Book Review: Prelude To Tragedy – Vietnam: 1960-65


Fall 2003 (Vol. IV, No. 3) Table of Contents

preludetotragedyEdited by: Harvey Neese & John O’Donnell – (Foreword by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke)
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD: ISBN 1 55750 491 1

Flawed Policies Led To Disaster in Vietnam

The tragedy is “It needn’t have happened!” say people who were on the scene during crucial years of early 1960s

By: Ken Fermoyle

It is hard to envision this book achieving the success or honors (Pulitzer, National Book Award) that Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie earned in the late 1980s. That is unfortunate. In many ways it offers more important insights into why, despite massive U.S. efforts, South Vietnam fell to the Communists

Excellent as Sheehan’s book was, it was filtered through the eyes of a third-party. As good a journalist and writer as Sheehan is, he simply observed or researched the events he recorded. Active participants wrote this book. They lived and worked down where the real action was, not insulated by layers of bureaucracy from the nitty-gritty of life among the Vietnamese people.

A Bright Shining Lie also examined the Vietnam conflict largely from the viewpoint of John Paul Vann, a product of the U.S. military, and primarily a believer in military solutions, though he changed that view later as a result of a close friendship with one of the contributors to Prelude To Tragedy, Tran Ngoc Chau. As even a hawk like Vann came to realize, conventional military tactics at best only dealt with the more visible part of the growing Viet Cong insurgency during the 1960-65 period. It was like trying to get rid of weeds by pulling the tops off, but leaving the roots intact.

Certainly military efforts were necessary at the time, but not the conventional tactics favored by the French, U.S. and South Vietnam leaders. “Winning the hearts and minds of the people” became a hackneyed catch-phrase during this critical time but that does not lessen the importance of the concept. Failure to understand this, and to understand the psychological, cultural, economic and especially the political factors it involved, was critical to the loss of Vietnam.

Prelude to Tragedy: Vietnam 1960-1965 focuses on the unconventional military tactics and even more important non-military efforts needed to remove root causes of the insurgency. Sadly, such efforts, even those that showed great promise, were cast aside or perverted by U.S. policy makers and a succession of subservient South Vietnam regimes that took power after the coup and assassination of President Diem.

As the book’s editors note in the introduction: “During this period, fateful decisions were made that led the United States and South Vietnam down the slippery slope to shameful defeat in 1975…The real tragedy of the Vietnam War is that it didn’t have to happen.”

Another tragedy is that few Americans realize that U.S. arrogance, compounded by lack of understanding, particularly of the peasantry, fueled the Viet Cong insurgency. There was almost an innocence in the lack of knowledge about Vietnam and its people on the part of most American civilian and military officials. We also had a military prepared for and trying to fight a totally different kind of war than what it faced. These are the factors that led to North Vietnam’s victory in 1975.

Remember that this was during the heart of the Cold War. U.S. citizens, bombarded for years by dire threats of USSR plans to conquer the world for communism, could be excused for their ignorance about a small Southeast Asia country. Most knew little about Vietnam; few had even heard of the country before it began to make news in the 1950s.

Our leaders, however, should have known better. It would have taken very little investigation to realize that the vast majority of Vietnamese people knew little about communism during the 1940s, ’50s and even into the ’60s. Few even grasped the concepts of democracy or communism. Those few were the intelligentsia, nationalistic activists and more enlightened Vietnamese. Many of that group learned about communism and communist indoctrination tactics while serving time in French prisons for advocating independence of Vietnam, land reform and other measures to improve the lot of the peasantry. (Once again the old adage proved true: prisons are indeed the universities of revolution.)

The Japanese released thousands of political prisoners after they ousted the puppet French colonial government in March, 1945. Most of the communist cadres came from their ranks. To nationalist Vietnamese, these people were heroes because they had dared to defy the French and suffered in prison as a result. Vietnamese followed them not because of any political ideology but because they had proven themselves as anti-colonialists willing to fight and sacrifice for a free Vietnam.

Most Vietnamese, on all sides and from all strata of society, were nationalists. Some historians and scholars call Vietnam “the Ireland of Southeast Asia” with good reason. It fought against domination by China for centuries, suffered under the colonial yoke of France for some eight decades.

When France attempted to reestablish control over Vietnam after World War II, only a tiny fraction of the 25 million population were doctrinaire communists. Indeed, one contributor to this book, who was active from the very beginning, estimates that there were even fewer, perhaps two or three hundred, true communists in the Viet Minh military ranks and 2,000 in all of Vietnam (Translated. Viet Minh means League for Independence of Vietnam.) Tran Ngoc Chau, author of Chapter 6, My War Story: From Ho Chi Minh to Ngo Dinh Diem, adds: “In 1949, in my Viet Minh Regiment 83, I knew of only two dedicated communists, both high ranking officers.”

(I must note here that Chau has been a close friend and colleague for some 15 years. He fanned my interest in Vietnam’s history, the conflicts that racked it in the past, especially during the 1945-75 period, as well as the causes and results of those conflicts. I hold him in the highest esteem and consider him my mentor in many ways. Thus, I was pleased and honored when, more than a decade ago, he asked me to help him write the full story his memoirs. It has been a most rewarding experience.)

Some Americans who were on the scene did appreciate the situation in Vietnam during the critical 1960-65 period (including a few who were there even earlier). Chief among them was Col. Ed Lansdale, who at that time unquestionably had more experience with communist “people’s revolutions” and counterinsurgencies than any other U.S official at any level of government.

Lansdale was the model for Graham Greene’s “Quiet American” and for Col. Edwin B. Hillandale in the Lederer-Burdick bestseller, The Ugly American. He worked closely-and successfully-with President Ramon Magaysay in the Philippines to combat the Huk Rebellion. He headed the Saigon Military Mission in the mid-1950s. President John F. Kennedy, impressed by Lansdale’s knowledge of and experience in Vietnam, wanted to appoint him ambassador to South Vietnam in 1961. Dean Rusk protested vigorously, threatening to resign if JFK made the appointment.

A few Americans learned from their experiences in Vietnam but many did not. Among the former were Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who first went to South Vietnam in May, 1963 as a junior Foreign Service Officer in the State Department. He was assigned to the Office of Rural Affairs under Rufus Phillips, director of the newly-created organization in a State Department experiment “to diversify the foreign service experience.”

For Holbrooke, it proved fruitful personally, if a failure overall. He makes a powerful point in the Foreword he wrote for Prelude to Tragedy: “In retrospect I think that what we were doing in Rural Affairs had little chance of success. Our efforts failed not for lack of effort or good intentions, but because our work was part of a larger policy that was fundamentally flawed.”

He adds: “My work in Rural Affairs was seminal. It gave me an on-the-ground view of the opportunities and limitations of America’s efforts in Vietnam and, by extension, elsewhere…[it] shaped the rest of my career.” Holbrooke explains that “Vietnam’s lessons were still with me” when he went to Dayton, Ohio in 1995 as chief negotiator in talks that ended the war in Bosnia.

Other Americans failed to understand the causes of U.S. failure, even in hindsight. One was Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense during much of this period. Bert Fraleigh comments on this in his contribution to Prelude.

The five Americans and three Vietnamese contributors to this book offer more valuable insights of what went wrong in Vietnam than McNamara did in his book: In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.

One of the U.S. quintet was Rufus (Rufe) Phillips, a Lansdale protégé. Fittingly enough, he wrote the book’s first chapter, which clearly lays out the problems and some of the solutions he endeavored to implement while director of Rural Affairs for the U.S. Operation Mission (USOM) in Saigon during the early 1960s. This was Phillips’ second tour of duty in Vietnam. He was part of Lansdale’s Military Mission during 1954-56 and also spent time in Laos, so he had significant experience in Southeast Asia.

His chapter, “Before We Lost in South Vietnam,” details some of the egregious mistakes made at top levels of the departments of State and Defense in Washington.

Second chapter contributor Hoang Lac reiterates in “Blind Design” the recurrent theme that runs through this book: with few exceptions, Americans failed to “know the enemy.” A 1950 graduate of the National Military Academy at Dalat, he advanced to brigadier general, was a province chief and served in important military and government posts before the fall of Saigon.

His summaries of the backgrounds of Ho Chi Minh and President Ngo Dinh Diem provide valuable insight into what shaped these two protagonists.

The third chapter is “Counterinsurgency in Vietnam: The Real Story” by Bert Fraleigh, A Canadian originally, he served with the U.S. Army Engineers as a civilian and in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Later he rose to senior positions in various American assistance programs throughout Asia.

Fraleigh begins his chapter by making the point that major U.S. players, even in hindsight, failed to understand why things went so wrong in Vietnam.

“I am appalled by the superficialities and misinformation contained in former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. This feeling is shared by most of us who worked at the grassroots level in this [South Vietnam counterinsurgency] program.”

In preparing his chapter, Fraleigh reviewed trunk-loads of his own files, government records and the literature from 1945 to the end in South Vietnam in 1975. What strikes him most is “the persistent unwillingness of American military leadership to recognize that this was a different kind of war. Put simply, it was unconventional and it demanded a thoroughly unconventional response.”

Fraleigh cites just two exceptions to American unwillingness to combat unconventional tactics appropriately. The first was Col. Lansdale’s successful behind-the-scenes efforts to support President Diem and “stabilize South Vietnam for another six years.”

The second came when “President Kennedy and his brother Robert, believing in the necessity of an unconventional response in South Vietnam, pushed both civilian and military conventionalists to develop one.” Fraleigh says, “We were well along in the job when President Kennedy was assassinated,” repudiating McNamara’s In Retrospect claim that the U.S. simply lacked experts on Vietnam and how to cope with the situation there.

Fraleigh outlines his own extensive credentials in dealing effectively with local people “in the boondocks” and his theories, based on experience, on how it should be done. A key statement: “Experience…convinced me that world peace could best be achieved by helping equalize opportunities and living conditions among all peoples.”

Lu Lan agrees in Chapter 4, “The People’s War or War on the People,” that South Vietnam was lost because U.S. and South Vietnamese leaders did not understand the nature of the conflict. They should have heeded the words of President Kennedy when he spoke about the need for, and how to, combat communism in general.

“It requires a change in outlook, a change in tactics, a change in missions,” JFK noted, to fight an enemy that “relies on infiltration rather than elections, on intimidation instead of free choice, on guerillas by day instead of armies by night…”

Lu Lan joined the local militia in 1945 but was discharged in January, 1947 “for reasons of social class.” (i.e. He came from a family of mandarin landowners and, he reports, was told that serving in his militia platoon “was a high honor reserved for the proletariat.”) Like the other two Vietnamese contributors to this book, he later was a graduate of the National Military Academy at Dalat.

He served in increasingly important posts in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) until the fall of Saigon, reaching the rank of lieutenant general. Thus, he had ample opportunity to experience some of the deficiencies and problems he documents in this chapter.

George K. Tanham tells us in Chapter 5, “Defeating Insurgency in Vietnam: My Early Efforts,” how he came to play a part in the Vietnam story. The RAND Corporation realized in 1953 that the French might lose and that the U.S. might become more involved in Vietnam. They began a series of war games (Project Sierra) to study all types of potential conflicts, from guerilla to nuclear warfare. Tanham joined as a consultant in early 1954, just as RAND began a guerilla-level war game.

“After becoming involved and observing for several months, I thought that RAND was ‘playing’ the communist red forces, the guerillas, in almost exactly the same way that it played the blue forces, the Americans. This did not seem quite right to me because I had been following the war in Indo-China and noticed that guerillas seemed to behave quite differently from conventional soldiers.”

Having studied the Belgian resistance movement and written about it in his doctoral dissertation for a PhD in history from Stanford, Tanham knew something of guerilla warfare. (What seems strange is that RAND think-tankers started their guerilla war-gaming the way they did. The very definition of “guerilla” makes it clear that guerilla tactics are unconventional.)

Tanham discussed his misgivings with a superior, Ed Paxson, who agreed that the games were unrealistic. With Paxson’s blessing, Tanham began studying everything he could about communist revolutionary warfare in general and how it applied to Vietnam in particular. The French granted him permission to study a broad range of documents, including intelligence reports and post-battle assessments, pertaining to their fight against the Viet Minh. He also interviewed many French officers who served in IndoChina. He discovered that many were seriously critiquing operations there, determined not to repeat the same mistakes in future.

“These French thought that psychological operations were an important ingredient in communist doctrine and should be addressed in counterinsurgency programs.”

Tanham delivered lectures based on his extensive studies at the U.S. Army War College in 1947. He also prepared a 3-hour training film on communist revolutionary warfare at the Air University. These efforts and a handbook for RAND on the subject went for naught.

The rest of his chapter details his continuing efforts to persuade U.S. officials at various levels, both in Vietnam and Washington, to understand communist strategies and how best to combat them. He relates instances revealing that Defense Secretary MacNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk had no inkling of either factor, and no inclination to learn.

Tanham particularly criticizes failure of the U.S. to find, train and motivate qualified South Vietnamese to lead counterinsurgency efforts and to govern themselves. He singles out James Killeen, who took over as director of USOM in 1964, for special criticism. “He knew nothing about South Vietnam and even less about counterinsurgency…and, as far as I could tell, made no effort to learn…”

Finally, in frustration and disillusioned, Tanham left Vietnam, “deciding after about six months that I was wasting my time completely.”

I’ve already mentioned my connection with Tran Ngoc Chau, author of Chapter 6, “My War Story: From Ho Chi Minh to Ngo Dinh Diem.” My personal feelings aside, it is fair to say that Chau’s contribution to Prelude to Tragedy is an extremely valuable one. Because of his unique background and innate intelligence, he understood the insurgency and how to cope with it far better than most Vietnamese or Americans. He proved that by initiating what was arguably the most successful pacification program of the era in Kien Hoa province, such a heavily Viet Cong stronghold that it was widely known as “the cradle of the revolution.”

It was so effective, in fact, that American leaders in Saigon wanted to broaden it and convinced South Vietnam officials to create a national pacification cadres program, with Chau as director. Tragically, the CIA insisted on changes that destroyed the program’s basic concepts. Chau resigned as director and what finally emerged was the infamous Phoenix program, a complete perversion of tactics that had made Chau’s efforts successful in Kien Hoa. Instead of countering communist influence by political, psychological, economic and security measures at the local community level, as Chau had done, Phoenix used assassination and intimidation as its counterinsurgency tools.

(Zalin Grant covered this matter, and Chau’s role in it, in detail in his 1991 book Facing The Phoenix.)

Chau’s methods in Kien Hoa were so effective because he did indeed “know the enemy,” far more so than any of the top Vietnamese or U.S. officials. He learned great respect and empathy for the Vietnamese peasantry while living among them and fighting beside them during his years with the Viet Minh. He fought against the French, acquiring knowledge of the political indoctrination and guerilla tactics later used so effectively. He had military training under both the French and the Americans. He incorporated the knowledge from these experiences to craft the programs he developed later.

Chau was one of many teen-age Boy Scouts who joined the Viet Minh’s National Salvation Youth in the 1940s. These fervent young nationalists, along with tens of thousands of political dissidents imprisoned by the French and released by the Japanese during their occupation of IndoChina, swelled the ranks of the Viet Minh during that period. They helped make Ho Chi Minh’s organization the most effective resistance group in Vietnam.

Chau played a minor role, serving chiefly as a courier for an intelligence cell until the (WWII) war ended. When Japan surrendered, Vietnam was in limbo. Japan granted it semiautonomous status with Emperor Bao Dai as titular head of state after deposing the French puppet government in a coup de force on March 9, 1945. Near the end of August, Bao Dai turned over his authority and claims to legitimacy to Ho Chi Minh’s representative.

Chau immediately volunteered for active duty with the first Viet Minh Army of Liberation in 1945. All told, he served five years with the Viet Minh, learning their indoctrination, training, propaganda and military tactics. He suffered the privations of life as a guerilla soldier in the field and at least one serious wound.

“Like thousands of others, I received no pay, not even a uniform, during the first two years. We had one rifle for every three soldiers, a submachine gun for every platoon, usually about 40 men.” (Chau once told me that he had no shoes, not even rubber-soled sandals, for nearly two of those years.)

From a rookie platoon leader in 1945, he moved up through the ranks to company commander in 1946, battalion commander and political commissar in 1947-1948 and head of the training section of Regiment 83 in 1949. By then, however, he began to question his allegiance to the Viet Minh.

He was being pressured to join the Communist Party. He knew of only two Communists in the Regiment at that time. He admired them, but felt that he could never share their commitment to communism. “Both were entirely devoted to the revolution,” he says. “Their dedication, frugality and bravery were beyond reproach.”

Chau’s religious education, family background and beliefs conflicted with communist philosophy. (He was, and is, a devout Buddhist.)

“I also had grave doubts about the ability of the Viet Minh to defeat the powerful French military. I believed that a compromise would eventually be reached between Ho Chi Minh, Emperor Bao Dai and other nationalist factions and that a truly independent, noncommunist Vietnam would result.”

So, near the end of 1949, Chau left the Viet Minh, transferring his allegiance to the newly-created state of South Viet Nam under Bao Dai. He graduated with Lu Lan, contributor of Chapter 4, in the first class of the National Military Academy at Dalat and served in the ARVN, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and earning the highest military medals in battle. He was awarded the Vietnam National Order while a lieutenant. Under President Ngo Dinh Diem, Chau served as province chief in Kien Hoa and mayor of Da Nang, second largest city in South Vietnam, and governor of the Danang- Quangnam area. He returned to Kien Hoa as province chief after the coup (the only province chief to serve under both Diem and the generals) and later was appoint director of the National Pacification Cadre program. He resigned in 1967 and ran for the National Assembly. He not only won the election but was elected secretary general of the House of Deputies. In mid-1968 Chau called for coexistence with the National Liberation Front in exchange for a peace settlement with North Vietnam. Consequently, Thieu’s governent imprisoned him on trumped-up charges of being a “communist sympathizer.” He was released and placed on house arrest shortly before Saigon fell. When Saigon fell, the North Vietnamese quickly arrested this “communist sympathizer” and held him in re-education camps and jails for 2-1/2 years. Ironically, a near-duplicate of Chau’s proposal for peace in 1968 became the basis for the 1973 Paris Accords. Meanwhile, casualties had soared as the war continued.

John O’Donnell (Chapter 7 – “Life & Times of a USOM Prov Rep”) and Harvey Neese (Chapter 8 – “Destination South Vietnam 1959”) were the civilian equivalents of the army and marine “grunts,” American combat troops who began coming to Vietnam in 1965. They waged their part of the war among the peasants, in the hamlets and villages of South Vietnam. They were hands-on guys, not striped pants bureaucrats. Neither one came from the Ivy League background of most State Department personnel.

In fact, O’Donnell came from about as far from New England and Washington as you can get and still be in the United States: a sugar plantation in Waialua, Hawaii. He majored in economics and history at Stanford. After college (1956) he joined the U.S. Army and served in the Psychological Warfare Unit, spending time in the Phillipines, Thailand, South Vietnam and Laos (where he met the famous Dr. Tom Dooley). Upon completing military service, he attended graduate school at the University of Hawaii, and then joined the Agency for International Development (AID) in October, 1962.

Sent to Vietnam , he was assigned to USOM and the newly-created Office of Rural Affairs under Rufe Philips. At first he was assigned as provincial representative (“prov rep”) for seven Mekong Delta provinces south of Saigon. His orders from Phillips:

“You go out there and work with the province chiefs and MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group) to get the Strategic Hamlet Program going and then come back here and tell us what we can do to support you.”

O’Donnell provides valuable background on the situation in the Mekong Delta area at the time. Problems included corruption and indifference on the part of some Vietnamese officials. On the plus side, he was “very impressed by the quality, motivation and high morale of the U.S. military personnel [all volunteers] in the provincial advisory detachments and at Seventh Army headquarters.”

Texas-born Neese earned a BS in agriculture at the University of Idaho and started graduate studies toward a masters. Tiring of school, he dropped out and went to Vietnam in March, 1959 with International Volunteers Service, a precursor of the Peace Corps. He stayed for two years, learning at first hand the country’s customs, language and the difficulties rural Vietnamese faced. Neese’s account of his two years with IVS is interesting and often amusing (e.g., his elephant ride and first attempt at roping bulls). His comments on the ineptitude of many of American USOM advisors are more saddening.

Neese worked with Nguyen Qui Dinh, who held a master’s degree in animal nutrition from the University of Arkansas and was part of South Vietnam’s Directorate of Animal Husbandry, to implement the Pig-Corn project. This program provided improved-breed pigs and information on how to raise them to the poorest farmers. The result: instead of 40-pound pigs that took two years to mature, farmers raised hogs up to 300 pounds that matured faster and provided more meat, more income and more fertilizer for the farmers’ fields-all at reasonable cost.

It was exactly the kind of program that, expanded to other areas and encouraged from the top down, was needed to truly “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people in rural areas. It was especially effective because it was a joint U.S.-South Vietnam venture, with American involvement staying low-profile, rather than appearing dominant.

This effort was too unconventional to impress top U.S. brass but the North Vietnamese government was quick to understand its value. The communists created a copycat program that duplicated the Pig Corn Project almost exactly. They even used a replica of the Pig Corn brochure, down to the Disney-type characters Neese and Dinh created!

Neese returned to the University of Idaho in 1961, completed work on his masters degree in the field of livestock, then returned to Vietnam in 1963 to join the Office of Rural Affairs. The account of his time there, again working in the field and living among the peasants, reveals the trials, and occasional triumphs, of Rural Affairs efforts in a very personal, anecdotal fashion.

The Conclusion of the book sums up the situation during those critical 1960-65 years. Reading the subtitles tells the story: Highest U.S. Policy-Makers Do Not Understand, Conventional Setting, U.S. Ambassador Requests General Lansdale (and was turned down, unfortunately), Beginning Of The End.

The book ends with an Appendix, Bibliography and comprehensive Index. The Appendix provides a brief chronological history of Vietnam, from its colonization by France in the latter part of the 19th century, invasion by Japan, first contacts between the U.S. and Ho Chi Minh to the defeat of the French and involvement of the U.S. The Bibliography lists a number of books that cover various aspects of the Vietnam tragedy.

One can only wish that Prelude to Tragedy had gained wide distribution, while facing the reality that such a happy result was never in the cards. The adage that those who do not learn from history are fated to repeat mistakes from the past is all too true. American arrogance has not disappeared in the past 28 years and lessons that could have been learned from the tragedy of Vietnam have been ignored all too often.

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