Over the past couple of years, ever since I first heard about it in Walter Adams’ excellent memoir The Test, I have been fascinated with the Michigan State University Group, a technical assistance project that MSU provided to South Vietnam from 1955 to 1962. Part of the reason it intrigued me was the fact that up until two years ago, I had never heard of the project—and I’d even worked for one of the participating MSU departments for seven years (albeit thirty years after the project ended). I know I’m not alone in this; MSU seems perfectly happy to forget it ever happened.
The thing is, all I could find online on the subject was a reprint of the Ramparts article (“The University on the Make”) that had generated such controversy and campus uproar. In reading John Ernst’s even-handed 1998 history Forging a Fateful Alliance, and more recently Scigliano and Fox’s “official” 1965 overview Technical Assistance in Vietnam, I could see how one-sided the Ramparts article was. Yes, it raised some valid questions about the project, its motivations, and its CIA connection. But it did so by deliberately ignoring any positive benefit that MSUG might have had for the people of Vietnam.
This hardly seemed fair to me. After all, the people who had initiated and participated in MSUG had done so with (mostly) good intentions. That the results were less than stellar was pretty much par for the course in that era of overseas technical projects run by American universities, as Adams and Garraty so deftly illustrated in their book Is the World Our Campus? (1960).
Most people are unlikely to do as I did and take out interlibrary loans of dusty, seldom-used, sun-faded volumes from such far-flung locales as Southern Illinois University and the former Northeastern Illinois State College (as one book’s stamp reads). For them, the sum total of MSUG history on the Internet was a possibly spurious, certainly unsubstantiated tale of cloak-and-dagger nefariousness. History is written by the victors, and in this case the victors were the conspiracy theorists.
I’m not trying to defend the project. Diem was a complete bastard, the U.S. was wrong for backing him at all (much less as long as we did), and MSU managed to piss away a lot of its intellectual capital and new-found respectability by playing along. But the University’s motives were not 100% craven, and MSUG was not merely a CIA front.
So, to provide a more even rendition of the history to a wider audience, I wrote an article for Wikipedia. (My other, more personal, motivation was that it allowed me to finally get the story out of my head, where it had been bouncing around without a proper audience for months.) Before posting it, I ran it past my wife, who called it “tough love” for my alma mater; and one of my closest friends, who suggested I run it past my dad, who remains active in the University community.
Dad was very supportive: not only did he purchase and send me another book on the subject, but he also contacted a fellow retired professor who had run the MSU international programs office for many years. (This professor begged off the question by reminding Dad that he had started in that role several years after the end of MSUG, belying the fact that he had of course worked closely with nearly everyone involved. This may be seen as an indication of how the subject remains a sore spot with the MSU administration.) The professor read the article and offered only minor copy edits and a few vague suggestions, and said he thought I should submit the article to a magazine or scholarly journal for publication. That was a pretty clear sign that I had nailed it.