MSU and Vietnam: A dark chapter of the school’s history

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After World War II, the political world was split between Communists aligning with the Soviet Union and anti-Communists aligning with the United States. During the resulting Cold War, these two countries fought over influence in conflicts around the globe. For instance, the U.S. government attempted to bolster anti-Communist efforts in Vietnam by providing resources and support to the South Vietnamese government. This support eventually escalated into military intervention during the Vietnam War.

Michigan State University had an early but important role in Vietnam. From 1955 to 1962, a collection of professors, researchers and faculty members known as the Michigan State University Advisory Group (MSUAG) worked for the South Vietnamese government. That government the advisory group helped form eventually became increasingly corrupt and violent in the lead up to the Vietnam War.

 

The man who started it all

The relationship between MSU and Vietnam starts with one man: Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem was a politician of sorts that served under the French-supported government in Vietnam for nearly two decades. However, Diem had his own ambitions for an anti-Communist Vietnam with him at the helm. In 1950, during the French Indochina War, Diem left Vietnam and started looking for foreign support.

While Diem was looking for allies abroad, he met Wesley Fishel, then a professor and researcher in Japan as part of MSU Extension. Fishel had worked in military intelligence for years, and bonded with Diem over their shared anti-Communist views.

Eric Scigliano, a freelance journalist and son of MSU advisory group member Robert Scigliano, says Diem’s views also resonated with the American political elite.

“Diem, who was very charming and outgoing, used his Catholicism and anti-Communism to open doors for him,” Scigliano said. “The Kennedys, cardinals, senators, all got to know Diem then.”

Diem comes to MSU

In 1953, Fishel brought Diem to Michigan State University, where he made an impression on then MSU president John Hannah. Hannah, a former assistant secretary of Defense under Eisenhower, said in a letter to Diem that he was eager to help with his vision of Vietnam.

“Michigan State College will be pleased to render any assistance that it can to your government,” Hannah wrote. “I am very grateful for your good wishes and extend to you Sir the best wishes of Michigan State College.”

Scigliano says that Hannah’s political ambitions for MSU kicked off this relationship with Diem.

“[Hannah] had connections in Washington, he was dedicated to the anti-communist cause, and he had a very expansive idea of the university’s mission,” Scigliano said. “His goal was not merely to educate, it was to advise and share [the university’s] knowledge more broadly.”

Charles Keith, a historian of Vietnam at MSU, says after the GI bill in 1944, universities across the country were scrambling to exert influence globally.

“This is a moment when leaders of important institutions like Michigan State believe that their mission involved taking their expertise overseas,” Keith said. “They imagined the world as a laboratory in a sense, where they could mold the world in America’s image.”

The relationship between MSU and Diem was so strong that he was hired as a consultant and eventually given an honorary degree from the school. Hannah, using his connections in the Eisenhower administration, lobbied for MSU to work on Diem’s new regime in South Vietnam.

In 1955, an agreement was reached between Michigan State University and Ngo Dinh Diem, then the president of South Vietnam. Through a grant from USAID, the MSU Advisory Group in Vietnam was formed. Over the next seven years, MSU faculty members provided Diem’s new South Vietnamese government with resources in civics, agriculture, policing and much more.

The MSUAG’s activities in Vietnam are documented in the MSU Vietnam Archive.

On the ground in South Vietnam

The Vietnam that MSU faculty came to in 1955 was literally divided. After the end of the French-Indochina War, Vietnam was split into two regions: The Communist North Vietnam led by the Viet Minh, and the pro-Western and anti-Communist South Vietnam led by Diem. Despite this, communist forces had pockets of influence in rural areas throughout the south.

Eric Scigliano describes growing up in Saigon while his father worked for the advisory group.

The MSU advisory group spent the bulk of the first year building up Diem’s new government. Together, they founded the National Institute of Administration in South Vietnam. There, MSU advisers trained government officials in basic civic functions like rooting out corruption and collecting census data.

In that first year, the MSU advisory group faced another challenge: Over 800,000 refugees from North Vietnam were fleeing persecution and running south. Keith says this presented a logistical problem for the advisory group.

“They were pressed into service. In many cases they weren’t fully trained in those issues and there wasn’t a systematic series of programs to deal with things like that,” Keith said.

The advisory group still helped with the refugee crisis. They advised Diem on where to resettle refugees and designed economic aid packages, but Diem largely ignored their advice. Scigliano says Diem saw the resettlement program as an opportunity to consolidate support.

“He strategically placed the Catholics around the country. A lot of them were being set up in new rural villages and earlier residents got displaced,” Scigliano said. “MSU people warned him that this was a bad idea, but this advice went unheeded.”

This would be a sign of how Diem worked with the MSU group in the coming years.

Policing South Vietnam

Possibly the biggest project of the MSUAG was their work to modernize South Vietnam’s police force. Working closely with the CIA, criminal justice experts from MSU trained the Saigon police force in everything from traffic enforcement to collecting fingerprints. But in another clash with the advisory group, Keith says Diem was more interested in the political possibilities of the police force than anything else.

“Diem was worried first and foremost about immediate threats to the regime and political challengers,” Keith said. “So he viewed a much more centralized police and security apparatus as essential to his political survival.”

Diem’s government already had a military force to root out the political opposition. The Civil Guard fought perceived Communist threats in the South like the Viet Minh, the National Liberation Front and eventually the Viet Cong.

While most MSU advisers urged Diem to keep the police out of politics, others were ambivalent or even supportive. In a letter, police adviser Arthur Brandstatter said he “never agreed with the position that the Americans should try to help develop a democratic police force under conditions of instability and insurgency.”

Over time, the CIA began exerting more influence on police operations in Saigon. Jeremy Kuzmarov, a professor of history that has written about the advisory group, says that some MSU advisers worked closely with the CIA to promote western political interests.

“Some of the MSU advisers were working with secret police elements that were focused on political policing,” Kuzmarov said. “They were designed to develop lists of subversives, to catalog them, and many were rounded up and they were often tortured.”

During an interview for an MSU oral history project, Brandstatter admitted to the possibility of unknowingly recruiting CIA agents for help in South Vietnam.

“They may have been undercover, I don’t know. They were represented to us and to me as officers who are from the military police,” Brandstatter said.

In a 1965 article in Ramparts magazine, Vietnam project supervisor Stanley Sheinbaum acknowledged that several MSU advisers had CIA ties.

Police adviser Arthur Brandstatter describes his role in the advisory group as part of MSU’s oral history project.

Meanwhile, Scigliano says a storm of frustration was brewing across South Vietnam. Buddhists that were displaced by the refugee program, so-called political subversives and growing Communist guerrilla groups began protesting against Diem, and he began cracking down.

“South Vietnam became more and more of a police state as there was more and more resistance to Diem’s rule,” Scigliano said.

The partnership dissolves

As the situation in South Vietnam worsened, Keith says faculty members remained optimistic about their impact in Saigon.

“I think a lot of them believed that the proper application of American knowledge and know-how would stabilize the situation in no time,” Keith said. “That proved not to be the case.”

Diem’s increasingly harsh measures and erratic behavior caught members of the advisory group off guard. In 1960, MSU adviser Robert Scigliano wrote an article in which he offered measured criticism of Diem’s handling of political opponents. That was the first of several critical articles from academics on the advisory group.

On top of that, Keith says, by 1962, the CIA and the U.S. military took on a larger role in operations in South Vietnam, displacing civilian and academic advisers.

“It’s clear that what the Diem regime wants and needs for its survival is more military-oriented aid,” Keith said. “So the MSU programs are really a drop in the bucket at that point.”

Frustrated with the criticisms from faculty and the scale of the programs, Diem chose to not renew the contract with MSU in 1962.

A changed campus

While members of the advisory group returned to Michigan State and more details of their work came to light, student groups like the Students for a Democratic Society began ramping up anti-war protests. In 1965, the muckraking magazine Rampart published “The University on the Make,” a salacious account of the program that shed an unflattering light on MSU.

Protests against the Vietnam War grew at universities across the country, but Keith says they were more potent at Michigan State because of the advisory group.

“It personalized the issue for a lot of protestors,” Keith said. “They could make a specific argument about the university having supported a regime that people perceived a client state of American imperialism.”  

Over the next decade, anti-war groups targeted MSU professors that worked in South Vietnam, none more than Wesley Fishel. Fishel was harassed and picketed by student protestors for years, and posters reading “Wanted: Wesley Fishel for Exploitation, Racism, Murder,” were plastered across campus. Despite this, Fishel remained at MSU until his death in 1977.

Meanwhile in Vietnam, protests against Diem’s regime culminated in his assassination during a military coup in 1963. The instability and unrest that followed in Vietnam coincided with increased US military involvement and the Vietnam War.

MSU published the files on the MSUAG in the MSU Vietnam Group Archive during the late 1990’s. Charles Keith oversaw the digitization of the records in 2008 and says MSU has been nothing but cooperative. The archive, which has over 100,000 documents, letters, pictures and maps, is open to the public on MSU’s campus and online. Researchers, historians and journalists frequently cite them when chronicling this chapter of MSU’s history.

Keith says that the fallout from the MSUAG’s work in Vietnam changed the school’s priorities on foreign aid and research. Specifically, he says MSU’s extensive work in African agriculture and education, which began in the late ‘60s, is based in research as opposed to politics.

“MSU is a leader in the relationships between American institutions of higher education and Africa,” Keith said. “Vietnam had something to do with that; MSU burnt its fingers a little bit in Asia.”  

According to MSU’s African Studies Center, the school’s work in Africa is community and aid-oriented. Some of the program’s priorities include supporting experts, teaching African languages and disseminating information to the public.