Soldiers moving through rough terrain searching for Viet Cong near Tuy Hoa, during Operation Harrison in 1966. Credit Robert C. Lafoon/U.S. Army, via National Archives
With 11,000 men killed and little to show for it, 1967 is remembered as a disastrous year for the United States in the Vietnam War. But at the time, optimism reigned. The offensive operations by American military forces throughout 1966 had halted the gains of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (known to its enemies as the Viet Cong). Those gains, combined with mounting efforts to “pacify” the civilian population, seemed to point the way toward victory — if not in 1967, then soon after.
Pacification involved various strategies to remove Communist influence from rural South Vietnam. And in some ways this was the real heart of the American efforts in Vietnam: For all the emphasis that popular memory places on combat, the fighting was often in service of making room for pacification teams to do their work.
Though American military advisers had been working among civilian populations for years, pacification moved to the center of the anti-Communist strategy at a 1966 meeting between American and South Vietnamese officials in Honolulu. The South Vietnamese insisted that conventional fighting was pointless without doing something about Communist control of the countryside. After deliberating between February and March, the United States announced a new civilian-military advisory organization: Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, known by its acronym,xxc Cords.
While previous advisory groups had helped the South Vietnamese with improving the governance and control of the countryside, Cords finally placed civilian and military personnel together under one structure. By 1967, Cords had advisory teams in each of the Republic of Vietnam’s provinces, where they were tasked with helping their South Vietnamese counterparts to improve provincial governance. The arrival of the teams gave the false impression that the war now entered a more peaceful, less destructive phase.
Cords was designed to work in tandem with the “Big Unit War” approach favored by the Pentagon — “search and destroy,” the method by which Army units located and engaged enemy forces, functioned as a form of pacification itself. Indeed, Cords made it a precondition for any sort of civilian effort — and that was the problem.
“The added military strength and expanded area of operation is creating a climate which will allow expansion” of such programs “into areas which were not formally considered secure enough for satisfactory progress,” according to a report by advisers from the Army and the Agency for International Development working in Phu Yen province, on the Vietnamese coast, a focus of early Cords efforts. And at least on paper, extensive operations in Phu Yen — with code names like Van Buren, Fillmore and John Paul Jones — produced a security situation markedly better than the one Saigon faced before the deployment of American combat forces.
In 1965 and ’66, the North Vietnamese Army had made significant inroads in Phu Yen, isolating the provincial capital of Tuy Hoa City and controlling much of the vital rice harvest; now the Communists found themselves pushed into the mountainous interior.