Archive for April 2006

Forging a Fateful Alliance: Michigan State University and the Vietnam War by John Ernst

15 April 2006
Categories: From the armchair

coverHere is a surprising and little-known fact: from 1955 to 1962, Michigan State University was contracted by the U.S. government to provide “technical assistance” in Vietnam, teaching aspects of civil service and police administration to the government agencies of South Vietnam.

The story begins in 1954, after French colonialism met its demise at Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Accords divided the country into North and South. The U.S. decided that the best hope to staunch the spread of communism in South Vietnam lay in its new prime minister, a former exile named Ngo Dinh Diem. The International Cooperation Administration (ICA), a U.S. government agency, hoped to provide Diem with the means of “nation building.”

During his self-imposed exile in the early 1950s, Diem had met and befriended Wesley R. Fishel, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State with a Ph.D in international relations from the University of Chicago. When Diem came to power in 1954, Fishel became something of a confidant and informal advisor to the prime minister. Diem sought the means to improve the new government’s strength and make it more responsive to issues that included a communist insurgency, a massive refugee influx from North Vietnam, and a calcified bureaucracy whose Vietnamese workers had never been adequately trained by the recently departed French colonialists (who coveted both the knowledge and all the top positions). Fishel convinced Diem that MSU had the know-how to provide the needed training in police and public administration, and when the request for assistance reached the U.S. government, MSU led a very short list of candidate schools.

A cadre of professors, from the departments of economics and political science as well as the school of public administration and public safety, soon deployed to Saigon as the Michigan State University Group (MSUG). From May 1955 to June 1962, the MSUG participated in several major programs, with varying success.

One of these was COMIGAL, a refugee resettlement program that provided placement and infrastructure-building for some 900,000 people fleeing the communist North. Most of the refugees were Catholic, as Diem (himself a Catholic) had widely promulgated the idea that they might be persecuted under communist rule. Among the MSUG’s positive influences was the idea of decentralized bureaucracy, of scattering COMIGAL offices throughout the villages to improve both the responsiveness of those offices and the self-responsibility of the refugees themselves. Yet the MSUG was unable to convince Diem of the validity of the land claims made by the Montagnards, Vietnam’s “mountain people” of the central highlands, and thousands of refugees—with government approval—became permanent squatters on land “already cleared by highlanders for planting.” Both the Montagnards and the majority Buddhists resented being governed by a Catholic regime, a minority religious group that they saw as unabashed colonialists. This opposition and Diem’s ruthless suppression pushed these groups toward further insurgency and, ultimately, communist rule.

In another program, the MSUG designed, financed, and implemented an expansion of the National Institute of Administration (NIA), a civil servant training school in Saigon. The NIA library in particular saw a tremendous improvement in both the size of its holdings and its organization. But students, used to the French style of juridical education, did not benefit well from American-style lectures. The library fell into disuse as most of its documents were in English, yet English-language studies were not emphasized. Finally, this notable quote, from an MSUG veteran in support of the project, expresses instead its mixed results: “You could tell that they [NIA graduates] were quite successful and in positions of authority because a number of them were assassinated after they went out to their posts in the countryside.” (emphasis added)

In the “participant program,” some 179 Vietnamese civil servants travelled to the United States, the Phillippines, Japan, and elsewhere, to be educated. Participants studied at major universities (not just Michigan State, but also Vanderbilt, Harvard, and many others) in pursuit of masters degrees and doctorates in civil service-related fields such as economics or political science. This program petered out during the seven years of the MSUG project—partly due to language and cultural difficulties—and never had the full support of Saigon. For one, it was feared that students who had become familiar with American language and culture would be reluctant to return to Vietnam. (Contrarily, although many did stay in the States, homesickness was a more common issue.) For another, not only were returning participants not given promotions commensurate with their new abilities, they were not always guaranteed to get their old jobs back.

Then there was the police administration project.

The MSUG helped the Sûreté—which they renamed the Vietnamese Bureau of Investigation, in an attempt to lessen the negative public image of that special police agency—to establish a national identification card. It was intended to streamline government services. Diem used the i.d. card registry to crack down on dissenters.

The MSUG tried to reform the civil guard into something resembling a U.S. state police outfit, an organization familiar to the professors, while Saigon (and the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group) preferred that the civil guard be a more heavily armed paramilitary force that could exercise national police duties and support the national army. The indecision and infighting between the advisory groups left the civil guard unprepared when major communist insurgency action began in 1959.

Much of the police administration training involved rudimentary tasks, such as the use of fingerprint kits, and even some seemingly obvious fundamentals, such as teaching city cops to treat the public they serve with politeness. And as far as the recorded history shows, it would appear that the MSUG’s primary roles were dispensing handcuffs and training Vietnamese police in small firearms.

Perhaps the biggest issue at stake was the fact that Michigan State lacked the manpower to sustain both its home campus and the MSUG. Particularly in police administration, a field in which MSU was widely respected in the 1950s, it became necessary to hire extensively outside the university in order to staff the project and still leave a sufficient contingent in East Lansing to teach classes. At one point, of the thirty-three police advisors stationed in Vietnam, only four were Michigan State employees prior to the MSUG. The “hired guns” often received academic status as lecturers or assistant professors at State. Moreover, several were also employees of the CIA.

It makes some sense that CIA-trained personnel were hired, since much of the police training was in counter-insurgency tactics. Whether these hirelings were merely teachers with former (or current) CIA associations, or active CIA agents performing covert operations on the side, remains a matter of conjecture. The official CIA record will be classified for many years to come. Ultimately, regardless of whether or not the CIA connection was appropriate, it opened the door for valid criticism of the MSUG.

Some MSUG professors may have ignored the signs of trouble and succumbed to the glamour of overseas service in a land where a professor earning “hardship assignment” pay incentives could hire five full-time servants and find them well within budget. Others, home from their tours of duty, wrote articles critical of the Diem regime and U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Two appeared in The New Republic magazine in 1961 and 1962. One in particular, a scathing indictment by professors Adrian Jaffe and Milton Taylor titled “A Crumbling Bastion: Flattery and Lies Won’t Save Vietnam,” enraged Diem. In spite of the university’s attempts to appease him, Diem called for termination of the MSUG project. The group left Vietnam in June 1962.

Within eighteen months, Diem was dead from a coup by a group of Vietnamese general officers, and the U.S. had begun to send the first of its military “advisors” that soon led to twelve years of conflict and over fifty-eight thousand Americans—and two million Vietnamese—dead.

Four years after MSUG’s expulsion an exposé appeared in Ramparts, which Ernst routinely describes as a “liberal West Coast Catholic magazine.” “The University on the Make” was sensationalistic in tone, and some of its facts were later admitted to be untrue. (What is apparently the full text is available online at But it offered powerful fodder for the nascent antiwar movement, and it raised some interesting questions about a university’s role in the world community. CIA involvement was a main focus of the article, with the implication that the MSUG provided cover for “cloak-and-dagger” work. The article made Professor Fishel the scapegoat for the project, and he was soon demonized on campus, both in East Lansing and later at Southern Illinois University. He died at the age of 57 in the mid-1970s, and one could certainly argue that his notoriety contributed to his early demise.

Anyway, that’s roughly the story. John Ernst’s telling is a solidly researched, seemingly objective, overview of the Michigan State University Group. The book suffers some from repetition, engendered in part because each major player (MSUG, ICA, MAAG, etc.) is redefined and reintroduced in each chapter, seemingly as if that chapter might be republished as an individual essay elsewhere. There are a few teasers, the most major of which is the assertion that “the Kennedy administration encouraged the plot” by the Vietnamese military to assassinate Diem in 1963; this aside is never expounded or substantiated. But overall it’s an excellent and scholarly work, of an interesting and intentionally forgotten period in American international relations.

In my review of Walter Adams’ book The Test (which provided my first hint of this story’s existence), I stated my opinion that John Hannah was one of Michigan State’s greatest presidents. For his tireless work in growing the school from a humble agricultural college into a major university, I continue to feel that Hannah merits this distinction. But Hannah had traits—among them a propensity for high-level political wheeling and dealing, and a staunch anti-communist bent—that became serious flaws in the case of the MSUG. Hannah firmly believed that “the world is our campus” and defended the MSUG as a positive example of this sort of world service, long after the project had ended with mixed results and had become a political liability.

Adams in particular, who prodded Taylor and Jaffe to write their New Republic articles, would argue that the university’s role is not to act as the instrument of the nation’s foreign policy, and I must agree. The U.S. wanted to stop the spread of the “red menace,” but in backing Diem—an entrenched bureaucrat with despotic tendencies—it may have provided the direct catalyst for South Vietnam’s ultimate fall to communism. The MSUG’s intentions were, for the most part, noble, and the group had some successes (however short-lived) in improving Vietnamese public welfare and safety. But MSU was rightfully burned by the public-opinion fallout of the Vietnam project. The MSUG was solely there for “technical assistance,” and had no position to voice or act upon its opposition to Diem’s policies. The university saw no academic gains from its involvement. What ground the MSUG gained in Vietnam was surely surpassed in effect by Diem’s autocratic, nepotistic, draconian rule.

One too can wonder what benefit, if any, the project could have had even if it had been wholly successful. Scholarly research was nearly impossible given the sheer volume of practical work involved. As the Ramparts article noted just four years after the project’s end with some glee (and validity), “MSU has not a single course, not even a study program, to show for its six [sic] years in Vietnam.” About the only campus remnant of this history that survives to the present is the International Center, built in 1964 using a portion of the MSUG’s $25 million government stipend.

Meanwhile the university continued to accept overseas technical-assistance contracts, but never again on the scale of the MSUG. Even today MSU is engaged in dozens of overseas projects—including one in the Mekong Delta, where MSU is teaching environmental resource management under contract to the U.S. Department of State.

And of course, the U.S. government continues its attempts at overseas nation-building, with mixed results at best.