them, so if the people refused to move back to the village, the cadres just let things go at that. What could they do? They couldn't possibly kill everyone. The Front has to obey the people's will.
When many peasants concluded that they had to choose between survival in the Saigon zone and certain death in their own villages, the Front found itself in the midst of a potentially fatal crisis.
The transcripts show the effects of bombing and shelling in many areas, Even in 1965, one village had shrunk from its original population of about 3,000 to 142. Later on, a defector reported that there were only three families still living in his hamlet. Other respondents noted that one-half, three-quarters, even eighty to ninety percent of the peasants in their villages had fled. As we have seen, military pressure was particularly intense in the area west of My Tho City. To shield the Dong Tam military base, US-GVN authorities mounted an ambitious campaign against the Front in Binh Duc, Thanh Phu and Song Thuan Villages. Massive bombardment drove many inhabitants away and made it impossible for big NLF military units to operate in the area, In the second phase, Saigon troops moved out over the scorched earth, repeatedly driving Front cadres into
hiding, and eventually settling into permanent occupation of the terrain. Few cadres remained in these communities, which were described by the insurgents in 1967 as the three weakest Villages in Chau Thanh District.
The Americans and their Saigon allies next attacked to the north and west, thus dealing a blow to Front organizations in Nhi Binh, Long Dinh and Tam Hiep Villages. After the great victory at Ap Bac Hamlet in January, 1963, Nhi Binh had been the most secure Village in the Chau Thanh region, and as a result the Province military hospital and many District offices were located there. But after 1965, according to one respondent, Ap Bac became "the most shelled place" in the area, Another stated:
The Front hastily boasted to the world that it had started the largest theater of war in the South with the battle of Ap Bac - the biggest and most well known battle - and how it was fighting a guerrilla war with spike pits, wasps and so on, The whole world admired the Front for it. But, now, if we went down to Ap Bac, we would find that all the spike pits, communication trenches and so on there were gone. Suppose now some people in the world asked the Front to take them to Ap Bac to have a look, the Front would be in a difficult position, because Ap Bac had become a weak Front area.
Long Dinh and Tam Hiep "are the villages which sheltered the cadres during the Concerted Uprising Campaign, " remembered another respondent. Because of their large and wealthy populations of "high spirited people," they were the two most important villages" in Chau Thanh District. Situated between the Plain of Reeds and the Province Capital City, they served as "the gate to My Tho," and thus always played a vital role in the strategic design of the NLF. Early in 1967, Long Dinh and Tam Hiep, which had already been bombed and shelled, were targeted for special pacification drives. Many of the villagers, who "are well known for their eagerness to dig trenches and for their willingness to continue to stay in their villages," eventually
decided to evacuate. The Front's position was substantially weakened, while for its part the GVN moved a garrison of troops from the ARVN Seventh Division into the area.
To the west, US-GVN authorities drove a wedge into the liberated zone. Bounded by the Mekong River on the south, and the Indochina Road on the north and west, this territory was known within the NLF as the "20/7" zone, a reference to 20 July 1954, the date of the signing of the Geneva Accords. Bombing and shelling dealt a heavy blow to the insurgency in this 20/7 sector, A village like Bang Long, for example, had played an important part in the Concerted Uprising of 1960. It had always been counted a "strong" area and was the site for a number of Chau Thanh District offices. But under the bombardment, a respondent explained, 'local people do not dare to meet for fear of possible danger." Life became 'unbearable," and most of the people had moved elsewhere, Cam Son Village suffered a similar fate. Once "the merriest (village) in the liberated area," it was one of the two strongest Front bases in Cai Lay District. According to a defector, Cam Son has "always been considered the center of the Party's indoctrination schools and it was in this Village that big meetings of high-ranking
cadres have often been held." "I think that Cam Son was shelled so intensively," another respondent observed, 'because it was one of the first liberated villages." The Seventh Division appeared around Cam Son in 1966 and 1967, setting up a 'security belt" and five military posts. Subjected to this heavy pressure, the Front gave ground. Village fortifications fell into disrepair and "many" of the villagers evacuated their homes. A similar deterioration in the NLF position was evident throughout the 20/7 heartland region.
The outlook in Cai Be District to the west was not quite so grave. "I was told that ... the military and political situation in this District is now better than in the others, " noted a respondent in mid-1966. But even in Cai Be, the NLF suffered serious losses. As an example, consider the case of Hau My Village, perhaps the strongest Front village in the whole Province. "Deep in the liberated zone,' it bad a long tradition of insurgency, going all the way back to the Resistance of the First Indochina War against the French. Hau My was counted one of the "three model NLF villages in all of South Vietnam," and in a number of interviews it was singled out as a key political base for the insurgents. After1965, US-GVN authorities bombed and shelled Hau My; the remarks of one interviewer suggest that it was hit by B-52attacks beginning in 1966. Defoliants were also dropped over the community in an attempt to destroy ground cover used by the guerrillas. These attacks hurt the Front. A respondent from one of the hamlets in Hau My noted in mid1967 "a desperate lack of cadres" in the Village. He described his own settlement as "deserted."
These villages may have been especially hard hit, but the interview transcripts make clear that the same kinds of events were occurring in many other areas of My Tho Province. For the first time in the history of the war, it seemed that the GVN was succeeding in "concentrating the people" in zones under its control. Years of bombardment had finally compelled the villagers "to leave the VC behind."