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The Foreign Service at War (Part 2): Rice, Roads, and Winning Hearts and Minds

“Winning hearts and minds” is at the very core of diplomacy. Sometimes that takes place in an embassy or a foreign ministry. Very rarely does it take place in the jungle and on the frontline of a warzone. But that is exactly where Kenneth Quinn found himself as a first-tour Foreign Service Officer in South Vietnam.

IR8 Rice. International Rice Research Institute photo archive
IR8 Rice. International Rice Research Institute photo archive

The Vietnam War was a different kind of war. Not only was the Viet Cong insurgency able to appear almost anywhere, they often had the backing of small villages and hamlets scattered throughout South Vietnam. To counter them, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces tried to win back villages with a “hearts and minds” strategy.

For future Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, this meant trudging through the jungle to thatch roofs, deliver IR-8 rice, and lay asphalt. By enabling the Vietnamese people to harvest and then transport more bountiful rice crops, Ambassador Quinn saw first hand the connection between Vietnamese citizens’ wellbeing and the war effort.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn recounts why bags of rice were as valuable as M16s and why the Viet Cong’s biggest enemy just may have been a Nebraskan scientist named Hank Beachell.

For the first part of this moment, click HERE.

Drafted by Reagan Ashley

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“Villages which had previously had a sustained VC guerrilla presence, and which required a heavy security escort if we traveled there, now became much, much safer.”

Retaking Viet Cong Controlled Hamlets:
A second interesting aspect of my time as the A/DSA was that I made my first forays into Viet Cong [VC] controlled hamlets and villages. The Vietnamese government, having lost so much ground during the TET Offensive, was now systematically working to reassert its presence and influence in populated areas. Duc Thanh District was sub-divided into eight villages, which in turn were divided into hamlets, which could number anywhere from three to seven per village. There were a number of populated hamlets that had no government presence and so were completely controlled by the VC.

In addition to populated areas, there were several large areas of land in Sa Dec Province that no longer had any population or houses, because they were the war zone where the Viet Cong had built fortifications and from which their military units could operate. These were known as “VC base areas,” and mostly existed in Duc Ton District, which was along the road to Vinh Long.
However, two villages in Duc Thanh abutted VC base areas and many or all hamlets in them were totally under VC control when I arrived. One hamlet was part of the village of Hoa Long, which was the administrative center of the district where the District Chief resided and our compound was located. The other was Phong Hoa Village, the most remote in the district, accessible only by boat from the Mekong, where all of the hamlets had been under full VC control. As I arrived, the government was making a concerted effort to re-assert control over them as part of the post TET pacification effort.

The tactic to accomplish this goal was to use a significant aggregation of military force, including in some instances parts of the U.S. 9th Division and / or ARVN 9th Division, to make an initial foray into the VC base areas and hamlets to force the main VC military units to withdraw. As this was happening, helicopters with loud speakers would hover above announcing the government’s return and urging the local guerrillas to give up. Then, an occupying PF platoon, now armed with M-16 automatic rifles so they were no longer outgunned by the Viet Cong AK-47s, would march in.

Along with this military presence, came all sorts of service providers with planned activities to “win the hearts and minds” of the villagers. Included were a USAF “medcap” team to do medical exams and dispense medicine, social welfare cadre distributing rice and a team of Revolutionary Development or RD Cadre, young South Vietnamese males all dressed in black ( like the VC ) but who carried out projects such as building small bridges, or erecting a hamlet headquarters.

As a brand new advisor in Duc Thanh, one of my very first assignments was to walk into this VC hamlet in Hoa Long village with this occupying force. I watched and observed, drinking in all the sights and learning lessons such as how to tell how deep the VC control was by watching the expression on the faces of the inhabitants and their body language. Kids and their reactions toward outsiders were a particularly good way to assess the progress the government was making or the degree of influence the Viet Cong still exercised. This was a skill that I would hone over a life-long career during which I have visited and reported on villages in Cambodia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Lebanon, Gaza, China and several countries in Africa.

Another, somewhat similar experience involved my visits to Phong Hoa village which had been totally controlled by the Viet Cong. The village was strung out along a straight canal starting at the entrance from the lower Mekong River and running inland for about 10 km. Farm families had their dwellings lined along the canal so they were close to water for drinking, washing and other necessities, as well as having access to fruit trees and palm trees that grew along the banks of the canal. The farmers would walk out to their fields that extended in broad flat expanses across to the next “tree line,” which grew along the next canal. The fighting at TET had caused all of the residents of Phong Hoa to flee as their thatch dwellings were all burned or destroyed by artillery fire and rockets.

Now after almost a year as refugees, the GVN had succeeded in re-taking the village and was providing assistance to each family of “war victims” to return and re-establish their homes and livelihoods. Each family was to get six sheets of metal roofing with which build a basic dwelling, and a six month supply of rice and cooking oil to tide them over until they could harvest a new crop. As the development advisor, I would walk along the side of the Phong Hoa Canal, interviewing families in Vietnamese about their experience, especially about whether they were now sleeping at night in their re-constructed homes, the most significant measure of the remaining degree of Viet Cong control and / or the success of the government’s pacification efforts.

“In effect, this was the beginning of the Green Revolution in East Asia, which would eventually spread all over Southeast Asia impacting over 200 million people a year.”

Ambassador Kenneth Quinn in Vietnam on his first tour as an FSO. 1968. Ambassador Kenneth Quinn Photo Archive
Ambassador Kenneth Quinn in Vietnam on his first tour as an FSO. 1968. Ambassador Kenneth Quinn Photo Archive

A Foot Soldier in the Green Revolution / The Transformative Power of Roads and Rice:
It was in Duc Thanh District that I learned the substantive lesson of my life, the transformative power of rural roads and agricultural technology. In 1969, the United States provincial development program in Sa Dec was, quite by serendipity, doing two things at the same time in Duc Thanh. First, we were upgrading the old French farm-to-market road that ran through all eight villages. An American engineering advisor from provincial headquarters was coordinating the contract with the construction company that brought all the road graders and the rock and everything needed to rebuild this road, especially putting in culverts so it wouldn’t wash away as water passed under the road.

At the same time, quite by coincidence, the agricultural advisors from the province were introducing a new variety of high yielding rice called IR-8. IR-8 rice had been developed at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines by a scientist from Nebraska named Hank Beachell, who had spent a career at USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and when he retired went to the Philippines to work on this project. IR-8 rice was a cross between several different varieties that brought together all of the significant properties, genes, and traits that allowed the rice to be disease resistant, high-yielding and fast growing, ready to harvest in 90 days, half the time of traditional floating rice.

In effect, this was the beginning of the Green Revolution in East Asia, which would eventually spread all over Southeast Asia impacting over 200 million people a year. This was occurring at the same time that Iowa native Dr. Norman E. Borlaug was introducing his “miracle wheat” in India and Pakistan, which would be credited with saving hundreds of millions from famine and starvation and which led to his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Interestingly, in 1996, Beachell received the World Food Prize, the award which Borlaug created to be “the Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture,” from the foundation that I have headed since retiring from the State Department in 1999.

Before the introduction of IR-8, Vietnamese farmers in the Delta had traditionally planted what was called “floating rice,” which they just broadcast or scattered by hand to plant. It would take about six months to grow, so farmers only could harvest one crop a year with limited yield, so it was basically subsistence living for most families.

IR-8 rice, on the other hand, grew to maturity in about three months. It required irrigation and fertilizer, so farmers needed to build little irrigation channels to connect their land out to the nearest canal. In addition, it wasn’t broadcast, but rather was first planted in seed beds and then had to be transplanted in the field. So it took a lot of back breaking work, but the results were truly miraculous. In fact, IR-8 rice was known both in English and Vietnamese as “miracle rice,” because it would grow in half the time with double or triple the yield. The farmers who grew it would suddenly see that they had a huge amount of surplus rice, which they now could sell generating additional disposal income, which was the way out of a subsistence agriculture lifestyle and out of poverty

Now, of course, like any new agricultural technology, it took some doing on the part of our agricultural advisor Bill Williamson and his Vietnamese extension worker counterparts to get farmers to try it, especially since it did require investment and hard work. But once a few farmers in a village tried it and had dramatic results, others would copy them. It quickly spread. This would produce an amazing transformation of life in the village in just a few months. Now that people had surplus income, with their extra money they could buy metal roofing sheets to put on their houses, or even construct an entirely new, sturdier dwelling. They now had more money with which to buy better clothes for their children, who now appeared better nourished. TV sets and TV antennas and motor bikes suddenly proliferated.

As I traveled around Duc Thanh District what became apparent, however, was that the new miracle rice was only used in villages where the road upgrade had been completed. Thus far, we had re-built the road only through four villages. What I noticed was that it was only when we re-built the road that people in a village started using the IR-8. It became clear that this new agricultural technology flowed down the improved road. The road was critical because extension workers could now get there to tell farmers about the seeds; trucks could now come down to buy the surplus crop right at the farm gate; and the needed amendments like fertilizer and pesticides could reach local brokers. The road conveyed a sense of progress and an improved atmosphere which encouraged farmers to make the investments needed to grow the new rice variety.

The road produced an additional array of social benefits. For example, child mortality went down because now with the new road, mothers with sick children could get their kids out to medical attention early enough so that it wasn’t fatal. In addition, education flourished because there now were little intra-village taxis that would take students from one hamlet to another where the next level of school was located. Children stayed in school longer and, most noticeably, girls stayed in school.

But what was especially dramatic, what was, in fact, truly revolutionary, was that in those villages connected by the newly upgraded road and planting the IR-8, the Viet Cong organization seemed to wither. Villages which had previously had a sustained VC guerrilla presence, and which required a heavy security escort if we traveled there, now became much, much safer. The new road seemed to provide a way for economic and social forces to come to the village that undermined the Viet Cong’s ability to recruit young people as fighters, so that the insurgency seemingly evaporated. As the road improved, we could now go to those villages night and day. Previously, we would never go at night and if we went during the day it was with security. Now we could go at night and you could go during the day without security, but only to the four villages where the road had been upgraded.

But when I got to the end of the upgraded road, I would have to put my Scout onto a little ferry or drive it through a shallow part of the canal, because there were canals everywhere and no bridges. Only this way could I enter into the other four villages—which were totally unaffected by the Green Revolution. As I drove slowly along the bumpy and almost unpassable road, with endless ruts and potholes, it was clear that there was no transformation taking place. Those villages were unchanged from the way they existed a hundred or perhaps two hundred years before. The thatched dwellings were ramshackle and rickety. Children and adults were poorly clothed and looked thin and malnourished. There were few attending school, and child mortality was high and unchanged. Most importantly, the Viet Cong remained firmly planted in those hamlets, as we had not been able to completely dislodge them with bombs and boots on the ground.

The VC were sufficiently entrenched underground so that you could not get at them, except the road could do it, and the power of the road and rice became the lesson of my life. It was the lesson that I would take with me and it would come back again and again to me of how it was the lesson of America. It’s the lesson of my home state of Iowa, of Illinois, of every place in the Midwest. What had transformed our country was building ubiquitous farm to market roads, with all of the same impact that I saw going on out in these remote Vietnamese villages. But, it was only when I was in Indochina that I could see it and understand how the improved infrastructure had affected my own country

Q: You must have really felt tremendously satisfied with what you were up to.

As I reflected on the power of upgraded rural roads to change the situation so rapidly and dramatically, it occurred to me that this should have been the lesson that I took away from my upbringing in my home state of Iowa. For it was the construction of the grid of farm to market roads that crisscrossed the state—each one separated by just 1 mile—that made Iowa look like a patchwork quilt when viewed from the air, that had transformed life during the early 20th century. It was those new roads that allowed extension workers from Iowa State University to take Henry Wallace’s new hybrid corn out to farmers, while the same road permitted school buses to pick up their children and take them to high school.

I carried this lesson of roads with me through the rest of my diplomatic career, increasingly convinced that there was a correlation between hunger, poverty, political instability and terrorism and the absence of good roads. In 1990, when the United States returned to Cambodia, there were still 25,000 genocidal Khmer Rouge troops that controlled much of the countryside. The North Vietnamese Army force of 200,000 troops had failed to dislodge them. Now, somewhat like the U.S. in Vietnam, Hanoi was giving up and going home, as part of a new Paris Peace Agreement [that I helped negotiate with Assistant Secretary Dick Solomon].

“I don’t think most Americans ever understood just how powerful that combination of roads and rice was.”

Construction workers lay new asphalt (2018).
Construction workers lay new asphalt (2018).

Roads and Rice / The VC Reaction to the Road Building Strategy:
Q: I want to go back a bit.


Q: On your first post, where you have—we’re repairing this road which is making quite a difference as far as the attitude of the Vietnamese farming community.


Q: This must have enraged the Viet Cong, and what were they doing about—

QUINN: Well, yes, of course. I think it caught the Viet Cong by surprise. They had endured bombings and there even was a period when there were significant either U.S. or main force South Vietnamese troops on the ground in Duc Thanh and Duc Ton Districts. The VC had been able to withstand that and keep their underground network intact. But the roads and new miracle rice seemed to undercut them in a way that was unexpected by them or us.

As a result, they would endeavor to interdict the roads with land mines and command detonated explosives along them by day and ambushes at night. They also would try to blow up sections of the roads, and especially the culverts and interdict the road that way. But the momentum of the agricultural development and the improved armaments provided to the South Vietnamese forces—there were of course other factors, as well—but the roads and the fact that the South Vietnamese were now armed with M16 rifles, so that they had equivalent fire power to the AK-47’s that the Viet Cong had, combined to have a huge impact and was undercutting and devastating to the VC.

In response, what the North Vietnamese leadership endeavored to do was infiltrate North Vietnamese Army units down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and into the south, including at the very end of the Trail into the Mekong Delta. They were endeavoring to spread these NVA troops across the Delta and through the Viet Cong base areas. So this had been a very powerful response by the United States and the South Vietnamese government following the TET Offensive. So the Communist leaders were trying to reinforce the badly diminished Viet Cong guerrilla units with North Vietnamese troops. But, I don’t think most Americans ever understood just how powerful that combination of roads and rice was. Even I didn’t appreciate it totally overnight, but I came to see it as this incredibly effective weapon.