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

Chapter IV is an insert from Holbrooke’s own writings while he was in Vietnam, particularly from his first posting to that country. “[W]ater everywhere, rising, raining, so that literally this province, even the ground around our building, is water; the waiting; the ugliness, the cruelty, the tragedy. And in Saigon a regime so totally bankrupt and disgusting it is hard to describe. Events of the last 2 weeks and the family he is captive of [my italics – the reference is to Ngô Đinh Diêm] will be able to lead this country anywhere but towards more death and dissension. So now we wait – for many things; above all, the end of this regime.” (p. 57)

They did not have to wait long. In November of 1963, a military coup overthrew the regime. Diêm and his brother were captured and murdered. And it was not clear why Holbrooke would not pin the responsibility for misrule on Diêm but instead insisted that he was a puppet on a string held captive by his family.

The U.S. military was training and arming the military units guarding the hamlets to which the peasants had been moved, ostensibly for their own protection. Holbrooke was handing out aid to help families relocate, thereby denuding the towns and villages of any population to protect. “The country is so sad, and I feel it more and more.” (p. 58) But what does Holbrooke conclude? “Much is beyond our power, and winning the war will in the end depend on factors we may not be able to control. But we are here now, and there is of course no other choice.” (pp. 58-9) But, of course, there was a choice. America could have left Vietnam in the way George Kennan recommended and without ten more years of suffering and deaths.
“I am fast deciding that the Mekong Delta is perhaps the most supremely unlivable place I have ever seen – yet 50% of Vietnam’s 15 million people live here…I feel myself on the edge of a terrible precipice, and I hope I do not do anything to fall in.” (p. 61) “[W]hy I couldn’t recognize myself I don’t know. I looked so goddam mean and serious, and didn’t look like I would ever smile again.” (p. 62) For Holbrooke, Saigon was grim. “I do not like the American women of Saigon at all, and I emphasize this point.” (p. 64) I will return to this feeling of Holbrooke’s in the next blog.
Simply put, Holbrooke, a normally very upbeat guy, had become depressed. Given the situation he was in, that is no wonder. But the real source of his depression was not just what he witnessed, but the tension and contradiction between what he saw and interpreted versus his fatalism and his inability to see an outcome other than “sticking to it.” He had become very critical of the military, not only for specific actions, not only for their lies, not only for their failing strategies and tactics, but for their:

  1. Lack of intellectual acumen – “These are guys who pride themselves on their toughness and skill, but they show so little perception.”
  2. Behaviour – “The Army…makes men complainers who respect only rank, and consider their own rank as a mark of their intelligence.”
  3. Attitudes towards himself – “They feel that I am a ‘Bulgar wheat salesman’.”

Col. Montague, who respected civilians involved in helping the Vietnamese directly, was a rare exception in the military. In contrast, the dominant American military method was to bomb them: “if the enemy is possibly around, ahead of advancing troops, stop all movement, and call for a smothering air strike or an artillery barrage. Never go in after them on the ground.” As a result, “a sizeable percentage of all casualties in the air and cannon fire are non-combatants, the peasant forever trapped in the middle of the war.” (p. 66) Then the ultimate betrayal – counting them as killed Viet Cong and enemy military casualties. Of course, the Viet Cong did worse, especially when the fighters were Cambodian. In the destruction of the Cn Ngành military outpost in the district of Ba Xuyên, 7 children and 4 women, family members of the Cambodian soldiers, were killed.

Holbrooke was revolted by the scenes and revolted intellectually. The war was wrong both “morally and tactically.” Victory Through Air Power was guaranteeing defeat. For the enemy shot at the helicopters to draw American retaliation on the hamlets they were there to protect. The result – more support for the Viet Cong. “I have no doubt that we kill more civilians than the VC, and with what might generally be admitted are less selective, less ‘right’ tactics.” (p. 70) But what are Holbrooke’s last plaintive words about his own role in a war he had come to believe was tactically, strategically and morally wrong? “But there is no choice, really, is there?” (p. 70) And I want to scream.
It is not as if President Kennedy had not been told. Packer tells the story of Rufus Phillips being asked to brief the President when Holbrooke happened to be in Washington. This was in the presence of all the important military and political muc-mucs advising the president to escalate the air war. Phillips sacrilegiously stated, “I’m sorry to have to tell you, Mr. President, but we are not winning the war.” Sixty strategic hamlets had been destroyed. Diêm had ordered that troops responsible for the defense of these hamlets be confined to quarters lest they end up supporting a coup.

The result – McNamara and Taylor sent back to Vietnam on another “fact” finding tour in which officers and Vietnamese officials would compound the lies collected and put if forth as reliable intelligence. The Americans endorsed the coup that was the first in a series that would bring different military officers to power in charge of the totally destructive folly that the Vietnamese called the American War. Three weeks later, President Jack Kennedy was assassinated. It was Friday 22 November 1963.

I was in my office at Trinity College at the University of Toronto. It had been my first faculty appointment. The walls were paper thin and I heard the ruckus in the hall. I put on my jacket, closed the door to my office and went for a walk around the campus. The silence interrupted by odd people weeping was eerie. Students and faculty stood in scattered clusters as if to comfort one another. Unlike my friends, most of whom admired Kennedy, I had been a critic of Kennedy ever since he appeared at a Hart House debate in 1957 when he was a senator and campaigning to become president three years later.

There is a picture, or there was a picture, that hung for years on the wall of the Debates Room in Hart House at the University of Toronto. The Debates Room was panelled in oak with a raised speaker’s chair. It sat 250 male students (more on this soon). I can be spotted in the picture as the only person without a jacket because I did wear a white shirt and thus stood out in this piece of memorabilia. I did not happen to own a sport or suit jacket and someone brought another person’s jacket out to me so I could get in. I had just finished pre-meds and was in first year of medical school.

The topic of debate was: “Has the United States failed in its responsibilities as a world leader?” Kennedy was slated to support the opposition to the motion. I was surprised he had come. Why Canada when he was fighting to become the Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States? We assumed it was to establish his bona fides. At the time we did not realize that debating at UofT was seen as second best to debating in Oxford. Steve Lewis, who would later serve as Canadian ambassador to the United Nations during the Mulroney government, led the “Ayes.” We had played football together in high school. Steve had been the quarterback and I had been a running end, chosen because I was tall, but benched because I almost invariably fumbled his excellent passes.

Steve was a superb debater. He had been elected president of our high school student council based on his brilliant rhetorical style that he had learned from his father, David, a Rhodes Scholar, who had become leader of the CCF. Steve soon became leader of the student CCF, the Canadian Commonwealth Federation that evolved into the New Democratic Party (NDP) 3 or 4 years later, and would eventually become leader of Canada’s federal social democratic party. Lewis then was an international sensation as a debater, leading the UofT team to a number of awards and had, if I recall, been named best speaker at one international competition.

Kennedy read from a prepared text. It seemed obvious that he had not written his remarks. Further, they were banal and delivered without any feeling. Kennedy was remarkable then, to me, for being dull and almost boring – perhaps he was using Canada as a practice forum. As I recall, and my recollection may be faulty because I could not find his speech on line to check, he rejected the idea that public opinion should influence foreign policy and insisted that, in spite of a number of errors in foreign policy under President Eisenhower – I cannot remember which, if any, he cited – America was a force for good on the world scene. Lewis argued the reverse and insisted that America under the driving force of the two Dulles brothers was not only in violation of international norms and treaties, but its own Constitution. [I apologize to Steve in advance if I have misrepresented what he said long ago.]

The Ayes clearly and unequivocally won the debate based both on style, content and, most importantly, the logic of the respective sides. But in the vote of the audience, the Nays won, by only a small margin as I recall, but they did win. Perhaps Kennedy was right that you cannot rely on public opinion to determine policy. I feared that the many groupies around the Kennedy aura would carry the day rather than thoughtful and reflective discussion. In America, patriotism would be married to celebrity to carry the election towards even greater militancy even if Kennedy failed to get the Democratic nomination or, if he did win, failed to be elected. If that audience in Hart House had been his electorate, he was a shoo-in as Democratic candidate and perhaps president, especially since he admitted that he was an accidental Democrat because he came from Massachusetts, but he shared the foreign policy objectives of the Republicans, and was perhaps more hawkish, only criticizing some of their decisions.

However, it was not Kennedy’s presentation that bothered me the most. Mary Brewin (another prominent child of a famous CCF leader) – or was it her older sister? – led a protest against the debate for continuing the practice of male exclusivity in Hart House. There are only males in that picture on the wall of the Debates Room. I was not torn enough about my objection in principle to male exclusivity to overcome my principles and stay away from hearing Jack Kennedy. In the paper the next day, when Kennedy had been asked why he had attended a debate from which women had been excluded from attending, he said, and I think I am pretty correct about this, that he believed in having some exclusively male clubs.

I had come to believe that in November of 1963, Kennedy was no more a prisoner of the hawks than Diêm was a prisoner of the Nhus. He was the lead Cold War warrior. Holbrooke seems to have seen him as a leader duped by short-sighted and misguided advisers. However, Kennedy was directly responsible for expanding the air war in Vietnam and then approving American involvement in the ground war, continuing America’s involvement in a vicious and unjustified international conflict that killed hundreds of thousands. Most disastrously, he did it in the name of patriotism, in the name of the duty to serve a nation, a nation deeply immersed in an immoral enterprise.

Richard Holbrooke, though he had become a critic of the war from four different angles, nevertheless was a deep believer in patriotism and carrying out his duties as part of the war effort. Kennedy had lauded those students who heeded the urgent summons and reported to their local Draft Boards, praised those who sacrificed to serve as American warriors or diplomats overseas, and, at the top of the peak of this self-sacrifice, elevated politicians to stardom. Politicians who fought in elections to win positions of power and had to make the tough decisions were heroes. Men like Holbrooke at the end of 1963 had a heightened sense of doubt and had become somewhat disillusioned. But only somewhat. They had a deep faith in America and its leadership, even as it erred. They seemed to have no ability to penetrate that faith to discern the source of those errors. The Air War would be supplanted by a vastly expanded military presence on the ground and General William Westmoreland’s new strategy of “attrition.”

Americans were now fighting wars like Charlie Brown in the Peanut’s cartoon played baseball, exclaiming when they were shattered on the field, “How can we lose when we’re so sincere?” In 1964, Holbrooke circulated that cartoon to demonstrate his by now enormous scepticism without any willingness to put his loyalty to the test. Why do Americans keep falling in love with insurgency? Packer’s answer: “We’re no good at it because we don’t have the knowledge or patience, few of our people are willing to learn the history and language and spend the years necessary to understand the nature of conflict.” But that is why Americans failed, not why they fell in love.

The American idealist love for counterinsurgency did not get them into the war, but it was this false vision that led them to expand the war and drag it out for years. What in Holbrooke’s personality and psychological make-up led him to criticize the tactics and strategy of the war and even eventually the war itself, but not America as a fighting power? Packer’s thesis is that Holbrooke never did come to recognize himself. My thesis explaining this is that he had a romantic view of love – love of both women and America.

With help of Alex Zisman


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