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JUNE 2016


power its critics and enemies allege it to be. … I believe that the

more representative government which is emerging in Viet-Nam

must be the vehicle for eliminating the social evils which beset

the people. I do not think we can or should do this job for them.”

The issue came down to the relationship of the United States

to South Vietnam. There was a basic tension, never resolved,

between helping the South Vietnamese and compelling them

to accept American solutions. Or as a CIA analysis later sum-

marized the conflict in American objectives: “The GVN [Viet-

nam Government] must be invigorated and reformed, and the

peasantry must be won over to the government side, but all of

this must be done without disturbing the political, social and

economic structure bequeathed by the French colonial regime.”

Put another way, corruption was not incidental to the political

system of South Vietnam; it was an integral and defining char-

acteristic of that system.

Komer sought less intrusive means of encouraging action—

regular liaison with South Vietnamese officials, review of plans

and budgets, and the threat or action of withholding resources.

The most effective measure seems to have been the gradual

accumulation of information on corrupt or incompetent offi-

cials, providing that information to both the South Vietnamese

and the American chains of command. The expectation was

that the South Vietnamese would eventually act, if sufficient

evidence could be found to justify a dismissal.

The original proposal for this program included suspending

assistance if the South Vietnamese failed to react to the infor-

mation, but this was a step Komer was unwilling to take—weak-

ening support for allies in a theater at war was a very difficult

course of action to propose. Ultimately, Komer succeeded in

persuading the South Vietnamese to dismiss a limited number

of officers, but with no guarantee that their successors would be

any improvement.

Setting Good Governance Aside

The Tet Offensive in early 1968 changed the war in every

respect. For the communists, the successive waves of the offen-

sive cost them dearly, the losses concentrated among the Viet

Cong. Increasingly the war fell to North Vietnamese soldiers,

infiltrating down the Ho Chi Minh trail. On the American side,

the offensive ultimately persuaded President Lyndon Johnson not

to run for a second term, and to seek a negotiated settlement.

Incoming President Richard Nixon had an entirely different

perspective on the nature of the war than his predecessor. Nixon

and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, were classic

realists. In part due to their basic outlook on power, and in part

due to the change that the Tet Offensive had had on the war,

Nixon and Kissinger were not so much interested in winning

“hearts and minds,” as they were on ensuring physical control of

the population. Similarly, they were more interested in ensuring

a stable and acquiescent South Vietnamese government than in

abstract notions of good governance.

As Nixon summarized it in a conversation with British coun-

terinsurgency expert Robert Thompson, he thought that Thieu

was “getting an undeservedly bad reputation.” Nixon com-

mented that while some people wanted the administration to

pressure Thieu to “crack down on corruption, broaden the base

and go forward with land reform, he, the president, didn’t care

what Thieu did as long as it helped the war.” The emphasis on

good government as a means of ensuring popular support for

the GVN dissipated, as did the willingness to expend political

capital on encouraging South Vietnam to combat corruption.

In late 1971 Deputy National Security Advisor Al Haig, on a

fact-finding mission to South Vietnam, noted: “Thieu’s actions

against corruption have been inadequate. He has not spoken

out against corruption as strongly as he should, and he has not

removed the more notoriously corrupt officials.” This was one

of a litany of problems Haig identified in the South Vietnamese

government, and like most of the others, was never effectively


In the end, the Nixon administration’s implicit tolerance

for corruption served as other elements of its policy toward

Vietnam to maintain a short-term stability in the government

at the expense of its long-term prospects. The fall of South

Vietnam stemmed from a range of causes. But, among those

closest to the events, corruption was considered the most

damaging, “largely responsible for the ultimate collapse of

South Vietnam.”


There was a basic tension,

never resolved, between

helping the South Vietnamese

and compelling them to

accept American solutions.