In 1971, a secret history of the Vietnam War was leaked to the American press. One chapter of what became known as the Pentagon Papers, had been written by a young career diplomat called Richard Holbrooke. He of course, would in his final mission, serve as the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan (he died on 13th December in Washington). AAN Senior Analyst Kate Clark has taken a closer look at the Pentagon Papers.
The release of the Pentagon Papers caused a constitutional crisis and helped move American public opinion against the Vietnam war; the leaked documents demonstrated that the previous administration of Lyndon Johnson had lied to both the public and Congress, including about the existence of plans to invade Vietnam and the knowledge, early on, that the war would likely cause many more casualties than was publicly predicted.
In 1966, the twenty-five year old Richard Holbrooke made his confidential assessment of America’s war in Vietnam for the White House. He had first arrived in South Vietnam in 1963 where he worked as a civilian representative in a poor province just outside Saigon, distributing aid and helping train local militias. An obituary in The National quotes him as saying, “I was at the centre of the world where I wanted to be I had wanted to see war … and I had wanted to participate in history, and I was doing both.”
In the leaked memo, Holbrooke assesses civilian-military tensions among US personnel, looks at how to reorganize the US civilian effort so that the war can be won faster, and at the evergreen problem of how to keep personnel long enough in the field to build up experience without risking them getting divorced by their wives back home (forty-five years ago, all officials were assumed to be – and maybe were – male).
He looks at the ‘baffling and contradictory’ attitudes towards the US of the Vietnamese who may, for example, be complaining about and profiting from the occupation. He is clearly uncomfortable with the growing colonial type relationship. He also recognizes that if the war continues for too long without victory in sight, “war-weariness could merge with anti-American feelings to produce a reaction among the population.” The danger is there, he believes, even if ‘a clear-cut issue does not now exist, nor has a leader yet emerged to articulate and intensify these feelings.”
With comparisons between the Afghan and Vietnamese wars a perennial subject for those who want the troops out, fear a quagmire or want to guard against a repeat of the ‘dishonorable retreat’ from Saigon in 1975, Holbrooke’s assessment gives some fascinating insights.
What follows is Holbrooke’s memo, written in 1966 and leaked in 1971; the text has been edited for length, but can be seen in full here.
For the text of the entire Pentagon Papers, see here and for one assessment of the impact of the leaks, see here.
Washington, December 1, 1966.
SUBJECT: Vietnam Trip Report: October 26–November 18, 1966
Returning to Vietnam after an absence of five months, I was first struck by how little things have changed. Sitting in on discussions within the Mission and hearing the same tired old arguments, visiting the Delta and listening to the same recital of difficulties and shortcomings, getting a constant refrain from each part of the Vietnam mosaic produced as if by rote—all emphasized the glacial pace at which real events happen in Vietnam, as opposed to the wild fluctuations in mood that grip the U.S. Government.
The US Mission
In the almost four years I have served in the Mission, I have never seen the Americans in such disarray. This is the result of a rapid buildup, great pressure from higher headquarters, rapid personnel turnover, poor results in the effort against the [enemy] and great personal frustration, poor leadership, fatigue, the absence of families and the resulting abnormal social life. [The military] and the civilian mission have been steadily drifting apart. The Ambassador has tended to allow this to happen, showing little inclination for the difficult job of welding together the entire mission. In a November 9 letter… Lansdale [not specified who this is]stated: “There’s such a dirty power-struggle going on behind-the-scenes among Americans that it’s time that someone talked plain turkey to them about the war and [the enemy]. Incidentally, the civilian vs. military aspects are getting ludicrous… In this atmosphere, with the [locals] getting further away every day from a mission turning steadily inward, a reorganization […] could only serve to strengthen and streamline the Mission, and provide the tools with which to exert greater influence over the [government]. […]
I think the reorganization plans look good. They will put every American civilian in the provinces into a single operational chain of command, reporting directly to the Deputy Ambassador. USAID, JUSPAO, and CAS will no longer have their own men in the provinces; rather, they will assume a staff relationship to [the] Ambassador and the field, and all communications to the provinces will go through a new Office of Operations… Headquarters staff will consist of the combined staffs now called USAID/Field Operations, USAID/Refugees, USAID/Public Safety, JUSPAO/Field Services, and OSA/Cadre Operations. The Ambassador intends to regroup these offices, now spread out across the city of [redacted], into a single building, USAID #2 … and he will locate himself there.
In each Region/Corps, the ambassador will select a Senior Civilian Representative, who will command all US civilian operations in the area. His staff will be the merged staffs of the existing agencies. At the province level, a senior civilian representative will be chosen, who will also command the US civilians in the province. The Senior Civilian Province Representative, who will be chosen by the ambassador on the basis of merit regardless of parent agency, will write the efficiency reports of all the American civilians in the province, and will be the sole US civilian advisor to the Province Chief—the equivalent of the [military command] Sector Advisor. The present system of multiple advisors, often giving conflicting advice, will cease.
[…] Special arrangements are now being worked out to safeguard covert and unilateral activity, particularly those of the Special Branch. All this is quite hopeful. Within the next ninety days, it is unlikely that measurable results will be available showing that this new structure is going to enable us to win the war any faster. But within ninety days we will be able to see whether or not this new organization holds promise of more effective management of the US Mission. I believe it does, and that it could have been accomplished months ago. But at least the Mission has finally made a start; now it needs support in Washington. This will include support for a better and more responsive personnel recruiting system here, drawing far more from the Foreign Service, finding better people from AID.
The problem of personnel is going to get more serious in the next six to eight months, and it is not too early to start thinking about it. Many of the better “old hands” have served as long as they are going to serve without their families. They simply cannot extend their tours again, except at the risk of a broken family. It is not generally realized that so many people of quality will leave but it is true. Only now are the tours of the first post-evacuation group of people beginning to come to an end, and it will prove impossible to keep any of them if they cannot have their wives with them. […] There is a saying now in Saigon that you can’t be a good counterinsurgent unless you have wrecked your marriage. There is a grim truth to it. The situation forces people to choose between their commitment to our effort in Vietnam and their families. Most men can only choose Vietnam for a limited period of time. If our commitment in Vietnam is indeed a serious long-range one, we are going to need a cadre of superior officers who are willing and interested to serve extended tours out there, and see the war through. We cannot build such a cadre from unmarried and divorced men alone. The visitation program is no solution; trips every month to Bangkok or every six months to the States create a difficult situation, and frequent gaps in the staffing pattern. This is a growing problem, and deserves high-level attention. My recommendation is similar to one once made by Ambassador Lodge: Permit people who have served 18 months and who are needed for another tour bring their wives—no children—with them for the second tour. I think this is reasonable, does not cause unsurmountable housing problems (this is a minor issue), and does not cause undue security problems.
US Relations With the Vietnamese
The reaction of various elements of Vietnamese society to the continuing U.S. military and civilian buildup is baffling and contradictory. On one hand there are vague and elusive signs of growing annoyance on the part of many Vietnamese with American behavior. This can manifest itself in many ways. There are the continual complaints of General Nguyen Duc Thang, who feels that the U.S. simply does not understand Vietnam. (Despite these complaints, there is no question now of Thang’s continued pro-American attitude.) There is the growing chorus of urban Vietnamese who see their cities being changed by the American presence. Ironically many of those who complain are also profiting from the buildup. There are the surprisingly strong neutralist statements of many student leaders in Saigon, who despite their family positions do not seem to feel any sense of commitment to the anti-VC effort, and blame the U.S. for every problem in their own country. Only a few of these anti-American sentiments are of value to the VC at this time; the great majority of the people are still not ready to turn grumblings of discontent into open action that would precipitate an anti-American crisis. But there is enough latent feeling about the Americans so that if the war continues for too long without victory in sight, war-weariness could merge with anti-American feelings to produce a reaction among the population. A clear-cut issue does not now exist, nor has a leader yet emerged to articulate and intensify these feelings. But the danger exists, and it may eventually create a strange sort of time limit for us, so that we must either win the war fast for the GVN or else face a reaction from the very Vietnamese whose original shortcomings caused us to increase our involvement.
On the other hand, there are many other Vietnamese who are consciously deciding to cast their lot with the Americans, and become “our Vietnamese.” For the Vietnamese, if they understand anything, understand the colonial relationship, and no matter how hard we try to avoid it, as the buildup proceeds, more and more Vietnamese will assume that we are indeed becoming the new masters of Indochina. This does not mean that we behave like the French did; but in a situation in which many people do not take the GVN seriously and in which most Vietnamese think that we (i.e., the CIA) control events, many Vietnamese are going to see quick profits and possible power if they can become popular with the Americans. By our very presence, we are therefore creating a group of people—some totally sincere, some wholly devious—who are making a commitment to the American Marines, or the Army, or the ‘Embassy’. Despite the theories VIPs get in briefings, this commitment cannot be transferred from the Americans to the GVN.
People who make this commitment and cast their lot with the Americans—be they village chiefs or farmers […], or government officials, or covert agents or VC defectors—are choosing Americans, not the GVN. We have given such people something to hope for, either security or a chance for quick profits. Whatever the reasons for their choice, the majority of those making this choice have decided that we are going to be in Vietnam for a long time no matter what we say publicly. People in this category—including 2 VC defectors and a village leader—told me that the VC would win in a matter of weeks if the U.S. even thought of withdrawal. They based this feeling not only on the military power of the enemy, but on his political sub-structure.
So if the war drags on, we may find ourselves cast increasingly in the role of the only governing force in a given area, more and more embroiled in the business of running that area. This may sometimes be unavoidable, but we should minimize the area in which it happens. We are not trained or equipped to do what must be done in rebuilding government in the villages; moreover, it is an open-ended commitment in terms of both time and men, and could well lure us unwillingly and unwittingly into a strange sort of “revolutionary colonialism”—our ends are “revolutionary,” our means quasi-colonial. As this happens, we can be caught in the trap of trying to get the least revolutionary Vietnamese—“our Vietnamese”—to carry out programs with which they are in basic disagreement. (National Reconciliation and Land Reform are recent examples.)
Thus, our very presence may prevent the emergence of a new leadership which would be willing to carry out the revolutionary programs which we are advocating and which are vital to our success—unless we exercise a rare combination of self-restraint and gentle covert encouragement to selected younger civilian leaders.
Memorandum From Richard Holbrooke of the White House Staff to the President’s Special Assistant (Komer), Washington, December 1, 1966. Following a trip to Vietnam: October 26-November 18, 1966.
*With thanks to the diplomat who pointed me in the direction of this document.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020