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American Nation Building in South Vietnam

American Nation Building in South Vietnam
USAID building in 1965 in Saigon

The History of Diplomacy discussion group at H-Net includes a fascinating discussion and book reviews of Andrew Gawthorpe.  To Build as Well as Destroy:  American Nation Building in South Vietnam.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2018.  ISBN:  9781501712807. Open access: https://cornellopen.org/9781501712807/to-build-as-well-as-destroy/

For those stability operations companies in 2020 who believe they are “reinventing the wheel” as they carry out their projects in Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, South Sudan or other lively stability missions in the world: in a sense they are correct.

Andrew Gawthorpe’s book takes a detailed look at the U.S. efforts in South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s which certainly bear some similarity to current missions. The South Vietnamese mission was led by the U.S. Office of Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), and some of the people who worked in CORDS would go on to serve in the companies that comprise the Stability Operations Industry today, as well as in the departments of Defense, State and even USAID.

While there has been some debate about the levels of success of the US program in South Vietnam, Dr. Gawthorpe is dismissive of success:

This study also teaches us to be wary of the metaphor of “nation building.” Policy makers who embark their countries on such ventures should be aware of how little control they will have over either the finer details of implementation or the prerequisites for success. Once the process has begun, high-level policy makers are only able to intervene with broad brushstrokes rather than with regard to the finer detail. Leveraging reform from an allied government whose officials have also to look out for their own political interests is highly challenging, however cleverly the scaffolding of influence is constructed. While the metaphor of “nation building” seems to promise tractability and predictability, in reality the process is influenced by myriad actors with divergent agendas, of whom the intervenor is but one. Nation building is ultimately an activity that privileges local knowledge and action and is hostile to grand designs. (p. 190)

Others have pointed out that the fact that Saigon was a bigger, more prosperous city than Bangkok by the time it fell to the North Vietnamese Army in 1975 is a sign that – despite the rural development disappointments and the ongoing political chaos of the South Vietnamese government – the long term effect of the nation building effort was surprisingly effective. Nevertheless, U.S. experts saw little to suggest success at the time, especially those serving for only a single year in a ten year effort.

Historians offer us the best retrospective analysis of past operations and may suggest lessons we might want to learn for the future. Worth a look to better understand some of the roots of our industry.

The full discussion on H-net can be found here: https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/discussions/5868542/h-diplo-roundtable-xxi-29-build-well-destroy-american-nation

 

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