Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War

As any scholar of the Vietnam War can tell you, the field doesn’t lack for study: it’s one of the most-studied fields for both military and diplomatic historians. And yet, for all of the scholarly attention it has received, there are understudied facets of this complicated, multilateral conflict, particularly in its early years, before American ground troops entered the country in large numbers. Jessica Elkind’s Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War(University of Kentucky Press, 2016) does precisely this by examining U.S. development programs that tried to foster a viable South Vietnamese state in the 1950s and early 1960s. The outcomes of those disparate programs ultimately deepened a U.S. commitment to the Republic of South Vietnam and helped set the United States on the road to war.

Dr. Elkind’s research was conducted using U.S. government sources, private collections from Michigan State University, and South Vietnamese government sources held in Ho Chi Minh City. Michigan State University was an important actor in this narrative because it was responsible for establishing and running certain programs. In each of the book’s five chapters, she examines a different aid program, ranging from the resettlement programs created for refugees fleeing the newly-created North Vietnam, to agricultural aid and development, to police training. What emerges from these various perspectives is a view of widely-ranging intentions and goals that often differed starkly. Not only did the U.S. government and South Vietnamese government disagree on what would constitute effective aid and development, the public-private partnership that existed between the U.S. government and Michigan State University also frayed as the individual aid workers began to lose faith in their mission.


As the United States and the international community confronts global problems about development and nation-building, Aid Under Fire suggests lessons that policymakers and the public should heed. Development cannot succeed without taking into account the wishes of the people who are receiving aid, and simply transplanting western modalities cannot work without taking into account the conditions on the ground. As Elkind demonstrates, overconfidence in nation-building can have dire consequences.

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