Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War Review

Updated on October 22, 2018

In modern American popular culture there are two wars which still stand out in the public perception: the Second World War, and Vietnam. If the former is generally presented as a heroic triumph, the latter is one which continues to divide the United States about its war in this country, whether it was necessary, whether it was lost, if it was lost, then who lost it and how, and about the flaws and weaknesses it revealed in the United States and the global limits of its power. Similarly the war has attracted intense scholarly attention. But one thing which doesn't tend to enter the public consciousness in much degree is the (dimly known) French colonial war in Indochina, and the American intervention into the country more than 10 years later. What happened in this decade that created the conditions for the latter? It is this which is the focus of Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War, by Jessica Elkind, which focuses upon how the United States tried, and ultimately failed despite tremendous expenditure of resources, to utilize its assistance to develop South Vietnam and bring it to "modernity" via a concept of nation-building, which would enable it to bolster the South Vietnamese government, defeat internal rebels, strengthen it against North Vietnamese pressure, and make it into a stable and friendly ally of the US as an anti-communist bastion. Ultimately, none of this worked, and American aid was unable to resolve the contradictions and problems which plagued the South Vietnamese regime, dissolving under a deteriorating security environment which they could do little to change, and being unable to master changing conditions in the country and promote changes which matched their objectives.

Map of South Vietnam
Map of South Vietnam

The Introduction lays out that in Vietnam, the United States hoped in the 1950s to conduct a project of modernization and development which would secure South Vietnam as a friendly, stable, anti-communist ally, utilizing both governmental and non-governmental institutions to transform the country. Driven by a confidence in a linear approach to human societies, their hope was to transform underdeveloped societies that were assumed to be vulnerable to communist revolution, and as part of the American haunting of the spread of what they viewed as progress. This effort failed in Vietnam because it was not in alignment with the wishes of the Vietnamese people, with both the Government of South Vietnam being often in discord with American policy makers, and active resistance from the popular milieux occurring and indeed being inflamed by the development policies. In particular, the US vehicle for their influence, Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnamese dictator, despite his capabilities at forming ties to the US, only fanned the flames of conflict in South Vietnam. US participants themselves often ran into disagreement and conflict, and indeed in the end some came to reject the course of US policy that they themselves had carried out and military intervention - and it would be to American chagrin that they were ignored.

One of the most momentous events in early South Vietnamese history occurred with chapter 1, “‘The Virgin Mary is Going South’: Refugee Resettlement in South Vietnam”, which concerns the vast movement of people from North Vietnam to South Vietnam in response to the communist take over in the north. This was hailed as a success by the Americans, bringing nearly a million refugees south, and they believed that they would form an important support base for the regime and demonstrate its competence. Things were not as smooth in practice, as American and Vietnamese government administrations disagreed on various policies, tensions were inflamed due to the favoritism shown to refugees who were principally Catholic and thus appreciated by the Catholic-oriented regime, and various resettlement projects ran into problems. The United States proved ill capable of judging successful assimilation, and it projected the partial success it had - in moving refugees who were generally favorable to the regime - to the possibilities of the rest of nation building in Vietnam, providing a false optimism.

North Vietnamese refugees heading south
North Vietnamese refugees heading south

Chapter 2, ”Civil Servants and Cold Warriors: Technical Assistance in Public Administration”, shifts the focus to discussing the US attempts to improve both education of and practical conduct by Vietnamese administration, viewed as a vital objective to stabilizing the country. American instructors from Michigan State University (MSU) attempted to help the Vietnamese National Institute of Administration, but rapidly ran into profound differences in approaches to governance, education, relations to their Vietnamese counterparts, interference by the Vietnamese government, disputes with other Americans, and their own lack of familiarity with Vietnam, leading them to ultimately be rejected by the Vietnamese government and having been unable to make a significant difference. Projects for education in the country largely failed to make much of an impact, hamstrung by instability.

Chapter 3, “Sowing the Seeds of Discontent: American Agricultural-Development Programs in South Vietnam” covers one of the most important parts of the attempt to stabilize South Vietnam, resolving rural discontent and agricultural problems. The Americans hoped that through technical assistance they could modernize and develop the South Vietnamese countryside to improve the standard of living to prevent Communist influence, in effect instilling their own system. Results did not go so well in practice, as most Vietnamese farmers rejected their advice, were uninterested in American suggestions (sometimes for good reasons, as American methods were unsuited for their own needs and conditions), and were doubtful of Americans for their alliance with a disliked government. Such problems were further magnified in dealing with ethnic minorities who had to fear for the central government’s efforts to oppress them. Ultimately the Americans were unable, despite individual exceptions and the best intentions and valiant efforts of American agricultural aid workers, to see the flawed nature of their modernization paradigm which was unable to confront that the modernization doctrine they expounded was unable to confront the inherent structural problems occasioned by the distribution of land and the South Vietnamese government’s unpopularity. Furthermore, as much of the remainder of the chapter expounds, Americans were associated with the same foreign influence and colonialism that the French had exercised and the Vietnamese of all affiliations wished to escape, which imposed a hefty burden on American volunteers of suspicion. Growing instability in the countryside marked a final crippling blow against the American efforts.

Rice fields in Vietnam.
Rice fields in Vietnam.

Chapter 4. “Policing the Insurgency: Police Administration and Internal Security in South Vietnam” concerns the American attempts to bolster South Vietnamese law enforcement forces. 80% of American aid went to military and security matters, and they hoped that by modernizing and improving the South Vietnamese security forces, they would stabilize the South Vietnamese government. As elsewhere, problems emerged, such as with debates for or against more militarized police, re-organization, and how to manage a fingerprinting program - and the ID programs associated with the last had to be curtailed anyway with the deteriorating security situation around 1960. Both internally the Americans ran into severe relationship issues between competing ideas for Vietnamese police, and in their relationships to both Vietnamese leadership and Vietnamese people on the ground in their attempts to train them. Fundamentally, despite limited changes in some areas, they could never solve the inherent structural problem of the South Vietnamese government, its unpopularity, nor reckon with that South Vietnam’s government was constructed for an authoritarian regime under one man, not a democratic state like the Americans’ tried to build.

Chapter 5, “Teaching Loyalty: Educational Development and the Strategic Hamlet Program”, presents largely the same picture as previous chapters. The United States aimed to promote education in South Vietnam to develop and modernize the country, and to promote loyalty and confidence in the South Vietnamese government. They did achieve an expansion in the educational system and teaching. However, they also associated themselves intensively with the Agrovilles and the Strategic Hamlet Program, harsh policies to attempt to control peasants, and one which generated great hostility towards the Vietnamese government. In minority regions, they were incapable of understanding minority needs or winning their confidence. Thus, despite limited success, they only succeeded in further entrenching repressive policies which undermined their own objectives, and associating themselves with oppression in the country.

A fortified village in Vietnam
A fortified village in Vietnam

The conclusion; “Ears of Stone” links the American policy makers’ inability to listen to dissenting voices a long running trend in American foreign policy. Ultimately, the United States has made many of the mistakes it made in Vietnam again, and has used the same paradigms which resulted in disaster successively. It has not been due to a lack of conflicting evidence or experts, but rather a fundamental inability to listen.


Vietnam in the American consciousness is quite naturally mostly determined by the American military intervention in the conflict, so it is refreshing and intriguing to read about what led up to this intervention. In this, Aid under Fire does an excellent job of outlining what US strategy was, how it attempted to implement this in Vietnam, and why it failed. All of its sections are well supported, with an effective organizational style that lays out US projects, hopes, and why they did not succeed the way the Americans hoped.

Similarly positively, there are a diverse range of topics: stretching from police efforts, to government reform, to agricultural development, it seems to leave few stones un-turned about the way that the Americans attempted to transform Vietnam. In doing so it presents a broad picture, with a common theme running through the various efforts: that Americans did not understand Vietnam, they did not understand that their efforts were futile in light of the country's problems, and that when they failed, instead of adjusting, they intensified their projects and moved to an increasingly military response. In looking at the direct American involvement, in seeing the interplay between various American institutions, and in how the Americans conflicted with their ostensible allies, Aid under Fire does a masterful job and well proves its point.

There are flaws within the book. To start with, while inevitably the book was bound to be focused on America, and then following that the Vietnamese, this relationship alone leaves out critical other partners and comparisons. For one, comparative programs and nation-building efforts and why they succeeded, while Vietnam failed, receive too little attention. Even some brief comparisons with the success that was found in other countries such as Korea, Philippines, or Malaysia, while in Vietnam there was such a tremendous failure, would be useful. More importantly, the connection to other nations and their role in the Vietnamese aid process is neglected, which leaves asides the internationalization of the Vietnam war which is discussed near the beginning of the book.

One particular linkage in particular, is most sorely missed, which is that of the French colonial project. While Elkind draws upon this connection at several cases to explain why the Vietnamese were suspicious of the Americans, another white and Western nation which sought to control their destiny, how the Americans related to the French efforts at nation building - well, more colonial restructuring - and French institutions in Vietnam is lacking. It drives the American policy into being a brush applied on virgin soil, instead of providing for an understanding to previous Western projects to change and reshape Vietnam. Normally this is just something which can skew one’s impression and leave unturned crucial terrain, but it can contain more explicitly incorrect material as well. During the chapter on police, it states that there were a lack of tools for keeping track and controlling the population, this despite the French Sûreté générale indochinoise (French political intelligence service) having an infamous network of identification files upon a wide range of dissidents throughout the country and providing to be a tremendously effective and capable secret police during the Interwar years.

Finally, there could be clearer portrayals of what the US could have done instead: presumably this would have been to either not prop up the unpopular and despised South Vietnamese regime, or to not militarize the Vietnam conflict. While this theme is throughout the book, a more clear statement for it would be useful.

As a very convincing and well argued and researched book concerning the failure of American nation building projects in Vietnam, Aid under Fire is useful for a very wide range of scholars, policy makers, and the general public. It does much to flesh out the reasons for why the Vietnam war occurred, and how American style nation building ran into problems in Vietnam. The relationship between the Americans and the Vietnamese government and people is one which receives attention and is vital to understand what transpired. Fundamentally, many of the lessons from the book are ones which can still be applied today. For those interested in the Vietnam War, nation building exercises, Vietnamese history, international aid, and US foreign policy, the book is sure to be a highly useful one.

Questions & Answers


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      • Larry Slawson profile image

        Larry Slawson 

        9 months ago from North Carolina

        Sounds like a really good book. I've always found the Vietnam War to be fascinating. May have to give this book a shot in the near future.


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