Book Excerpt: 'The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World'

Picture released on Dec. 19, 1977 of Phan Hien (C, back), Vietnamese Vice-minister of Foreign Affairs facing Richard Holbrooke (R, front) U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, during U.S.-Vietnamese talks on normalizing relations between the countries, at the Vietnamese Embassy in Saigon. (Michel Clement/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday, November 28, Asia Society New York will host a book event for the publication of The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World, a collection of writing by the friends and colleagues who knew the late diplomat and Asia Society Chairman best, as well as excerpts from Holbrooke's own writing.

Appearing will be journalist Kati Marton, discussing her late husband's life and legacy, along such with contributors to The Unquiet American as Gordon M. Goldstein, author of Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, and two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist David Rohde.

The following is an excerpt from Gordon M. Goldstein's essay "Richard Holbrooke and the Vietnam War: Past and Prologue," from The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World, published by PublicAffairs in November 2011. Reprinted with permission.

Holbrooke and Lehovich landed at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon on June 26, 1963, shortly after 10:00 p.m. “The air was hot and muggy,” he remembered, “the rainy season was just beginning.” They were met at the airport by Tony Lake, another young foreign service officer who had arrived in Vietnam two months earlier, and by Ralph Boynton, an administrative officer of the rural affairs division of the United States Operations Mission, known as USOM, which represented the civilian and foreign aid divisions of the U.S. government in Vietnam. Boynton gave the new recruits a directive. “I will always remember him telling us,” wrote Holbrooke, “as we stood in our nice new suits in the heat of the tropical night waiting for our bags to come off the plane, ‘When you come into work tomorrow, remember: we’re a shirtsleeves outfit.’” Holbrooke would soon appropriate the new dress code for his role. Mastery of the local language would take longer. “I never did learn how to speak Vietnamese at better than the idiot level, although I did not know how bad I would be that first night in Saigon,” he recalled. The young men left the airport and drove through the deserted streets of Saigon, which captivated Holbrooke, reminding him of Paris. His adventure had begun.

Holbrooke reported for his first day at USOM, housed in a capacious administrative building situated next to the Xa Loi Pagoda, the most significant Buddhist temple in Saigon. After work, he observed a stream of Vietnamese flowing in and out of the shrine. Intrigued, he followed the crowds and wandered inside. There he saw a small jar sitting on the altar holding “a blackened and dried-up substance that looked like overcooked liver.” It was actually “the heart of Thich Quang Duc, the bonze [monk] who had burnt himself to death, miraculously preserved. And by worshipping the heart, the people were finding a way to express a forbidden political opinion, for the bonze had burned himself in protest against the government of Ngo Dinh Diem — although again I did not understand this, nor did the Embassy — forces were at work in Vietnam which would cause historic changes.”

Holbrooke was immediately dispatched to the field, assigned to work for George Melvin, the rural affairs chief for ten provinces north, east, and west of Saigon. In each province, rural affairs would have a dedicated representative, a position that the twenty-two-year-old Holbrooke would be appointed to after a brief apprenticeship. “The civilian provincial representatives were supposed to give the kind of advice on counterinsurgency which ... could not come from the military,” Holbrooke explained. It would be the beginning of his lifelong immersion in the analysis and implementation of counterinsurgency strategy, the multifaceted effort to provide security to vulnerable rural populations, while concurrently winning their allegiance through economic, political, and social development programs.

One of the principal architects of America’s counterinsurgency strategy in Vietnam in 1963 was Rufus Phillips, who would become a mentor to Holbrooke and a lifelong friend. Phillips was a young graduate of Yale, trained first as a CIA operative and then inducted into the army, which assigned him in 1954 to Vietnam, one of the first Americans on the scene in what would become a focal point of the Cold War. Holbrooke was fascinated by Phillips. “He was smart ... quick and deeply committed to a victory of communism through the techniques known as counterinsurgency,” Holbrooke wrote. “He was a disciple of Major General Edward Lansdale, a legendary figure,” who in 1963 was a “sworn enemy of General Maxwell Taylor, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later Ambassador in Saigon,” who Holbrooke himself would eventually work for in the U.S. embassy. “Phillips was heading a team dedicated to their boss in exile, with many of the old hands reassembled,” Holbrooke recorded in his memorandum. “I did not know any of this as I drove out into the South Vietnamese countryside for the first time.”

Holbrooke and Melvin clambered into a sedan and traveled out of the city on Route 13, heading north of Saigon. It was known as “Bloody 13” because several Americans had already been killed by insurgents positioned along the road as it veered into contested territory. “Everything was new to me that day,” Holbrooke remembered. “Melvin told me that while I worked for him I would hear things and do things that must not be discussed with anyone else. The ever-present sense of danger affects different people in different ways. For me, it made everything more intense and vivid; it made life itself a special sort of adventure. ... For a long time, until the war became so ugly and so hopeless and so divisive at home, I loved being in Vietnam.”

Reporting to Melvin and Phillips, Holbrooke was assigned to a dangerous province in the southern portion of the Mekong Delta, where he lived alone in an apartment above a shop and spent his days dedicated to expanding the so-called “strategic hamlet” program, designed to win the allegiance of the population and protect it at its most constituent level of organization, driving down from the province to the district, from the district to the village, and from the village to the hamlet. Holbrooke helped to organize self-defense militias, create agriculture and health programs, encourage elected governing councils, and build schools. In a memorandum Holbrooke sent Melvin about six months after his arrival, he described a schoolhouse constructed in concert with the Army’s 21st Division Engineering Battalion on a dirt road leading to the coast of the South China Sea. It served two hundred children on the same spot where the Vietcong twelve months earlier had destroyed the hamlet’s only school. “Nothing could more perfectly express the common goals and aspirations of the people and the Army,” Holbrooke proudly asserted in his report to Melvin. “The blow to the Viet Cong in this ‘war for the minds and hearts of the people’ was as potent as many a military operation.” It was clear, Holbrooke concluded, that there was “an unlimited potential for civic action projects in Vietnam.”

Holbrooke’s industry and zeal won plaudits from both senior American and Vietnamese officials. “Holbrooke is doing a terrific job,” gushed David Bell, director of the Agency for International Development, in a memorandum to Secretary of State Rusk. “He is the only civilian stationed in Ba Xuyen, a province where the VC controls 94 percent of the area and 70 percent of the people.” Bell told Rusk that the young man the secretary had known growing up in Scarsdale was adapting well to life in the town of Soc Trang. “He is in a very rough spot, and one that involves considerable personal risk,” Bell explained. “He was, however, cheerful and plainly very dedicated to the fight against the Viet Cong. When I asked him if he needed anything he said only two things ... decentralize administrative and financial flexibility to the provincial level.” The Vietnamese province chief of Ba Xuyen wrote his counterpart in the American rural affairs program praising Holbrooke’s “outstanding service” and requesting that Holbrooke not be reassigned. “He has the command of the situation in the area concerning people and pacification,” the province chief concluded.

The counterinsurgency effort was not performing at a sufficient level of effectiveness, in Holbrooke’s view, despite the optimistic assessments that U.S. military advisers in the provinces were sending to the American embassy in Saigon. Holbrooke’s skepticism was on display at a September 1963 meeting of roughly forty provincial representatives convened to evaluate the progress of the strategic hamlet program. Phillips, the U.S. pacification czar for the provinces, recalls the pessimism expressed about the program’s gains in the Mekong Delta region, where Holbrooke was stationed. Some of the hamlets were systemically compromised by an infrastructure of the Viet Minh insurgency that had been established in the mid-1950s, when communist cadres created a secret organization throughout the south of the country following Vietnam’s negotiated division in 1954. Many of the hamlets were secure during the day but then preyed on at night by insurgent forces. The pattern became evident in Holbrooke’s subsequent weekly dispatches to Phillips, one of which noted that the province chief of one hamlet had a brother who was a known Vietcong leader. “Recent incidents — kidnappings, and the refusal of certain militia to continue to bear arms — may indicate a new VC propaganda offensive in the area,” Holbrooke reported. “In Ke Sach and Thuan Hoa districts, they have recruited over 100 youths recently, and reports indicate they may have been taken to the island of Vinh Binh for training.”

The perils and demands of life in Ba Xuyen province prompted Holbrooke to seek opportunities to visit with friends in Saigon, which was comparatively untouched by the simmering rural insurgency. On Friday, November 1, 1963, Holbrooke went to the airport at Soc Trang, planning to fly to Saigon to spend the weekend with Tony Lake and his wife. The flight was canceled and an announcement was issued that “all Americans were restricted to quarters.” Holbrooke reached Lake by telephone at his home three blocks from the presidential palace. “He was calm but said that he was trapped in the house by small arms fire,” Holbrooke recalled in a letter to his fiancée, Larrine “Litty” Sullivan. No explanation for the fighting was provided, and Holbrooke was advised to stay off the roads. “But I was damn mad, and wanted to get out of Soc Trang,” he wrote.

Holbrooke decided he would make his way to Saigon via the city of Can Tho, where his friend Talbott Huey was stationed. Flanking an army truck as an escort, Holbrooke drove to Can Tho with a loaded .45 caliber pistol on the passenger seat next to him. When he arrived, Holbrooke took the clip out of the gun: “I had cocked the gun earlier, and now when I routinely went to clear the barrel, the goddamn thing went off.” The roar from the gun was enormous, and the recoil jolted him backward. A shocked Holbrooke, expecting that any minute the police would swoop down, fled the car in a panic. He recalled running nowhere in particular. Five minutes later, he returned to inspect the damage. “By the greatest of luck the bullet — and .45s are very powerful things — had passed through the floor between the clutch and the fourwheel drive shaft. One inch to either side and it would have demolished one of the two mechanisms,” he recounted in a letter to Litty. “So I got away with this disgraceful misuse of a weapon and hope to never do such a thing again.” He spent the night with his friend Huey. “Can Tho was quiet, deadly quiet.”

The evening lingered on with a sense of uncertainty. Eventually, an intelligence agent arrived and explained that American personnel were operating under a “Yellow alert, the last step before Red alert and immediate evacuation from Can Tho to the ships of the Seventh Fleet standing off the coast of Vietnam.” Holbrooke noted that the operative delivering this news “was slightly drunk, and his warning seemed strange somehow.”’

Holbrooke called Lake again, who abruptly hung up the phone. Lake and his wife, Holbrooke wrote, had remained hidden inside a closet for seventeen hours as gunfire and shelling erupted and air attacks commenced. Lake’s house was next to the barracks of the presidential guard, where Diem’s troops were fighting for survival. “Bullets and bombs fell everywhere,” houses were smashed and cars were burned. “I am really sorry I missed all of this,” Holbrooke lamented in his letter, without a trace of irony.

The next day Holbrooke flew to Saigon, “sharing the plane with General Cao, the notorious commander of IV Corps, who was Diem’s closest supporter. ... He is finished, as are so many other people in this country.” Holbrooke expressed his hope that his Vietnamese counterpart, the ineffectual province chief of Ba Xuyen, would now be swept aside: “I would assume that Colonel Chieu is through, and I hope so, I devoutly hope so; but there is always the chance he will escape.” Saigon, Holbrooke discovered, was jubilant over Diem’s overthrow: “Rufus and others who have been here for years say that not even in the days when independence was in the air, was there so much visible joy in the city.” Holbrooke made his way to Lake’s house, where he slept on the floor. Vlad Lehovich, who was also a weekend guest, “picked up an unexploded shell from a 68 mm mortar and brought it into my room ... which scared the hell out of me. ... He finally gave it to some soldiers.”

With a seemingly preternatural ability to insinuate himself into the center of any situation or dynamic he encountered, Holbrooke would not take long to migrate from the outer provinces of Vietnam to the capital, the locus of American power. In early 1965, he was assigned to the American embassy in Saigon, where over a two-year period he would serve as an aide to Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Holbrooke’s tenure in the capital would also include a unique assignment as a special assistant to Deputy Ambassador William J. Porter, with responsibility for civilian military affairs in support of American counterinsurgency operations. “In the midst of it all I am having a fascinating time working for Porter on other matters, like the non-war effort,” he told Litty, now his wife. “This is really a challenging tightrope kind of job, but I am so far surviving and enjoying it.” Speaking of his third year of immersion in the Vietnam crisis, Holbrooke conceded: “It is too compelling a problem, and I do not regret having been involved in it, even if we have fouled up here something awful.” 

About the Author

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Dan Washburn is Asia Society's Chief Content Officer. The Financial Times named his book, The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, one of the best of 2014.