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Philippines Insurrection And The Vietnam War History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Philippines Insurrection and the Vietnam War are two notable counterinsurgency campaigns in U.S. military history. The former was a resounding success, while the latter was one of America’s humiliating failures. The two campaigns have many similarities and some striking differences. Both offer some valuable insights into the conduct of counterinsurgency warfare in the context of the contemporary Global War on Terrorism.

Counterinsurgency: the Philippines Insurrection and the Vietnam War.

The contemporary Global War on Terrorism, which today, is raging on several fronts, including Afghanistan and Iraq, is undoubtedly not a conventional war but unequivocal guerilla warfare, which can be combated only through counterinsurgency tactics. In the military history of the United States, two counterinsurgency campaigns stand out for their contrasting results: the Philippines Insurrection and the Vietnam War. While the former was a triumph for America, the latter remains one of humiliating defeat, which still rankles in U.S. consciousness. A study of the conduct, similarities and differences between the Philippines Insurrection and the Vietnam War shows that several valuable lessons can be learned which are relevant to the Global War on Terror.

During the Spanish – American War of 1898, American warships and troops supported the Filipinos in their struggle for freedom from Spanish colonialism. The Filipinos had succeeded in confining the Spaniards to Manila, when the Americans appeared on the scene, landing on the outskirts of the city. As ostensible allies of the Filipinos, the U.S. accepted the surrender of the Spaniards and occupied Manila. However, after the defeat of Spain, under the Treaty of Paris, the U.S. gave Spain $20 million to secure possession of the Philippines, denying the Filipinos independence. President McKinley’s ‘Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation’ formally announced the Philippines status as an American colony. Hostilities broke out between the U.S. and the Filipinos in February 1899, leading to the Philippines Insurrection, or the Philippine – American War (1899 – 1902). The military superiority of the U.S. army ensured the defeat of the Filipino army in conventional warfare by the end of the year. The Filipinos then formed into guerilla units and the war continued as ambushes, massacres and retaliatory killings until July 1902, when President Roosevelt officially declared the end of the war, although sporadic fighting continued for a decade. The Philippines achieved independence in 1946 (Bautista, 2005).

The Vietnam War, or the Second Indochina War (1954 – 1975), was the offshoot of an earlier conflict against French colonialism. Vietnam overthrew France’s colonial rule in July 1954, with the decisive victory at Dien Bien Phu. Under the subsequent Geneva Peace Accords, Vietnam was pressurized by China and the Soviet Union to accept the temporary partition of the country at the seventeenth parallel, with the understanding that reunification would follow the general election scheduled for 1956. However, the U.S., under President Eisenhower, with military, economic and political aid, propped up the new Republic of Vietnam in the South, as a bulwark against the Communist North. In 1957, Ngo Dinh Diem, who became the President with U.S. aid, initiated hostilities against North Vietnam and against the dissidents, including communists, in the South. The National Liberation Front brought together the communists and all Vietnamese aspiring for reunification and engaged in active warfare against the forces of Diem. After Diem’s overthrow and death by a military coup in 1963, tacitly supported by the U.S., and President Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson sanctioned the active entry of U.S. troops on the Vietnamese battlefield. The NLF, supported by North Vietnam, resorted to guerilla warfare. The ‘Tet Offensive’ of 1968 was a turning point: although the U.S. forces broke the combined offensive of the NLF and North Vietnam, the scale of the offensive was a tactical failure for the Americans. President Nixon used his ‘Vietnamization’ plan to reduce the presence of U.S. troops, with the Vietnamese bearing the brunt of fighting. Finally, the Saigon government, led by President Nguyen van Thieu, was pressurized into signing the Paris Peace Agreement of January 1973 and America withdrew from the war. The conflict between North Vietnam and the now isolated South continued until April 1975, when communist forces overran Saigon (Brigham, n.d.).

When we compare the Philippines Insurrection and the Vietnam War, several striking similarities emerge. The roots of both conflicts did not directly involve America. The former was a Spanish – Philippine struggle and the latter a Vietnamese – French conflict. In both cases, the U.S. entered the fray deliberately in order to widen its’ sphere of influence and further its’ military and economic interests: obstructing Germany in the Philippines and China in Vietnam. In both cases, the U.S. had initially supported its’ future adversaries. The U.S. allied with the Filipinos in their struggle against Spain, supplied them with guns and ammunition and arranged the return of Emilio Aguinaldo, the exiled leader of the Katipunan movement for independence. America then reneged on its’ trust, secretly parleyed with Spain, and colonized the Philippines. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh was helped by the U.S. Office of Strategic Service to continue the struggle of indigenous resistance groups against the French, before America turned against him after World War II. Approval from Congress for the declaration of war was obtained by false representations of events. In the Philippines Insurrection, the fuse for the commencement of hostilities was lit by an American sentry, W.W. Grayson, who shot and killed a Filipino soldier while on night patrol. However, U.S. reports portrayed the Filipinos as the instigators of hostilities. In Vietnam, reported attacks on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, which did not actually occur, were used to secure a Congress resolution for war against North Vietnam. Both conflicts quickly moved from conventional warfare to guerilla campaigns that made every town and village a battlefield. The tactics employed in both cases were characterized by brutality and the indiscriminate killing of civilians. In the Philippines, in retaliation for the uprising in Balangiga, Samar, which resulted in 48 American casualties, General Smith annihilated one third of the population of Samar with the orders, “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn” (Bautista, 2005). Concentration camps existed and torture was used to obtain information and confessions. In Vietnam, the toxic ‘Agent Orange’ was used to devastate forests and U.S. troops massacred about 208 civilians in the hamlet of My Lai in 1968. In both the Philippines and Vietnam, the vast majority of the peasants supported the insurgents and the U.S. soldiers in both cases were faced with a moral dilemma regarding the rightness of their positions. Differences in the two conflicts were largely on the nature of public opinion in the U.S. Despite the opposition of the anti-imperialist lobby, the Philippines Insurrection was supported by the public and President McKinley was reelected by a large margin. On the other hand, the Vietnam War witnessed a rising tide of anti-war protests and the downfall of President Johnson. While America’s entry into both wars was mainly due to the strategic importance of the two countries, the Philippines Insurrection was motivated by imperialism while the Vietnam War was founded on nebulous, anti-communist ideology. In the Philippines, the Americans were direct governors, while in Vietnam, they played an advisory role.

The Philippines Insurrection has been termed “one of the most successful counterinsurgencies waged by a Western army in modern times” (Donnelly and Serchuk, 2003). This success can be attributed to three major factors. First, the Americans were well trained, numerically superior, with technologically advanced weapons and supported by the warships anchored off the coast of Manila. In contrast, the Filipinos lacked training and were poorly equipped: they carried some rifles but the majority wielded spears, lances and ‘bolos’ – big knives. The lack of unity among the Filipino generals was the second major cause for America’s success. Personal feuds and jockeying for political power led to the marginalization of leaders such as Apolinario Mabini and the killing of able militarists like Antonio Luna and undermined the insurgency. Emilio Aguinaldo, with his facile capitulation, first to exile by the Spaniards and then to surrender to the Americans, was not a leader of moral stature or determination. Finally, the insurgency was dispersed among the towns and villages around Luzon, with no unified command. This enabled the U.S. to localize and effectively wipe out the insurgents on a case by case basis and divert troops to problematic areas, once each area had been cleared and the locals persuaded into cooperation. When we analyze the American failure in Vietnam, three major factors stand out. Firstly, the Viet Cong, supported on all fronts by a North Vietnam backed by China and the Soviet Union, was an ideologically motivated, disciplined and well armed force, further bolstered by the loyalty of the local populace. Secondly, the Diem regime, propped up by America, resorted to repressive measures which alienated the locals, particularly the Buddhist clergy and the peasants. This further undermined the U.S. position. Finally, the draft and the mounting number of American casualties inflamed U.S. public opinion and influenced the elections: the gathering anti-war protests made retreat the only viable option for the American government.

In the present context of the Global War on Terrorism, several valuable lessons can be learned from the U.S. involvement in the Philippines Insurrection and the Vietnam War. The foremost is that American public opinion must be in favor of U.S. involvement in the conflict. Only with public approval can the U.S. shoulder the escalating costs in human casualties and monetary expenditure that counterinsurgency, with its’ protracted timeframe, inevitably entails. A stable local government, which has the support of the local populace, is an essential condition for success against insurgents. The motivation for the conflict must be valid, tangible and proven (Olbermann, 2006). Counterinsurgency calls for the deployment of ground forces that equal or exceed those used in conventional warfare. It is lost or won at the grass-roots level. The best approach is to devolve command and encourage innovative military leadership, adapted to prevailing conditions, at the local level. Acquaintance with the locals leads to the gathering of reliable intelligence. As local cadres and supporters are co-opted into military and civil government and given economic and political incentives for cooperation, the insurgents’ home bases will be eroded. Long term commitment is a precondition for success (Donnelly and Serchuk, 2003). In fighting the Global War on Terror, it must be borne in mind that fighting an ideology or a mind – set, such as communism in Vietnam, is infinitely more difficult than targeting boundaries or a nation, as in the Philippines. Democracy, Communism and Terrorism are all intangible motives. As Jeanne Kirkpatrick said in 1979, “Vietnam — taught us that the U.S. could not serve as the worlds’ policeman — (and) the danger of trying to be the worlds’ midwife to democracy when the birth is scheduled to take place under conditions of guerilla war” (Vietnam-war.info, web site. n.d.). In this global war, perhaps the most valuable lesson to be applied is that from the Vietnam War: “The first principle of anti-guerilla warfare is to provide the people with a genuinely better form of life than the enemy offers” (McCormick, 2006). Familiarization with the local culture and the elimination of perceived injustice by the U.S. troops or the U.S. supported regime, are steps towards the winning of the hearts of the locals. This, coupled with public support and resolve, are the prerequisites for rooting out any insurgency.


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