Lessons Not Learned: Viet Cong Infrastructure and the War in South Vietnam

The Taliban resurgence jeopardizes the United States’s ability to conduct a pacification campaign in support of a foreign government. Indeed, the 2016 uptick in Taliban movement in Afghanistan mirrored that of North Vietnamese Viet Cong Infrastructure of the 1970s. Defeating the enemy’s ability to organize and operate is fundamental to pacification. During the War on Terror and the Vietnam War, complex enemy organizations posed a serious challenge to the United States. Highlighting difficulties in pacification for both the Republic of Vietnam and the United States during the Vietnam War serves as a lesson underscoring the limits of American power to defeat clandestine networks.

At the core of the American War in Vietnam lay the need to control the South Vietnamese people, not the so-called winning of their hearts and minds.

At the core of the American war in Vietnam lay the need to control the South Vietnamese people, not the so-called winning of their hearts and minds. Pacification—the means of fighting the Vietnam War—included military and political methods. Both the North and South Vietnamese governments managed competing pacification programs to extend administrative capabilities to the countryside. North Vietnamese military gains in 1965 across the Republic of Vietnam meant Government of Vietnam (GVN) efforts to control the rural population required undercutting those already established by the North Vietnamese. Using a combination of conventional military might, covert activity, and propaganda, American and South Vietnamese authorities exercised considerable effort to uproot Viet Cong Infrastructure and replace it with an administrative apparatus loyal to Saigon.

The pre-existing North Vietnamese clandestine administrative apparatus in South Vietnam–Viet Cong Infrastructure as the Americans and South Vietnamese called it–functioned as a shadow government. Americans and South Vietnamese officials often employed the pejorative “Viet Cong” or simply “VC” when addressing all communist entities. Yet such a blanket term obfuscates the complex structure of Hanoi’s counter to the Government of Vietnam supported by the United States. As an extension of North Vietnam’s Lao Dong Party, Viet Cong Infrastructure contained political and military bodies to govern all communist activity in the Republic of Vietnam. Specifically, three North Vietnamese organizations—the Central Office of South Vietnam, the National Liberation Front, and the People’s Revolutionary Party—supported Viet Cong Infrastructure. United, this networked functioned as Hanoi’s anchor in the South Vietnamese population.[1]

Areas of South Vietnam existed under complete communist control. There, “VC infrastructure control[led] the local population virtually to the exclusion of the GVN: It collect[ed] taxes; it openly procure[ed] needed supplies; it force[ed] the local populace to perform labor; it administer[ed] justice; and it draft[ed] youths into the ‘Liberation Army.’”[2] In contested space, where the governments of Hanoi and Saigon challenged one another for control of the population, Viet Cong Infrastructure ran assassination, kidnapping, propaganda, and taxation efforts to gain influence with the people against the Saigon government. Viet Cong Infrastructure also interdicted Saigon’s lines of communication. These methods served to isolate a community from the government in Saigon, making Viet Cong Infrastructure the only administrative body for the affected inhabitants.

Hanoi’s administrative apparatus in South Vietnam proved to be robust. To challenge the inroads made by Viet Cong Infrastructure, Saigon used Revolutionary Development cadre with increasing frequency. Trained by the Ministry of Revolutionary Development, the men and women sent into villages brought the message of Saigon to those living in contested space. Such actions occurred at the expense of Viet Cong Infrastructure and thus resulted in the targeting of Revolutionary Development cadre by the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, the armed wing of the Central Office of South Vietnam. Consequently, the militaries of the Republic of Vietnam and the United States served as shields for Revolutionary Development cadre. While the United States employed the maneuver battalions from Military Assistance Command and made impressive security gains in 1966, Viet Cong Infrastructure remained largely intact. Although, “VC control [was] not as pervasive in contested areas as in controlled areas, it [was] a very real influence on the local inhabitants,” despite American and South Vietnamese efforts.[3]

...the head of Civil Organizing and Revolutionary Development Support...posited the destruction of Viet Cong Infrastructure as “an intelligence problem.”

Since Viet Cong Infrastructure survived the sweeping operations of American and South Vietnamese armies, more acute dismantling measures proved necessary. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam’s maneuver battalions often succeeded in separating enemy main forces from their local forces and the supporting Viet Cong Infrastructure. Still, Viet Cong Infrastructure cells remained in areas recently occupied by allied forces. The clandestine nature of Viet Cong Infrastructure meant distinguishing an agent of Hanoi from the common farmer required extensive intelligence work. American and South Vietnamese conventional military forces lacked the information necessary to identify every enemy agent. Undetected Viet Cong Infrastructure thwarted Saigon’s pacification efforts when the People’s Liberation Armed Forces assumed harassment activities in the now supposedly Government of Vietnam controlled areas.[4] For that reason, Robert Komer, the head of Civil Organizing and Revolutionary Development Support—the American agency tasked with assisting the South Vietnamese with pacification—posited the destruction of Viet Cong Infrastructure as “an intelligence problem.”[5] Exposing Viet Cong Infrastructure required detailed intelligence gathering. To that end, the Government of Vietnam devised the Phung Hoang (All-Seeing Bird), or Phoenix Program in 1967.[6]

Unissued Patch for the Phoenix Program (Wikimedia)

Controversial at best, criminal at worst, Phung Hoang harnessed the intelligence gathered by American and South Vietnamese sources to neutralize Viet Cong Infrastructure. Information gathered by South Vietnam’s Army of Vietnam, National Police, and Revolutionary Development, as well as from America’s Central Intelligence Agency and Military Assistance Command, Vietnam identified pro-Hanoi elements in South Vietnamese communities. But damaging Viet Cong Infrastructure required more than just exposing members. Phung Hoang required neutralizing the communist threat by killing, capturing, or granting amnesty via the Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) Program. Chieu Hoi permitted members of those allied with Hanoi to surrender to Saigon’s forces without fear of reprisal. Komer initially saw Phung Hoang as successful, yet the focus on quotas for killing members of Viet Cong Infrastructure resulted in widespread assassinations–an issue highlighted in Congressional hearings in 1971.[7] Moreover, Hanoi’s 1968 Tet Offensive and the surprising resilience of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces in strategically significant areas of South Vietnam placed Phung Hoang in the category of failure.

American and South Vietnamese authorities sought to undercut communist influence in at least one rather comical instance. In one rather unconventional instance in Phu Yen Province, American and South Vietnamese province authorities gifted a new color television to the family of a prominent member of the local People’s Liberation Armed Forces.[8] In that example, Americans and South Vietnamese used a product of consumerism—and one not readily available to the masses—to make the People’s Liberation Armed Forces member appear disloyal to Hanoi’s cause.

Extensive overt and covert actions by American and South Vietnamese forces did not push the allies closer towards victory. Despite efforts to dismantle Viet Cong Infrastructure, the networks made by Hanoi proved flexible. In II Corps—the strategically important center of South Vietnam—the adjacent provinces of Binh Dinh and Phu Yen experienced high numbers of Viet Cong Infrastructure by March 1971. Viet Cong Infrastructure strength in Binh Dinh amounted to 4,333 individuals, or 6.5% or the province’s population. Similarly, 2,183 VCI members, or 3.3% of Phu Yen’s population, operated in that province.[9] These numbers suggested that Phung Hoang failed to eliminate the key members of Hanoi’s presence among the populace–meaning Viet Cong Infrastructure retained a foothold in the very heart of the country.[10] A year earlier, in Phu Yen Province, evidence pointed towards the inability of the Americans and South Vietnamese to defeat Viet Cong Infrastructure. There, the I Field Force, Vietnam, and Revolutionary Development cadre efforts to remove Viet Cong Infrastructure presence proved insufficient when in 1970, reports reached American authorities of a new military proselytizing school in Son Hoa District.[11] On the whole, Phung Hoang failed to neutralize the party leaders that constituted to the nucleus of Hanoi’s shadow government in South Vietnam.[12]

Advance now to the War on Terror, the neutralization of insurgent cells requires an approach quiet similar to that used by American and South Vietnamese authorities in the 1960s and 1970s. A cautionary tale, the limited success of conventional and unconventional methods to dismantle communist networks produced temporary results. Underestimating the flexibility of Viet Cong Infrastructure resulted in years of targeted killings and coercion that did not supplant the existing Viet Cong Infrastructure, nor fundamentally change the balance of power in the Republic of Vietnam’s hinterlands. Today, the  Taliban in Afghanistan mirrors the resilience of  Viet Cong Infrastructure growing decades earlier in an equally complex war in Vietnam.

Robert J. Thompson recently completed his PhD in U.S. History at the University of Southern Mississippi, and he is a Featured Contributor on The Strategy Bridge. His dissertation is titled "More Sieve Than Shield: the U.S. Army and CORDS in the Pacification of Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam, 1965-1972."

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Header Image: Suspected Viet Cong captured by 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Brigade in 1966 during Operation Van Buren, Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam. (Photographer: Robert C. Lafoon)


[1] CICV Special Report Number 7, Viet Cong Infrastructure, p.1, U.S. Army Center of Military History.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Frank Leith Jones, Blowtorch: Robert Komer, Vietnam, and American Cold War Strategy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 145.

[6] Ibid., 165.

[7] Ibid., 197; 218.

[8] Charles S. Varnum. Interview by author. Telephone interview. 29 November 2012.

[9] Thomas C. Thayer, War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2016), 207.

[10] For more context, see the conflicts in Algeria and Palestine. In both areas–Algeria 0.29% to 0.58% and Palestine 2.25%–successful insurgencies penetrated the population at numbers less than those seen in the South Vietnamese provinces of Binh Dinh and Phu Yen. See: Michael Eisenstadt, “The Sunni Arab Insurgency: A Spent or Rising Force?,” The Washington Institute For Near East Policy, accessed 15 February 2017, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-sunni-arab-insurgency-a-spent-or-rising-force.

[11] Report, Intelligence: DIP - Bi-Weekly Summary of VCI Activities - Record of MACV Part 1, 4-17 January 1970, p.8, Folder 0675, Box 0019, Vietnam Archive Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Available at: http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/virtualarchive/items.php?item=F015800190675.

[12] Thayer, 209