An eyewitness account of lessons not learned

A graduate of Yale then commissioned as a U.S. Army officer, Phillips was first detailed to the CIA and served in the Saigon Military Mission under the legendary and controversial Col. Edward Lansdale from 1954 through 1956.

Under Lansdale, Phillips learned that what mattered most was constructing a political cause on the non-communist side worth fighting for. Part of that was supporting “civic action” and pacification campaigns by the Vietnamese Army “to win the trust and support of the rural population by responding to their needs—providing security, medical clinics, delivering relief supplies and digging wells.” For his work, Phillips received the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit.

Later Phillips returned to Saigon as a U.S. Agency for International Development official, and led an unconventional counterinsurgency effort in support of the Strategic Hamlet Program. Subsequently, he served as a consultant to the State Department, supporting the Lansdale Mission in Saigon from 1965 to 1968.

Documenting his story from his own hereto unrevealed private files as well as from the historical record, Phillips paints striking portraits of such key figures as: John F. Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Hubert Humphrey, Ngo Dinh Diem, Maxwell Taylor, Henry Cabot Lodge.

A highlight is his face to face dialogue with President Kennedy at a critical National Security Council meeting in 1963. In the face of overt disapproval by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Halberstam’s “moment of intellectual honesty”).

From Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge’s misunderstandings and missteps, to U.S. agency in-fighting and the political struggles of Ngo Dinh Diem, Phillips shows how a U.S. failure to understand our South Vietnamese allies, the Vietcong enemy or even ourselves led to a highly destructive “big war” strategy based on World War II misperceptions—a war that we could not win ourselves; only the South Vietnamese could.

The author offers a first-hand account of the communications gap between American military and diplomatic strategy and Vietnamese realities and aspirations. Known for his integrity and firsthand, long-term knowledge of what went on in Vietnam, the author also offers lessons for today.

In Why Vietnam Matters, Phillips reveals the details of:

  • His briefing of President Kennedy about the failures of the counterinsurgency effort in South Vietnam’s Delta. Among other things, he concludes that Kennedy was receptive to the notion that the war was primarily political in nature and that pure military intervention could not win, particularly by inserting U.S. troops directly into the conflict

  • The diplomatic wars between Washington and Saigon, and Phillips’ own efforts to save Diem from the coup that resulted in Diem’s assassination.

  • The Vietnamese side of the story.

  • The extraordinary work and thought of Edward Lansdale, who even in the later years had a more sensitive and useful role than that for which he was given credit.

  • Vice President Humphrey’s true position on the war and how—had President Johnson listened to him instead of Secretary McNamara—things might have turned out differently.

  • The destructive influence of Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem’s younger brother and political advisor.

  • Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General William Westmoreland’s misunderstanding of the political and psychological nature of the Vietnam conflict. Westmoreland’s failure to understand Saigon’s vulnerability to Vietcong attack at Tet, even though he was shown conclusive evidence in a memo by Phillips months before that a key staging area for the attack, just beyond the city limits, was in fact a no-man’s land under Vietcong control.

  • The parallels with U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and what Vietnam can teach us about intervention and nation building.


Jaqueline Barnes
Naval Institute Press
291 Wood Road
Annapolis MD 21402
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