Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned
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:
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
(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
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
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?