- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009

Decades after the debacle, one still hears echoes of a heated debate between the American intelligence and military communities, “What went wrong in Vietnam? Why did we not win this war, given our overwhelming firepower and technological advantages?”

By happenstance, in recent days I read books published three decades apart that reach the same conclusion: The Johnson administration’s decision to make the war a conventional military operation, rather than a contest of political wills, was the decisive factor. Peer de Silva, the CIA chief of station from 1964 to 1967, made this point in his memoir, “Sub Rosa,” published in 1978. Now comes Rufus Phillips, who was a ground-level CIA officer in South Vietnam in the early 1950s, to reinforce the point in Why Vietnam Matters (Naval Institute Press, $38.95, 398 pages).

Mr. Phillips joined scores of Yale graduates of the early 1950s who entered the CIA, either directly or through the military. As an army lieutenant, he joined the Saigon Military Mission in 1954 and a year later, as a CIA officer, served as an adviser to Vietnamese army pacification programs. He eventually continued in Vietnam with the Agency for International Development. Colleagues and the media alike respected him as knowing Vietnam perhaps better than any other American official.

From the beginning, Mr. Phillips realized that the war was one of political causes, rather than military might. Working under the nigh-legendary Col. (later Brig. Gen.) Edward Lansdale, who told him, in essence, that to win the war, the Vietnamese army “needed to learn how to win the trust and support of the people.”

The hitch was that those working in the pacification program also had to “win the trust and support” of the U.S. embassy and U.S. military, which in some respects were as formidable as the communist guerrillas. The military, with sublime confidence in its ability to subdue ragtag Asians, wanted to dispatch large numbers of American troops to do the fighting. The embassy lacked the will to persuade President Ngo Dinh Diem to dispose of the services of his highly unpopular brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu.

By the early 1960s, he sensed that South Vietnam was falling apart politically, despite some successes in the pacification program, and that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was hopelessly out of touch with reality.

He describes a surreal meeting in the White House at which McNamara, various military aides and State Department officers reported to President Kennedy on a fact-finding mission to Vietnam. Gen. Victor Krulak began an upbeat report by quoting Vietnamese officers as stating the war would be won in spite of whatever political turmoil gripped the government. Mr. Phillips listened in disbelief: From his experience, such offices “would never reveal their true thinking to a high-ranking American whom they did not know personally.”

After a State Department officer offered a gloomy view totally at odds with Krulak, Mr. Kennedy looked around the room and commented, “The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?”

When Mr. Phillips stressed the necessity of getting the controversial Nhu out of Vietnamese politics, McNamara and the military team gave him hostile stares. He was accused of “not being on the team.”

The military won. In his memoir, Mr. de Silva quotes the orders Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave to Gen. William Westmoreland when dispatching him to Saigon as the US commander: “Westy, you get out there and … fight the war right, the way we did it in France. It’s a big war and we’ll fight it like one. We must bring enough firepower and bombs down on the Vietcong to make them realize they’re finished.”

As Mr. Phillips notes, that sort of mind-set eventually cost us dearly in Vietnam, and caused much grief in the current Iraqi war. A sobering read from a man who knows what he is talking about.

•••


In 1943, a young army lieutenant who had just graduated from Officers Candidate School wrote an audacious letter to the newly formed Office of Strategic Services. He began, “It seems to me, who knows nothing about our organization, that finding an agent with the necessary personal accoutrements to go to Cortina [on the southwest approaches of the Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria] and carry out acts of sabotage, political organization, reconnaissance, or whatever is desired would be difficult.” He went on to list his qualifications for just such a mission, noting that his training as an army combat engineer included demolitions.

The writer was Roderick Stephen Goodspeed Hall, a 28-year-old who had dropped out of Harvard to seek adventure wherever he found it: The Texas oil fields, a steamer off the West Coast, climbing rocks in the Grand Tetons and, most importantly, spending a winter skiing in the Alps in the area around the Brenner Pass.

Once he learned of the Allied invasion of Italy, the young Hall realized that in due course, the German army would be forced to retreat to the north — and that one key route went through the Brenner Pass. In due course, Hall was snatched up by the OSS, and, after training, parachuted into the mountains of northern Italy to prepare for destruction of the Brenner rail bridges.

The story of his odyssey is told by Patrick K. O’Donnell in The Brenner Assignment (Da Capo Press, $25, 286 pages). Mr. O’Donnell, who lives in Arlington, is a military historian of talent, and this work reflects a tremendous amount of work, both in OSS records in the National Archives and on-site explorations in Italy.

Alas, Hall drops out of the story rather quickly. He is captured by the Germans, tortured and executed. Meanwhile, another OSS team, headed by a dashing character named Howard Chapell, picks up the mission. He blows up enough bridges to cause massive traffic jams of fleeing German vehicles that are smashed by Allied air strikes. In due course, Mr. Chapell becomes the central figure, and Mr. O’Donnell is the first writer who persuaded him to talk about the mission.

The account of how notes that Hall scrawled on cigarette papers were concealed and later found is a made-for-the-movies story, and I warrant that is exactly where this book is headed.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.

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