Vietnam Project Archives
Michigan State’s connection to Ngô Đình Diệm’s Republic of Vietnam (RVN) government had its origins in the First Indochina War, during much of which Diệm spent abroad seeking international support for his political agenda. In Japan in 1950, Diệm met Wesley Fishel, an MSU assistant professor of political science and an expert in Asian politics, who saw Diệm as a potentially viable noncommunist leader for Vietnam and invited him to visit East Lansing. Diệm had already decided that he would to travel to the United States before he met Fishel, and by 1953 Diệm, after three years of lobbying, had developed a wide network of influential American supporters. He also had spent some time at MSU working with Fishel as a consultant, which gave him knowledge of the university’s range of expertise and rapidly expanding programs. In his early negotiations with the Americans over aid, Diệm requested that part of an aid package come in the form of technical assistance from MSU. MSU President John Hannah, a friend of President Eisenhower’s and a staunch anticommunist, was fully supportive, and he agreed to devote considerable resources to the project.
The nature of Michigan State University Vietnam Advisory Group (MSUG) program in Vietnam reflected the institution’s considerable expansion under President Hannah. Founded as the nation's pioneer land-grant college in 1855, the institution had grown steadily since its foundation, first admitting women in 1870 and expanding its academic programs beyond agriculture. When Hannah became its president in 1941, he took advantage of the considerable federal resources directed to expanding higher education to transform the college into a national research institution and renamed Michigan State University in 1955, with programs and faculty expertise in an enormous range of agricultural, technical, and academic disciplines. The MSUG’s program in Vietnam was an ambitious one, spanning economic development in rural areas; administrative training of the RVN’s new bureaucratic and political class; and aid, training, and consultation to the RVN’s police and security forces. The ultimate goal of the MSUG—a stable, noncommunist regime in South Vietnam—was unsuccessful. Diệm’s lack of popular support made his rule increasingly oppressive and ineffective as the 1950s wore on, and the conditions in the RVN proved to be well beyond the MSUG, a program imagined and implemented by people with little knowledge of Vietnamese history, culture, and politics. By the early 1960s, growing American military aid made the MSUG increasingly irrelevant, and the program was ended in 1962.