Mervyn Edwin Roberts (The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968) Q & A

Mervyn Edwin Roberts’ first book, The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960–1968, for the first time fully explores the most sustained, intensive use of psychological operations (PSYOP) in American history. In PSYOP, US military personnel use a variety of tactics—mostly audio and visual messages—to influence individuals and groups to behave in ways that favor US objectives. Informed by the author’s firsthand experience of such operations elsewhere, this account of the battle for “hearts and minds” in Vietnam offers rare insight into the art and science of propaganda as a military tool in the twentieth century.


1. When did you first have the idea to write Psychological War for Vietnam?

After returning from my first tour in Afghanistan, I realized I needed to understand psychological operations better. I began working on an MA degree in history to help with that. I came across the fantastic Texas Tech Vietnam War online archive and found a treasure trove of PSYOP related documents. That discovery set me on the path to understand that war so I could apply the lessons. Since no overarching history of the use of psychological operations in the war existed, I saw a niche that needed to be filled. With my background in the arcane field of PSYOP, and an interest in objectively understanding the effects of those operations, I felt I could write it.

2. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the book?

My process is not one I would recommend to others due to the laborious nature. I find every document related to the topic, paste all pertinent extracts in chronological order, edit that down to a readable draft, them go back to analyze, as I continually polish the writing. The analysis emerges from the facts, rather than by starting with a thesis and then assembling the facts to fit. I have tried to follow the facts as they emerged, and can honestly say, The Psychological War for Vietnam reflects a very different view than the one I started with.

This book consumed the better part of ten years, starting with my MA thesis and later dissertation, as well as extensive research and re-analysis afterwards. It required travel to numerous archives: U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle, PA, the US Army Special Operations Command Archives, the Nixon and LBJ libraries, and Texas Tech, among others. I also combed the internet for every digital archive with documents related to the use of propaganda in the Vietnam War. Writing the book also required learning to use Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software, and then converting data from obsolete formats to map the war and provide new insights for analysis. I also had to review hundreds of pages of Foreign Broadcast Information Service transcripts. After compiling this raw data into a coherent chronological sequence, the writing and analysis began.

3. What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?

A couple of PSYOP-related books covering short periods of the war had been written, but no overarching framework for understanding the effects. Without a solid base narrative, incorporating the varied sources into an effective timeline and story to even begin the analysis was a challenge for me. PSYOP can take years to produce an effect, which requires a long view. So, in effect, I had to write the history before I could effectively analyze the information at hand. Doing this while in the midst of deployments added to the challenge.

4. The Psychological War for Vietnam is the first book to fully explore the intensive use of psychological operations in the Vietnam War. Why do you think the study of it took so long?

This was a daunting process, as described above. Additionally, the necessary information and technology, such as the GIS data, recently declassified documents and the Combined Document Exploitation Center files, has only recently become available. To write a history of the propaganda war, also required a person knowledgeable in the field yet with an unbiased interest in understanding the outcomes. I actually was not concerned with a specific outcome. I just wanted to understand what happened. Some might view The Psychological War for Vietnam as a ‘revisionist’ history due to some of the conclusions drawn. I would argue, however, the history of the war is only now being written.

5. How do you think public opinion about the Vietnam War and battle methods used has evolved since 1968?

The contentious nature of the Vietnam War has unfortunately caused many scholars to hold positions rather than follow the facts. This has harmed the ability to honestly inform the public. I believe that as a result, the ‘Hollywood’ view of the war has prevailed for the general public and opinion is often based on clichés and misunderstandings about the war and about PSYOP. I believe that has begun to change with more recent histories.

6. What is the major change to Psychological Warfare since the Vietnam War?

Technological improvements since the war have been immense. Along with that, research into communication theory has advanced considerably since 1968. However, because no history of the psychological war in Vietnam was written in the aftermath, operational lessons were not captured. As a result, those experiences were often painfully repeated in later wars. Despite doctrinal improvements, based communications theory research and on recent operations, many of the lessons of the Vietnam War were not heeded. I hope that this book will provide a useful first step in correcting this.

7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

Due to the nature of this book, I believe there are actually two groups who will benefit from reading The Psychological War for Vietnam. The general populace interested in understanding the Vietnam War will benefit from an overarching history of the war up to the Tet Offensive and an understanding, from an academic standpoint, of a facet of the war that much misunderstood. Those people involved with psychological operations will benefit from the lessons to be learned.

8. What are you reading now?

To recharge after finishing The Psychological War for Vietnam, I have pivoted to my other area of historical interest, the Persian world since 1500. Two tours in Afghanistan gave me a fascination with understanding the region. I just finished reading Homa Katouzian’s very good history-The Persians, and re-read Oliver Roy’s The New Central Asia.

This summer I intend to shift back to Vietnam to start on part two of the history of the psychological war, covering the period from the Tet Offensive to the fall of Saigon. Much of the research for that is complete.

Mervyn Edwin Roberts III is a professor of history at Central Texas College and a reserve instructor at the Joint Special Operations University at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

A Book Revisited: Vietnam; The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 by John Prados

In April of 2009, the University Press of Kansas released the most comprehensive single-volume book about the Vietnam war. Author John Prados is an established freelance writer who excels in writing political and military history that appeals to both scholars and general readers. The Henry Adams Prize winner made extensive use of documentary sources and interviews, as well as his own experiences in the early 1970s.

The Vietnam war continues to be the focus of intense controversy. While most people—liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, historians, pundits, and citizens alike—agree that the United States did not win the war, a vocal minority argue the opposite or debate why victory never came, attributing the quagmire to everything from domestic politics to the press. The military never lost a battle, how then did it not win the war?

“A remarkable achievement [and] one of the most significant books published on Vietnam in the last decade.” – Journal of Military History

Stepping back from this overheated fray, bestselling author Prados takes a fresh look at both the war and the debates about it to produce a much-needed and long-overdue reassessment of one of our nation’s most tragic episodes. Drawing upon several decades of research-including recently declassified documents, newly available presidential tapes, and a wide range of Vietnamese and other international sources—Prados’s magisterial account weaves together multiple perspectives across an epic-sized canvas where domestic politics, ideologies, nations, and militaries all collide.

“An awe-inspiring achievement in epic form.” – Lloyd Gardner, author of Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam

Prados patiently pieces back together the events and moments, from the end of World War II until our dispiriting departure from Vietnam in 1975, that reveal a war that now appears to have been truly unwinnable—due to opportunities lost, missed, ignored, or refused. He shows how—from the Truman through the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations—American leaders consistently ignored or misunderstood the realities in Southeast Asia and passed up every opportunity to avoid war in the first place or avoid becoming ever more mired in it after it began. Highlighting especially Ike’s seminal and long-lasting influence on our Vietnam policy, Prados demonstrates how and why our range of choices narrowed with each passing year, while our decision-making continued to be distorted by Cold War politics and fundamental misperceptions about the culture, psychology, goals, and abilities of both our enemies and our allies in Vietnam.

By turns engaging narrative history, compelling analytic treatise, and moving personal account, Prados’s magnum opus challenges previous authors and should rightfully take its place as the most comprehensive, up-to-date, and accurate one-volume account of a war that—judging by the frequent analogies to the current war in Iraq—has not yet really ended for any of us.

“If you only had to have one book on the Vietnam War, this is the one.”  – The Veteran

Why Vietnam was Unwinnable; An Essay

By Kevin Boylan, author of Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971. This piece was originally published in the New York Times.

While I was working for the Pentagon in the early 2000s, wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan were routinely bused down from Walter Reed Hospital, in Northwest Washington, D.C., to receive their medals. It was a heart-rending experience to see these young men and women, many of them missing eyes, arms, legs or even multiple limbs, being wheeled through the building.

As a trained military historian who had specialized in the Vietnam War, I couldn’t help thinking about that earlier conflict as I watched them slowly making their way down the Pentagon’s corridors. And I wasn’t the only one. Many prominent figures in the government, military and media were drawing parallels with the Vietnam War, and a surprising number of them suggested that its lessons offered hope for victory in Iraq.

Those who made this argument contended that the United States had been on the verge of winning in Vietnam, but threw its chance for victory away because of negative press and a resulting failure of political will at home. This “lost victory” thesis originated with the Nixon administration and its supporters back in the 1970s, but gained considerable traction in the 1980s and ’90s after it was taken up by a group of influential revisionist historians, including Mark Moyar and Lewis S. Sorley III.

Taking their cue from the Vietnam revisionists, Iraq war optimists argued that just as Americans thought we were losing in Vietnam when in fact we were winning, so too were we winning in Iraq despite apparent evidence to the contrary. The problem, the optimists argued, was that — just as during the Vietnam War — naysaying pundits and politicians were not merely undermining popular support for the war, but giving our enemies hope that they could win by waiting for the American people to lose their will to continue the fight.

This kind of talk alarmed me because it discouraged a frank reassessment of our failing strategy in Iraq, which was producing that weekly procession of maimed veterans. And I also knew that the historical premises on which it was based were deeply flawed. America did not experience a “lost victory” in Vietnam; in fact, victory was likely out of reach from the beginning.

There is a broad consensus among professional historians that the Vietnam War was effectively unwinnable. Even the revisionists admit their minority status, though some claim that it’s because of a deep-seated liberal bias within the academic history profession. But doubts about the war’s winnability are hardly limited to the halls of academe. One can readily find them in the published works of official Army historians like Dr. Jeffrey J. Clarke, whose book “Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965-1973” highlights the irrevocable problems that frustrated American policy and strategy in South Vietnam. Pessimism also pervades “Vietnam Declassified: The C.I.A. and Counterinsurgency,” a declassified volume of the agency’s secret official history penned by Thomas L. Ahern Jr., a career C.I.A. operations officer who served extensively in Indochina during the war.

In contrast, the revisionist case rests largely on the assertion that our defeat in Vietnam was essentially psychological, and that victory would therefore have been possible if only our political leadership had sustained popular support for the war. But although psychological factors and popular support were crucial, it was Vietnamese, rather than American, attitudes that were decisive. In the United States, popular support for fighting Communism in South Vietnam started strong and then declined as the war dragged on. In South Vietnam itself, however, popular support for the war was always halfhearted, and a large segment (and in some regions, a majority) of the population favored the Communists.

The corrupt, undemocratic and faction-riven South Vietnamese government — both under President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was assassinated in a 1963 coup, and under the military cliques that followed him — proved incapable of providing its people and armed forces a cause worth fighting for. Unfortunately for the United States and the future happiness of the South Vietnamese people, the Communists were more successful: By whipping up anti-foreign nationalist sentiment against the “American imperialists” and promising to reform the corrupt socio-economic system that kept most of the country’s citizens trapped in perpetual poverty, they persuaded millions to fight and die for them.

This asymmetry was the insurmountable stumbling block on the road to victory in Vietnam. Defeating the Communist guerrillas would have been an easy matter if the South Vietnamese people had refused to hide them in their midst. Instead, American and South Vietnamese could only grope after the elusive enemy and were rarely able to fight him except on his own terms.

And even as American soldiers began pouring into the country in 1965, there were already enough South Vietnamese troops on hand that they should have been able to defend it on their own. After all, the South Vietnamese forces outnumbered the Communists, were far better supplied, had vastly superior firepower and enjoyed a considerable advantage in mobility thanks to transport planes and helicopters. But their Achilles’ heel was their weak will to fight — and this shortcoming was never overcome.

Some years after the war ended, Lt. Gen. Arthur S. Collins, who had commanded all American troops in the central region of South Vietnam from February 1970 to January 1971, told an Army historian: “I didn’t think there was any way that South Vietnam could survive, no matter what we did for them. What put the final nail in the coffin, from my point of view, was when I learned from questioning [South Vietnamese] general officers that almost without exception their sons were in school in France, Switzerland, or the U.S. If they weren’t going to fight for South Vietnam, who was?”

Despite its ally’s fundamental weakness, the United States might possibly still have won, of course, had it been willing to fully mobilize its own national power. But that would have required raising taxes, calling up the Reserves and other sacrifices that President Lyndon Johnson shrank from asking the American people to make.

In a recent New York Times article, Mr. Moyar, the revisionist historian, decried “the absence of presidential cheerleading” and took Johnson to task for failing to create a “war psychology” that would have made Vietnam into a patriotic crusade (and presumably silenced the war’s critics). Mr. Moyar argued, “The public’s turn against the war was not inevitable; it was, rather, the result of a failure by policy makers to explain and persuade Americans to support it.”

But Johnson was the most astute politician to sit in the White House during the 20th century, and he knew that he faced a paradox. As long as the war in Vietnam didn’t demand too much of them and they believed that victory was just around the corner, most Americans would support it. But if Johnson admitted publicly that South Vietnam could not survive without a full commitment by the United States, he knew that support would crumble.

Such a move would reveal the war’s unpleasant truths: that South Vietnam’s government was an autocratic kleptocracy, that its military was reluctant to fight, that much of its population willingly supported the Communists, that North Vietnam was matching our escalation step by step, that Johnson had committed the country to war without having a plan to win it and that the Pentagon had no real idea when it would be won. And Johnson knew full well that if the public turned against the war, it would reject his leadership and cherished Great Society domestic agenda as well.

So like other presidents before and after him, Johnson tried to conceal the bleak realities of Vietnam from the American people and deliberately misled them about the war’s likely duration and cost. Just about the last thing he wanted was to engender a wartime psychology — much less call for full mobilization. The Communists didn’t need American journalists and antiwar protesters to reveal that public enthusiasm for the war was fragile. Johnson’s refusal to raise taxes or call up the Reserves had made that obvious from the outset — just as our failure to impose new taxes or enact a military draft since 9/11 signals our enemies that America’s will to fight is weak.

Although the United States undoubtedly had the means to prevail in Vietnam, the war was unwinnable at the level of commitment and sacrifice that our nation was willing to sustain. As the renowned historian George Herring put it, the war could not “have been ‘won’ in any meaningful sense at a moral or material cost most Americans deemed acceptable.”

Perhaps the key lesson of Vietnam is that if the reasons for going to war are not compelling enough for our leaders to demand that all Americans make sacrifices in pursuit of victory, then perhaps we should not go to war at all. Sacrifice should not be demanded solely of those who risk life and limb for their country in combat theaters overseas.

Kevin Boylan is a military historian at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and the author of “Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971.” He worked for the Department of Defense and Army staff’s War Plans Division from 1995 to 2005.

Vietnam and Command Ethics–Sorley Featured in LA Times

9780700609529Much has been written about the forty-years following Saigon’s fall. Lewis Sorley, author of Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command,” provides his perspective as a third-generation West Point graduate who served in Vietnam as executive officer of a tank battalion. Learn more in this recent article from the Los Angeles Times, or pick up a copy of Sorley’s book for his full account.