- The Washington Times - Friday, April 30, 2010


Vietnam wasn’t a short-term proposition for me. I first arrived in Saigon in 1954 as a 24-year-old Army second lieutenant assigned to the joint American-French training mission. As a result of peace talks, the Vietminh were to evacuate territories in the South to regroup in the North, while French and Vietnamese forces were to evacuate south.

President Eisenhower wanted to help the Vietnamese save South Vietnam from imminent communist control. Those early days were chaotic, with a million refugees coming south, the Vietnamese army in disarray, the French defeated and disgusted with themselves but still not ready to let go. An array of forces in the South were in almost open rebellion; the army chief of staff, Gen. Nguyen Van Hinh, threatened a coup; and the prime minister had little control over anything.

Many gave the South no more than six months to survive. On the local American side, pessimism was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I remember trying to get some first-aid kits from the American economic aid mission to give to the Vietnamese army’s psychological warfare company to use in visited rural areas. I was turned down. The aid folks said, “The kits will only fall into communist hands.”

Yet there were chances to learn and partners with whom we could work. I took a mixed group of army officers and civilians to the Philippines to see how President Ramon Magsaysay and the Philippine army had defeated the Huks. I learned how Magsaysay, when he was secretary of defense, converted the Philippine army from an undisciplined force into an army that had as its credo that the soldiers were the servants of the Philippine people and that their mission was to protect, defend and help their own people. They called it civic action. I became a convert.

The transformation of the average Vietnamese soldier during those early days was remarkable. Learning as we went, the Vietnamese adapted to focus on helping civilians and confounded communist propaganda. The population was apprehensive at the start because of Vietminh propaganda that the troops would rape and steal, but troop behavior was impeccable. People were helped, army nurses treated the sick, roads were repaired and bridges built to replace those destroyed by war. Word of mouth spread good news on how the troops were behaving. People began coming out of their houses to offer troops water. The emotional reaction from a population subjected to years of Vietminh propaganda was astounding. More astounding was that during the entire operation, there had not been a single adverse incident between the soldiers and the civilian population. That taught me a great deal about the importance of psychological factors in winning the allegiance of the Vietnamese people.

Traveling to Saigon for a couple of days, I arrived to see the same pride and potential in Vietnamese soldiers fighting there. Having been told too long that it could do nothing without the French, the Vietnamese army suddenly was an independent force capable of operating on its own. The fever of true independence finally being realized washed like a wave over everybody. I saw what the average Vietnamese was capable of. I will never forget it. It cemented my identification with the cause of Vietnamese freedom.

In 1962, I would return as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development to take charge of the civilian side of counterinsurgency. Decentralizing aid down to the provinces put an authentic focus on effective counterinsurgency.

However, much came apart after November 1963 through coups and other government changes. When American troops intervened directly, the American command structure became increasingly insensitive to Vietnamese political and social problems, often undermining the Vietnamese unity of purpose that was so badly needed. Until, of course, things changed after 1968 and the banner of counterinsurgency was picked up again, as was Vietnamization itself, which should have been started from the beginning. Unfortunately, by this time, the support of the American people largely had been lost.

When Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor was asked toward the end of his life why we failed in Vietnam, he said we didn’t understand the enemy, our South Vietnamese allies or even ourselves. I would add that we didn’t understand how to fight that kind of war until it was too late. For too long, top policymakers in Washington and our top leaders on the ground, with egos inflated by meritorious careers in other endeavors, had a low tolerance for different views based on firsthand experience.

Why we failed to learn from our own experience or even to understand communist revolutionary warfare and its exploitation of nationalism when it all had been laid out by Mao Zedong and then North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, is still a mystery. We bombed North Vietnam to confirm communist propaganda claiming we were a colonialist replacement for the French. We thought the communist regime would fold, not understanding its willingness to sacrifice every last Vietnamese if necessary.

I don’t think we ever understood how important it was for our Vietnamese allies to develop their own positive political cause beyond pure anti-communism and that by so obviously taking over the war ourselves, we undermined their nationalist standing with their own people. Instead of being helpful in support of their unity and the development of a genuine democratic political cause, we too often subtracted from that by our own thoughtless actions. Here I think of the destructive impact on Vietnamese morale of so many American troops spending practically unlimited sums on the local economy, beginning in 1965, while corrupt goods flowed out the back door of the PX, or post exchange, with American connivance.

This is not, however, to let our Vietnamese friends entirely off the hook. Some of the good advice that was given was not heeded when the necessity of achieving unity by sacrificing one’s personal differences for the greater good got lost, even in the face of great danger.

Somehow we failed to explain to our own people what the Vietnam War was really about in human terms, and we still are not doing as well as we should in our current struggles. By not understanding the kind of conflict we were in in Vietnam, we were unable to give a credible explanation to the American people, losing their support. Instead, we prematurely trumpeted victory, breeding disillusion as failures became obvious. The truly important lesson is that maintaining support on the home front by talking with the American people, not at them, about the human side of such conflicts is just as important as tactically winning a long-running, messy military battle in the field.

Working with the troops way back in 1955 and then in 1962 and 1963 in the provinces, villages and hamlets and during my later visits from 1965 to 1968, I saw enough to believe that the Vietnamese always had the spark within them to rise to the occasion when they set partisan division aside and believed in themselves and their leadership. That the end result was not what we wished can’t detract from that spirit.

Rufus Phillips, the author of “Why Vietnam Matters” (Naval Institute Press, 2008), served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army and as assistant director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Saigon mission.

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