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Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency

Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency by Thomas L. Ahern Jr. University Press of Kentucky, 2010, 450 pp.

Anyone intent upon a serious study of the Vietnam War or of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) operations in general must read this book. Of the more than 1,000 hours I’ve spent researching the war and the nearly 300 books and oral interview transcripts I have read, Ahern’s study stands as one of the best accounts of America's involvement in Indochina. He deserves a standing ovation for giving us the unvarnished truth.

Anytime an author attempts to write a book about a controversial subject, he or she knows that not everyone will agree with the results. The real challenge involves getting the story right without creating more negative thinkers. Given the amount of mud tossed around about Vietnam, an author must have iron-willed courage to buck the trend—exactly the case with Ahern. He properly acknowledges situations in which judgment should have been better or which produced mediocre results. But Ahern does three things that reflect his integrity:

1. He stays clear of making editorial comments or offering personal opinions.

2. Even though many different types of intelligence operations ran simultaneously, Ahern keeps the reader informed about the chronology and the direct or indirect linkages between them.

3. He avoids using his professional expertise to fill in gaps in the story or fabricate topic linkages. Ahern wisely keeps his literary license in his pocket, letting the facts tell the story.

I appreciate the author’s effort to prepare a balanced narrative that covers the various intelligence programs. He takes the right course by not dwelling on the well-known Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) or Phoenix operations. By the time readers finish the book, they realize that very few programs did poorly while the CIA was in charge. Ahern notes the common project pattern: develop and launch it in one or two provinces, prove that it works, and then decide to roll it out nationally. Programs sometimes fell on hard times when they transitioned to a larger effort and the CIA relinquished leadership.

In the best part of Vietnam Declassified, the author shows how he and his colleagues tirelessly pressed forward, trying to salvage something of enduring value. Ahern notes that most CIA officers serving in Vietnam realized the near impossibility of having an operation develop the “legs” to do well all over the country or make any long-term gains. He cites an exasperating meeting about a problem with a certain pacification program, during which someone tossed out a new idea. William Colby (future CIA director) replied that he was willing to try anything—if it would work (pp. 69, 86).

Ahern purposely—and correctly, I might add—calls the reader’s attention to repeating themes throughout the text. Vietnam Declassified shows the many recurring actions/inactions outside CIA control for which the agency nevertheless received blame and/or an assignment to tidy up a mess not of its making.

The book clearly points out that for any given intelligence operation, the Saigon government and armed forces, provincial as well as local leaders, and the US military or State Department might have held differing goals for the desired outcome; however, Ahern demonstrates the CIA’s consistency in resisting involvement in actions having dubious intelligence value. He demonstrates the fine line present in operations, whether overt or covert, that successfully hid a clandestine intelligence-collection effort. Early in the book, he explains one of the more common accusations made about the CIA in Vietnam—that it participated in operations perceived to have no intelligence value. Ahern reveals that, on the one hand, outsiders who concluded that the CIA’s participation in an operation produced nothing beneficial actually validated the agency’s concealment of an intelligence operation inside a pacification program. On the other hand, the CIA had to “take it on the chin” for purportedly spending taxpayer dollars on something without intelligence value.

Coming out of Vietnam, the CIA carried the undeserved image of a power-hungry loose cannon, but the author debunks this paradigm. Ahern explains that, aside from avoiding power grabs on ethical grounds, the CIA actually had the least amount of manpower and one of the smallest budgets in-country. Although he does not say so explicitly, I have the impression that the CIA saw its role as a “counterinsurgency project manager,” not as a full-scale “production (i.e., combatant) manager.”

One of the thorniest issues Ahern mentions had to do with convincing South Vietnamese leaders that the war was in the countryside, not in the cities. The CIA routinely coached Saigon leaders on the “battle” not being against Hanoi or merely about stopping the Vietcong from bothering rural peasants. The author reminds us that the Americans constantly repeated and demonstrated this particular message, starting in 1954 when they arrived and the French left. According to the CIA, the real task lay in convincing the peasants to side with Saigon before the Vietcong talked them into going the other way.

Vietnam Declassified left a lasting impression. Specifically, Ahern writes in several places about the CIA as a trailblazer in Vietnam, as was the author himself. In fact, he observes that “most [CIA] officers who served there had no previous experience of third world insurgency, and many of us . . . found ourselves facing challenges and exercising authority at a level well above the norm for our rank and experience” (p. 4). It seems that in situations in which young officers lack the extrinsic benefits of manpower, money, equipment, precedence, and experience yet still need to get the job done, they do so, according to the author, by using intrinsic skills they could not buy or receive from someone else—tenacity, creativity, and courage.

When I closed Thomas Ahern’s book, a time-honored passage kept ringing in my ears: “We who have done so much, for so long, with so little, are now qualified to do everything with nothing.” Excellent work, Mr. Ahern.

Steve Miller

Simi Valley, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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