Part VIA: Richard Holbrooke’s and My Vietnam A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

Holbrooke asked for Southeast Asia. He was not just sent there. Holbrooke wanted to be in a war and worried that the war would be won before he arrived. Could he have been so naïve? Had he been so easily convinced by the briefings he received? Packer writes that Holbrooke already considered the deployment of 15,000 military advisers and almost fifty American casualties as too many. But what about the dropping of Agent Orange? What about “advisers” fighting alongside local troops? That had already happened before he was deployed to Vietnam. Packer, however, focused on Holbrooke’s poor preparations – he was taught the northern rather than southern Vietnamese dialect. His trainers on the culture of the Vietnamese were not experts on Vietnam. He was sent as a community development expert, but his lessons were theoretical and he had no practical experience in the field of any kind.

Bernard Fall, who had been immersed in Vietnam with the French military, subsequently served as an American journalist covering the continuing conflict and then became an American academic. Holbrooke read Bernard Fall’s award-winning 1961 volume, Street Without Joy: Indochina at War, 1946-1954. The Street Without Joy is named after the road that ran north from Hué, a road which, in Operation Camargue, the French were determined to clear of Viêt Minh. They failed. Ironically, in 1967 on that same road, Fall would be killed by a landmine in 1967 while accompanying American troops. It was the same road on which my youngest son rode a motorcycle when we were vacationing in Mexico one winter. We received an overseas phone call. The road had been wet. His friend on another bike lost control when rounding a curve. He died.

In chapter 7, Fall focused on the counter-insurgency effort of the French in 1953 to clear that road of Viêt Minh guerillas. In Operation Camargue, the French fought a counter-insurgency war rather than the set-piece battles, such as the fight over Điên Biên Phŭ that ended the war with the French defeat and withdrawal. The Geneva Accords officially ending the war saw the French withdraw, the creation of an independent South Vietnam and the withdrawal of the Viêt Minh to North Vietnam.

I am not sure whether Holbrooke read Fall’s other books already in print, Le Viêt-Minh 1945-1960 (1960), which I believe had been the subject of Fall’s PhD thesis, and The Two Vietnams. A political and military analysis (1963), especially since Fall made clear in all his writings that the war in Vietnam was a political, not a military war, one that had to be won by political means. Fall predicted that the Americans, like the French before them, would lose the war.

Packer also wrote that Holbrooke had read Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel, in the English translation by Xan Fielding, The Centurions. Bernard Fall loved the novel and noted that it was one of France’s bestsellers since WWII. (If you have not read the novel – it won the 1960 Prix Èva Delacroix – you many have seen the film starring Anthony Quinn called Lost Command.) General David Petraeus quoted the novel and credited it with providing insights to support his thesis on how to conduct counter-insurgency warfare.

The latter became Holbrooke’s, as well as President Kennedy’s, passion with a focus on Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries. But no focus on the necessity of good government. Packer wrote, “If they hadn’t been so young and confident, the class of 1962 might have taken it (the accounts of the wars in Vietnam) as a bad sign.” In 1961, we too were young. We were confident. We “knew” we could and would stop nuclear testing. In 1963, we opposed the American War in Vietnam because it was based on an erroneous domino theory, because the Vietnam War was more a nationalist rather than an ideological war, but mostly because America was backing a corrupt authoritarian government.

Perhaps it was because we were Canadian, but 30,000 Canadian volunteers joined the U.S. military to fight in Vietnam. 137 died or went MIA, missing in action. But the Canadian government, on the other hand, refused to become involved in America’s war in spite of pressure to do so. Perhaps it was because, as a result of the Geneva Treaty that ended the French military involvement in Vietnam, Canada served on the International Control Commission alongside Poland and India to monitor whether each of the parties observed the terms of the peace agreement and the scheduled 1956 elections on reunification. Those elections never took place.

Canada also refused to become involved as a military ally of the U.S. for the following reasons:

  • The war was not supported by the Vietnamese people
  • The war was perceived as a continuation of French colonialism
  • The war was not endorsed by the UN
  • The war was not supported by Asian democracies in the region

Thus, although we were also young and confident, we were not Americans who believed in America’s good intentions; militarism and economic expansionism went far back in American history to its War of Independence. Further, America was a democratic monarchy rather than a parliamentary democracy in which the Executive branch of government had enormous power, especially in foreign affairs. We believed that the system encouraged adventurism. However, our objections to the Vietnamese War were not simply based on our being Canadians, for we accused our own government of hypocrisy since it supplied Agent Orange to the American military. In fact, Canada had a relatively large military export industry, mainly to the U.S. 

The reality – Holbrooke was not blinded because he was young and sure of himself, but because he was a gung-ho American with an almost religious faith in the goodwill of his country. However, he was attached to a Rural Affairs program of USAID, the American International Development Agency. He became an aid worker as part of a sideshow in counter-insurgency warfare. Packer’s stated aim was not to provide a critique of the war, but to show what Holbrooke “had gotten into and why at first it all seemed promising.” (p. 26) However, my point is that the war was not promising even at that time, was never promising, and my question is why Holbrooke got into such a war at all.

Packer did not write the book I would have wished he had written, but a very exciting book that he did write.  He tried to explain why the counter-insurgency doctrines of Colonel Edward Lansdale so entranced Holbrooke that, initially, he became such a strong critic of the American military’s role in the Delta region to which he was assigned. That initial critique evolved from that initial implementation or misimplementation of local development theory because of the failure to integrate development practices alongside military exercises. His criticism went successively through three more stages, from a more general critique of American military tactics and not just the misapplication of those tactics, to the criticism of the whole strategy of the war and, finally, to the conclusion that America’s involvement, and not just conduct of the war, was not only mistaken but immoral.

But why did Holbrooke take so long? Packer cannot answer that question because, to repeat, he was guided by his own dominating question and had not written the book I would have preferred he had written. If the North Vietnamese had left cadres behind when they evacuated northward with their 50,000 troops, Lansdale, Holbrooke’s guru on rural development, seemed less concerned with them and economic development in the south than with black ops sabotaging the Hanoi regime in its own territory. And he befriended Ngô Đinh Diêm, the new “emperor” of South Vietnam. Try as he might, Lansdale could not convert Diêm into a democrat and a believer in rule by and for the people. Packer saw the illusion and contradiction at the root of this misguided effort, an outside power pushing democracy on a people when democracy by definition had to come from within a nation.

However, this is a doctrine of democratic populism from a country that used that ideology as a cover for expansion and exploitation. America itself was and is the contradiction. It fails to recognize that key members of the founding fathers believed in democratic institutionalism, namely that democracy is a product of historical accretions of institutional democratic building blocks and not a popular will. Neither Holbrooke nor Packer get this far in their critiques; their criticisms remained focused on the war itself rather than the contradictory core values of America, and a faith in counter-insurgency, in grass roots reform, in “self-help,” “civic action,” “people first approach,” “hearts and minds,” all alongside “pacification.” After all, Americans were not in Vietnam to run the place, but to help the Vietnamese defend themselves against communism. But it had to be run, and if it were to be run democratically, the building blocks of democracy had to be put in place.

Packer wrote that in 1963 there was hardly a soul in the American government who didn’t believe that communism had to be stopped in Vietnam. (p. 31) But that was untrue, even at the highest levels. George Kennan, the very author of the doctrine of “containment” that was first adopted by the Truman administration to counter Soviet expansionism, left government in 1950 precisely because he criticized containment as a dogmatic ideology rather than a general strategy in dealing with the USSR, though he returned, as did Holbrooke, for brief stints as an ambassador, first to Russia and then, ironically in light of Holbrooke’s future role there, to Yugoslavia. But for years, and throughout the Vietnam War, Kennan criticized the militarization of the doctrine of containment from his perch in the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Kennan had his acolytes at all levels of the U.S government, including in the military. Lieutenant-General James M. Gavin, who had been the third Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division in WWII, was an example. Gavin, as Army Chief of Research and Development, pioneered the use of aircraft, particularly helicopters, to drop units into hot spots that had the first widespread application in Vietnam. In 1958, he retired from the army as a critic and became the highest-ranking dissenter concerning the Vietnam War. Though President Kennedy recruited and sent him as ambassador to France, both because of his experience in Europe and his relations with the French, the appointment was also motivated because that move silenced him as a critic of America’s creeping involvement in Vietnam.

The pinnacle of that criticism came in 1966 when Kennan appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator J. William Fulbright, another critic of the war, and that testimony was broadcast by NBC. (Fred Friendly resigned from CBS because it had bowed to pressure from President Johnson not to broadcast the testimony.) Almost single-handedly, Kennan was responsible for shifting American public opinion from 63% who supported the war to slightly less than a majority. Kennan said that he saw no reason why America should be in Vietnam and several why it should not. However, since it was (mistakenly) there, a “resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions” was required rather than the precipitate and disorderly withdrawal that eventually, and very belatedly, took place.

Hô Chi Minh, though a communist, was primarily a nationalist. A defeat of North Vietnam was possible, but the cost in human lives and to American moral principles would be so great that America’s leadership of the West would be permanently corroded, much as happened following George Bush Jr.’s invasion of Iraq.

But that was 1966 not 1963. Since there is no index in Packer’s book, I could not recheck whether Holbrooke read or followed George Kennan, America’s greatest diplomat of the post-WWII era. Instead, Holbrooke became enamoured with the zeal, though not the politics, of George Melvin, who believed that China was a puppet of the USSR and Vietnam a puppet of China, and that communist subversives had penetrated throughout America. But Holbrooke followed him on his criticisms of the Strategic Hamlet Program, a program of counter-insurgency that never worked, and could never have worked absent a democratic institutional framework. However, Holbrooke believed that it had worked in Malaysia purportedly to defeat the communist insurgency there, and could work in Vietnam.

Whatever criticisms I may have of Holbrooke and of Packer’s inadequate analysis, Holbrooke was a quick learner. Further, he loved journalism and journalists and learned from intrepid reporters like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan that the war was being lost, more as a result of the cruelties of the Vietnamese officers than the ingenuity and bravery of the Viet Cong, and that the American military leadership in Saigon simply consisted of liars, proclaiming victories where there were none and reporting insurgents killed in counts that included dead women and children. They hid American losses. American and Vietnamese defeats were called victories. As Packer writes, deception was the byword of both the military and the administration in Washington, including Holbrooke’s hero, Dean Rusk. Holbrooke came to believe that the most fundamental error of all was ignoring and misrepresenting the facts. In that sense, he became a hardened realist.

One of the best themes of Packer’s book is the narrative of Holbrooke’s deep friendship, difference from and rivalry with one of his diplomatic classmates, William Anthony Kirsopp Lake, a member of “the upper class of accomplishment” rather than money, the very world that Holbrooke aspired to join. As it turned out, Holbrooke eventually gained a prominent membership in both the diplomatic and moneyed worlds. One of the major differences is that, in Lake’s imagination, his fears expanded into nightmares while, in Holbrooke, they disappeared in the illusion of self-immunity from harm, perhaps a necessary piece of mindblindness characteristic of many humanitarians, journalists, academics, military officers, development officials and diplomats working in highly dangerous areas. Bernard Fall was an example. Holbrooke was perhaps another.

In Holbrooke, that mindblindness towards danger was complemented by a passion for facts, as I noted above. While Holbrooke was also coming to the conviction that Ngô Đinh Diêm had to go, he did so at the very time that Undersecretary for Political Affairs in the State Department, Averell Harriman, along with his assistant secretary for Far Eastern Affairs, Roger Hilsman, set in motion accumulating the “facts” that became an integral part of the Defence Department’s Pentagon Papers documenting the U.S. military and political involvement in Vietnam and the doctrine that unsuccessful (and corrupt) Vietnamese leaders could and had to be “removed” at American instigation. Harriman’s position had been occupied by Dean Rusk, Holbrooke’s hero, under Harry Truman. Holbrooke would eventually himself become Undersecretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In Packer’s opinion, this is why Vietnam was such an excellent preparation, in contrast to my view that the same period reinforced and perhaps implanted Holbrooke’s basic misdirection.

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman


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