I don’t think that we should underestimate the need to understand why we lost in Vietnam, and why we could very well lose in both Afghanistan and Iraq. While these are all three distinctly separate wars, the lessons of Vietnam inform the larger reasons as to why we are even in two different countries fighting two different wars right now. I think that we are forgetting Iraq largely because we don’t see it escalating; I think we are focusing on Afghanistan because the fear of escalating that war could then lead to the experience we had in 2006 in Iraq.
Rufus Phillips, raised in rural Virginia and educated at Yale, was a young C.I.A. officer in Saigon in the nineteen-fifties, a protege of the legendary Colonel Edward Lansdale. Over the next decade, Phillips became that rare thing in American foreign policy—an expert in the politics of another country. (Leslie Gelb, the former Times columnist and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, once told me, “American foreign-policy experts don’t know anything about countries. That is a fundamental and tragic problem in our policymaking process.”) Phillips got to know South Vietnamese politicians and military officers better than any other American. He ran the U.S. civilian counterinsurgency program in the early sixties and traveled all over rural South Vietnam (he was Richard Holbrooke’s first boss). When the Saigon government started to collapse, in 1963, Phillips returned to Washington and, though he was far down the bureaucratic pecking order, was asked to brief President Kennedy. Phillips was one of the few officials in a position to know how badly the war was going, and he and a blithely optimistic Marine general argued it out in front of Kennedy, in a scene that made Phillips’s reputation as a fearless straight-talker (David Halberstam recorded it in “The Best and the Brightest”).
After 1963, Phillips ended his official work in Vietnam. But he was one of those young men who never got over it, never again found anything else as interesting and important. A couple of decades ago, Phillips started to write a memoir, but he put it aside when publishers told him that no one wanted to read another Vietnam book. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caused him to take it up again, and last year, at the age of seventy-nine, Phillips published “Why Vietnam Matters.”
It is, among other things, a wonderful read, full of detail and drama. It tells you what it felt like to live and work in Saigon before the Americans arrived by the hundreds of thousands—the Saigon of the French hangover and the American operatives who met their Vietnamese contacts at colonial hotels—where Ngo Dinh Diem seemed for awhile like the best hope of stopping Communism, and Americans had a sunny confidence in their own democratic faith. Phillips might have been the prototype for Graham Greene’s “quiet American,” except that through the lens of Greene’s Catholic-and-Communist loathing for liberalism, Phillips would have been caricatured, his idealism turned to dangerous arrogance, his kindness to naïvete.
Now, if you haven’t read Halberstam, get yourself to a bookstore. Go online, and begin consuming this man’s work. Understanding Vietnam begins with The Best and the Brightest; I can’t imagine anyone reading this new book by Phillips without already having read at least that.