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Pacification is a controversial and complex issue in American military history. It is controversial because it denotes U.S. policy toward hostile populations that are either the primary or secondary object of war itself. It is complex because it describes simultaneous military, political, and economic activities to protect, control, appease, or coerce civilians and to reform governments besieged by insurgency or external subversion. It can also refer to efforts to suppress anticolonial movements. Because it is overtly political and targeted at civilians, American officers have viewed pacification equivocally, sometimes treating it as a tertiary mission in a given campaign. Pacification policies have also served as a rallying point for American peace and antiwar movements, even though these policies often produce less death and destruction than other military operations.

Depending on the nature of the insurgency, pacification can take a variety of forms. From a military perspective, it often involves protecting civilians from guerrilla warfare depredations (confiscation of property, assassination, torture, and other forms of political coercion) or denying guerrillas access to material and psychological assistance provided by civilian supporters. Government control of the local economy through resettlement, disruption of traditional production methods, or other programs intended to deny civilian surpluses to insurgents weakens both the political appeal and the military capability of insurgencies. By disrupting the guerrillas' logistical infrastructure (i.e., the civilian population), the scope and intensity of an insurgency can be reduced. For police and intelligence operatives, pacification involves the identification and arrest of clandestine cadres that form shadow governments within civilian populations. These operations often involve the interrogation and detention of suspects, maintenance of databases on insurgent networks, or the provision of identification credentials to entire populations. Reform of besieged governments sometimes plays a part by addressing the economic and political grievances that fuel unrest. By reducing or eliminating the economic, social, and political inequities that motivate indigenous support of insurgents, governments can sometimes entice guerrillas and their supporters to abandon military activity and participate in reform.

For many Americans, the term pacification is linked to the Vietnam War. Pacification remains a key point in the debate over the sources of the U.S. debacle in Southeast Asia. Harry Summers has criticized U.S. policy for focusing too much on the struggle for the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese peasant and for not destroying the source of the southern insurgency, which he locates in North Vietnam. By contrast, Andrew Krepinevich has suggested that the U.S. military virtually ignored pacification, focusing instead on the “Big‐unit war” against North Vietnam. Pacification also served as a source of interservice rivalry during the war. The Marine Corps' Operation Golden Fleece, an effort to deny the rice harvest to Viet Cong forces, and Marine Corps combined action platoons, which stationed small Marine units in Vietnamese villages, reduced Marine participation in large‐scale search and destroy operations favored by U.S. Army officers.

American pacification efforts took on many forms and consumed enormous resources during the Vietnam War. In 1959, Ngo Dinh Diem's government launched a program to move South Vietnamese peasants into strong rural settlements named agrovilles. This initiative was followed in 1961 by the strategic hamlet program, shaped by Sir Robert Thompson, who had helped plan the successful British counterinsurgency effort in Malaya in the 1950s. Because of mismanagement and conflicting priorities between the Diem regime, which wanted a mechanism to control the southern population, and its Western advisers, who saw physical security and prosperity as a way of winning peasant sympathies from the Viet Cong, both programs foundered. Building these settlements also relied heavily on peasant labor and produced much disruption of rural life, which increased village dissatisfaction with the Saigon regime. Both programs also failed to protect villagers from the Viet Cong. By contrast, one element of the strategic hamlet initiative, the Chieu Hoi (“Open Arms”) program to offer clemency to insurgents, produced positive results throughout the war. Viet Cong defectors, commonly referred to as “ralliers,” even served as “Kit Carson” scouts for U.S. forces.

In 1964, a revised pacification plan called Chien Thang (“Will to Victory”) was implemented by the South Vietnamese and their American advisers. Based on the “oil‐spot concept,” Chien Thang was intended slowly to increase areas considered pacified. Military and paramilitary units would occupy a central village for a time, clear it of Viet Cong influence, then move on to an adjacent area. Pacified areas would thus spread out from a central village like an ever‐expanding drop of oil on water. Hop Tac (“Victory”), which also began in 1964, was an effort to apply this oil‐spot philosophy to the area surrounding Saigon. Again, this program failed to live up to expectations because of poor execution and a lack of support from conventional military units.

In the aftermath of the January 1968 Tet Offensive, pacification was given renewed emphasis in U.S. policy. The efforts of many U.S. agencies that contributed to pacification were now coordinated by CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support). Created in 1967 by a Johnson administration eager to improve U.S. prosecution of the “other war” (pacification), CORDS was headed by Robert “Blowtorch” Komer, known for his determination and bureaucratic savvy. Komer's efforts at coordinating competing civilian programs with military operations yielded results. CORDS efforts to destroy the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI) by identifying and arresting clandestine cadres in southern villages produced two infamous initiatives: ICEX (infrastructure coordination and exploitation), which was started in mid‐1967 to support South Vietnamese police units; and Phoenix, which was started in 1969, to coordinate American and South Vietnamese military, intelligence, and police operations against the VCI. Although Phoenix was criticized as a thinly veiled terror and assassination program, its operations emphasized intelligence collection. Dead suspects were of no use in rolling up the VCI. After the war, Communist observers and American supporters of pacification both agreed that the Phoenix and the Chieu Hoi programs were effective, but that pacification had taken too long and had cost too much. The more important battle for the “hearts and minds” of the American public was lost long before the Communists' Great Spring Victory of 1975.

By contrast, in earlier wars American pacification efforts had twice been effective in the Philippines in the twentieth century. In the 1950s, CIA agent Edward G. Lansdale, a U.S. Air Force officer with a background in advertising, organized an effective response to a revolt of the Communist faction of the Hukbalahap (a Tagalog acronym for “People's Anti‐Japanese Army”). Working with the young and charismatic Ramon Magsaysay, who would eventually become president of the Philippines, Lansdale orchestrated a textbook pacification effort. Magsaysay launched reforms that curtailed military and landlord harassment of the peasantry; American aid was used to help satisfy the “land hunger” that motivated many Huks. When Huk leaders were rounded up in a raid of their Manila headquarters, reforms continued to reduce the economic and political concerns motivating rank‐and‐file Huks, slowly ending the insurgency.

Half a century earlier, Filipino resistance to the U.S. occupation of the archipelago following the Spanish‐American War was ended by harsher methods. After driving the Philippine Army from the field in a series of conventional battles, the U.S. Army ultimately suppressed guerrilla resistance by “concentrating” the rural population into specified areas. Destroying the guerrillas' rural food supplies and tax base, U.S. forces starved the nationalists into submission. The promise of limited self‐rule also reduced some of the political motivation behind the guerrilla movement.

Almost from the beginning of the English North American colonies, colonists and later the U.S. government pacified Native Americans, who had been weakened by a horrific demographic shock produced by the introduction of Eurasian diseases. In pre‐Revolutionary America, when European settlers and Indian nations were more evenly matched in military capability, pacification took the form of punitive expeditionary raids intended to drive Indian settlements away from areas populated by Europeans or to deny Indians the logistics needed to launch raids against colonists. Later, when westward migration, briefly interrupted by the Civil War, brought American settlers and western Indian nations into repeated conflict, the U.S. government forced Indians onto reservations and fought to keep them there, making them dependent on government subsidies. Even though the reservation policy, intended to “civilize” Native Americans, destroyed traditional lifestyles, at the time it was often depicted as a humanitarian approach to the “Indian problem.” By contrast, many settlers objected to humanitarian efforts advocated by eastern groups (e.g., Quakers) and simply called for the extermination of Native Americans.

Pacification operations conducted by loyalist forces during the American Revolutionary War were often brutal. British commanders, however, chose not to adopt a scorched‐earth policy to combat the Revolution. Many British officers believed that a deliberate policy of brutality would drive “fence‐sitters” to support the rebel cause.

Because pacification often involves the denial of economic or cultural independence to civilian populations or military intervention in the domestic politics of other nations, the policy conflicts with the political and philosophical principles that underlie American political culture. As a result, many Americans view U.S. pacification campaigns as dark chapters in the nation's history.
[See also Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans; Philippine War; Philippines, U.S. Military Involvement in the; Vietnam War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Vietnam War: Changing Interpretations.]


John Shy , A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, 1976.
Harry Summers , On Strategy, 1982.
Robert M. Utley , The Indian Frontier of the American West 1846–1890, 1984.
Andrew Krepinevich , The Army and Vietnam, 1986.
D. Michael Shafer , Deadly Paradigms: The Failure of U.S. Counterinsurgency Policy, 1988.
Glenn A. May , Battle for Batangas: A Philippine Province at War, 1991.
Harold E. Selesky , War and Society in Colonial Connecticut, 1991.
Douglas J. Macdonald , Adventures in Chaos: American Intervention for Reform in the Third World, 1992.
Tom Hatley , The Dividing Paths, Cherokees and South Carolinians Through the Era of Revolution, 1993.
Richard A. Hunt , Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam's Hearts and Minds, 1995.

James J. Wirtz

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483. Pacification

  1. Aegir sea god, stiller of storms on the ocean. [Norse Myth.: Leach, 16]
  2. Feng name taken by Odin in capacity of wave-stiller. [Norse Myth.: LLEI, I: 328]
  3. Saul and David David plays his harp to mollify King Saul. [O.T.: I Samuel 16:16, 23]

Pain (See SUFFERING .)

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"Pacification." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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