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Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned Hardcover – October 15, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Beginning in 1954, Phillips spent almost 10 years doing undercover and pacification work for the CIA and the U.S. Agency for International Development in South Vietnam. In the high-level power struggle over America's Vietnam policy. Phillips, then a government adviser, was a strong proponent of helping build a stable democratic government that the South Vietnamese would willingly fight to preserve from the Communist North—and a vocal opponent of sending in American combat troops. In this sober and informed memoir, Phillips provides a fascinating look at the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' refusal to give more than lip service to pacification, with revealing portraits of such figures as the singular Maj. Gen. Edward Lansdale, South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, President Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and other prominent officials. Phillips states firmly that those best and brightest, especially McNamara, exhibited poor judgment, bureaucratic prejudice, and personal hubris as they steered Vietnam War policy on a disastrous course. Phillips's short chapter on lessons the U.S. should have learned from the Vietnam War should be mandatory reading in Washington, D.C. Maps. (Oct. 15)
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About the Author
RUFUS PHILLIPS became a member of the Saigon Military Mission in 1954 and the following year served as the sole adviser to two Vietnamese army pacification operations, earning the CIA's Intelligence Medal of Merit for his work. He later worked as a CIA civilian case officer in Vietnam and Laos, then joined the U.S. Agency for International Development's Saigon Mission to lead its counterinsurgency efforts. In 1964 he became a consultant for USAID and the State Department and served as an adviser to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He lives in Arlington, VA.
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In a new book, WHY VIETNAM MATTERS: AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF LESSONS NOT LEARNED, Rufus Phillips gives us a different perspective. Phillips tells us that the American war in Vietnam was an honorable one, in intent, that was mismanaged by senior U.S. officials in Washington and Saigon. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there were plenty of Americans on the ground, according to Phillips, who knew the country intimately and offered Washington valuable insights into the dynamics of contemporary Vietnam. The problem, Phillips concludes, was that they were ignored.
This is a fascinating book that tells the story of American civilians that were sent into the trenches of Saigon politics and provincial governments to figure out who the Vietnamese were and how was the best way to help them. Alas, their efforts were for naught as Lyndon Johnson and the generals in the Pentagon brushed aside recommendations by Phillips and his colleagues -- and simply ran the war as they saw fit, irregardless of the conditions on the ground.
And therein lies the real message of this book: the power brokers in Washington have assumed total control of American foreign policy, to the exclusion of any external influences. In other words, the power nexus in Washington, DC (the government, the press and the special interests) has become so powerful over the last 50 years that foreign policy decisions are based on whatever fantasy has gained currency in the capital of the United States at any given time.
This is the latest book on Vietnam to reprise the American war in Southeast Asia. The difference between this book and the others, most of which were written by journalists, is that the author, Rufus Phillips was an American official in Vietnam who watched in horror as most of the efforts that he and his colleagues made to help the Vietnamese defend themselves were rejected by their superiors.
We all know the result: after 11 years of U.S. intervention, the North Vietnamese ran the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies out of the country. Some of us are aware that after the Americans left the scene, the North Vietnamese also killed tens of thousands of Vietnamese and hundreds of thousands more fled the country in makeshift boats - the so-called "boat people" who were driven from their homeland. In neighboring Cambodia, meanwhile, some 1.5 million persons were killed by the Khmer Rouge in a modern-day holocaust.
So the Vietnam era was certainly not a glorious one in American history, and that is why it is useful for people like Phillips to tell their story. If nothing else Americans should try to learn from their woeful history in Vietnam.
Phillips lived and worked in Vietnam (and Laos) from 1954 until 1963. After then, he visited South Vietnam frequently, working with his mentor Edward Lansdale who was desperately trying to salvage the situation.. Phillip's specialty was the pacification efforts that were designed to build loyalty among the South Vietnamese population to the Saigon regime.
The idea was to make the lives of the normal population simply better, in terms of security and the economic well-being -- and by doing so, create the social conditions where some form of Vietnamese democracy could take root.
Rural pacification was a theory developed by the American Edward Lansdale who used the technique to defeat rebels in the Philippines. Having watched his success there, the Eisenhower administration sent him to Vietnam to try to work his magic in Indochina after Vietnam was partitioned under the 1954 Geneva Convention.
Phillips went with Lansdale and together they worked with Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem to try to salvage South Vietnam's independence from the military and political pressures spreading south from North Vietnam. Lansdale and Phillips had some success, but their efforts frequently ran into conflicts with the U.S. military operations as well as political influence of the senior diplomats at the embassy, including Ambassadors Frederick Nolting and his successor, Henry Cabot Lodge.
Through their efforts, however, Phillips and Lansdale established very close relations with key Vietnamese politicians and senior officers in the Vietnamese military. Indeed, by Phillips account, they had closer relations with the Vietnamese than other members of the American embassy or the U.S. military (or the foreign press in Vietnam).
Phillips had high regard for Diem (but not his brother and sister-in-law) and thought that if Diem could separate himself from his family, the president could be an effective leader of South Vietnam that could turn back the North Vietnamese tide.
Indeed, Phillips had the extraordinary opportunity to make his case directly to President John F. Kennedy in the White House on Sept. 10, 1963. Phillips' description of that meeting and his encounter with Robert McNamara are worth the price of this book alone. Phillips sat in a chair against the wall when National Security adviser Michael Forrestal broke into the proceedings to tell the president that he should hear Phillips report of the situation on the ground in Vietnam. Phillips gave a raw, straightforward report that left McNamara shaking his head in disagreement. Phillips believes that had he lived JFK would never have allowed the massive buildup of the American intervention in Vietnam.
In the event, it was too late for President Diem. The U.S. State Department had been lobbying for months to remove Diem from office. Indeed in early August the State Department had sent a cable to the Saigon embassy authorizing steps to overthrow the President The actual coup started on Nov. 1 and eventually ended in Diem's assassination on Nov. 2.
Diem was not supposed to be assassinated, only deposed. But the Vietnamese generals took matters into their own hands (despite the presence of CIA agent Lucien Conein in the coup's headquarters), and shot the president and his brother in an armored personnel carrier on the streets of Saigon. A little more than three weeks later, JFK himself was assassinated (before he died, JFK had dictated a memo describing Diem's assassination as a serious mistake).
Phillips had already made arrangements to leave Vietnam to take over the family business, and he left his post in Saigon on Nov. 21. He learned of JFK's assassination while enroute home. But he stayed active with Lansdale as a consultant frequently visiting Saigon to offer his advice on the ongoing pacification efforts. But in the aftermath of JFK's death, and the assumption of Lyndon Johnson to the presidency, the U.S. military got the upper hand, and the massive American troop buildup began.
In 1967 and 68, Phillips became an advisor to Hubert Humphrey who, according to Phillips, had a much better understanding of Vietnam than LBJ.
Phillips concludes his book with suggestions on how the lessons presumably learned in Vietnam can be used to resolve the American difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan. His recommendations are essentially the same he made in Vietnam: support local government with sufficient security that they can govern effectively. He warns against abruptly abandoning our allies in both Iraq and Afghanistan:
"We are in a long struggle to overcome the threat of radical Islamic extremism, whose virulence may take a generation to subside. The Iraq war may be one of a kind in its scale and in terms of how it got started, but we face a similar challenge in Afghanistan, and there are likely other to come. As with the Cold War, this different kind of war is at its heart an ideological, political and psychological challenge. We cannot protect the American people by ducking this challenge and assuming it will just fade away if we change presidents. We must face it not with fear but with self-confidence that we, in conjunction with other rational and decent nations and their peoples, will prevail. Our heritage calls us not to retreat within ourselves into a homeland security crouch, but to look beyond our borders for opportunities for joint efforts to preserve and enhance mankind's better aspirations."
And he adds:
"Success in helping others build a nation under stress, under internal attacks, depends mainly on human contact and understanding and the use of imagination and intelligence rather than simple brute force. Good personal relations are crucial. One key advisor can be worth more than several combat brigades. Personal intent, motivation, imagination and the ability to build trust in those we are trying to advise counts for practically everything, particularly in the unhinged environment in which this kind of work takes place; willingness and ability to listen to and understand those we are trying to help is essential."