Q&A with Rufus Phillips

What happened when you told President Kennedy the truth about failures in Vietnam?

David Halberstam described it in his book The Best and the Brightest as:

. . . a remarkable moment in the American bureaucracy, a moment of intellectual honesty.”

I met with President Kennedy September 10, 1963, at a critical time, when he was trying to determine whether his administration should support a coup against President Diem in Vietnam as recommended by Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge.

I had just returned from Vietnam when I was called into a meeting with President Kennedy. Contrary to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who shook his head the entire time I was talking, I told the president we were not winning the war in the Vietnam Delta and that the solution was not a coup against Diem; we needed to use our influence to get President Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu out of the country.

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.

The sharp divisions, bureaucratic rivalries, and towering egos of the top officials in that room had stunned me. They all seemed so sure of themselves. The president was the only one who seemed genuinely interested in what was really going on in Vietnam. Despite the confusion and lack of understanding, however, I was encouraged. Kennedy had taken notes only when I had spoken. Maybe he would cut through the bureaucracy and act decisively despite McNamara’s clear opposition to what I had said.

For bureaucratic reasons my recommendations were ignored, the coup happened, Diem was murdered and the country spun out of control politically.

What advice do you have for the new president, taking office January 20, 2009?

A nation at war voted for a new president to take over a failing Vietnam. At Vice President Humphrey’s request, you helped develop a policy paper for the new president. What would you advise the new president to say right after this current election?

The new Nixon administration took essentially the same bureaucratic approach as Johnson. South Vietnamese political development took a back seat, as did effective outreach to the American public—who would continue to be told, not engaged. The emphasis was on smoke and mirrors at the Paris peace talks, on maintaining South Vietnamese political stability as an end in itself, and on improving security in South Vietnam. Despite Nixon’s knowledge of his expertise, the single person most knowledgeable about the problem, General Lansdale, was never asked for an opinion.

Iraq and Afghanistan are different situations. I would advise the new president to forgo the campaign rhetoric and get an honest first-hand appraisal of the situation in each country in all its ramifications, military, political and psychological, from people with recent on-the-ground experience. He should weigh that advice in with advice from his senior advisors, then he should tell the American people and the Congress how he sees the situation in a frank

and open manner. We must never be seen as being deceptive about the risks as well as the potential rewards.

He should stress that both situations are very difficult with uncertain outcomes. Iraq is still very fragile. Everything depends on real progress, with the Shia-dominated central government incorporating the Sunnis into the government and the security forces, so that the “Sons of Iraq,” who came over to our side in Anbar Province and in Baghdad, do not again go out in dissidence. He must condition our assistance to the Iraqis on that proposition. Our combat troops will be drawn down, but residual “watch over” advisory and logistical and air support responsibilities are likely to remain for several years until the Iraqi’s can handle that themselves.

Provincial elections that are free of central government manipulation are a must, as are national elections by the end of 2009, with the full participation of all ethnic and religious groups. Above all, this is a political struggle and only the Iraqis can finally settle it. We must be prepared for setbacks as well as progress. The outcome will not be a victory in the commonly understood sense of the word, but—hopefully—a relatively stable country whose government is reasonably reflective of the combined will of its people (even if it is not the full-blown democracy envisaged by those who got us into Iraq).

As for Afghanistan, we have essentially wasted the last seven years, except for some progress close to Kabul and in the northern part of the country. This is going to be a very long struggle. More troops will help, but they are not the answer. Of critical importance is a much larger Afghan army and police, with the United States and NATO as trainers, advisors and partners, and the creation of locally recruited self-defense forces.

In the meantime, the bombing of Afghan villages must be stopped as it is creating more Taliban than we are killing. At the same time, the Afghan government must be reformed from top to bottom, and blatant corruption eliminated. Our aid to the government must be conditioned on that. Until that is accomplished, we should seek to decentralize economic aid to the provinces and begin building security from the ground up, by helping develop local government institutions and village self defense as we finally began when General Petraeus took command in Iraq.

Above all, we must stop alienating the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country, who occupy most of the area south of Kabul and from whom the Taliban draw their support. As for the Taliban and Al Queda sanctuaries over the Pakistan border, as frustrating as that situation is, we cannot expect to eliminate it by cross border raids that alienate the Pakistanis and increase anti-American sentiment and instability in that country. We will have to help Pakistan, not just with military assistance but with economic and social aid to that border area while their army learns to execute counterinsurgency, rather than conventional military operations.

It is going to be a long, hard struggle. Again, only the Afghanis can ultimately win it. We cannot allow the south of Afghanistan to slip back into a safe haven for Al Queda. The president must ask for patience and continued support from the American people and the Congress. He must offer a realistic appraisal of what is going on, admitting set backs as they occur as well as advances. He must talk with our citizens about this problem, and not at them.

Describe your first meeting with, and impression of, Secretary of Defense McNamara

My first exposure to McNamara was July 23, 1962, when I attended a meeting at CINCPAC. I had heard he was a numbers man, and that he had come to dominate the uniformed military by his ability to pose questions based on facts and figures faster than others could respond. There would be an opportunity, I was told, to brief him on our rural development and security program.

Most of the briefing time was spent in tracking every last bullet of the military aid program, information he could have gotten in Washington, but which he used to show off his prodigious memory. At one point, as he got to slide 319 and we thought the presentation was almost over, he said there was a mistake and asked to see slide five. Sure enough, the two slides did not conform

Following the slides, little time was left for a discussion of the Strategic Hamlet Program, which was central to population security and quelling the Vietcong insurgency. I told McNamara that hamlet elections were important. He seemed puzzled about how hamlet elections related to security. I said they gave the population a political stake in the future. I wasn’t sure he understood the idea. I would not meet him again until we had the head-on confrontation at the White House in September 1963, which was previously described.

I learned of other incidents when he just didn’t get “it”:

In 1964, Secretary McNamara toured the countryside with the South Vietnamese general who was then in power. During the tour, McNamara raised his hand and yelled his version of the Vietnamese chant “Vietnam Five Thousand Years.” However, his pronunciation made it sound like “ruptured duck lie down.” Not quite the same impression as Kennedy gave when he said, “ich bin ein Berliner” in Germany.

The Vietnamese on our side were not impressed, while the communist Vietcong were delighted. McNamara made the general look like a puppet. The Vietcong leader said “the greatest gift for us was when McNamara came and toured the countryside, holding up General Khanh’s hand. That saved our propaganda cadres a great deal of effort.”

How do failures of Vietnam parallel with Iraq and Afghanistan?

In all three countries, years passed before we understood our enemies, ourselves or our allies, whom we often undermined. We underestimated enemies fueled by nationalism and their hatred of foreigners—and we didn’t understand the political or military nature of unconventional wars.

In this kind of unconventional war, the United States can win almost all the battles, but lose the war. As long as the insurgents don’t completely lose, they ultimately will win. They know that if they can hold out, American public support will dwindle, particularly if the nature of the struggle is not adequately explained.

In the meantime, the Taliban—as did the Vietcong—use our combat operations against us. The initial kick-down-the-door approach alienated the Iraqi people and our killing of civilians alienates Afghan villagers. In Vietnam we became imbued with the importance of our own power and did not see how it was being used against us. For five years we ignored our South Vietnamese allies and tried to win the war mainly by ourselves. That changed in 1968 under General Abrams and Ambassador Bunker, but it was too late. The support of the American people had been lost.

After a similar period of time, we arrived at that point in Iraq, when General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker began to turn things around with a strategy of counterinsurgency that stressed Iraqi involvement and population protection. In Afghanistan, the United States and our NATO allies are still trying to defeat the Taliban, with minimal Afghan involvement—a losing strategy. A new administration and General Petraeus in overall command of Iraq and Afghanistan must change that.

Which covert “tricks” used in Vietnam could translate for use today?

Some of the covert tricks we used against the communists were: a soothsayer’s almanac for the Vietnamese 1955 New Year, false rumors about communist troops being evacuated to China, and exploitation of the communist failure to redeem their currency before evacuating their troops to the North in 1955.

Practically all Vietnamese, including many communists, believed in fortune telling and astrology. In early 1955, few thought South Vietnam would survive. It was only a matter of time until the communists took over. The new prime minister, Diem, seemed powerless. Religious sects and a gangster group who controlled the national police were preparing to tear South Vietnam apart, and the French had just given up. South Vietnamese morale was down around its shoelaces.

I was put in charge of an idea that might “buck up” the South Vietnamese—by producing a soothsayer’s almanac for the New Year, with favorable predictions for the new South Vietnamese government and an unfavorable forecast for the North. I worked with a friendly Vietnamese journalist who secretly contacted various soothsayers, an old profession in Vietnam. Several were interested. The soothsayers from the South saw a market among the one million refugees fleeing from the North. The soothsayers from the North saw it as a way to introduce themselves in the South.

My journalist friend put it together as an eight-page tabloid, with a great wheel of fortune in color on the front page, with one major forecast for independence in the South (with Diem prevailing) and another forecast pointing to great difficulties, floods and famines in the North, as well as lesser prophecies. We could never determine its precise effect, but it sold like hotcakes in the South and even in the port of Haiphong in the North, which had not yet been evacuated. We made a profit which was donated to a fund for refugees from the North.

When the communist troops had to evacuate north in May 1955, in observance of the Geneva Accords (the French and over a million Vietnamese refuges went south), the communist Vietminh did not have a plan in place to handle the currency that they had issued to the villagers living in the large zone they had controlled for almost nine years. We decided to see if we could turn the population against the Vietminh, so we printed up handbills that looked like they had been printed by the Vietminh, offering to redeem their currency one for one for South Vietnamese currency. This provoked much resentment and a riot because the Vietminh had nothing to offer.

What do we know about the superstitions of the Iraqi’s who are still in resistance or the Taliban in Afghanistan? Could we play on that? What use are we making of psychological warfare techniques that often consist of out thinking the enemy and convincing him that we know more about him than he thinks we do, and thus he is led to think there may be a traitor in his midst. For example: a military commander involved in the campaign against the communist Huks in the Philippines, knew there was a village leader who was secretly collaborating with the Huks. The commander tried to persuade the village leader to support the government. It didn’t work. The commander turned things in his favor when his troops ambushed and killed a Huk. He had the Huk brought to the center of the village. When a crowd that included the village leader gathered, the commander publicly thanked the village leader for providing the information that made the ambush possible. All of a sudden that leader was on the Huk hit list and had to ask for government protection.

Why didn’t General Westmoreland listen to your advice about securing Saigon?

I warned General Westmoreland about the lack of security around Saigon in September 1967. He ignored the warning, which then made it possible for the Vietcong to mass their forces for the Tet Offensive in 1968, which then discredited President Johnson and the war effort.

General Westmoreland had launched an operation called Hop Tac, which was supposed to establish security outside of Saigon in concentric rings. I was taken by a Vietnamese friend to a village called “Peace and Prosperity”, where the Vietcong had staged an early morning ambush that killed most of the local defense force. It took over ten hours to get a military relief force to this village, because the force had to come from another provincial capital about twenty miles away. Yet, this village was just two miles outside of the Saigon city limits. The security zone for the Vietnamese troops stationed in Saigon stopped at the city limits. Outside the city limits, there was a vacuum and the Vietcong had taken control.

The mother of the village chief told me that she had asked her son to stay away from the village because the Vietcong might kill them both if he tried to visit.

I related all this in a memo that made its way to Westmoreland. He was incredulous; this couldn’t be true, so he sent a brigadier general from his command to go with me the next day to see the same village. The general wrote a report confirming everything I had said, but nothing happened in Westmoreland’s muscle-bound command. Prior to the famous Tet offensive in 1968, this was a staging area for the Vietcong who launched their attacks on the city. So much for Westmoreland’s vaunted Hop Tac operation. Westmoreland was another general who thought he knew it all and who was too proud to listen to first-hand evidence, imbued as he was by illusions of victory similar to more recent proclamations of “Mission Accomplished.”

Why was Vice President Hubert Humphrey excluded from influencing Vietnam policy? What was your role and how did this lead to McNamara and only a few others advising President Johnson?

My written objections to the bombing of North Vietnam helped convince Vice President Hubert Humphrey to write President Johnson a memo against the bombing campaign in early 1965. Humphrey was the one high-level official who really understood that only the South Vietnamese could win the war—and that bombing would only arouse the North Vietnamese people to support the communist regime and provide the motivation for thousands of volunteers to go south over the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Humphrey’s memo angered Johnson, who told Humphrey, “We do not need all these memos.” Soon thereafter, when asked for his opinion by Johnson in a National Security Council meeting, Humphrey spoke out forcefully against the bombing campaign. Johnson got the impression that Humphrey had been talking about his views outside the immediate administration circle, which was not true. Johnson got so angry, he cut Humphrey out of any further high-level discussion about Vietnam for a year.

Johnson stopped having formal NSC meetings on the subject, instead convened as a substitute, a smaller executive committee of Bundy (head of NSC), McNamara and Rusk, sometimes with their aides. Thus a valuable focus on the political side of the war which Humphrey represented was lost as a purely military World War II view took over.

Vietnam set the bar for why it is important to understand the culture of the country being occupied and what makes its people tick. How do we convince the American leadership that this applies to them, too—not just the Soldiers and Marines in combat?

There were many examples in Vietnam. At higher levels many thought that our superior capabilities dictated that we just had to tell our Vietnamese allies what to do and they would do it. For example, following the 1963 coup against Diem, Ambassador Lodge gave coup leader General Minh political advice about how to reassure the country. He described events following Kennedy’s assassination, when President Johnson went on television to assure the American people that their government would continue to function. Minh completely misunderstood what Lodge was talking about and said that the advice sounded fine, “Give us TV.”

There was the case of another of our ambassadors, General Taylor, and the Vietnamese leader General Khanh. Khanh was about to proclaim a new constitution in 1964 because Taylor had been urging him to regularize his government. Khanh showed the constitution to Taylor, who in turn expressed his concern about international reactions to it—any internal reaction would be Khanh’s responsibility. So Khanh went ahead and proclaimed it without any public discussion. A week later the students and the Buddhists were in the streets protesting, so Khanh asked Taylor for a public expression of support. Taylor refused, saying he had never approved it. Khanh thought he had been double-crossed. The end result was almost six months of South Vietnamese political turmoil and distraction while the Vietcong made great gains in the countryside, which eventually triggering the massive U.S. troop intervention.

Much of our leadership during the Vietnam War was convinced that they knew best what would win and what was best for the Vietnamese. They had been successful in World War II and had risen to the top in the world’s most successful democracy and greatest power. Full of hubris, they just wouldn’t listen. We see that much the same thing happened in Iraq with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the neo-cons leading the way from Washington, with Bremer in Baghdad dictating what must be done, without listening to those who understood Iraq or the Iraqis. There were on-the-ground civilians and military leaders like General Petraeus who had good ideas early, about how to head off the insurgency and foster political stability, but they weren’t listened to. The same thing happened in Afghanistan when Rumsfeld ignored the possibility that the Taliban might come back,

We are fortunate that Petraeus took over military command in Iraq before the place went entirely up in smoke. With his leadership and that of Ambassador Crocker, who understands the Iraqis, the situation is at a point where it stands a chance of succeeding.

My advice?

The leadership of the new administration must listen to the people who understand what kind of struggle we are facing in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new president and administration should make sure that those who have served on the ground recently are called upon, to compare their ideas with the advice that is being offered by senior advisors. Avoid being surrounded by just a bubble of high-level advisors who are usually in agreement, and who lack first-hand experience in the specific countries and types of wars at hand. Beyond that, be unsparingly frank with the American people.