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Modernizing Repression: American Police Training Programs and its Connection to Political Authoritarianism in South Vietnam as a Case Study of the Cold War

Foreign Policy
Human Rights
International Relations
Jeremy Kuzmarov
University of Tulsa
Jeremy Kuzmarov
University of Tulsa
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Abstract

From 1954-1975, the U.S. built up an authoritarian government in South Vietnam that held a worldwide record in the early 1970s for political prisoners (estimated at over 100,000). The police served as a key agency of government repression, having been trained, financed and equipped to suppress the leftist National Liberation Front (NLF). My paper will examine the history of American police training in South Vietnam and its contribution to authoritarian political development as a case study of the Cold War. The police are a crucial institution in any society bearing responsibility for national security and serving as the eyes and ears of the government. During the Cold War, American policy-makers were perennially concerned that ineffective police forces would leave countries susceptible to communist or insurgent take-over. As a consequence they devoted considerable resources towards modernizing the professional capabilities of allied police forces as a bulwark of social stability. The flip side was the emergence of heavily armed police forces equipped with all the latest social control technologies which were often used to suppress political opposition, both communist and noncommunist. Police programs contributed in-kind to a warping of democratic development and were easily manipulated by unscrupulous leaders who used the equipment to fortify their own power. Fitting a wider pattern dating to the occupations of the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century, the Vietnam case shows the dangerous consequences of foreign powers building up police forces for the purpose of social control. The U.S. supported authoritarian governments as much as the Soviets and other Great Power rivals not inadvertently, but because these governments were seen as best suited for achieving broader strategic ends including ensuring access to overseas military bases, open markets and resources, and suppressing leftist movements. The U.S. in turn abandoned efforts to support genuinely democratic policing standards characterized by a respect for due process and a commitment to abolishing torture and other forms of brutality. The research for my talk was undertaken for my book Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012) which provides a history of American international police training programs, which have served as a mechanism for expanding American power through the 21st century occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The book makes a contribution to the study of authoritarian systems in showing the importance of great power intervention and the climate of the Cold War to their development. American police advisers focused extensively on ameliorating intelligence gathering and political policing capabilities, modernizing police repression in effect by importing new technologies designed to enhance police surveillance and social control.