A few years ago, I had a cameo role in the Russian concerted effort to sow division among the American people. It took place in a small office on K Street in which Russia Today, now called RT, was located. I found myself in an empty room, staring at a video camera and listening to a voice of a Russian female host in Moscow peppering me, in flawless English, with questions about the issues surrounding genetically modified crops.
In my current position, I am used to responding to American and European critics of foods labeled as genetically modified organisms, but I was nonplussed about why a Russian-based correspondent would be disagreeing with everything I said since biotechnology was not a pressing issue in the former Soviet Union.
President Johnson reportedly said that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost the country. A month later, he ended his reelection bid. President Nixon’s Vietnamization policy extended the war for seven more years, but the televised images of another 25,000 dead American servicemen split the country more than at any time since the Civil War.
The eventual North Vietnamese capture of Saigon in April 1975 raised this fundamental question: How could the country that possessed nuclear weapons, and had prevailed in a two-front war against Germany and Japan just 30 years earlier, have suffered such a stunning denouement in a conflict with a peasant army in Southeast Asia?
The British counterinsurgency expert, Sir Robert Thompson, is reported to have said, “The Americans had used the most powerful weapon known to mankind in Vietnam. The intriguing fact is that they used it against themselves.” He was referring to television. His point was that the continual array of images reported from the battlefield by a free press had so eroded the will of the American people, that it had offset the huge advantage the United States had in every aspect of military armament.
It was the lesson of a lifetime for intelligence analysts in Moscow, one that would be central to the planning of the generation of Russian strategists who inherited the greatly diminished remnants of the Soviet military empire in 1991. I had the opportunity to sense the shame that many in Russia felt when I visited the country in 1991. The scenes of once proud military veterans selling their Soviet-era medals to tourists showed just how low the country had fallen.
Humiliated by the collapse of their empire and the encroachment of the NATO expansion led by the United States, former KGB planners, recalling the strategic lesson of the Vietnam War, turned to the one weapon they could use to weaken America, which is our freedom of speech and the press. In the sense of triumph that Americans were experiencing for having “won the Cold War,” Vladimir Putin and his intelligence service compatriots perceived the vulnerability that they could exploit. Having the Soviet Union as an existential threat had been the glue that held Americans together for almost 50 years. It was the bond that overcame the sharpest ideological differences.
In 1991, with no discernible strategic enemy, that glue dissolved. Foreign policy overnight became domestic politics in America. What suddenly mattered was not how national security decisions played in Moscow, Beijing or Berlin, but in Nashville, Peoria and Dallas. Harshly divisive cultural issues came to the fore, driving even deeper wedges between Americans. It was into this political environment that Russia launched its information warfare campaign, including such ephemeral issues as agricultural science. Now in 2018, Russian efforts to impact the presidential election as part of this effort are front and center.
A key question is whether strategists sitting in Moscow believed that they could shape the outcome of an American election, since U.S. voting is so decentralized, or if their goal to propagate themes that, no matter the outcome of the voting, would call into question the validity the results of the 2016 election and undermine the fundamental faith in the electoral process. As our caustic political debate continues, we must as ourselves whether Russian strategic planners have succeeded in using that 20th century lesson from the Vietnam War to fracture our national will, and thereby erode our ability to prevail in any 21st century conflict.