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CORDS: A New Pacification Program for Vietnam

The Vietnam War was one of the most challenging and complex conflicts of the Cold War era. As the conflict wore on, casualties rose and the American public became increasingly opposed to the war. With no end in sight, the U.S. government knew it would need a unique approach to win the war. For this reason, the government created the CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary/Rural Development Support) pacification program in 1967.

           
CORDS personnel with the chief of a hamlet | Defense Technical Information Center
CORDS personnel with the chief of a hamlet | Defense Technical Information Center

Conflict in Vietnam had been brewing for years, as Viet Minh forces waged an anti-colonial war against the French. With the defeat of the French colonial regime, the U.S. became concerned about the potential spread of communism in Southeast Asia. However, after several years of war, the government wanted to develop a new approach that would ultimately allow the U.S. to exit the conflict. The government decided on a program of “Vietnamization” that would prepare South Vietnamese forces to fight the war on their own.

The previous year, the U.S. Army had commissioned a study known as “A Program for Pacification and Long-Term Development in Vietnam.” This study made it clear that in order to turn the tide, the U.S. would need to abandon the strategy of waging a war of attrition, and instead gain the trust of ordinary civilians. President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered National Security Advisor Robert Comer to create CORDS, a comprehensive pacification program that would involve the military and various civilian agencies.

The CORDS program was a departure from the previous U.S. strategy in Vietnam because it shifted the focus to strengthening South Vietnamese civil society from the ground up. Abiding by the maxim that security equals stability, the program was designed to earn the trust of civilians and engage them in the process of developing the region and building institutions. CORDS’ ground-up approach focused on the local and provincial level, with each South Vietnamese province headed by a member of the local community. The program involved a constellation of projects, including distribution of economic aid via USAID, healthcare support, a program for Viet Cong defectors, and institution building. Two key projects involved putting together democratic elections and creating land reforms. The idea was that encouraging democracy in Vietnam could stem the tide of communism in the region. Similarly, redistributing land to ensure that poor people had access to it could keep them from joining the other side out of poverty and desperation.

The Department of State was one government agency involved in CORDS. A number of Foreign Service Officers worked in the program. In 1969, Peter Tomsen was a relatively new Foreign Service Officer with just one previous assignment under his belt. Having served in the Peace Corps in Nepal, and in the Asia/Pacific Bureau of the Department of State, Tomsen was interested in continuing to work in South Asia, and was eager to be a part of CORDS. Before arriving in Vietnam, Tomsen studied Vietnamese language and culture at the Foreign Service Institute, which allowed him to understand the country and its political situation better. While in Vietnam, Tomsen had many unique experiences. For example, he was involved in efforts to conduct local elections, where each rural hamlet could elect its own chief and vote for government officials. This brought the process of building democracy to the local level. The program also provided amenities to populations living in rural areas. In one memorable instance, a hamlet was provided with a movie screen, which was subsequently shot at by a Viet Cong sniper. Nonetheless, the audience watched the film until the end. Between monitoring the security of rural areas, helping to arrange elections, and dealing with incidents like the one at the movie screening, Tomsen and other CORDS officers were constantly busy.

Although many CORDS projects were challenging to execute, the program was ultimately branded a success and subsequently dismantled in 1973. CORDS proved that a locally-owned approach that emphasized cultural competence could yield results. In the years since the Vietnam War, many scholars have noted that a similar approach could have been useful in more recent conflicts, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. A focus on civilian protection and development can help win loyalty. Indeed, after the dismantling of CORDS, it seemed like South Vietnam was on the right track potentially to win the war. However, in 1973, amid growing public pressure, Congress drastically cut aid to South Vietnam. In 1975, South Vietnam lost the war. Nonetheless, the experience of Foreign Service Officers like Tomsen in CORDS shows that innovative programs can be the best choice when dealing with challenging conflict situations. As part of the program, Tomsen was able to learn a great deal about Vietnam and connect with the country and culture. These experiences were something he carried with him for the rest of his career. Having served throughout South Asia, Tomsen later became the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the East Asia/Pacific Bureau, and went on to serve as the U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan, eventually becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia.

Peter Tomsen’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on April 20, 2016.

Read Peter Tomsen’s full oral history HERE.
For more moments on CORDS, click HERE.

Drafted by Artemis Maria Katsaris

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Excerpts:

“CORDS marked the first occasion in history, before and since, when civilians were inserted directly into the military chain of command.”

           
CORDS personnel from the Foreign Service and the now-defunct U.S Information Service | Bruce Kinsey
CORDS personnel from the Foreign Service and the now-defunct U.S Information Service | Bruce Kinsey

A Unique Program:
CORDS marked the first occasion in history, before and since, when civilians were inserted directly into the military chain of command. Unfortunately, the CORDS’ unified, results-based structure in Vietnam would not be repeated later in Afghanistan and Iraq. The CORDS civilian-military hierarchy in South Vietnam extended from Saigon down to Regional, Province and District levels. I would be working at the lowest, district level, closest to the action. I assumed that the Vietnam assignment carried with it some risks. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and VC guerillas influenced or controlled most rural areas where CORDS was deployed. I would be leaving the protective shield provided by the State Department at overseas posts. But I had missed service in the U.S. military. The integrated civilian-military CORDS chain of command operating in a wartime context would be the closest I could come to military service. It was a risk I wanted to take. My village-level Peace Corps experience might prove useful. The State Department quickly approved my request and assigned me to FSI’s (Foreign Service Institute) Vietnam Training Center, known by its acronym, VTC.

“Nixon stated that his withdrawal strategy would bring “peace with honor . . . .”

The Idea of Vietnamization:
I arrived in Vietnam in February 1969, at the end of the Johnson Administration and the beginning of the Nixon Administration. The Nixon Administration took office in late January 1969. In his presidential campaign, Nixon—like Eisenhower in his 1952 campaign during the Korean War—proclaimed that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War. In Eisenhower’s case, to end the unpopular Korean War. In Nixon’s case, to end the unpopular Vietnam War. Nixon stated that his withdrawal strategy would bring “peace with honor. We will not sacrifice our honor but will withdraw.” In practice, the Vietnam strategy Nixon followed after taking office in late January 1969 was essentially the same one Johnson’s administration had put together after the 1968 Tet Offensive. U.S. domestic political pressures were increasing. The U.S. military’s giant sweep and destroy strategy to win the war had failed. The best (actually the only) way forward was Vietnamization while U.S. troops withdrew.

“The population was the war’s center of gravity.”

Winning the Loyalty of the Population:
After the 1968 Tet [Offensive] attacks, U.S. strategy had shifted to helping the GVN [Government of Vietnam] win back the rural population that had been lost to the enemy. The shift recognized that the war could not be won by U.S. military power alone. The population was the war’s center of gravity. The CORDS-assisted GVN pacification drive into the countryside was making progress. By needlessly killing civilians and destroying their property, the 9th [U.S Infantry Division] was alienating the population, aiding the VC [Viet Cong], ultimately causing more U.S. and GVN casualties, and undermining GVN/CORDS pacification progress

“An alphabet soup array of civilian U.S. agencies was inserted into the CORDS hierarchy”

Bringing Agencies Together:
An alphabet soup array of civilian U.S. agencies was inserted into the CORDS hierarchy. AID [U.S Agency for International Development] implemented CORDS development and governance projects. USIS [United States Information Service] officers advised their Vietnamese counterparts in media, information and public relations areas. USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] personnel assisted GVN agricultural development, introduction of IR-8 “miracle” rice, and land reform. CIA officers ran the Phuong Hoang “Phoenix” program targeting the VCI (Viet Cong local political-military infrastructure). Thousands of U.S. military officers and enlisted manpower comprised more than 80% of CORDS field personnel in South Vietnam. DOD [Department of Defense] provided the logistical support critical to operating CORDS teams at the regional, province and district levels.

“The GVN’s non-military pacification programs capitalized on major VC weakness –their inability, even after gaining military domination, to go beyond land re-redistribution”

Finding Viet Cong Shortcomings:
Struggling against the Viet Cong: The 1970 GVN [Government of Vietnam] military pacification campaign in Lich Hoi Thuong District put the VC [Viet Cong] on their back foot. The GVN’s non-military pacification programs capitalized on major VC weakness—their inability, even after gaining military domination, to go beyond land re-redistribution. VC violent methods of “class warfare” justice, extortion of “taxes” from peasant families, impressment of youth, threats and terror usually provoked refugee flight to government-controlled territory, leaving behind empty or mostly empty hamlets. The GVN civil pacification programs funded by the U.S. to the tune of $900 million a year exploited this VC shortcoming.

“A large number of hamlet dwellers were enjoying the movie when the VC sniper holed the screen.”

An Incident at the Movies:
The hamlet chief ticked off security and development pacification projects that were well-received by the hamlet population. He triumphantly informed that a VC [Viet Cong] sniper the previous week had fired at a movie screen erected by VIS in the hamlet center. That night, a large number of hamlet dwellers were enjoying the movie when the VC sniper holed the screen. The audience continued to watch to the end of the movie and walked home!

“Our Vietnamese counterparts—military and civilian—were now thoroughly familiar with the pacification programs”

The Dismantling of CORDS:
I reviewed the positive contributions CORDS had made since 1967. Vietnamization had advanced with U.S. help over the past 3 years. I suggested that “the process of dismantling CORDS to the point where it is a skeleton of what it is today should begin.” Our Vietnamese counterparts—military and civilian—were now thoroughly familiar with the pacification programs. Newly arrived U.S. CORDS military officers were advising Vietnamese counterparts who had more military experience than their American advisors. We should continue a CORDS advisory liaison function at the province level, but in areas where the Vietnamese are the least efficient.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in Political Science, Wittenberg University 1958–1962
Master’s Degree in Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh 1962–1964
Joined the Foreign Service 1967
Can Tho, Vietnam—Foreign Service Officer CORDS 1969–1971
Mumbai, India—Political Officer 1971–1975
Kabul, Afghanistan—U.S Special Envoy for Afghanistan 1989–1992
Yerevan, Armenia—Ambassador 1995–1998