An iconic image of U.S. troops and helicopters during controversial, divisive Vietnam War (Photo: The Atlantic)

Counter-Infowar Lessons for Today from America’s Vietnam War Era

Joe Buff


by Joe Buff, MS, FSA

Until the seemingly endless “GWOT (Global War on Terror)” cum “overseas contingencies operations” cum “Forever Wars,” it was America’s longest war — Vietnam. It ended in 1975 with a whimper for our side, not a bang. Anyone under 44 now wasn’t even born back then. Many of us who were wish it all had never happened. Things went on that still reverberate throughout U.S. society. There are important lessons about national unity and national security here, lessons that we forgot or never got to learn to begin with. What are they? Let’s recap.

In 1975, North Vietnam permanently annexed the South, an independent country established after World War II by the victorious Allies when the brutal occupation by Imperial Japan was ended. When the last CIA helicopter fled and North Vietnamese Army tanks rumbled through Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to take control, a major refugee situation resulted. Prophetic for events in other regions since then, desperately fleeing people drifted in improvised boats in the South China Sea, and a wave of (legal) immigrants surged into America.

The USSR/China-led Communist Bloc won that round in the then-seemingly-endless Cold War, their latest by-proxy Third World brush-fire war with the U.S.-led Free World.

The height (depths?) of our in-country Vietnamese combat operations came in the late 1960s — a full half century ago now. The Nixon Administration, like the Johnson Administration preceding it, sought to achieve our geopolitical goals with a military strategy of Escalate to Win. We did win World War I (regime change in the adversary) and World War II (again, regime change in the adversary) that way. We achieved our main goal in the Korean War (preserve South Korean sovereignty) that way, despite the help the North got from China and Russia and our failure to depose Kim Il Sung (shades of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War). But we did not achieve our goals at all in the insurgency-cum-war-of-independence fought against us by North Vietnam, which like North Korea got help from China and Russia.

Knowing our goals were not being achieved, Richard Nixon moved the goal posts, as all politicos are wont to do. (Sound familiar now with ISIS in Syria?) Nixon declared “Peace with Honor,” a slogan emblematic of that era, just like “Mission Accomplished” was for a later era of counter-insurgency armed conflict that we haven’t totally left yet. This bit of rhetorical shenanigan by soon-to-resign POTUS Nixon was both an egregious symptom, and a further exacerbation, of a major violent schism in American society and popular culture. That schism, and the violence, are still with us, and though Vietnam is now a friendly trading partner, Russia and China are still using the same wedge issues to play Hob with our political unity and our military commitment.

Remember the Hippies versus the Hard Hats? Remember “Flower Power!” and “Four More Years!” Remember the military draft — a potentially deadly threat looming over every fit young male whose family wasn’t rich/well-connected enough to get him deferred?

Remember the assassinations of three of our progressive national leaders within five years of each other? (JFK, RFK, MLK.)

Remember the massacres at My Lai, and at Kent State? The rising violence in our inner cities? The police brutality that tried to quell it but that only provoked it even more? Remember the long, painful Watergate investigations, and Nixon’s ultimately-failed version of deflect-delay-deny? Remember what you were doing when you found out he finally resigned, not long after his Veep Spiro Agnew did?

If you’re too young to remember these things, you owe it to yourself to learn about them, to gain a more meaningful, well-informed stance (and thus a stronger voice) on today’ just-as-relevant pressing social and national defense issues. If you haven’t yet, you definitely should watch great documentarian Ken Burn’s engaging 10-part series, about the Vietnam War both in-country (over there) and on the home front (over here). I found it one of the most compelling non-fiction miniseries I’ve ever seen — plus the period music on the sound track is powerfully evocative.

Richard Nixon dissembled to (and about) the open media, in an aggressive and cynical way not seen before in our great country’s history. Many media outlets (there were fewer back in the pre-Internet age — remember TV “live via satellite”?) were sorely provoked, and did their jobs of investigative journalism and true-fact-telling ever more diligently. To paraphrase the Washington Post, a crucial player in the events of those difficult days, democracy dies in the darkness back then, too.

The disruptive phenomenon of Nixon-versus-the-Liberal-Press dovetailed with other big socio-emotional challenges facing America (and the world), to spawn and/or grow in our country a whole series of protest movements. These included the Anti-War Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Abortion Rights Movement, The Legalize Marijuana Movement, and the Ban the (Atomic) Bomb Movement. The Black Panthers, Feminism, gay rights, and other big pushes for lasting gains in equality came to the fore, with push-backs from social conservatives, evangelicals, and right-wing hawks.

Once upon a time, it was said of America that the streets were paved with gold. Now, instead, blood ran in the streets. While the fires of liberty still burned in citizens’ hearts, so too now did the fires of rage, and real fires from riots burned in vehicles and buildings.

Back in those days, we used to call foreign intelligence operatives who meddled in these divisive wedge issues on our home front infiltrators, outside agitators, agents provocateurs. Back then they had to do their thing in person, over here, supported long distance by propaganda radio broadcasts from Moscow and Peking that were easy to ignore. What was their thing? They served the geopolitical goals of our adversaries in the Cold War, Russia and China, to diminish U.S. influence and oppose the spread of democracy. They would have delighted in putting an end to the entire American Way of Life.

Such foreign agents are still very active over here. This newest generation of agents provocateurs is Internet savvy indeed, and they have many more different types and brand names of media channels over which to bombard us with their divisive, insidious, manipulative propaganda. Nowadays, we call them hostile information warriors, negative influence campaigners, adversary computer hackers. Many of them work very effectively from quasi-military entities in their home countries, or from well-funded front organizations in third-party states.

But their basic ammunition is the same as ever: disinformatsia that exploits and radicalizes, by amplifying, negative emotions that Americans already have. It’s just that nowadays, fifty years after the Vietnam War Era ended, we’ve had these negative emotions for a couple more whole human generations. These drivers of disunity, sectarianism, anger, and raw hate have become so deeply ingrained and polarized that America can probably never extinguish them now. We can only, at best, hope to contain them.

Back during the First Cold War, we fought hard to contain the spread of communist tyranny. Eventually, we did succeed. The USSR went belly up. China continued to rise, a very dramatic and successful rise that continues today — but purist Maoism, like Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist Thought, is no more practiced in any world capital. China has thrived impressively through a whole series of reforms and modernizations, started by Deng Shao Ping and now directed by Xi Jinping. This has been driven in no small part by pressures, and lessons learned, from the USSR’s very mixed experiences — and surely also from America’s. China now follows an ever-evolving system of Market Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. And it works very well for them. Ask the countries around them. And ask any commander in WESTPAC.

In the churning competitive jungle of real-world international relations, any species that doesn’t evolve will soon go extinct.

America still sees the ebb and flow of equal rights advances versus conservative and right-wing push-back. We still struggle over a comfortable role in our national arsenal for fearsomely powerful nuclear arms. We invented nukes ourselves to help end the last Big Hot War, and — just as importantly — prevent (via an effective, ever-evolving deterrence Triad) another one for 75 years and counting.

But a twin life-and-death struggle continues, just like the life-and-death struggle in the jungle. If we lapse in our diligence and focus, we will most certainly get eaten alive. We need to contain, isolate, beat back the intrusive negative influence campaigns coming at us every day from our overseas adversaries. And we need to find our own ways to heal the wounds and bridge the gaps between our various warring parties of citizens here at home.

Democracy did not die from the Vietnam disease or the Watergate rot. American Democracy fought them off, and we went on to win the First Cold War. We the People of the United States are an extremely resilient, resourceful species. We have successfully defended our way of life against all comers, foreign and domestic, for nigh on a full quarter of a millennium, so far.

South Africa solved their massive internal schisms and inequalities when they finally threw off the yoke of Apartheid, with their prototypical Truth and Reconciliation Movement. Peoples in the Middle East tried to throw off own their yokes of tyranny, with mixed results, in the Arab Spring. Results in Eastern Europe when the Warsaw Pact was dissolved vary a lot from country to country, and nationalism/fascism still rears its ugly head stubbornly. Success for America is not guaranteed, but there has never since 1776 been an important national struggle yet in which we did not ultimately triumph together, brilliantly.