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Inventing Vietnam


  • 15 b/w illus.
  • Page extent: 276 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.38 kg
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 (ISBN-13: 9780521716901)

  • Also available in Hardback
  • Published April 2008

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$29.99 (G)

inventing vietnam

This book considers the Vietnam War in light of U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam, concluding that the war was a direct result of failed state-building efforts. This U.S. nation-building project began in the mid-1950s with the ambitious goal of creating a new independent, democratic, modern state below the seventeenth parallel. No one involved imagined this effort would lead to a major and devastating war in less than a decade. Carter analyzes how the United States ended up fighting a large-scale war that wrecked the countryside, generated a flood of refugees, and brought about catastrophic economic distortions, results that actually further undermined the larger U.S. goal of building a viable state. Carter argues that well before the Tet Offensive shocked the viewing public in late January 1968, the campaign in southern Vietnam had completely failed and, furthermore, that the program contained the seeds of its own failure from the outset.

James M. Carter obtained his PhD from the University of Houston in 2004 and is currently assistant professor of history at Drew University, Corpus Christi. His research specialties include U.S. foreign relations, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. His publications include several articles on nation building in Vietnam and private contractors in both Vietnam and Iraq, in addition to book reviews in Itinerario, the Journal of Military History, and Education about Asia, as well as on H-Diplo. In summer 2007, he was appointed a Fellow of the Summer Military History Seminar at West Point Military Academy.


The United States and State Building, 1954–1968

Drew University, Corpus Christi

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi

Cambridge University Press
32 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10013-2473, USA
Information on this title:

© James M. Carter 2008

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2008

Printed in the United States of America

A catalog record for this publication is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Carter, James M., 1968–
Inventing Vietnam : the United States and State Building, 1954–1968 / James M. Carter.
p.   cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-521-88865-3 (hardback) – ISBN 978-0-521-71690-1 (pbk.)
1. Vietnam War, 1961–1975 – United States. 2. United States – Foreign relations – Vietnam. 3. Vietnam – Foreign relations – United States. 4. United States – Foreign relations – 1945–1989. 5. Vietnam – Politics and government – 1945–1975. I. Title.
DS558.C38 2008
959.70432 – dc22 20070454

ISBN 978-0-521-88865-3 hardback
ISBN 978-0-521-71690-1 paperback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the
persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or
third-party Internet Web sites referred to in this publication
and does not guarantee that any content on such
Web sites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.


Acknowledgments page vii
1 Introduction: Inventing Vietnam 1
2 The Cold War, Colonialism, and the Origins of the American Commitment to Vietnam, 1945–1954 20
The End of Colonialism, the Cold War, and Vietnam 21
Making the World Safe through Development 24
Intellectuals, Modernization, and the Third World 32
The State of Vietnam: History, Geography, and Imperialism 37
Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building 42
3 “The Needs Are Enormous, the Time Short”: Michigan State University, the U.S. Operations Mission, State Building, and Vietnam 46
Collective Security and Crafting Consensus 49
“The Needs Are Enormous, the Time Short”: Michigan State University in Vietnam 53
Conclusion 79
4 Surviving the Crises: Southern Vietnam, 1958–1960 82
The American Mission and Building Vietnam 84
Inventing Vietnam and the Politics of Aid 95
My-Diem and the Rise of the Insurgency 105
Conclusion 111
5 “A Permanent Mendicant”: Southern Vietnam, 1960–1963 113
Southern Vietnam in the Decade of Development 114
Counterinsurgency, Strategic Hamlets, and the Militarization of U.S. Policy 117
The Political Economy of State Building 129
Conclusion: Political Collapse and the Fall of Diem 143
6 A Period of Shakedown: Southern Vietnam, 1963–1965 149
“Stable Government or No Stable Government”: Rescuing Southern Vietnam from the Vietnamese 150
“The Construction Miracle of the Decade”: The Military Buildup and Inventing Vietnam 155
“The Works of Peace”: The Mekong Delta and the Politics of War 165
“Long Since…Dependent on U.S. Aid” 174
Conclusion 177
7 The Paradox of Construction and Destruction: Southern Vietnam, 1966–1968 181
“RMK-BRJ Is Changing the Face of South Viet Nam” 182
“Not Much More Than a Drop in the Bucket”: Refugees, Pacification, and the “Other War” in Southern Vietnam 205
“A National Symphony of Theft, Corruption, and Bribery” 219
Conclusion 228
Epilogue: War, Politics, and the End in Vietnam 232
The Tet Offensive 240
Leaving Vietnam Undone 242
Bibliography 249
Index 263


During the course of research and writing this book, I have accumulated personal and professional debts I can never hope to adequately repay. For now, an acknowledgment and thank-you will have to do.

   A number of research aides and archivists have helped me in ways too numerous to mention. At Michigan State University’s Archives and Historical Collections Center, I have to thank Jeanine Mazak for her near-constant help during every hour of my time there. She saved me hours of labor and numerous mistakes. I would also like to thank Car Lee, whose detailed understanding of the Vietnam project collection made my work much easier.

   At the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library, John Wilson and Linda Hansen Seelke were always ready to help and willing to share their considerable knowledge and understanding of not only the archives, but also the era of the Johnson presidency. I am also grateful to both the John F. Kennedy and Johnson libraries for their grants in aid of research.

   I would like to thank the people at the private corporations that were involved in Vietnam who took the time to help locate documents. Rex Osborne and Kelly Head were very helpful in pinning down what documents remained at the Boise office of Washington Group International (WGI), formerly Morrison-Knudsen. W. Bruce Walters, the Corporate Records Manager at WGI, was also very helpful in finding which of the company’s in-house magazine issues pertained to Vietnam. Once I identified them, he simply mailed them all to me. For that I am very grateful. Mary Carter at Boise State University’s Albertson’s Library was also very helpful in tracking down nearly lost issues of the consortium’s Saigon newspaper. I am also eternally indebted to Joe Fleenor at J.A. Jones Construction for not only locating hundreds of documents about to be thrown out, but for then sending all of the originals to me' I owe at least a couple of chapters of this project to him. It is not an exaggeration to say that without these people at the corporations mentioned, I would have been unable to write nearly half of this book.

   I would like to thank a couple colleagues at the University of Houston who have tolerated my ignorance and have even played their part in trying to end it. My dissertation committee was very helpful in refining some of the specific arguments and in smoothing out the rough edges of others. My relationship with Martin Melosi, in particular, extends back to my first graduate seminar. He has been a great resource for me and has always been there as editor, critic, colleague, and friend.

   Bob Buzzanco has been much more than simply a dissertation advisor. I have known Bob now for nearly eight years. During those years, I have learned more than just history. He and I have made a great team, to borrow from Mark Twain, because he knows everything there is to know and I know the rest. I have learned a great deal about the way history is researched, written, made, and received. I have learned that history is important, that the responsibility of the historian extends well beyond simply writing down the events of the past for posterity. History ought to explain and to make a contribution. Historians ought to tackle large issues and historical problems. And, not simply for the sake of doing it or to satisfy some arcane curiosity, but for the sake of changing the world in which we live. History does not repeat itself, as the shopworn saying suggests. Rather, people repeat poorly understood historical phenomena.

   Finally, I have to thank the person who has meant more to me during this process than any other: my wife, Shelli. She began as and has remained a tireless supporter along this journey. It is, in fact, her fault I remained in graduate school. I would have certainly chosen some other path of lesser resistance. She has endured every research junket, every twist and turn, every up and every down with amazing consistency, support, and love. She has read every word, more than once, and has offered valuable insights at every point. I want her to know she has not only contributed mightily to this project, but that she has also kept me sane and focused as well. I love her very much and am forever indebted to her for putting up with me and with this process. For whatever it is worth, I dedicate this work to her.

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