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

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

Authored by LTC Raymond A. Millen.

March 2008

84 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Following the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the new world order did not bring about a closure of revolutionary warfare. In fact, the Soviet-inspired wars of liberation against imperialism have been eclipsed by reactionary, jihadist wars. By all indications in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia, and Iraq, Islamic militants have embraced revolutionary warfare, although not Mao’s People’s War model. Therefore, a study of revolutionary warfare is apt because the conflict between the West and radical jihadism will continue to take place in dysfunctional, collapsing, or failed states. The author examines the political-military lessons from these conflicts and suggests that the United States should minimize the level and type of assistance to states fighting in an insurgency because these states possess greater advantages than previously supposed.


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.


U.S. National Security Strategy must take into account the unique circumstances behind every insurgency and be circumspect when considering the level and type of involvement in a counterinsurgency. The insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq are likely anomalies because regime change preceded the insurgency. The most likely national security scenario will be the rendering of assistance to an established government. Hence, political-military engagement with dysfunctional governments should focus on the following:

• Using the political context framework as a reference, U.S. political and military advisors must take every diplomatic opportunity with their counterparts to underscore the deleterious effects of dysfunctional governance and the danger of inaction or half measures against inchoate insurgencies.

• In preparation for their mission, advisors must understand the demographics, social structures and values, the real economic system, the political culture, and the structure and performance of the political system. This preparation not only helps the advisor understand the roots of the insurgency and anticipate government intransigence, but also provides awareness of counterproductive or inflammatory reforms.

• The U.S. Government must remain cognizant of the substantive advantages an established government has over insurgents and not rush to intervene. The introduction of coalition ground forces carries ramifications above the rendering of security. The client government may relax its counterinsurgency efforts, a burden the coalition soon shoulders. With the immediate threat abated, the government may see no need to reform government practices, and the larger the military contingent, the more difficult it is to extract the political commitment without the stigma of failure. Hence, a minimum assistance package provides maximum political flexibility.

• The centerpiece of any counterinsurgency strategy is separating the insurgents from the population. How that is accomplished is a matter of strategy, but the historical record suggests military operations targeting insurgents alone are rarely successful. Allowing the establishment of local police and militia, either through local authorities or coalition cadre trainers, is the most effective way to establish security for the population centers. Thereafter, construction and development initiatives can begin in those areas where security is established.

• Like security, construction and development initiatives have the greatest effect at the local level. Construction projects, which build what the local townspeople want, use local labor, and provide training and salaries, are the best way to spur the local economy and to ensure the people defend the completed projects.

• The establishment of a UN reconstruction and development coordination center could serve to harmonize, coordinate, and monitor construction and development projects among the international organizations, nongovernment organizations, government organizations, provincial reconstruction teams, and various engineer units in country. A national coordination center serves as a clearing center for legitimate organizations and prevents fraud, conflicts, redundancies, and waste, which inevitably result when separate organizations are left on their own.

• The use of sophisticated information operations to inform, persuade, and inspire the affected population and rebut insurgent propaganda is a prerequisite to counterinsurgency success. It is not a wise idea, however, for a U.S. administration to target the American people, including Congress, with information operations. It is much better to give the domestic audience a sober appraisal of the unfolding situation rather than try to bolster confidence with exuberant optimism. To do so risks creating a credibility gap and possible backlash if a setback occurs.

Most experts agree that the War on Terror will last for years. To meet this challenge without emptying the national coffers and placing severe strains on military readiness, the United States should adopt a circumspect national security policy. States involved in an insurgency rarely need military intervention on a large scale. A bit of political-military finesse will serve U.S. interests far more than viewing every insurgency as a zero-sum game.

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