Counterinsurgency in Vietnam: Lessons Learned, Ignored, Then Revived
By Rufus Phillips
Rufus Phillips, the author of Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned recently published by the Naval Institute Press, spent the better part of the years 1954 to 1968 in carrying out counterinsurgency in Vietnam while trying to influence U.S. policies in Saigon and back in Washington. Successively, as an Army officer detailed to the CIA, a CIA Case Officer, USAID director of an on-the-ground, unconventional, economic and social rural development program in support of counterinsurgency, and as a consultant to the State Department, he was involved from the rice paddy level to the Presidentâ€™s National Security Council in implementing U.S. policies and programs while trying to make changes. His efforts brought him into contact with all the major players of that era: President Ngo Dinh Diem, his brother Nhu, four American ambassadors to Vietnam including Henry Cabot Lodge and General Maxwell Taylor, Secretary McNamara, Secretary Rusk, Director of USAID Bell, and Generals Harkins and Westmoreland as well as President Kennedy.
Why Vietnam Matters (www.whyvietnammatters.com) is a first hand account from which this article is derived. A review of this book in the November-December issue of the VVA Veteran says the last chapter, which deals with Vietnamâ€™s lessons applied to Iraq and Afghanistan, â€œshould be mandatory reading in Washington, D.C.â€
Beginning in the summer of 1954, after the Geneva Accords had divided Vietnam at the 17th Parallel into North and South, there was a tenuous chance for the South Vietnamese to build an independent government and to develop a new military and political approach to pacification of the rural areas where the communist dominated Vietminh guerrilla movement remained strong. I arrived in Saigon, an inexperienced U.S. Army Infantry second lieutenant, just as Geneva went into effect. The South was in political turmoil. My boss, the legendary Colonel, later Major General Edward G. Lansdale, USAF, had earlier developed a winning counterinsurgency strategy and set of tactics in the Philippines against the rural based communist led Huk Balahap (Huk) movement. In 1948 the Huks were on the verge of winning control of the Philippines. The Philippine government was corrupt and incompetent. Its army was poorly led, taking on the Huks with conventional military tactics and, in the process, often alienating the civilian population.
Lansdale became the advisor to an extraordinary Filipino leader, Ramon Magsaysay, who as Secretary of Defense changed the armyâ€™s approach. Adopting a policy he called â€œall-out friendship or all-out force,â€ Magsaysay persuaded the army to put the security and well-being of the population first while aggressively using small unit combat operations and psychological warfare to defeat the Huk guerillas. This was combined with a surrender program offering the Huks resettlement in peace on farms they could own with government help. During a crucial congressional election, which his own President was illegally trying to fix, Magsaysay had the army guard the polls to ensure voters would not be intimidated, either by the Presidentâ€™s goon squads or the Huks. The Presidentâ€™s party lost the elections but the faith of the average Filipino in their democratic system was restored and Magsaysay became so popular he eventually ran for President, winning in a landslide.
Protecting the civilian population and ensuring their security and well-being were put ahead of other military objectives such as killing Huks and force protection. Military civic action in which each soldier was indoctrinated to believe he derived his authority from the people and was honor bound to protect and help them became both the order and the practice of the day. Popular support for the Huks was winnowed away, and the movement collapsed when their hard core communist leader, Luis Taruc, turned himself in, saying he no longer had a cause worth fighting for.
Lansdale undertook a similar approach to establishing security in the South Vietnamese countryside. I was assigned to work with the Vietnamese army and became the sole advisor accompanying that army on two large pacification operations occupying large swaths of South Vietnam territory previously controlled for nine years by the communist Vietminh. Under the terms of the Geneva Accords, the communists were supposed to evacuate their guerrilla troops north while the French Army evacuated south. There was an obvious need for the South Vietnamese to extend government into areas formerly under communist control. The only institution available for this purpose was the South Vietnamese army which had never conducted independent operations under the French in less than battalion size, was demoralized with many desertions and whose chief of staff was spending his time during most of 1954 plotting a coup against the newly arrived Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem.