Simon Toner is the 2016-2017 Dorothy Borg Postdoctoral Scholar in Southeast Asian Studies at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. He is a historian of the United States and the World, focusing particularly on the history of the American War in Vietnam and U.S. development projects in Cold War East and Southeast Asia. He is currently completing a book manuscript, based primarily on Vietnamese and American archival sources, which explores the final years of the American War in Vietnam as an episode in the history of global development. In particular, it shows how changes in global development thinking and practice in the late 1960s and 1970s shaped debates between and within the U.S. and South Vietnamese governments and had a decisive impact on the course and outcome of the war. Simon is a Lecturer in Modern American History at the University of Sheffield (on leave 2016-2017). He completed his PhD in International History at the London School of Economics in 2015. In the 2015-2016 academic year he was a U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security Postdoctoral Fellow at Dartmouth College. He has received funding from the Society for Historians of U.S. Foreign Relations, the Institute for New Economic Thinking, and the LBJ Foundation.
Read below for a Q&A about Professor Toner’s research and teaching interests:
1. What led you to focus your academic research on the Cold War histories of the United States and Southeast Asia?
I was interested in the history of American foreign relations from quite an early age, but my interest in Cold War Asia was sparked during my master’s degree at University College Dublin. During that year, I took a Vietnam War seminar with Robert K. Brigham of Vassar College, who was visiting UCD as the Mary Ball Washington Professor of American History. Bob is one of the top historians of the American War in Vietnam and was one of the first Americans to conduct archival research in Vietnam. I was so taken with his seminar that I decided I was going to do a PhD on the topic. I moved to Hanoi for 18 months to teach English and study Vietnamese. After that, I started a PhD in International History at the London School of Economics, where I was fortunate enough to work with Arne Westad, the doyen of Cold War history.
2. Can you tell us briefly about your current book project on the final years of the American War in Vietnam? In what ways would you like to complicate or challenge the ways that the Vietnam War has been popularly understood?
I’m currently working on a book manuscript which examines the role of development in the final years of the American War in Vietnam. I argue that global changes in development thought and practice in the late 1960s and early 1970s shaped the United States relationship with its South Vietnamese ally, influenced the nature of development projects on the ground in Vietnam, and ultimately determined the outcome of the war.
I see myself as contributing to an important trend in Vietnam War historiography which takes the South Vietnamese state more seriously. Typically dismissed as a puppet state in much of the Americanist literature, a small but growing group of historians using Vietnamese archives, including myself, argues that the actions of the South Vietnamese state mattered.
In particular, I look at the development policies of the Second Republic of Vietnam and the government of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu (1967-1975). Most of the Americanist scholarship more or less ignores Thiệu’s government, instead focusing on the United States’ and North Vietnam’s negotiations in Paris and mutual escalation on the battlefield. This was the phase of the war known as ‘Vietnamization,’ during which the Nixon administration began withdrawing American troops and handing over the burden of fighting to the South Vietnamese military (a process we have also seen in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years). Many historians have framed this as the slow abandonment of South Vietnam. But South Vietnamese leaders did not passively await their fate. In addition to taking on a larger share of war-fighting, I reveal that South Vietnam was also ‘developmentalist’ state. The government, along with many of its U.S. advisors, viewed development as a crucial component of counterinsurgency warfare and indeed essential if the state was to survive the U.S. withdrawal. They debated the means and ends of development but generally these projects were designed to stabilize the economy, increase state capacity and legitimacy, and to win allegiance of, or at least control the political identities of the population. Ultimately, these projects were unable to save South Vietnam, and in some cases even amplified the fragility of the state in the face of North Vietnam’s final military offensives. So I argue that we cannot understand why the South Vietnamese state fell without studying these projects.
3. What do you find appealing and what do you find challenging about studying transnational history?
When I started this project, I did not imagine it would have such a large transnational dimension. I was primarily interested in how ideas about development, formulated in U.S. academia and in U.S. development institutions, were projected into South Vietnam and received by South Vietnamese actors.
As I dug deeper, it became clear that this binary was too simplistic. Many American ideas about development came to South Vietnam after experimentation in other Global South countries. For example, American community development projects in Bangladesh provided a template for Vietnam. U.S. government representatives sometimes appropriated the development experiments of non-government actors in Vietnam, such as International Voluntary Services. In addition, South Vietnamese leaders did not only look to the United States for development inspiration but more often to other authoritarian states in the Global South. For example, South Korea and in particular Taiwan, were important models for macroeconomic development, land reform, and public health. In many respects, policy makers in South Vietnam’s military-led government preferred these models to American ones because authoritarian governance appeared to require fewer political compromises.
The challenge with doing this kind of transnational history is that you often have to do a lot of archival digging. Many of these connections occurred among mid-level development professionals and it is sometimes hard to trace their activities over time and space. For example, it took me some time to figure out that the South Vietnamese government was able to enlist Iranian assistance in drawing up oil concession contracts in the 1970s because the South Vietnamese Minister of Economy and a senior official in the Iranian Ministry of Treasury had studied together at the London School of Economics in the 1950s!
4. What kinds of questions tend to drive your research and your teaching?
As a historian of the Vietnam War who is attempting to push against orthodox historiography, I try to challenge established truths and encourage my students to do the same. The ways in which we interpret the past are constantly evolving due to new archival discoveries, methodological innovations, and, for better or worse, contemporary concerns. This is why I think it is really important to teach students about historiography quite early on and for them to learn that, ultimately, it is all a matter of interpretation.
As a historian of U.S. foreign relations, my research and teaching also grapples with the question of U.S. empire. The question of whether the United States is/was an empire is perhaps the key question in the field. Arguably, American-led development programs during the Cold War, and the attempt to shape the politics and economics of foreign countries, were part of an American imperial project. I think this is true, but I’m also interested in the ways in which ‘Third World’ actors, even weak and dependent ones like South Vietnam, were able to push back against American designs.
5. What aspects of being at Columbia this year particularly excite you?
It’s an absolute privilege to be based at Columbia for a year. The resources and opportunities for intellectual exchange seem endless. It’s particularly exciting for me that Prof. Lien-Hang Nguyen, one of the leading lights of the new history of the Vietnam War, is a recent addition to the Columbia faculty. Hang is a great mentor to Vietnam War scholars and I have learned a lot from her. Given my interest in South Vietnamese-Taiwan connections, I’ve been attending the Weatherhead East Asian Institute’s Taiwan lecture series and I’m also looking forward to upcoming workshops on US-Southeast Asian relations.
6. Can you tell us about the course you plan to offer in the spring of 2017?
The course is called “The United States, Asia, and the History of International Development, 1898-present.” We’ll cover the period from colonial development in the Philippines to contemporary debates about the Transpacific Partnership. The idea is examine the efforts of the United States government, philanthropic organizations, and private citizens to shape the economic, political, and social development of Asia. But we’ll also explore the ways in which Asian actors accepted, reinterpreted or subverted American ideas and how overseas development projects also played out in America’s inner cities.
Today, development professionals have a tendency to present development practice as an apolitical, technocratic practice. They also tend to reject any comparison with earlier iterations of development and instead claim development practice is constantly being modified for the better. But if we look at the long sweep of U.S.-led development in 20th century Asia, from the village level to the international stage, we can see that development shaped and was shaped by political relationships. Furthermore, today’s modes of development bear more than passing resemblance to the earlier development practices. So I would say that we can’t understand the political economy of contemporary US-Asian relations without situating it within its proper historical context.