Scribblings: Rufus Phillips

Photo courtesy of
‘The Three Servicemen Statue, sculpted by Frederick Hart’ courtesy of ‘cliff1066’

Tonight at the International Spy Museum is a visit to our nation’s past, as we look ahead to our future.

As the East and West battled for dominance in the Cold War, the fate of Vietnam was a matter of enormous importance. In the 1950s, the U.S. Saigon Military Mission (SMM) was created to respond to this situation with dual purposes: a covert CIA and an overt military aid mission. Under the command of Colonel Edward G. Lansdale, the legendary covert political action operative, the SMM was preparing stay-behind agents for both North and South Vietnam, should the North succeed. At Lansdale’s side was Rufus Phillips, an Airborne Infantry Officer detailed back to the CIA. For his role as the sole adviser to two major Vietnamese army pacification operations, Phillips was awarded the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit. He later joined the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Saigon Mission to lead its counterinsurgency efforts. In this wide-ranging discussion, Phillips, the author of Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned, will describe his wartime experiences in Vietnam, how the SMM operated, the renowned Lansdale, the extraordinary North Vietnamese spy Pham Xuan An, and the real lessons of Vietnam and their applicability today.

Rufus took a few moments to answer a couple of questions about his latest book – Saigon Stories – giving you a taste of tonight’s discussion.

You are well noted for speaking “truth to power.” So, did we win or lose the Vietnam War?

It was never ours to win or lose. We made a great mistake in thinking we could “win” it by ourselves and give the country back to the South Vietnamese. This in the final analysis only strengthened the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese by fueling the fire of Vietnamese nationalism while undermining our South Vietnamese allies. In the final analysis both we and the South Vietnamese lost it.

Was success possible or was the learning curve too high?

Yes, it was possible but our leadership never understood the problem they were trying to solve which was how do help the South Vietnamese develop a government so firmly rooted in the support of its own people that the motivation of the South Vietnamese people to resist the Vietcong was at least equal to the Vietcong motivation to prevail. We learned how to help the South Vietnamese pacify the countryside but their government remained too weak politically and lacked the means militarily without significant American advisory, logistical and air support to resist an all-out invasion from the North. Our earlier approach to waging the war contributed greatly to our losing the support of the American people which became the most critical final factor.

What was the American experience with counter-insurgency prior to Vietnam ?

Leaving aside our earlier experience in Nicaragua in the 1930’s some of which was quite valuable but was forgotten by the time Vietnam came along, the most valuable experience was the Philippines in the 1948-53 period when the communist Huks were defeated militarily and most important politically by the Filipinos themselves with minimal direct intervention by us but with very skillful advisory assistance. Until the Soviet Union collapsed it was the only instance of a Moscow trained, hard-core communist leader, Luis Taruc, voluntarily giving up and saying that he no longer had a cause worth fighting for. There was a lot learned but much was forgotten and only applied on the civilian side of the American effort in 1962 and 1963 in support of the South Vietnamese Strategic Hamlet Program.

Is Iraq the new Vietnam? What are the chances of long term success?

No, Iraq is not the new Vietnam, but we made a lot of mistakes early on which resembled the nature of the mistakes we made in Vietnam. General Petreus and Ambassador Crocker brought back the effort from the brink of disaster but whether the demons of sectarian fear and hate can be managed by a seriously dysfunctional Iraqi government remains a question. Can those factors, which we exacerbated by our own earlier sins of omission and commission, be overcome as the Iraqis take control will only be determined over time.


We are paying heavily for past neglect and this is likely to be a long struggle not won until majorities of the Pashtuns on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border support their respective governments instead of the Taliban. This it will have to involve significant reform of Afghan governance as well as a much smarter counterinsurgency approach. On the Pakistan side the same holds true. Only then will Al Queda’s presence be effectively eliminated.

Join Rufus Phillips tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the International Spy Museum, located at the corner of 8th and F St, NW. Tickets are $15 and still available; call 1.800.393.7798 for more information. The Museum is accessible via the Red, Green and Yellow Lines at the Gallery Place / Chinatown Metro stop.

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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