Abstract

While many studies have examined American nation-building or modernization campaigns from diplomatic or strategic perspectives during the Second Indochina War, few have yet to consider how pre-existing social, technological, and environmental relationships often determined a given project’s chances of success or failure. This essay examines American nation-building projects—especially reclamation and settlement programs—in the Plain of Reeds, a vast wetland area about fifty kilometers southwest of Ho Chi Minh City that since the French conquest of Vietnam in the 1860s had been a site for rebel movements and an important target for reclamation. When American advisors arrived in 1954, they encountered not only a deeply embedded insurgency with major bases in the area but also war-damaged infrastructure and engineering agencies and private contractors still deeply influenced by colonial arrangements. This colonial mold on social and environmental relationships constrained successive American programs and played a key role in the success or failure of specific efforts on the ground.

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