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Counterinsurgency and the Vietnam War

The United States Intelligence Community was, infamously, heavily involved in the Cold War. The tensions between the United States and the USSR dominated world affairs between 1945–1991, periodically erupting into “hot” conflicts beyond the two powers’ borders.

Village on the Long Tau River (25 May 1971) Manhai | Flickr
Village on the Long Tau River (25 May 1971) Manhai | Flickr

Perhaps the most destructive of these conflicts was the Vietnam War, which extended from 1955–1975. In Vietnam, the CIA organized projects, such as the Census Grievance program and training of People’s Action Teams (PATs), to address the political facets of the conflict in addition to security concerns.

Thomas Donohue worked as a CIA case officer from 1951–1954. He joined the Foreign Service in 1954, working predominantly in Southeast Asia for the next two decades, finally joining the U.S. Department of Commerce as a consultant in 1976. In the following excerpt, he discusses the structure and intent of these programs, including his own involvement in their facilitation, while he was posted in Saigon, Vietnam, from 1965–1966.

Thomas Donohue’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on July 15, 2008.

Read Thomas Donohue’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Sairah Aslam

Excerpts:

“Nobody was terribly interested in serving a government that really wasn’t worth a hell of a lot.”

Politics vs. Security: Well, let me say this. Basically, the situation was deteriorating in Indochina generally, but in Vietnam particularly, and was such as it became more serious. The French had their military mission there, and they were in the process of retreating from or scaling it down. We had taken up the cause and we were training the South Vietnamese, and it was not going very well. Basically, the Vietcong were just getting so much stronger and so much more capable of really inflicting a lot of pain. As that situation developed the government did the only thing they could do: instead of having civilians in positions in the countryside, all the provincial chiefs became military, and the deputies and all. So it seemed like a very good idea, and why not? But the only problem was that at a time when you have basically a political war smoldering all over the country, you send guys who don’t have a political bone in their bodies. They were trained in the image of the French military, and as far as they were concerned, what people in their provinces really thought about anything other than the security, was just not a factor.
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The Agency was facing the problem of what the hell do you do about something like this because this is a political situation that really is not being considered at all, and understandably. Military people did not really react to the problems local people were having, and this was the most exploitable thing in the world. I mean, any corruption under a province chief’s level could be blown all out of proportion, and it really disrupted the basic structure, which was the village and the hamlet idea that had always existed in Vietnam…nobody was terribly interested in serving a government that really wasn’t worth a hell of a lot.

“Census grievance was a great intelligence source, and also at the same time it was doing some good. The only political action that had been done in years . . . . The United States had all the money in the world to spend on stuff, and why not spend it on something that might have some political value?”
A Joint USAF-South Vietnamese Counterinsurgency Training Flight (1962)  | United States Air Force
A Joint USAF-South Vietnamese Counterinsurgency Training Flight (1962) | United States Air Force

Census Grievance: The idea with the census grievance was to say, “OK, we will get some retired civil servants who lived in the area: guys who had worked for the post office, or whatever, who were all literate, smart, and capable, and train them.” That whole concept of census grievance was simply [that] all governments since Bethlehem take the census, everybody knows that, so [take] all the names and addresses, the whole thing, and set up drawings of the village, hamlet, whatever. The basic concept was …the head of the household had to check in with this man who was the census grievance chief, kind of a respected elder. He would go over, chat, and do these things, setting up the basic details of the family and then—after that—then, he began to say, “Is there any problem that you would like to discuss? Is there anybody in the government giving you a hard time? What are the aspirations that would improve the well-being of this village?” If you had something, you know, a road repair, a bridge that would allow you to get your produce to market earlier. And you know the United States had all the money in the world to spend on stuff, and why not spend it on something that might have some political value? More important was if you could actually follow through and have the province keep the money instead of spending the money over there, spend it on something people actually want, which is basically what I learned in Cook County as a child.

It was a tremendous program. If the guy is cooperating with you, if he has told you the thing that we really need in this village, and by God, somebody comes along and puts it into action, the next question is, is there any corruption that is causing you problems? Any members of the village hierarchy or anybody from the military structure? And the second thing, beyond that, is, “What can you tell me about any Communist activity in the neighborhood? Do you have any agitators living in the neighborhood?” So it was a great intelligence source, and also at the same time it was doing some good. The only political action that had been done in years.

“For eight weeks they were trained in military activity, the fairies and the dragons, the history, the pride of the Vietnamese people.”

People’s Action Teams (PATs): Basically before this program, by this time, we had built up these little 40-man teams and we would go in and see a province chief and explain. It was a franchise. It had nothing to do with anybody except the province chief and me. We would be very happy to work out a program on a hand shake basis with him. Basically, we would ask him to recruit people; young men in the province whose families he knew or felt they were trustworthy. We would take them off and fly them down to the Long Tau and they would be down there for eight weeks. For eight weeks they were trained in military activity, the fairies and the dragons, the history, the pride of the Vietnamese people. We fed them better than the OCS (Officer Candidate School) people did. We dewormed them as soon as they got there, which is always a problem in Asia. As a consequence, we developed some guys who had never been in an airplane or out of their village and suddenly, by God, that’s the ocean.
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We will pay these people, we will arm them, we will pay for their uniforms and everything else…as long as they are used as we think is necessary and you agree is necessary. But if you are looking for a palace guard, or we find that you are misusing them, or that you are shaking them down (the payroll is done through an American’s hands), give us a month’s notice. And if you don’t like what we are doing, we will leave, pick up our guns and go home. Or if we don’t like it, we will do that too. We will cut our relationship with you with no hard feelings.” So it was a thing that most of those guys couldn’t refuse. They saw the value in it, and having some trained people, some armed people, and something they didn’t have. Because at harvest time the Viet Cong would come in and pick up (inaudible) after it had all been brought in. It was a pretty nasty neighborhood in most of those villages as a result of the fact that you had guys who were trained agitators who were tough and mean. The villages had no way of doing a damned thing about it, and there was no protection. As a consequence, this—the fact that you put in two teams, three teams in a province—was a great safety factor as far as the province chief was concerned, and he couldn’t make any money out of it because we kept all of the control over the weapons and control of what money was involved. So it was to his advantage to play ball with us. It was really a very successful program.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in English, Columbia University 1946–1950
MA in English, Columbia University 1950-1952
Joined the Foreign Service 1953
Jakarta, Indonesia—Political Officer 1954–1961
Saigon, Vietnam—Political Officer 1965–1966
Manila, Philippines—Political Officer 1971–1976

Counterinsurgency and the Viet…

by Liz Dee time to read: 6 min
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