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May 2009

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Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned
Reviewed by J. R. Bullington, Editor

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Rufus Phillips, Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2008, 398 pp, $38.95

Ambassador Dick Holbrooke, as a newly-minted Foreign Service Officer in 1963, was assigned to Vietnam to work for Rufe Phillips, who was then head of USAID’s Office of Rural Affairs, an organization Phillips largely created that was dedicated to what would today be called ‘nation building.’ In his foreword to the book, Holbrooke describes Phillips as “one of the most remarkable figures of America’s tortured involvement in Vietnam.” He continues:

Why Vietnam Matters is a major contribution to the history of Vietnam. It contains important lessons for the wars America is currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So much of what the current generation of military and civilian officials claim are new doctrines and ideas are identical to programs and strategies that were virtually all tried in Vietnam.

As an old Vietnam hand, I share these conclusions.

The dedication of the book to, among others, “all those who died for a just but imperfectly pursued cause” encapsulates Phillips’ thesis and the tragedy he describes. He takes the reader from the early days of South Vietnam’s existence as an independent country to its 1975 collapse following the cut-off of American assistance and a massive invasion by the North Vietnamese Army. He was an important actor throughout much of this drama as well as a perceptive observer and analyst.

The Legendary Lansdale
Phillips first came to Vietnam in 1954 as a 24-year-old Army second lieutenant on detail to CIA and assigned to work for the legendary Ed Lansdale, already a seminal figure in the annals of counterinsurgency because of his success, as an advisor to Philippine Defense Minister (later President) Ramon Magsaysay, in facilitating the Filipino defeat of the communist Hukbalahap insurgency in the early 1950s. Lansdale had been sent to Saigon by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, to try to bring about a similar success with newly-independent South Vietnam and its president, Ngo Dinh Diem. Lansdale became Phillips’ mentor, friend, and hero. The story of Lansdale’s involvement in Vietnam – and how his counsel was never seriously heeded by the U.S. government – figures prominently in this book.

(Full disclosure: Although I never worked for him, I came to know Lansdale well during my time in Vietnam, 1965-68, and subsequently in Washington; and I also regard him as a mentor, friend, and hero. Through Lansdale, I met Phillips as well, but by this time he was no longer stationed in Vietnam, only visiting from time to time.)

Phillips describes Lansdale as “something of an eighteenth-century American revolutionary operating in the bureaucratic second half of the twentieth century; a uniquely skilled but controversial practitioner of the art of ‘nation building.’” He was a career military officer, eventually retiring from the Air Force as a major general, who spent most of that career in intelligence and counterinsurgency work, beginning with OSS in World War II and including several assignments with the CIA. As Phillips writes, “Lansdale had a way of drawing from the Vietnamese their political ideals and then getting them committed to living up to the beliefs they professed.” He was the prototype for Colonel Hillendale in Eugene Burdick’s novel, The Ugly American, who went into the rural areas of the Philippines and persuaded the peasants to oppose communism. He was also the prototype for The Quiet American in Graham Greene’s novel, who believed communism could be defeated in South Vietnam by instilling a sense of democracy in the rural population.

Lansdale and his team, including Phillips, scored some early successes in helping the new country get on its feet, and they were highly regarded by President Diem and other Vietnamese leaders. However, their unconventional work, focused on bringing security and development to people in the countryside, was little valued by the U.S. embassy, the CIA station, or the American military leadership. Consequently, Lansdale returned to Washington in 1956, and his team was disbanded.

Work for CIA and AID
By this time, Phillips’ military obligation was completed, and he became a CIA officer. His first assignment was to Laos, to work in counterinsurgency there. On completing this tour, and faced with a more traditional CIA assignment, Phillips decided that he didn’t want a career in ‘normal’ intelligence, so he left the Agency to work in his family’s aviation engineering business.

Nonetheless, Phillips maintained his ties with Lansdale (then working in the Pentagon on special operations) and others in Washington who were involved with Vietnam, and in 1962 AID recruited him to start up a counterinsurgency program in the Vietnam USAID mission. He was successful with this effort, working closely with Vietnamese government officials in the countryside, and at the same time he renewed his ties with senior Vietnamese leaders in Saigon. He also became an informal advisor to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, and was involved in the complex maneuvers leading up to the military coup that overthrew President Diem in 1963. During this period, he lobbied vigorously for Lansdale’s return to Vietnam, but opposition from Defense Secretary McNamara and others prevented this until 1965, when Lodge, at the beginning of his second tour as ambassador, brought him back as his special assistant for pacification. (‘Pacification’ was the term normally used in those days for what is now usually called ‘counterinsurgency.’)

Obliged by the death of his father in late 1963 to return home and take over the family business, Phillips remained a consultant on Vietnam to AID and the State Department, and after 1965 an informal assistant and Washington backstop for Lansdale, making frequent visits to Vietnam. He also served as a Vietnam advisor to Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

For Vietnam veterans and serious students of the war, Phillips’ insider accounts of the important events, personalities, and policy deliberations of the Vietnam era are both fascinating and illuminating. When reading about developments with which I was only generally familiar, I often thought, “So that’s how (or why) it really happened!” This is great first-person history.

For casual readers, the extensive memoir/history material in the book may be a little too much ‘inside baseball,’ but a lot of it should nonetheless be interesting, even entertaining. There’s the anecdote, for example, about Secretary McNamara’s visit to Vietnam to demonstrate U.S. support for Gen. Nguyen Khanh, who had just taken power in a coup that overthrew the generals who had deposed President Diem. At several public appearances, McNamara held up Khanh’s arm and shouted to the crowd, “Vietnam moun nam!” He thought he was saying the equivalent of “Long live Vietnam!” His pronunciation of Vietnamese was so bad, however, that it came out as “Ruptured duck wants to lie down!” (He never learned to pronounce even the name of the country correctly.)

Lessons, Precepts, Analogies
All readers should value the lessons, precepts, and analogies that are relevant to contemporary wars and the issues we face today. Here are some examples:

  • “To old Vietnam hands, the occupation of Iraq in 2003, accompanied by the rise of insurgency there, was a bad movie from the past. Our failure to understand the Iraqis or the genesis of the insurgency – even that there was an insurgency – was a plotline much too familiar….Overconfident self-deception was again loose in Washington.”
  • “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.”
  • “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.”
  • “The cultures, the histories, the religions, and the peoples of these countries may be very different from those of Vietnam, but our misconceptions, errors, and dysfunctional bureaucratic approaches display dismaying similarities.”
  • “We became obsessed with a big-army war where the real war, a people’s war – mainly political and psychological in nature – went largely unnoticed.”
  • Under General Creighton Abrams, who replaced General William Westmoreland in 1968, “The emphasis changed to the protection of the civilian population, arming and supporting local forces better, doing away with free-fire zones, and concentrating on support of Vietnamese pacification efforts, while emphasizing smaller and more flexible American operations against still-increasing North Vietnamese regulars. Pacification largely succeeded, but American combat losses continued at a rate unacceptable to the American public. The public turned more and more against the war…”
  • “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 that simple brute force. Good personal relations are crucial. One key advisor can be worth more than several combat brigades.”
  • “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.”
  • “It would be ironic, indeed tragic, if the first-rate team we finally assigned to Iraq, Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus, turns out to have arrived too late, as was the case with Ambassador Bunker and General Abrams in Vietnam.”
  • “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 civil/military counterinsurgency and nation-building efforts beyond traditional diplomacy….The proactive spirit that existed in the Foreign Service in Vietnam needs renewal….In organizing and operating…combined field missions, the CORDS experience in Vietnam is highly relevant.”
  • “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?”

Rufe Phillips has clearly illuminated the lessons of Vietnam and their relevance to contemporary issues. Many of us who experienced the Vietnam War and have thought about it over the years have reached similar conclusions. American political and especially military leaders now seem to be paying heed to these lessons and, I believe, are trying to lead in the right direction for success in the conflicts we currently face. It took far too long to get to this point. Will they, and the country, follow through?bluestar


Ambassador Bullington served at the Consulate in Hué, the Embassy in Saigon, and with CORDS in Quang Tri, 1965-68. He was on the NSC’s Vietnam Special Studies Group, 1969-70, and the State Department’s Vietnam Desk, 1973-75. His other Foreign Service assignments were in Southeast Asia and Africa, and as Dean of the State Department’s Senior Seminar. He is currently retired in Williamsburg, and serves as Editor of American Diplomacy and a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk.  

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