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Counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency was the name given in the 1960s to a U.S. political‐military doctrine designed to defeat Communist‐influenced insurgencies, what Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev called “wars of national liberation” in the process of decolonization. The word counterinsurgency was used instead of counterrevolution since revolution had a more favorable, even heroic connotation to Americans.

Actually, insurgency and counterinsurgency are as old as empires and rebellions, as familiar as the Romans' harsh repression of uprisings within their empire. The Spanish insurgency against Napoleon's conquest gave birth to the term guerrilla warfare. In the nineteenth century European empires fought what they called “small wars” against indigenous forces and frequently employed “antiguerrilla” and “antirevolutionary” warfare techniques. These were primarily attempts to keep armed insurgents from obtaining support from civilians in villages, often by isolat‐ing the villagers, and then tracking down and destroying the insurgents.

Separation of villagers and the use of brutal interrogation methods characterized many of the efforts to suppress armed rebellions. In Cuba in the late nineteenth century, the Spanish used a reconcentrado policy of herding rural dwellers into makeshift camps to prevent support for the Cuban rebels; the result, as almost always in makeshift arrangements, was widespread disease and death. The British used active antiguerrilla methods in the Boer War (1899–1902), including the establishment of internment camps in which thousands of Afrikaner men, women, and children died. In the Philippine War, the U.S. Army, in response to guerrilla warfare by Filipino nationalists, isolated villages and sought to obtain information about rebel locations through various means, including the “water cure” (forcibly swelling suspects with water until they yielded information). Totalitarian governments in World War II used widespread executions and mass terror as part of their suppression of insurgent resistance movements.

In the post–World War II era, as colonial empires faced independence movements and insurgencies around the world, Britain, France, and Belgium in particular used counterrevolutionary warfare against Communist or simply nationalist insurgents. Britain isolated villages and set up internment camps successfully in Malaya in the 1950s. The American helped the Filipino government defeat the Communist‐led Hukbalahap (Huk) rebellion in central Luzon in 1954. In Indochina, France fought a losing battle against multiparty independence forces led by the Communist Ho Chi Minh; subsequently the French lost to insurgent urban guerrillas in Algeria.

American “counterinsurgency doctrine” was developed in the 1960s in an effort to counter guerrilla movements seen by the government as antithetical to U.S. interests. Although it originated as a response to Khrushchev's call for Communist‐led wars of national liberation in the decolonizing Third World, it could be used against insurgency by any political group. In practice, however, it was employed mainly against Communist and left to left‐center insurgencies.

American counterinsurgency doctrine sought to defeat the insurgents through both military and psychological means. Recognizing that such uprisings were based in part on the discontent of poor rural and urban Third World peoples with unresponsive political and economic institutions, American planners thought the discontent could be contained through “nation‐building” or “modernization” programs, while military efforts sought out and eliminated insurgent units and leadership.

The U.S. Army established a Psychological Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1952 to study psychological and unconventional warfare, and a Special Forces Group was created there that same year as the operational force. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy, emphasizing the need to counter Communist guerrillas, particularly in Southeast Asia, ordered the buildup of Special Forces (and authorized their distinctive headgear, a green beret) and the development of counterinsurgency doctrine and training in special warfare.

U.S. doctrine included emphasis on isolating the insurgents from the population and resources, and the use of patrols and other means to maintain pressure on insurgent groups. The Special Forces underwent vigorous military training, including ranger and airborne training, guerrilla operations, intelligence gathering, demolition, communications, and hand‐to‐hand combat. But engagement with the civilian population was also emphasized, and therefore included training in indigenous languages, preventive medicine, and village sanitation.

Counterinsurgency was employed with U.S. assistance during the 1960s and 1970s in a number of Latin American countries—Bolivia, Columbia, Guatemala, Peru, and Venezuela—as well as in the 1980s in Guatemala and El Salvador.

The primary U.S. counterinsurgency effort, however, was in the Vietnam War during the 1960s and early 1970s. The Special Forces grew to about 12,000 soldiers during that period, although they declined to about 4,000 by 1985. In Vietnam, both civilian and military U.S. agencies were involved in counterinsurgency, which was emphasized by the CIA and the Marine Corps (the latter through its Combined Action Program) and initially by the U.S. Army. But under Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the army subsequently focused on a conventional strategy of searching for and then destroying enemy units with massive firepower. The counterinsurgency effort in Vietnam sought to isolate the villagers from the Communist Viet Cong through the “strategic hamlet” program, and to link the South Vietnamese government with positive programs involving medical care, local political and land reform, and agricultural development. Eventually these nation‐building efforts were coordinated through the Office of Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) under the supervision of the U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). But these had inadequate support, and genuine rural politicization and land redistribution were opposed by both the Saigon government and the South Vietnamese Army. Partly in response to Communist terrorism in 1967, CORDS created Operation Phoenix, in which joint “provincial reconnaissance units” used ambushes and raids to kill, capture, or co‐opt persons believed to be members of Communist cadres. In the end, the U.S. counterinsurgency and pacification programs in Vietnam failed in their major aims of undermining the Communists' political‐military organization and strengthening the link between the rural population and the government of South Vietnam.

During the 1980s, when Soviet client states in Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia faced ethnic uprisings, their Communist Soviet Cuban military protectors proved no better at counterinsurgency than had the French or the Americans in Vietnam. Nor were the Communist Vietnamese successful in suppressing Cambodian resistance after their invasion of Cambodia in 1978. The Russians also failed in their attempt to conquer Afghan guerrillas in the 1970s or Chechin insurgents in the 1990s.

The importance of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine should not be overemphasized in terms of the Cold War. Conceptually, there was little new in the idea, other than the emphasis on political reform and nation‐building. It failed in Vietnam, its greatest test. And successes in Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, and Peru stemmed less from the success of the American doctrine than from the weakness of communism in those countries.
[See also Central Intelligence Agency; Guerrilla Warfare; Covert Operations; Low–Intensity Warfare; Psychological Warfare; Rangers, U.S. Army; Special Operations Forces.]


Douglas Blaufarb , The Counterinsurgency Era: U.S. Doctrine and Performance, 1950 to the Present, 1977;
Lawrence M. Greenberg , The Hukbalahap Insurgency: A Case Study of a Successful Anti–Insurgency Operation in the Philippines, 1946–1955, 1986;
John Prados , Presidents' Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations Since World War II, 1986;
Aaron Bank , From OSS to Green Berets, 1986;
Sam Sarkesian , The New Battlefield: The United States and Unconventional Conflicts, 1986;
Michael Lee Lannaing , Inside the LRRP: Rangers in Vietnam, 1988;
Brian M. Linn , The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899–1902, 1989;
Bob Newman , Guerrillas in the Mist: A Battlefield Guide to Clandestine Warfare, 1997.

John Whiteclay Chambers II

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