Holbrooke's Vietnam boss recalls a 'tough' young man
In his first government job, 22-year old Richard Holbrooke was a State Department “adviser” to a South Vietnamese colonel maybe twice his age, but he held his own, his old boss remembered Tuesday.
Rufus Phillips, 80, who headed the U.S. counterinsurgency effort in Saigon in 1962, recalled how he sent the young, gangly Holbrooke, a recent graduate of Brown, to a communist-dominated province in the Mekong Delta as “the sole representative in charge of our counterinsurgency support effort there.”
Holbrooke “showed the intelligence and confidence necessary to do the job, eventually earning the respect of the province chief who way outranked him as a Vietnamese Army lieutenant colonel,” said Phillips, a Virginian who later in life served on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “This was a shirt-sleeved, live-action experience, which he credited as formative to his entire career.”
Phillips, famous for flatly telling President Kennedy that the military’s rosy predictions about Vietnam weren’t well-founded, added that the young Holbrooke “was very human under an appearance of toughness, very sentimental about those he liked and respected.”
Holbrooke went on to a storied career as a diplomat and tenacious negotiator, earning the nickname "the Bulldozer."
Der Spiegel called him "the not-so-quiet American" in its obituary.
"Washington is full of aging officials who can recount anecdotes of a young, self-confident Holbrooke in the bars of Saigon -- how he lectured a long-serving senator; how he once sent a memo straight to the president in which he argued that the war was going awry; how he collected mentors and letters of recommendation as other diplomats collected visa stamps," the magazine said.
Phillips worked on Vietnam for three administrations as a CIA and State Department official, but eventually quit in dismay in the late 1960s. Earlier this year, he spent a month in Afghanistan as an election monitor and authored a book for which Holbrooke wrote the foreword, “Why Vietnam Matters.”
The book, Holbrooke said, “contains important lessons for the wars America is currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So much of what the current generation of military and civilian officials claim are new doctrines and ideas are identical to programs and strategies that were virtually all tried in Vietnam.”
Holbrooke remembered his Vietnam tour of duty in “The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War,” by former UPI and Newsweek correspondent Kim Willenson.
"There was a profound gap between what Washington had been told about this province, listing 400,000 people under government control, and the real situation, which was far shakier than that," he said.
"I did not draw the conclusion that something was wrong with our effort; I only drew the conclusion that there was something wrong with our reporting and that you have to seek truth from facts. It never occurred to me in the year 1963 that the United States could lose a war. How could it?"
Holbrooke later helped write the highly classified secret history of the war, which became known as “The Pentagon Papers” when they were leaked by Holbrooke’s former colleague, Daniel Ellsberg.
| December 14, 2010; 6:32 PM ET
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