The Vietnam War

The big turning point in lost contemporary wars was the Vietnam War. It was waged by the United States, replacing France, which had just been defeated in Diên Biên Phu (1954).

Việt Minh advantages and the American adversary’s mistakes

The Việt Minh victory was due, among others, to its ability to ensure logistics far from its epicenter: all the material was brought over through several hundred miles of jungle on bicycles loaded with about two hundred kilos and pushed by men on foot. Such an exploit supposed an exceptional mobilization capacity.

Other factors were at play, particularly the mistakes made by the United States and their ally, Ngô Dinh Diêm. The latter, brought into power by the United States, was a Catholic, hence necessarily part of a minority. It was not long before he alienated all the sects and other religious currents, including the Buddhists, through a narrow policy of rejection. The Việt Minh had gained control of parts of southern Vietnam, confiscated big landowners’ land, and distributed it to the peasants. Ngô Dinh Diêm returned the land to them.

In 1956 (the year when there was supposed to be a vote on possible reunification), Diêm made the capital mistake of getting rid of elected village councils and replacing them with his Saigon agents. The villages’ autonomy had always been guaranteed, whatever the regime. State authority “stopped at the bamboo fence surrounding the village.” Diêm’s agents, foreign to the villages, distinguished themselves by their corruption and authoritarianism. They would be the first targets of the future Việt Cộng, which would then be able to have influence in the rural areas. The Communists came in as defenders of village autonomy and were soon to have the villages under their control. The National Liberation Front was officially born at the end of 1960.

Between 1961 and 1963, US advisers (they were sixteen thousand under John F. Kennedy’s presidency) applied to Vietnam the “Strategic Hamlet” experience that had been effective in Malaysia. The idea was to regroup the population in order to isolate it from the guerrilla.1 But Việt Cộng officers had already blended in with the population and the hamlet experience was a failure. In September 1963, however, US Commander General Paul D. Harkins reported that the United States was winning the battle of the Mekong Delta. This was the year when the South Vietnamese army, with US approval, got rid of the cumbersome Diêm whom they had brought to power.

One year later, out of the eight and a half thousand strategic hamlets, more than seven thousand had been broken up. In addition, in a total of sixteen thousand hamlets, ten thousand village chiefs had been killed by the Việt Cộng. War correspondent Bernard B. Fall provided a political explanation of this (1961) by noting after his investigation that three-fourths of the villages were no longer bringing in tax receipts. In other words, they were no longer controlled by the Saigon regime.

In 1964, General William Westmoreland replaced General Harkins and in July, the number of US advisers (some of which were taking part in the operations) had risen to twenty-one thousand five hundred.


Robert S. McNamara, US Secretary of Defense, declared that military action could essentially be completed by 1965. That was the year, in fact, when the Vietnam War became a full-fledged US war. The marines landed at Da Nang. General Westmoreland was confident, US fire power was considerable, and air control was massive. US technology was sure to be victorious, all the more so that the war was being waged assertively by the United States, confident that it was morally right and that this would prevent South Vietnam, and through the domino effect Southeast Asia, from falling under the Communist yoke.
Given that the assistance that North Vietnam had been providing to the South since the 1960s via Cambodia had to be stopped, the United States decided on a gradual escalation of air strikes north of the Seventeenth Parallel. The idea was to force the North to cease its assistance or else they would pay a very heavy price, that is, the destruction of all the infrastructure patiently built by Hồ Chí Minh’s regime (despite some serious agrarian policy mistakes that ended up causing a revolt in the Nghệ An province, the effects of which would be the subject of a correction campaign).2

Hanoi’s response to this air offensive was to move urban officers to the provinces and districts, and the industries to provincial workshops. The regime was determined to stand, whatever the cost. The destruction was significant.

In the south, the Việt Cộng forces suffered considerably under the deluge of US fire. The tonnage of bombs combined with the use of napalm, phosphorous bombs, fragmentation bombs, the free-fire zones, and so on, took enormous amounts of lives among combatants and civilians, but the Việt Cộng were not eradicated.

At the end of 1967, after two years of bombings and counterinsurgency operations carried out by the United States and their allies, General Westmoreland announced that the final phase would soon begin.

The Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive was launched in South Vietnam on January 31, 1968, at the beginning of the Tết holiday, the Vietnamese lunar new year. It involved thirty-six of the forty-four provincial capitals as well as more than twenty US bases. Until early March, Huế, the precolonial capital, remained completely under the control of the Việt Cộng, who proceeded to liquidate the regime’s agents. With painstaking efforts, US troops eventually regained control of the city. In Saigon, in a highly spectacular way, a sacrificed a Việt Cộng commando broke into the US Embassy and held its ground for many long hours. Việt Cộng battalions led an attack against the presidential palace and occupied the radio station. It took US troops nearly one week to regain control of the capital.

On the strictly military level, this direct confrontation was a failure for the Việt Cộng. But it was a considerable political success. As the offensive was unfolding, US and Western media described it as a disaster for the Saigon regime and proof of the failure of the US war.
The Tet Offensive marked the turning point of the war. After that, it became honorable in the United States to be against the war in Vietnam. US public opinion had been misled, the Việt Cộng was not in its death throes. The North Vietnamese had done all it could to get US public opinion on its side (visits of Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky, and so on).
Never, before or after Vietnam, was war shown so freely; never has public opinion been so well informed during a conflict. Criticism was liberally expressed in the media (Walter Cronkite and his daily reports). In fact, after the Tet Offensive, the center of gravity of the war was largely US public opinion, in a country where, at the time, people expressed themselves at liberty. This would no longer be true with the Patriot Act in the wake of September 11, 2001, no more than it would be ten years earlier during the Gulf War, when the only images shown and commented on were those aired by CNN, which was ruling over all information.

A long period of negotiations followed the Tet Offensive. The resounding publication of leaks from The Pentagon Papers by the New York Times at the end of 1971 dealt a very hard blow on US authorities.3

Lessons of the Vietnam War

Mobilizing the whole of the nation for a colonial-type war seemed counterproductive. This type of conflict can, in theory, only be engaged in with professional troops. When the war ended after a grueling but short period of intensive bombing (late 1972 to early 1973), the United States had lost more than fifty-eight thousand soldiers and officers. A great many were wounded for life and traumatized. Politically speaking, the “Vietnamese syndrome” prevented any reaction in 1975 when the North Vietnamese pushed around an extensively trained and well-equipped South Vietnamese army, which had no desire to fight and save the Saigon regime.

This was a total political defeat. Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, declared in 1995, thirty years after the military intervention in Vietnam of which he had been one of the architects: “I had never been to Indochina and did not understand its history . . . its culture . . . .” It would have sufficed for him to read Bernard Fall.4

The belief that technology was the answer to all and ultimately solved everything had not factored in the undoubtedly most important aspect of asymmetry, which was the prerequisite of having previously constituted a substantial social base and agreed to pay the price of war for the long haul. The major asymmetry was ideological. This is what is usually known as the moral factor. What matters is less the actual content of the ideology than the total motivation that it can generate.


The end of imperial Europe

Great Britain was the first to take note of the change, the effects of which it had already been able to measure in India. India became independent—with all the ensuing religious problems (Kashmir). As for France, defeated in 1940, it had intended to keep its empire in order to preserve its status. And in the immediate post-war period, repression was applied in the colonies with a severity that was every bit as cruel as that of the pre-war period: Sétif massacre in Algeria (1945), Madagascar (1947).

From the Indochina War to the Algerian War

The independence proclaimed by Hồ Chí Minh in August 1945 in Hanoi in the vacuum between the north occupied by Chinese nationalists and the south occupied by the British troops was not ratified. Reconquest began in 1946. The Việt Minh had already established, especially in north, organized political bases. The Vietnamese, although Communists, were also nationalists and were combating a foreign expeditionary corps. But times had changed.
Like the Chinese, the Việt Minh organized village militia, provincial militia, and regular units. The fact that they were fighting against foreigners, even if these had local allies, showed the national character of their struggle, and, with time, won over the support of an increasing part of the population.

Starting in 1950, backed by Communist China, which in October of the previous year had taken over, the Việt Minh began to carry out large-scale offensive operations. These would be very costly, but lessons would be learned from them, and the offensives, starting in 1953, were better prepared and made it possible to thwart the best colonial troops. The process was the same as in China: coordination of partisans with regular troops, and control and support of the population. The latter allowed the routing of logistics during the battle of Diên Biên Phu. The lessons of the war, on the French side, would not be learned until later.1

The Algerian War burst out shortly after the end of the Indochina War. Already in Tunisia and in Morocco, there had been unrest and, obviously, independence was moving in.
The Algerian Revolutionary Committee for Unity and Action (CRUA), founded by nine members who would become famous, went into action on November 1, 1954. This very small minority committee intended to engage in battle despite the reservations of the nationalist parties, including the one led by Ahmed Ben Messali Hadj. A series of terrorist attacks marked the beginning of the insurrection. These were passed off as banditry, but the following year, the turmoil spread and the very recently established National Liberation Front (FLN) was soon joined, in early 1956, by the other nationalist parties, moderate or not. A harsh power struggle arose between the FLN and Messali Hadj’s Algerian National Movement (MNA). There was an attempt to set up a coordination of the movements at the Soummam conference. In vain. Exclusions would follow, and the FLN became the only organization representing Algerian nationalism.

In France, “available” forces were called to arms. The war, starting in the summer of 1956, now involved the contingent, and mandatory draft would be extended from eighteen to twenty-seven months. The insurrectionary war was mostly waged in the Aurès Mountains and in Kabylie. The number of katibas (combat units) increased and required search and cordon operations. To isolate the rebellion, the authorities put up electrified lines in 1957 at the borders, east and west. In Algiers, paratroopers inflicted systematic repression intended to dismantle the FLN’s underground infrastructure. Blind terrorist attacks were responded to by torturing suspects.

Under pressure from the army, France’s Fourth Republic made way for the rise to power of General de Gaulle. Senior officers considered that they had learned the lessons of the Indochina War and sought to turn the insurrectionary-war techniques back against the insurrectionists and the population, which they attempted to rally to their cause. But a Muslim population with a lower status had no interest in rallying around the myth of French Algeria. Military initiative was snatched from the rebels in 1960, but in December that same year, the Algerian population held a massive demonstration in the capital for independence. As General de Gaulle had admitted the principle of self-determination, a small part of the army attempted a putsch (1961), which failed because of the president’s determination and the greater share of the army’s refusal to support this act of sedition.

The Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) went underground and attempted to assassinate the president. Public opinion in mainland France was tired of the war and was won over by the slogan “Peace in Algeria.” The last few months of the war were chaotic (including on the mainland), between the FLN, the OAS, the army, and the intelligence agencies. The chaos engendered massive departure of the Algerian French, while the majority of Harkis, Muslim Algerian loyalists who had fought alongside the French army, were left stranded and out in the cold.

Won from the military point of view, the Algerian War was lost from the political point of view. For France, the Indochina War and the Algerian War were “retardant battles,” hence useless.

Less and less effective counterinsurgencies

The essence of what is called “decolonization,” that is, the emancipation movements, through violence or not, of the colonized peoples, ranges between 1945 and the early 1960s. The balance of these years is controversial, but over time, counterinsurgencies tended to fail, and most of all, the spirit of the times was changing, with: the Declaration of Human Rights in San Francisco (1948); the Bandung Conference, where recently independent countries, especially Asian, expressed their determination to take their full part in history (1955); the Suez Crisis (1956), where Great Britain and France were forced to give up their last imperial-type expedition, and so on. On the other hand, in the Philippines, the United States were victorious against a “Marxist-Leninist” guerrilla after having granted the country independence (1946), while the insurrection remained concentrated in the island of Luzon.2

In Greece, under English domination, the Communists, deprived of Yugoslavian sanctuary and logistics shortly after the break between Stalin and Tito (1948), were defeated. In Cyprus, forty thousand British troops did not succeed in crushing the few hundred men using terrorism under General Georgios Grivas. They nonetheless prevented the island’s union with Greece and ultimately brought a moderate Cypriot archbishop to power. In Kenya, a settlement colony, Great Britain repressed the Kikuyu insurrection, which was poorly organized, badly armed, and had no external support. Pacification was successfully achieved between 1952 and 1956.3 Finally, we know the reasons for the victories of counterinsurgency in Malaysia in historical circumstances that will never happen again.

The Chinese of Malaysia had fought against Japan without support from China, and they constituted, at least part of them, a Marxist-leaning movement based on a few hundred thousand “squatters,” that is, on the category least integrated into the Malayan economy and society. The Chinese community (thirty percent) was essentially made up of merchants and did not take part in the insurrection.

The first phase of the British counterinsurgency—based on good knowledge of the country since the mid-nineteenth century—was conducted with severity (1950-1951) and included: regrouping of the populations involved (the squatters) in highly supervised “strategic hamlets” intended to isolate the population from the insurrectionists; and collective punishment in the event of an infringement in order to push people into denunciation. In 1951, the guerrilla was at its height and even managed to assassinate the British representative in Malaysia.

The second phase was of a very different nature. The British sought to gain the sympathy of the regrouped populations by distributing land, improving their living conditions, and doing away with collective punishment. The idea was to win over people’s “hearts and minds.” At the very least, they won over people’s stomachs …

Isolated, the rebellion, estimated at eight thousand men with no external support or sanctuary, grew weak. Above all, in a country where seventy percent of the population was Muslim and the elites were conservative, the British had had the intelligence to promise independence as soon as the insurrection had been cut down. Which is what happened.
Where, since then, have there been such favorable conditions?

The mobilizing ideology

From beginning to end, the “mobilizing ideology” plays an essential part. This fundamental aspect cannot be overstated. Whatever the nature of the ideology, it has to be so highly motivating for the combatants and those who support them that they will consent, in its name, to risking their life and to losing it.

At the end of World War II, the Soviet troops were in Berlin and occupied all of central Europe and part of the Balkans. Europe, exhausted, went from being a major player to become an issue, while the European colonial empires were at the end of their rope. In Asia the colonizers had simply lost their prestige. Had they not been defeated by the Japanese in 1942-1945, in Indochina, in Indonesia, in Malaysia (the fall of Singapore in 1942 had been a traumatic experience for Great Britain) and all the way to Burma? It was during the war, in a chaotic context, that liberation movements, whatever their nature, were able to organize.
All respect for the colonizers had been lost among the colonized. In Asia, the former were thenceforth seen as illegitimate. They had been contested in the inter-war period by elites encouraged by the Bolshevik Revolution, especially in Asia, but the masses had not responded. In 1948, the Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in San Francisco. This was a turning point. Should it be recalled that the United States was opposed to European colonialism? In the wake of World War I, the League of Nations had granted the right to self-determination only to Europe. In the wake of the elimination of Nazism based on racial superiority, could the latter still be used against the colonized peoples? In the wake of World War I, the Japanese delegation had asked the League of Nations to include an article condemning racism. This had been opposed by the United States. Black people in the United States, now renamed African Americans, would not be granted civil rights for another forty years.

Chapter 5 – The end of the colonial world

From guerrilla warfare to revolutionary warfare

Mao Zedong, without having formulated it theoretically because his innovation was unorthodox under Marxist theory, focused mobilization not on the proletariat—which in China was cadaverous and had been demolished during the urban insurrections led by the left wing of the Party—but on the impoverished peasantry. During his experience on the ground, he found that it could be mobilized as long as it was given good leadership.

So he applied this unorthodox line, and drafted officers who blended in with the peasants in the villages and worked over time on spreading propaganda and mobilizing the people; this would allow him to transition from guerrilla warfare to revolutionary warfare. The latter used the same methods: surprise, mobility, and harassment. But with a different goal, which was to constitute, progressively, not irregular but regular forces, and not to weaken a regular army but to seize power though a war of destruction. The peasant insurrection organized as a guerrilla was one step of the plan; it was intended to be used as back-up for a regular army being constituted. It thus played the part of an army of partisans, since its role was to support the regular army, which would deal the final blow when the adversary had been weakened.

Mao Zedong’s innovation, which was to convert guerrilla warfare to revolutionary warfare in order to seize power, would not be perceived until well after his victory in 1949. The only ones to have understood the originality of the Chinese revolutionary approach and methods were the top Vietnamese officers in contact with China during its civil war. They would be able to put these lessons to work during the Indochina War, inflicting the Diên Biên Phu defeat on the French colonial forces in 1954.

The victory of 1949 was unexpected. Who, two years earlier, would have predicted Mao’s triumph? US assistance to the nationalist troops was considerable. Stalin, for his part, had advised Mao to set up a coalition government with the Kuomintang. Mao’s contribution, through his writings and the practice of his armed forces, in which General Zhu De’s action was far from meager, was both political and military: mobilizing the population thanks to officers organized as an underground political infrastructure; changing, over time, its weakness into strength through a lengthy war; winning over to the cause the prisoners from the nationalist army and turning them into propagandists of choice; using tactical defense under an overall offensive-strategy framework intended ultimately for nothing less than suppressing the adversary. In a civil war, there can be no compromise; power can be seized only if the enemy is floored.

The Japanese aggression (1937-1945) allowed the Chinese Communists to show themselves as patriots and revolutionaries fighting against foreign invasion and at the same time for social justice in the countryside. The Kuomintang was also fighting, perhaps even more so, against the Japanese, who, given their numerical inferiority, were battling with relentless rigor and practicing a policy of terror.

On his side, Mao was determined to carry out an extended phase of strategic defense, given his inferior resources, but his political objective remained offensive since he claimed military victory to be the expected outcome. Throughout the war, he had to articulate the partisans’ actions with the army’s in order to combine tactical defense and strategic defense. On several occasions, Mao ordered evacuation of the ground because what was most important was to preserve the armed forces. Withdrawal and dispersion proved to be necessary against the destruction campaigns initially perpetrated by the Kuomintang, then by the Japanese when they decided to practice a policy of intense repression.

Revolutionary warfare consists in combining agitation and propaganda, leadership of the masses and armed struggle. The coordination role of political commissars was crucial. As war chief, Mao used irregular-warfare methods against the Kuomintang before moving on to regular army operations when he had the means to do so, then moved back to partisan warfare against the Japanese oppressor, and after defeating the Japanese, back to partisan operations combined with a general counteroffensive carried out by a regular army against an adversary whose morale was broken. The strategic defense based on time and space (in the case of China) would gradually impose a favorable balance of power by multiplying tactical successes exhausting the adversary. As for the general offensive, it consisted in concentrating resources for the decisive clash.

In the case of China, there was a first civil-war phase until 1937, then a foreign-war phase (1937-1945), then a return to civil war (1947-1949). The revolutionary-war model was then initially adopted by the Việt Minh, then increasingly imitated by organizations not connected to Marxist-Leninist ideology. When the Taliban dispense justice in the villages, they are practicing a model inspired—whether they know it or not—by Mao Zedong. Indeed, irregular warfare is not won only at a strictly military level. It is mostly won through administrative control of the populations.

This is where the Western failure of the past fifty years lies, from Indochina/Vietnam to today.