Rufus C. Phillips III, of Arlington, Virginia and author of “Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned”, died at Virginia Hospital Center on December 29, 2021 of complications from pneumonia.
Richard Holbrooke, in his foreword to the book, said that for several crucial years in the 1960s Rufus was “probably the best informed American on events in the country [Vietnam] as a whole, and perhaps the American most trusted and listened to by the Vietnamese.”
In a recent USAID Notice, Administrator Samantha Power said of him: ”Rufus Phillips embodied a spirit of humility and mutual respect that should guide our efforts to promote democracy and dignity around the world. As he concluded in his singular work, Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned, “To work successfully in direct support of others whose history and culture are different from ours, our attitude needs to be the antithesis of hubris; it needs to be something best expressed by the old saying, ‘May God give us the grace to see ourselves as others see us. We should all take this wisdom to heart. I hope you’ll join me in reflecting on the legacy of one of USAID’s earliest and most principled leaders whose calls for understanding are as timeless as they are necessary.”
In recent years, Rufus lectured extensively on the Vietnam War and was interviewed by Ken Burns for the PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War”. This fall, he completed a second book, “Stabilizing Fragile States: Why it Matters and What To Do About It”, which will be published by University Press of Kansas this spring.
Rufus was born in Middletown, Ohio on August 10, 1929 to Rufus C. Phillips, Jr. and the former Williamina A. Chamberlain and grew up in rural Charlotte County in Southside Virginia. He attended Woodberry Forest School in Orange, Virginia before going on to Yale University. At Yale, he majored in American History, was President of St. Anthony Hall, played defensive tackle on the varsity football team, and received the Gordon Brown Memorial Prize.
After graduating from Yale in 1951, he attended the University of Virginia Law School for a semester before deciding to join the CIA in 1952. In 1954, he graduated from the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School for Fort Benning, Georgia as a First Lieutenant and became a member of the Saigon Military Mission led by Colonel Edward G. Landsdale, who strongly believed in the philosophy of winning the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. In 1955, Rufus served as the sole advisor to two Vietnamese army pacification operations, earning him the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Honor. He later worked as a CIA civilian case officer in Vietnam and Laos.
In a true case of love at first sight, Rufus met his future wife Bárbara Eleanora Hübner Vidal, a contract interpreter for the Interamerican Development Bank, Organization of American States and the U.S State Department, in San Salvador in February 1960. They were married three months later. After the birth of their first two children in McLean, Virginia, they moved to Vietnam in 1962 when Rufus was appointed by the Kennedy Administration to lead the USAID Saigon Mission’s counterinsurgency efforts as Assistant Director for Rural Affairs, including rural development support for the Strategic Hamlet Program.
In early 1963, he attended a White House briefing in which he advised President Kennedy that the effort to counter the communist insurgency in South Vietnam was not going well, contrary to U.S. military reporting. David Halberstam in his book, The Best and the Brightest, described it as “a remarkable moment of intellectual honesty.” From 1064 to 1968, he served as a consultant on Vietnam to USAID and later the State Department. He also acted as an advisor to Vice President Hubert Humphrey while taking on the management of his father’s company, Airways Engineering.
In 1971, Rufus completed his M.S. in City and Regional Planning at Catholic University and was elected to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, where he served until 1975 and led the development of a nationally recognized planning and land use system (PLUS) for the County. In recognition of this groundbreaking effort, he was named a Washingtonian of the Year in 1975 by the Washingtonian Magazine.
In 2009, Rufus served as an informal consultant to the group working for the US Army Central Command on an assessment of Afghanistan. He then spent his 80th birthday that year in Afghanistan as a volunteer helping the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan observe the national presidential election. In 2014, he was inducted into the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame at Ft. Benning, Georgia.
Rufus was a true patriot who believed fervently in our country’s founding principles and dedicated his life to public service and the promotion of freedom and democracy abroad. He had an abiding faith and optimism in the ability of the American people to continue to strive towards a more perfect union. With a board smile that exuded warmth and kindness, extraordinary empathy, an easy sense of humor, and patient ability to listen, he naturally connected with people of all backgrounds, races and cultures. He combined great heart and passion with a keen intellect that cut to the core of even the most complex issues.
Rufus loved his wife, Barbara, dearly and was deeply devoid to her over their 59 years of marriage. Towards the end of her life when she was beset with a rare form of frontotemporal dementia, he was her constant caregiver. Rufus is survived by his four children and nephew, his six grandchildren, and his sister Lucretia Whitehouse. He was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC on January 6, 2022. An open celebration of his life for all who knew him will be held this spring of 2022 with the date and location to be determined.