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by William H. Benson

November 2, 2006

     Algeria’s rebel army initiated its revolution against the French forces on November 1, 1954, fifty-two years ago.  It required eight years but the FLN, the Front for Liberacion Nationale, did succeed in convincing the French government that Algeria belonged to the Algerian people.  This complex war was one of the most important decolonization conflicts, and it included a series of guerilla strikes.  Eventually, it collapsed into a civil war between opposing factions.

     At the beginning Charles de Gaulle’s French soldiers conducted “ratonnades,” literally rat-hunts, which was synonymous with the hunting down and killing of suspected FLN members.  The FLN responded in kind with a guerilla war.

     By 1957 the FLN had a disciplined fighting force of nearly 40,000 soldiers that successfully applied hit and run tactics, ambushes, and night raids, and yet avoided direct contact with the superior French firepower by melting into the population of the countryside.  The FLN targeted army patrols, encampments, police posts, colonial farms, mines, factories, and transportation and communication facilities.

     They kidnapped French infantrymen and officers, and then murdered and mutilated these French victims, creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

     De Gaulle and France gave up, and granted Algeria her independence on July 3, 1962.

     Half a world away, in 1957, Ho Chi Minh’s Communists in the North created a new guerrilla movement for the South.  President Eisenhower declared on April 4, 1959: “The loss of South Vietnam would set in motion a crumbling process that could, as it progressed, have grave consequences for us and for freedom.”

     On May 31, 1961, it was Charles de Gaulle who warned the new President, John F. Kennedy that he should disengage from Vietnam: “I predict you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire.”  He was right about that.

     Kennedy suspected as much when he told Arthur Schlesinger that he was worried about committing troops to Vietnam to support Ngo Dien Diem, South Vietnam’s leader.  “The troops will march in; the bands will play; the crowds will cheer; and in four days everyone will have forgotten.  Then we will be told to send in more troops.  It’s like taking a drink.  The effect wears off, and you have to take another.”

     Kennedy nevertheless, in November of 1961 sent in the first 7,000 US troops to Vietnam, despite de Gaulle’s warning as well as Kennedy’s own suspicions.  It was the first really big US error.

     The second mistake Kennedy made was in the autumn of 1963 when he secretly authorized American support of an anti-Diem officers’ coup.  It duly took place on November 1, 1863, and Diem was murdered.  The CIA provided $42,000 in bribes for the officers who then set up a military junta in South Vietnam, which had US support.  “The worst mistake we ever made,” was Lyndon Johnson’s later verdict.

     Three weeks later on November 22, 1963 Kennedy was murdered himself, and Lyndon Baines Johnson inherited Vietnam.  He too made a series of mistakes, and the US was in a quagmire of our own making.

     In December of 1979 the Soviet Union plunged into the middle of a civil war in Afghanistan, which they had helped promote.  The Russians deployed 120,000 troops, but they could never win this war.  It placed a tremendous strain on their resources, and would last a decade, killing 16,000 Russian soldiers and wounding another 30,000.  An immense number of tanks, aircraft, and helicopters were destroyed by US-supplied weapons.  Ronald Reagan said, “The shoe is now on the other foot.”

     Mikhail Gorbachev accepted the inevitable, and on February 8, 1988 he announced that he would pull his troops out of Afghanistan within the next year.  This costly war helped in the ultimate collapse of the USSR.


     Algeria, Vietnam, and Afghanistan all succeeded in ousting another nation much larger and more powerful than themselves from their land.  Today, the Iraqi people and again the people in Afghanistan are fighting for the same.  It appears now that they will succeed.  Someday in the future a President—either Bush or his successor—will announce that the US troops will come home.  May it be soon.