Vietnam War

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Reconsidering US Marine Corps Involvement in the Vietnam War

by Lt Col EDWARD T. NEVGLOSKI, USMC

In the 50 years since US Marines first landed at Da Nang on the morning of 8 March 1965, the history of their involvement in the Vietnam War has been one of the most misunderstood and sometimes contentious topics in modern military history. In most cases historians assert that the Marines had neither a clear understanding of the conflict nor the American military strategy to contain the spread of Communism in South Vietnam. By extension, the Marines’ involvement from 1965 to 1968 is often depicted as a series of unplanned and isolated events, demonstrating a divide between the Marines’ long-term vision and operational approach and the overall American military strategy in Vietnam. This interpretation, whilst enduring, has come to obscure the centrality of the Marines’ approach to implementing American strategy.

The landings at Da Nang, exemplify this problem. Nearly every study on American military intervention in South Vietnam opens with the Marines seizing Red Beach just outside Da Nang before quickly moving inland. Historians describe the landing as a hastily organized operation, conducted with insufficient regard to broader strategic requirements. Mike Gravel’s Pentagon Papers is typical in this regard:

 The landing of the Marines at Da Nang … represented a major decision made without much fanfare – and without much planning. Whereas the decision to begin bombing North Vietnam was the product of a year’s discussion, debate, and a lot of paper, and whereas the consideration of pacification policies reached talmudic proportions over the years, this decision created less than a ripple.

Yet, whilst the insurgency around Da Nang had intensified only weeks before the landing, senior American military officials had already been decided to land Marines before circumstances created an impulse for immediate action. This can be seen in the numerous plans developed in the preceding months and years.The only difference between these plans and the actual landing were the political and security conditions prompting intervention and the degree of intervention required. Moreover, Da Nang was a key strategic location within the context of the broader campaign. The city was a principal beachhead and major entry and pivot point for American combat forces in the northern provinces. Its situation placed it second only to Saigon in terms of political and military significance and the city was also an economic hub and the epic-center of the insurgency in the country’s northern region. Yet, despite access to recently declassified operation plans and planning documents, historians have yet adequately to explore the tactical and operational logic behind landing Marines at Da Nang and the landing’s connection to the Marines’ plan to carrying out the American military strategy in the northern provinces.

A second example is the misinterpretation presented by historians regarding the decision to assign the responsibility of containing Communism and defeating Communist forces in the northern provinces to the Marines. It of charged that the imminent threat of invasion posed by several North Vietnamese Army (NVA) divisions monitoring the NLF’s progress from just across the demilitarized zone in North Vietnam created a need for a larger and more conventional US Army force, instead of Marines, to deter the NVA. However, the geography of the northern provinces was more suited for a lighter and more agile amphibious force, a fact keenly appreciated by senior commanders. Thus, far from the Marines’ naturally assuming responsibility for the northern provinces after the Da Nang landing because there was already a small Marine advisory presence there, the northern provinces were always the intended area of operations for the Marines even before they moved into that area in 1962. Here, again, the Corps’ actions supported overall US military strategy.

A third and even more disconcerting misinterpretation is that of the Marines’ operational approach after the Da Nang landing and commitment to the northern provinces. Their plan from the very start consisted of a gradual and deliberate build-up of air, ground, and logistics forces, first along the coast within the beachheads or “amphibious enclaves” and then into the interior. The movement into the interior consisted of a methodical expansion of the beachheads. The Communists’ reaction, the progress of pacification, and the reliability of intelligence dictated the speed in which the expansion occurred. Their operational approach focused on each aspect of the operational environment the Marines expected to confront in the northern provinces.

Not long after landing at Da Nang, the Marines began a firsthand study of the operational environment to validate their original assessment and to address their immediate tactical and operational concerns. These studies validated the initial plan. However, the operational environment created new tensions. The array of Communist forces, and more precisely the NVA positioned within striking distance of the northern provinces compelled the Marines to keep in mind the potential for general, or big unit war, even though the environment suggested a limited war. Any plan to win the trust of the people and defeat the insurgency obviously had to include aggressive small unit actions and a pacifying methodology simply due to the operational environment. Nevertheless, after winning the trust of the people, what were the Marines to do about the well-organized and equipped insurgent main forces and the NVA? Defeating both required a larger general purpose force capable of waging a big unit war more in common with general war. The Marines devised a “balanced” operational approach to expanding their beachheads and deliberately deployed air and ground forces to not only meet any potential threat, they did so to aggressively and purposely engage all threats.

These conflicting requirements are not acknowledged or fully understood in the existing scholarship. As Neil Sheehan has claimed:

There was a school of pacification strategists within the upper ranks of the Marine Corps because of its institutional history. The decades of pre-World War II pacifying in Central America and the Caribbean, codified in the Corps’ Small Wars Manual, were a strategic precedent which ruled that wars like Vietnam were wars of pacification. The Marines had adopted an approach that emphasized pacification over big unit battles.

Sheehan’s perspective on the Marines’ approach is misleading and inaccurate. The Marines, clearly influenced by their history, organizational thinking, and doctrine deliberately designed a flexible approach to carry out small unit actions against insurgents and to implement pacification programs for the people while at the same time recognizing the conventional threat presented by the NVA and as outlined in military plans. To cope with the multiple threats and complexities presented by the operational environment of the northern provinces the Marines knowingly incorporated big unit war in their approach to take on the larger and more capable NLF and NVA formations. Their approach required a deep appreciation of the American military strategy for South Vietnam, the operational environment, and a sensible application of all aspects of military power. Countless studies on the war suggest the Marines’ own misunderstanding of the conflict and the operational environment and their lack of an appreciation for the operational art of war and military strategy led them to design an incompatible and fragmented approach centered on a limited defensive strategy when, in fact they envisioned the need for big unit war.

The historiography of the Vietnam War thus mischaracterize the Marine Corps involvement in the northern provinces. Adding to the confusion is the Marine Corps’ own official history, which fails to place the Da Nang landing in its proper context, explain why the Marines were in the northern provinces, and even argues that although the Marines did indeed engage in big unit war; they did so only as a second thought and after ordered to against their better tactical judgement. While a correlation can be made between these misunderstandings and limited access to sensitive and classified documents and official reports, this nonetheless calls into question the full body of literature responsible for enabling the decades of unchallenged assumptions and imprecise conclusions plaguing our understanding of the war. Why Da Nang? Why Marines? Why the northern provinces? Why did the Marines fight as they did in the northern provinces? Until historians accurately depict the Marines’ involvement, the confusion and misunderstandings will persist.

About the Author: LtCol Nevgloski, assigned as the operations officer of The Basic School School, Quantico, VA, is completing his doctoral thesis on the US Marine Corps planning for Vietnam in the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

Image: Marines from Battalion Landing Team 3/9 coming ashore at RED Beach 2 northwest of Da Nang on 8 March 1965, via Wikipedia.

The strain of battle for Dong Xoai is shown on the face of U.S. Army Sgt. Philip Fink, an advisor to the 52nd Vietnamese Ranger battalion, shown June 12, 1965. The unit bore the brunt of recapturing the jungle outpost from the Viet Cong. (AP Photo/Steve Stibbens)

War Stories

by DR KEN PAYNE

The Vietnam war is quite a story. And it’s a story rich with irony: the dramatic irony of unintended consequences and flawed heroes. That makes it hard, perhaps impossible, for modern artists to say much new about conflict, and explains why that war continues to resonate a half century after the US intervened there in numbers.
I take up the story in my new book, where I argue that stories of war continue to resonate, even though in the modern, liberal world almost all of us are spared the violence. Why? And why this war in particular?
 
We love stories, because we are conscious and unconscious seekers of meaning. Abraham Maslow put the attainment of meaning at the top of his hierarchy of human needs, and Victor Frankl built a psychological theory of meaning based on his time in Auschwitz – those who survived, he argued, had found meaning in their lives, even amidst the horror of a concentration camp.
 
This search for meaning is an inescapable part of human cognition. We are essentially pattern recognisers and categorisers par excellence. At a neuronal level, that’s all there is – cognitive networks forming and connections strengthening on the basis of pattern recognition. If this, then that: the simplest of stories. At the conscious level, we build stories about the world and our place within it; to help us understand social networks and relationships. When we don’t understand our feelings, we sometimes use talking therapies to construct a meaningful narrative – it doesn’t matter if the narrative is true, just that it’s satisfying. 
 
Many of the stories we tell are about status and esteem – our own, and that of our referent groups. We are acutely concerned with status, for sound evolutionary reasons. What others think of us is perhaps the most vital of human questions, on which rests our very survival. Hence the ‘gossip’ theory of language – most of the information we exchange is socially important, and concerns status.
 
And hence too Terror Management Theory – which holds that our group identity becomes more prominent when death becomes salient. After all, the theory says, what’s the point of this absurd life if there’s not a larger meaning to be found in the onward march of our group, our culture, even after we ourselves are gone? And experimentally, it works: if I make your death loom large in your imagination, I can detect shifts in your attitude:  more tolerant of in-group members, more biased against outsiders. 
 
War, of course, makes death loom large. And war stories are a staple of recorded history, providing a clear sense of identity, of us versus them, and of culture as a repository of shared meaning – something worth fighting, and dying for. The central actor is the hero warrior, for whom war is an existential experience, providing meaning and identity above and beyond the group on whose behalf he fights. Hence Yeats’ Irish airman who declares ‘Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love’.
 
For me, the Vietnam war marked a turning point – at which these timeless war stories and their heroes became self-aware and ironic.  A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo’s memoir of his time as a Marine Corps officer, ranks amongst the finest works from that conflict. That’s in part because of his knowingness about war as a story infused with irony. Caputo writes of the ‘battle singer’ of old, who ‘sang verses around the warriors’ guttering fires to wring order and meaning out of the chaotic clash of arms, [and] to keep the tribe human by providing it with models of virtuous behavior’.  But for Caputo, there was a problem with the Vietnam war:
 
The battle singer’s task was the same. The nature of war made it exceptionally difficult: how to find meaning in such a meaningless conflict? How to make sense out of a succession of random firefights that achieved nothing? How to explain our failings? And what heroes could be found in a war so murky and savage?
 
In fact, Caputo found some heroes, including a comrade who sacrificed his life for his soldiers. But the larger problem remained: a doomed cause, in which virtuous intentions ran awry amidst a sordid, corrupting violence. Caputo himself is implicated for a time, facing criminal charges for failing to check a murderous rampage by his men through a Vietnamese village. 
 
Vietnam gives us two of the great anti-heroes of modern art: Conrad’s Kurtz, reimagined as a sinister and corrupted colonel operating alone upriver in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Greene’s earnest naïf Alden Pyle, whose desire to transform Vietnam contrasts with the mature, cynical knowingness of his English friend. The novels and many lesser works like them are steeped in knowingness about the limits of action and intention, and the tragedy of actors undone by their own flaws.
 
The war is impossible to escape for modern artists, sometimes explicitly so. Anthony Swofford opens Jarhead, his memoir of the first Gulf War, with his unit of Marines killing time in Kuwait ahead of the action:
 
we get off on the various visions of carnage and violence and deceit, the raping and killing and pillaging. We concentrate on the Vietnam films because it’s the most recent war, and the successes and failures of that war helped write our training manuals. […] We watch again the ragged, burnt out fighters walking through the villes and the pretty native women smiling because if they don’t smile, the fighters might kill their pigs or burn their cache of rice.
 
There’s more irony here, as the jaded knowingness of Coppola’s masterpiece is totally ignored by a new generation of eager young marines. . ‘I bet more Marines have joined the Corps because of Full Metal Jacket than any fucking recruiting commercial’, one Iraq war veteran tells another in Redeployment, Phil Klay’s brilliant collection of short stories about the recent Iraq war‘And that’s an anti-war film,’ the other replies. ‘Nothing’s an anti-war film’.
 
Evan Wright’s Generation Kill typifies the issue. For all its merit and undoubted authenticity, it doesn’t say much new about either heroism or the irony of war. Except perhaps in being knowing about its very knowingness. As a Huey passes overhead, one of the Marines near Wright ‘starts singing Credence Clearwater Revival song. A Vietnam anthem. And then he stops abruptly. “This war will need its own theme music”’.
 
The only way ahead has been to return to the smallest level possible – the hero within the small group of comrades, apolitical and divorced altogether from the wider meaning of the conflict. Thus we have in The Hurt Locker and Kajaki two of the great modern war films – thrilling, yet also deeply conservative and traditional in their narrow view of the brave warrior sacrificing for comrades and finding meaning in the small group, not the wider societal struggle. These are war stories of a more straightforward, old fashioned kind – unbearably tense, certainly,  but somehow less troubling.

Image: Vietnam US Troops, Dong Xoai 1965, courtesy of flickr.

President Nixon meeting with Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office. October 8, 1973

Nixon the Nation-Builder? Strategic Understanding in the Vietnam War

DR ANDREW GAWTHORPE

A new book from Evan Thomas reminds us – as if we needed it – of the peculiarities of President Richard Nixon. Brilliant, reclusive, and disturbed, Nixon ought to defy caricature even though he has often been the subject of it. His foreign policy partnership with Henry Kissinger reflected this. By marginalizing groups which traditionally held greater sway over American foreign policy – like the regular State Department and Pentagon bureaucracies – and concentrating decision-making power in their own hands, Nixon and Kissinger created a system that reflected their own highest qualities and most glaring defects.

I had a chance to see this system in action when I delved into the records of the Nixon White House while researching a book on the history of U.S. nation-building efforts during the Vietnam War. Most of what has been written about the administration’s Vietnam War policy focuses on its search for a negotiated settlement, its military moves in Laos and Cambodia, and its build-up of the South Vietnamese armed forces. I instead tapped a rich vein of documents dealing with the administration’s policy towards and understanding of the granular detail of the ground war and nation-building effort in South Vietnam.

They made surprising reading. Like the Johnson administration, Nixon and Kissinger were concerned with the vitality of the non-Communist Government of Vietnam (GVN). As U.S. forces were steadily withdrawn from the country, the GVN needed to be strong enough to maintain control of the people and resources of South Vietnam and contain the Vietnamese Communist movement. Much like during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. aimed to foster the emergence of local proxies who would continue to see that it’s war aims were achieved even after the withdrawal of outside forces.

This general concern with nation-building was hence predictable. But what was surprising was the sophisticated understanding of the process, and especially of its limitations, which White House documents displayed. Disturbed by the informal policymaking processes of the Johnson administration, to which he had served as a consultant, Kissinger set about constructing an analytical apparatus which would give himself and the president a true picture of the ebb and flow of the ground war in South Vietnam.

The result was the Vietnam Special Studies Group (VSSG). Kissinger, who had spent years listening to rosy reports about the war under the Johnson administration and then seeing them proven wrong, was sceptical of analysis about the progress of the war from the field. Instead, he felt that strategic-level decision-makers needed their own sources of analysis. In this spirit, and staffed by the sort of “systems analysts” to whom Robert McNamara’s tenure at the Pentagon had given a bad name, the VSSG was tasked with assessing the prospects for the GVN winning what Kissinger called “the control war”.

The control war was the struggle not to militarily defeat the Vietnamese Communist movement, but rather to bring the people of South Vietnam under the control of the GVN and eject Communist shadow governments. Previously, the mere absence of violence in an area had been taken as evidence it was free of Communist activity. The analysts at the VSSG believed this had given a mistaken impression of the strength of the GVN, as apparent security did not preclude the existence of a shadow government engaged in recruiting, terrorism, and political organization. The prevalence of this underground infrastructure had become clear during the Tet Offensive, which struck at a time when – according to the Johnson administration’s metrics – the countryside was more secure than ever.

By staring hard facts such as this in the face, the VSSG reached a remarkably accurate and prescient picture of the state of the war. It warned that GVN control of the population of South Vietnam was much lower than had been imagined. It also pointed out that the most significant factor in bringing about control gains was the presence of U.S. forces – the exact same forces that were being withdrawn. The analysts warned that the GVN did not have the ability to substitute its own assets for these U.S. forces, and so pointed out that GVN control was likely to decrease and not increase as time went on. Finally, the group was at pains to point out the rising risk of an exogenous shock such as the Tet Offensive – exactly the sort of shock which struck South Vietnam with the 1972 and 1975 offensives, the first robbing the GVN of a great degree of territorial control and the second of the entire country.

The quality and integrity of the VSSG’s analysis stuck out for me in comparison to the Johnson administration’s wishful thinking. Kissinger and Nixon kept abreast of the group’s reports and were the wiser for it.

But the VSSG also stands as a reminder that, as Chris Tripodi has recently reminded us, we ought not to place too much faith in “understanding”. Strategic-level decision-makers ought to have the best and most honest analysis available to them, but it is naive to expect that this alone will lead to successful policy outcomes. Ultimately, information is what you make of it. Having inherited a strategy which required a strengthened GVN to be successful, Kissinger and Nixon remained wedded to this goal despite their pessimism over it ever being achieved. The alternative – to have abandoned the GVN, and hence their war aims, unilaterally – seemed to them unthinkable.

Still, this research ought to stand as a corrective to those who still think that all U.S. policymakers were blindly naive and optimistic about the Vietnam War, or completely ignorant of the true state of the political situation in South Vietnam. The truth is more complex, and more disturbing: they knew, but they carried on regardless.

Image: U.S. President Richard Nixon (left) and Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, at the White House. From the booklet “President Nixon and the Role of Intelligence in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War” courtesy of the CIA.

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Behavioural Strategy: Exploring the Psychology of Strategy

by DR KENNETH PAYNE

Behavioural economics is all the rage these days. Thanks in large part to the Nobel prize winning research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, economics has discovered some powerful insights about how humans really behave when it comes to making life choices. That is really behave, as opposed to the dominant approach hitherto, which was to assume that we were all rational, or, rather, that at least, on aggregate we would approximate to rational actors.

There are important practical implications. Richard Thaler and other economists offer the powerful insight that policymakers can shape social behaviours advantageously with a little help from psychology.  So now, Downing Street has a ‘nudge’ unit, dedicated to designing interventions that might push us in a particular direction, while still leaving us essentially free to decide.

By contrast, the policy relevance of International Relations rests on shakier foundations. There’s sometimes bemusement among military officers about the relevance of academic work in IR – what is a policymaker supposed to do with the arcane, jargon heavy writing of contemporary theorists? Behavioural economics demonstrates convincingly that the academy can meaningfully inform policy, armed with less jargon and more empirical support. And with that in mind, perhaps it’s time for some of this psychology to make its way into strategic studies.

In fact, it’s already here, and has been since Clausewitz, who understood well that strategy was a thoroughly psychological affair, and contributed some enduring ideas about how that would play out, despite the inevitable limitations he faced given the immature nature of psychology at the time. Behavioural strategic studies has moved on since then. As a minority pursuit in the IR departments of the day, it lived on as political psychology, spawning influential ideas about the importance of Groupthink in producing suboptimal decision-making, or about the propensity of policymakers to think analogically.

We need more of this. The lesson of the last half-century or so in IR is that rational actor approaches won’t cut it. Take a rather important example: The game theory that US strategists sought to apply to the real world of nuclear deterrence didn’t turn out well in practice. On paper, it looked as though one might realistically fight a counterforce war against another rational opponent, with both sides gauging their adversary’s resolve and calculating how much escalation would bring victory. Happily, when real Cold War crises arrived, in Berlin, Cuba, Vietnam and elsewhere, there was little appetite to put the theory into practice. Limited war yes; limited nuclear war, no.

And so the Vietnam war can be readily seen, as I do in my new book, as a case of rational actor theories in practice. Defense Secretary McNamara and his ‘whiz kids’ saw war as a bargaining process – a special type of violent conversation. If they could carefully calibrate the level of force being applied, then their rational adversary would back down, realizing that refusing to do so would only bring further escalation. The enemy, of course, didn’t see things that way. Later Nixon swung the other way, unveiling his ‘madman’ theory of strategic behavior, whereby the enemy would be caught off guard by a sudden, unhinged escalation of violence, in contrast to the gradualist approach of his predecessor. It was Herman Kahn’s theory of ‘escalation dominance’ applied to conventional warfare. This was a departure from rationalism in some respects – Nixon’s aim was to persuade the Communists that he was unpredictable. But he still expected them to respond rationally to the threat of dramatic escalation.

The essential problem was that real world statesman weren’t rational, at least in the sense meant by those who like to model things mathematically. They weren’t mad either, for the most part – even Nixon. Instead, theirs was an altogether human rationality – one informed by emotions, by limited attention, patchy, biased memories, and the pressures of time. And so the Americans were committed to sunk costs that they wouldn’t walk away from, constrained by their collective view of the sort of conflict they were in, prone to reductive stereotypes about their adversary and his motivations, and overly optimistic about their capacity to influence events.

For social science theorists of whatever stripe, the challenge is to find something general – a pattern, or even a tendency (let’s not be too ambitious) that can allow us to discern broader meaning in strategic behavior, away from the particular events of history. The rational actor model isn’t it, either in economics or IR. But psychology, in its various guises, provides a way of doing that. Social psychologists have long studied the effects of the group on attitudes and behaviours. Evolutionary psychologists can tell us something important about our proclivities for violence, and also for cooperation. And cognitive psychologists, via their experiments, can tell us something about the sort of biases we are subject to when making decisions: Our overconfidence and sense of agency, our refusal to consider non-confirmatory information, our flawed weighting of risk, exaggerating low probability events, and our tendency to gamble more when we think we are losing. There is plenty of work underway – including from colleagues at KCL, and more to come. Behavioural strategy is in vogue. But in truth, we don’t really need the ‘behavioural’ bit. Strategy, dynamic, complex and uncertain, is, just as Clausewitz saw it, inherently psychological.

John_Paul_Vann_and_his_staff_at_their_Pleiku_headquarters

Nation-Building: A Forgotten Aspect of the Vietnam War

by MR ANDREW GAWTHORPE

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.

Image: John Paul Vann, head of the CORDS programme in the IV Corps area, and his staff at their Pleiku headquarters in 1968.  PD-USGOV-MILITARY-ARMY-USACMH