June 28 Relic Room lecture to address failure to ‘win hearts and minds’ in Vietnam

President Lyndon Johnson (right) appointed CIA veteran Robert Komer to run the multiple-agency "pacification" effort in Vietnam.

COLUMBIA, S.C. – America fought two wars in Vietnam. One was on the battlefield, where U.S. forces nearly always prevailed. The other was a struggle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. There we failed.

Scott Kaufman, chairman of the history department at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., will talk about the last of those efforts to win the political battle at noon on Friday, June 28, at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia. The free lecture, “The Revolutionary Development Plan for South Vietnam, its Promise and Ultimate Failure,” is part of the museum’s monthly Lunch and Learn series, and is open to the public.

The Revolutionary Development Plan, which was later folded into a larger program called Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, or CORDS, was an attempt to counteract Viet Cong and North Vietnamese influence in rural areas across South Vietnam. This counterinsurgency effort was generally referred to as “pacification.”

There had been earlier efforts to achieve the same objectives, such as the Strategic Hamlet Program back during the ill-fated Diem regime. That had failed, and by 1965, the estimate was that about 230,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars were in the South, with the number rising.

“Pacification” hinged on efforts to provide greater security to rural areas where the enemy had sway, and to counter enemy influence. The South had to prove to villagers that the government could keep them safe and make their lives better than the Communist forces could.

From the beginning, there were serious problems. While there were improvements in security when U.S. troops were present, there were not enough troops to secure the whole country. Then there was the chronic instability in South Vietnam’s government. Finally, there was the problem of coordination of effort. The Americans and South Vietnamese did not always see eye-to-eye, and rooting out corruption from the South Vietnamese police proved difficult.

“Most important, there was the lack of security,” says Dr. Kaufman.

In an effort to address these problems, CORDS was created in 1967. President Lyndon Johnson appointed CIA veteran Robert Komer to run the multiple-agency effort. Though a civilian, his position made him the third top official in the U.S. military structure in the country, answering only to Gen. William Westmoreland and his deputy, Gen. Creighton Abrams.

But while some gains were made, the effort was eventually a strategic failure, for reasons Dr. Kaufman will explain.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from CORDS about what works and doesn’t work in counterinsurgency, lessons with relevance to America’s recent efforts against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“In asymmetrical wars of attrition, the enemy will trade resources for time,” Dr. Kaufman has written. “Victory requires a substantial political program, one that relies less on coercive and more on cooperative measures between the United States and the targeted nation.”

About the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum
Founded in 1896, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is an accredited museum focusing on South Carolina’s distinguished martial tradition through the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam, the War on Terror, and other American conflicts. It serves as the state’s military history museum by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting South Carolina’s military heritage from the colonial era to the present, and by providing superior educational experiences and programming. It is located at 301 Gervais St. in Columbia, sharing the Columbia Mills building with the State Museum. For more information, go to https://crr.sc.gov/.