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The Political Context Behind Successful Revolutionary Movements, Three Case Studies: Vietnam (1955-63), Algeria (1945-62), and Nicaragua (1967-79)

Authored by LTC Raymond A. Millen. | March 2008

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SUMMARY

The challenge with writing about revolutionary movements is that they are largely regarded as Cold War or decolonization phenomena, and hence largely irrelevant today. Rhetoric aside, revolutionary warfare is a struggle for political power over some defined geographic area regardless of the backdrop. With this in mind, winning the hearts and minds of the population is not necessarily an objective of the insurgents (as the current wars with Islamic extremists adduce). Although technically a subset of insurgency warfare, ?revolutionary warfare? was often used interchangeably during the Cold War, perhaps under the belief that every struggle was somehow part of the overarching communist wars of national liberation. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that much of the literature on insurgency warfare was hyperbolized to alert Western leaders of the insidious threat to the Third World. The most noteworthy hindsight is that few Cold War revolutionary movements actually conformed to Mao?s People?s War strategy.

Insurgent strategic approaches, as Bard O?Neill explains in Insurgency and Terrorism, are influenced by the physical and human environment, popular support, organization and unity, external support, and government response. Hence, the end of the Cold War did not signal the end of revolutionary warfare, as contemporary Islamic extremist organizations have demonstrated. Still, as O?Neill points out, even though an insurgency can present a virulent threat to the government, there is no guarantee the insurgents will prevail. In fact, most fail. This fact can serve the United States regarding counterinsurgency approaches to client states beleaguered by revolutionary insurgents. Understandably, the United States should remain vigilant to extremist groups which prey on failed states for a base of operations, but it should also consider the tremendous advantages even weak states have over insurgent threats. Foreknowledge of these advantages can help the United States gauge the level and type of assistance with confidence rather than the inclination for direct intervention.

In his book, No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945-1991, Jeff Goodwin developed an excellent analytical framework for examining the political context behind revolutionary movements and how dysfunctional governance provides the opportunity for these movements to flourish and sometimes succeed in overthrowing the state. This framework can serve as an excellent reference for U.S. statesmen and government advisors when assessing the state of affairs of a state engaged in an insurgency.

Goodwin?s political context analysis comprises five government practices: 1) State sponsorship or protection of unpopular economic and social arrangements or cultural institutions; 2) Repression and/or exclusion of mobilized groups from state power or resources; 3) Indiscriminate, but not overwhelming, state violence against mobilized groups and oppositional political figures; 4) Weak policing capacities and infrastructural power; and 5) Corrupt and arbitrary personalistic rule that alienates, weakens, or divides counterrevolutionary elites. It must be stressed that each of these government practices must exist for a revolutionary movement to have a chance. Goodwin adds that the political context is not the only factor that leads to revolutionary movements, but he contends it is the most important factor. To add greater depth to Goodwin?s framework, this monograph also examines the competency of the insurgent leadership in prosecuting its strategy.

This monograph also examines how governments can squander their advantages vis-à-vis insurgents using Goodwin?s framework for the political context behind revolutionary wars. Accordingly, the author applies this framework to three case studies: Vietnam (1955-63), Algeria (1945-62), and Nicaragua (1967-79) to gain a greater appreciation of how government pathologies, and not insurgent strategy, are the major determinant of insurgent success.

In each of these cases, the regimes alienated virtually every sector of society to such an extent that moderate opposition and eventually popular support fell into the orbit of extremist organizations out of desperation. The vast majority of the populace and political elites may have viewed the revolutionaries with suspicion or disdain, but fear of and debilitation by government practices left them no other political alternatives. In the end, the regimes found themselves isolated, without the necessary domestic allies and resources to prevail.

The political-military consequences of these insurgencies were profound. With the exception of Nicaragua, the insurgencies devastated the political, social, and economic institutions of their host countries. In Vietnam, the unnecessary Viet Cong escalation to guerilla war against the Diem regime in 1963 forced the United States to intervene incrementally, changing the nature and the spectrum of the conflict. In the end, the Viet Cong were destroyed, forcing North Vietnam to shoulder the main burden. In Algeria, by the time Charles de Gaulle assumed the presidency of France in 1958, a return to the status quo ante was impossible due to the power bloc of the French colonialists. Breaking their power and putting the military back in its place eclipsed defeating the insurgency. Only in Nicaragua did the revolutionary movement prosecute a swift coup de main against Somoza?s regime. Isolating the regime through defections of government allies and severed relations from the United States and the international community created the momentum needed to challenge the regime in a short, violent campaign.

INTRODUCTION

The challenge with writing about revolutionary movements is that they are largely regarded as Cold War or decolonization phenomena and hence largely irrelevant today. With this in mind, winning the hearts and minds of the population is not necessarily an objective of the insurgents (as the current wars with Islamic extremists adduce). Rhetoric aside, revolutionary warfare is a struggle for political power over some defined geographic area regardless of the backdrop. Although technically a subset of insurgency warfare, ?revolutionary warfare? was often used interchangeably during the Cold War, perhaps under the belief that every struggle was somehow part of the overarching communist wars of national liberation. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that much of the literature on insurgency warfare was hyperbolized to alert Western leaders of the insidious threat to the Third World. The most noteworthy hindsight is that few Cold War revolutionary movements actually conformed to Mao?s protracted war strategy.

Insurgent strategic approaches, as Bard O?Neill explains in Insurgency and Terrorism, are influenced by the physical and human environment, popular support, organization and unity, external support, and government response.1 Hence, the end of the Cold War did not signal the end of revolutionary warfare, as contemporary Islamic extremist organizations have demonstrated. Still, as O?Neill points out, even though an insurgency can present a virulent threat to the government, there is no guarantee the insurgents will prevail. In fact, most fail.2 This fact can serve the United States regarding counterinsurgency approaches to client states beleaguered by revolutionary insurgents. Understandably, the United States should remain vigilant to extremist groups which prey on failed states for a base of operations, but it should also consider the tremendous advantages even weak states have over insurgent threats. Foreknowledge of these advantages can help the United States gauge the level and type of assistance with confidence rather than indulge the inclination for direct intervention.

This monograph examines how governments can squander away their advantages vis-à-vis insurgents using Jeff Goodwin?s framework for the political context behind revolutionary wars. Accordingly, it applies this framework to three case studies?Vietnam (1955- 63), Algeria (1945-62), and Nicaragua (1967-79) ? in order to gain a greater appreciation of how government pathologies, and not insurgent strategy, are the major determinants of insurgent success.

CONCLUSION

The revolutionary movements and associated wars in South Vietnam, Algeria, and Nicaragua were fundamentally different in terms of their approach to overthrowing the established governments. Nonetheless, the political context behind the formation of the revolutionary movements provides the common thread. What is remarkable is the degree to which all three governments contributed to the alienation of their societies, providing the opportunity for revolutionary movements to challenge the regime through the people. Goodwin reminds us that in ordinary circumstances, the citizenry would not seek such an association, but when it sees no other way out of a predicament which the government has instigated, it will join whoever provides greater security. The degree of competency displayed by the revolutionary leadership cannot be divorced from its ultimate success. If the leadership lacks the organizational and political skills to capitalize on or create government mistakes, the insurgency may collapse or just smolder for years. In all three cases, the regimes fought back ruthlessly over a prolonged period.

Of the three revolutionary movements, the FSLN appears to have exercised the greatest political-military acuity. It was able to isolate the Somoza regime and garner a popular movement, more through political subversion and propaganda than through a protracted war of violence. The international isolation of the Somoza regime deprived the National Guard of its critical external military assistance needed for a prolonged struggle. Certainly, the final months of armed conflict were costly for the FSLN, but without its stockpiles, the National Guard likely could not prevail militarily.

The Viet Cong leadership rashly and recklessly pursued armed conflict to such an extent that U.S. intervention became a certainty. The historical record of the Diem regime suggests it was well on its way to self-destruction even without the NLF needing to escalate the conflict to a guerrilla war. This strategic error not only led to the destruction of the Viet Cong guerrillas and cadre in 1968, but also to the elimination of the NLF infrastructure and the peace treaty with North Vietnam by 1972. That North Vietnam resorted to a conventional invasion of South Vietnam in 1975 attests to the degree of the NLF?s defeat.

The Algerian FLN leadership deserves neither grudging respect nor emulation. Its wanton brutality to civilians, both European and Algerian, alone deserves condemnation. The war?s descent into barbarity must be laid squarely on the FLN regardless of the circumstances leading up to the conflict. The FLN prosecuted an inferior strategy to the French, resulting in the elimination of its infrastructure and dispersion of its leadership. Arguably, the insurgency became a tertiary issue compared to threat posed by the pied noir and the military to the authority of the French government. De Gaulle?s subsequent actions imply a change in priorities: first, to break the power of the pied noir; second, to put the military back in its place. De Gaulle?s recognition of the FLN government in exchange for lucrative agreements became the unavoidable consequence of asserting government authority over these internal challenges. Hence, the FLN assumed the reigns of power by default and not by triumph.

ENDNOTES

1.Not all insurgents seek the overthrow of a government as well, though these represent the most virulent threat and hence elicit the most interest. Bard E. O?Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, 2nd Ed., revised, Washington, DC: Potomac Books, Inc., 2005.

2. Ibid., p. 155.