The answer is ‘yes,’ but not by military force alone.
As the United States enters its fourth year of combat in Iraq, with victory over insurgents and terrorists more elusive than ever, it is worth recalling an insurrection early in the Cold War. By the end of World War II, certainly by 1949, the globe had taken on a decidedly bipolar political structure in which the Western side, led by Harry Truman’s administration, had created a policy to “contain” both the Soviet Union and world communism. This policy began in Western Europe, but with the victory of Mao Tse-tung’s Communists in China in 1949, the struggle expanded into truly global dimensions in which the stakes for both sides were defined as nothing less than world order, “freedom vs. slavery.” Thus local conflicts, no matter where they flared, took on global importance and urgency lest, in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s phrase, the loss of one country lead to a landslide defeat “like a row of dominos.”
The first of these local insurgencies erupted in Greece in 1947 and became the focus of the Truman Doctrine. The next uprising came in the Philippines at about the same time but received much less attention. Nonetheless, the counterguerrilla war against the Communist Hukbalahap (“Huks” or “People’s Army”) offered comparisons to the Greek insurrection, except that American foreign policy, preoccupied with Europe and later Korea, was unable to support the Philippine government with massive assistance. This decision left one American military officer, U.S. Air Force Colonel Edward G. Lansdale, nearly alone in his assignment as adviser to the U.S. Military Advisory Group (USMAG) headquartered in Manila.
For his work in the Philippines, Lansdale was mythologized as “The Ugly American” in William J. Lederer’s and Eugene Burdick’s 1958 novel of the same name. Remarkably, Lansdale was also fictionalized as novelist Graham Greene’s “Quiet American.” A former Office of Strategic Services and Army intelligence officer during World War II, the real-life Lansdale had considerable experience in the Philippines prior to his September 1950 assignment. “My orders were plain,” he later wrote. “The United States government wanted me to give all help feasible to the Philippine government in stopping the attempt of the Communist-led Huks to overthrow that government by force. My help was to consist mainly of advice where needed and desired. It was up to me to figure out how best to do this.”
The eventual defeat of the Huk insurrection in 1953 was largely the work of one of the greatest political-military combinations in modern history: the American, Lansdale, and the brilliant Philippine defense minister, Ramon Magsaysay. These two developed the tactical and technical devices that turned a losing and frustrating counterinsurgency into a political warfare machine that defeated the Philippine Communists in less than two years.
Huk resistance in the remote areas of the Philippines began against the Japanese during WWII and was quickly converted into an antigovernment, Communist-dominated organization by 1946. Initially, the reaction by the Manila government relied on what were then standard operating procedures learned from the American occupation forces. However, resistance to the Huks in the Philippines was successful only after an initial period of trial and error with conventional tactics had failed to produce results. Worse, the ponderous military sweeps conducted by Philippine armor, aircraft and artillery initially helped recruit more sympathizers to the Communist cause. Estimates of active local support of the Huks hovered around 10 percent of the population, with 10 percent opposed, leaving the vast middle 80 percent fertile ground for either side. Rural inhabitants’ dissatisfaction with the government’s failure to implement land reform initiatives was seized upon by Huk activists as proof of official complacency.
Military measures adopted by the government to suppress the Huks in rural areas only made matters worse. Unable to obtain reliable intelligence from disaffected locals, the government adopted the Japanese conventional tactic of isolating the insurgency through the type of “cordons” used in the Caribbean by the United States or the “blockhouse” tactic employed by the British in South Africa. In the Philippines they were called zonas. Targeted villages were screened off from the outside by troops, to isolate guerrillas from their support. These methods had worked in other circumstances but failed in the Philippines, principally because they reminded residents of policies in WWII. Large-scale search-and-destroy operations, another favored army tactic, also backfired. According to Huk guerrilla chief Luis Taruc, such operations rarely found sufficient numbers of Huks to justify the effort:
If we knew it was going to be a light attack, we took it easy. If it might give us more trouble than we could handle, we slipped out quietly in the darkest hours of the night, abandoning the area of operation altogether…it could be both amusing and saddening to watch the Philippine Air Force busily bombing and strafing, or to see thousands of government troops and civil guards cordoning our campsite and saturating, with every type of gunfire, the unfortunate trees and vegetation. Or we would watch them, worn and weary, scaling the whole height and width of a mountain, with not a single Huk in the area.
After six years of such tactics, Taruc estimated that 12 guerrillas had been killed. Other army methods also played into the hands of the irregulars. These included notorious “open area” firing techniques, whereby troops were instructed to shoot at anything that moved within certain field zones; road checkpoints that enabled soldiers to rob peasants at will; and “Nenita” units, consisting of gangs of ruthless killers who indiscriminately murdered locals, often without proof of Huk allegiance.
Huk resistance, had produced a steady growth of support. With an active insurgent force of about 12,000, Huk strength in Luzon relied upon approximately 150,000 villagers within a population of nearly 2 million people. But the tide of Huk power began to wane after 1950, when internal dissension and tactical confusion, including the lack of a sustained geographic sanctuary and poor overall coordination, began to cause a decline in Communist appeal. Heavy-handed terrorist tactics also helped turn the course of the war against the insurgents. But the most important factor was a remarkable surge in the popular approval and tactical sophistication of governmental countermeasures. Under the leadership of newly installed Defense Minister Magsaysay in 1950, the Philippines had finally found strategic solutions to the insurgency riddle.
By then, both the U.S. team and the Philippine government were ready to wage authentic counterguerrilla warfare. After years of trial and error, the government had begun to discover the central truth in counterguerrilla war: Light infantry units, armed civilians and special scout squads operated best against insurgents. Two of the Philippine government’s best military leaders, N.D. Valeriano and C.T. Bohannan, described how a variety of small patrol tactics could keep the Huk guerrillas on the run: “[There were] regular patrols which passed through specified areas almost on a schedule, following roads or trails. There were unscheduled, unexpected patrols, sometimes following an expected one by fifteen minutes. There were patrols following eccentric routes, eccentric schedules, moving cross-country at right angles to normal travel patterns, which often unexpectedly intercepted scheduled patrols.”
With Magsaysay installed as defense minister and Lansdale at his side, important political reforms were put into effect. After surveying the wreckage that the military had left in its wake, Lansdale concluded, “the most urgent need was to construct a political base for supporting the fight. Without it, the Philippine armed forces would be model examples of applied military doctrine, but would go on losing.” Once a viable political base had been established, he believed, it would be able “to mount a bold, imaginative and popular campaign against the Huk guerrillas.” In short, Lansdale realized that political warfare had a better chance to succeed than conventional military action.
A key element of the new political offensive was the psychological dimension. Noting that “at the time I arrived in the Philippines, the Huks clearly outmatched the government in this weapon,” Lansdale immediately set out to change the government’s approach. The Huks followed the Communist tradition by using slogans as an approach to the locals. Posters proclaiming “Land for the Landless” and “Ballots Not Bullets” recalled Vladimir Lenin’s earlier appeals to Russian masses for “Peace, Land and Bread.” Such slogans may seem simplistic today, but that was in fact their appeal. They told a story and offered hope with a few words. The Huks had an organizational structure for their psychological operations (psyops) as well. Each military unit had a political officer in charge of propaganda, morale boosting, self-criticism and agitprop. These latter operated in secrecy throughout the population, producing propaganda leaflets, gossip and other “whispering” campaigns.
Lansdale and his team began their own campaign to “out revolutionize the revolutionaries.” He created a Civil Affairs Office (CAO, generally referred to as “cow”) to train civilian personnel and soldiers to undertake “peoples war.” Each Battalion Combat Team (BCT) was assigned a CAO section trained to instruct troops in the proper behavior toward the populace: As Lansdale put it, “to make the soldiers behave as the brothers and protectors of the people…replacing the arrogance of the military” which had plagued civil-military relations to that point. Lansdale came up with the term “civic action,” which has since become the universally accepted designation for such actions.
In the Philippines this new kind of warfare began with a transformation of attitude and behavior. The government and army began assisting farmers in land courts, care of civilian casualties in hospitals was improved, soldiers undertook cheap labor in rural areas, and a widespread program of agrarian credit gradually began converting locals from bitterly opposing the government to actively assisting it against the Huks. Soldiers were instructed to talk with the residents and attend local events. The result was a transformation of tactical intelligence on Huk movements, often in less than a week’s time.
Magsaysay and Lansdale personally toured provinces, overseeing civic action projects, including the construction of “Liberty Wells” that would provide pure water. Propaganda teams attended local fairs and parties, distributing pro-government leaflets and announcing civic action programs through bullhorns brought in from the States by Lansdale. With the cooperation of the Roman Catholic Church, Lansdale and Magsaysay arranged to infiltrate Huk areas with government sympathizers who conducted whispering campaigns against the Communists and their anti-Catholic methods. Establishing radio stations in barrios and distributing receiving sets throughout the population introduced propaganda via the airwaves.
“Dirty tricks” were also part of civic action. The Huks had been buying weapons and ammunition from corrupt government suppliers. Once Lansdale discovered the supply chain, Magsaysay made the dealers an offer they couldn’t refuse. Rather than prosecuting the suppliers, he arranged for them to send faulty and contaminated materiel to Huk guerrillas. Grenades and rifles began exploding prematurely in Huk hands, and some weapons refused to fire at all. Within weeks of that move, illicit arms sales to the Huks ground to a halt.
Lansdale also played on local superstitions and cultures as a means of political warfare. In Philippine cultural lore an asuang, or vampire, haunted interior regions at night. In one area, for example, regular troops were unable to move against Huk strongholds until a combat psywar team began planting stories that an asuang was living in Huk-infested hills. The psywar squad killed a Huk insurgent, punctured his neck with two holes, vampire-fashion, held the body up by the heels to drain it of blood, then put the corpse back on the trail. The following day no Huk guerrillas were found within miles of the area.
Human intelligence (“humint”) was also a mainstay of the political counterrevolution. With the Huks trying hard to recruit manpower, Lansdale arranged for a large number of volunteer agents to infiltrate Huk units. Many of them not only provided critical intelligence to the army but rose rapidly in the guerrilla command structure. Aware that many of their men might well be government agents, many Huk irregulars turned themselves in.
Magsaysay began exerting tight discipline over both the army and government. He eliminated “fire-free” areas where innocent civilians had been killed. Interrogation techniques were made more civilized, and soldiers went into local barrios armed with food, clothing and medical supplies. Magsaysay was beating the enemy on his own terms, offering hope for a better future and eliminating the source of grievances against the government. He also came to realize that local armies recruited from within the population provided the best antiguerrilla personnel. The fact that Americans were not involved as ground troops in fact helped the cause immeasurably. As a Philippine lieutenant colonel wrote at the time:
Foreign troops are certain to be less welcome among the people than are the regular armed forces of their own government. Local populations will shelter their own people against operations of foreign troops, even though those they shelter may be outlaws. For this reason, native troops would be more effective than foreign forces in operations against native communist conspirators. It would be rare, indeed, if the use of foreign troops would not in itself doom to failure an anti-guerrilla campaign.
Gradually the civilian populace was won over and Huk support eroded. The institution of a system of rewards for information about suspected Huks helped turn the insurgents to the defensive. The government instituted land reform, and a generous amnesty program convinced thousands of Huks to abandon the war. In effect, the Magsaysay/Lansdale team usurped the Communist call for land reform by making that issue the lead item in the government’s 1951 political campaign. The politicians were mastering counterinsurgency in areas where soldiers never dreamed of going.
The November 1951 elections were widely seen as fair and free, with Philippine troops guarding public meetings to prevent Huk coercion and high school students and ROTC cadets guarding polling places. In a turnout of more than 4 million (where 5 million were registered), the army transferred and guarded ballot boxes in full view of the public as well as the American press and observers.
The result was a definitive victory for democracy and a crushing defeat for the Huk insurrection. As a final blow against the Communist guerrillas, Lansdale noted, the election allowed him the opportunity to “pay them back in their own psychological coin.” He added, “And I took it.”
Lansdale had used authentic Huk ID material and, via agitprop cells, succeeded in planting “Boycott the Election” instructions into Huk propaganda channels. The ruse succeeded beyond imagination; within days the entire Huk apparatus was defiantly urging a boycott on voters. As related by Lansdale himself, this psywar deception felled the Huk movement for good:
Then came election day and its shockers for their side: the huge turnout of voters and the clear evidence of honest ballots. The government forces, the press, and the citizen volunteers…publicly called to the attention of the Huks and their sympathizers how wrong had been their predictions about the election. Ballots, not bullets, were what counted! If the Huk leaders could be so wrong this time, then in how many other things had they been wrong all along? Why should anyone follow them anymore? The Huk rank and file starting echoing these sentiments, and Huk morale skidded. Groups of Huks began to come into army camps, voluntarily surrendering and commenting bitterly that they had been misled by their leaders. Well, it was true enough. They had.
Within 18 months of TAKING OFFICE, Magsaysay and his American adviser had stopped the Communist insurgency in its tracks. In retrospect, the Huk insurgency in the Philippines was a true popular rebellion that had originated during the war to harass the Japanese occupation. Magsaysay and his U.S. adviser ended the insurgency by employing even more popular measures, combined with police-style battle tactics.
The Philippine government victory and the role played by Colonel Edward Lansdale in securing an end to the localized guerrilla war there provided a valuable example for counterinsurgency specialists in the years prior to American intervention in Vietnam, and to this day they show the superiority of policies of attraction over policies of suppression.
The victory against the Huks, however, has generally gone unheeded within the U.S. military hierarchy; most officials instinctively prefer conventional tactics and weapons, regardless of circumstances. In a post-Vietnam environment, with brilliant conventional triumphs against Iraq both in 1991 and 2003, the four-year effort to end the current insurrection offers a tragic contrast to the accomplishments of a single Air Force officer more than half a century ago.
John J. Tierney Jr. is the Walter Kohler Professor of International Relations at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., and the author of Chasing Ghosts: Unconventional Warfare in American History. For additional reading, try: Lessons Learned: The Philippines, 1946-1953, by Edward G. Lansdale.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.