Nation-Building in a Time of War: Revisiting Vietnam

April 15, 2019
USMC hospital vietnam

Andrew J. Gawthorpe To Build as Well as Destroy: American Nation-building in South Vietnam (Cornell University Press, 2018)

From its occupation of the Philippines following the Spanish-American war to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has had a long and checkered history of nation-building. Some of these efforts have been successful. Others have not. American intervention into the war in Vietnam is perhaps the most glaring example of the latter. Across 20 years and four different presidential administrations, the U.S. military and a host of government agencies and civilian institutions worked closely with the South Vietnamese government to achieve a single grand strategic goal: the construction of a viable, independent, non-communist state south of the 17th parallel. Clearly, this objective was not achieved. Although American military and economic intervention helped preserve the Republic of Vietnam for almost two decades, the collapse of the Saigon regime and its armed forces under the weight of Hanoi’s conventional military coup de main in the spring of 1975 — a mere two years after American forces had departed — constituted a failure of U.S. nation-building.

In his book To Build as Well as Destroy: American Nation-building in South Vietnam, Andrew J. Gawthorpe assesses America’s largest and most futile attempt to help a foreign nation develop the political, economic, and military institutions and practices necessary for its survival. Gawthorpe’s analysis traces U.S. nation-building efforts from the Ngo Dinh Diem era to the 1972 Easter Offensive. His primary focus, however, is on the development and implementation of the “village system” under the auspices of Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS).

CORDS was a hybrid political-military agency established by the United States in 1967 to unify and coordinate nation-building efforts under a single manager. Its purpose was to help the Republic of Vietnam develop its domestic institutions and build a base of popular support among the rural population. Executed jointly by both countries, CORDS policies and programs focused on raising and developing local security forces, fostering economic development, reforming village politics, and eliminating the communist insurgency’s political infrastructure. The aim was to extend the Saigon regime’s administrative reach into the countryside, address the political and socioeconomic grievances that fueled insurgency, and win the allegiance of the peasantry.

The village system was a localized approach to nation-building put in place after the 1968 Tet Offensive. It used a bottom-up rather than top-down method centered on three distinct yet interrelated local initiatives: self-government, self-defense, and self-development. The overall goal was to mobilize the rural population in the fight against communist insurgency by creating village militias, reforming village government, and implementing a host of local socioeconomic programs. The village system, Gawthorpe argues, was meant to generate a “participative experience of self-rule for villagers.” Granting the rural population agency and empowering peasants to take control of their own destinies, it was believed, would initiate meaningful socioeconomic change, provide a sense of purpose, build political community, and assemble a base of popular support for Saigon. American and South Vietnamese nation builders hoped the village system would emulate the National Liberation Front’s success in building grassroots support for the revolution and gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the peasantry. Thus, it was more akin to Vladimir Lenin’s method of political mobilization than to Walt Rostow’s theory of modernization.

Gawthrope delivers a stinging indictment of allied efforts in South Vietnam. U.S. nation-building, he concludes, was a “dramatic failure” because it did not attain the primary objectives CORDS and the village system set out to achieve. The Republic of Vietnam never developed effective administration at the grassroots level. Nor was it able to garner popular support or political legitimacy among the rural masses. Self-government, self-defense, and self-development were never realized.

The village system failed for several reasons. The Saigon regime was riven with corruption and incompetence. It also refused to initiate true reform or relinquish centralized power because it did not trust the rural peasantry and did not understand their needs and desires. The American effort was beset by weaknesses as well. U.S. advisors and CORDS personnel were largely ignorant of Vietnam’s people, language, and culture. In addition, they were reluctant to push the Saigon regime to reform itself or prod South Vietnamese officials to act more forcefully for fear it would undermine Saigon’s autonomy and validate communist claims that it was an illegitimate American “puppet.” This combination of ignorance and reluctance hindered rather than helped the situation not only because it failed to bring about the type of wholesale reform of the Republic of Vietnam necessary for the village system to succeed but also because it produced friction between American advisors and their South Vietnamese counterparts. Allied efforts to create zones of security and extend Saigon’s physical control over populated areas (the primary thrust of U.S. and South Vietnamese efforts during the Johnson and Nixon administrations) further weakened nation-building efforts. This approach, Gawthorpe argues, merely restored the political and socioeconomic order that existed under the French and Diem. It did nothing to address the underlying social and economic dynamics that generated popular support for the communist insurgency. Moreover, it tarnished Saigon’s image and undermined its quest for legitimacy in rural areas.

Gawthorpe concludes that American nation-building failed in South Vietnam because the village system did not achieve its purpose. The Republic of Vietnam –– and by extension the United States –– lost the war. The systemic weaknesses of CORDS and the village system proved fatal in the end because without administrative effectiveness or political legitimacy in the villages there was no way the Saigon regime could organize an effective resistance against communist efforts to conquer South Vietnam. Although there was some progress in the years immediately following the Tet Offensive, particularly in expanding government control and bringing greater security to rural areas, these gains were ephemeral and unable to address the root causes of communist insurgency. Moreover, he contends, they were largely the result of communist inaction rather than allied accomplishment. In the end, CORDS and the village system simply could not build the institutions or support necessary for the Republic of Vietnam to survive.

Gawthorpe’s scholarship is excellent, and he gets much right concerning the pitfalls and shortcomings of allied nation-building efforts at the local level. However, he does not adequately link the failure of nation-building in the villages to the collapse of the Saigon regime and its armed forces in the spring of 1975. Many of the arguments in To Build as Well as Destroy could have been strengthened considerably had Gawthorpe situated the village system within larger analytical frameworks –– strategic, operational, diplomatic, social, economic, and political. Instead, allied efforts in the villages are treated as if they occurred in a vacuum. It is important for those of us who seek to understand this war and perhaps draw lessons from it to understand key variables and contexts that were critical to the failure of nation-building in South Vietnam but which are largely missing from Gawthorpe’s account.

Military Strategy

Strategy played a significant role in the allies’ failure to preserve South Vietnam. The military strategy put in place by the United States and the Republic of Vietnam, with minor exception, paired a strategic defense with an operational offense. Aside from the limited cross-border incursions into Cambodia and Laos in 1970 and 1971, the allied ground war was fought within the confines of South Vietnam’s national borders and meant to achieve a negative goal. The aim of American and South Vietnamese combat forces was to exorcise the communist presence by killing or driving guerrilla and main force units out of South Vietnam. They never conducted persistent cross-border ground attacks against communist base areas in Cambodia and Laos. Nor did they ever launch a ground attack into North Vietnam. This ceded the strategic initiative to Hanoi. Moreover, it circumscribed allied operations and allowed the communists to use these areas as safe havens to rest and refit units and as springboards to launch attacks into the Republic of Vietnam. The strategic limitations placed on allied ground forces also allowed the communists to maintain the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a vital strategic pipeline that kept the southern insurgency alive by funneling men and material from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. These strategic limitations allowed the communists to undermine nation-building efforts by maintaining constant military, paramilitary, and political pressure on the village system. Communist strategy also played a significant role. Hanoi and the National Liberation Front implemented an aggressive, complex, and flexible offensive method that fused mass politics, guerrilla warfare, and conventional military operations. This hybrid political-military approach was tailored to meet specific and often shifting local and regional circumstances. The goal was to gain increasing control of South Vietnam’s population and territory and eventually overthrow the Saigon regime through the gradual attrition of government control over the state. This spatial strategy paid dividends in 1975.

Main-Force Warfare and Territorial Security

The success or failure of nation-building was utterly dependent on the outcome of the main-force war and conventional combat actions against communist forces. Inside South Vietnam, the primary objective of allied operations, both conventional and paramilitary, was to create a safe environment so that nation-building could progress in rural areas. Political reform and socioeconomic development simply could not proceed in the villages unless communist guerrillas and main forces were killed or driven away –– and kept away –– through search-and-destroy, clear-and-hold, and other offensive operations. Territorial security was an indispensable prerequisite for the village system’s success. Yet true territorial security was never achieved, even after 1968, when the Saigon regime and American combat forces had expanded peak levels of control over rural areas. Although communist guerrillas and main forces had withered under the crushing blows of allied combat operations, they were never destroyed or reduced to the point of obsolescence. Moreover, a constellation of insurgent controlled villages, communist base areas, and enemy war zones inside South Vietnam also survived, despite concerted efforts to eliminate them. The ubiquity of insurgent forces and communist zones of control severely weakened Saigon’s strategic position by stretching Saigon’s armed forces dangerously thin over a wide geographic front. This left South Vietnam’s populated areas highly susceptible to communist attack and subversion. By 1974, the South Vietnamese military was dangerously overextended in the static defense of key strategic regions. There was simply too much territory to defend and too few resources to do so effectively. When Hanoi launched its final offensive of the war, South Vietnamese units were unable to offer effective resistance. The inability to neutralize the communist military presence or provide adequate territorial security in South Vietnam was a nail in the coffin for nation-building.


One of the key factors that helped Hanoi defeat South Vietnam’s armed forces and topple the Saigon regime in the spring of 1975 was the Nixon administration’s inability to negotiate the withdrawal of nearly 200,000 North Vietnamese Army regulars from South Vietnam following the 1972 Easter Offensive. Although the Army of Vietnam had –– with the assistance of American airpower –– neutralized the 1972 communist offensive, Hanoi had managed to hold on to portions of South Vietnam’s northernmost provinces along the Laotian border. They then transformed this region into a logistical springboard for future offensives. Unable to remove North Vietnamese units either by force or negotiations, Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, accepted it as a fait accompli and then bludgeoned South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu into allowing more than a dozen North Vietnamese divisions to remain inside South Vietnam as part of a negotiated settlement with Hanoi in January 1973. Two years after the Paris Peace Accords were signed and the Americans had gone home, the North Vietnamese Army launched a large-scale conventional offensive from the areas they occupied as a result of the Easter Offensive. Within a matter of weeks, they had crushed all resistance and toppled the South Vietnamese regime. Thus, diplomacy (or in this case its failure) helped relegate the village system and allied nation-building efforts to the dustbin of history.



The Negative Impact of Incessant War and American Withdrawal

Thirty years of conflict, along with Washington’s decision to de-Americanize the war in the wake of the 1968 Tet Offensive, placed a tremendous burden on the Republic of Vietnam and its people. In the years following the Paris Peace Accords and American withdrawal, South Vietnam’s civilian population had become more and more war weary and apathetic. The national economy, which was never strong to begin with, became increasingly dysfunctional as well. Although the agricultural sector continued to thrive, South Vietnam’s overall economic situation deteriorated largely because of sustained military activity and the costs of maintaining an enormous defense establishment that exceeded a million men. The Americans were gone, and the communists continued their efforts to topple the Saigon regime through force. Thus, Saigon had no choice but to maintain a large and ultimately exhausting garrison state. The need to sustain a robust defense posture consumed a significant portion of the nation’s resources –– manpower and material that otherwise could have been used for economic development. By 1974, wartime conditions and reduced American aid had stymied economic growth and brought rampant inflation and chronic unemployment. The South Vietnamese military was among the hardest hit. Underpaid and anxious about the welfare of their families, soldiers –– who were themselves suffering from the economic malaise –– were hobbled by low morale, high desertion rates, and diminishing combat proficiency. When, for political reasons, Washington decided to dramatically cut aid to Saigon after Nixon had resigned from office as a result of the Watergate scandal, the bottom fell out of the tub. South Vietnam’s leadership, its population, and its armed forces could no longer weather the severe social, economic, and military storms that battered the Republic of Vietnam.

The Communists

Hanoi and the National Liberation Front also played a central role in the failure of nation-building. The decision of whether an independent, viable, non-communist state could be achieved in South Vietnam was not exclusively in the hands of Saigon and the United States. Communist revolutionaries from the Politburo down to the village level had a role to play too. And in the end, it was Hanoi’s revolutionary warfare strategy, along with the tenacity and unrelenting determination its political leaders and its military rank-and-file, that brought ruin to South Vietnamese and American nation-building efforts.

What Explains Defeat?

The primary arguments advanced in To Build as Well as Destroy fall into what can be called the “hearts and minds” school. That is, the belief that the South Vietnamese regime had collapsed because they did not possess what the communists had: a blueprint for social and political mobility and genuine national independence, the mantle of “true” Vietnamese nationalism, and a winning political philosophy and method that resonated strongly with the hopes and aspirations of South Vietnam’s rural population. This interpretation and the general belief that political legitimacy and popular support were the keys to victory in South Vietnam are in many ways inaccurate. It is true that the Saigon regime was plagued by corruption and incompetence and that the village system failed to develop effective local administration, provide the people with a unifying or compelling political vision, or gain legitimacy among the rural masses. It is also true that the communist revolution possessed a vitality and vision that maintained a degree of enthusiasm among South Vietnam’s rural population. However, these things were largely unrelated to the war’s outcome. Contrary to popular conceptions, the crux of the war in rural South Vietnam was not winning hearts and minds or gaining the love and affection of the rural peasantry. Rather, it was the ability (or inability) to establish and maintain control over population and territory –– largely through violence, force, and coercion –– that shaped the arc and outcome of the war. Control was the more pressing and relevant objective of both sides throughout the conflict. Moreover, it was the test of arms and dominion over territory and population, not popular support or political legitimacy, that shaped the trajectory of the war and brought allied defeat in April 1975.

What American efforts in Vietnam shows us is that nation-building in a time of war is an improbable if not impossible task. Thus, To Build as Well as Destroy is a useful cautionary tale. Gawthorpe is correct when he asserts the failure to preserve an independent, viable, non-communist nation in Indochina should be a “humbling and sobering” lesson for contemporary would-be nation builders. However, this is not because allied efforts to build effective administration and win popular support in the countryside were imperfect. Nor was it because the communist revolution provided a vision of the future that was more resonant or appealing to the rural masses than the Republic of Vietnam. It was because success or failure hinged on a host of contingent factors largely outside the control of allied nation builders. This is the true lesson of America’s failed nation-building venture in South Vietnam.



Martin G. Clemis is assistant professor of history and government at Valley Forge Military College (VFMC) and assistant director of research at the H.R. McMaster Center for Security Studies at VFMC. He is also a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University, Camden. Clemis is the author of The Control War: The Struggle for South Vietnam, 1968-1975 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018). He is also a contributing author in Beyond the Quagmire: New Interpretations of the Vietnam Conflict (University of North Texas Press, 2019), Drawdowns: The American Way of Postwar (New York University Press, 2017), and War and Geography: The Spatiality of Organized Mass Violence (Ferdinand Schoningh, 2017). Martin has had articles published in Army History and Small Wars and InsurgenciesHis current research explores the intersection of war and agriculture during the Second Indochina War. Clemis is presently working on a book project that examines the military and political significance of rice during the conflict.

Image: Department of Defense photo