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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: June 2012

3 - “The Needs Are Enormous, the Time Short”: Michigan State University, the U.S. Operations Mission, State Building, and Vietnam


Before the French suffered defeat at Dien Bien Phu in spring 1954, the United States had dispatched the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) Edward G. Lansdale to Vietnam to assist in counterguerrilla actions and training, just as he had in the Philippines. American officials had already begun to plan for an eventual French withdrawal. In the interim, the United States desired its own people on the ground in Southeast Asia, rather than channeling aid through French representatives. However, the specific and long-term purpose of this transition remained somewhat unclear. In late October, President Dwight Eisenhower tapped General J. Lawton Collins as “the best qualified” American to orchestrate the new role in Vietnam. Collins thus became the president's special representative in Vietnam, with the rank of ambassador. Several months earlier, Ngo Dinh Diem emerged as the figure preferred by the Americans to lead what would soon be a state-building effort. Diem quickly surrounded himself with a number of consultants who might aid in his consolidation of power. One of his most trusted advisors and friends was a relatively obscure political scientist from Michigan State University (MSU), whom he had met in Japan a few years earlier: Wesley R. Fishel. Fishel immediately made plans to go to Saigon and to the aid of Diem, who he termed his “very dear friend.” In remarkably rapid succession, the French left Vietnam, only to be replaced by a group of Americans with considerable ambition, resources, and energy, all designed to whip southern Vietnam into a separate, developed, independent state.