Hau Nghia: Part 1
The Good American: Jack Wells and the American Defeat in Vietnam

Marc Jason Gilbert
James Wells

Since the mid-1980s, discourse on American military strategy during the Vietnam War has been dominated by an argument over the strategy employed by American forces in Vietnam. Harry Summers, a veteran of that war who is today an influential commentator on military affairs, contends that America was mistaken in what he alleges to have been its preoccupation both with the enemy's conduct of revolutionary warfare and its antidote, a counterinsurgency-pacification campaign. He argues that the war was an invasion of one country by another along conventional lines. Had America recognized this truth, it would, according to Summers, have been better able to anticipate or meet the cross-border assault by regular North Vietnamese forces which ultimately brought the war to a close. Adherents of this view also criticize several other elements of the American way of war in Vietnam, including its limited war--graduated response strategy, the freedom granted the press to cover the war, and the orchestration of the war by politicians. These factors, they allege, gave Hanoi the victory it could not win on the battlefield, particularly after the Tet Offensive. They believe that an unfettered air campaign and an invasion of North Vietnam and Laos conducted along the lines of the recent Gulf War would have brought the troops home in time for Woodstock.

The premise of Summers' thesis has won favor among many military policy analysts, but is fraught with errors of fact as well as interpretation. Its devotees insist, admittedly without foundation, that Washington's fears of a Soviet and/or Chinese intervention in the war that led to limited war in Southeast Asia were groundless. However, Sinologist John Garver has proven that Washington's concerns were fully justified, while Peter Dunn has demonstrated that an invasion of the North would under any circumstances have proved more costly and no more successful than Johnson's limited war strategy. Even advocates of the Summer's thesis like General William Westmoreland have angrily denounced those post-Gulf War hawks who have apparently forgotten that the Gulf campaigns occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated the type of interventionist threat that had limited the scope of his own operations in Vietnam. Roger Hilsman and Douglas Pike, two of the State Department's wartime experts on the enemy's strategy, seemingly demolish the central element of the Summers thesis by pointing out that guerrilla revolutionaries, acting with only limited support from North Vietnamese regular forces, would have overwhelmed the Saigon regime as early as 1965 had it not been for the introduction of U. S. combat forces. As for the post-1965 period, which both Summers and Westmoreland tout as a strictly conventional war, the testimony of Vietnam-era counterinsurgency veteran Colonel Stuart Herrington and General Tran Van Tra, the commander of enemy forces in the South, leaves little doubt that guerrilla forces remained an integral part of Hanoi's strategy even after Tet and right up to the fall of Saigon. Colonel Herrington has recently concluded that "those who suggest that the United States erred by focussing its power on the Viet Cong when we should have known all along that Hanoi was the enemy and `gone for the jugular' simply do not understand the nature of revolutionary warfare and the key role played by Hanoi's Southern organization."

Perhaps an even more serious challenge to the Summers approach has come from former William Colby, Andrew Krepinevitch and Guenter Lewy. They argue that while the American defeat in Vietnam was, indeed, traceable to the failures of its counter-insurgency campaign, this failure occurred not because America invested too much in such programs, but because it invested too little, too late. They point out that, due to its superiority in conventional warfare, American leaders in Vietnam were slow to apply the lessons learned by successful American counter-insurgency efforts elsewhere. They contend that when these lessons were correctly employed, a marked improvement in pacification was noted even in the face of the distortions of policy that followed in the wake of the death of Ngo Dinh Diem and the later Tet Offensive. They maintain that after the Tet Offensive, when U. S. conventional forces were withdrawn and pacification programs were finally given priority and backed by South Vietnamese economic and primary political reforms, the effort to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people quickly built toward a triumphant success that was thwarted by domestic turmoil in the United States which led to America's abandonment of its increasingly viable Vietnamese ally. Colby, chief of pacification in Vietnam after 1970 and later a Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, concludes that after the Tet Offensive America had succeeded in achieving what only a few counterinsurgency visionaries like Edward Lansdale had believed to be possible--nation-building abroad in the face of a campaign of terror and subversion--only to throw that achievement away through a lack of political will at home.

The so-called Colby alternative thesis possesses its own weaknesses. Its charge that the U. S. failed to support counter- insurgency and pacification measures in Vietnam is belied by the enormous effort that was devoted to the so-called "other war" before and after Tet. It discounts the possibility that the slow response of the American decision-making process to innovative pacification techniques, such as those favored by counterinsurgency specialist Edward Lansdale, may have been tied to unalterable characteristics of American policy in Vietnam. It also fails to consider that even the best American pacification efforts destabilized much or rural Vietnam and so undermined the psychological independence and political sovereignty of the Saigon regime as to contribute to its collapse. Further, the Colby thesis, like the Summers thesis, is redolent of the kind of stab- in-the-back rhetoric that has in the past proved more firmly rooted in contemporary political agendas than in historical reality. The most serious flaw in the Colby thesis, however, can be found in its central counterfactual components. Colby believes that the pacification program might have had a better chance to succeed if Diem had not been killed, if the sudden impact of the Tet Offensive had not undermined American public support for the war, or if economic reforms such as Thieu's Land to the Tiller Program had been introduced earlier or have been given more time to succeed. Yet, if the success or failure of American policy in Southeast Asia depended on avoiding the moral and political implications of the murder of a favored if obstreperous son, on the reversal of the domestic ramifications of an unexpected military debacle, and on the staying of the hands of time, then what was needed for victory in Vietnam was not Edward Lansdale, but the Biblical King David.

The attractions and pitfalls inherent in each side of the Summers-Colby debate render a final judgement on the conventional- nonconventional warfare issue elusive, but many scholars believe that a definitive analysis may emerge from closer study of American and Vietnamese perceptions and actions during the pivotal year of 1965 and their ramifications for the later Tet Offensive of 1968. This effort will be furthered by an examination of the career of Jack Wells, who served in Vietnam as counterinsurgency advisor in 1962-1963, when the counterinsurgency-pacification program was at its zenith, and as a Public Safety Advisor with broad responsibilities during the summer and fall of 1965, when it reached its nadir. Wells's service in Vietnam, while typical rather than unique, illuminates fundamental aspects of the conflict that appear to have been obscured, rather than revealed, by the Summers and Colby theses. It suggests that an accurate historical assessment of the Tet Offensive, the Vietnam War and its legacies lies beyond these established parameters of discourse on the war.

No Other Road to Take

In the spring of 1965, the United States government confronted an unprecedented crisis in its conduct of the war in Vietnam. It was becoming locked into a rapidly escalating conflict that appeared both unavoidable and necessary, but very possibly unwinnable. This pessimism was derived from the fact that though a variety of options were before it, including stepped-up bombing of the North and large U. S. troop deployments "in country", none were as yet thought to guarantee victory and all contained the seeds of an embarrassing defeat. According to John McNaughton, the most pragmatic of Johnson's wartime advisers, only one aspect of the war effort was not a double-edged sword and held out real promise for long-term success: America's effort to achieve progress within South Vietnam toward building a stronger pro-government infrastructure and improving its spirit, effectiveness, stability and physical security. In March, McNaughton told President that while such efforts might not "pay off quickly enough to affect the present ominous deterioration, some may, and we are dealing here in small critical margins. Furthermore, such investment [was] essential to provide a foundation for the longer run."

McNaughton was referencing a nation-building strategy that had been devised some years before by Edward Lansdale with the advice and support of British counter-insurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson and Roger Hilsman, a former American guerilla in Burma and the director of intelligence for the Department of State in the Kennedy administration. Lansdale had argued that it would do no good to pursue an anti-communist crusade in Vietnam if it made the Vietnamese dependent upon the United States, as this would "place the U. S. in a position of continuing major help [there] for endless years, on the basis that if our aid were lessened then the enemy would win."

Thus I would like to see our efforts here geared as completely as possible to the operating philosophy of helping the Vietnamese to help themselves, not only Vietnamese government or army, but the people themselves. It will mean insisting on more extensive and effective use of our help by the Vietnamese--and our acceptance of workable Vietnamese standards rather than our own perhaps to a greater extent. This will increase proprietary interest in what is constructed (whether it be army division or individual farm), build the muscularity of national abilities, and start giving the Free Vietnamese the confidence in their own competence which the Vietminh have demonstrated so remarkably on their side.

Lansdale's role in the creation of the Republic of South Vietnam had earned him praise as well as blame for interfering in Vietnamese affairs, but Lansdale was adamant that the advisory effort he now recommended would be led not by meddling ugly Americans who would who would themselves direct military and rural development operations. It would be led by "Good Americans" who would seek to share with the Vietnamese America's own considerable experience of unconventional warfare and merely assist South Vietnamese authorities in the conduct of anti- guerrilla tactics which were of necessity tied to bridging the gap between the people and their government. To Lansdale and later, to Roger Hilsman, political legitimacy and hence victory in a revolutionary war would fall to those indigenous forces best capable of providing local security and advancing the cause of nation-building. The interests of local security would, in terms of resource allocation, always vie with nation-building efforts, and the warriors would always prefer the former to the latter, but for the embattled government, as well as the insurgents, there was no other road to take.

Drawing upon his own successful implementation of this strategy in the face of the Huk Rebellion in post-Second World War central Luzon, Lansdale knew that it worked best when supported by a strong indigenous leader. He hoped Ngo Dinh Diem would be the man who would do for Vietnam what former Defense Minister and later President Ramon Magsaysay had done for the Philippines. Unfortunately, Vietnamese political and cultural currents that ran as deep as Diem's mandarin psyche combined to thwart Lansdale's program. Whereas Magsaysay's populist touch and the nature of Filipino political culture permitted him to defer to American advice and to launch effective anti-guerrilla operations supported by "mass-line" economic reforms, Diem's greater personal and political need to stand aloof from the Americans and his inability to reach out to the majority of his own people stifled allied cooperation as well as his nation's political development. Further, Diem's need to service a power base far narrower and less democratic than Magsaysay's led to mismanagement and corruption that undermined the key element of the early pacification effort, the Strategic Hamlet program designed by Sir Robert Thompson. Diem's counter-terror operations were, moreover, aimed at his non- communist domestic opponents rather than the insurgents. His version of nation-building included the abolition of traditional village elections for posts he intended to fill with his own appointments and land reform policies that ultimately reduced the quality and amount of land previously placed in peasant hands by the Viet Cong. The very word chosen by Diem's officials to describe pacification, binh dinh, had both colonial and feudal associations.

The assassination of Diem in November 1963 and the subsequent chronic instability of the South Vietnamese government created conditions favoring a quick communist victory, but Lansdale and Hilsman remained convinced it was not too late to implement a nation-building strategy. Shortly before John F. Kennedy's assassination that same month, Hilsman urged the President to resist the temptation to view the insurgency in Vietnam as a military problem, a warning he continually repeated for the benefit of the Johnson administration until his resignation in March, 1964. His last significant memoranda had urged reform within South Vietnam and stressed Robert Thompson's belief that "Vietnam was a political problem of winning the allegiance of the people rather than a military problem of killing Viet Cong," and that the latter "had no more than a limited need for outside resources." Johnson ultimately replaced Hilsman with William Bundy who, like his brother McGeorge Bundy at the Defense Department, was a believer in both the domino theory and its Vietnamese corollary, aggression from the North. Kennedy had once contemplated handing over to Lansdale the entire Vietnam embroglio, but all the President's men at the White House and at the Pentagon torpedoed the idea and sought to strip Lansdale of both his influence and military rank after he sought to abort the American-backed coup that resulted in Diem's death. Nonetheless, at the end of 1963, Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) concluded that "no amount of military effort or capability can compensate for poor politics."

A promising, if short-lived, reorganization of the South Vietnamese leadership in the winter of 1964 and more positive political events in the spring of 1965 may have given McNaughton hope that the nation-building model might yet achieve what he told the President a bombing campaign of the North and an American led conventional war in the South might not: a quick victory and an early disengagement from a potential Southeast Asian quagmire. McNaughton's opinion that "Progress inside SVN [South Vietnam] is our main aim" was not his alone. The Defense Department had long since recognized that, while Hanoi was then active in strengthening the forces facing the Saigon regime, the later remained primarily indigenous. They also admitted that while "the introduction of limited ground forces into the northern area of South Vietnam . . . would have a real stiffening effect in Saigon and a strong signal effect to Hanoi . . . such forces would be possible attrition targets for the Viet Cong." As a result, the United States remained committed to assisting the Vietnamese government improve its standing with its own people and revive its pacification effort. In keeping with Edward Lansdale's repeated recommendations that this effort be led by as much as possible by independent, specially trained civilians, much of the responsibility for reinvigorating this aspect of the war fell to the Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1965, USAID leaders widely publicized the need for volunteers for its mission in Vietnam. In May of that year, they received an application from Major Jack Wells of the United States Army, who sought admission into their Public Safety Program.

The Smell of Gunpowder in the Streets

Jack Wells had been a combat infantryman, a heavy weapons platoon leader and a staff sergeant in the Southern Philippines Campaign towards the close of the Second World War. He was later seconded to the military police in Japan and Hawaii, where his remarkable administrative talents led to service with the Nuremberg War Crimes Commission. His equally remarkable command of security policy led to a commission and his rapid rise within the office of the provost marshall where he excelled at what the military called the "re-motivating" of criminal elements and demoralized police. The latter skills led to his appointment as advisor to the Judicial Police Advanced School, at Vung Tao, Vietnam in the Spring of 1962, which Wells promptly closed due to the lack of properly qualified applicants. He had found the school to be little more than a haven and stepping stone for the children of the Saigon elite. Wells took this action out of principled belief in the need for sound police administration in Vietnam, but he knew that it would anger his superiors who would be opposed to any reduction in the size of their command. Wells punishment for this transgression was his immediate re-assignment as a counterinsurgency specialist to Montagnard villages in the Central Highlands.

Despite the conditions surrounding his transfer, Wells took pleasure in his new duties and proved himself an upright idealist who desired only to assist others to grow and develop free of communist authoritarianism. For Wells, the anti-communist component of American guidance was not something that was to be thrust upon unwilling victims who would serve in a Cold War from which they would derive little immediate benefit. It was an alliance for democratic development that could only work if the people America sought to help enjoyed and valued the benefits of this system over its competitor. As the Montagnards at that moment feared being converted into Hanoi's ideal of the "socialist man" more than they feared the Diem regime, Wells enjoyed enormous success. His reward for the greatly improved security he effected in his districts was to be invited to partake in Montagnard social rituals and his ultimate adoption into over thirty Montagnard communities. He also succeed in an another assignment, the rehabilitation of select Viet Cong guerrillas who had returned to the government fold, a task which provided him with valuable insight into the enemy's motivation and organization.

While Wells achieved some personal success, he saw little movement in the direction of what MACV defined as the key to victory: the improvement of "the quality of [public] support achieved by the political leadership of the government of Vietnam at all levels." It appeared ominous to him that the Diem regime seemed unable to connect with the people of the country half as well as he could. Nonetheless, the situation in the field seemed to be stabilizing when he left Vietnam in February of 1963 and he remained optimistic about the war. The subsequent death of Diem and the rise of vigorous men such as Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu in early 1965 suggested to Wells that the indigenous obstacles to a successful counterinsurgency-pacification campaign might soon vanish.

Wells thus had good reason to look forward to a return to Vietnam when, in late April of 1965, his commanding officer informed him of USAID's effort to recruit advisory personnel for Vietnam. The timing was especially fortuitous. At that moment, Wells had been busily preparing to seek security work in the American private sector. Though the Army wished him to remain past the upcoming celebration of his twentieth year in its service, he had thought that it was time to move on. Wells had taken college- level courses whenever his duties had allowed, but he had never acquired a degree. He believed that his lack of higher education closed off any further advancement in rank. Even if it did not, he knew he was an unpolished gem at best. As a stalwart champion of the underdog, mercurial in temper, not particularly articulate and did not excel at writing, he was hardly someone who would feel at ease among the "plaid pants golf" set he believed had come to dominate command-rank culture. By contrast, the USAID program had features that had always attracted him; a chance to learn new things, to earn good money and to serve the interests of both his country and the world. That he would be returning to Vietnam, where he had already achieved some success in the direction sought by his potential new employer, was mere icing on the cake.

USAID accepted Wells into the fold immediately after a screening interview in Washington, D. C. on May 1, 1965. His subsequent performance during his preparatory training impressed both the agency's officials and his fellow classmates. They admired his boyish enthusiasm, his initiative and unbounded energy, his command of advisory techniques and his affection for the people of Vietnam. They also appreciated his deep conviction that it was in the best interests of both Vietnam and America that the spread of communist ideology in Southeast Asia be stopped with all possible dispatch. Scholars of Southeast Asian Studies and diplomats who served as training personnel were impressed by Wells' ability to express--in words which could have been Lansdale's own-- the necessity of working through rather than over or against the South Vietnamese authorities and the priority that had to be placed on security strategies that advanced the task of nation-building. They were no doubt pleased that this former regular army officer understood the difference between military and civilian approaches to social control and the central role the police forces played in both the theory and application of counter-insurgency doctrine.

USAID clearly knew the value of what they had. Wells was initially selected to participate in what was then a new program in Vietnam to re-integrate Viet Cong defectors into Saigon's forces, but such were his skills that he was soon offered the post of provincial Public Safety Advisor in the province of his own choosing. In an act that typified both his energy and commitment, Wells talked USAID into assigning him not one province, but the two worst; Hau Nghia and Phuoc Long. Both of these provinces were largely in Viet Cong hands. The eastern border of Hau Nghia was only 30 miles from Saigon's western suburbs, but Viet Cong ambushes kept the road to the capital impassable. The province was also home to the famous tunnels at Cu Chi, which bedeviled allied military operations in the region. After a visit to Hau Nghia in 1965, one-time Marine and government policy-analyst Daniel Ellsberg, then a staunch gun-toting supporter of the war, was told by the province chief that, out of the 220,000 people in the province, 200,000 were directly ruled by the Viet Cong, an estimate confirmed by the Pentagon. Like Hau Nghia, Phuoc Long was nearly overrun early that same year and nighttime mortar attacks on urban centers were routine. Yet, Wells was so successful at initiating intelligence gathering and security apparatus in both provinces that he was soon given additional assignments that were to take him all over Vietnam. He was named as director for security of USAID/Vietnamese government refugee resettlement program and given responsibility for the security/identity card program.

End Part 1

Copyright ©Marc Gilbert and James Wells, 1995. All rights reserved.