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JUNE 2016



pocketing the pay of “ghost soldiers,” whose names were carried

on the duty roster but were either nonexistent or who paid their

commanders to be released from duty.

As one commander put it, the pervasive corruption “created

a sense of social injustice” by creating “a small elite which held

all the power and wealth, and a majority of middle-class people

and peasants who became poorer and poorer and who suffered

all the sacrifices.”

Evolution of a “Fundamental Ill”

This summary would have surprised few Americans who

served in Indochina or dealt with the war at the policy level.

Throughout the 21 years of decisive American engagement with

South Vietnam, from the time of Ngo Dinh Diem until the fall

of Saigon, corruption was invariably and routinely identified as

a pervasive issue in the country, one with corrosive effects in

every aspect of the state and society.

In September 1954, during the first days of America’s

involvement, a Special National Intelligence Estimate opened

with an offhand reference to Premier Diem’s struggles with

“the usual problems of inefficiency, disunity and corruption in

Vietnamese politics.” Two decades later, just weeks before the

North Vietnamese attack that would overwhelm South Vietnam,

Senator Dewey Bartlett (R-Okla.), returning from a fact-finding

mission, reported to President Gerald Ford in March 1975:

“Corruption should be ferreted out, there should be freedom

of the press and proper use of the courts and police. This will

help them to develop their resolve and will strengthen their

capability to develop in peace.” Along with its deadly effects

within South Vietnam, the readily visible corruption provided

an easy and unanswerable point of attack for opponents of the

war in the United States, and a ready justification for Congress’s

reluctance to support this American ally.

Why, then, did this phenomenon persist, and even grow pro-

gressively more egregious over time? The basic conditions were

set at South Vietnam’s birth in 1954, when the country emerged

suddenly from its colonial past. With very few competent civil

servants, with no functioning political system or tradition of

democracy or transparency in government and with deep

divides across religious, regional, ethnic and class lines, the new

government built a military establishment from scratch. Few

expected the state to last more than a couple of years. With the

advent of active insurgency, the government of the Republic of

Vietnam faced a deadly and immediate challenge that absorbed

all of its attention.

The massive intervention of American forces that followed

within a decade added to the challenge in fundamental ways

by infusing vast amounts of money and resources into South

Vietnam and conducting military operations that created mas-

sive turmoil and dislocation across the country. As the nation

moved from crisis to crisis, hampered by a sclerotic and limited

government bureaucracy, corruption was always an issue to

address later.

At the same time, as U.S. involvement grew during the

mid-1960s, American advisers were brought in who considered

action against the corruption that had grown with the American

investment in the nation to be an integral element of the war for

“hearts and minds,” and therefore an essential component of

pacification and a high priority for action. There were, however,

serious obstacles to taking decisive action, reflecting the basic

nature of the U.S. relationship with South Vietnam.

Anti-Corruption Efforts Stymied

The most vigorous and sustained attempt by the United

States to effect change in this area occurred in late 1967, as

“Blowtorch” Bob Komer established the Civil Operations and

Revolutionary Development Support program, known as

CORDS. Recognizing President Nguyen Van Thieu’s long-stand-

ing caution in attacking corruption, Komer sought leverage

that the Americans could use to encourage a more aggressive

approach to the problem.

Embassy Saigon’s Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs

John A. Calhoun noted a fundamental problem with Komer’s

approach: it “entails an invasion of the sovereignty of the

Republic of Viet-Nam so great that it could and would be argued

thereafter that the United States is indeed the neo-colonialist

Corruption in South Vietnam

was invariably and routinely

identified as a pervasive

issue in the country, one

with corrosive effects in

every aspect of the state and