This excerpt from the last part of Chapter 23 and all of Chapter 24 addresses the heart of the issue of why we lost in Vietnam and the lessons which should have been learned from that experience as applied to Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. This was written with the intent to provide some guideposts about how to deal with such conditions in what are states still in or hopefully coming out of failure, or those as yet unknown which will present similar challenges in the future. These chapters were written in the spring of 2008 before the improved prospects in Iraq became clear and the situation significantly worsened in Afghanistan. The lessons and principles enunciated in this excerpt still apply and hopefully will provide food for thought..
Chapter 23 Tragic Aftermath -- and Why
Why We Failed in Vietnam
In an interview before his death, Gen. Maxwell Taylor concluded we had failed in Vietnam because “we didn’t know ourselves. We thought we were going into another Korean war, but this was a different country. Secondly, we didn’t know our South Vietnamese allies. We never understood them, and that was another surprise. And we knew even less about North Vietnam.” Former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, in his book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, said our decision makers were “setting policy for a region which was terra incognita.” But then he excuses the mistakes, on the ground that “our government lacked experts for us to consult to compensate for our ignorance.” He recognizes General Lansdale as one expert but dismisses him, because he “was relatively junior and lacked broad geopolitical expertise.” McNamara simply rejected advice that did not conform to his preconceptions. No set of “experts” could have overcome that obstacle.
We failed to understand the “x factor”--the political and psychological nature of the struggle for the “hearts and minds,” the feelings of the Vietnamese people. We failed to communicate with or understand the Vietnamese on a human level, often confusing increased numbers of staffers with greater influence. We underestimated the motivating power of Vietnamese nationalism, and we failed to comprehend the fanatical determination of an enemy willing to sacrifice its entire people until only the Politburo was left. We failed to comprehend the intimate connection between our actions in Vietnam and political support at home. Above all, we failed to understand that the South Vietnamese could never stand on their own unless they were able to develop a political cause as compelling as that of the communists. We thought in conventional World War II battlefield terms, when this conflict was at its heart a political one, a war of ideas and of the spirit. Within that framework, the failure lay with our leadership in Washington and on the ground. The decision makers didn’t understand how much putting the right people in charge mattered.
This did not have to happen. At critical junctures, decisions were made in a vacuum about policy and whom to send to the field, decisions that doomed the enterprise to failure. Lansdale had posed a basic question: “How does a guy go about getting policy folks to understand the nature of the problem they are trying to solve?” If the policy makers at the top didn’t listen or were unwilling to admit they didn’t know or that they might be wrong, getting them to change, even in the face of setbacks, proved impossible. Their attitude was reflected in and reinforced by optimistic progress reports that had little basis in fact.
David Halberstam aptly caught the aura of the principal Vietnam advisors and decision makers for Kennedy and Johnson. The title of his epic The Best and the Brightest expressed not only how these men were viewed but how they saw themselves. Vice President Johnson, after returning from his first cabinet meeting in 1961, extolled the brilliance of the Kennedy team to the House Speaker, Sam Rayburn: “Well, Lyndon,” Rayburn responded prophetically, “you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better . . . if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”
Top policy makers in Washington, with egos inflated by meritorious careers, had a low tolerance for different views based on firsthand experience. The standardized flow of information up through the bureaucracy, telling details strained out, was too often distorted by an optimistic patina of progress. This was particularly true from the last half of 1963 through 1968, when we radically changed the course of the war and embarked on a path from which we could not walk back.
Our leaders in Washington and Saigon thought that they knew enough, from their personal experience in a context unrelated to Vietnamese reality, simply to issue prescriptions for Vietnamese problems they didn’t understand. It was as if the top levels of officialdom were in thrall to a self-induced image of a mythical country that was hardly ever the real Vietnam, comfortable with the illusion that remedies coming from their self-contained bubbles would result in positive events on the ground. There was also underestimation of, and in some quarters even contempt for, Asians, the Vietnamese in particular. Too often this tendency played a role in our treating them as less than equal, undermining our assessments of Vietnamese capabilities and negating consideration of their concerns.
President Kennedy at least understood that the Vietnamese had to win the struggle themselves and had previously rejected any direct American troop involvement. Particularly poignant and certainly prophetic were the concerns he dictated in the Oval Office about Diem’s assassination and the future, about the generals’ ability to “stay together and build a stable government,” about the possibility that public opinion would “turn on this new government as oppressive and undemocratic.” He had been stymied at a critical juncture by his own bureaucracy and domestic political concerns; perhaps he might have seen his way around that institutional blockage had he lived. He most certainly would have been highly skeptical that we could win the war on our own, with little reference to the Vietnamese.
President Johnson’s practical political instincts deserted him on Vietnam. While challenging his advisors, the same top-level team that had gotten Kennedy into trouble, he was unwilling to seek informed alternative sources. He distrusted Lodge, thought he had been wrong about the coup against Diem, yet sent him back as ambassador. He bought the notions that we had to find a Vietnamese leader and just back him, that security was separate from the need for a popular base for government. His lack of experience in foreign affairs and military matters caused him to rely too heavily on McNamara and Westmoreland. McNamara, able to muster logical-sounding arguments buttressed with facts and figures, overwhelmed less tangible counter-arguments and persuaded almost everyone that he knew what he was talking about. By the time Johnson realized he did not, it was too late.
Absolutely fatal was the failure to explain openly and honestly to the American people what the war was about and what we were trying to achieve. Our lack of understanding and miscalculations at the top led us to justify a massive commitment of American troops as the best way to achieve a quick military victory. When victory failed to materialize and stalemate seemed to set in, public support was lost. The image of American boys sacrificing their lives while, it seemed, the South Vietnamese were profiteers, refusing to fight, was corrosive. Our complicity in creating this situation by failing to mitigate the adverse impact of our overwhelming presence on the cohesion of Vietnamese society was easy to overlook.
News of villages resisting the Vietcong and of South Vietnamese troops fighting and losing their lives at a much greater rate than ours became muted background noise. The moral cause of helping the South Vietnamese defend themselves against the imposition of an alien and repressive doctrine dressed up as Vietnamese nationalism became confused. The American public took the conduct of the war, from bombing Vietnamese civilians to the My Lai massacre, as evidence that we were destroying the people we were supposed to help. Too often we amplified the image of the Vietnamese on our side as inconsequential. Instead of building them up, we tore them down.
What some were doing in Vietnam, particularly during the early Rural Affairs days, was work grounded in reality, supporting grassroots political, social, and economic development. Rural Affairs proved that part of the job could be done in a nonbureaucratic and effective way at the local level, but then rampant American bureaucracy, compounded by inept leadership, stepped in. Attempts to get Americans working together as a team degenerated into petty squabbles, until a truly combined rural reconstruction and security effort (that is, CORDS) came along--which did good work but whose massiveness overstimulated dependency. One experienced U.S. observer estimated that Vietnamese officials were obliged to spend half their time dealing with the Americans, leaving them little opportunity to do their own jobs. By that time, while it was not too late to support effective pacification, it was too late to affect American public opinion. The South Vietnamese could not ultimately sustain themselves unless political reform and true self-governance prevailed at the top while also working its way up from the bottom. We were unwilling to risk the uncertainty inherent in supporting a more democratic political approach and opted instead for a false sense of stability tied to sustaining the political status quo.
Whether the South Vietnamese could have hung on after our withdrawal with all-out logistical and air as well as advisory support from us is an open question. It would have given them a better chance to survive in the short run, but in the long run they still needed to accomplish the democratic reforms necessary to unify their society and to develop a political cause capable of challenging the communists.
Chapter 24 Beyond Vietnam: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Future
To old Vietnam hands, the occupation of Iraq in 2003, accompanied by the rise of the insurgency there, was a bad movie from the past. Our failure to understand the Iraqis or the genesis of the insurgency there--even that there was an insurgency--was a plotline much too familiar. The periodic pronouncements of “progress” brought back memories of Vietnam-era declarations of light at the end of the tunnel and victory around the corner. Overconfident self-deception was again loose in Washington.
From the enclave of administration leadership in Washington to the Green Zone in Iraq, an eerie resemblance exists with the way decisions were made and actions were taken during Vietnam, except that the removal from reality seems even greater this time. Big thinkers and high officials in Washington or in isolation in Baghdad believed we could conceive the desired end result, then direct the Iraqis to make it work. During the occupation, it was easy to picture Ambassador Paul Bremer’s more realistic advisors coming out of Green Zone meetings thinking, like Lansdale in Saigon in 1965–68, that whatever country had been discussed it sure as hell wasn’t Iraq. Hubris, ignorance, and political insensitivity reigned even more supreme than in Vietnam.
Failing in Iraq and Afghanistan
Critics claim that our Vietnam experience is not applicable to Iraq, citing differences of history, culture, temperament, religion, religious rivalry, and ethnic division. They also point out differences between an insurgency in South Vietnam strongly supported with troops and weapons by North Vietnam, and an insurgency in Iraq with much less outside support but compounded by sectarian and ethnic divides. In fact, the widespread use of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers to drive us out, sowing societal chaos and promoting sectarianism, did not exist in Vietnam. But these are tactical considerations. Some anarchy was inevitable, given Iraq’s history, but a case can be made that our early moves had a lot to do with promoting it.
As the appointment of Lodge and Taylor undermined South Vietnamese political possibilities, so the arrival of Ambassador Bremer and the Washington-Baghdad Green Zone mindset undermined a successful transition to a functioning Iraqi self-government. Disbanding the Iraqi army on masse with no postwar employment, the wholesale firing of Baathist government employees (who had been forced to join Hussein’s party to hang on to their jobs), and failure to keep state-owned factories operating provided fertile ground for insurgent recruitment. Bremer’s time-consuming insistence on a complicated caucus system versus elections for a constituent assembly, over the opposition of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, aroused suspicions that we intended to maintain control. This helped create a political vacuum, into which the Sunni insurgency and the Shiite militias grew.
Overarching in both Vietnam and Iraq was hubris at the top, combined with an unwillingness to listen to alternative views or to understand the enemy, the local people on our side, or our own limitations and capabilities. In Vietnam we were arrogant and largely ignorant about the country for too long, believing we, and not the South Vietnamese, could win the war. We followed a similar view in Iraq. It was up to us to put down the insurgency and write the political script for the Iraqis, who would then graduate into a secure and full-blown democracy. The ghost of the great Washington-Saigon disconnect returned to haunt us in the form of an even greater disconnect between Washington and Baghdad.
Hauntingly similar to Vietnam is the way we dealt with the insurgency during our first four years in Iraq. We started with a handicap, in that our troops were too few in number and had no coherent security mission. Then we wasted a year without training any substantial Iraqi forces while failing to recognize the insurgency, which we further inflamed by a blind “kick the door down” approach, all of this helping precipitate Abu Ghraib. After the invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, we were going to provide security ourselves, à la Westmoreland. This ignored the cardinal counterinsurgency rule--you can’t do it for them, they have to do it themselves.,As General Abrams put it in 1971, “There’s very clear evidence . . . in some things, that we helped too much. And we retarded the Vietnamese by doing it. . . . We can’t run this thing. . . . They’ve got to run it. The nearer we get to that the better off they are and the better off we are.” Once training of the Iraqi army started, we concentrated on turning out numbers, paying insufficient attention to who they were, how their units were integrated, how they were going to operate and be led, and what they thought they were fighting for.
In dealing with American public opinion too, the Vietnam era has repeated itself. By combining the Johnson administration’s failure to reach out with Nixon’s secrecy and divisiveness, the George W. Bush administration created the worst of both. Bureaucratic infighting reached such a peak that the principals seemed to prefer fighting each to confronting real enemies in the field. The confidence of the American people was lost, to such an extent that it may not be restorable within a time frame that might sustain the current counterinsurgency approach. It would be ironic, indeed tragic, if the first-rate team we finally assigned to Iraq, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, turns out to have arrived too late, as was the case with Ambassador Bunker and General Abrams in Vietnam.
Whatever may happen in Iraq, however, there is still Afghanistan, which we have thus far aided mainly on the cheap. There the struggle to overcome a failed state and an impoverished country continues under resurgent Taliban pressure upon a still-fledgling government trying to do right by its people but afflicted with all the ills to which such governments are subject. The notion that we are going to kill enough Taliban to win the war still seems strong, although there are signs a broad counterinsurgency approach may be taking hold. In the meantime, the miniscule Afghan army and police are being “ramped up.” presumably with effective counterinsurgency training and advisory support, but local citizens must be enlisted in defending their own communities if security is to hold. Making the situation more difficult, in a way similar to Vietnam, is the Taliban’s cross-border sanctuary in Pakistan.
We have demonstrated in Afghanistan the same self-centered tendency as we have in Iraq to think we can impose a made-in-Washington solution on someone else’s country without adequately taking into account the state of mind and history of its peoples. Having made mistakes, we have compounded them by not dealing frankly with the American public about exactly where we went wrong and why, by not appealing for public understanding on the basis of a frank and rational explanation of what we can realistically achieve. Talking at, instead of with, the public about “democracy” and “staying the course,” as against “cutting and running,” has proven no more effective than calls for “maintaining U.S. credibility” and “peace with honor” were in Vietnam.
What Should Be Done<
We are in for a long struggle to overcome the threat of radical Islamic extremism, whose virulence may take a generation to subside. The Iraq war may be one of a kind in its scale and in terms of how it got started, but we face a similar challenge in Afghanistan, and there are likely others to come. As with the Cold War, this different kind of war is at its heart an ideological, political, and psychological challenge. We cannot protect the American people by ducking this challenge and assuming it will just fade away if we change presidents. We must face it not with fear but with self-confidence that we, in conjunction with other rational and decent nations and their peoples, will prevail. Our heritage calls us not to retreat within ourselves into a homeland-security crouch but to look beyond our borders for opportunities for joint efforts to preserve and enhance mankind’s better aspirations.
As a priority, we must reestablish our moral authority with policies and actions that reflect our best traditions, adhere to international law. and show “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” to quote our Declaration of Independence. We will not prevail if we continue to respond primarily with weapons and money. They will not ultimately determine success--people will. We can only do this job with the willing help of other nations and peoples, and we must recognize that interdependency. We must be practical in our actions and modest about our achievements, and moreover, we must stand for something beyond our personal well-being and be willing to sacrifice for it more widely.
On Iraq, as war weariness affects us, should we not ask ourselves what we owe the Iraqi people for having occupied their country and helped precipitate the chaos? Do we not at least owe them some time (not an infinite amount) to pull themselves together? Is this not a commitment inherent in our having assumed the responsibility of an occupying power, however dubious the route followed to get there? In our inevitably reduced future role in Iraq, will we have gotten a security force on its feet through training and mentoring, not only combat effective but capable of self-sustainment without our logistical and air support? Or are we going to cut future assistance radically, as we did in Vietnam in 1974?
Those who think that precipitously pulling out of Iraq is going to enhance our prestige elsewhere, particularly in the Arab world, don’t understand that constancy under difficult circumstances will be read as trustworthiness on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide. There a satisfactory outcome depends in part on the reliability of the interlocutor. It will call for long-run engagement on our part, probably with peacekeeping troops on the ground, to make a two-state solution work.
Principles and Precepts
What, then, can we take as most relevant from our Vietnam experience and thus far from Iraq and Afghanistan? Certainly we have been taught that to maintain the support of the American public and that of allies, the government needs to live up to its goals, not undermine them by the means it chooses. We must assert and maintain our basic principles as Americans in whatever we do to help others defend and build their countries, whether it involves combat operations against terrorist groups or not. Instead of what we did at Guantanamo and allowed to happen at Abu Ghraib, we should be guided by rules we laid down in 1903 for the Philippine Constabulary, the national police force created at that time to maintain law and order in the face of an insurrection. Not only was the constabulary to comply with American justice rules of evidence, but “any member . . . who whips, maltreats, abuses . . . or tortures by the so-called ‘water cure’ [the waterboarding of the time], or otherwise any native of the Philippine Islands, or causes [such actions] is subject to imprisonment not to exceed five years, a fine . . . and a dishonorable discharge.”
Such precepts enunciated over a hundred years ago are even more valid today. What may appear expedient can be fundamentally flawed when not thought through and made consistent with our beliefs, as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have demonstrated. There are no shortcuts in this kind of struggle. The American public will not sustain misbehavior in the handling of prisoners or the abuse of civilians in Iraq or elsewhere, any more than they sustained My Lai in Vietnam. Without public backing no nation-building effort can be supported long enough to be effective, particularly when our own troops are at risk.
Some think that being successful at nation building and counterinsurgency is mainly a matter of adopting “good” policies. Certainly good policy sets the right framework, but more crucial is implementation on the ground. There we are badly lacking. Helping others to build responsible self-government with popular roots where there is little experience or tradition to sustain it means helping build effective institutions and civil society. This is very difficult and requires patience and time, as well as perseverance. We tend to look for “silver bullet” answers or to overwhelm the problem with top-heavy bureaucratic agencies isolated from and often disdainful of the people we are supposed to help--thus putting Parkinson’s Law to work with a vengeance. One thinks of the Baghdad Green Zone and our new $750 million embassy compound the size of ten football fields for thousands of Americans, too many of whom will essentially be passing paper to each other.
Success in helping others build a nation under stress, under internal attack, depends mainly on human contact and understanding and the use of imagination and intelligence rather than simple brute force. Good personal relations are crucial. One key advisor can be worth more than several combat brigades. Personal intent, motivation, imagination, and the ability to build trust in those we are trying to advise counts for practically everything, particularly in the unhinged environment in which this kind of work takes place; willingness and ability to listen to and understand those we are trying to help is essential. Back in 1901, President William McKinley instructed Americans in the Philippines to treat the local people “with the same courtesy and respect for their personal dignity which the people of the United States are accustomed to require from each other.” Following that rule engenders friendship and trust. Breaking it creates distrust and resistance in the people we are trying to help and backfires with our own public. That this rule, along with civilized treatment of the Filipino insurrectionists, was not always followed in practice back then does not vitiate the principle underlying it.
Counterinsurgency effectiveness comes down to understanding the “x factor,” acknowledging that the ultimate contest is not for physical terrain on the conventional battlefield but for the feelings of the civilian population, without whose support, or at least acquiescence, insurgencies cannot prosper. In Iraq we were guided instead, early on, by the nostrum that the only thing the Iraqis respected was force. A different set of rules should have been followed. The first of these, applying to the political, economic and military aspects of counterinsurgency-cum–nation building, is that we cannot do this job ourselves, only the local people can. This makes us chafe, since it puts the outcome ultimately in the hands of local leaders whom we do not control. However, we can influence them wisely, provided we understand what and how to advise. At all times we should adhere to Lawrence of Arabia’s prescription, “Better your allies do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are [there] to help them, not to win it for them.”
Winning the support of the people as the only sure way to win the war is an equally important concept. This means: “So long as actions taken in the war contribute to winning the people, they contribute to winning the war.” Conversely, “when they do not contribute to winning the people, they contribute to losing the war.” The successful way is “winning the people first, winning the war second.” This is difficult stuff and against normal combat instincts. The usual rules of force protection--fire back reflexively if fired upon, no matter the surroundings--have to be changed and the changes enforced. Counterinsurgency cannot succeed if your principal object is to kill insurgents by whatever means available, particularly by using airpower and artillery against suspected insurgent locations that also harbor civilians. The confusion of means with ends was particularly prevalent in Vietnam, with our “search and destroy” operations. The killing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan by air strikes comes at a significant cost, as neither the Iraqis nor the Afghans accept our attempting to transfer the blame to the enemy for “hiding” among women and children. We must severely constrain these strike tactics.
The Right People
Our Vietnam, and now the Iraq and Afghanistan, experience tell us that we must be much more selective about the people, military and civilian, we send abroad to engage in counterinsurgency and nation building, particularly in an environment full of civil strife and political turmoil. Nation building is hard, and we must provide particularly effective people. Needed are committed volunteers who genuinely believe in helping others. Particularly needed is the right field commander. That person must be able to listen to, understand, and communicate with others whose ways of thinking may be quite different. Such persons must not be assigned on the basis of past political, administrative, or even military accomplishments largely unrelated to the complicated task at hand. Counterinsurgency combined with nation building is distinctly not a job for conventional civilian administrators or military commanders who, however much at home elsewhere in government or the armed forces, are fish out of water in revolutionary environments that place a premium on individual initiative, political sensitivity, and willingness to take reasonable risks. Even less is it a task for large bureaucracies.
Those at the very top of our government, particularly the president, must begin to understand that they cannot rely exclusively on a narrow circle of like-thinking advisors, particularly those lacking in practical field experience. Informal means should be used to reach periodically down to the working level, to get a realistic picture of actual conditions on the ground in countries we are assisting. Dissent, if based on facts and firsthand knowledge, must be listened to and evaluated. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reaction to Gen. George Marshall’s dissenting views in a meeting at the White House before World War II, when Marshall was only the deputy chief of staff of the army, should be remembered. Roosevelt was so impressed by Marshall’s courage in speaking out and the intelligence of his arguments that he appointed him chief of staff.
While we no longer have a Lansdale with us, we do have his ideas and his approach, as well as more contemporaneous contributions from others, all valuable guidance, and we have other assets not available during his time. One of those is our recognition of the importance of human rights and the need to promote democracy as the only long-range answer to our own security. Another is the existence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the National Endowment for Democracy, and the Republican and Democratic Institutes under that umbrella, specifically devoted to helping develop democratic institutions in other countries. There are other American NGOs devoted to grassroots development and peacemaking, that, if given space to operate and tacit endorsement, can sometimes do what our officials could not even if they were freer from existing bureaucratic hindrances. NGOs can be particularly helpful in countries where incipient descent into chaos needs to be headed off.
Changing Organization and Direction
Our armed forces are adapting themselves to the challenge of “asymmetrical warfare,” but they cannot carry this burden alone. Their combat-driven conversion to counterinsurgency needs to be matched on the civilian side. Specifically, a currently understaffed State Department needs to go to war, beefing itself up to undertake political advisory efforts and participating in joint civil/military counterinsurgency and nation-building efforts beyond traditional diplomacy. The Agency for International Development (AID) needs to change radically to play an effective economic and social development role. The post–Cold War de-emphasis of the mission of the U.S. Information Agency should be reconsidered, as we gear up for another ideological contest. Islamic extremism can be defeated over the long run only by change within Islam itself, but we can do a much better job of supporting and fomenting moderation with a fully funded and more focused effort, as we did during the Cold War.
More needs to be done within the armed forces to speed up the preparation of soldiers capable of training and mentoring indigenous forces to combat insurgencies effectively.. Particularly needed within the U.S. Army is an advisory corps, where such service can be pursued as a career, recognized on an equal basis with traditional combat specialties like the infantry and artillery. Advisory tours should not be arbitrarily limited; also, substantial overlap by replacements is necessary if advisors are to be effective. Additional compensation may be needed, in terms of premium pay as compensation for longer rotation periods.
The proactive spirit that existed in the Foreign Service in Vietnam needs renewal. Civilian participation should be expanded in provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, and these teams need greater coherence in what should be their primary mission: promoting local security, self-development, and self-government.. To stimulate the needed level of commitment, civilian service in counterinsurgency should be both voluntary and specially recognized. Cross training in counterinsurgency with special emphasis on its political and social side is needed, as well as area and language training.
AID currently relies mainly on subcontractors, often unsuited for provincial reconstruction or development work, while its senior levels lack experience and orientation in that direction. AID should be reorganized with a fresh set of rules, more dynamic leadership, and much greater flexibility to provide agricultural and other technical volunteers for decentralized rural development. Finally, the CIA needs to get back into political action as a team effort, but with a positive orientation, not just buying support.
Current nation building–cum-counterinsurgency efforts are still being implemented through separate agencies, often at odds with each other, while Washington fiddles. Radical restructuring at the highest level to carry out effective, combined counterinsurgency and nation building where it is needed, in a limited number of countries, seems necessary. A new organization with a relatively small staff could be set up directly under the president and supervised by the national security advisor, with the mission of coordinating support for such activities, with a direct line of command to combined missions in the field. In organizing and operating such combined field missions, the CORDS experience in Vietnam is highly relevant (albeit with a lighter footprint). If this is adopted, Congress must be involved on a cooperative basis, making special provision for oversight. Funding procedures should be taken out of normal bureaucratic channels, to facilitate timeliness and on-the-spot relevance. We must cut through the bureaucratic swamp now impeding support from Washington. The Bush administration made a start by appointing a White House coordinator for Iraq and Afghanistan, but that is not sufficient.<
We are likely engaged in a long and patience-testing struggle. We can accomplish nothing without the support of the American people. The executive branch must take the American people and their representatives, the Congress, into its confidence from the beginning. Concern about revealing our general intentions to our enemies must not be allowed to trump keeping the American people informed and involved through dialogue, not dictation or exaggeration, which only backfires. This calls for honesty and transparency in explaining what we are doing and why, and how tough it is, in terms the public can understand. It also means frankly acknowledging setbacks and difficulties, and talking with the American people, not at them. Congress has to be involved every step of the way to build bipartisan support; otherwise, trust is likely to be undermined no matter how noble the original cause. We need to develop public support for the long haul.
To work successfully in direct support of others whose history and culture are different from ours, our attitude needs to be the antithesis of hubris; it needs to be something best expressed by the old saying, “May God give us the grace to see ourselves as others see us.” Do those ultimately responsible for building their own nation see us as friends--yes, even as brothers--who share their aspirations or as arrogant strangers trying to impose our ways? Are we perceived as primarily interested in furthering our own ends or as genuinely interested in the well-being of those we are trying to help? We are dealing with fellow human beings, not abstractions, no matter how different in appearance, religion, customs, and culture--never inanimate objects to be treated with disrespect and moved around a geopolitical chess board without human consideration.
Because of our native optimism, democratic ideals, and lack of cynicism, we Americans, and our nation as a whole, are better suited than we may now believe to the challenges we face in becoming involved in other countries under difficult circumstances. Because we have been so successful in the past as a nation, however, we cannot let feelings of innate superiority blind us or allow our predilection for bureaucracy strangle us. We must be very selective in finding, deploying, and wisely supporting capable individuals in the field while keeping the careerists, the time servers, and above all, large bureaucracies, at home.
Excerpt Two: Chapter 13: Meeting with The President
(Background: The author had come back to Washington on September 9, 1963, because his father was seriously ill. That evening he had been told he should attend a meeting the next day at the White House to discuss South Vietnam which was in deep political crisis because of a Buddhist led political rebellion against the Diem government. President Kennedy had sent Major General Krulak from the Pentagon and Mendenhall from the State Department out to Vietnam to assess the situation and they were back to report.} This excerpt is taken from Chapter 13 entitled Meeting President Kennedy
About 9:45 on September 10, Hilsman [State Department Assistant Secretary for the Far East] and I walked over to the White House and got to the cabinet room about 10:15. Forrestal [Michael Forrestal from the NSC staff] was already there; he advised me to speak only if requested. Others began filing in. I recognized Dean Rusk, Secretary McNamara, and Gen. Maxwell Taylor, all of whom took a seat on one side of the long table that dominated the room. McNamara and Rusk left open a seat between them that I assumed was for the president. Just behind the president’s chair was McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security advisor. Also there were Director Bell from AID, Edward R. Murrow from USIA, and John McCone, Director of Central Intelligence. I was seated in the back row of chairs, away from the table, along with John Mecklin [Chief of USIS/Saigon]. Hilsman and Forrestal were in front of us, while Krulak and Mendenhall were seated at the table across from McNamara and Rusk. Robert Kennedy did not arrive at all. Promptly at 10:30 President Kennedy walked in, flashed a smile, and sat down. It was my first chance to see him up close. He exuded self-confidence and charisma as he nodded at Krulak and said, “Please proceed.”
Krulak spoke first, explaining with an air of optimism that he had visited all four of the corps regions, meeting American military advisors in each, as well as lower-ranking officers and noncoms on advisory teams. In each corps area, a representative group had been assembled for him to interview, some eighty-seven Americans in all. He claimed to have also talked to twenty-seven Vietnamese officers, as well as to General Harkins and his staff. He had found that the shooting war was still going ahead at an impressive pace. It had been adversely affected by the crisis, but the impact was not great. Most Vietnamese officers viewed the Buddhist issue with detachment. There was some dissatisfaction among the officers, but it was focused more on Nhu [President Diem’s brother] than on Diem. Nhu’s departure would be hailed, but few would extend their necks to bring it about. The war against the VC would be won if current American programs were pursued, whatever the defects of the regime.
All this was presented with an air of absolute certainty. None of it reflected the actual situation in the Delta. Krulak seemed utterly convinced he had accurately divined the thinking of the Vietnamese officers he had talked to, not realizing that they would never reveal their true thoughts to a high-ranking American whom they did not know personally, certainly never openly in front of other Vietnamese officers.
Then Mendenhall spoke. He had been to Hue and Danang, as well as Saigon, and had spoken to Vietnamese whom he had known before, both in and outside the government. In Saigon he had found a virtual breakdown in civil government and a pervasive atmosphere of hate. “The war against the Vietcong had become secondary to the war against the regime,” he said. He had found a similar atmosphere of hate in Hue and Danang. The Vietcong had made recent advances in two provinces in the center, where Buddhist agitation had extended into the countryside, and there were reports of villagers in one province opting for the VC. Students in Hue and Saigon were talking about the VC as an alternative to the regime. His conclusion was that the war against the VC could not be won if Nhu remained in Vietnam. (I thought I heard him say Diem too, not just Nhu.) The picture painted by Mendenhall was dire in the extreme. South Vietnam was literally falling apart.
“The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?” President Kennedy asked, so different were the two presentations. This provoked a laugh and then a stunned silence. Neither had it right. Mendenhall had painted an exaggerated picture of imminent collapse. Krulak was equally as far off the mark. When no one commented, Hilsman spoke up, saying this was the difference between a military and a political point of view. Krulak suggested that the difference was that Mendenhall was reporting on urban attitudes, while he himself was reporting on “national attitudes.” The clear implication was that in going to the countryside, he, Krulak, had gone where the real war was, while Mendenhall had only visited the cities. Nolting pitched in, reminding Mendenhall that in 1961 he had made the same prediction of government paralysis and consequent defeat by the Vietcong, which had not happened. McGeorge Bundy pointed out dryly that in 1961 we had overcome paralysis by strengthening the government’s effort against the Vietcong; how could we strengthen a government that was causing its own paralysis?
Neither Krulak or Mendenhall had communicated the complexities of South Vietnam. Nor had they captured the nature of the insurgency--mainly a political struggle for the loyalty and support of the rural population. This was the other war, the real war. I was particularly upset at Krulak’s report because I had just been in Long An Province, in the Delta. To generate the will to resist the Vietcong and to win the population’s support, the hamlets had to provide security as well as improve the population’s well-being. Most hamlets could defend themselves against local Vietcong squad- and platoon-sized attacks, but not against main-force assaults. That was the Vietnamese army’s job, and it was not being done, particularly in most of the Delta, and certainly not in Long An. Tangible improvements in schools, wells, and crops were happening, but these alone were not enough.
Politically, I understood the thinking of many key Vietnamese who were not “palace intriguers” but Diem supporters who had become disillusioned over Nhu. Because of Lodge, and at his request, I had become involved with the coup conspirators and given them assurances of American support. What I knew, however, of Vietnam had convinced me that though Nhu had to go, Diem had to be saved. It was still possible, but this seemed the last chance.
Suddenly, I heard Forrestal’s voice: “Mr. President, we have with us Rufus Phillips, who is in charge of the Rural Affairs program in South Vietnam, as you know. I think you ought to hear his views.” Kennedy nodded, “Yes, by all means.” I was ushered to a chair at the table, and Kennedy gave me a warm smile, which encouraged me. Whirling through my mind were two thoughts: “I owe him the truth as I see it,” and a question--“How can I tell him what I know about South Vietnam in a few minutes?”
“Mr. President,” I began, “I have known South Vietnam since l954 and have close personal relationships with many Vietnamese in and out of the government and know President Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. The problem is Nhu. He has lost the respect of the majority of the civilian and military leadership, who would change the government if they saw an alternative. The opinions of the Buddhist leadership, which are violently anti-Diem, are not representative, but there is a general crisis of confidence in the regime, shared by civilian and army leaders alike.” At this point, McNamara started shaking his head sideways, a gesture he continued throughout my presentation.
I went on to say that our own military advisors were not an accurate source of political information. They were under a directive not to talk politics with their Vietnamese counterparts, and the Vietnamese knew it. It was only with old American friends that they would discuss such matters. General Krulak interjected at this point that the advisors were not good on politics or palace intrigue, but were good on whether the war was being won or not, and they said the war was going well.
I continued, “I have spoken with many Vietnamese political and military leaders, such as Secretary of Defense Nguyen Dinh Thuan, President Diem’s secretary, Vo Van Hai, General Le Van Kim of the General Staff, and Colonel Hoang Van Lac, who heads the Strategic Hamlet Program. Thuan, the most powerful man in the Diem government after Diem and Nhu, thinks Nhu must leave the country or there will be chaos. He says security is deteriorating; the government is now losing the war in the Delta. Most Vietnamese would like to see Diem remain, but they are unalterably opposed to the Nhus. Thuan feels America must act to show it does not support Nhu. We cannot continue to ignore Nhu’s actions at the cost of losing Vietnamese respect and support.”
The president said he recalled making a number of public statements condemning Vietnamese government actions. I said we had criticized the government before, but what the Vietnamese were looking for was concrete action illustrating the U.S. position. “What is needed,” I stated, “is a campaign to isolate Nhu and get him out of the country. The campaign needs a campaign manager. Most Vietnamese would like to see Diem remain but are unalterably opposed to the Nhus. We cannot win the war if the Nhus remain. This is the opinion of Secretary Thuan, Colonel Lac, head of the Strategic Hamlet Program, and many others. We need a person to guide and direct a program to isolate the Nhus and to convince the government and the people that the U.S. will not support a government with Nhu in it. That man is General Lansdale. Ambassador Lodge agrees that Lansdale should come back. If it doesn’t work, no one would be more qualified to help put together a new government. I recommend you send him there as soon as possible.” The president took notes while I spoke. When I finished, he said, “Mr. Phillips, I want to thank you for your remarks, particularly for your recommendation concerning General Lansdale.” He indicated I should remain at the table.
The president then asked for my specific recommendations for dealing with Nhu. I suggested we cut off CIA aid to Colonel Tung’s Special Forces, which had raided the pagodas, and that USIS stop producing films laudatory of Nhu. We should make it clear that Nhu was the target of our actions. This would isolate him and produce a psychological squeeze for his removal. President Kennedy asked, “What about the possibility that that Nhu’s response would be to withdraw funds from the war and the field to Saigon, charging that the U.S. was causing them to lose the war?” I said the army would not stand for this. “If worse came to worse, we could take our piasters out to the provinces in suitcases. We started the Strategic Hamlet Program that way; we could finish it that way.”
“What do you think of the military situation?” the president asked. “I am sorry to have to tell you, Mr. President,” I replied, “but we are not winning the war, particularly in the Delta. The first, second and third corps areas are okay, but the war effort in the fourth corps, the Delta area south of Saigon, is beginning to go to pieces. I was just in Long An Province, where within the past few weeks the Vietcong destroyed fifty strategic hamlets, forcing the inhabitants to cut the barbed-wire defenses and take the roofs off their houses. ARVN troops, who were supposed to be defending the hamlets, were confined to quarters for fear they might be used for a coup.” Hilsman asked if security had started deteriorating in the Delta before August 20 (the cataclysmic day of the raid on the Buddhist pagodas). I said it had.
Krulak interjected, “Mr. Phillips is putting his views over those of General Harkins, and as between Mr. Phillips and General Harkins, I would take General Harkins’s assessment. The fourth corps is the most difficult, but we hope to drive the Vietcong into this area to compress them so they can be destroyed. The war is not being lost militarily.” My God, I thought to myself, Krulak must have gone to the moon--but the moment was too serious to laugh at the absurdity of a Vietcong “human cattle drive” into the Delta!
Secretary Rusk asked if I could explain the totally different stories coming from my last meeting with Secretary Thuan and Harkins’ meeting with Thuan the following day. I said Thuan had been frank with me, because we were friends, but he didn’t know General Harkins personally and would say what he thought the general wanted to hear. Rusk then asked what I thought of Colonel Thompson’s (the British senior advisor in Saigon) idea that the Vietcong might be turning to the cities. I said I didn’t think so--there was too much activity in the Delta. “The strategic hamlets are not being adequately protected, they are being overrun. Furthermore, this is not a military, but a political war. It is a war for men’s minds more than a war against the Vietcong, and it’s being lost.”
John Mecklin, the USIS director in Saigon, spoke next. He said he shared my views and the recommendation about Lansdale, though he felt I hadn’t gone far enough. He thought we should directly deploy American forces in South Vietnam to support the war effort. At this point the meeting broke into an uproar, General Taylor, vehemently saying, “No, no, under no circumstances!” I was stunned by Mecklin’s proposal. I could not figure out where he got the idea. It diverted attention from the real problem, which was dealing realistically with the Nhus. McCone, in his turn, argued the Vietnamese military could work with Nhu and that the situation was not as ominous as reported. Harriman said the situation was obviously coming apart and that we could not continue with Diem.
There was no consensus. The complete split in the Kennedy administration and some of the anger and bitterness it was provoking was patently clear. The president said he was disturbed at the tendency in both Washington and Saigon to fight our internal battles in the newspapers. He quoted some recent stories reflecting the differences between the State and Defense departments; he wanted such disputes fought out at this table, not indirectly. He asked the group to meet again the next day. As I left the meeting, the director of AID, David Bell, put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Thanks for telling it as you see it.”
(The Aftermath: I thought my recommendation to President Kennedy about sending Lansdale might be a real turning point. Unfortunately, bureaucratic opposition was too strong, Lansdale was never sent and the crisis continued eventually culminating in an American encouraged coup against President Diem on 1 November 1963, which resulted in Diem being killed.}