To Build as Well as Destroy
American Nation Building in South Vietnam
Andrew J. Gawthorpe
Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2018, 258 pages
Book Review published on: August 23, 2019
To Build as Well as Destroy examines the United States' nation-building effort in South Vietnam with a particular emphasis on the years of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program from 1969 to 1972. Andrew Gawthorpe persuasively uses historical perspective combined with structural explanations popular in political science to argue that American nation-building efforts, to include CORDS, failed to establish a viable regime in South Vietnam. For evidence, he joins oral histories with U.S. and South Vietnamese government documents. He also uses evidence from North Vietnamese sources, albeit not as prominently. The result is insightful revelations on the enormous obstacles of foreign-backed or foreign-imposed nation building and counterinsurgency in South Vietnam. Additionally, Gawthorpe discredits historical narratives claiming CORDS was actually successful and South Vietnam fell largely due to abandonment by the United States.
Gawthorpe separates the concept of nation building from counterinsurgency. He argues that while security, whether due to counterinsurgency or conventional military operations, improved from 1969 to 1972, it was primarily the outcome of a failed North Vietnamese initiative in the form of the Tet Offensive. The nation-building requisite of mutual obligation between the population and the South Vietnamese government—legitimacy—never materialized. The point is a decline in violence should not be conflated with legitimacy. Security is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.
The contributions of To Build as Well as Destroy are threefold. First, it clearly demonstrates the difficulty or perhaps even desirability of rationalizing national, regional, and local policies and programs. The levels of abstraction necessary for principles of foreign and national policy inevitably lose applicability in the context of local politics.
Second, Gawthorpe reveals economic structures can create perverse political incentives. The urban elites of the South Vietnamese government and military were unwilling to deconstruct the exploitative French colonial economics driving their rural population into the arms of the communists. The Americans, due to the sheer scale of the issue and respect for the notion of national sovereignty, were both unable and unwilling to enforce change.
Third, the book calls into serious question the viability of what Gawthorpe calls unity of command—close coordination among military forces, civilian U.S. government agencies, and other partners—as a framework for stability or consolidation operations. The U.S. military uses unified action as an equivalent term to Gawthorpe's unity of command. Nonetheless, Gawthorpe points out that abundant resources, coordination, and years of application made little difference in South Vietnam. Policymakers and practitioners may well question whether unified action is an underdeveloped paradigm and how to proceed if the “host nation” is part of the problem.
To Build as Well as Destroy has one defensible omission in scope. After all, it is a book rather than a multivolume set. Gawthorpe does not attempt to explain how legitimacy grows in unlikely places. For example, if successful nation building in post-World War II Europe can be explained by prewar conditions, how was it achieved in South Korea? Without this aspect, one is left with the gloomy implication that the puzzle is either unsolvable or best left to totalitarian ideologues. I highly recommend To Build as Well as Destroy to anyone. It is a must read for military practitioners and political policymakers.
Book Review written by: Richard E. Berkebile, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas