Book review: “Inventing Vietnam”

Published online 17 February 2012.

Book Review: Carter, James M.  Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954-1968.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.  Print.

Future historians will relate it thusly: “Once upon a time, in the Golden Age of Capitalism, the premier core nation of the world (the US) decided that it was going to invent a nation of its own, and staff this nation with the technological marvels that only a core nation can offer.  After the failure of this project, the  core nation then threw a tantrum, and launched a full-scale military assault upon its invented nation.  That didn’t work either.”


And that will be the story of future generations as regards the “police action” in Vietnam.  Moreover, I would argue that the tantrum continues to this day — that the Obama extension of the Bush/Cheney prescription for endless war is an extension of the US elite angst over the failure to establish “South Vietnam.”  The resurgent post-Vietnam militarism of the US government was presaged by Ronald Reagan, who famously spoke in August of 1980 of overcoming a “Vietnam Syndrome.”  Reagan:

For too long, we have lived with the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Much of that syndrome has been created by the North Vietnamese aggressors who now threaten the peaceful people of Thailand. Over and over they told us for nearly 10 years that we were the aggressors bent on imperialistic conquests. They had a plan. It was to win in the field of propaganda here in America what they could not win on the field of battle in Vietnam. As the years dragged on, we were told that peace would come if we would simply stop interfering and go home.

And thus, at the beginning of the era of neoliberalism, the pretext for endless war was laid, as an attempt to continually overcome the US public and Congressional reluctance to fight wars which was so in evidence at the end of the “Vietnam war.”


Today, much of Vietnam war historiography appears to conform to the outlines of the debate about the war as it occurred in the ’60s and ’70s.  Scholarship revolves around the question of whether or not the US could have won the war.  In the one corner you have John Prados’ Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, which claims that the regime in South Vietnam never gained traction even in 1969 when the NVA was ostensibly at its low point, and in the other corner you have Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken, which claims that the Diem regime might have stabilized had the US not engineered his assassination.  The Carter book falls in the former camp.

I’m not really sure how much of this historians’ debate is meaningful in the terms which they themselves have set.  The capitalists won anyway even after having lost on the battlefield, noticeably with Vietnam’s admittance to the WTO in 2007, and so the whole US war effort might appear in hindsight as a great waste of resources, money and lives.  It fought valiantly for a failed regime to assure an outcome which came anyway, and ironically from the efforts of the regime it was fighting.  How does it matter that “South Vietnam” didn’t work out, when the whole of Vietnam was in the last century seamlessly integrated into the capitalist system?

We can say from the perspective of 2012 that the historians’ debate is about development paths, about the meaning of 20th-century “Communism” as what historian Immanuel Wallerstein called the “mercantilist semiwithdrawal” of nations seeking to industrialize within the orbit of the developing capitalist system.  In this regard, I would argue that what’s really interesting about the story of US involvement in Vietnam is the notion that, through capitalist development, the US thought it could create a nation to its liking (the Spanish phrase “a su gusto” comes to mind here) through industrial nation-building.

At any rate, the future history I have suggested above comes close to being told in James M. Carter’s “Inventing Vietnam.”  Inventing Vietnam tells the story of the US attempt to mold the southern portion of Vietnam into a modern, industrial state.

Carter describes three aspects of the US “development” of Vietnam which hindered its intended goal: 1) the militarization of this effort, which facilitated a police-state approach to development over a commercial approach, 2) the creation of the Diem regime (and the regimes of its successors as well) as kleptocratic dictatorships, which meant that if the US government wished to continue the existence of “South Vietnam” it, and not private capital or Vietnamese initiative, had to fund its development and accept the fact that much of the material benefit of the development would accrue to the people at the top of the hierarchy, and 3) the invented nature of Diem’s regime as (officially) a temporary expedient in light of the failure of the Geneva accords of 1954, according to which Vietnam was to be united through elections.  This denied public legitimacy to the whole effort.

Nonetheless, the US did indeed, and impressively, develop southern Vietnam.  The book states:

A war-torn, divided, and economically ruined place in 1954, the United States had, by 1957, helped to fund and train a national police force, educate tens of thousands of Vietnamese in the affairs of government, modernize elements of a national infrastructure, rebuild roads and bridges, schools, and hospitals, deliver a staggering amount of aid that spread across the whole of southern Vietnam, and create an artificial economy that sustained a much higher standard of living for a few than would have otherwise been possible.  Over fifteen hundred strong by the late 1950s, the Americans in southern Vietnam made up the largest state-building project anywhere in the world.  (79)

Inventing Vietnam discusses in detail the American university connection to the American project in southern Vietnam, begun in 1955 as the “Michigan State University Advisory Group” (MSUG) which had as its protagonist Wesley Fishel, Professor of Political Science at MSU.  In August of that year this program created the “National Institute of Administration (NIA) for the purpose of training civil servants to further develop a state and ensure that Vietnam could ‘keep pace with global modernizing trends.'” (71) This was one of a number of programs started by the MSUG: also importantly, the MSUG begun the “Commodity Import Program” (CIP) through which material aid to Vietnam traveled.  Diem terminated his contract with the MSUG in 1962 because two of its associates reported that Diem presided over a failed police state.

Much of this history occurs in “what officials (of the Kennedy administration) termed the ‘decade of development’ in the realm of foreign affairs.” (116)  In this book, Carter goes into detail about the origins and outcomes of the “strategic hamlets” program beginning in 1962, meant to transform largely rural southern Vietnam into a modernized network of, well, Diem supporters:

In its initial phases, the overall process would involve setting up a government presence, as opposed to an overt military presence and show of force, to establish basic security.  Villages would be organized for protection, requiring military forces on a limited basis, and gradually, they would be cleared of all insurgents or revolutionaries.  A police force would remain in the area as part of a “clear and hold” strategy.  Outlying villages or communities wold thus have been brought into greater contact with an expanded and modernized Vietnam, with the Saigon regime at its center.  (125)

The program was begun in Binh Duong province, which in early 1962 had considerable insurgent support, and, as Carter reports, “six weeks into the operation, only 7 percent of the people had been resettled, either by force or voluntarily.” (126)  A later report described the program as “mostly pure facade.”  The “Strategic Hamlets” program died when Diem was assassinated in 1963.  “In the countryside, peasants either destroyed the strategic hamlets or simply abandoned them.” (145)The total war of the mid-1960s piled catastrophic dislocation on top of regime failure, such that with “Vietnamization” came the impending end of the whole project.  As the insurgency developed, the US continued to militarize the development effort in Vietnam while remaining oblivious to the flaws in the Diem concept of a dictatorial, kleptocratic, and invented government.  Carter:

American officials expressed an eagerness to “get on with the war” (in 1961) and demanding reforms which were unpalatable to Diem only held up the implementation of the counterinsurgency plan’s military features that, as its advocates believed, could bring about the defeat of the insurgents. (119)

Eventually the plan for militarizing the Vietnamese countryside proved inappropriate to the sort of place southern Vietnam in fact was.  Carter:

While southern Vietnam’s military-related infrastructure, roads and bridges, ports and airfields became more or less modernized, the war destroyed hamlets, villages, and farmland, turned millions of peasants out as refugees, and generally disrupted the countryside in an overwhelmingly agrarian society. (205)

There wasn’t really any place in southern Vietnam for these people, as Carter points out.

ConclusionIn the end, as noted above, Vietnam became a developed, capitalist nation.  Its path to capitalism, however, appears to have taken it through the failure of an enormous developmental project intended to compete with “Communist” development and applied over only a portion of its total real estate.  For Noam Chomsky, the whole incident reveals an insidious desire on the part of Washington bureaucrats to create “development” in ways that could be controlled externally.  From the recent Alternet piece:

In the Vietnam case, the rational choice was to destroy any hope of successful independent development and to impose brutal dictatorships in the surrounding regions.  Those tasks were successfully carried out — though history has its own cunning, and something similar to what was feared has since been developing in East Asia, much to Washington’s dismay.

After reading this history, however, I don’t feel I can assign such monolithic intentions to US policy.  It appears to me, rather, that a case of hubris which I associate with the Golden Age of Capitalism morphed into a militaristic temper tantrum which appears to have continued indefinitely.  The invasion of Iraq was an invasion of a country which had already become fully industrialized, and the invasion of Afghanistan doesn’t appear to be terribly concerned with industrialization at all.  Rather, militarism continues out of the general need of military corporations to continue with capital accumulation.  There is no longer any Cold War rush to develop planet Earth in a way that will make the Commies look bad, just as there is no longer any race to put a man on the Moon or to wipe out poverty.  What’s left of the do-gooder impulse in the US government has become Rubinism, and its military equivalent, which became “humanitarian intervention” in association with the Clinton Doctrine.


The historians, then, appear to have picked the wrong debate.  Could the US have “won the war in Vietnam”?  It was all over before the shooting.  The shooting, in fact, was a distraction from the failure to build “South Vietnam,” just as shooting today is a distraction from the failure to build capitalist utopia on Earth.


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