Land reform was an extremely important part of the government’s appeal to the rural people. During the earlier years it distributed more land to the peasantry than in the previous seven years combined, and that was just the start of it. The national level down through hamlets and villages, greatly expanded and – with American materiel and advisory support – improved the armed forces as ARVN forces progressively took over the entire combat burden from withdrawing U.S forces, personally led a pacification program which rooted out the covert infrastructure that had through coercion and terror dominated the rural population, instituted genuine land reform which gave to farmers. In the Second Republic President Thieu continued to introduce a far-reaching “Land to the Tiller” program involving some million acres, a third of all the land currently under cultivation. About 500,000 families were about to become owners of the land they had been renting for 50 percent of their crops. “In one fell swoop,” said Paul Vann, that program “eliminated tenancy in Vietnam. All rents were suspended.” By 1972 almost 400,000 farmers would receive title to two million and a half acres of land, and organized 4.000,000 citizens into a People’s Self-Defense Force armed with 600,000 individual weapons.
Measuring the state of pacification continued to be a necessary preoccupation. In contrast to Permanent Government, the actual US government via MACV had been running old and modified new HES system in parallel since Richard Nixon administration, July, 1969, testing a proposed system less dependent on subjective answers to questions. Interestingly, the new system yielded scores that were on average about 5 percent lower than the old method. District advisors supported the changes, feeling that they would provide a more objective and thus more accurate rating. That they would take this position, knowing that implementation of the new system would probably reduce the rating for their districts, can only taken as evidence of unusual professional seriousness and purpose. Pending acceptance by the South Vietnamese, it was planned to switch to the new system, called HES-1970, the following year.
After the real progress of the Acceleration-Pacification-Campaign and the follow-on program in 1969, by April 1070 there was concern on the American side that some of the team had gone out of the program. One observer had just got a gut feeling that pacification has lost its momentum. And “if it’s not moving forward, it will move backward” Paul Vann suggested that the change in the HES rating system had had “a certain depressing effect upon the morale of province and district chiefs, it went down an average of about 6 percent”
When Sir Robert Thompson visited South Vietnam in the autumn of 1970, he found that “progress was most visible in the expanding secure rural road networks and in the increased traffic on both roads and canals.” Besides progress in pacification and the capabilities of South Vietnam’s armed forces, Thompson saw the effects of the Cambodia incursion at work. Destruction of the enemy base areas, seizure of his supplies, the manpower losses inflicted on him, and the loss of Sihanoukville as a port of entry for military goods had all had their effect, weakening the enemy and forcing him to concentrate on expansion of his lines of communication from Hanoi. The proximate result, especially in M-R III and IV, was to greatly reduce the enemy threat for a period Thompson calculated to be at least a year, time during which pacification, consolidation, and force improvement by the South Vietnamese could continue to progress, even as U.S troops continued withdrawing.
“At least we’re making progress,” this plus pacification, it seems to me, are really our only way out. However, I should express something of the depths of my frustration during more than for years we did our best. Meanwhile evidence of what our South Vietnamese were achieving was widely apparent. After a three-year absence from Vietnam, Thomas J. Barnes returned to work in the pacification program in the autumn of 1971. He has been struck by three principal improvements: rural prosperity, the way the Regional and Popular Forces have taken hold, and growing political and economic autonomy in the hamlets. One of American greatest contributions to pacification has been the reestablishment of the hamlet in its historic Vietnamese role of relative independence and self-sufficiency.
An extremely important part of that achievement was success in rooting out the enemy’s covert infrastructure in the hamlets and villages of rural South Vietnam. An effective campaign for neutralizing members of that infrastructure, based on better and more time intelligence and acting on it, was developed. Venal journalists criticized of the war denounced the “Phoenix” program as an assassination campaign, but in the war reality – as with so much in this complex war – was otherwise.
For one thing, captives who had knowledge of the enemy infrastructure and its functioning were invaluable intelligence assets. The incentive was to capture them alive and exploit that knowledge. Congressional investigators were sent out to Vietnam to assess the program. They found that of some 20,000 members of the Viet Cong infrastructure neutralized during 1969. 13 percent had been killed, 15 percent rallied to the Saigon government side, and 72 percent were captured. Chief of Phoenix operation campaign, William Colby testified later that most of those killed, in fact the vast majority, had been killed in regular combat actions, as shown by the units reporting who had killed them.
Second tour, in January 1972, before his helicopter crashed at highland Pleiku, John Paul Vann, a former senior official in pacification support, told friends that “We are now at the lowest level of fight in the war has ever seen. Today there is an air of prosperity throughout the rural areas of South Vietnam, and it cannot be denied. Today the roads are open and the bridges are up, and you run much greater risk traveling any road in South Vietnam today from the scurrying, bustling Hondas, Vespas, and Lambrettas than you do from the Viet Cong.” And, added Vann, “this program of Vietnamization has gone kind of literally beyond my wildest dreams of success.” Those were South Vietnamese accomplishments.
In document after document the Hanoi kept predicting and calling for the so called a “popular uprising” amongst the South Vietnam, but in fact there was never any popular uprising in support of the enemy in South Vietnam. To any objective observer that does not seem too surprising in view of the enemy’s record, year after year, of assassinations, shelling of population centers throughout South Vietnam, actions hardly calculated to win the hearts and minds of the victims. The Saigon government had to rest upon the support of the people, and it had little validity if it did not dare to arm them. At last, establishing conclusively that the Saigon government did sure have the support of its own people, the self-defense forces used those weapons not against their own government but to fight against communist domination.