Thursday, June 13, 2024

Interagency/Intergovernmental Operations: WWII vs Vietnam


In comparing World War II and the Vietnam War as presented in Snow & Drew[1] and Guttieri, Franke, & Civic[2], one is struck by differences between the way government agencies and whole governments interacted in those two wars. The primary difference was that in WWII, major friction took place between the Allied governments, whereas in the Vietnam War the friction was between US military and civilian agencies. The histories of these rivalries is explained and some theories for their origins are proposed.

World War II

With WWII, the interactions between the Allies were represented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin. FDR and Churchill had frequent clashes over operations in the European theater. The location and timing of the invasion of the European continent was a serious point of contention between them: Churchill wanted to retake France early in the war, FDR wanted to knock Italy out of the war first. After that, the question of how the retaking of France was to be organized[3].

Running in parallel with this was the uneven trust between FDR, Churchill, and Stalin. Winston Churchill deeply mistrusted Stalin[4], fearing that once Germany was conquered, the Soviets would continue unchecked into Europe[5]. Meanwhile, FDR was much more trusting of Stalin, which can be attributed to FDR’s very strong socialist leanings. In the end, the Soviets indeed did control European nations, not through conquest but through negotiations: as part of the Yalta Conference, Soviets were given control of Eastern Germany, Poland, and other countries behind the “iron curtain.”

FDR, Churchill, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945.

Vietnam War

In Vietnam, the Americans originally acted in support of the French military in their colonies in French Indochina. French presence was being reduced following France’s defeat in the First Indochina War (1946 – 1954), and while this was happening, communists were consolidating control in the north of Vietnam. The 1954 Geneva Conference used the 17th Parallel to separate North Vietnam from South Vietnam.

America’s role in South Vietnam changed over the years[6], ranging from participating as advisors to full blown combat. One of the early goals was to rebuild the (South) Vietnamese Army, as implemented by the National Security Division of the Training Relations and Instruction Mission. Civilian agencies were not seriously involved in this.

Civilian agencies began playing a serious role in 1955, with the United States Operations Mission (USOM) insisting that the industrial areas of South Vietnam receive aid and that the rural areas be ignored. The rural areas were thus abandoned militarily and economically, and they were alienated by the corrupt and authoritarian Ngô Đình Diệm government. From 1957 to 1960, the Vietcong insurgency began to organize in the rural areas. Diệm did not respond to this, and neither did the American military and civilian agencies, which were acting in an uncoordinated manner.

The Kennedy Administration took notice of the growing presence of the Vietcong and began a process called “pacification.” There was disagreement on the meaning of that term: Secretary of Defense McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) interpreted pacification to mean the use of conventional military force against the Vietcong. Meanwhile, the CIA and US Army Special Forces understood pacification to mean the standing-up of irregular forces among the rural Vietnamese[7], akin to modern counterinsurgency tactics[8].

McNamara’s interpretation resulted in Vietnamese Army units conducting attrition (“search and destroy”) operations, akin to World War II tactics. This had the effect of alienating many Vietnamese civilians against the Americans.

In 1962, the Kennedy Administration shifted to involve civilian aid programs in counterinsurgency. Tri-partite committees were established in each province, consisting of a Vietnamese province chief, a representative of the USOM, and an advisor from MAAG. These committees monitored the distribution and usage of funds and were involved in hamlet construction as well as training of hamlet militia.

Operations at the hamlet level were not coordinated with top levels of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), which meant the Vietnamese Army and US air support frequently operated at odds with the hamlets, endangering the safety and security of the population.

Two military coups (November 1963 and January 1964) resulted in an interruption in the strategic hamlet program until June 1964, when the program resumed.

The tripartite provincial committees were officially abandoned in the fall of 1964, and Americans began working with the central government in Vietnam, insisting that aid be ran through Saigon instead of directly to the hamlets, The tripartite committees eventually all dissolved.

American troops were deployed to Vietnam in 1965, placing pacification operations under the military. The American civilian agencies (USAID, State Department, CIA, etc.) objected to the Defense Department being placed in control, and the Defense Department refused to have any advisor operations under civilian command.

The Pentagon prevailed, and pacification operations were placed under MACV. A new agency, the Office of Civil Operations and Rural Support (CORDS), was created in May 1967, and MACV was placed under CORDS. The result was that two chain of command ran through MACV (one civilian and one military).

Somehow, almost all rural areas of South Vietnam were pacificated by 1971, but the North Vietnamese added conventional military forces to the Vietcong, crossing the 17th Parallel in the 1972 Easter Offensive. The North Vietnamese were defeated by the Vietnamese army and US air support. Later, as American forces were withdrawing in 1975, the North Vietnamese overran the South.


In comparing the interagency and intergovernmental operations of those two wars, operations between the American, British, and Soviet governments were not nearly as fractious as were the operations between U.S. civil and military agencies.

The conflicts between FDR, Churchill, and Stalin can be explained through the two reasons addressed above: they had different strategies for defeating the enemy, and Churchill and Stalin had diametrically opposed political beliefs.

There are several explanations for all the conflict during the Vietnam War: first, the United States went through five presidential administrations (Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, and Ford) during that conflict. Second, the civilian agencies were seen as co-equal to the military agencies and that lead to interagency rivalry. Third, both civilian and military agencies had competing strategies for defeating the communists: US Army Special Forces and the CIA wanted to take a “bottom up” approach, establishing counterinsurgent guerrillas and hamlet militias, whereas JCS and the other civilian agencies used a “top down” approach, carrying out attrition-style  “pacification” operations, taking responsibility for defeating the Vietcong with the idea of handing the country over to the Vietnamese people once the communists were eliminated.


[1] Snow & Drew, From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond.

[2] Guttieri, Franke, & Civic (Eds), Understanding Complex Military Operations

[3] Snow & Drew, From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond, Ch. 5.

[4] Daniels, “’Favourable Reference to the Devil’: Why Churchill Allied with Stalin.”

[5] Folly, Roberts, & Rzheshevsky, Churchill and Stalin.

[6] Outline of the history is based upon Phillips, R. “CORDS campaign of pacification” found in Guttieri, Franke & Civic (Eds). Understanding Complex Military Operations

[7] Kelly, Vietnam Studies: U.S. Army Special Forces 1961-1971.

[8] Seals, “MACV-SOG History.”


Daniels, C. “’Favourable Reference to the Devil’: Why Churchill Allied with Stalin.” Churchill Project of Hillsdale College, 26 June 2021. Retrieved 13 June 2024 from

Folly, M., Roberts, G., & Rzheshevsky, O. Churchill and Stalin: Comrades-in-Arms during the Second World War. Pen and Sword Military, 8 February 2020.

Guttieri, K., Franke, V., & Civic, M. (Eds). Understanding Complex Military Operations: A Case Study Approach. Routledge, 2014.

Kelly, F. Vietnam Studies: U.S. Army Special Forces 1961-1971. Department of the Army, 2004. Retrieved 13 June 2024 from

Seals, R. “MACV-SOG History.” USASOC History Office, 25 January 2019. Retrieved 13 June 2024 from

Snow, D. & Drew, D. From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond: War and Politics in the American Experience. 3rd ed. Routledge, 2009.

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