Saturday, June 25th 2016
During the Vietnam war, Air Force Major General Edward G. Lansdale advocated a far greater emphasis on using “psychological operations” than did other military leaders in Saigon, Hawaii, and Washington. The legendary and controversial Lansdale has been the subject of biographies by Jonathan Nashel and Cecil Currey, and another book, by Max Boot, is in progress.
Here’s an excerpt from Lansdale’s comments at the Air Force Academy’s military history symposium on Air Power and Warfare in 1978. (These comments are on pp. 334-335.) I am confident that when Lansdale mentioned “Our main psychological operations agency,” he meant USIA.
We have changed some names; we did use the term “psychological operations," for example. But our main psychological operations agency has dropped that term and has taken up another, and it is now staffed by people who are very happy, as they put it, to get out of the cold war era.
What concerns me, and what should concern everyone in this room, is that we were subjected during Vietnam to a political, psychological campaign by the enemy that was filled with disinformation to make us believe something that wasn't true; and we actually came to believe it. Ho Chi Minh, for example -- who had been a classmate of Stalin's at the Lenin Academy in Moscow, who had helped to form the Communist party in France, and who was certainly one of the most skilled and effective Communist leaders in the world -- was a very tough propagandist. He was very successfully portrayed to Americans as a kindly old gentleman with a wispy goatee who often played with little children. Now, who is going to make war against such a kindly image as that?
Let me give you another example of our failure to deal adequately with psychological aspects of the struggle in Vietnam. We based our policy in that war on the idea that we could punish the enemy leaders until they gave in to our demands. Yet most of the Politburo members were almost completely unknown in the United States. We knew little about their past and even less about their personalities or how they would react to our actions. The result was sheer folly. Not only did the Communist leadership in North Vietnam not succumb to our military strength, they turned it against us in propaganda campaigns throughout Europe and even in the United States.
I regret that we did not do more during the Vietnam conflict in terms of psychological operations. We had agencies to do that. We had military groups to do that. Unfortunately, we had commanders who felt that psychological operations consisted entirely of dropping leaflets when the enemy was penned in to give them the option to surrender. We had many people in Vietnam who saw their main duty as explaining the war to the American people rather than waging a war against the enemy. Perhaps the American people did need more understanding, but the explaining was often done to reporters whose views were sunk in concrete and which weren't about to be changed either by words or by visible proof in the war itself.
I feel very strongly about the subject of psychological aspects of war, as you can tell. I think the opponents we are likely to face in the future are far more skilled at such things than are we and are subjecting us to things that we had jolly well better become aware of and take into consideration in the planning and execution of our national policy and strategic planning.