“As I Recall the Many Tortures”: Michigan State University, Phoenix, and the Making of a Police State in South Vietnam

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom A (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Jeremy Kuzmarov, University of Tulsa
On April 19, 1965, a 17-year-old suicide bomber walked into the Dalat Flower night-club seeking to emulate VC “heroes” who gave their lives for the anti-imperialist cause, including Nguyen Van Troi, a legendary guerrilla executed after attempting to assassinate Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. The teenager detonated a bomb that killed thirteen people and injured 42. A brief suicide note condemned the war and Vietnamese who collaborated with the United States. The greatest tragedy, he wrote, was that “U.S. imperialism had made Vietnamese kill Vietnamese.” The young suicide bomber may very well have had the American police training programs in mind when writing his final words. Modeled after previous operations in Japan and South Korea, advisers from Michigan State University and the USAID trained thousands of South Vietnamese police in riot control and counter-insurgency, contributing to extensive human rights violations. Drawing on research at the National Archives, Eisenhower and Kennedy presidential library and Michigan State University archives, this paper will give an overview of the police programs in South Vietnam, showing their centrality to larger foreign policy objectives and counter-insurgency strategy and their link to political repression. In importing new technologies and western policing standards, police advisers felt that they were helping to create a modern administrative state capable of controlling its population efficiently and fighting communism. In practice, they helped to modernize repression by providing the mechanisms by which state security forces could coordinate their activities more systematically and on a wider scale in the service of an authoritarian regime. Worst of all, as the suicide bomber recognized, American training programs helped to stoke civil conflict and violence and turned Vietnamese against each other in a manner by which the country would be forever transformed.
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