All wars lead to mistakes. The Vietnam conflict probably led to more than most others combined. The number of studies devoted to where the French, South Vietnamese and USA went wrong would take years to fully digest. For those without the time to spare I’d recommend the documentary Fog of War which outlines many of their most critical errors.
I’d argue that the US were starting off on the back foot even before they decided to start bombing. Mainly because they’d lost the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese. Their original strategy had been to try to prop up the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem without getting involved in a potentially messy ground war. As a result of this President Kennedy sent several thousand ‘advisers’ to Vietnam. He also committed a huge amount of natural and financial resources.
One of the USA’s main ideas was the ‘Strategic Hamlets’ programme. Their analysis quickly showed that one of the main problems they faced was North Vietnamese agents infiltrating the South and converting the peasantry. It was felt that if the peasants could be gathered together in fortified communities they could be isolated and protected from the communist’s influence. There were a number of reasons why this project failed:
One was that it involved the forced relocation of large numbers of villagers. You have to remember that some of these communities had existed in the same place for centuries; so to suddenly be forcibly uprooted and moved away was deeply traumatic. They had both personal and religious ties to the land that were fundamental to their way of life. Apparently the removal agents, in order to demonstrate that returning wasn’t an option, burnt down their homes in front of them. Is it any wonder that some of them might start turning to the North?
Another problem was the inefficiency and corruption of the South Vietnamese regime. Despite the US investing millions of dollars for the programme, significant amounts were siphoned off due to corruption. Villagers who were forcibly relocated should have been paid compensation which never materialised. Money and resources that had been earmarked for village construction mysteriously vanished. Even when the resources were available, they tried to do too much too quickly and eventually ended up falling way behind schedule. In other instances they built villages on poor farming land or gave them no protection at all.
A key issue here was that the project lacked overall direction with confusion over its aims and goals. Perhaps the biggest problem of all though was that most of the new villages were quickly infiltrated by North Vietnamese agents. Pretty much the entire South Vietnamese government was riddled with enemy agents so any attempt to protect the peasants from their influence was arguably doomed to fail from the start. By 1963 the Strategic Hamlets project had been largely abandoned.
Unfortunately the failure of this plan created the template for future US involvement in Vietnam. Almost every mistake they made here was replicated again and again. This included not fully understanding the motives and methods of the people they were fighting, and an assumption that superior resources and technology would ultimately win the day. For a fuller analysis of the collapse of the Strategic Hamlets operation I’d highly recommend reading the relevant sections of the Pentagon Papers.
Here is a clip of the USA attempting to explain their strategy in Vietnam: