VIETNAM DECLASSIFIED: THE CIA AND COUNTERINSURGENCY
By Thomas L. Ahern Jr.
University Press of Kentucky, $40
480 pages, illustrated
REVIEWED BY JOSEPH C. GOULDEN
The stated objective of in-house histories of any government agency, and particularly so of CIA, is that they reach a “lessons-learned”conclusion for persons who might walk similar ground in their future work. To be credible, history must be objective, warts and all. Failures of analysis and execution must be addressed; glossing them over, in the instance of CIA, can cost future lives.
For that reason, this study by Thomas Ahern, a CIA operations officer for more than three decades, is especially sobering. It relates years of intensive efforts by the agency to convince the rural masses of Vietnam that their best interests lay with the Saigon central government, and not with the communist Viet Cong. In the end, the CIA’s efforts failed.
As Mr. Ahern makes plain, what CIA attempted as a “mission impossible” from the start - but one attempted because of a conviction at all levels of government that Vietnam represented an attempt at communist expansion. Given the Soviet creation of postwar satellite states in Eastern Europe, and the Korean War, the United States threw a lifeline to France, Vietnam’s colonial master for 70 years. The effort failed, and a succession of U.S. presidents moved into the breach.
Longtime CIA Asian hand Donald Gregg summarizes the basic policy error in a foreword, “Instead of seeing France’s debacle as the end of the colonial era in southeast Asia, we chose to deal with the region in the stark and rigid terms of the cold war.” (After his first year in Vietnam, 1962, Mr. Gregg concluded the enterprise was one “to which no happy ending is possible.”)
Mr. Ahern, who was there, details the myriad programs aimed at winning the proverbial “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese masses. A diligent reader must be excused for feeling at times that he is swimming in a swirling vat of alphabet soup as Mr. Ahern ticks through the various programs and offices: PFC, ICEX, PSDF, RD, RDCG, PRU, and so forth into infinity.
By the mid-1960s, the optimism of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and many others notwithstanding, many persons at the top of CIA had strong doubts about achieving success. This frustration was emphatically stated in a 1967 “eyes only” cable from Richard Helms, the director of central intelligence, to William Colby, CIA’s chief of station in Saigon:
“I simply have come to the point where I feel that the American effort in ‘pacification’ and ‘national building’ has become so preoccupied with organization, theory and guidelines, that the best brains, certainly of the Washington level, are not being devoted to the precise task of how the game is to be played. … After all, football games are won by teams that understand the mechanics, rather than the theory, of making touchdowns. … If this memorandum fills you with irritation, it is not meant to do so. … The time is late. … This should be the year for players, not for cheerleaders.” (This memo is not in Mr. Ahern’s history; see below for the source.)
Many brave agency officers threw their energies into the effort, putting their lives at risk, and Mr. Ahern does not fault their work. He does point out what became obvious to many agency officers by the early 1960s: The Saigon regime was hostile to the notion of programs that might bring even a semblance of self-government to the rural areas.
Hence the government was wary of any agency activities that posed a threat to its central authority, regardless of the fact that the countryside was crumbling around it. The U.S. military command, which had its own power-sharing phobias, also hindered agency work. (Mr. Ahern tells of the special forces officer who spent $125 for a movie projector to show villagers popular Western films - interspersed with U.S. propaganda movies. The military refused to reimburse him. Trivial? Yes, but indicative of the prevailing mindset.)
Mr. Ahern challenges the notion that the Viet Cong’s chief weapon in the villages was terror. To be sure, atrocities were common, but in field reports that he cites, many villagers paid a VC “rice tax” without coercion, even in areas marked on maps as “friendly” to the government.
What should frighten readers are the obvious parallels to Vietnam and our current ventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and the ungovernable tribal regions of Pakistan. Although these situations are not always identical to those of Vietnam, he sees “compelling similarities.” He poses some questions that hopefully are being asked around Washington today:
“How do we promote a government that is truly independent and yet responsive to US leverage, especially on the inevitable occasions when its policy considerations seem to us not just ill-considered but actually self-destructive?
“Can the need for security be reconciled with building democratic institutions?
“And, finally, how do we solve the dilemma that results when the destruction seen as necessary to defeat an insurgency alienates the very population we see to work to bring over to the government’s cause?”
I do not pretend to have answers. Perhaps someone in government does.
You could avoid paying $40 for Mr. Ahern’s book by downloading it from the CIA FOIA site, but at much expense to your patience and your printer. Given the tough economic times, intelligence buffs might enjoy these freebies:
“West Wind Clear,” by Robert J. Hanyok and David P. Mowry, was published by the National Security Agency’s Central for Cryptologic History, free, 327 pages; request a hard copy by e-mail to history@NAS.gov. The authors effectively rebut, in my estimate, various conspiracy theories that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his high command ignored cables warning that the attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent.
“Richard Helms as Director of Central Intelligence,” CIA history staff, 229 pages. Download at https://www.foia.cia.gov/browse_docs.asp. Recently declassified history painfully details Mr. Helms’ fights with the Richard Nixon White House and the Pentagon and his ultimate dismissal.
Joe Goulden is finishing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.
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