The following is a passage from L. Fletcher Prouty’s JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy. The jury is still out on if Prouty is a reliable source on many things. However, I think he has great insight into why the Vietnam War was such a disaster. I’ve seen enough things confirmed in other books. The following is pretty long, but it is worth reading. I do want to add that Prouty, in his book, admits that this story is an amalgamation of different things that he saw while in Vietnam.
In an effort to try to cut this down a little bit I just want to add that the Rhade are a tribal group in Vietnam. I also want to add that before this passage starts Prouty talks about how when Diem banished the French and the Chinese he also destroyed the local economy without instating something viable to take its place. This story is another example of us invading a country without understanding the local culture. Anyway, on with the show:
The padre, the young American, and the Vietnamese official returned many times. After a while, the American was welcomed without the priest and often stayed for weeks. He was interested in animal husbandry and agriculture. He brought with him some poultry and a new breed of hog that he taught them to raise. He carried with him new seeds and tried over and over to encourage the Rhade to plant them as he directed. On countless occasions he would persuade the villagers to dig holes in the fields and to plant the seeds as he had learned to do at the university in Ames, Iowa.
He never did understand the Rhade farmers and their primitive “slash and burn” farming. And they never could explain to this young expert that the seeds could not grow in that heavy grassland of the open fields. In any event, the American became a familiar figure, and his hard work and gifts of chickens, pigs, candy, and cigarettes were always welcome. Then one day he came with the Magic Box.
The padre, the American, and the Houng-ca sat in earnest discussion all that day. The Magic Box rested on the hood of the jeep while several young men dug a hole in front of the patriarch’s hut. They were unaccustomed to the American’s shovel, and work progressed slowly. Meanwhile, the American felled a tree and cut out a section to be used on a post. This post was put into the hole and the dirt replaced.
Now a tall, sturdy, upright pedestal stood in the front of the chieftain’s hut. To this, the American affixed a tin roof as shelter. Then he removed the shiny jet-black Magic Box from the jeep and nailed it firmly to the post, about four feet above the ground, just the right height for the Houng-ca and above the prying hands of children.
After the box was secured, the padre told the villagers all about the Magic Box and how it would work, about the wonders it would produce to save them from communism. He told them that this box was a most miraculous radio and that it would speak to their brothers in Saigon. It was, in their language, powerful medicine.
At the same time, he warned that only the village patriarch could touch the box. If anyone else did, the kindly government in Saigon would be most angry, and the village would be punished. The padre told the villagers that whenever they were attacked, the patriarch should push the big red button on the box, and that was all.
At this point in their Village Defense Orientation Program, the Viet soldier and the American interrupted the padre and ordered him to repeat that if the village was attacked by the Communist Vietcong from the forest – emphasizing the “Communist Vietcong” – the patriarch was to push the button. To the Viet soldier and the American, the men in the forest were not starving and frightened refugees; they were the enemy.
Because the elderly padre knew that these native people had never heard of the Vietcong, he explained that his friends called all bandits from the refugee camps in the forest “Vietcong” and that the Vietcong were to be greatly feared because they were the puppets of the National Liberation Front, who were the puppets of Hanoi, who were the puppets of the Chinese, who were the puppets of the Soviets, ad-infinitum.
The padre explained that when the patriarch pushed that shiny red button on the Magic Box, the powerful gods of Saigon would unleash vengeful armies through the air, and the dreaded Vietcong would be blasted by bombs from airplanes and napalmed from helicopters. And the village would be liberated and pacified. He also told them that every village that had been selected by the Father of His Country in Saigon to receive the Magic Box would forever thereafter be furnished food, medicine, and special care.
The Rhade would receive these “benefits” whether they wanted them or not. For they knew only too well that the villages that had plenty of food and medicine and that were the special elect of Saigon were always the first targets for the starving bandits. They knew enough to know that they would live in fear of the Magic Box and its munificence.
Ever since the day when the padre had returned with the American, the village had received special medicine and food relief. The “Extended Arms for Brotherhood” program of the new president in Saigon was the caring for these tribesmen. Shortly after the first time this extra food had been delivered, the village had been visited by some young men from the camps in the woods. They sat with the patriarch all day and quietly but firmly explained that they came from a refugee camp that was hidden in the hills and that was caring for thousands of homeless natives from the south who had been driven from their homes by the Diem backed police and hordes of northern invaders.
These people had fled from their wasted homes. They had been the enemies in every new region they came to, and now, terrorized and starving, sick and dying, they had had to turn to that last resort of mankind, banditry and pillage. These countless refugees, in their own homeland, had fled the careless deprivations and brutal massacres of the benevolent forces of Saigon. They wished to be peaceful, but they desperately needed food and medicine. They demanded that the village share some of its plentiful goods with them. This arrangement, although unappealing to the village, was accepted, and for a while it kept a fragile peace between the two worlds. However, the refugee numbers swelled, and their demands became greater and greater. It wasn’t long before the Saigon political observer and the padre reported to the American that they suspected that the patriarch was collaborating with the “enemy.” This sharing of their meager goods with the refugees was called “the payment of tribute” by the Vietnamese. The refugees had become the “enemy,” and the American’s word for “enemy” was Vietcong. The political leader explained to the patriarch that collaboration with the Vietcong meant death for him and removal of the village people to the Citizens’ Retraining Camp or a “Strategic Hamlet,” as the Americans liked to call it. No matter what their benefactors chose to call these displacement centers, they were prisons to the natives.
The more or less peaceful demands of the refugees became adamant orders as their needs increased. What had begun as a reluctant sharing of food became submission to force and banditry. The ranks of the refugees swelled as the exodus from such areas as the no-man’s land of the once-prosperous and fertile Mekong Delta area of the Camau Peninsula turned into a vast and relentless human wave.
A situation not unlike that of the Native American migrations westward took place. Each tribe, displaced from its ancestral homeland by the white man, became marauders and attackers in the territory of the next Indian nation. Thus it was tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of once-peaceful, docile, and reasonably well-to-do rice farmers became feared, terrorized bandits called the Vietcong.