The Leading Edge: Robert Thompson and Vietnam

January 28, 2014, 1:00 pm

Our second Leading Edge takes us to the provinces of Vietnam to figure out what exactly the US meant when it talked about “pacification.” Robert Thompson, a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi, is working on a dissertation on exactly that, and here he explains it for us.

“Pacification” is a broad term that encapsulates all the ambitions of both military and civilian entities. It is a single word, describing a much more complex reality. My project (at the dissertation stage right now) is a study of language and wartime priorities in Phu Yen Province during the Vietnam War, figuring how how that word reflected reality. An examination of “pacification” shows that the prevailing definition points towards the existence of only one war in southeast Asia. Continuity, not change, best characterized the Vietnam War. “Conventional” large unit warfare under General William Westmoreland essentially paved the way for full-blown nations-building developmental initiatives under General Creighton Abrams.

Ranging from subduing guerrillas to building new schools, “pacification” became a versatile, all encapsulating wonder term. South Vietnamese General Tran Dinh Tho’s explanation of pacification best relates the scope and inherit complexity of the term:

Pacification is the military, political, economic, and social process of establishing or reestablishing local government responsive to and involving the participation of the people. It includes the provision of sustained, credible territorial security, the destruction of the enemy’s underground government, the assertion or re-assertion of political control and involvement of the people in government, and the initiation of economic and social activity capable of self-sustenance and expansion. Defined as such, pacification is a broad and complex strategic concept which encompasses many fields of national endeavor. As a program implemented jointly with the U.S. military effort in South Vietnam, pacification appears to have involved every American serviceman and civilian who served there, many of whom indeed participated in conceiving the idea and helping put it to work. [1]

Strikingly, the Government of Vietnam (GVN) understood “pacification” as an all encompassing task with which to force Saigon’s control upon the countryside. Under Westmoreland, the U.S. Army’s attritional approach to combating the enemy afforded groups like Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) the space within which to execute their definition of pacification. As stated by Westmoreland, the first mission for his military forces was “territorial security, troops in support of pacification or revolutionary development.” [2] A provincial study indicated that despite the rhetoric of civilian authorities, their actions were wedded to the counterinsurgency efforts of Free World Forces.

Tuy Hoa City

Looking at Phu Yen Province makes a study of “pacification” all the more intriguing. South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s government considered Phu Yen a model province because it had good local leadership and security [3]. During the years of direct American involvement, Phu Yen existed in a nebulous world between being pacified and home to capable Communist cadres. These factors suggest that a close examination of Phu Yen will help explain large, nationwide trends. As one province out of forty-four, a study of Phu Yen cannot completely speak for all of South Vietnam. Nevertheless, a study of Phu Yen offers a new perspective on the war and highlights the trends present elsewhere in the country. More significantly, this micro study validates the macro-level assertions made by other historians, notably Gregory Daddis [4].

The project thus reframes the Vietnam War into a conflict determined by priorities as well as lacking a distinct pacification phase. Beginning in 1963, I trace the progress of pacification programs in Phu Yen under the Diem regime up and through the CORDS years. This periodization helps demonstrate that in Phu Yen, pacification was an ongoing process throughout the war. Within this time frame a close examination of the 1968 Tet Offensive demonstrates the absence of a clear-cut transition from Westmoreland’s war of attrition to Abrams so-called “one war” approach. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, like much of the Republic of Vietnam, Phu Yen felt the wrath of full-blown warfare. With Viet Cong forces temporarily occupying the provincial capital of Tuy Hoa City, conventional American and ROK troops gradually pushed the guerrillas back to their pre-offensive positions. In doing so, Free World Forces depleted much of the VC’s fighting strength. As a result, from 1969 onwards, the conditions were perfect for concentrated pacification efforts. However, the Viet Cong infrastructure remained intact enough to maintain influence in some districts. Therefore security remained the top priority of CORDS personnel in Phu Yen long after the Tet Offensive of 1968.

By 1972 much of the province appeared “pacified.” But concluding this definitively is difficult. Even U.S. Army and CORDS personnel disagreed over the level of pacification in Phu Yen. Free World Forces had dealt serious blows to local VC cadres, yet left strongholds untouched. Located in the jungle border districts, these VC strongholds remained intact throughout the war, some of the safest quite close to Tuy Hoa City itself. “Pacification,” it appears, did not mean conventional war or counterinsurgency or nation-building. It did not mean peace or prosperity. What it meant, instead, seems much murkier, and, in light of these contradictions, there is a need to reassess the use of the term pacification. Such a reassessment of that term is the ultimate goal of my project, and a reassessment of the war in Vietnam itself.

Robert Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate from Alexandria, Virginia. He received a B.A. in History from Virginia Wesleyan College in 2006, and an M.A. in History from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2007. His interests include American diplomacy, and political-military relations. Working under the supervision of Dr. Andrew Wiest, Robert is focusing on United States pacification efforts during the Vietnam War. Recently, he assisted Dr. Wiest with his oral history of the Vietnam War, Vietnam: A View From the Front Lines.

His web site is at


[1] Tran Dinh Tho, Pacification (Washington D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1980), v.

[2] William Westmoreland, “Military Briefing” (paper presented at the Pentagon, Washington D.C., November 22, 1967), 5.

[3] Rufus Phillips, Why Vietnam Matters (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 110-114.

[4] Gregory A. Daddis, No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 13.

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