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Inventing Vietnam


  • 15 b/w illus.
  • Page extent: 276 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.49 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 959.704/32
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: DS558 .C38 2008
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Vietnam War, 1961-1975--United States
    • United States--Foreign relations--Vietnam
    • Vietnam--Foreign relations--United States
    • United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989
    • Vietnam--Politics and government--1945-1975

Library of Congress Record

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 (ISBN-13: 9780521888653)

  • Also available in Paperback
  • Published April 2008

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The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.

– Karl Marx

   The great problem from now on out [is] whether we [can] salvage what the Communists had ostensibly left out of their grasp in Indochina.

– Secretary of State John Foster Dulles

   I’ve never seen a situation like this [in southern Vietnam]. It defies imagination.…The government is shaky as all hell. It is being propped up for the moment only with great difficulty. Nothing can help it so much as administrative, economic, and social reforms.…The needs are enormous, the time short.

– Wesley Fishel, 1954

   By early 1957,…it became evident the newly created nation [in Vietnam] would survive successfully the series of crises which threatened its existence at the outset.

– Michigan State University Vietnam Advisory Group (MSUG), Final Report

   Although no MSUG member ever expected to find in newly independent Vietnam all the civil liberties firmly established among older western democracies, some members had misgivings lest the project’s technical assistance might serve to strengthen an autocratic regime and retard the development of democratic institutions. Most members…believed our activities were valuable…in creating among the Vietnamese a critical attitude for seeking truth and knowledge through systematic research, promoting the study of social sciences from the western viewpoint, raising the general of educational standards, and implanting in the minds of government officials, police officers and teachers the ideas of responsibility and responsiveness to the public, individual dignity and other such concepts, the acceptance of which is a prerequisite for the eventual evolution of free institutions in Vietnam.

– MSUG Final Report, 1962

   We are no longer dealing with anyone [in Saigon] who represents anybody in a political sense. We are simply acting to prevent a collapse of the Vietnamese military forces which we pay for and supply.

– Senator Mike Mansfield, June 1965

   There is no tradition of a national government in Saigon. There are no roots in the country.…I don’t think we ought to take this government seriously. There is no one who can do anything. We have to do what we think we ought to regardless of what the Saigon government does.

– Henry Cabot Lodge, July 1965

   We would be occupying an essentially hostile foreign country.

– General William C. Westmoreland, January 1965 , on the possibility of use of American troops in southern Vietnam

   Despite all our public assertions to the contrary, the South Vietnamese are not – and have never been – a nation.

– General Victor Krulak, U.S. Marines, April 1966

   Twelve years have elapsed since we began contributing economic assistance and manpower to…Vietnam. Yet, that nation continues to face political instability, lack a sense of nationhood, and to suffer social, religious, and regional factionalism and severe economic dislocations. Inflation continues to mount, medical care remains inadequate, land reform is virtually nonexistent, agricultural and education[al] advances are minimal, and the development of an honest, capable, and responsible civil service has hardly begun.

– Representative Donald H. Rumsfeld, 1966

   I want to leave the footprints of America in Vietnam.…I want them to say when the Americans come, this is what they leave – schools, not long cigars. We’re going to turn the Mekong into a Tennessee Valley.

– Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966

   Vietnam itself is primarily an agricultural country; the only major port isSaigon. The deployment of large U.S. military forces, andother friendly forces such as the Korean division, in a country of this sort requires the construction ofnew ports, warehouse facilities, access roads, improvements to highways leading to the interior of thecountry and along the coasts, troop facilities, hospitals, completely new airfields and major improvementsto existing airfields, communications facilities, etc.

– Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense, 1966

   The coordinated activities of the Facilities Engineering Command and RMK-BRJ have brought sweeping change to much of the tiny nation’s [southern Vietnam] landscape. Hills have been planed down for air bases, and rivers and harbors dredged for ports. Deserted beaches have become busy waterfront depots. Paths have been replaced by highways, new hospitals have been built and old surgical facilities rehabilitated. Billets for tens of thousands of troops have sprung up where little existed before. Today, most of these widely diversified projects serve as support elements vital to the war effort. Tomorrow, many of the developments will help serve South Viet Nam in its peacetime pursuit of national betterment.

– “Viet Nam: Building for Battle, Building for Peace,” The Em-Kayan, September 1966

   How were the U.S. forces…to maintain thousands of miles of roads, hundreds of bridges, and thousands of culverts without stationing engineer units in compounds throughout the length and breadth of Vietnam? How were they to support a complex modern army of half a million men without ports and depots to receive, sort, and store supplies? Where would they house this army and in what kind of structures?…The very nature of the war required a military presence everywhere, and that simply meant dotting the countryside with fire-support bases, maneuver-element base camps, logistics support areas, heliports, and tactical airstrips.…Each base, airfield, and compound had to be joined to its neighbor in an ever-expanding network of primary and secondary roads.

– Lieutenant General Carroll H. Dunn, U.S. Army

   The Americans came in like bulldozers.

– Former Ambassador to the United States Bui Diem

   It is very clear that in many respects, much of Vietnam is today a nation of refugees.

– Leo Cherne, Chairman, International Rescue Committee

   Hell, with half a million men in Vietnam, we are spending twenty-one billion dollars a year, and we’re fighting the whole war with Vietnamese watching us; how can you talk about national sovereignty?

– Robert Komer, Special Assistant to the President

It is still not unfair to say that there is no real government in Vietnam.… It is…the result of a political structure still so fragmented and weak thatdivision commanders can choose those orders they intend to obey, and Ministries can follow their own pathsregardless of the desires of the Prime Minister.

– Richard Holbrooke, Assistant to Robert Komer, 1966

   The people I talked to [in Vietnam] didn’t seem to have any feeling about South Vietnam as a country. We fought the war for a separate South Vietnam, but there wasn’t any South and there never was one.

– Paul Warnke, Former General Counsel for the Defense Department

   There are no more pyramids to build. We havejust about completed the largest construction effort inhistory.

– John B. Kirkpatrick, Former General Manager, RMK-BRJ JointVenture Saigon, Vietnam1

Early in 2004, the Vietnamese government completed work on the first of a majorthree-phase highway building program. The highway, when completed in some fifteen years, will runalong the route of the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail down the border withLaos. During the period of the American war in Vietnam, Ho Chi MinhTrail referred to an elaborate network of arteries that ran the gamut from mere footpaths to largeroads able to accommodate heavy truck traffic. The trail ran through Laos, eventually farther south intoCambodia, and crossed the border into Vietnam at a number of strategic points. It was by all accounts animportant supply system for the southern insurgency fighting against the Americans and their client regimein Saigon. 2

   This latest road project is to be much greater in scope and will serve a verydifferent purpose. The Vietnamese government hopes the new road, named the Ho Chi Minh Highway, will openup the interior along the border with Laos and allow rural people access to faraway markets. It will alsoprovide important transportation links between the countryside and the cities for a government looking todevelop the dilapidated transportation infrastructure of the nation. Sections of the national road Highway1 have not been updated since the end of the American war some thirty years ago. Near the ancient capitalcity of Hué, for example, the road shrinks to only one lane, and during the monsoon season, sectionsof it close completely for days at a time. Much of the rest of the nation’s secondary road networkalso needs updating. The Ho Chi Minh Highway project is an important step in modernizing thenation’s roads and in developing the nation’s physical infrastructure.

   The project has also, however, generated considerable criticism, mainly because thearea under construction, in Quang Tri Province, was the most heavily bombed during the Vietnam War, andthere remain some 3 million land mines and more than three hundred thousand tons of unexplodedordinance (UXO)littering many square miles of the country. Since 1975, this province alone accounted for more thansixty-seven hundred of the one hundred thousand total wounded and killed by UXO.3 Building the new highway will, critics argue, unearth some of thislong-buried ordinance and place workers, travelers, and the people who live along the proposedroadway in harm’s way unnecessarily. Nevertheless, the road building will likely continue. Whencompleted, the Ho Chi Minh Highway will traverse this region and many more areas of the country alsolittered with UXO. The whole project, couched in terms ofeconomic development, will eventually consist of eight lanes stretching from north to south and coveringhundreds of miles of rugged, and mined, terrain. Observers have called it “the most ambitious roadproject ever in Asia.”4 Whether this claim is true ornot, this is certainly not the first time large-scale efforts have been launched to modernizeVietnam.

   There is an interesting and insightful juxtaposition in the Vietnamese governmentdeveloping the nation’s system of modern roadways today and the earlier effort by the United Statesto transform the southern half of that nation through various economic, political, and military developmentinitiatives. That the government is now building those roadways and other infrastructure through heavilybombed regions still scattered with mines and that saw considerable destruction during the Vietnam War alsospeaks volumes of that earlier effort.

   During the period of direct American involvement beginning in 1954, the U.S. mission in Vietnam designed and implemented a range offar- reaching economic, political, and eventually military development projects in one of the mostthorough and ambitious state-building efforts in the postwar period. The projects consisted of installing apresident; building a civil service and training bureaucrats around him; creating a domestic economy, currency, and an industrial base; building ports and airfields, hospitals, andschools; dredging canals and harbors to create a transportation grid; constructing anelaborate network of modern roadways; establishing a telecommunications system; andtraining, equipping, and funding a national police force and a military, among others.

   Between 1954 and 1960, the United States poured into the southern half of Vietnamnearly US$1.5 billion to pay for its state-buildingprogram(s). Despite the enormity of these efforts, the project to build an independent state around NgoDinh Diem met with failure. By the early 1960s, the United Statesbegan responding to the project’s failings and to a growing chorus in Vietnam opposing the effortwith greater levels of military and police force to protect its client regime in Saigon. Ultimately, andalmost imperceptibly, U.S. officials glossed over the factthat the state-building project was deeply troubled and failing and instead began justifying greatermilitary involvement and authorizing greater use of force by the regime in order to stamp out theVietnamese resistance to that effort as well as to mask its deficiencies. At the same time, nearly allAmerican officials began referring to southern Vietnam exclusively as “South Vietnam,” asthough the state had existed and now compelled defense from outside aggressors bent on conquest. Thatfiction perpetuated the powerful and politically successful idea that the effort in Vietnam was aboutcombating aggression and that the problem stemmed from North Vietnamese aggression against a putativelyindependent South Vietnam. In reality, the war in Vietnam resulted not from outside aggression, but fromthe failure of the six-year effort to build a viable state infrastructure around the regime in Saigon.

   Throughout the decade of the 1960s, the United States escalated its presence inVietnam, began waging a war, expanded its aid program, and launched a military construction effort ofunprecedented scale. The war itself brought the most far-reaching changes the region had witnessedso far. Over the course of the fourteen years from 1954, the United States transformed much of the southernhalf of Vietnam numerous times as part of its effort to build and/or salvage a state below theseventeenth parallel. These transformations were the product of the array of state-buildingprojects, resettlement schemes, commodity/economic aid and cultural transmission, as well as themore obvious effects of military aid, warfare and destruction, and political manipulation. Moreover, thechanges brought to Vietnam undulated according to and were a product of the particular agendas of thedifferent American presidential administrations. The differing programs and plans for southern Vietnam area good barometer of the crisis each administration perceived that it faced in Southeast Asia.5

   The administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower,John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, in particular, outlined and implemented an array of short- and long-termpolicy objectives for Vietnam. Meeting these objectives involved considerable resources from the CentralIntelligence Agency (CIA), the U.S.military, the Agency for International Development (AID), Michigan State University (MSU), many private corporationsspecializing in hundreds of different tasks, religious organizations, private sector economists andbureaucrats, and much more. By the early 1960s, the costs of the project grew to an average of $1million each day.

   Despite this unprecedented effort, the project achieved limited and fleetingsuccess. Oftentimes, failure in one area offsets success in another, such as the public politicalrehabilitation of Ngo Dinh Diem by the late 1950s, while the resistance to his rule grew into the NationalLiberation Front by 1960. Efforts to legitimize the regime in Saigon and to spread its influence beyondthat city also failed repeatedly, and planners resorted to the use of force simply to keep it in place. Inthe realm of land reform, industrialization, currency stabilization, encouraging domestic savings, creatinga tax base, and opening up the political system to other parties, the overall effort met with unmitigatedlong-term failure.

   Providing evidence of the effort’s success, however, received a great dealof emphasis throughout the period. This pressure to demonstrate success in Vietnam (and in the Cold War)led ultimately to the sharp bifurcation between the official story from government sources and the story astold by others on the ground in Vietnam. It also led a majority of U.S. officials to accept, after many years of effort, some of themost important and erroneous assumptions concerning the state of affairs in southern Vietnam. At times,officials both in Washington and in Saigon seemed to will away evidence of failure, excess, waste, fraud,and flawed planning. They did this for a variety of reasons, from individual survival within a particularadministration to agency/institutional territoriality, inertia, individual and collectivecredibility, or some combination of these factors. This is not to suggest that all officials viewed thesituation in Vietnam in the same way, nor am I suggesting that their varied criticisms were unimportant.Successive administrations did achieve a consensus on perhaps the most fundamental issue related to U.S. policy toward southern Vietnam: that there existed anindependent, noncommunist state south of the seventeenth parallel that compelled American aid anddefense.

   This assumption is also reflected, either implicitly or explicitly, in thehistorical literature on U.S. policy in Vietnam. Historianshave not probed what were fundamental problems and obstacles to the achievement of success in SoutheastAsia through the lens of this state-building enterprise. This pattern has obscured the tremendouseffort, preceding and paralleling the start of major warfare, of building a physical infrastructure insouthern Vietnam. The planners who began the effort to build the new state infrastructure clearlyrecognized that the state as they imagined it did not exist. They saw themselves as building somethingcompletely new in southern Vietnam. They then had to rebuild numerous aspects of state infrastructure overagain as the objectives and realities in Vietnam shifted. From the outset, American experts and advisors inVietnam saw themselves engaged in a thoroughgoing campaign to create a modern state out of southernVietnam. At the same time, security measures such as the creation of a police network, the VietnameseBureau of Investigation, and an army paralleled an expanding state-building program carried out bythe U.S. Operations Mission (USOM) and specialists from Michigan State University. The two facetsof the overall mission, military preparedness and the physical processes of state building, competed forresources and emphasis over the next several years. As the resistance movement grew and security concernsmoved front and center, the U.S. mission responded byhurriedly putting in place a vast modern military infrastructure. By the mid-1960s, this militarybuildup overwhelmed all other efforts in Vietnam. But those efforts did not simply go away; theynow took on different meaning and served the purpose of sustaining the wartime economic and politicalstructures that had already been put in place in Saigon. This process of building and rebuilding, ofinventing and reinventing, continued over the whole of American involvement from 1954 forward.

   The process also disrupted Vietnamese society, created an unstable politicalenvironment, and kept the economy in a constant state of shock. As the American role increased dramaticallyin the 1960s, so too did the level of monetary aid, goods imported into Vietnam, the construction programs,the presence of military personnel, and the pressure on the fragile political structure and economy toaccommodate the changes. Meanwhile, the increasing level of warfare turned hundreds of thousands ofVietnamese out as refugees and disrupted Vietnamese rural life and the subsistence agricultural system. Alarge mobile refugee population and the destruction of warfare also created a grave public health crisis asthe urban population swelled and overtaxed an already inadequate public health/medicalinfrastructure.

   The regime in Saigon consistently lacked the ability to mitigate any of theseserious problems. It simply did not have the capability (nor, at times, the will) to deal with the needs ofthe people. It had not been able to reach out to those in the countryside and make itself legitimate duringthe relative peace of the late 1950s, much less during the full-scale war that existed by themid-1960s. It also lacked any appreciable means of generating revenue outside the American aidprogram. It was, as members of the aid mission frankly admitted at the time, singularly dependent uponcontinued American aid. Its tax base remained tiny and politically sensitive. Its overalldecision-making capability was also limited by the realities of war and by the considerable powerdifferential between the regime and the United States. The latter had made a commitment to wage war anddefeat the enemy, an increasingly audacious and decades-long revolutionary movement, and hadstructured the entire aid program toward that end. Vietnamese officials well understood that their ownsurvival also hinged on meeting that objective. Many of them also directly benefited from loopholes andexcesses that were a part of the U.S. aid program. Amidgrowing security concerns and escalating violence and warfare, state building fell out of favor asimpractical and untimely. These efforts would have to wait until southern Vietnam could be made secure.Nevertheless, both Vietnamese and American officials continued to assert the existence of “SouthVietnam.” This assumption papered over considerable failings and future obstacles to progress. Theseobstacles became further ingrained as the aid program shifted its focus away from ameliorating socialmisery caused by the war and toward greater energy, money, and other resources for the wareffort.

   Historians of U.S. involvement inVietnam have not begun to grapple sufficiently with these matters. In some works the regime in Saigon isrecognized as dependent on American aid and an evolving experiment in state building. Historian DavidAnderson, for example, has written in his study of early U.S. involvement in Vietnam that “there was no self-sustaining state in the South for the United States to support… [and] onlyU.S. military force could maintain the fiction that therewas.”6 And historian George Herring’s widelycited general history of the United States in Vietnam refers to the regime, quoting John Kennedy, as“our offspring” and recognizes that America’s early “nation building”experiment in Vietnam was a “high-risk gamble.”7 Others view the crafting of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) as artificial and as little more than a political tool andsee the perpetuation of the division at the seventeenth parallel beyond 1956 in similar terms.8

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