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APRIL 2015


Forty years later, the experience still offers valuable insights

for effective expeditionary diplomacy.


Rufus Phillips is the author of

Why VietnamMatters: An

Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned

(Naval In-

stitute Press, 2008). His Vietnam involvement occurred

between 1954 and 1968, when he served as a U.S. Army

officer, CIA case officer, USAID official and consultant

to the Department of State. He originated and directed the United States

Operations Mission/Saigon’s Rural Affairs Office from 1962 to 1963.

Phillips is a senior fellow at the National Strategy Information Center,

where he has published papers addressing gaps in our civilian national

security capabilities abroad. He is a recognized expert and has provided

pro bono counterinsurgency advice to the U.S. embassy in Kabul. He is

a member of DACOR and was inducted recently into the OCS Hall of

Fame at Ft. Benning, Georgia. He has lectured at the National War Col-

lege and at the Counterinsurgency Center at Ft. Leavenworth.


here are lessons to be learned from

our counterinsurgency efforts in Viet-

nam that remain relevant today.

Chief among them is this: although

our understanding and steadfast sup-

port can make a significant difference,

ultimate success depends on the

people we are assisting. Likewise, our

insufficient and often mistaken grasp

of the insurgent enemy and the cultural and political context

of the involved country and its people can greatly contribute to


in Vietnam:

Lessons for Today



failure. These precepts sound simple, but they are often over-

looked because we are so focused on ourselves.

Another lesson is that counterinsurgency works when

politics and development are as much a focus as security. For

lasting effect, counterinsurgency cannot be divorced from politi-

cal reform and progress from the top down, as well as from the

community level up, of the country we are helping. The active

support of a majority of the country’s population for its govern-

ment is critical. Countering insurgencies by establishing security

through military and police operations is a necessary precondi-

tion for political progress, but only indigenous governments that

become responsive to their own people can ensure that security


Counterinsurgency in Vietnam went through various phases

in terms of what it meant, how it was carried out and how the

United States helped or hindered. Understanding the lessons

that experience holds for today requires some history.

Early Efforts

Counterinsurgency actually began in Vietnam during the

Indochina War (1946-1954) and was known as “pacification.”

The French created military-civilian teams (called équipes

mobiles), which performed civil functions in conjunction with

military operations aimed at establishing French control over

areas dominated by the communist Viet Minh. Such efforts were

fatally undermined, however, by French unwillingness to give