Corruption played a signficant role in thwarting American objectives in Vietnam by contributing to the South Vietnam government's lack of legitimacy. The heavy handed and corrupt government of South Vietnam actually made the countryside fertile for the insurgency of the Viet Cong and the communist. Successive governments left much to be desired and too readily turned a blind eye to corruption and incompetence.
An important cause for dissension among the ARVN soldiers was the widespread corruption and war profiteering that prevailed, not only among the civilian population but also among military officers. Corruption, of course, had long been common in South Vietnam. However, as infiation increased in the 1970's and military pay failed to keep pace, corrupt practices drove wedges between the troops and their officers. Corruption had another adverse effect; it siphoned funds that could have been used to buy critically short supplies and ammunition. It has been estimated that as much as 25 percent of ARVN's military payroll was in the name of dead or deserted soldiers who were kept on the roll so that corrupt officers could collect their salaries.
The Republic of Vietnam, headed from 1954 to 1963 by Ngo Dinh Diem, was venal, reactionary, inefficient, and corrupt. Although Diem inherited a functional administration from the French, he failed to pursue judicial, economic, and administrative reforms, empower subordinates to exercise government authority, or create a system of oversight to curb corruption. Consequently, corruption abounded in all forms. In spite of Diem's personal revulsion of corruption, the Ngo family was the biggest practitioner of nepotism. His close relatives filled the top ambassadorial, cabinet, and civil service posts.
In 1960, the Groupe Caravelliste, comprising 18 senior Vietnamese politicians, publicly condemned regime oppression and corruption in detail. Weeks later, a poorly planned military coup provided the regime withthe opportunity to crack down even more, including the imprisonment of the Groupe Caravelliste. At this point, Diem began to withdraw into himself, reducing his circle of confidants, and isolating himself even further from the public view. Nhu began to step up his persecution of "subversives," as well as factionalizing the officer corps through corruption, extortion, and espionage.
The United States attempted to "fix" the incompetence, corruption, and oppression of the Diem administration by having him removed from office by a military coup. However, the problem remained. Like the Catholic Diem, who failed to connect with the predominantly Buddhist population, the military leaders who took control after the coup complicated matters by perpetuating corruption and failing to take the war to the Viet Cong insurgents. The effectiveness of the gradually professionalizing South Vietnamese Army deteriorated rapidly as soldiers in the field lost confidence in their leaders and the government. In a matter of months, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam lost credibility with the population it was supposed to defend and with its American advisors.
Within the government of South Vietnam corruption, nepotism, extortion, and incompetence remained the norm afterwards with various leaders all the way through to President Thieu in the 1970s. A province chief might be removed here or there and replaced with a more competent and honest leader; however, the same problems would continue. The top leadership of the government and army remained as dependent as ever on the United States. The Saigon government remained a network of cliques, held together by American subsidies, a group of people without a coherent political orientation, bent on their own survival. Free-flowing aid lined the pockets of South Vietnamese generals and bureaucrats, deepening the corruption problem, not solving it.
Corruption was (and is) endemic throughout the developing world and even, at times, in much of the developed world. To have expected South Vietnam to be an exception was perhaps unrealistic. In fact, corruption was widespread in North Vietnam as well as in the South, giving lie to a common assumption that there was something morally pristine about the highly disciplined North. In fact, the problem of corruption had become so acute in the North that, in 1967, Ho Chi Minh himself felt compelled to go on the radio and inveigh against this troublesome plague.
In the 1970s widespread corruption and war profiteering prevailed, not only among the civilian population but also among military officers. Corruption, of course, had long been common in South Vietnam. However, as infiation increased in the 1970's and military pay failed to keep pace, corrupt practices drove wedges between the troops and their officers. For example, there were reports that the wounded had to pay helicopter pilots to fly medical evacuation missions.
President Thieu did make efforts to remove some of the more corrupt senior officials from office, but his actions proved to be a mere drop in the bucket. Corruption had another adverse effect; it siphoned funds that could have been used to buy critically short supplies and ammunition. It has been estimated that as much as 25 percent of ARVN's military payroll was in the name of dead or deserted soldiers who were kept on the roll so that corrupt officers could collect their salaries.
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