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Camelot, Robert Kennedy, and Counter-Insurgency: A Memoir

ISSUE:  Summer 1999

“What are we doing about guerilla warfare?” asked President John F. Kennedy in January 1961, shortly alter he took office. The answer—at that time—not very much. Guerilla warfare, insurgencies, and Third World revolution were pretty far down the agenda of Pentagon planners. The State Department with its longer view of history, was not unhappy at this neglect: it regarded political turmoil as endemic to large parts of the postwar world and U.S. intervention with anathema. That soon changed. During the few short years of the Kennedy administration as obsession with subliminal warfare, engendered and fostered by Cold War zealots in the President’s entourage, and seconded by his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, dominated the national security agenda. It carried over into later administrations, paving the way for this country’s ten-year war in Vietnam and callous human rights record in Latin America.

Until the end of the Eisenhower administration, the two priorities of American strategic thinking were the Soviet threat to Western Europe and the unpredictable menace of China. With Few exceptions—the Middle East, Cuba, Taiwan, South Korea—the less developed world was viewed as peripheral to our national security interests. Terrorism was seen as an isolated phenomenon and a criminal justice problem. After the Korean conflict, it was an article of faith in the military that never again should American soldiers get bogged down in a land war in Asia.

Nonetheless, even before the 1960 election, Pentagon planners were suggesting that a moderate shift in the strategic emphasis away from nuclear deterrence was overdue. It was obvious that nuclear bombs and armored divisions had little relevance to left-wing insurgencies in the developing world. In a book titled The Uncertain Trumpet, a retired Army Chief of Staff, General Maxwell D.Taylor, called for a defense strategy based on “flexible response”—and General Taylor was now in the White House and slated to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was taken for granted that left-wing revolution in the developing world was inimical to the United States and provided an opening to communism.

In 1949 the conventional army of Chiang Kai-Shek had collapsed in the face of Mao Tse-Tung’s highly motivated revolutionary forces. In Indo China, a French colonial army had been unable to crush the Viet Minh. Throughout the developing world, left-wing insurgency movements were embracing the Maoist concept of “peoples’ war” which envisioned the civilian population as the ocean and revolutionary fighters as the fish. Soviet Chairman Nikita Khruschev’s speech of Jan.6, 1961 endorsing “Wars of National Liberation,” added a Cold War dimension to these developments.

The wave of unrest sweeping the Third World together with Kennedy’s fascination with guerilla warfare was raw meat to the New Frontier’s foreign policy and defense intellectuals who had flocked to his banner during the campaign and were now stoking his rhetoric. The hard core, led by National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and his deputy Walt W.Rostow, were in key positions in the White House, and feeding lesser lights from universities and think-tanks into the bureaucracy. Their commitment to activism was not, however, matched by impressive policy credentials. Bundy, a “boy-wonder” Harvard dean, may have been a paragon of the East Coast Establishment, but his foreign policy experience was negligible and his exposure to foreign cultures non-existent. Rostow was an MIT economist who was long on ideas but also short of overseas experience. Rostow in particular bored President Kennedy to the point where he was soon sent over to State’s Policy Planning Staff.

Neither Bundy nor his colleagues had ever actually grappled with the problems of the developing world, let alone with hardened underground political leaders who marched to a different drum. They were policy wonks who had seized on Khruschev’s speech as the theme around which to weave an unconnected aggregate of anti-colonial and native revolutionary movements into a global communist conspiracy, micro-managed by the mythical Sino-Soviet “bloc,” aimed at eroding the U.S. alliance system from the periphery.

Intellectual credibility to this fantasy was provided by Professor Rostow. His theory of the “stages of economic growth” (set forth in a book of the same name) postulated “take off” stages in the development process, when societal stresses were at their height. which made Third World societies vulnerable to Marxist takeover. He and his acolytes had a genius for phrase-making and policy improvisation that rivaled Madison Avenue. By linking the provenly effective Maoist strategy of “people’s war” to economic development theory they constructed a one size-fits-all Communist master plan to “confiscate the revolution of rising expectations.”

To those familiar with the regions in question—diplomats, journalists, foreign aid personnel, even members of military missions— this apocalyptic vision was, to say the least, simplistic. They knew from experience that each Third World nation was a special situation: that nearly all postwar insurgencies in Asia and Africa had roots in anti-colonial movements; and that social and economic inequities, coupled with the brutality of security forces in suppressing peaceful reform, made an explosive mixture in Latin America.

None of these realities deterred the White House from firing off directives to the Departments of State and Defense ordering the development of a uniform inter-agency counter-insurgency policy. The State Department was designated to “take the leadership” in coordinating the policy, but the president seems to have been unfamiliar with the way this aspect of government worked. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, although a compliant executant of administration policy, had no such illusions—as a former assistant secretary tor East Asia during the Korean War, he was only too aware of his Department’s feeble authority over other agencies. He could provide foreign policy “guidance” for military and economic aid programs. even a rarely invoked veto, but any attempt to impose detailed “coordination” ran into unbreachable barriers, especially the statutory prerogatives of the Defense Department.

In any case, “counter-insurgency” struck Rusk as primarily a Pentagon responsibility. With a full plate of the world’s problems to deal with, he turned the White House directive over to his small politico-military staff headed by Deputy Under Secretary U.Alexis Johnson, the Department’s senior career officer. Rusk did, however create the post of director for internal defense, and to give credibility to the White House and Pentagon decided not to fill it with a career diplomat but with someone with civilian credentials and a military record. My name had been floating around for a State Department appointment since well before the 1960 election. During World War II I had spent ten months between sea duty in the Joint Chiefs of Staff organization and had stayed in the Navy after the war as an assistant naval attaché in South America. I was an alumnus of Sullivan & Cromwell and had been a legal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force. Rusk and Alex Johnson thought that these qualifications would stave off demands for appointment of a repellent New Frontier type.

When I arrived on the Seventh Floor in early July 1961, I discovered that my job had overtones not disclosed in pre-employment interviews. It seemed that a primary concern of the Department was that General Taylor and the hyperkinetic Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara would “run away” with counterinsurgency and “militarize” it. That would multiply our aid commitments, complicate the task of our ambassadors, and generate interventionist momentums that could drag the country into war—and how right State was!

My job was to inject foreign policy reality into whatever counterinsurgency effort emerged and insure that the views of the State’s regional bureaus were taken into account. Of course at my level I could do none of this myself, nor was I expected to.

Instead I was to insert myself into the decision chain. For example, the president’s fascination with guerilla warfare and counterinsurgency—the two were wholly confused in his mind—had given a green light to General Taylor to expand Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. But this had not been accompanied by even a modicum, of guidance on how to achieve results in alien Third World cultures. An Arabic-speaking former intern from President Kennedy’s Senate office, now on my exiguous staff, was giving elementary instruction in community relations to the Green Berets and this needed to be supplemented by lectures of knowledgeable Foreign Service officers. Whether these indoctrination efforts did any good is questionable, but they did establish a useful precedent of State Department involvement in a U.S. Army combat program that had serious human rights implications.


My orders to establish a working relationship with the Defense Department brought me into contact with one of those stormy petrels that in each administration briefly soar into the limelight. Brig. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale was a former advertising man transposed into non-flying Air Force officer as cover for CIA adviser to President Diem; he had also advised President Magsaysay of the Philippines during the Hukbalakap insurrection. These credentials led President Kennedy to assign him to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, as someone with “fresh ideas.”

A rangy figure with blazing blue eyes, Lansdale fairly radiated paranoia. Crouching in his chair like a tiger about to spring when I made my first call, he launched into an incoherent tirade against State Department bureaucrats who had never padded along jungle trails or “shared a bowl of poi with a village headman.” Held at arms length by the career military for his aggressive manner and media argot, Lansdale did not last long as McNamara’s counter-insurgency specialist. The Joint Chiefs of Staff eased him out of his counterinsurgency role and he found more congenial employment in the CIA’s infamous and futile Operation Mongoose aimed at assassinating Fidel Castro.

A far more formidable factor was General Maxwell Taylor. Slim, handsome, dignified, and terse and elegant of speech. Taylor had all the qualities of “style” that President Kennedy admired. Forceful but with impeccable manners, he was a welcome contrast to the brazen pushiness of the rest of the White House staff. Unfortunately while in many ways an imaginative soldier, Taylor accepted the prevailing geopolitical mind-set that treated small nations as mere pawns in a larger power struggle with the Kremlin. He also demanded simplified summations of national security policy to serve as an underlying basis for military “doctrine”—and in military usage, a “doctrine” is intended to assure uniformity of tactics.

From his commanding position near the president, General Taylor requested the State Department, in its “leadership role,” to draft a counter-insurgency policy document to serve as doctrinal guidance for both the military and civilian agencies. The document should address the political, economic, and societal conditions of nations vulnerable to “extreme left-wing subversion” and require our embassies to prepare counter-insurgency plans that would specify local government measures to counter the threat. It should also spell out the roles and missions of American agencies, including aid programs to implement country plans. I was ordered to marshal an inter-agency drafting group to write the document.

The first part of the paper—the statement of policy—did not present difficulties since it involved paraphrasing White House directives. But the bulk of the document, the operational sections, was another matter. No government agency involved in foreign aid, least of all the Defense Department, would allow anyone but its own officials to draft a statement of its role and mission. That meant waiting for agency drafts before the tedious task of packaging the product and clearing it could begin. By January, 1962 the drafting group still was not able to produce a first draft. The military in particular regarded it as a bureaucratic exercise where too meticulous a spelling out of Pentagon responsibilities would be a straitjacket.

Meanwhile, events were moving rapidly. In the spring and summer of 1961 the immediate crisis spot in Southeast Asia was the backwater of Laos where pro-Communist Pathet Lao guerrillas were seizing strategic positions. The Joint Chiefs of Staff gave President Kennedy the unwelcome message that the United States could not win a land war in Asia with half-measures; they confronted him with the stark alternative of either landing a large army, bombing Hanoi, and even resorting to tactical nuclear weapons, or finding a way to compromise. Kennedy settled for the latter and started secret negotiations with Hanoi to neutralize Laos.

This raised the festering insurgency in South Vietnam to front and center. To demonstrate American “resolve,” Kennedy increased military assistance, raised the number of “advisers” assigned to the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to 2646, and at tin-urging of Bundy and Rostow fired off a directive “drawing the line” against further Communist aggression in Asia. But according to even classified record and transcript released to date, the president did not then or later make a decision to send in combat troops.

Finally, the president abandoned his futile attempt to give State- a leadership role in counter-insurgency. On Jan.18, 1962, he issued National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) No.124 creating a Cabinet-level Special Group (Counter Insurgency). It declared that subversive insurgency (“wars of national liberation”) was a threat to the United States and a major form of politico-military conflict equal in importance to conventional warfare and directed the Special Group (CI) to develop interdepartmental programs for “countries and regions specifically assigned to it.”

As originally constituted, the Special Group (CI) consisted of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the deputy Secretary of Defense, the director of Central Intelligence, the heads of AID and USIA, a staff member of the National Security Council, and—big surprise—the attorney general of the United States. Since this was a foreign policy committee the State Department had to be conceded the chair; this was held first by Deputy Undersecretary Alexis Johnson, and starting early in 1963 by the formidable W. Averell Harriman. With Harriman and Robert Kenned) as members of tin-Group, the president felt assured of action.

There have been innumerable foreign policy committees in different administrations but from the beginning the Special Group (CI) was different. At the president’s insistence, it met weekly and only principals were allowed to attend except when ill or on travel. There was a recording secretary but only the chairman could briny a staff officer—myself. The Third World countries first designated for oversight were, in Asia, South Vietnam, Thailand and later, Indonesia; in Latin America, Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia. The training and indoctrination of the American military and civilian bureaucracy in the policies and programs of counter-insurgency were given high priority.

In August, 1962 the inter-agency policy paper entitled U. S. Overseas Internal Defense Policy (OIDP) finally saw the light of day. Classified “Secret” rather than “Top Secret” to allow wide distribution within the government, President Kennedy made it official policy in a directive numbered NSAM No.182.The OIDP declared that support of “friendly” Third World governments threatened by left-wing revolutionary movements” was to be the “main thrust of US action” for the foreseeable future; that in addition to improving native military and police capabilities, the United States must promote economic development, political and societal reform, and support non-Communist labor unions, youth groups and political parties through a wide range of assistance projects.


The OIDP document specified roles and missions—State to promote stability and reform in threatened countries and encourage other governments to give them diplomatic, economic, and military support; the Pentagon to provide training and equipment to Third World military and paramilitary forces, AID to create programs for eliminating economic and social discontent; USIA to strengthen the media links of vulnerable governments with their populations, the CIA to expand intelligence networks and conduct unspecified covert operations. The separate agency programs were to be integrated into a “country internal defense plan,” drafted by the U.S. embassy and approved in Washington.

To this day the OIDP remains the most interventionist statement of American policy ever promulated. In specific language inserted by the Pentagon it authorized “commitment of U.S. operational forces” wherever there were “higher levels of insurgency or where there is a threat of Communist takeover.” At the insistence of the State Department—we would not have cleared it otherwise—the OIDP did state that U.S. programs were intended to “minimize the likelihood of direct U.S. military involvement,” that the failures of local governments were the causes of insurgencies; and that “the major counter-insurgency effort must be indigenous.” But this was pious “boiler-plate” compared with the specific authorizations quoted above. Language at the end made this presidential policy document applicable both to “Communist-inspired insurgencies and am others that might be inimical to U.S. national interests.”

Notably absent in the OIDP was any mention of human rights— humane treatment of the civilian population, observance of international law, and the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners. Despite the barbaric record of Third World security forces. State’s repeated efforts to include human rights were rejected. Nor would McGeorge Bundy allow any reference to U.S. legislative authority— the Constitution, military and economic aid authorizations, or other limitations on executive action. Without straining construction, the OIDP could easily be read as giving both the United States and client governments a blank check for repression.

The first meetings of the Special Group encouraged the Pentagon to liberate itself from State Department policy. In April 1962 the Joint Chiefs of Staff published a Counter-Insurgency Doctrinal Guidance that went even further than the OIDP in detailing operations in foreign countries. The Joint Chiefs also took over briefing the Group on military programs from the glib but ineffectual Deputy Secretary of Defense, Roswell Gilpatric, thereby further diminishing civilian control.

One change with far-reaching unintended consequences was reorientation of the Military Assistance Program (MAP). General Maxwell Taylor was determined to re-program the mission of Third World armies to include both “internal security” and civic action projects like road and sewer construction, disaster relief, literacy instruction, and public health services. Unfortunately, the latter idea, borrowed from the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and constructively aimed at bringing the military closer to the people, was given one-size-fits-all application to dictatorships and emerging democracies alike. It brought the generals and colonels, already and unhealthy force in politics, “out of the barracks” and into areas of civilian life hitherto outside their sphere.

In Latin America we reoriented the military away from continental defense to a counter-insurgency mission backed by a river of American equipment with no human rights strings attached. This one-dimensional Cold War approach created more efficient instruments of repression than existed before. In the 70’s and 80’s it stimulated the majors and colonels who had taken counterinsurgency courses at the U. S. Army’s School of the Americas to overthrow constitutional governments and install dictatorial regimes maintained by naked terror. Throughout Latin America, students and intellectuals, radicalized during the 60’s and therefore classed as Marxist “subversives,” were mercilessly hunted down, tortured, and killed. In Guatemala, the army systematically massacred whole Indian villages accused of harboring guerrillas. In Argentina more than ten thousand young people were killed in cold blood or dropped alive into the South Atlantic. The Chilean military, headed by General Augusto Pinochet, not only murdered President Salvador Allende and more than three thousand presumed “subversives” but blew up the car of a former Chilean ambassador in the heart of Washington’s embassy row.

When a few voices in the State Department protested that measures that sounded innovative on paper might be fatal to fragile Latin American democracies, their warnings were dismissed. The overriding Cold War mentality of the White House was exemplified by a New Frontier ambassador to Brazil, Lincoln Gordon, who alarmed Washington with scenarios of a Communist takeover of South America and was instrumental in promoting the military coup that toppled the lazy, left-wing, but perfectly constitutional President Goulart, with the usual brutal aftermath. A policy paper on the Latin American military prepared by the State Department for the Special Group was returned to me by General Taylor as “unresponsive” because it cited human rights abuses.

From 1962 until early 1966 the Special Group (CI) met once a week in Room 303 of the elegant old Executive Office Building next to the White House. The agenda, prepared by me and my interdepartmental colleagues, consisted in part of status reports and in part of oral briefings by top State Department officials or senior military officers. Governor Harriman presided and meetings began with an intelligence briefing by Director of Control Intelligence John McCone.

If the agenda featured military aid or counter-guerilla training, the meeting was dominated by General Taylor and the JCS Special Assistant for Counter-insurgency. Lt. General Victor Krulak of the Marines, a diminutive, amiable war hero whose piping voice, charming manner, and gift of literary quotation (including Alice in Wonderland) belied his anomalous Naval Academy nickname “Brute.”

The heads of AID and USIA, William Gaud and the legendary Edward R. Murrow, had a difficult time at Group meetings. Despite their quasi-independent status, AID and USIA Were regarded as mere adjuncts of the State Department. Gaud and Murrow found themselves fighting a rear-guard action to protect the benign images of their agencies from being tarred by the counter-insurgency brush. Murrow was a particularly tragic figure, out of place in this one-dimensional, Cold War environment. Tall, dignified, and impeccable in Savile Row attire, with skin waxen and fingers stained yellow from chain smoking, he was in the last stages of lung cancer and moved and talked slowly. A cult figure in the high society and media worlds of New York and London, Murrow seemed taken aback when his careful but ponderous observations, delivered in the portentous tones that impressed millions of radio listeners, were received in respectful but dead silence.

The Shakespearian casting of the Group was provided by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and the State Department chairman, the grimly sardonic Averell Harriman, invariably addressed as “Governor.” On domestic issues Bob Kennedy may well have been the civil rights crusader so lavishly extolled by biographers and Camelot groupies, but in this foreign affairs setting he was the Gold War Warrior personified. At first we were surprised that he would waste his time on a committee so unremunerative politically. But we soon realized that he was there not only to energize the effort but to protect his brother from another fiasco like the Bay of Pigs. He was both catalyst and watchdog.

At the Group’s meetings, Robert Kennedy, slumped motionless in his chair, rarely made a comment that indicated knowledge of the subject under discussion, let alone cultural or historical background. Indeed, for a graduate of Milton and Harvard he was singularly inarticulate, seemingly incapable of voicing an opinion or framing a question in clear, well spoken language. However, as soon as a State Department or AID official was seated to speak to an agenda item. Kennedy came to life and assumed the role of prosecutor. His staccato questioning, ostensibly based on his interpretation—or misinterpretation—of the briefing, may have been intended to expose bureaucratic laxity but was so often beside the point that the confused official, desperately anxious to be responsive to so exalted an interrogator, was thrown off balance. Kennedy would then smell blood and bore in with more “off-the-wall” questions obviously designed more to rattle than to shed light. The average ultra-conscientious Foreign Service officer, conditioned to craven subservience before his political masters, could never grasp that this exercise was theater, and that any plausible answer, spoken confidently and sprinkled with facts, would serve the purpose and shorten his ordeal.

This was where Governor Harriman came in. A legendary figure of the Roosevelt-Truman era—former lend-lease envoy to embattled Britain, wartime ambassador to Stalin, overseas administrator of the Marshall Plan, governor of New York—Harriman was now, in his 70’s, a respected if not intimate part of the Kennedy circle. Alex Johnson and Rusk had persuaded him to take over the C-1 Group because, Alex told me, only he could “handle Bobby Kennedy.” When Joseph Mendenhall, onetime head of State’s Vietnam Task Force, became demoralized by Bobby’s questioning, Harriman cut him short, dismissed him from the “witness stand,” and announced that answers would be forthcoming next week—when of course the matter was forgotten. It might be added that except to peers like Governor Harriman, General Taylor, and John McCone, Kennedy’s manner was cold and perfunctory. His response to a greeting from lesser lights was to look through them.

When in April 1963, Governor Harriman was promoted to Undersecretary for Political Affairs (then the third highest post in the Department) and I joined his staff, it became obvious that his professed reluctance to take over the Special Group (CI) was a shade disingenuous. Right from the start he parlayed the function into his own private channel to the White House, communicating his policy views directly or through me to the NSC staff and other departments, and deliberately by-passing Secretary Rusk and Undersecretary George Ball (the State Department’s number two) in the process. His relations with Rusk were correct but those with the able and likable Ball were deplorable and there was an enormous gulf between the two offices.

As a former Marshall Plan administrator. Governor Harriman wanted to integrate AID into the counter-insurgency effort without compromising it. Foreign-aid administrators had traditionally been hyper-sensitive to pressure from the White House to fund high-visibility projects aimed at enhancing the image of foreign leaders instead of promoting their countries long-term development. Now. the advent of a “liberal” administration featuring the highly publicized Alliance for Progress changed nothing, and AID laced pressure to divert badly needed infra-structure funds into “quick fix” counterinsurgency projects. On top of this came Attorney General Kennedy’s pet scheme to reconstitute AID’s small police assistance program into an “early warning system” for detecting Marxist political movements before they gained headway.

In earlier incarnations AID had included police advisers in a few overseas missions to help counter rural banditry and “get the goods to market.” In the Dulles era the CIA was allowed to insert covert operatives into the program. But AID resistance to this infiltration reached such a pitch that by 1961 it was virtually terminated. The attorney general was nevertheless determined to rope Third World police forces into the counter-insurgency effort. At his goading. National Security Action Memorandum No.177, dated Aug.7, 1962. established a new and expanded police assistance program, this time focussed not on rural banditry but on countries with “an actual or potential threat of internal subversion or insurgency”—an openended definition embracing most of the less-developed world.


What emerged typified many another crash program conceived in Washington by political leaders ignorant of the regions affected. Byron Engle, an able and experienced law enforcement professional—but also head of the old CIA cadre—was named director of a reconstituted Office of Public Safety, again lodged within AID.To recruit bona fide, country police advisers as rapidly as possible, Engle took advantage of early state and city police retirements and began hiring ex-chiefs and technical specialists from middle America. Attracted by good salaries and interesting employment in exotic climes, many good people signed up; but except for the Spanish speakers, few knew the language of the country they were posted to or were capable of inserting themselves into its law enforcement culture. Engle himself grumbled that all these countries wanted was an “equipment drop” and not our advice.

At its peak in 1969, the public safety program had an annual budget of nearly $40 million and advisers in 41 countries. Thereafter it ran into trouble at home. During the anti-Vietnam furor of the 70’s, rumors circulated that AID police advisers had participated in torture of political dissidents and furnished foreign security forces with electrical interrogation equipment. A brilliant Costa Gavros film about Uruguay entitled State of Siege played a role in spreading this canard. There was never any evidence of this unsavory involvement, and it is preposterous to think that these middle-aged family men from the American heartland could instruct the murderous security forces of countries like Argentina, Guatemala, or Indonesia in sadistic techniques of interrogation.

But once again, the law of unintended consequences was in operation. Engle was a compulsive modernizer and the thrust of his program was to improve police administration, communications, command-and-control, and record keeping. Major equipment items were vehicles, micro-fiche filing systems, and two-way radios. But modernization stopped there. By not insisting on even rudimentary standards of criminal justice and civil rights, the program provided regimes having only a facade of constitutional safeguards with up-dated law-enforcement machinery readily adaptable to political intimidation and state terrorism. Record keeping in particular was immediately put to use in tracking down student radicals and union organizers. When our embassies had the temerity to mention these abuses they were reminded that our policy was against interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

Robert Kennedy’s final contribution was to establish an International Police Academy. The idea was to expose Third World police officers to FBI investigative methods. The Academy was installed in a former Georgetown street-car barn which Kennedy inaugurated and where he gave graduation speeches. Some of the instruction and FBI demonstrations were professionally enlightening but parts of the curriculum were bizarre. There was a two-story pistol-shooting range where giant cardboard targets dressed as “subversivos” moved up and down. Even more curious was time spent in teaching overweight. desk-bound police supervisors to load and prime not only weapons but their cartridges! The Academy lasted for ten years but in the mid-70’s, after a furor of allegations that the public safety program was tainting our AID missions. Congress phased it out and closed the Academy down.

The most unlikely mission foisted on the State Department, tor which Professor Rostow of the Policy Planning Council was largely responsible was “consciousness raising”—spreading the counterinsurgency gospel throughout the government. Its core was a six-week course at the Foreign Service Institute entitled “Problems of Development and Internal Defense” which prospective ambassadors and AID mission chiefs were supposed to take before proceeding en poste. This was supplemented by mass indoctrination lectures for all personnel of State, AID, and USIA above secretarial level, who were herded into the auditorium in relays.

The lectures, given by outside academics, were heavy in development theory and geopolitical generalities but weak on citing specific causes of Third World turmoil—colonial rule and its aftermath, rigid societal structures, authoritarian traditions, autonomy of the military, feudal land ownership, exploitation of the peasantry. They stimulated some constructive thinking, but more than once the lecturers should have been the audience and Foreign Service officers the lecturers. As with all White House enthusiasms, charlatans had jumped on the bandwagon. The sudden focus on guerilla warfare and Marxist subversion spawned a horde of marginal scholars prepared to offer instant expertise to any agency with funds for consultancies. Today, the advanced seminar, purged of hot air and taught by professionals. is still a valuable part of the Foreign Service Institute’s curriculum. Mass brain-washing has been scrapped.

My own role for the Special Group (CD may be likened to that of a chef. I chaired a committee of inter-departmental deputies that prepared the menu for the weekly meetings. This was an exacting task because even after President Kennedy’s assassination the Group continued to be Governor Harriman’s special channel to the White House. A long career spent at the highest social and political levels had made him acutely sensitive to inspiring boredom. Wary of losing his audience, he demanded a weekly agenda sufficiently stimulating to keep up attendance and persuade busy agency heads—above all, the attorney general—that they were making decisions vital to the “free world.” Failing this, Harriman would growl, the committee “would lapse into innocuous desuetude.”

That meant highlighting danger spots, starting with South Vietnam. It must be remembered that until Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 decision to send in combat troops, the American role in South Vietnam was advisory only. As late as 1962 the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) still numbered under three thousand and was training and equipping the South Vietnamese army (the ARVN) on conventional lines to repel a cross-border invasion from the North. The standard ARVN response to guerilla activity was to send a motorized company or battalion along highways and roads, and under a screen of mortar and machine-gun fire to attack presumed Viet Cong positions. Success was defined as overrunning the “enemy position”—a hamlet or paddy field—not in rooting out the Viet Cong.

In 1962, Viet Cong strength in the south had reached twelve thousand, and its political network had expanded to the point where government control in rural areas, especially the Mekong Delta, was fictional. An investigative team headed by Maxwell Taylor found a reclusive chief of state surrounded by a domineering family clique; an army of 175,000 trained to fight the wrong kind of war; an impoverished rural population disaffected by corruption and misrule; and a society ready to swing left or right depending on the degree of intimidation from either side. The Taylor mission made no judgment on whether South Vietnam was intrinsically important to our national security—only that the spreading insurgency was part of the global Communist offensive of “Wars of National Liberation” and that any sign of let up in a region where our prestige was on the line would trigger a global loss of confidence.


From early 1962 until 1965, the centerpiece of American military assistance in South Vietnam was the strategic hamlet program. The concept was an expanding network of self-supporting rural hamlets, protected by strong points and local self-defense forces, which would deny the Viet Cong access to populated areas anil squeeze them into pockets where they could be destroyed. The idea was by no means new; it had been tried by the Spanish in Cuba before the 1S9S war and by the British in South Africa during the Boer War, in both cases with tragic effects on the civilian population. In Vietnam, the hamlet program was modelled on one devised for the Malayan “Emergency” of 1952—55 by a British official named Sir Robert Thompson who was now a consultant to President Diem. But in Malaya the program was amplified by patrolling and hot pursuit on the part of lightly armed British commando units, which had been rigorously indoctrinated to distinguish guerillas from villagers and at all costs to avoid destruction of crops and habitations. By contrast, the South Vietnamese Army relied on destructive and ineffectual fire power that devastated the country-side, killed large numbers of villagers, and allowed the Viet Cong to slip away.

During the three-year period that the Special Group (CI) monitored the hamlet program, its approach typified the programmatic mentality of American officialdom. Even before the McNamara era. the emphasis was on statistics—the number of hamlets completed, the number of village defense units armed and trained, the number of sorties by the South Vietnamese Army. Growing VC strength in the south was duly reported and duly deplored, but this was always offset by the progress the Pentagon and AID could show in extending the hamlet network.

Then one Tuesday, the Special Group welcomed Ted Serong. a stocky Australian colonel who had been charged with an objective field evaluation of the hamlet. In his blunt “down under” way he indulged in no deferential courtesies and cited no statistics; he simply described where he had been and what he saw. At the end, he held up his right hand with fingers outstretched. “Here is your network of hamlets” he said, Then, pointing to the joints at the base of the fingers, “And here are the VC; you haven’t touched the underground.”

As 1963 wore on, the hamlet program ground to a halt, or rather proved impossible to carry out. The Diem regime dragged its feet on land distribution, and then declared reform impossible to implement because of the insurgency. AID-funded agricultural, road-building, and sanitation projects were started, but were disrupted by the war. Buddhist demonstrations exploded into violence and President Diem’s harsh repression of this and other dissent further isolated him from the population. State’s Far Eastern veterans told anyone that would listen that in any fair election Ho Chi Minh’s candidates would win hands down.

In the spring of 1963, the U. S. embassy established contact with disaffected Vietnamese generals, and in August Averell Harriman and Roger Hilsman generated a cable tacitly approving a military plot to depose Diem and his hated entourage. In November, the plot succeeded, Diem was killed, and the United States became committed to the fortunes of the generals that took over. Three weeks later, Kennedy himself fell to an assassin’s bullet.

Before his death President Kennedy approved an increase of the number of American “advisers” to more than 16,000, but for all his willingness to also send in light equipment and air support, he never tired of reiterating, “It’s their war, we can’t win it for them.” At the Group’s meetings—and I attended nearly all of them—Robert Kennedy at no time gave the slightest hint that President Kennedy was considering full-scale combat intervention. By contrast, Lyndon Johnson made Vietnam his war even before the 1965 decision to send in combat troops. Egged on by Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow, with their incessant litany, “Mr. President, they are testing you . . .”, and fortified by his blank check from Congress after the bogus Tonkin Bay incident, Johnson raised the number of advisers to more than 23,000, poured in hardware, and eventually began “Rolling Thunder,” the program of escalating bombing strikes on the North. None of this slowed the deterioration of Saigon’s control over South Vietnam. A 1965 report estimated the number of “secure” strategic hamlets at only 3000 instead of the 8500 claimed two years earlier. VC main-force strength in the South was now estimated at 34,000 and its hold over the provinces was such that it virtually ruled the Delta and threatened to cut the northern waist of the country in two.

After President Johnson’s decision to commit the United States to a land war in Asia, the role of the Special Group (CD in Vietnam became marginal. A large interdepartmental task force dominated by Secretary of Defense McNamara, who had shown no interest in the earlier counter-insurgency phase, took control of the war effort. His systems analysis approach and statistical innovations (the “body count”) dehumanized the war, killed 58,000 Americans and a million Vietnamese, divided the American people, and eventually drove President Johnson from office.

For the last three years of its life—from December 1963 to December 1966—the Special Group devoted much of its agenda to other countries on the list. Based on a superficial good-will visit to Indonesia that included a meeting with then General Suharto. Robert Kennedy got the Group to approve a program to train and equip some Indonesian “Special Forces” units. No strings were attached and these units later propelled Suharto into the presidency and participated in the 1965 massacre of 300,000 alleged “Communists,” mostly ethnic Chinese and their families. American military assistance has continued up to the present, and some of the units involved were responsible for hideous massacres on East Timor after the Indonesian invasion of 1975.

Robert Kennedy was also responsible for adding Bolivia to the list. At the time Bolivia had no indigenous guerilla threat but was deemed vulnerable because since independence in the early 19th century its method of governance had consisted of bloodless military coups alternating with powerless civilian presidents. But after intelligence reports signalled Bolivia as the target of the Che Guevara’s ill-considered attempt to export the Cuban revolution to the stolid Indian villagers of the Andes, the Special Group (CI) at Kennedy’s request authorized the training and equipping of the Bolivian Ranger battalion that tracked him down and summarily executed him. In musicals and contemporary literature, “El Che” has now undergone revival as a folk hero.

Other countries on the Group’s list were Thailand, Colombia, and Venezuela. Under the “domino theory,” so popular at the time, Thailand was supposed to be the next target of Hanoi and the shadowy “Sino-Soviet bloc.” The Thai generals did not share this view: they considered the Thai monarchy and social structure to be relatively stable. While concerned about porous frontiers in the north and east, and of course happy with all the American hardware they could get, they were wary of the destabilizing influence of a large, culturally alien American military presence. In the end, the Group’s program for Thailand boiled down to training and re-equipping its Border Patrol Police.

Colombia was difficult to get a handle on. In the 60’s cocaine traffic was not considered a problem, but a civil war between “Liberals” and “Conservatives” styled the “Violencia” had raged in the mountains since 1948 accompanied by unspeakable atrocities. This was complicated by the existence of self-governing Marxist enclaves in remote areas of the south and east. The central government, run by an ethnic Spanish elite, had little effective control outside Bogota, and the military was still in the early stages of modernization. The Group made our military and police programs a fixture, and 30 years later our Special Forces units continue to train the Colombian military in the Andean back country, though nowadays the mission is cocaine interdiction. Human rights safeguards are still being ignored, in violation of American law.

Venezuela was on the list only because of geographical location and a one-time discovery on the beach of a cache of rifles and ammunition. The discovery was dramatized by the CIA which claimed that the arms cache had been deposited by Cubans in anticipation of a future insurgency. The CIA’s Latin American youth expert, a Cold War Warrior destitute both of area experience and the Spanish language, but a favorite of the attorney general, gave the Group a portentous briefing replete with alarmist scenarios.

In 1966 the Special Group (CI) ceased to monitor the Vietnam War and began its inevitable decline. Now taken up with his political career, Bobby Kennedy no longer attended the meetings. Averell Harriman continued to chair the Group, but after LBJ changed his status from Undersecretary to Ambassador-at-Large, his authority in the State Department was reduced and his private channel to the White House dried up. In 1967, the governor spent increasing time on the first, and abortive, peace negotiations with Hanoi; in the same year a national security reorganization merged the Group into a larger committee structure and it vanished from history. Today, tin-Group’s minutes repose in government archives, and none of the original members are still alive.

The left-wing insurgency threat lived on into the policies of the Regan administration and was used to justify U.S. intervention in the El Salvador civil war and the Contra war against Nicaragua. It lives on today in counter-guerilla programs in Colombia. As part of the national security mythology underlying American superpower aspirations, it takes different forms depending on the geopolitical theories of the moment. Terrorist networks. Islamic fundamentalism, the drug menace, international anarchy, succeed each other as the threat-of-the-month. As always, the innocent are the victims. Only today, in the Kossovo nightmare, have human rights become a major factor in U.S. national security policy. As recently as 1988 President George Bush callously butchered scores of sleeping families when he bombed the poor barrio of El Chorillo without warning in the 1988 invasion of Panama. As Tacitus wrote of an earlier Roman counterinsurgency campaign in Britain, “They make a wasteland and call it peace.”


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