In 1961, U.S. advisors in South Vietnam, along with the Diem regime, began the implementation of a plan attempted to isolate rural peasants from contact with and influence by the National Liberation Front (NLF). The Strategic Hamlet Program, along with its predecessor, the Rural Community Development Program, played an important role in the shaping of events in South Vietnam during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Both of these programs attempted to separate rural peasants from Communist insurgents by creating "fortified villages". The program backfired drastically and ultimately led to a decrease in support for Diem’s regime and an increase in sympathy for Communist efforts.
Starting around 1954, Viet Minh sympathizers in the South were subject to escalating repression by the RVN. In 1959 the Vietnam National Liberation Front was formed and rapidly achieved de facto control over large sections of the South Vietnamese countryside. At the time, it is believed that there were approximately 10,000 Communist insurgents throughout South Vietnam. Recognizing the danger that the guerrillas posed if they had the support of the peasants, President Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu implemented the Rural Community Development Program (later known as "Agroville") in 1959. Based partly on the success of a similar program in Malaya used by the British to suppress a communist uprising beginning in 1948, the Agroville Plan endeavored to remove the "neutral" population from guerrilla contact. Through direct force and/or incentives, peasants in rural communities were separated and relocated into large communities called "Agrovilles". By 1960, there were twenty-three of these Agrovilles, each consisting of many thousands of people.
This mass resettlement created a strong backlash from peasants and forced the central government to rethink its strategy. A report put out by the Caravelle group, consisting of among others, Bishop Thuc (a brother of Diem) described the situation as follows:
Tens of thousands of people are being mobilized… to take up a life in collectivity, to construct beautiful but useless agrovilles which tire the people, lose their affection, increase their resentment and most of all give an additional terrain for propaganda to the enemy.
In late 1961, President Kennedy sent Roger Hilsman, then director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, to assess the situation in Vietnam firsthand. There Hilsman met Sir Robert Thompson, head of the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam and a veteran of the Malayan counter-insurgency effort. The two discussed counter-insurgency doctrine and Thompson shared his revised system of resettlement and population security, a system he proposed to Diem later in the year and that would eventually become the Strategic Hamlet Program.
In Vietnam, strategic hamlets would consist of villages consolidated and reshaped to create a defensible perimeter. The peasants themselves would be given weapons and trained in self-defense. Moreover, the strategic hamlets would not be isolated; instead, they would function as a network. The first hamlets would be placed in secure areas, free of the enemy; new hamlets would then be added slowly to create a secure, expanding frontier in what was known as the “oil blot” principle. But, Thompson said, it was important that the strategic hamlets provide more than just physical security. The hamlets should be used as an administrative tool to institute reforms and to improve the peasants’ lives economically, politically, socially, and culturally.
This would strengthen the tie between the peasants and the central government. Hilsman later summarized this theory of the Strategic Hamlet Program in a policy document entitled "A Strategic Concept for South Vietnam," which President Kennedy read and endorsed.
President Diem also liked the idea of Strategic Hamlets. In an April 1962 speech, he outlined his hopes for the Program:
... strategic hamlets represented the basic elements in the war undertaken by our people against our three enemies: communism, discord, and underdevelopment. In this concept they also represent foundation of the Vietnamese society where values are reassessed according the personalist revolution where social, cultural, and economic reform will improve the living conditions of the large working class down to the remotest village.
Although many people in both the U.S. government and the government of South Vietnam (GVN) agreed that the Strategic Hamlet Program was strong in theory, its actual implementation, beginning in early 1962, was criticized on several grounds. Roger Hilsman himself later claimed that the GVN's execution of program constituted a "total misunderstanding of what the [Strategic Hamlet] program should try to do."
In the best case scenario, restructuring peasant villages to create a defensible perimeter would require the forced relocation of some of the peasants on the outskirts of the existing villages. To ease the burden, those forced to move were supposed to be financially compensated, but they were not always paid by the GVN forces. To make matters worse, their old homes were often burned before their eyes.
President Diem and his brother Nhu, who oversaw the GVN side of the Program, decided—contrary to Hilsman's and Thompson's theory—that in most cases they would relocate entire villages rather than simply restructuring them. This decision led to unnecessary amounts of forced relocation that was deeply unpopular among the peasantry. The mostly-Buddhist peasantry practiced ancestor worship, an important part of their religion that was disrupted by being forced out of their villages and away from their ancestors' graves. Some who resisted the resettlement were summarily executed by GVN forces.
As stated previously, promised compensation for resettled peasants was not always forthcoming and instead found its way in the pockets of GVN officials. Peasants were also promised money in exchange for working to build the new villages and fortifications; once again some corrupt officials kept the money for themselves. Wealthier peasants sometimes bribed their way out of working on the construction, leaving more labor for the poorer peasants. Although the U.S. provided materials like sheet metal and barbed wire, corrupt officials would force the locals to "buy" the materials intended to provide them with protection.
Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the Strategic Hamlet Program as implemented on the ground was its failure to provide the basic security envisioned by its proponents. This failure was partly due to poor placement of the hamlets. Ignoring the "oil-blot" principle, the GVN began building strategic hamlets as fast as possible and seemingly without considering "geographical priorities," according to a U.S. official. The randomly placed hamlets were isolated, not mutually supporting, and tempting targets for the Vietcong.
Each hamlet was given a radio with which to call for ARVN support, but in fact ARVN forces were unreliable in responding to calls for help, especially when attacks occurred after nightfall. The villagers were also given weapons and training, but were only expected to hold out until conventional reinforcements arrived. Once it became clear those forces could not be relied upon, many villagers proved unwilling to fight even small Vietcong detachments, which could then capture the villagers' weapons. "Why should we die for weapons?" asked one Vietnamese peasant.
Despite the Diem regime's attempt to put a positive spin on its execution of the Strategic Hamlet Program, by mid-1963 it was becoming clear to many that the Program was failing. American military advisors like John Paul Vann started criticizing the Program in their official reports. They also began expressing their concerns to reporters who began to investigate more closely. David Halberstam's coverage of the Program's shortcomings even caught the eye of President Kennedy.
The Strategic Hamlet Program was exposed as an almost complete failure in the aftermath of the November 1, 1963 coup that left Diem and his brother Nhu murdered. US officials discovered, for example, that only 20% of the 8600 hamlets that the Diem regime had reported "Complete" met the minimum American standards of security and readiness. The situation had passed the point of possible recovery. The U.S. government never officially acknowledged the end of the Strategic Hamlet Program, but it quickly disappeared from diplomatic correspondence in early 1964.
On the ground in Vietnam, the demise of the program was much easier to see. By the end of 1963, empty hamlets lined country roads, stripped of valuable metal by the Vietcong and the fleeing peasants: “The rows of roofless houses looked like villages of play huts that children had erected and then whimsically abandoned,” according to Neil Sheehan.
Years later Roger Hilsman stated his belief that the strategic hamlet concept was executed so poorly by the Diem regime and the GVN "that it was useless, worse than useless."