The Foreign Service Journal - November 2015
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erning Board consider taking some oral

history from those of us who served dur-

ing that period?

Robert H. Stern

FSO, retired

Former AFSA State representative


Chantilly, Virginia

Lessons of Vietnam

As a former FSO now retired from the

Defense Intelligence Agency—with

seven years of military, airline and

church service in Vietnam and two

degrees in East Asian studies before join-

ing the Foreign Service—I read “Lessons of Vietnam” in the July-August Journal

with obvious interest.

In the “Lessons Learned” memo

from the State Depart-

ment, David Lambertson

says that U.S. involve-

ment started during the

Eisenhower years, in the

mid-1950s. Actually it

started in 1945, when FDR’s

three-power high commis-

sion plan, including eventual

independence for Indochina,

was discarded, and Presi-

dent Truman began aiding the French,

because anti-communism trumped anti-

colonialism in U.S. policy.

But Mr. Lambertson was quite cor-

rect when he said 1968 was “probably a

better time” for a settlement in Vietnam

than 1972. Unfortunately, President

Nixon scuttled that possibility as part

of his election campaign (see the 2014

book Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate by Ken Hughes).

Mr. Lambertson hit it out of the park

when he said: “We were never able to

escape being the inheritors of the French

colonization.” From 1945 forward,

ent with Civil Service principles. Inter

alia, it would have taken away rank-in-

person, changed the retirement system

and, in general, eliminated virtually

all those provisions which made and

continue to make the Foreign Service a

distinct entity.

When the Governing Board first

weighed in, State management told us

that legislation was not a bargaining

item; an administration had the right to

seek legislation, and AFSA had no right

to contest it. Essentially, shut up, kid,

and go home.

Unwilling to take no for an answer,

senior board members met with senior

management officials and pointed out

that while we had no legal standing,

our input would provide Congress with

a unified State Department position as

opposed to our testifying against the

proposed act.

They agreed, and for the next two

years, we met informally and unoffi-

cially on evenings and weekends with

management, going over the proposed

language line by line.

At the same time, we cultivated staff-

ers on the key committees and testified

before the Senate, outlining why we

should be considered closer to the mili-

tary than to the Civil Service and how

changing our status would be detrimen-

tal to the department’s mission.

We gave up our evenings, weekends

and annual leave for two years to work

this issue, and while we certainly did not

win every battle, we did win the war: The

Foreign Service remains a distinct and

excepted Service with an entrance exam

and annual promotion boards.

I should note, as well, that all of this

took place while AFSA was going through

the turmoil of recalling its elected presi-

dent (Hemenway).

May I suggest that the current Gov-

besides anti-communism, keeping

France in the Western alliance was a

prime concern.

Mr. Kissinger said in his memo that

the United States entered the war during

the 1960s, and he spoke of “our decision

to save South Vietnam in 1965,” omitting

mention of the 1954 Geneva agreements

but citing U.S. reports that “for a long

time were excessively optimistic.”

I would refer readers to The Pentagon Papers , where the only “secrets” revealed

were that U.S. policymakers made small

incremental escalations of the war, des-

perately hoping each one would negate

the need for another and wishing the

nightmare would disappear.

Mr. Kissinger also noted that enter-

ing the war in the 1960s “may

have done serious damage

to the American economy.”

Indeed, the United States had

just finished rebuilding Japan

and Europe, and we should

have been rebuilding our own

industrial economy.

Had the money spent on

Vietnam been spent at home,

we would be living in a much

different country today. The overall les-

son of the VietnamWar is that Vietnam’s

independence was inevitable for a num-

ber of reasons—whatever anyone may

think of how it happened—and thus the

war was lost before an American soldier

ever set foot there.

Fred Donner

Former FSO

Falls Church, Virginia


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