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Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954-1968.

Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954-1968, by James M. Carter. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge University Press, 2008. vii, 268 pp. $75.00 US (cloth), $22.99 US (paper).

The recent spate of revisionist literature on the Vietnam conflict attempts to rehabilitate the war as a "noble cause" subverted. Postulating that better decisionmaking, less domestic dissent, and different strategic choices could have changed the disastrous outcome of the US experience in Southeast Asia, these scholars--most notably Mark Moyar in Triumph Forsaken (2006)--would have us believe in Ngo Dinh Diem's leadership abilities, South Vietnam's military prowess, and the argument that Washington and the Saigon regime were on the verge of winning the war in 1963. Rather than seeing the war as an avoidable catastrophe, they suggest that a stable, non-communist South Vietnam could have survived if only events had unfolded differently.

Not so, contends James M. Carter. In Inventing Vietnam, Carter makes a staunchly orthodox argument, asserting that America's longest war was doomed from the start. This inevitable failure derived from the United States's "thorough and ambitious" but ultimately futile efforts to create a viable state in South Vietnam (p. 6). Based on research in US archives, including the records of the Michigan State University Vietnam Advisory Group (MSUG) and fascinating new evidence from the corporate records of the major US construction consortium in Vietnam (RMK-BRJ), he illuminates several major deficiencies in the American aid programs, from the creation of the South Vietnamese state at the Geneva conference in 1954 through the Tet Offensive of 1968. Carter argues that the US state-building efforts during the 1950s and 1960s in what he pointedly (and, frankly, distractingly) refers to as "southern Vietnam"--a calculated attempt to emphasize the character of what he clearly considers an illegitimate and politically untenable entity--failed miserably (p. 13). To Carter, this failure represented the proximate cause of the US military escalation of the conflict. Indeed, he suggests that Washington had to "reinvent" South Vietnam as a militarized construct after 1961 following the virtual political and economic implosion produced by its initial attempts in the previous decade (p. 114).

While not a particularly ground-breaking study, Carter nevertheless exhibits skill in depicting the problems that plagued the state-building effort from the outset. His best analysis comes in the later portions of the book, where he examines the massive expansion of infrastructure in South Vietnam in support of the escalated US military presence, such as his discussion of the modernization of the Tan Son Nhut airbase (pp. 195-99). He convincingly demonstrates how these efforts devastated the socio-economic system in the South, fostered abject dependence on American aid, and created crippling inflation due to the rampant corruption and waste that permeated the Saigon regime. To be sure, Carter's laundry list of unsuccessful initiatives highlights the multitudinous problems that contributed to the fundamental instability of the South Vietnamese state.

Yet on a deeper level, the book suffers from problematic lapses in its analysis. The most glaring concern relates to the noticeable lack of Vietnamese perspective, especially when discussing the reaction of the Vietnamese people to US state-building efforts. Carter portrays the South Vietnamese as little more than pawns, meekly submitting to the whims of their American benefactors. In addition, he overlooks the role played by Ngo Dinh Diem, who drove several aspects of the state-building effort personally. And "the lack of attention given to the insurgency in the South after 1960 is highly questionable, particularly given that ignoring the vitality of the uprising indirectly refutes part of his thesis. Why, one might wonder, did Hanoi aggressively support the National Liberation Front if it perceived the Saigon government to be fatally flawed and on the verge of imminent collapse? While not every book on the war need engage Vietnamese-language sources, Carter's omission of Asian voices weakens his arguments and conclusions. Moreover, Carter overlooks the continuities that existed between the origins of the US commitment to Saigon and the height of American military involvement in Southeast Asia. Contrary to much of the analysis presented in the book, the reality is that the US state-building efforts incorporated some of the existing apparatus in the South, portions of which dated to the French colonial period. Just because the Americans saw themselves as creating a new South Vietnamese edifice, as Carter contends, does not mean that it lacked residual elements or characteristics. Indeed, Carter fails to recognize that part of the US failure should be attributed to the American inability to successfully integrate the existing structures into the new state. As scholars such as Kathryn Statler and Mark Lawrence have recognized, French influences continued well after Dien Bien Phu and Geneva. The colossal US construction projects, both civilian and military, never fully obliterated these remnants of colonial infrastructure and control.

These shortcomings should not diminish the utility of the book. Inventing Vietnam does remind scholars of the importance of understanding the origins of the US involvement with the Saigon regime and correctly points out the flaws inherent in the state-building program over the course of two decades. It also addresses the problems with the current assumptions in revisionist scholarship and opens the door to further investigation of the projects and problems addressed in the study. The book represents a solid contribution to the literature on the war, and scholars will have to grapple with its arguments if they hope to fully understand the state-building tactics employed during the Second Indochina War.

Andrew L. Johns

Brigham Young University
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Author:Johns, Andrew L.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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