Paid Advertisement
Historynet/feed historynet feedback facebook link World History Group RSS feed World History Group Subscriptions Historynet Home page

Book Review - Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency, by Thomas L. Ahern Jr.

By James H. Willbanks 
Originally published by Vietnam magazine. Published Online: July 28, 2010 
Print Friendly
1 comment FONT +  FONT -

The CIA's Counterinsurgency 'Mission Impossible'

First published as a classified internal history in 2001, Vietnam Declassified is a detailed study of the Central Intelligence Agency's role in rural pacification operations in South Vietnam. Author Thomas L. Ahern Jr. was a CIA operations officer for more than 30 years in East Asia, Indochina, Africa, Iran and Europe. He provides a unique narrative based on his personal experience in Vietnam and secret archives to which he had unrestricted access. The result is a meticulously documented history of the CIA's engagement in the pacification effort in Vietnam from 1954 to mid-1972.

Ahern focuses on "the struggle to suppress the Viet Cong and win the loyalty of the peasantry" during six distinct periods, beginning with 1954 to 1956, when the CIA effort was conducted by two different and autonomous units. One was led by Colonel Edward Lansdale and focused on building security and civic action programs in the countryside. Another group, under the CIA Far East Division of the Directorate of Plans, focused on rural political mobilization. The second period, 1956-61, was characterized by President Ngo Dinh Diem's heavy-handed attempt to eradicate the Communist elements in the countryside, which alienated a large part of the peasant population and resulted in sharply reduced agency engagement.

Subscribe Today

Subscribe to Vietnam magazine

During the third period, 1961-63, CIA efforts aimed at testing emerging theories of counterinsurgency in an attempt to build viable village self-defense programs, including the ultimately ill-fated Strategic Hamlet program. After the coup and assassination of Diem in 1963 by a group of South Vietnamese generals, CIA efforts shifted focus in the 1963-65 time period to pacification efforts at the province level, experimenting with variations on earlier programs. The fifth period, 1966-69, was characterized by the rapid buildup of U.S. combat troops, which ultimately resulted in U.S. pacification programs being unified under the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). The final period, 1969-75, was marked by the Nixon administration's attempt to "Vietnamize" the war, in which the CIA-sponsored pacification programs were turned over to the South Vietnamese. During this time, according to Ahern, Saigon elected not to apply the resources necessary to promote pacification in the countryside, and the resultant deterioration of that effort contributed directly to the South Vietnamese collapse when the North Vietnamese launched their general offensive in 1975.

Ahern provides a detailed examination of the extensive effort to convince the rural Vietnamese that their best interests lay with the Saigon central government. He concludes that these efforts were fatally flawed and resulted in ultimate failure. He enumerates a number of reasons for that failure, not the least of which were false assumptions and self-inflicted cultural blindness.

In the end, the CIA was on a "mission impossible" from the very beginning, since there was never any real attempt at any level to analyze and understand the nature of the insurgency or the fundamental political dynamics among the Viet Cong, Saigon and the South Vietnamese in the countryside. Part of the problem, according to Ahern, was that the Saigon regime was hostile to any programs that might have brought even a semblance of self-government to the rural areas. He also challenges the notion that the Viet Cong's main weapon was terror, and is critical of U.S. policies that focused on "selling the GVN [Government of Vietnam]" rather than giving the people in the countryside a viable alternative to the Viet Cong. He faults American leaders for their failure to face the possibility that no amount of U.S. support could create a viable South Vietnamese government. In the end, Ahern concludes, "The North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon on 30 April 1975 sealed a victory that the Southern insurgents had won more than a decade before."

Vietnam Declassified provides new perspectives on the CIA's role in the American effort to win the hearts and minds in Vietnam. Not every reader will agree with some of the things Ahern posits. For example, some may find fault with his assertion that the campaign to compete with the Viet Cong in the political mobilization of the people faltered after the Tet Offensive of 1968 because of the CIA's withdrawal from a leadership role in the pacification effort. Others have argued that some significant progress was made in the countryside during the years following Tet. Despite this and similar points of contention, Thomas Ahern has written an important book that sheds new light on the continuing debate about what worked and didn't work in America's nation-building programs in Vietnam. It is also very timely given the current U.S. efforts to build viable security and governance institutions in Afghanistan.

One Response to “Book Review - Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency, by Thomas L. Ahern Jr.”

  1. 1

    [...] David G Marr. In his review of a recent book, drawing on previously secret CIA documents, by Thomas L. Ahern, Jr., (himself a former senior CIA officer, 1979 station chief in Tehran, no less), Professor Marr [...]

Leave a Reply

Human Verification: In order to verify that you are a human and not a spam bot, please enter the answer into the following box below based on the instructions contained in the graphic.

Related Articles

History Net Images Spacer
Paid Advertisement
Paid Advertisement
History Net Daily Activities
History net Spacer
History net Spacer
Historynet Spacer

Which of these wars resulted in the most surprising underdog upset?

View Results | See previous polls

Loading ... Loading ...
History net Spacer
RSS Feed Daily Email Update
History net Spacer
Paid Advertisement

Paid Advertisement
What is HistoryNet? is brought to you by World History Group, the world's largest publisher of history magazines. contains daily features, photo galleries and over 5,000 articles originally published in our various magazines.

If you are interested in a specific history subject, try searching our archives, you are bound to find something to pique your interest.

From Our Magazines
World History Group

World History Group Network:  HistoryNet | Armchair General | Achtung Panzer!
Today in History | Ask Mr. History | Picture of the Day | Daily History Quiz | Contact Us

Copyright © 2015 World History Group. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Advertise With Us | Subscription Help | Privacy Policy