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Why Vietnam Matters, An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned

by Rufus Phillips. Naval Institute Press, 2008, $38.95

Regardless of whatever else history may say about the man, the author of this book, Rufus Phillips, should be recorded in the annals of history for a singular act he performed on September 10, 1963. On that day the then-33-year-old Phillips walked into the White House and, before the entire national security team, told the president of the United States the full, unvarnished truth.

General Charles Krulak had briefed first and said things were going great and we were winning the war. Then a high-level State Department officer briefed President Kennedy that all was lost. Both of these men had recently returned from Vietnam after a whirlwind “fact finding” mission, yet their assessments were so divergent that Kennedy asked them, “The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?” Phillips went next. On the table was the crisis developing over what to do about the Diem regime. The president wanted an understanding of the true situation in South Vietnam.

Phillips headed the Rural Affairs program in South Vietnam at that time. Unlike the State Department officer and General Krulak, by 1963 Phillips knew a little bit about the country because he had been living there, on and off, since 1954. So for the next few minutes he laid out the facts, and made history. When the president asked him about the military situation, Phillips replied: “I am sorry to have to tell you Mr. President, but we are not winning the war, particularly in the Delta. The first, second, and third corps areas are okay, but the war effort in the fourth corps, the Delta area south of Saigon, is beginning to go to pieces. I was just in Long An Province, where within the past few weeks the Vietcong destroyed sixty strategic hamlets…”

General Krulak interrupted, disputing Phillips’ assessment. But Phillips calmly explained that while the general had interviewed American advisers, those advisers were explicitly forbidden from talking politics with their Vietnamese counterparts, and the Vietnamese knew that fact. A little later, Krulak again interjected with a new line, “Mr. Phillips is putting his views over those of General Harkins, and as between Mr. Phillips and General Harkins, I would take General Harkins’ assessment…”

At that point, Secretary of State Dean Rusk cut in and asked Phillips to explain how it was that he and General Harkins had seemingly gotten such diametrically opposing messages from South Vietnam’s Assistant Secretary of Defense Nguyen Dinh Thuan about the military and political situation, though they had each talked to him just one day apart. Phillips’ response to Rusk was blunt: “Thuan had been frank with me, because we were friends. But he did not know General Harkins personally and would say what he thought the general wanted to hear.” Honesty of this sort rarely breaks through the White House bubble.

Why Vietnam Matters, which Phillips started writing 25 years ago, may be the very last personal account that gives an eyewitness depiction of events during the crucial early years of the war. What Phillips has to say is nothing short of fascinating.

Phillips was initially recruited by the then-new CIA straight out of Yale in 1951. The CIA was not enough for him though, so after two years he enlisted in the Army. He wanted to serve in the infantry in Korea, but by the time he finished basic training and Officer Candidate School, that war was winding down. Soon he found himself a junior officer seconded to the CIA. It was in this capacity that in 1954 he arrived in South Vietnam, where he became a protégé to the legendary Edward Lansdale—and that is just the beginning of his incredible story. Phillips interacted with Diem and Kennedy, Lansdale and Krulak, John Paul Vann and Richard Holbrooke, among many other legendary figures.

Why Vietnam Matters gives us a straightforward and hard assessment about U.S. successes and failures and is unblinking about Vietnam and our involvement there. But beyond that, the book closes with a tightly written evaluation of how the lessons we should have learned during Vietnam might be applied to Iraq and Afghanistan. One can only hope those who might profit from these lessons read this book.


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here