Air University Review , September-October 1980

Wars of National LiberationInsurgency

Colonel Wendell E. Little, USAR (Ret)

BY THE early 1950s, both the United States and the Soviet Union recognized the extreme danger that direct military confrontation might escalate into a nuclear war not intended or wanted by either. Thus, the United States held back in Berlin, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and later in Vietnam, and the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba to avoid direct military confrontation. Following Stalin's death, Khrushchev proclaimed "peaceful coexistence" to avoid nuclear war but support for just wars of national liberation" as essential elements of Soviet policy. Thus, Moscow would increase its already considerable efforts to gain its objectives by subversion and support of insurgency without direct military confrontation of U.S. forces.

Following the National Defense Act of 1947, the National Security Council (NSC), under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, ordered the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to develop the capability and undertake a whole series of covert actions in support of U.S. foreign policy, actions in which the hand of the U.S. government would not be revealed. During the Cold War period of the '50s and '60s--prior to Vietnam--neither side made any significant gains.

The disillusionment following Vietnam had a profound impact on American attitudes and set the stage for the investigations of the "misdeeds" of the CIA and other intelligence agencies by the Senate Blue Ribbon Panel under Chairman Frank Church. The media proclivity for anything sensational or that emphasizes our defects as a nation, combined with the post-Vietnam climate, have reduced our capacity and, more important, our will to resist Soviet-supported insurgencies. To interfere in the internal affairs of other nations, even to help them resist subversion, was not in style in the late 1970s. Our failure in 1974 to stop the Soviet proxy Cuban troops in Angola has been compared to Munich in 1938. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but, nevertheless, the Soviets were encouraged to use their Cuban proxy troops in other countries, secure in the knowledge that the United States would not interfere. We backed down in the face of a bold Soviet adventure far from its own borders that imposed an unwanted rule on the majority of the people of Angola, and more recently in Afghanistan.

THE Counterinsurgency Era by Douglas Blaufarb is a scholarly and useful treatise on U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine and performance from 1950 through the Vietnam debacle.* After describing two successful counterinsurgency efforts in Malaya and the Philippines, Blaufarb presents a chapter entitled "The Kennedy Crucible," which covers the President's personal direction and support for new policies to help friendly countries endangered by Communist-inspired internal threats. NSC Action Memorandum No. 124 of 18 January 1962 proclaimed that: "Subversive insurgency (war of liberation) is a major form of politico-military conflict equal in importance to conventional war."

*Douglas S. Blaufarb, The Counterinsurgency Era: U.S. Doctrine and Performance 1950 to the Present (New York: The Free Press, 1977, $12.95), 356 pages.

Training in counterinsurgency was provided at all levels. More than half a million enlisted men and attendees at the military war colleges, as well as diplomats attending seminars in the State Department, were instructed in the theory and practice of subversion. But training proved easier than practice, mainly because the testing ground was to be Vietnam where political policies exacerbated the problem and contributed to defeat. The U.S. Army was not willing to accept radical revision of its concepts of unit integrity, combat style, weapons, or tactics that might make it more effective against guerrillas. The dilemma of adjustment of military forces to fight insurgency without sacrificing ability to deal with conventional war was never resolved.

Blaufarb underlines the major problem that, in nations threatened with subversion, many of the actions to undercut the Communist appeal and satisfy popular demands "strike at the very foundations" of power of the incumbent elite. Regimes that survive by purchasing loyalty of incompetent or corrupt subordinates with patronage are rarely willing to jeopardize their own power in order to defeat the enemy. Problems of self-reform in the midst of crisis sometimes lay like a concealed mine in the path of the counterinsurgency efforts where the United States tried to help.

In the last chapter, entitled' "Denouements," Blaufarb draws lessons from our experience. First, guerrilla actions are distinct from conventional military doctrine and require separate, less rigid organization and weapons. Second, the government to be defended must extend beyond the military elite and be responsive to its people. The fundamental lessons are the limits of U.S. power and the "need to perceive the underlying realities both of our own system and that of the countries into which we thrust our raw strength." The author concludes that the "lessons of our experiences are clearly negative" and that the United States has shown "no talent in the complex and difficult maneuvers needed for effective counterinsurgency." He suggests that counterinsurgency was an "aberration stemming from cold war fixations" and will not again become a major interest of the U.S. government.

THREE other books are first-person accounts of the authors' experiences with some form of insurgency. The best of these is entitled Bunch of Five by Frank Kitson, a British army officer who was involved with the insurgencies in Kenya, Malaya, and Muscat and Oman and the peacekeeping operations in Cyprus.** Kitson is a lucid writer and provides good descriptive backgrounds of the conditions leading to the troubles in each country and the different methods used to deal with the problem.

**Frank Kitson, Bunch of Five (London: Faber & Faber, 1977, $5.95), 306 pages.

In Kenya while serving with Special Branch (Intelligence), Kitson recognized the need for operational intelligence, details on the names, habits, and motivation of the terrorists. Much of the Mau Mau power flowed from fear--execution or threats for natives who refused to join. With careful collection of such details and by modifying the earlier, rather harsh interrogation methods, Kitson was able to induce some of the captured terrorists to change sides and identify the Mau Mau leaders. This intelligence proved to be crucial in containing the insurgency.

In contrast to the homegrown basis for the Kenya problem, the insurgency in Malaya was planned and executed by the Communists for their own purposes. Some of the same methods were used to force the natives to join the uprising. In Malaya, Kitson expanded his concepts and methods of inducing the terrorists to change sides. Special night training for his troops and use of only light scales of equipment helped achieve results.

During the late 1950s, Britain felt responsible for defense and foreign relations of Muscat and Oman on the south side of the Arabian peninsula, but the use of regular British troops created problems with the United Nations. Kitson produced a plan involving use of only a few carefully selected troops but with ample funds to bribe some of the natives in revolt. His plan to restore the Sultan's authority was implemented only in part; the main burden fell on the Special Air Service Regiment that had considerable experience in counterinsurgency operations in Malaya.

Kitson believes that insurgency is primarily a struggle for men’s mind. Thus, propaganda is most important but must be tailored to the needs and ambitions of the affected people. Violence, or armed propaganda, is a potent weapon for persuasion but must be applied with care to avoid a negative impact. In urban areas, large groups can be manipulated by organizing-riots and marches that are effective because journalists and television teams are quickly on the scene to report such actions. Kitson cites the essentials for combating insurgency to include political and economic measures, backed by carefully applied force and supported by good intelligence tuned to specific circumstances.

OUR Endless War: Inside Vietnam* was written by Tran Van Don, a French citizen by reason of birth in France. He served in a variety of positions in South Vietnam, including Corps Commander, Chief of Staff of the Army, Minister of Defense, and Vice Premier. His book is valuable from the Vietnamese point of view on the tragic events of that country. Tran Van Don was intimately familiar with the whole succession of South Vietnamese leaders from Ngo Dinh Diem to Nguyen Van Thieu. The book contains interesting details about the coup against Diem and his execution, apparently on the orders of Duong Van Minh (Big Minh).

*Tran Van Don, Our Endless War: Inside Vietnam (San Rafael, California: Presidio Press, 1978, $12.95), 268 pages.

The European-type of military organization and tactics used by the French proved ineffective against the Vietminh. Thus, when the Americans replaced the French, the South Vietnamese proposed lightly armed, mobile combat groups with the infantry, comprising the main combat force, recruited from local areas where they would retain both antiguerrilla and civic action missions. The author says that these proposals fell on deaf ears. The Americans, controlling the source of supply, dictated the organizations and the tactics. Vietnamese officers and enlisted men were sent to the United States for intensive training where they could forget the lessons learned from the French failures. Tran Van Don asserts that American Military Assistance Advisory Group officers were not effective, but not from lack of zeal or professionalism. They knew about war in Europe and Korea but had rarely faced guerrillas in the jungle. The U. S. Army had none of the essentials, such as language, familiarity with the land, climate, and local conditions and, most important, the ability to gain information from and about the local villages where the insurgents operated. The Americans could never be assimilated into the local population. (This book does not treat the counterinsurgency efforts of the U.S. Special Service Forces, Green Berets.)

Our Endless War reflects the attitude of the South Vietnamese toward the Kissinger-Tho negotiations to permit the Americans to withdraw from the war. The South Vietnamese saw certain disaster in the failure of the settlement to require removal of the North Vietnamese troops but had no alternative in the face of President Nixon's letter of 5 January 1973. This letter made it clear that the United States would conclude the settlement with or without the approval of South Vietnam.

ROLF STEINER is a West German national who joined the French Foreign Legion at age 17 and saw his first combat in Vietnam. His book, The Last Adventurer,* is an account of his experiences in the legion and later as a mercenary in Biafra and southern Sudan. He is not a lucid writer and tends to lose the reader as he rambles through his adventures. The main part of the book concerns efforts of Biafra to break away from Nigeria. Steiner records how he used his Foreign Legion training to survive clashes with Nigerian forces which "persuaded the superstitious Biafrans" that he was "invulnerable." He was placed in charge of a commando unit reporting directly to Ojukwu, the Biafran Chief of State. Despite his claimed modesty, Steiner clearly enjoyed his position, authority, and the attention from the press that covered the struggle.

*Rolf Steiner, The Last Adventurer (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1978, $9.95), 275 pages.

Steiner left Biafra under circumstances that are not made clear in the book, but his press coverage preceded his return to Europe. Shortly thereafter, he found himself received with ceremony on the shore of Lake Victoria by Idi Amin, Chief of Staff of the Ugandan Army, who flattered Steiner as the "commander of the biggest black army a white man ever led." Amin was from the Kakwa tribe in southern Sudan, now in rebellion against the Arabs who had taken control in Khartoum and apparently hoped to annex southern Sudan into Uganda. With Amin's support, Steiner moved into southern Sudan, trying to unify the tribes and train them with weapons supplied by the Israelis--mainly items captured from the Arabs in the Six Day War. He had more success teaching the tribes how to raise tomatoes, poultry, and tobacco, however, than in warlike activities.

After a year in southern Sudan, Steiner decided to return to Europe. While en route through Kampala, he was arrested on orders of Milton Obote, the president of Uganda, who apparently feared Amin's ambitions. Steiner's refusal to denounce Amin resulted in his transfer to Khartoum, capital of the Sudan, where he underwent some interesting forms of torture that he describes with relish and with emphasis on his own strength of character. Following several years in prison in Khartoum, Steiner was released through the efforts of the West German government. He claims that he was never a mercenary and that he has "ennobled violence" by putting it in the service of just causes.

SUBVERSION and insurgency are not new forms of warfare. Centuries ago Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War, in which he described indirect methods of subverting and ultimately defeating the enemy. Such methods are the subject of considerable modern writing, including the four books reviewed here. Frank Kitson's Bunch of Five shows a good understanding of insurgency problems. His conclusions are valid but not profound contributions to insurgency doctrine. Tran Van Don's Our Endless War provides a Vietnamese point of view useful in aoetter understanding of that dreadful quagmire. Rolf Steiner's The Last Adventurer is not well written and adds little to one's understanding of insurgency.

Douglas Blaufarb's The Counterinsurgency Era, easily the best of these books, provides a good understanding of how to deal with insurgencies that are often exploited, with or without foreign assistance, to destabilize or replace a government. His conclusions are entirely valid, if limited to our Vietnam experience. But perhaps he should give more attention to other situations where the United States had a modicum of success in blunting Communist insurgencies. Some of these have not been fully reported for security reasons. The U. S. did help stop Castro's considerable efforts to export revolution into South America. Actions to assist Angola by covert methods looked hopeful, until the media discovered and distorted the facts, claiming that the "U.S. is backing into another Vietnam." The media's more sensational version caused alarm and resulted in the Clarke amendment prohibiting any form of aid to Angola. A major problem, as yet unresolved, is how the U. S. can conduct covert activities in support of its foreign policies without being impaled on the media interpretation of its First Amendment rights.

The covert assistance to Angola was designed to avoid any overt commitment of U.S. prestige, which was one of the factors that dragged us into Vietnam. Some distinction can be made between thrusting our raw overt strength into an ongoing struggle and indirect covert actions to help our friends without any overt commitment. Covert actions--a technique often used by the Soviets--undertake not to reveal the hand of the U.S. or, at least, to provide for a plausible denial, thus avoiding overt commitment and, if necessary, withdrawal without loss of prestige. Such actions require secrecy, which is most difficult in the current Washington climate where "investigative reporting" has replaced "objective journalism," and the new ethic of disclosure has replaced press responsibility.1

SURELY one Vietnam lesson is that before we again inject our overt strength into a struggle we must be prepared to take the political decisions most likely required to win. With careful analysis in the 1950s we might have taken decisions to avoid the whole quagmire. There were discernible indications of its political limitations and nowin nature. The French who left earlier tried to pass this message to us. General MacArthur pleaded with President Johnson to get out. Having blundered in without adequate consideration of political import, the United States was limited, first in the strategic military conduct of the war, and at the end was unable to enforce peace arrangements to ensure the survival of South Vietnam. It was the North Vietnamese Army not the insurgent Vietcong that conquered the south. President Nixon's promise to "respond with full force should the settlement be violated" was negated by the Church-Case amendment prohibiting use of any military force to assist Vietnam. This congressional action was, indeed, our self-imposed instrument of surrender--in effect, an invitation for Hanoi to violate the 1973 agreements.

Contrary to the suggestion from some observers that counterinsurgency was an "aberration stemming from cold war fixation," history now seems to justify President Kennedy's concern with Communist expansion by indirect covert actions, sometimes using proxy troops, without need for any Soviet military force; for example, note what has happened in Africa since 1974. During the same time the ability of the United States to deal with such indirect aggression has been subdued--some say destroyed--in the name of civil rights. Meanwhile, some evidence shows Soviet use of terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. The vital question is: Can the U.S. rebuild its own intelligence and covert action capabilities to blunt or counter Soviet indirect aggression before we are faced with the awful alternative of humiliation and surrender of vital interests or direct military confrontation that might escalate into an unwanted nuclear war?

San Antonio, Texas


1. Watergate made the "investigative reporter" the glamour figure of American journalism. See Tom Wicker, On Press (New York: The Viking Press, 1978), p. 16.


Colonel Wendell E. Little (USAR, Ret; B.A., University of Texas, M.A., American University) is living in San Antonio, Texas, after serving 21 years in the Central Intelligence Agency, where his assignments include Korea, Japan, Pakistan, and Germany. During World War II, he served in Africa, Italy, France, and Germany. An Air War College graduate, Colonel Little is author of several articles and recent winner of a George Washington Medal from the Freedom Foundation of Valley Forge.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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