As Americans look back on nearly two decades of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, the experiences and analyses of a junior officer of the U.S. Information Agency during the war in Vietnam, Douglas Pike (1924-2002), deserve to be recovered. This Public Diplomacy legend’s insights into what and how insurgencies communicate reach beyond Vietnam. They offer larger, enduring lessons.
Douglas Pike was one of the officers with diverse experience that were recruited into USIA in the late 1950s. He had served briefly as an Army radio operator in the South Pacific and the Philippines at the end of World War II. In the occupation of Japan he became a reporter for the Stars and Stripes. After a stint as a civilian employee in Okinawa, he moved to the United Nations Civilian Assistance Command in Korea. He was a broadcaster for the Far East Network and later the Voice of America, and he was a reporter for The Washington Star. Joining USIA, his first assignment was to the U.S. Information Service in Saigon in 1960.
Assigned to the USIS motion picture unit, he produced many short documentary films. One short series was on the Viet Cong. Reading their propaganda and interviewing prisoners led him into the serious research on Vietnam, South and North, for which he became known. “I wanted to learn what made the communists tick,” he said.
Except for a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology writing the book that established him as an authority, Viet Cong, he was in Vietnam from 1960 to 1974 — moving between USIS, the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO), and other sections of the Embassy. He developed close relationships with the Army. Leaving just a few months before the fall of Saigon, he was assigned to work Vietnam policy in Washington.
This deep expertise on Vietnam shaped his career in the Foreign Service – he retired in 1982 – and afterwards. When he left Saigon for the last time, he took with him a substantial archive he had gathered – “several million pages of government documents, news clippings, Vietnamese Communist propaganda pamphlets, and more.” Now housed at the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University, the documents provided grist for Pike’s own books — and studies of the war by many other scholars.
Pike spoke of his experiences in oral history interviews. The best (1989) is in the inestimable Foreign Affairs Oral History collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST). Another, conducted by Ted Hittinger in 1986, is at the LBJ Library in Austin. The late Larry Engelmann of San Jose State University recorded other interviews, now on the web under the title “Vincible Ignorance.” Public Diplomacy officers – especially those who endured the frustrations of Iraq and Afghanistan — may find the ADST and Engelmann interviews the more suggestive and thought-provoking. (No time? Just read Pike’s ADST interview from the middle of page 34.)
All three Pike interviews mention the same insight.
There are three basic ways that ideas can be communicated: first, mass media; second, informal channels of communication, such as word of mouth, and rumor, which is the way most ideas have been communicated through most of man’s history. It’s an unreliable system if you’re trying to use it to communicate ideas systematically. The third way is using social organizations as channels of communication. Social movement, you know, church or a trade union or a fraternity on the campus–these communicate data. They communicate value judgments: what kind of wife to marry, politics and so on. In developing societies, you don’t have mass media by definition. You do not have reliable word of mouth system. But you do have social organizations. This is what I was concentrating on. So what are the dynamics of this? How does this process work? How does it work in a modern society? How does it work in a traditional society?
I don’t think it unfair to say that in Iraq and Afghanistan, Public Diplomacy focused on the traditional mass media and, in time, cellphones and the social media. (Not to mention that the press office spent more time with the American and international media rather than communicating directly with Afghans.) The Embassy in Kabul lacked contacts, knowledge, means, and standing to communicate along the other channels.
Looking at the Vietnamese side of the war, Pike addressed the motivations of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers and cadres, their scant knowledge of Marxism and Communism, insights provided by defectors, the “darker character” and “psychological dependence” of the Vietnamese, and the relationships between “political struggle” and “armed struggle” in the same war. He reviewed events from the 1963 assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem to the final North Vietnamese offensive in 1975, offering many takes that challenge the standard Stanley Karnow-Ken Burns narrative of the war.
Looking at American participants, he discussed “the Kennedy spirit,” expectations of psychological operations soldiers, leaflets, and the antiwar movement. I was fascinated by his comment that there was “the world of the war in Saigon and he world of the war in Washington.” (Much as there was the world of the war in Kabul and the world of the war in Washington.)
Finally, Pike’s interviews, especially with Professor Engelmann, were introspective. He was refreshingly frank about his blind spots, about his own “Kennedy spirit,” his doubts about the efficacy of wars in history, and the dilemmas of American leadership.
Pike’s obituaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, along with a biography on the website of Texas Tech University and the three oral history interviews, can provide initial leads for studying Pike’s life work. And for thinking about information, ideology, and Public Diplomacy in future conflicts.
As the years of U.S. effort in Iraq and Afghanistan have become “history,” and as national security policy has shifted toward great power competition, I sense the Foreign Service has turned away from counterinsurgency with a sigh of relief. This is history repeating itself. The same happened after Vietnam, and the Foreign Service went to Iraq and Afghanistan unaware of “lessons learned” at great cost during the earlier conflict in Southeast Asia. The United States can seldom choose to engage in only the kinds of conflicts it prefers, however. There will surely be other insurgencies, and again forgetting earlier lessons will prove costly.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.