The first casualties: *American nation building programs in South Vietnam, 1955–1965
This dissertation explores American nation building efforts in South Vietnam between 1955 and 1965. It focuses on Michigan State University's (MSU) technical assistance program in public and police administration and the International Voluntary Services' (IVS) agricultural and educational development initiatives. This study argues that the United States adopted a fundamentally flawed approach to Vietnam from the earliest years of American intervention and that these programs represented some of the first casualties of this flawed approach. It also demonstrates how non-state actors, such as low and mid-level aid workers from MSU and IVS, played a vital role in contributing to the failure of nation building and the overall US policy in Vietnam.
Participants in the MSU and IVS programs embraced the US government's Cold War vision for inventing a "modern" anticommunist state in southern Vietnam. They attempted to impose American-style models and methods on the Vietnamese people with whom they worked, with little regard for their needs or interests. Like most US policy makers, MSU and IVS program members ignored key elements of the political climate in South Vietnam, in particular the repressive policies of Ngo Dinh Diem's regime, the roots and nature of the revolution in Vietnam, and the legacy of colonialism. As a result of their refusal to examine critically the basic assumptions driving Cold War US foreign policy and their role in its implementation, members of Michigan State and IVS helped to alienate many local people from the government in Saigon as well as from the United States. Furthermore, in the few instances when MSU or IVS participants recognized the negative consequences of their work and questioned the accepted doctrine of US policy, American and South Vietnamese officials refused to alter the course of action and often marginalized these programs and their participants. This refusal to change the basic US approach in Vietnam, despite mounting evidence of its ineffectiveness and futility, first emerged during this nation building period and carried over with tragic consequences as the ground war escalated.