Nation-Building: A Forgotten Aspect of the Vietnam War

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South Vietnamese Lt. General Ngo Quang Truong honors American soldiers. Image: tommy japan/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by Defence-In-Depth on 8 December 2014.

While the debate over American strategy in the Vietnam War has been long and bitter, it has also been strangely constricted. This stems in part from the fact it has largely been an anguished dialogue among Americans searching for the reasons which underlay their nation’s defeat. This means that a lot of research into the Vietnam War ultimately seems to boil down to a search for villains – be they firepower-mad generals, feckless politicians, or corrupt and incompetent local allies.

But a new generation of Vietnam War scholars is beginning to challenge this endless search for blame and to look at the conflict in a wider historical and theoretical perspective. As I argue in a recent review article, one way this can be done is by an analysis of US counterinsurgency and nation-building programmes – often grouped under the heading of “pacification” – in the latter stages of the war. Many traditional works on the war focus heavily on the period before Richard Nixon assumed the presidency and began withdrawing US forces, viewing the American defeat as preordained by this point and Nixon’s presidency as a kind of postscript. Rather than simply dismissing US efforts during the Nixon presidency as a failure, research projects by scholars such as Martin Clemis, Simon Toner, and the present author instead interrogate the details of US and South Vietnamese pacification efforts.

The results are surprisingly relevant to present-day conflicts. In my own research, I have examined how Vietnam was a problem not just of large-scale warfighting and shadowy counterinsurgency, but also of what is today called nation-building. It was the inability of the non-Communist Government of Vietnam (GVN) to exert control over its own territory and population, and hence to generate the resources and manpower necessary to fight the Vietnamese Communist movement, which gave rise to the US intervention to begin with. The United States thus had not only a war to fight in Vietnam but also an urgent need to help the GVN develop institutions and legitimacy which would allow it to perpetuate itself after the inevitable withdrawal of US forces. This was exactly the same challenge which the intervening powers have recently faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, and which US and United Nations peacekeeping missions have faced in their many post-Cold War incarnations.

What ties together all of these interventions is that they take place in countries which have what modern theorists call “weak” or “failed” states. Steep indeed are the challenges facing an outside power in attempting to help a foreign state not only build up its coercive and administrative institutions – such as its military, police force and civil service – while also ensuring that these institutions enjoy legitimacy among a population who are not used to being subject to a strong state. A glance at both the Western campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the UN’s many post-Cold War interventions across Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, attests to this. But by ignoring Vietnam, where at one point over 10,000 Americans were deployed with the explicit goal of nation-building as part of the Office of Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), both historians and theorists of nation-building have neglected one of the most comprehensive attempts at strengthening a foreign government ever undertaken by the United States.

It is perhaps not surprising that few modern nation-builders, or their boosters in academia, have wanted to claim the Vietnam War as part of their own intellectual and strategic lineage. But this is precisely why it is the job of those who critically analyze security policy, especially from a historical perspective, to argue for the relevance of uncomfortable examples and analogies. CORDS’ personnel in Vietnam worked on such diverse topics as the reform of village governance, the dissemination of new agricultural techniques, efforts to improve local taxation, and the raising of local militias who were designed to best the Vietnamese Communist movement at guerrilla warfare. CORDS even operated according to the “unity of command” which is so beloved of modern counterinsurgency theorists, with all of the resources and personnel involved in nation-building falling under a single chain of command which interfaced with the GVN from the Presidential Palace down to the smallest district. Yet despite all of its resources and efforts, CORDS did not manage to deliver effective nation-building in South Vietnam. Understanding why the U.S. failed at nation-building in South Vietnam may hence inject an appropriate note of caution into the plans of the would-be nation-builders of the future.

By looking at CORDS in this wider perspective and comparing it to other nation-building ventures, my research has joined other scholars in moving beyond the literature of blame to instead see what Vietnam can tell us about recurring themes and problems with these ventures. In turn, this helps not only improve our understanding of nation-building on a conceptual level but also to provide a sense of balance to the literature on the history of the Vietnam War. A number of scholars, most recently Lewis Sorley, have claimed that the United States should have focused on nation-building and counterinsurgency much sooner in the conflict. Sorley even goes so far as to say that the war was essentially won in 1970, when the GVN was at its strongest and the Communist guerrilla movement at its weakest. Yet Sorley does little to probe beneath surface appearances despite the fact these appearances obviously proved to be deceptive; it is not logical for the war to have been won in 1970 but then lost in 1975.

Only by probing the details of US nation-building programmes in support of the GVN in detail can we understand why the successes that seem so impressive to Sorley ultimately did not prove sufficient to save South Vietnam. On the other hand, by recognizing that the failures of U.S. nation-building efforts in South Vietnam reflect problems that have occurred over and over in the history of such efforts, we can move beyond a literature of blame and diagnose the underlying conceptual and practical flaws that have plagued nation-building. By hence reclaiming the place of the Vietnam War in the history of nation-building, and the place of nation-building in the history of the Vietnam War, we ought to make the study of both much richer.

Andrew Gawthorpe is a teaching associate at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom and a doctoral candidate in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London.  His research focuses on nation-building by the U.S. in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, particularly as carried out by the Office of Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS).

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