There were people in the U.S. State Department, such as Abbot Low Moffat, head of the Division of Southeast Asia, who understood the intense nationalism of the Vietnamese people and could see through the imperial fictions, but their views were subordinate to those of higher authorities, particularly Secretary of State Acheson and President Truman. Acheson was of the view that all communist movements, political parties, leaders, and liberation armies were part of a global conspiracy directed by Moscow. Although his own department found no evidence of Moscow’s controlling hand in Vietnam (after three years of searching), Acheson claimed a collusion by virtue of both adhering to “Commie Doctrine.” Moffat traveled to Hanoi and met with Ho in December 1946. He reported to Acheson that Ho might be a communist, but he was first and foremost a nationalist seeking to establish an independent national state. Moffat maintained that “the majority of natives stoutly maintain that Ho Chi Minh is the man, and the only one, who represents them and they will oppose the putting forward of any other candidate as the creation of but another puppet.” His message fell on deaf ears.
The Diem government responded by accelerating the arrest of suspected rebels and their supporters, including those who accepted land distributed by the Viet Minh. The government also initiated the Rural Community Development Program, a “pacification” program designed to resettle villagers into “safe” Agrovilles, thus enabling the government to maintain surveillance over villages. The program incited more resistance than the land transfer program, as it forced peasants to abandon their homes, cultivated fields, and ancestral graves in exchange for inadequate housing and plots in the Agrovilles.
America’s ally, the GVN, garnered little loyalty from the people during its two decades of existence. It remained from beginning to end, an authoritarian, repressive, and corrupt client-state of the United States. It was also constantly in turmoil. On February 19, 1965, General Nguyen Khanh was ousted in a coup d’état, tacitly approved by U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and General William Westmoreland. Khanh left the country and power was transferred to a triumvirate of generals, Nguyen Cao Ky, Nguyen Chanh Thi, and Nguyen Van Thieu. To please the U.S., the new government pledged on March 1 not to negotiate with the enemy. Thi was soon banished to the U.S., while Ky and Thieu became the key leaders for the remainder of South Vietnam’s existence. Ky was born in Hanoi and had been trained as a pilot by the French in Algeria. He was described by Ambassador Taylor as having all the qualities of a successful juvenile gang leader. Thieu, also northern-born, had fought with the French against the Viet Minh, graduated from the United States Command and General Staff College in 1957, and became president of South Vietnam in 1967. Thieu’s top power broker, General Dang Van Quang, was heavily involved in the narcotics trade, controlling the Vietnamese Navy which harbored an elaborate smuggling organization.
Guerrillas manufactured homemade bombs and mines from unexploded American ordinance. They set up punji traps and camouflaged land-mines for GIs to step on while on patrol. To trick American ground sensors, which were prone to false alarm and inaccurate placement, they used decoys such as sending herds of cattle to simulate troop movement. NLF officers placed their radio huts at a distance from command posts, resulting in air strikes “blast[ing] a patch of jungle just because a transmitter had been heard there,” according to an NSA study. Tanks and other heavy equipment as well as rice supplies were shipped through an alternative route from the heavily bombed Ho Chi Minh trail, Cambodia’s Port of Sihanoukville. Some of the most dedicated revolutionary fighters were women, following the example of the Trung sisters and Lady Trieu who had fought previous foreign invaders. Nguyen Thi Dinh led rebellions in Ben Tre province, while Ngo Thi Tuyen carried 95 kilograms of ammunition (twice her body weight) down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
With behind-the-scenes support from the U.S., General Minh was ousted on January 29 in a bloodless coup d’état led by General Nguyen Khanh, the most pro-American officer in the junta. There would be no more talk of peace negotiations or easing up on the NLF-linked villages. The Saigon government would henceforth strictly follow the American president’s lead. McNamara, returning from a visit to Saigon in early March 1964, reported that Khanh would do very well. He would allow U.S. advisers to participate at all levels of civilian and military agencies, and he would consult with Ambassador Lodge before making appointments to his cabinet. Gen. Khanh headed the military junta from January 1964 until February 1965.