Policing the Insurgency: American Aid Workers and Internal Security in South Vietnam, 195565

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM
Monroe Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Jessica B. Elkind, San Francisco State University
In the decade leading up to the Vietnam War, the United States provided an enormous amount of support to bolster and defend the nascent state in South Vietnam. Between 1955 and the early 1960s, eighty percent of U.S. aid money financed security projects in South Vietnam, and a significant portion of the remaining funds subsidized communications, transportation, or infrastructure programs that indirectly contributed to military or police efforts. American aid workers believed that they could help South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem consolidate power and increase public support for his government by improving security and introducing Western-style, democratic law enforcement organizations to the country.

However, civilian police advisors were unrealistic about Diem’s weaknesses, which derived from his autocratic and often brutal ruling style and his inability to overcome the general perception that his regime lacked legitimacy. They also underestimated the strength and nature of the growing antigovernment insurgency. Finally, they disregarded the fact that many of their suggestions bore little relevance to the actual political and military problems facing South Vietnam. The case of technical assistance in police administration presents one of the most striking examples of how U.S. nation-building efforts were divorced from reality and how the overtly political nature of the aid programs limited their effectiveness. As a result of their fundamental misunderstanding of the core problem facing Diem—the fact that most people did not support the basic aims of the government in Saigon—American advisors recommended reforms that proved inappropriate and insufficient in light of the vehement opposition to the government and American involvement. By the early 1960s, South Vietnamese officials had largely abandoned modernization efforts in the field of law enforcement in favor of a more confrontational, military response to the widespread insurrection.

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