The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960–1968
Mervyn Edwin Roberts III
University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, Kansas, 2018, 432 pages
Book Review published on: June 15, 2018
Mervyn Roberts III, a professor of history at Central Texas College, presents a first-time, in-depth examination of the psychological war in Vietnam from 1960 to 1968. In The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968, Roberts analyzes the development of psychological operations capabilities, the introduction of forces, and the decisions that created the Joint United States Public Affairs Office and the 4th Psychological Operations (PSYOP) Group in the wider context of the Vietnam and Cold War propaganda battles the United States simultaneously fought.
Roberts’s research reveals that Ho Chi Minh was an exceptionally gifted intellectual and propagandist who mastered the art of propaganda while living in France. A dedicated Communist, Ho played a major role in introducing Marxism-Leninism to Indochina and who would also become the symbol for the Vietnamese independence movement following World War II. Ho’s greatest contribution to North Vietnam’s propaganda efforts was his ability to masterfully influence foreign audiences, especially American, with a David versus Goliath theme of a poor, largely rural, freedom-loving Vietnam being victim to U.S. imperialism. He encouraged noted personalities such as Bertrand Russell, Walter Teague, and Tom Hayden to condemn United States policy in Vietnam. Ho was equally instrumental in encouraging antiwar groups and their allies on college campuses across the United States.
North Vietnam’s propaganda efforts were successful early on in eroding rural South Vietnamese support for the Ngo Dinh Diem regime. Its efforts also exploited rural discontent with the Strategic Hamlet Program. The rural Vietnamese were forced by the Diem regime to relocate to new communities of protected hamlets. The program intended to ensure security for rural villagers while denying support to Viet Cong forces in the area. Failure to ensure security and forced relocation away from villages and fields as well as corruption and forced manual labor in building the hamlets quickly disaffected the rural populace. Diem’s persecution of Buddhist monks was also exploited by North Vietnam as a divisive tool to undermine Diem at home and to erode international support abroad. However, North Vietnam’s increasing excesses against the local populace undermined the credibility of their propaganda, eroding support of the South Vietnamese populace. As a result, North Vietnam focused their propaganda efforts toward foreign audiences.
Roberts challenges the perception of many historians that the outcome of the Vietnam War was a foregone conclusion from the beginning. His research indicates that South Vietnam’s Chieu Hoi Amnesty Program was successful in undermining Viet Cong morale. The program was credited with rallying over 159,000 soldiers and members of Communist Party underground organizations to support the South Vietnam government. North Vietnam leadership was aware of Chieu Hoi’s success and took efforts to counter its effects. Roberts discusses the effectiveness psychological operations were having on the North Vietnamese personnel during 1967 on both the United States and South Vietnam. It is a compelling argument that the effectiveness of PSYOP in undermining the morale of the North Vietnamese military and Viet Cong personnel contributed significantly to North Vietnam’s decision in launching the Tet Offensive in 1967.
Roberts’s research concludes that American PSYOP forces went to Vietnam with little knowledge of the history and culture of the country, and little experience in conducting PSYOP in a counterinsurgency. Despite these drawbacks, they enjoyed considerable success in advising, innovating techniques, and developing equipment. Much of their lessons learned remain relevant today. The Psychological War for Vietnam excels in providing a broader understanding of the war in Vietnam, PSYOP, and the challenges and limitations in counterinsurgency operations. This book is a must read for psychological operations and counterinsurgency stakeholders at policy and practitioner levels.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas