Learn from history when rebuilding Iraq

U.S. efforts in South Vietnam were designed to counter a larger perceived threat, the global spread of Soviet-style communism; the Bush administration contends that nation-building efforts in Iraq will help counter the global threat of terrorism.

Erik Nelson

Fifty years ago the United States initiated a nation-building operation in Vietnam that, despite some preliminary success, eventually ended in disaster for the United States: the cumulative loss of 58,152 U.S. soldiers and a communist victory in 1975. The 1954-1964 campaign to rebuild Vietnam offers many lessons in incorrect ways to nation-build and it would behoove the current U.S. administration to heed these lessons as they attempt to rebuild Iraq.

Soon after World War II ended, the Soviet Union and its governing ideology – communism – became the United States’ prime strategic opponent. A communist takeover in China in 1949 convinced the Truman administration that communism, unless forcefully contained, would sweep into Africa and Southeast Asia.

In 1950, Vietnam was part of France’s colony of Indochina. Consistent with its new communist containment policy, from 1950 to 1954 the United States spent close to $18 billion in 2003 dollars in support of France’s war against Vietnamese communist insurgents. The Truman administration also sent the Military Assistance and Advisory Group to Vietnam in 1950, a small outfit of U.S. soldiers designed to assist French efforts. However, by the summer of 1954 Vietnam’s communist party – the Vietminh – had beaten the French army in northern Vietnam. Subsequent peace talks in Geneva resulted in a split Vietnam – North and South – with the Vietminh ruling the North and the French controlling the South. The Geneva Accords mandated that the split country reunify and hold elections in 1956.

After the Geneva Accords, France was no longer interested in administering South Vietnam. The United States was eager to take France’s place. As the University of Kentucky historian George C. Herring notes, “Certain that the fall of Vietnam to communism would lead to the loss of all Southeast Asia, the Eisenhower administration committed itself to creating a nation that would stand as a bulwark against Communist expansion and serve as a proving ground for democracy in Asia Ö (T)he experiment in nation-building tapped the wellsprings of American idealism and took on many of the trappings of a crusade.” Yet, by the summer of 1964 the National Liberation Front, a.k.a., the Vietcong – a communist insurgency group backed by the North Vietnamese – controlled much of South Vietnam’s countryside. To make matters worse, South Vietnam was ruled by a completely ineffectual government, and the Gulf of Tonkin incident prompted the United States’ entrance into a shooting war with North Vietnam. Far from building a strong and vigorous South Vietnam that could act as a bulwark against communism, 1954 to 1964 nation-building efforts had produced a country in chaos and unprepared for a fight with the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army.

What had gone wrong? Why hadn’t nation-building efforts in South Vietnam proved effective?

For one, U.S. military advisers did not gain the trust and respect of the Vietnamese they worked with. As Herring notes, “Despite good intentions, (U.S. military advisers) often patronized the VietnameseÖ .” And as one military assistance and advisory group officer noted, “Probably the greatest single problem encountered by the (advisory group) is the continual task of assuring the Vietnamese that the United States is not a colonial powerÖ .” Further, the advisory group and other U.S. military advisers prepared the South Vietnamese military for a conventional war, not the guerilla-type war a Northern insurgency group would fight; U.S. military advisers doubted the North could encourage an insurgency capable of threatening the South.

The economic aid component of the nation-building program did little to promote economic development in South Vietnam. For one, the aid was concentrated in the wrong area; cities received most of the aid despite the South Vietnamese population being 90 percent rural. Also, economic aid was insufficient; military aid was four times greater than economic aid between 1955 and 1959. Further, most economic aid involved pumping consumer goods into Vietnam. While this temporarily maintained high standards of living in South Vietnam, the lack of aid directed towards developing an indigenous industrial base prevented any real economic growth. In the end, the economic aid program administered in Vietnam fostered dependency on U.S. monies and goods, not self-sufficiency.

Finally, and most importantly, the United States failed politically in South Vietnam. It failed to create any lasting democratic institutions and supported a series of ineffectual and maladroit South Vietnamese presidents. U.S. administrators failed to grasp the Vietnamese milieu and mind as well. For example, when Buddhist monks began to immolate themselves in the early 1960s in protest to conditions in South Vietnam, the Kennedy administration did not know what to do, calling the Buddhist mind “terra incognito.”

Admittedly, comparing U.S. machinations in Vietnam from 1954 to 1964 with U.S. actions in Iraq today is a bit of a stretch. Nation-building in Iraq began after a United States-initiated war; nation-building in South Vietnam began after French forces retreated from Vietnam. Nation-building failure in South Vietnam led the United States to use its own military to protect South Vietnam from North Vietnam forces and other communist insurgents. If nation-building fails in Iraq, it is not likely that the United States will be pulled into a defensive war in Iraq. Also, a 10-year nation-building commitment in Iraq seems highly unlikely.

However, some similarities between the South Vietnam and Iraq situations exist. U.S. efforts in South Vietnam were designed to counter a larger perceived threat, the global spread of Soviet-style communism; the George W. Bush administration contends that nation-building efforts in Iraq will help counter the global threat of terrorism. In both instances, U.S. leaders initiated nation-building with the goal of democratizing the troubled countries. Finally, natural resource concerns also contributed to the United Sates’ decision to nation-build in both countries – oil in Iraq and natural rubber, oil, tin and tungsten in Southeast Asia.

Some of the emerging problems facing U.S. administrators in Iraq are of the kind faced by U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam. Just as in South Vietnam, U.S. preoccupation with safety and the administrator’s unfamiliarity with the role of religion in the host’s society have limited the United States’ ability to proceed with institutional and economic reform in Iraq. In addition, just as in South Vietnam, Americans in Iraq repeat ad nauseam that they are liberators, not occupiers. To overcome these problems and proceed with effective nation-building in Iraq, the South Vietnamese experience would suggest that nation-building administrators in Iraq must do the following:

One, U.S. administrators must help Iraq develop robust domestic industries other than oil. A country does not truly grow if it relies on natural resources for wealth. The United States must help Iraq develop industries that promise steady, sustained growth in the future. The United States never did this in South Vietnam.

Two, the United States must devote most of its nation-building resources to developing democratic institutions in Iraq. Without the development of a strong civil society, court and representative system Iraq will in all likelihood fall to a dictatorship or one-party rule once Americans leave Iraq. The United States never committed to full democratization in South Vietnam.

Three, the United States must create an Iraqi military that is self-sufficient and properly trained and equipped. While the Bush administration has not discussed this task much publicly, the construction of a firm military in Iraq is a must. A stable Iraqi military could reduce incidents of war and adventurism in the Middle East in the future. The Iraqi military must be better prepared than the South Vietnamese army was if the United States hopes to ultimately succeed in Iraq.

For the sake of national and world security, and the creation of a democratic and vibrant Iraq, the Bush administration must avoid the nation-building mistakes of their predecessors. Let us hope they have read their history books.

Erik Nelson is the editor of the Daily’s editorial and opinion pages. He can be reached at [email protected]