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THE VIETNAM WARS


FIGHTING WORDS AND IMAGES

       text by ROD OAKLAND

Author’s note: What follows is a study of one aspect of the wars, the use of words and images by each side to influence the thoughts and behaviour of the other. I have been fortunate to meet and discuss the conflict of the 60s and 70s with some of those who lived and fought in Vietnam, both indigenous Vietnamese, and Americans. I take full responsibility for the account which follows. It is my hope that those who visit this site, especially those “who were there”, will add to, enliven, and correct what I have written. I look to forward to hearing from you. Anecdotes about the production, dissemination, and effects of leaflets are particularly welcome. Please mail me:

rod.oakland@btopenworld.com


 

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War Images (The Art of Propaganda - Pictures to Persuade)

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VIETNAM - THE PAPER WAR

 

THE FRENCH IN VIETNAM

THE AMERICANS IN VIETNAM

 

American leaflets

Code Numbers

Leaflet Size

Common Themes

Safe Conduct Passes

Currency Leaflets

Black Leaflets

Communist leaflets

Leaflets Aimed at Americans

Physical Appearance

Code Numbers of Communist Leaflets

Leaflets Aimed at the ARVN

 

THE FRENCH IN VIETNAM

 

In 1940 the Japanese occupied Vietnam. During the next five years there were occasional leaflet drops by the Americans with the aim of seeking the goodwill of the indigenous population. Typical were leaflets designed to solicit help for downed US airmen.

In August 1945, as the Second World War came to an end in South East Asia, one of the last acts of the Allies was to drop leaflets over Japanese troops wherever they were situated informing them of their country's surrender. The situation in Vietnam was chaotic. Ho Chi Min had been organising and building the Communist Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam) movement throughout the country and in a series of uprisings now swept aside most rival non-communist
organisations to form a national united government. The Japanese had been asked to stay on as a peace keeping force until the British, on behalf of the French, could re-enter the country but were overwhelmed by the peasant army. But Ho's August revolution was to be short lived. Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang divisions invaded from the North and the British landed in the South. The aim of the British was to gain control of the southern and central areas of Cochin China and Annam up to the 16th parallel and await the arrival of the French. Much fighting ensued and leaflets were dropped on the local populations to help to restore order.

The French pushed the communists out of the South and tried to negotiate a settlement with Ho Chi Min but war broke out in December 1946. Over the next eight years, as the French tried to hold on to their Vietnamese colony, leaflets were again used by both sides to support their armed forces and win the cooperation of the civilian population. For example, the French used them to ridicule and undermine Ho Chi Min's currency. Whereas the French could use its air force to spread leaflets the Viet Minh had no planes and had thus to disseminate them on the ground. But this did not stop

This is typical of leaflets which were distributed to the indigenous population to encourage their support for Ho's government. It reads "Have faith in our ultimate victory. Long live the Government of Ho Chi Min."

General Giap from using the leaflet weapon to influence the ordinary people.  For example, the puppet head of state, Emperor Bao Dai, who had abdicted in 1945 and had been persuaded by the French to return to Vietnam, was ridiculed. Where possible, leaflets were distributed to French soldiers to undermine their morale. After the French defeat at Dien Ben Phu a cease fire was negotiated and the country was divided at the 17th parallel. The Viet Minh controlled the North and the French and their supporters the South. The intention was that the country would work towards reuinification through national elections but the new government in the South became increasingly anti-Communist. Hanoi's patience evaporated and the struggle to bring revolution to the South recommenced.
 


When the Americans were drawn into the Vietnam conflict in the early to mid-sixties the paper war escalated to mammoth proportions. Although the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong (VC) propaganda machines churned out copious quantities of leaflets targeted primarily on the Americans and the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) this was dwarfed by the American production for North and South Vietnamese civilians and especially for the VC and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

THE AMERICANS IN VIETNAM

American Leaflets

The scale of American leaflet operations in Vietnam surpassed all that had gone before. Billions of leaflets - estimates vary from from 20 to 50 billion - were churned out by various US propaganda agencies, towards a thousand for every citizen of North and South Vietnam.

According to contemporary press reports there were instances where huge quantities, including whole bundles, were dropped over one small area. They were not wasted as villagers used them as kitchen wipes or to repair holes in walls. Inevitably some saw service as toilet paper!
 

A US Army Psyops veteran tells the story that there was a weight quota of leaflets to produce and pack into the fibreglass leaflets bombs every evening, 7 days per week. The US Air Force would pick them up at 8.00pm. "If we were short on weight we would fill the bombs with printing press parts and in the one year I was maintenance night supervisor we dismantled and packed one complete Hess and Barker 4 color, 4 tower web printing press, and one Harris 50 inch paper cutter. So not only did we drop the leaflets but the printing presses too!"

Only 6% of the leaflets, however, were openly acknowledged as being of American origin. The rest were designed to read as if they were the creations of the South Vietnamese. On a scale from “white” to “black” leaflets, ie from those with a transparently obvious and usually stated source to those claiming a source which was false, they were coloured “grey”.

South Vietnam was simply not capable of sustaining a viable psychological warfare programme. Suitable personnel with the right background, training and commitment were not available, not least due to the frequent changes of Ministry of Information staff and the prevalence of political and nepotistic appointments. The problem was compounded by the large turnover of staff in the American propaganda agencies especially JUSPAO (the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office), which had overall responsibility for coordinating all propaganda activity. American-Vietnamese cooperation was therefore unsustainable. The true origin of the leaflets was not too difficult to deduce, especially in the early days when the Americans appended leaflet codes of a particular type (see Code Numbers below).

Up to 1967 American leaflets were produced by the Army printing office in Japan, the JUSPAO printing facility in Saigon, and by psychological operations companies in the field. When it was clear that printing output was not meeting given targets the various agencies involved made the decision to move the production of "strategic" leaflets to the Regional Service Centre in Manila, known as RSC Manila. The CIA funded the acquisition of state of the art printing equipment and by Autumn 1968 over one third of a billion leaflets per month were being produced. Some were packed into cardboard cartons ready for dissemination over Vietnam - some 500 miles away - while the rest were shipped to air bases in Thailand for dissemination from there. Production peaked in 1969/70 at 5-6 billion leaflets per year. "Tactical" leaflets were still printed in Vietnam.

 

       I

In life generally things don’t always go to plan and leaflet production is no exception. In mid-1967 there was a move to transfer leaflet printing from the Army printing office Japan to RSC Manila. Part of the reason for this was that mistakes were being made in Japan. For example there was an earlier version of the leaflet shown on the left that was in a horizontal format with the two frames side by side. The leaflet’s intended message was that 'the Viet Cong don't really care if you get hurt as a consequence of their actions". Inadvertently the Army printer had reversed the frames since, using a photographic negative to make the plate, he had accidently turned the negative backwards.  So it ended up with frame # 1 showing a helicopter attacking a house and frame # 2 showing a VC firing at the helicopter. The message, therefore, was that US helicopters attacked houses and that the VC should then fire back at them! The mistake was not spotted until hundreds of thousands of leaflets had been dropped!

Code Numbers

A multiplicity of code designations was printed on the leaflets. Many contain a combination of letters and numbers - not always easy for the leaflet researcher to decipher. Letters had to be carefully chosen as they could inadvertantly reveal the leaflet's true source. For example, up to 1967 a major series of leaflets produced by JUSPAO was coded SP-x (x = leaflet number), the letters indicating “Special Projects”. An example was SP-806. These two letters together had no significance in the Vietnamese language suggesting a foreign origin. As soon as the Americans realised this they primarily used codes consisting of numbers only. The JUSPAO series omitted the letters. Other series used codes in the format a-b-c where:

The North Vietnamese were in no doubt about the true source of the “South Vietnamese” leaflets and didn’t hesitate to state this in their propaganda,

Leaflet Size

Assemble a selection of American leaflets and one striking impression is their largely uniform size, approximately 15 x 7.5 cm., a size that had been rarely seen in previous conflicts. Given an appropriate weight of paper, these dimensions generated a rotation pattern in the air which was found to be optimal for accurate positioning of leaflets on to a target area taking into account other variables such as wind speed and dropping height. . This meant that leaflets destined for areas of North Vietnam or the Ho Chi Minh trail could be ejected from the aircraft in friendly or neutral air space and left to spin their way to their targets. Such leaflets came to be referred to as "spinners", whereas leaflets of other sizes tended to tumble from side to side as they fell and were described as "floaters". Floaters were ideal for dropping by low flying aircraft and helicopters, or for artillery shell dissemination, over a localised area in smaller quantities.
 
 

In 1967 a US Information Agency Foreign Service Officer, assigned to RSC Manila as the Executive Officer, found himself faced with air drop logistical problems. About one third of leaflet production was packed into specially designed , triple walled cardboard cartons which held 140 lbs of leaflets. Cartons would be placed on a "roller line" in the centre of the drop aircraft, usually a C-130, with a 50 ft static line threaded through each. The static line was was attached at the top of an overhead track. As each carton rolled off the line and out of the aircraft door it would hit the end of the static line and be pulled inside out, throwing the leaflets out into an oval "burst pattern". This would create a series of timed bursts and send a stream of leaflets dexending on to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But the cartons were beset with problems. The supply company, a US private concern, could not meet the demand for them; some became soggy in the humid Manila air and fell apart before use; and others made from a waterproof material were found to be too strong and failed to burst, snapping the line and sending a missile hurtling to the ground. Fortunately, a solution was not hard to find. The manager of a local company which was supplying boxes for other publications designed a simpler lighter air drop carton which his relatives in Hong Kong proceeded to produce  at a sixth of the price of the American supplier. But there was a twist in the tail. It turned out that the cartons were actually made by a company in Red China which was under the control of the Chinese Red army.  So, the Chinese military were supplying materials to the Americans to help them to stem the spread of Communism in SE Asia by waging war against the North Vietnamese who were backed by the Chinese military!

The spinner size became standard for the output of US Psyops Units involved in future leafleting operations. This is true for virtually all leaflets used in Operations Desert Storm, Restore Hope, and Enduring Freedom for example.

Common Themes

Amongst the main themes of leaflets targeted on the VC and the NVA were:

According to a US Information Agency Foreign Service Officer involved with printing a series of weapons reward leaflets in Manilla they were referred to as "appeal to greed" leaflets. For a period the weapons, after handing in, were turned over to the South Vietnamese Army, supposedly to supply self-defense for friendly "strategic hamlets". But it was widely rumoured that the ARVN commanders were diverting most of the arms to the black market in SE Asia, from where they ended up in the hands of rebel groups in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.  There was also a strong suspicion that some weapons were being "recycled" through ARVN troops posing as defectors to multiply the bounties.  So later on the Americans had them destroyed.  

 I was a US Air Force crew member on RC-135 aircraft flying out of Kadena, Okinawa from 1969-1973. In the summer of 1969 I was sent TDY (Temporary Duty) to Pleiku AB, Vietnam to fly as the linguist on EC-47 missions over northern South Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin and Laos.  TDY personnel were not counted in the Vietnam troop levels much the same way tourists and other transients are not counted in the population.  The only weapons carried on board the aircraft consisted of side arms and M-16 rifles. The aircraft were former WWII vintage troop transports and were otherwise unarmed and flew without fighter escort.

Each morning I was scheduled to fly I reported to the operations center where I was issued a revolver and attended the pre-mission briefing.   At several of the briefings I was given two cardboard cartons of propaganda leaflets and instructed to drop them during the mission.  I had no contact with the people who delivered the cartons and was not given any further instructions as to what languages were printed on the leaflets or where to drop them.  Most of the leaflets were printed in Vietnamese but on missions over Laos the cartons also contained some printed in Laotian.  The leaflets were dropped out the open cargo door whenever I had a spare moment.

 It should have been easy for a linguist to tell the difference in languages – but I was a Chinese linguist.  I had been sent to fill a critical shortage of “linguists”.

I remember reading an article in Time Magazine sometime after I left Vietnam.  The story was about a Viet Cong soldier who surrendered with some leaflets.  He said that he and his friend were sitting in a rice paddy when out of the sky fell a box full of enemy propaganda, hitting his friend in the head, killing him.  With propaganda that powerful he said he knew he had to go over to the other side.

 The one leaflet I have been able to locate so far is coded 2725. This leaflet describes the support given to the people of the South by Australia, namely health-care, food, and water resources. 

 

This drip-feed of demoralising suggestion and accusation was designed to prepare the reader for action, in particular to cease fighting and defect or surrender. The Vietnamese phrase "Chieu Hoi" means invitation to return, literally "open arms", and this was the title of a programme to persuade Viet Cong to defect. The Saigon government avoided the use of words such as deserter, preferring to call them "ralliers", those who had lost their way but were returning to the true path. The Vietnamese expression was "hoi chanh" - those who had reverted to the just cause. Life for Charlie was very hard. He, and sometimes she, often had insufficient food and only primitive medical care, and was invariably on the move with the constant threat of attack from the air. Fearing he would never see his family again and worse, dying on the battlefield and not being buried properly, added to his distress. Chieu Hoi played on such fears and encouraged him to desert, to "come home". The programme had considerable success and, by 1971, had netted over one hundred thousand “rallied” Viet Cong. North Vietnamese soldiers would not be persuaded by a "come home" appeal but they were invited to surrender with promises of good treatment and repatriation after the war. Some did, especially when the military odds were stacked against them.

Safe Conduct Passes

The catalyst for action was the safe conduct pass and various were produced by the Americans. One early type is of particular interest because every leaflet bears a unique serial number. This unusual ploy was to enhance the status of the leaflet as an official document whose promises would be honoured. But there was an ulterior motive. Leaflets with blocks of numbers would be dropped in particular areas. When presented by surrendering Viet Cong, they would identify areas where the soldiers had been located, perhaps indicating centres of enemy operations - useful intelligence. This, however turned out to be of doubtful value and later versions of the safe conducts omitted the serial numbers. They did, however, become more overtly Vietnamese, and included a signed statement from Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky and then, after September 1967, Nguyen Van Thieu when he became President.

Currency Leaflets

Leaflets resembling currency notes were used frequently in the Second World War and in Korea. Some of them were very similar to the real note on one side, tempting the target reader to pick them up. On the other side was a propaganda message which the reader might absorb. Others were parodies of the original currency note with none-too-subtle messages woven into the design.  Both types were produced by the Americans in Vietnam but a new propaganda note, of a type not recorded before, was also disseminated. See notes 3 and 4 below. The American notes are:

  1. A representation of a 50 Dong note with an anti-Lao Dong party propaganda message aimed at civilians in the north on the reverse.
  2. A good imitation of a South Vietnamese 5 Dong note with a "return to your family" message to the VC on the reverse.
  3. A passable imitation of a complete 1 Dong note with a side extension on which was a propaganda message to civilians in the North. It bears the code number 50 which places it in 1966, and newspaper reports of that time describe it.
  4. Extremely good imitations, in full colour, of the 1 Dong, 2 Dong , and 5 Dong  notes all with side extensions on which a propaganda message aimed at civilians in the North had been printed. This was produced circa 1972. There was much comment in the press about this in late 1972 and in 1973.

Nos. 3 and 4 turned out to be very controversial as the extension to the complete facsimile note could be cut off leaving a currency note remarkably similar to the real thing. America was accused of trying to cripple the North Vietnamese economy. 

There is evidence that the production of good full-coloured reproductions of Dong notes as in no. 4 above was seriously considered in 1968/9 before the project was aborted . 

Black Leaflets

(Author's note: examples of black leaflets are almost impossible to find. The ones pictured in this section were actually dropped over North Vietnam and handed in to the authorities. During the Cold War communist states shared information about their common enemies and these leaflets were given to East Germany. After the fall of communism and the unification of Germany they were superfluous and were dispensed with. I was luck enough to gain access to them.)

The innocuously named Studies and Observations Group (SOG) was a secret American military unit of elite troops best known for covert operations behind enemy lines such as surveillance, hit-and-run, search and rescue, sabotage, snatching prisoners, and setting booby traps. Its Psychological Operations Group was responsible for “black” propaganda. The aim was to irritate Hanoi, persuade the authorities that security on the home front was being undermined, and divert resounces into searching out and countering the perceived threats. One of its projects was to “set up” dissident groups in North Vietnam claiming to be truly patriotic but spreading dissent and rumours about the conduct of the war and, especially, the Country’s Chinese ally. One such group was the anti-Communist “Sacred Sword of the Patriots League” (SSPL). These groups did not exist but by spreading paperwork to and from non-existent agents and officials, supported by phoney radio  transmissions, enemy counter-intelligence might be persuaded that they did . “Patriotic League” leaflets were planted by SOG personnel on North Vietnamese roads and trails where they would be found and handed in. They were also air-dropped, usually at night, by unmarked planes. They read as if written by North Vietnamese patriots whose aim was not to overthrow but to influence the Party and the Government, and to achieve true independence for Vietnam and not another period of colonial rule by the Chinese. In addition they claimed to echo the concerns of ordinary people. Two examples are the food shortages created as agricultural produce was diverted to buy arms for the war, and inadequate financial support for students. One leaflet questions the reasons for the war and suggests that the consequences for ordinary North Vietnamese people are becoming too hard to bear.

                           

Type I    "The Sacred Sword of Patriotism"

Type II    "Sacred sword to Kill the Communists"

The author has seen 6 different leaflets bearing the SSPL insignia as illustrated as Type I above. A similar design of insignia, as depicted in Type II, has been seen on just one leaflet but this would seem to be too virulently anti-communist to be associated with SSPL.

It is believed that leaflets purporting to come from other "dissident" groups were also dropped over the North together with leaflets which had no indication as to their source but read as if written by people in the North. Others, classified as "grey" are subversive but contain no clues about their source. Some likely examples are as follows:

Hanoi, it seems, although not deceived by SOG's activities, was annoyed. At the peace negotiations in Paris in 1968 the US was urged to end its “black” operations and axe the “Patriots League”!

Although a lot of information about these psywar operations has come to light in recent years a great deal remains to be discovered. Please contact the author if you have any information about the leaflets described.

(To find out more about US “black” operations in Vietnam see “The Secret War Against Hanoi ”, by Richard H. Shultz Jr., publ. Harper Collins, New York, 1999)

Communist Leaflets

The Communist propaganda machine was also at work and many leaflets were produced by the National Liberation Front (NLF), the political wing of the Viet Cong. They were targeted on the Americans and their Allies, including the Australians, and on the South Vietnamese, both civilians and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

Leaflets Aimed at Americans

The author is aware of 214 different leaflets which were aimed at GIs and it is likely there are many more. Although the occasional Mig 21 entered Vietnamese air space, the Americans had virtual mastery of the air, and communist leaflets had to be disseminated on the ground. They would be left on trails, impaled on sticks or stuck on trees, wherever the Americans would find them. Many leaflets themes were used but certain ones recurred with great regularity.

The pinprick campaign to demoralise the fighting man and sap his will to fight culminated in suggestions for action such as “Demand that the US government put an immediate end to the war”…."Refuse to fight"…. "Refuse to obey orders to carry out mopping up operations"…."Demand that you be immediately repatriated"…."Squarely refuse re-enlistment", and, of course, “Surrender quickly to the Liberation Armed Forces”, or more realistically, “When under attack, lay down your weapons, let yourselves be captured”. There is little evidence that American soldiers took such action as a result of reading leaflets. The awfulness of the war, the terror of combat, racial tension, and other factors might have reduced the GI's effectiveness in the field but the words of the enemy largely fell on deaf ears.

Physical Appearance

A great diversity of leaflets was produced. The ones seen vary in size from about 8 x 6 to 14 x 22 cm.. Some were printed in North Vietnam and are generally well-produced, on high quality glossy paper, and occasionally coloured. The English is usually good. The majority was single sheet but a few were in booklet or open-out folder format. Other leaflets, however, were produced locally by the NLF, often in their underground complexes. They were crudely mimeographed, and roughly cut, and the English was sometimes laughable. Many of the leaflets were printed in English with a Vietnamese translation on the reverse, not surprising since there is evidence that they were produced as much to encourage the NVA and Viet Cong as to influence the Americans.

Code Numbers of Communist Leaflets

A few leaflets bore code numbers of which there were four types: four figure numbers (eg 0548) believed to have been used early in the conflict; the letters “MY” plus a number (“My” is the Vietnamese word for America); the letter M plus a number; the letters “M.QD” plus a number.

Leaflets Aimed at the ARVN

As expected, the format and appearance the leaflets resembled those produced for the Americans. In one case the size, layout, colour and the illustration - anti-war demonstrators in America - are identical. Only the text and message is different.

The author has seen almost 40 different leaflets and there are certainly many more. Only a few have been translated from the Vietnamese, revealing the following themes:

Some of the leaflets state that they can be used as a safe-conduct .

None have been seen bearing a code number.

Rod Oakland, August 2007

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