Military history



The Romance of the Leftist Revolutionaries





The Guerrilla Mystique in the 1960s–1970s

THE INCIDENCE OF guerrilla warfare and terrorism did not decline with the demise of the European empires. Quite the contrary. The years from 1959 to 1979—from Castro’s takeover in Cuba to the Sandinistas’ takeover in Nicaragua—were, if anything, the golden age of leftist insurgency. There remained a few colonial wars in Oman, Aden, Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau, and a larger number of essentially ethnic wars in places like Congo, East Timor, and Nigeria’s Biafra region that were fought to determine the nature of postcolonial states, but the primary propellant of conflict was socialist ideology, often mixed, as in the Basque ETA, the Kurdish PKK, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the IRA, and even the American Black Panthers, with a strong dose of nationalist separatist sentiment. Radicals who styled themselves as the next Mao, Ho, Fidel, or Che took up AK-47s to wage either rural guerrilla warfare or urban terrorism—or in many instances both. This section will focus, first, on the Huk Rebellion in the Philippines and the U.S. war in Vietnam, then on Fidel Castro’s path to power in Cuba and Che Guevara’s attempts to export the Cuban revolution abroad, and, finally, on the rise of a new age of international terrorism in the 1970s led by Palestinian groups whose symbol and leader was Yasser Arafat. All of these conflicts save the Huk Rebellion garnered intensive international media coverage and brought guerrilla warfare and terrorism to the forefront of public attention, where they have remained ever since although not necessarily in the heroic hues of the 1960s–1970s.

Never before or since has the glamour and prestige of irregular warriors been higher. Tom Wolfe captured the moment in his famous essay “Radical Chic” (1970), which described in hilarious and excruciating detail a party thrown by the composer Leonard Bernstein in his swank New York apartment for a group of Black Panthers—one of myriad terrorist groups of the period whose fame far exceeded their ability to achieve their amorphous goals.1

American journalist Robert Taber was a good example of the sort of guerrilla groupie that Wolfe was mocking. Taber interviewed Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution and later helped establish the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee. He penned a widely read paean to guerrillas and terrorists, The War of the Flea (1965), analogizing them to an insect that “bites, hops, and bites again, nimbly avoiding the foot that would crush him.” Taber believed that the fleas of the sixties were selfless idealists waging war on behalf of the “world’s have-nots,” “subjugated and exploited peoples everywhere,” and that “to try to suppress popular resistance movements by force is futile.”2

Yet some governments had considerable success in suppressing “resistance movements.” The architects of the most successful counterinsurgency campaigns briefly became celebrities in their own right, consulted by presidents and prime ministers and profiled in popular magazines. Counterinsurgency was, as the Kennedy aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1965, “faddish.”3 The 1960s saw the publication of influential manuals such as Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (1964), by the French officer David Galula, a veteran of the Algerian War of Independence and, as a military attaché, a witness to the civil wars in Greece and China. Even more widely read at the time was Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam (1966), by Sir Robert Thompson, a British veteran of the Chindits and the Malayan Emergency.

In spite of their differing origins, experts such as Galula and Thompson reached a remarkable degree of agreement that insurgencies could not be fought like conventional wars. The fundamental principles that set counterinsurgency apart were the use of “the minimum of fire” (Galula) and the priority given “to defeating the political subversion, not the guerrillas” (Thompson). Large-scale infantry or armor offensives, they argued, would prove counterproductive against an elusive foe. Truly defeating an insurgency would require creating a legitimate and responsive government and generating timely and accurate intelligence, as Templer had done in Malaya. Echoing Marshal Hubert Lyautey, the godfather of population-centric counterinsurgency theory, Galula wrote that a “soldier must be prepared to become a propagandist, a social worker, a civil engineer, a schoolteacher, a nurse, a boy scout.”4

It was one thing to generate such hard-won lessons. Altogether more difficult was to get them accepted by military officers whose ideal remained an armored blitzkrieg and who had nothing but contempt for lightly armed, ragtag fighters who had never even been to a proper staff college. Even the British army, despite its long tradition of imperial policing, at first had tried to use conventional tactics in Malaya before recognizing their futility. The problem was even more acute in the U.S. armed forces. They too had a tradition of fighting guerrillas, ranging from American Indians to Philippine insurrectos and Haitian cacos. The U.S. Marine Corps had even produced a Small Wars Manual in 1935.5 But those inglorious campaigns, never popular to begin with among professional soldiers, were seared out of the collective military mind in the cauldron of World War II. The U.S. armed forces emerged entirely focused on fighting a mirror-image foe—either the Red Army or a mini-me such as the North Korean army.

A handful of counterinsurgency experts tried to get the American military to use very different tactics to fight a very different foe. None was more innovative, more famous, or ultimately more frustrated than Edward Geary Lansdale, the “Quiet American.”

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