The Vietnam War Reconsidered

There is nothing happening today, either in regard to Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, that in principle did not also occur after 1950 under a succession of presidents–whether they were conservatives, liberals, or whatever description fits the murky and contradictory American political environment. Lies, distortions, cynical manipulation but also self-delusions have always been endemic to the way key foreign policies were and are articulated. What is called “intelligence” is far less a solution to the problem of ignorance than an integral aspect of it. We can rarely believe we are being told the truth, if only because those who proclaim it often are themselves mystified by illusions. If true it is something of an atypical accident.

The CIA could defend its reputation for gathering intelligence expertly and impersonally until the mid-1970s House and Senate investigations. Before then, its critics confirmed its failures mainly by deduction, but the Congressional investigations portrayed an organization that was not merely malevolent but also simply incompetent on many critical matters. It did not anticipate the Korean War, the Czech crisis of 1968, the October 1973 Mideast War, the 1974 Portuguese upheaval, India’s explosion of a nuclear device in 1972, the fall of the Shah in 1979–and much else that took the U.S. by surprise. The CIA’s analytic deficiencies and errors on yet other questions, above all Vietnam, are well known and documented; and that policy determines what its analysts’ report has been conventional wisdom for decades.

This said, there is still a great deal to know, and George W. Allen’s memoir is surely one of the handful of books that is required reading on the entire Vietnam experience from 1949 onward, when Allen joined the Pentagon’s intelligence network and immediately became involved with the French effort to retain their Indochina colonies. In 1963, scandalized by the American military’s myopia and mores, he moved to the CIA and soon became its leading Vietnam analyst. He met innumerable decision-makers in this capacity. When he retired from the CIA in 1979 he worked for them on contract for the next 15 years and it cleared this book manuscript. It is therefore an “official” account, at least insofar as the analysts saw the Vietnam War. It is scarcely the only book on intelligence and the Vietnam War, and others are also very informative, but it is by far the most detailed and most important. [None So Blind: a Personal Account of Intelligence Failure in Vietnam by George W. Allen (Chicago: Ivan R Dee, Inc.., 2001) AND CIA AND THE VIETNAM POLICYMAKERS: THREE EPISODES 1962-1968, by Harold P. Ford (Washington, DC: C I A Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1998)]

Indeed, in 1998 the CIA released Ford’s detailed account of three major episodes during 1962-68 and both books can be read in tandem. They come to the same conclusion, to cite Allen, “that our leaders tended toward self-delusion.” There are no basic new revelations in either of these works; McGeorge Bundy emerges as a villain and cynical manipulator, and Robert McNamara as confused but committed to the war, a pathetic character. And on some crucial questions Allen suffers from analytic myopia. But his intimate account of meetings and confrontations, revealing the mindset of men hell-bent on the path of destruction and defeat, makes Allen’s memoir unique.

There is a very substantial list of first-hand accounts by disgruntled CIA employees as well as those who worked for various branches of the government on a variety of Vietnam subjects. The land and peasant question in Vietnam, scarcely mentioned in the Allen memoir, was studied in detail by Robert L. Sansom and Jeffrey Race, both of whom had official sponsorship and published books well before the war ended. Both asserted that the land question was critical to the successful pursuit of an anti-Communist political mobilization in the South, and both were ignored. Race described how Washington’s “policy was founded on and protected by deception and outrageous lies,” and how a general told him that to identify America’s errors in Vietnam was off bounds and the Pentagon “cannot permit such subjects to be discussed.” That there were structural reasons for peasant supported the Communists “simply couldn’t get through” to the men at the top. [Jeffrey Race, “The Unlearned Lessons of Vietnam,” Yale Review, LXVI (1976), 163-66, 173] There were articulate skeptics within the Pentagon who thought Vietnam was a futile war, and its Systems Analysis Office published a very informative report every six weeks or so which the Joint Chiefs of Staff several times sought to close down or restrict. Many critics of the war effort and its assumptions worked at the Rand Corporation, which was why Rand employees ultimately leaked The Pentagon Papers to the public . There was, in short, plenty of good, accurate information available–for those who wanted to read, believe, and use it. It simply made no difference because the gap between reality and policy is irreconcilable.

But critics of how the CIA treated facts have scarcely been restricted to the Vietnam War. Willard C. Matthias was one of the chief analysts of Soviet policy and intentions, and in America’s Strategic Blunders: Intelligence Analysis and National Security Policy, 1936-1991 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), he describes how error after error was made in regard to the Soviet Union as well as innumerable other nations–often quite cynically simply to justify greater military spending. Facts, in Matthias’ experience, were tailored to suit “a political-bureaucratic arena dominated by the military services and anti-Communist ideologists.” William Casey’s appointment as head of the CIA in 1981 was the culmination of this process, and Casey often ignored his analysts’ views and gave his own, purporting that his opinions were theirs. Information did not inform policy nearly so much as the reverse; what was “true” depended in large part what senior officials wished to hear. The CIA has produced many unhappy people who had access to much more information than policy critics but who came to identical conclusions. Anyone who reads the CIA ‘s unclassified version of Studies in Intelligence knows there are a significant number of them and they are quite candid, describing “much of the information” the CIA gets, “to be blunt, is garbage.” [Steven R. Ward in Studies in Intelligence, vol. 46, no. 3, 2002] Other memoirs, dealing with not only the CIA’s action section but also with the Pentagon’s special operations forces, describe endless ineptitude and confusion. Screwing up covert efforts is so common that it is practically the rule rather than the exception. [see, for example, John T. Carney and Benjamin F. Schemmer, No Room for Error: The Covert Operations of America’s Special Tactics Unites from Iran to Afghanistan (New York: Ballentine Books, 2002), and Robert Baer, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism (New York: Crown Publisher, 2002).]

Allen’s memoir is among the most informative of this genre, and it is the most important because the Vietnam War was the most important American effort of the post-1945 period to impose its will on a nation–and it lost catastrophically. I am impressed by the insight and accuracy of Allen’s and the CIA skeptics’ analyses. Successive presidents and their chief advisers had plenty of good information before them–and ignored it.

Allen began with the French war in Indochina after 1950 and he recounts how Eisenhower and Dulles strongly opposed France following what the Americans were doing in Korea–signing a cease-fire agreement and making a settlement with their enemies after being stalemated on the field on battle. They wanted the French to fight harder and longer, which France refused to do. The U.S. opposed the Geneva Accords and “basing their views on a set of assumptions that we believed were entirely unrealistic,” it took over a French mission in the region that had failed catastrophically. The Eisenhower Administration prevented the Geneva Accords’ conditions on reunification elections from being implemented and violated its military provisions. The history of the rest of the decade is well known, but every step of the way the CIA analysts accurately predicted what would go wrong–and it did.

The Ford account published by the CIA picks up the story in 1962, and it complements and corroborates Allen’s memoir. It makes it perfectly clear that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s later complaint that there were no “Vietnam experts” to whom he could turn is simply false. They existed but he refused to heed their advice whenever they warned against the series of disasters which Allen describes. Among the main failures were the American failure to understand Communist military doctrine or estimate their numbers accurately–the “order-of-battle” which became a central issue between the CIA and Pentagon. In addition, the Johnson Administration leaned heavily toward the venal and corrupt Nguyen Van Thieu becoming a virtual dictator and ending the chronic political instability that followed the American-endorsed assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem. The level of corruption that permeated Thieu’s entire system, from the state to the army, was well known and tolerated in Washington; Allen provides additional details. And all Washington administrations trained and equipped the Saigon army to fight conventional war according to official American doctrine. It was, of course, mainly a guerrilla war.

The so-called Tonkin Gulf crisis of August 1964 “astonished” Allen because he was aware that covert Saigon and American missions were taking place in the gulf and the North Vietnamese would investigate them. At first he thought that a branch of the American military did not know what another was up to, “but I did not realize how eagerly the administration was seeking a pretext for a major escalation” in the hope of shoring up the Saigon regime. The same was true of the Pleiku incidents of early 1965 which became an excuse for “a retaliation waiting for something to happen; the Pleiku attacks were a convenient trigger for intended escalation.” It was used as an excuse for permanently bombing North Vietnam.

The myths of progress in the war were conscious falsehoods, carefully nurtured, and when Allen and CIA analysts like him objected they were told to “get on the team” and go along with them. He recounts numerous instances of issuing false data, some, like the hamlet evaluation statistics, well known. At no time was truth given a higher priority than political convenience or the lies both the politicians and generals propounded. The military intelligence and CIA were constantly struggling with each other for analytic domination, and the CIA lost most of these bureaucratic turf wars. And while some politicians, military, and CIA action people–those whose hawkish policies were already predetermined–deluded themselves and undoubtedly really believed these fairy tales, most knew that their careers depended on being optimists.

Manipulating public opinion and politics dictated how the war was justified, triggering a series of falsehoods and myths which CIA analysts such as Allen were compelled to accept despite the fact they knew what was really happening.

The most serious consequence of this protracted, convoluted system of deceptions was the so-called order-of-battle controversy before the Tet Offensive in February 1968. The lower the numbers the more progress the American military could claim, and so they refused to count the various local forces–roughly 300,000 men disappeared because admitting their existence, to quote General Creighton Abrams in August 1967, would produce a “gloomy conclusion.”

The CIA objected to a point but eventually had to accept the distortions and both Allen and Ford are very detailed on this controversy. Ultimately, General William Westmoreland unsuccessfully sued CBS for allowing a leading CIA specialist on the order-of-battle to expound his views. But the Communists during the Tet Offensive had far larger military forces than most American officials believed and changed the politicians’ and, even more ominous, public perceptions of reality. The Tet defeat, Allen insists, was much greater because of the “overblown psychological campaign in the fall of 1967,” which was also essential for Lyndon Johnson’s reelection ambitions. The falsified data, in the end, was believed by those seeking initially to manipulate public opinion, and the Tet defeat was the beginning of the end for the protracted American effort to win the Vietnam War.

Allen is simply wrong when he attributes the Saigon army’s final demise in 1975 to the failure of American firepower, especially aviation, to come to its rescue. The U.S. gave the Saigon army a huge quantity of advanced equipment and trainers, and they had a major superiority to Communist forces in tanks, artillery, combat troops, and especially airpower, over which they had a monopoly.

They had plenty of munitions. What they utterly lacked was morale. The Communists believed this material advantage meant something and they thought up to two years were required to win a final victory. But not only Allen has no conception whatsoever of the political nature of Thieu’s army, which was designed to maintain his grip on power but nothing else; neither did the Communists. Sociologically, the army was exceedingly fragile and simple material equations utterly fail to capture this reality.

I was in South Vietnam at the end in 1973 and tried to discuss these questions with Communist leaders, arguing that the war would last two years longer–already too cautious–and that the scenario they should expect was much more like the Kuomintang defeat in China, when the Communists won power for sociological reasons having nothing to do with the balance of military equipment and forces. In February 1975 I told the future foreign minister in Geneva that the war would soon be over, and two months later, when I spent five weeks in Hanoi and was in the south when the war ended, he told me he had thought in February that I was “crazy.”

Although they should not have been, the Communists were as surprised as the Americans at their sudden victory, for which they were psychologically and logistically utterly unprepared. They discarded much of their most advanced military equipment because it slowed them down and they had no need for their missiles, which I saw abandoned on the sides of roads. I was in Hué when the war ended and heard the news first and shouted it to nearby cadres. One shook his head and said he did not understand how they won the war–they simply had made one error after another. The Communists were scarcely supermen, as Allen would have it, and they did not so much win the war as the American-backed Saigonese had lost it. This is at least a partial explanation of Communist behavior after 1975 and why Vietnam today looks much more like another capitalist nation.

Allen’s analytic skills cease on even more important issues. He attempts to explain why the war occurred in the first place, which he attributes far too much to inadequate bureaucratic mechanisms for dealing objectively with information and the potential consequences of the options for foreign policy alternatives for the national interest–which he never defines . His comprehension of the reasons for the Vietnam War is banal, and he does not mention the credibility of American military power once. He is indispensable on details but, like many people in intelligence, he cannot deal with the larger picture. Had he utilized The Pentagon Papers his explanations would have been more subtle.

Allen has written another insider’s account, much more insightful than the vast bulk of them, and we are sure to have similar revelations on the war in Iraq and elsewhere. It is, notwithstanding his banal conclusions, full of new detailed information. Indeed, such books, such as Milt Bearden’s The Main Enemy on Afghanistan or Robert Baer’s book on Iraq, have already appeared. Leaving aside the large part of intelligence services devoted to covert action to implement policies, there is still an immense analytic organization which is designed to be objective and inform policymakers of crucial information before they takes actions, many of which have irrevocable consequences. What do these accounts, useful on details, tell us in the largest sense about the nature and function of organized intelligence services in the formulation of foreign policies?

Lies became the rule. The public had to be led along and, a Allen recounts, “On many occasions the truth was grotesquely and deliberately distorted in order to make a point.” But Vietnam was only one of many examples of how foreign policies were formulated. “our policies tend to be excessively dominated by aggressive individuals or organizations, or by the interplay of bureaucratic politics, rather than by rational deliberation of national interests.” So much for intelligence guiding policy. After 30-odd years in this role, Allen became disillusioned.

There is no evidence, either from the many first-hand memoirs or the practice and conduct of post-1945 American foreign policy, that grand policy options or goals are influenced or defined by information–nominally, analytic intelligence–that as truthfully as possible approximates reality in all its dimensions. Were this the case, there would be far fewer defeats and failures for Washington to confront, one mess after another, and it would be far more modest regarding its global interventions and ambitions. For respect for the parameters of reality involves decisive constraints on policy choices, and there is simply no evidence, historical or otherwise, that the U.S. has chooses policies this way. So what is the use and function of what is termed “intelligence” in the analytic meaning of that word?

The large technical and ideological cadres that purvey intelligence, rather than becoming a source of rationality and clarity, burden the already insupportable complexity of foreign policy formulation with worthless data, and accurate information becomes worthless as soon as it fails to reinforce what America’s political and military leaders wish to hear. Intelligence functionaries accept the constraints of the system quite willingly because it pays their salaries. These personnel transform themselves into peddlers of just one more economic activity and they never transcend the policy limits that the non-technocratic ruling elites impose. This is just as true in all areas of domestic affairs as in foreign policies.

The state’s intelligence mechanisms are constrained by a larger structural and ideological environment and by the inherent irrationality of a foreign policy which foredooms any effort to base action on informed insight to a chimera. Even when the insight is exact, and knowledge is far greater than ignorance, political and social boundaries usually place decisive limits on the application of “rationality” to actions. The political and ideological imperatives and interests define the nature of “relevant” truths. Intelligence’s pretension to being objective is a hoax because those parts of it that do not reconfirm the power structure’s interests and predetermined policies are ignored and discarded. There are innumerable reasons we must conclude this, not the least because there is a growing number of memoirs like Allen’s to cite. Even more important is the entire experience with Iraq and the U.S.’ failed confrontation with the Islamic world for over half a century. To expect the U.S. to behave other than as it has is to cultivate serious illusions and delude oneself.

The system, in a word, is irrational. We saw it in Vietnam and we are seeing it today in Iraq.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He can be reached at:



GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience