Stuck in the Middle: International Voluntary Services and the Humanitarian Experience in Vietnam, 1957 – 1971

On September 19, 1967, forty-nine members of the volunteer humanitarian group International Voluntary Services (IVS) resigned from their positions in a letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson stating that “to stay in Vietnam and remain silent is to fail to respond to the first need of the Vietnamese people – peace.”[1]  In this letter, the resigning members argued that the United States’ own self-interest in Vietnam, both politically and militarily, stood in the way of Vietnamese self-determination,  alienated the Vietnamese people who were ruled by an illegitimate government, and harmed the Vietnamese people who were killed and maimed by military operations.  The members of IVS recommended five solutions to bring peace to Vietnam and help the people recover from the war’s devastation: de-escalating of the fighting, discontinuing the use of herbicides, halting the bombing of the North, recognizing the National Liberation Front, a military insurgency organization hostile to the South Vietnamese government, (NLF) and turning over the question of Vietnam to an international peace commission whose recommendations the United States accept.[2]  While these forty-nine humanitarian workers made a noble stand for what they believed, their mass resignation and proposals fell upon deaf ears.

At the time of this letter, IVS had been in Vietnam for almost eleven years with 120 individuals working with the Vietnamese people mostly on agricultural projects such as animal husbandry and the cultivation of new crops, but they did much more including: teaching English, giving basic healthcare, and working on construction projects such as bridges and canals.  The organization was widely praised by U.S. government and it became the model for the Peace Corps as government officials’ stated that the “ability of the IVS volunteer to bridge the gap of understanding between Vietnamese and Americans represents a real contribution . . . to our efforts to find peace.”[3]  Viewed as a crucial organization by the United States’ mission in Vietnam, IVS worked closely with the Vietnamese people to build personal relationships at the village level; however, by 1967, almost thirty percent of the IVS volunteers believed that U.S. government policies negatively affected their ability to work with the Vietnamese.[4]

How did a model organization praised by U.S. officials turn against the government and resign en masse?  What was the relationship between IVS and the U.S. government? How did it develop overtime? What led to the resignation of the IVS staff?  How did these resignations affect the relationship between the IVS and the government?  It will be the objective of this paper to answer theses question and the answers illustrate the relationship between the United States government and humanitarian organizations operating in Vietnam, an often overlooked aspect of the war.  First, this paper will examine the development of the IVS program in Vietnam from its initial arrival in 1956 until its departure 1971.  Secondly, this study will show how the Americanization of the war affected the activities and programs of humanitarian workers.  Third, the case of IVS demonstrates how Americanization negatively affected humanitarian workers who became associated with the U.S. government which discredited them in the eyes of the Vietnamese people.  Finally, the story of IVS reveals the effects of Vietnamization on humanitarian organization within Vietnam.  This paper will argue that the Americanization of the Vietnam War in 1965 led to increased U.S. government supervision of IVS actives which pressured IVS workers to fulfill government objectives and resulted in the radicalization of the IVS staff who viewed U.S. government programs as irrelevant to the needs of the Vietnamese people.

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International Voluntary Services was founded in 1953 by the Mennonite, Brethren, and Quaker churches and its charter stated that the organization was created “to utilize the services of volunteers on an organized basis to combat hunger, poverty, disease, and illiteracy in the underdeveloped areas of the world and thereby further peace, happiness, and prosperity of the people thereof.”[5]  In order to achieve these objectives, the organization recruited young college graduates to live in foreign countries, to establish person-to-person contacts with foreign peoples, and to create service projects in which foreign peoples would desire.  IVS was funded through a combination of private and government foundations, but the majority of its projects were financed by the Agency for International Development (AID), the U.S. government agency responsible for administering foreign aid and the precursor to USAID.  Because these IVS activities occurred in underdeveloped nations, the work usually involved animal husbandry, crop experimentation, sanitation, public health, road building, well drilling, and education.  Due to the nature of this work most recruits came from land grant universities with degrees in agricultural sciences, engineering, and education.[6]

IVS reached an agreement with the United States Overseas Mission (USOM), the field organization for USAID in charge of dispensing economic aid, on September 21, 1956 and the first IVS staff members arrived over the next four months.  The first two teams were assigned to work with northern refugees at project sites 13 and 15 located near Cai San, located 125 miles south of Saigon, and Ban Me Thuot, located in the central highlands and capital of Dak Lak Province.  The Ban Me Thuot site was located 32 kilometers away from the city between two villages that were recently founded and inhabited by northern Catholic refugees eight months before IVS arrived called Ha Lan A and Ha Lan B.  Gordon Brockmueller, one of the first IVS staff members in Vietnam, and future chief of IVS in Vietnam, described the inhabits of the new villages as a courageous group of people resettled in the highlands of South Vietnam “void of the abundant water needed for the rice farming they knew.”[7]  Describing his time in Vietnam as an agricultural specialist, Brockmueller focused on building relationships with the Vietnamese people as they were “independent in nature.”[8]  However, relationship building proved to be difficult as rumors spread that the IVS planned “to start a plantation, exploiting the village for labor” and that they “were Protestant missionaries”[9]  To break down the resistance, the IVS worked with the refugees building houses, taking care of the sick, and clearing land for agriculture.  These actions helped the IVS staff build relationships with the Vietnamese as gaining trust was the first crucial step, for without their trust, the Vietnamese would be unwilling to cooperate or listen to the young American’s suggestions that differed from traditional agricultural methods.  Furthermore, working closely with the Vietnamese people and building personal relationships with them, placed the IVS staff in position to understand the Vietnamese people’s problems more intimately than the U.S. government officials.

In developing the “people-to-people” relationships emphasized by the IVS, Brockmueller recollected helping farmers carry bamboo and learning how the various types of bamboo were used by the Vietnamese.  This type of close interaction allowed Brockmueller to become friendly with the farmers and eventually make suggestions that he believed would be beneficial.  One of his main projects involved working with farmers to adopt American chickens that produced more eggs per year compared to the smaller native chickens; however, according Brockmueller, American chickens required a coop and more care than the Vietnamese chickens that were left to roam the yard.[10]  While this was a good proposition as eggs could be eaten and sold at market, it took Brockmueller considerable time working with one enterprising villager, Nguyen Van Suc, to invest in American chickens as it was sizable cost.  Van Suc “did not quite trust” Brockmueller at first but, eventually, Van Suc agreed to adopt the chickens.  Working together to prepare for the arrival of twenty chickens, the two men developed a relationship which allowed Brockmueller to learn the language, culture, and habits of the Vietnamese people.  With Brockmueller working on agricultural development, other members of the IVS team also established relationships with the Vietnamese people especially the nurse, Miss Bowe, whose position as a healer allowed her close contact with the people helping her to gain their trust.[11]

The actions of the IVS staff show that they worked hard to become part of the Vietnamese community and sought to help them improve their lives through introducing new types of crops and livestock, though the environmental and ecological ramifications of this practice remain under researched.  This was especially important for Vietnamese refugees from the north described by Brockmueller who were unfamiliar with their new homes which enabled the IVS team to work closely with the refugees developing their new villages and enabling the people to adapt successfully.  Yet, in many ways, the IVS also represented the typical uninformed American perspective towards the Vietnamese people.  Writing of their experiences, the IVS members never discuss whether the Vietnamese asked for their help or knowledge.  Instead, they assumed that their methods were better than the Vietnamese, and they failed to understand that many of the refugees saw their move south as only a temporary stopover until they could return home.  Hence the IVS staff worked closely with the Vietnamese people out of a legitimate passion to help the people improve their lives but they never asked if their assistance was needed or if their actions were truly improving lives.

As IVS continued to work with the Vietnamese people, their relationship with the American Military Advisory Group (MAAG) was never on good terms.  According to Brockmueller, when Tom Luche, a member of the IVS staff, unshaven and dirty from living in the villages, went to ask for an aerial map of the region, the Colonel found his appearance unacceptable and asked “What kind of organization is this IVS anyway?  Don’t you guys ever take a bath?”[12]  From here on, the IVS members were discouraged from visiting the MAAG bungalow.  Moreover, two U.S. Army veterans now serving with IVS were asked to discontinue visiting the American bungalow as their current positions made them unacceptable. IVS member Peter Hunting recalled “occasional bouts with officialdom” and related an encounter with a U.S. Army major who “fumed that I’d be duplicating the work that HE, as a private citizen and major of the U.S. Army (thumping his chest) had been doing for the last eight months.”[13]  The army’s negative attitude towards the IVS members led Brockmueller to write that “we were ostracized by our American brothers in an alien land!”[14]  Though these early encounter’s with American military advisors were only a prelude, they demonstrate that humanitarian organizations were never viewed by the military as a legitimate function of American policy in Vietnam.

Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the IVS mission in Vietnam grew from eight initial volunteers in 1958 to fifty-three in 1963 when the organization established an English language program.  During the intermittent five years, IVS continued to work closely with the Vietnamese people and government technicians on land cultivation, crop improvement, and livestock development.  The educational aspect the program involved twenty-five individuals at eight locations including Hue and several of the strategic hamlets.  Marybeth Clark, a former AID secretary in Vietnam, joined IVS in the mid-1960s because she believed in the IVS method stating

They [IVS] lived more in the Vietnamese community and were not so much at odds with the community.  It just seemed to me that they were having experiences that were valuable to themselves as individuals, and out this kind of positive business they could be more effective in whatever they were doing, and in their relationships with the Vietnamese.[15]

In survey conducted by AID, Clark stated that she left AID because they were a bureaucracy, uninterested in helping the Vietnamese people, and because she felt isolated.  Clark recounted that she wanted to learn the language and work with the Vietnamese even being scolded by her supervisor for speaking Vietnamese.   Why was IVS more attractive than a government agency?

The reasons why this would appeal to more than working for AID were several.  One during my stay in Saigon I gradually fell more and more in love with Vietnam . . . [w]ith IVS I could work more closely with the Vietnamese people instead of working in an American office.  Two, I could teach, which is something I preferred . . . [a]nd three, I felt I would like to be associated with the kind of organization that IVS is.[16]

As a teacher, Clark worked in a junior high school in Hue were she used AID textbooks and taught several hours of English to four to six different classes a day.  Clark’s recollections of USAID reveal that the organization approached humanitarian aid from the top down attempting to use dollars to persuade the Vietnamese people to accomplish American objectives.  This methodology obviously conflicted with Clark’s understanding of humanitarianism and also contrasted with IVS objective of people-to-people relationships.  This conflict in organizational goals and methods between IVS and USAID would emerge as the war became Americanized.

As the IVS mission increased in the early 1960s, security issues became a prominent problem as the team near Cai San was moved to another location and IVS members experienced close encounters with violence.  The U.S. military also increased its presence as the number of military advisors reached 11,000 leading to closer interaction between IVS and the military, and requests by AID and USOM for IVS to take on more responsibility.  This initially began in 1962 when AID requested that IVS add English instructors – a project IVS participated in as it fit within the IVS mission statement but, in 1963, USOM interfered in IVS internal affairs by requesting that its chief, Don Luce, be replaced.  Most IVS staff members felt favorably about Luce requesting that be remain in his position, and Luce asserted that USOM wanted him removed because he refused to approve their projects which conflicted with IVS principles and were jealous of his contacts.  Moreover, an IVS report declared “IVS/W was concerned over the increasing regimentation of program [sic] and the curtailment of freedom under the new USAID administration.”[17] This initial clash between IVS and USAID in 1963 reveals the problems that eventually culminated in the 1967 resignation of Luce.

The year 1963 was tumultuous for Vietnam as South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown and murdered during a violent coup which was partly approved by the U.S. government.  The removal of Diem created instability within Vietnam and led to greater U.S. government involvement as the success of Vietnam was, in the U.S. government’s view, now America’s responsibility.  As the U.S. government deepened its commitment to Vietnam, USAID moved away from its grassroots development programs towards government sponsored pacification projects and tried to incorporate IVS into their new objective.  This change in government strategy and involvement in Vietnam conflicted with the objectives of IVS.  These clashing methodologies forced Luce to work hard in order to maintain IVS’s independence and prevent the incorporation of IVS into the government.

In the years 1964-1965, the escalation of war began to significantly hinder IVS as they faced the continued interference of USAID and a much more violent situation as the war intensified.  The problems with USAID again flared up over the reappointment of Don Luce as head of IVS in Vietnam which USAID protested but staffers “stood by their Chief of Party, insisting upon the renewal of his contact for an additional two years.”[18]  The volunteers believed that if USAID started deciding who was in charge of IVS, they would soon decide where to place volunteers.  Moreover, the staff members identified what they believed to be the key difference between the IVS and USAID recognizing that IVS was a decentralized operation compared to USAID and asked “[d]oes IVS seek to deal with people where they are, or merely implement USAID policy, hoping that some benefits will trickle?”[19]  This organizational clash was further fleshed out by IVS which noted that IVS worked in teams among the people and developed “an appreciation for their aspirations” while USAID operated at the top level and was “lacking . . . a structure to communicate with the villages and hamlets.”[20]  The IVS members believed that their work directly with the people rather than through the Government of Vietnam (GVN), the official name of South Vietnam, was what made them unique from USAID.  By working and living directly with the Vietnamese people rather than developing programs through official government bureaucracies, the IVS members believed their method to aid the people was superior and more productive.  The disagreement between IVS and USAID was again mediated, but IVS was forced to acknowledged that “IVS works in Vietnam by virtue of United States Government contracts;”[21] a statement that suggest that while IVS was an independent organization, the U.S. government could ask them to leave at any time.

While the trouble with USAID continued, the American military escalation also created significant problems for the IVS staff as the agricultural workers were limited to education programs rather than working in the fields and the public health and strategic hamlet teams were “phased out.”[22] Unable to work closely with the Vietnamese on agriculture projects, the IVS were forced to recognize the new realities of the war which required safety over humanitarian work.  The safety was further emphasized when IVS staff member Peter Hunting was ambushed and killed on November 12, 1965 southwest of Can Tho where he worked as a teacher advising farmers.  Moreover, IVS staffers reported drawing gun fire several times, losing a jeep due to gun fire, and noting that the IVS house in Blao was bombed.[23]  Fortunately for IVS, no other deaths occurred in these situations, but they demonstrate that the Americanization of the war in 1964-1965 created new and violent challenges to the IVS mission, particularly their objective of working directly with the people.

Beyond the restriction of their work due to increased violence, the IVS chief wrote to headquarters stating that “both the GVN and the Americans are asking IVS to do contract work: (1) The USOM representative in Tay Ninh is requesting an English teacher to promote better understanding. (2) National Voluntary Service (a counterpart Vietnamese youth organization) has asked IVS/VN to make all financial arrangements on their behalf with USOM”[24]  This letter reveals that the Americanization of the war in the mid-1960s significantly hindered the actions and efforts of the IVS.  They were now being asked to divert personal from accomplishing their own objectives and using them to support and advise USAID and GVN projects.  While this demonstrates that both the USOM and the GVN saw the IVS as a useful organization, it also shows that these national governments were becoming more involved in directing humanitarian organization and their operations.  This interference undermined and angered the IVS staff which viewed the actions of USAID as external meddling.

Moreover, IVS chief Luce identified the negative effects of Americanization on the volunteers writing that there “is increasing sensitivity among the Vietnamese to American involvement as the number of Americans build up.”[25]  While Luce never elaborated on what he means by sensitivity, he appears to suggest that the increased American presence in Vietnam was obstructing the work of the IVS.  As more and more American’s arrived in the country, all Americans were viewed uniformly working towards the same goal rather than a collection of organizations with unique objectives.  This was emphasized by Luce when recounting comments from a Vietnamese friend who told him “[t]he Vietnamese make no distinction between your organization and the U.S. government.  This is too complicated, and, as a result, U.S. policy casts a direct shadow on whatever you do or say.”[26]  This remark clearly indicates that Vietnamese saw no distinction between the American military and American aid workers – they were viewed as one monolithic America rather than the different organization.

1966 saw not only a continuation, but also a deepening of the problems and conflicts between IVS and USAID and the U.S. Army.  One IVS staff member lamented that most western humanitarian agencies were only donating supplies rather than helping the Vietnamese people learn skills that allow them to become self-reliant.  “It is discouraging to hear project planning in terms of donated supplies. . . It is easier to fill out a request and have the supplies dumped on your doorstep.  The true self-help attitude is difficult to inculcate.”[27]  Another staff member decried the growth of USAID writing that IVS “will be misidentified as sub-assistant provincial representatives of USAID.  We are fighting for our lives because of USAID.”[28]  These IVS staff members’ frustrations illustrate the continued conflict between the two agencies and the effects of Americanization on both USAID and IVS.  With the military becoming more involved and taking over the American effort within Vietnam, USAID was being forced to take actions that correlated with U.S. military strategy and tried to force IVS to also follow the military line.  This created create conflict and disruption between the two agencies and led the IVS leadership to propose that the IVS Vietnam program be internationalized and privately funded which would allow IVs to operate independently of USAID.[29]

The problems affecting the triangular relationship between IVS, USAID, and the U.S. military were also occurring with other humanitarian organizations, but, in these situations, many of the organizations submitted to the U.S. government’s orders.  This was true of the largest humanitarian organization operating within Vietnam, the Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the humanitarian agency of the Catholic Church in the United States.[30]  In summer of 1967, National Catholic Reporter (NCR), a U.S. newspaper that covers topics on the Catholic Church, sent Michael Novak to Vietnam to write a series of articles on the war. His reports were harsh and critical of the war with headlines such as “In Vietnam, U.S. means Money and Sex;” “Our Terror, Our Brutality;” and “Catholic Relief Supports South Vietnam’s Militia.”[31]  In his article concerning CRS, Novak described the organization as the “willing instrument of U.S. military policy,” but, more importantly, he also noted that all humanitarian organization within the country were facing pressure from the U.S. Army

[T]he American military wish[es] all civilians to be more helpful towards the American military policy.  Efforts were made in Hue, for example, to force a member of International Voluntary Services to stop teaching English at the University of Hue.  It is American policy, since the Buddhist riots in that city not to help that university.[32]

While Novak’s assignment was to report on the Vietnam War to his Catholic audience, his discussion of CRS and the relationship between humanitarian organization and the U.S. government corroborate the difficulties faced by IVS.  In both cases, the Americanization of the war forced humanitarian organizations to submit to the U.S. Army’s will in order to continue operating in Vietnam and, according to Novak, CRS not only submitted but was a crucial tool for U.S. policy.  On the other hand, IVS refused to follow the demands or methods of the U.S. military because they ran counter to the mission of IVS which decided to resist the U.S. governments demands.  This resistance erupted one month after Novak’s article when forty-nine members of IVS resigned.

On September 20, 1967, the front page of the New York Times carried an article describing the mass resignation under the headline “4 Chiefs of Volunteer Unit Quit Over War.[33]”  The article described the work of IVS, the funding the organization received from the government, and how the war affected their humanitarian work and led the forty-nine members of the organization to resign.  The article went on say that the resignation of the IVS volunteers followed months of disputes “between several relief agencies, and the United States mission here.  It centers on the right of Americans civilian volunteers to discuss the war with the South Vietnamese and Americans and on what several agencies feel are pressures by the United States to involve them in the war effort.”[34]  This report by Bernard Weinraub further stresses the statements by members of IVS and Novak – the United States government, particularly the U.S. military, attempted to utilize the networks and relationships of the humanitarian organizations in order to further their own agenda.  As these organization viewed themselves independent of government policy, they became increasingly frustrated by the U.S. Army’s demands that they coordinate with military request in order to fulfill objectives.  The increased American presence and the growing military pressure to conform to the American government’s objectives ultimately resulted in the resignation of the IVS leadership.  However, government interference is only part of the story.  The members of the IVS staff who resigned also discussed the war’s harmful effects on the Vietnamese people and on their relationship with the people.  Don Ronk, head of IVS in Da Nang and a U.S. Army veteran, stated “my protest is in the best interest of my Vietnamese friends and is intended to say what they are largely unable to say: Stop this war.”[35]  The article also quoted Luce who emphasized both the destructiveness of the war and the failures of USAID “We are seeing the destruction of Vietnamese family life, of its agriculture and transportation.”  “People in U.S. aid listen and suggest we write a report and then nothing happens.  It’s become a land of report writing.”[36]

Yet, even while those who resigned in protest of U.S. government actions appeared to represent the antiwar movement, they were actually against U.S. policy and the methods used to carry it out rather against U.S. intervention entirely.  In this capacity they viewed the U.S. military commitment to Vietnam as tenuous and half-hearted stating that “unless the United States takes some leadership in bringing it to an end.  I don’t’ see any possibility of our ever winning it.” [37] This was further elaborated when another IVS staffer stated “U.S. policy, if it is properly formulated, is supposed to be the policy for me . . . I think I find some aspects that don’t set so well.”[38]  Following his return to the United States after his resignation, Don Luce, testifying before congress stated “I fully supported and endorsed our program of refugee support.  The refugees in 1965 were mainly refugees from communism . . . Today the refugee is in only a few cases fleeing Communist terrorism.  In most cases he is either fleeing in fear of bombing or because he is being forced out because of allied military action.”[39]  These comments by Luce and other IVS staff members show that they were not radical antiwar protester but in fact supported the government’s anticommunist actions in Vietnam.  Nevertheless, even while supporting one aspect of government policy, they believed that military strategies and solutions were ineffective and creating new problems.  In short, many of the IVS staff members believed that the U.S. was attempting to solve a political problem with a military solution which failed to resolve the existing situation.

The pubic resignation and criticism by the IVS staff made headlines for several days but the action failed to create considerable debate within the American press about U.S. military policy and strategy; furthermore, the issues was quickly resolved by the head of IVS, Arthur Z. Gardiner, and U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker.  In an exchange of letters between the two, Bunker noted the good worked done by IVS in Vietnam but emphasized that future “volunteers refrain from any political involvement in Vietnam.”[40]  Gardiner agreed to reign in political commentary by IVS staff members so as to maintain the organization’s relationship with the U.S. government. Gardiner’s actions show that the IVS attempted to make amends with the U.S. government and to implement an apolitical approach to their efforts within Vietnam; however, this was no longer possible.  IVS, whether it wanted to or not, was an organization with a political disposition and by attempting to maintain its independence and refusing to follow USAID and U.S. military directives, IVS demonstrated a political viewpoint – that the best methods for helping the Vietnamese people was nonmilitary bottom-up relationship building program that directly conflicted with U.S. government policies.  Thus the public reconciliation only patched over the fundamental differences between IVS and the U.S. government, ultimately leading to the withdrawal of IVS from Vietnam.

Shortly after the mass resignation, the North Vietnamese and NLF launched the Tet Offensive in January 1968.  While this military offensive initially surprised the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies, they quickly recovered and beat back the North Vietnamese and NLF forces.  However, the offensive marks a historical turning point in the war as the American people, long told by the U.S. government that the communist were incapable of attacking, were shocked and angered by the government’s faulty representation of the war which resulted in the loss of popular support.  As a major military operation affecting the entirety of Vietnam, IVS also experienced the offensive and the impact profoundly affected the organization’s future in Vietnam.  On January 26, IVS staff member David Gitelson, who worked in community development, was captured and executed in Long Xuyen the capital of An Giang Province located in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam.[41]  At the time, Gitelson’s murder was seen as a tragedy but not way connected to the offensive; however, based on the IVS personal relationships with the Vietnamese people, it is quite possible that he overheard sensitive information or was purposefully captured by the NLF because he was American.  Gitelson was the sixth IVS staff member killed in Vietnam but was not the last killed during Tet.  Three IVS staff members, Sandra Johnson, Gary Daves, and Marc Cayer, were captured in the city of Hue where the Tet Offensive dragged out for three violent months of fighting.  A 1972 report wrote that only Johnson survived and that both Daves and Cayer were never seen again and presumed dead; however, Cayer survived his imprisonment and later published a book about his experience in Vietnam titled “Prisoner in Vietnam” (1990).

The tragedy of Tet, along with the mass resignation in September, left IVS in a chaotic and unorganized position.  The war became increasingly more violent and more dangerous for civilians especially Americans who were always identified with the military.  No longer able to carry out their stated mission, the IVS leadership in Washington asked those IVS members remaining in Vietnam whether they wanted to continue or return home.  Given this choice, 80 of 162 workers decided to leave because of the security situation or because they could no longer perform the duties required by IVS in Vietnam.[42]  This number was further decreased and, by June 1969, the number declined to 54 members of whom only thirty were from the United States.  While the IVS leadership worked to increase volunteer numbers, Tet marked the beginning of the end for the IVS in Vietnam for two important reasons.  First, as mentioned above, the Americanization of the war created challenges for the IVS members as they became increasingly identified with American military forces rather than an independent organization and, as the military reacted to Tet, autonomy from the U.S. government became virtually impossible.  Secondly, the violence of the Tet offensive and the death of three of its members underscored the security issues affecting all volunteers working as individuals in Vietnam as they became military targets.  No longer able to work with the Vietnamese people directly, the IVS members were incapable of fulfilling the organization’s mission

Following the Tet Offensive and the election of Richard M. Nixon as President, the U.S. military strategy within Vietnam shifted to Vietnamization.  This strategy focused on the transfer of military responsibilities for the war to the South Vietnamese government especially in combat situations.  Many of the remaining IVS members believed that the Vietnamization of the war signaled “the beginning of the period of relative normalization of rural life.”[43]  They were, however, mistaken.  The Vietnamization of the war actually led to a collapse in the local economy as the withdrawal of American money led to stealing and bribery.  One member of IVS noted that “the great edifice constructed by USAID” is crumbling “for lack of maintenance funds.”  This description illustrates that the Vietnamization of the war also negatively impacted the IVS.  Americanization created too much outside inference and forced IVS to follow U.S. government policies that they rejected; however, Vietnamization decimated the distribution networks that the American government and USAID had established to fund and support the Vietnamese people.  The withering away of this system created instability within the rural regions.  From this perspective, the IVS functioned at its best during the early stages of American involvement under the Diem regime as this government, while in many ways inefficient and shortsighted, created just enough stability and organization for IVS to carry out is mission safely and involved only a minor American presence.

Vietnamization also led to a decline in American funds to the South Vietnam government.  The decline in funding played a role in IVS’ withdrawal from Vietnam in 1971 as the South Vietnamese Minister of Agricultural Nguyen Hai Bin chose to discontinue IVS funding stating that the organization now “proved more qualified in social work than in the agricultural field.”  The IVS staff in Vietnam saw the situation differently and their chief, Hugh Manke, contended that South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu was defunding IVS “for political reasons, we really see what is going on in the countryside and that is bad for the government.”[44]  Manke also argued that the USOM was encouraging the South Vietnamese government to remove IVS and unwilling to assist IVS in renewing their contract.  The IVS staff members created several new proposals in order to meet the requirements demanded by the GVN, but they were consistently rejected as the “reports were not sufficiently technical to meet the Ministry’s needs.”  IVS drew up more proposals and sent them to other government ministries including Education, Social Welfare, Development of Ethnic Minorities but these too were rejected.  The inability of IVS to renew their contract because of the unwillingness of USAID to help reveals that IVS’ consistent criticism and public denunciations of the USAID ultimately led to its demise in Vietnam.  One IVS member wrote “[w]hile some IVSers were disparaging AID, and organizing to appear as independent of AID, they were being protected in their forays into politics by that same organization.”[45]  As the South Vietnamese government became more responsible for running the country and, with USAID downgrading into a more advisory position, IVS lost the shield of the U.S. government.  This left IVS in the hands of the GVN which chose not to renew the contact with IVS for political, financial, or other unstated reasons.  With their contract terminated, the IVS mission in Vietnam ended in September 1971.

During its fourteen year mission in Vietnam from 1957-1971, IVS experienced three distinct periods of operation:  1957-1963 under the Diem government, 1963-1968 during the Americanization of the war, and finally the Vietnamization period from 1968-1971.  The first period under the Diem regime saw the IVS mission at its peak.  There was little American military presence to hinder projects, USAID encouraged and funded the projects undertaken by IVS, and the Diem government supported American humanitarian organizations as this gave him access to different American constituencies.  Nevertheless, after the coup that removed Diem in 1963, the American military presence within Vietnam significantly increasing the interaction between IVS and the American military; furthermore, as the U.S. military controlled U.S. policy, USAID objectives changed to align with military objectives.  This created a strain in the relationship between IVS and USAID as IVS staff members were now ordered to fulfill USAID objectives rather than develop and implement their own projects.  IVS saw the attempts by USAID to direct their organization as outside interference which undermined their mission to work with the Vietnamese people directly on projects they saw as beneficial.  The contrast in opinions and objectives eventually boiled over in September 1967 when forty members of IVS wrote an open letter to President Johnson and resigned from their positions.  The most prominent among them was Don Luce, the head of IVS in Vietnam, who returned to the United States and criticized the methods of American policy, but not the American presence itself.  Finally, following the Tet Offensive in early 1968, IVS lost a significant amount of manpower as members chose to return to the United States due to the instability within Vietnam; moreover, the introduction of the Vietnamization policy led to the withdrawal of American infrastructure and money in Vietnam further hindering the IVS project.  The removal of American aid resulted in the loss of resources for the IVS staff to carry out their projects and the removal of American funding led the Vietnamese government under President Thieu to defund IVS and thus ends its service in the country.

While the IVS mission in Vietnam may seem insignificant to the war, this organization, along with the dozens of other American humanitarian organizations in Vietnam, reveal another aspect of the American experience in Vietnam that is neither military nor governmental.  As a civilian organization affiliated with the U.S. government, these humanitarian groups were part of the “hearts and minds” strategy in Vietnam and played a pivotal role as the face of the American presence in Vietnam.  In this position, humanitarian workers acted as an intermediary between the Vietnamese and the American government disseminating American aid throughout the countryside to boost economic development, agriculture, and education to create the beginnings of an emergent civil society.  While these actions can be interpreted as an extension of U.S. foreign policy to contain communism and create a Vietnam with a government friendly to the United States, the members of IVS set out to help the Vietnamese people with no thought towards the expansion of American power.  However, as the war escalated, many humanitarian workers were pulled into the larger moral questions surrounding the war, especially as they saw the results of the war directly.  The domestic upheaval created by the war disillusioned many workers and led many to question their work as the American presence undermined their goals and objects.  Located between the Vietnamese people and the American government, humanitarian organizations demonstrate the experience of American civilians in Vietnam and reveal that they wanted passionately to help the people of South Vietnam, but became an important voice in criticism of U.S. policy.

– written 30 April 2012

[1] Don Luce and John Sommer, Viet Nam – The Unheard Voices, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969), 316.

[2] Ibid., 321.

[3] Winburn T. Thomas, The Vietnam Story of International Voluntary Services, Inc., (Washington, D.C.: International Voluntary Services, Inc., 1972), 27.

[4] Ibid., 209.  According to Thomas,  IVS reached 165 members in 1967 and the resignation of 49 members is just under 30%.

[5] Thomas, 55.

[6] International Voluntary Services, Agents of Change,  No Date, Folder 52, Box 10, Douglas Pike Collection: Other Manuscripts – American Friends of Vietnam, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 21 Mar. 2012. <;.

[7] Gordon Brockmueller, “Adventures in Vietnam,” Brockmueller Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 21 Mar. 2012. =234501 01001, 15.

[8] Ibid., 18.

[9] Ibid., 19.

[10] Ibid., 18

[11] Ibid., 22.

[12] Ibid., 30.

[13] Jill Hunting, Finding Pete, (Wesleyan University Press, 2009), 55.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Marybeth Clark, “Aid Secretary in Saigon and IVS Teacher in Hue, 1961-1967,”  Folder 17, Box 12, Glenn Helm Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 21 Mar. 2012., 24.

[16] Clark, 30.

[17] Thomas, 172.

[18] Ibid., 184.

[19] Ibid., 183, 184.

[20] Ibid., 184.

[21] Ibid., 185.

[22] Ibid., 181.

[23] Ibid., 187-188.

[24] Ibid., 187.

[25] Ibid., 187.

[26] Luce, 17.

[27] Thomas, 203.

[28] Ibid., 204.

[29] Ibid., 211.

[30] Scott Flipse, “The Latest Casualty of War: Catholic Relief Services, Humanitarianism, and the War in Vietnam, 1967-1968,” Peace & Change Vol. 27, No. 2, (April 2002), 248.

[31] Michael Novak, ‘‘In Vietnam, U.S. Means Money and Sex,’’ NCR, August 23, 1967, 5-6; Novak, ‘‘Our Terror, Our Brutality,’’ NCR, August 18, 1965, 3; Novak, ‘‘Catholic Relief Supports South Vietnam’s Militia,’’ NCR, August 23, 1967, 1.

[32] Novak, ‘‘Catholic Relief Supports South Vietnam’s Militia,’’ National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1967, 5.

[33] Bernard Weinraub, “4 Chiefs of Volunteer Unit in Vietnam Quit Over War,” New York Times, Sep 20, 1967.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] William Tuohy, “Resigned Volunteer Asks Others to Stay,” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File), September  21, 1967, accountid=7082 (accessed April 27, 2012).

[38] Thomas, 213.

[39] U.S. Senate, Subcommittee to Investigate Problems Connected with Refugees and Escapees, Committee on Judiciary. Civilian Casualty, Social Welfare, and Refugee Problems in South Vietnam. 90th Congress 1st Session, October 10, 1967, 65-66. Available from: ProQuest® Congressional; Accessed: April 28, 2012.

[40] “U.S. Saigon Mission and Service Group Smooth Differences,” New York Times, November 15, 1967,

[41] “U.S. Field Worker Killed in Vietnam,” New York Times, January 28, 1968,

[42] “IVS Losing Half of Staff in Vietnam.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, March 19, 1968.

[43] Thomas, 242.

[44] “S. Vietnam Accused of Ousting U.S. Team: Letter from Ministry,” Washington Post, August 3, 1971, pg. A11.

[45] Thomas, 256.


4 thoughts on “Stuck in the Middle: International Voluntary Services and the Humanitarian Experience in Vietnam, 1957 – 1971

  1. Please note that Marc Cayer survived his kidnapping and imprisonment in North Vietnam. Upon release and repatriation to Quebec, he wrote a book about his difficult experiences in North Vietnam (DRVN).

    Marc attended one of our IVS reunions.

    From a former IVSer/VN, 1966-68

    1. Hi Charles, thanks so much for your comment and pointing out that Marc Cayer survived his capture. I have updated the text to reflect this correction. It is nice to hear that a former IVS member read this paper. I am preparing to publish my dissertation in the fall and hope to pursue a broader study of the IVS in the future.

      1. Douglas,
        Are you in contact with the leadership of IVS Alumni Association? If not, let me know and J can forward names, erc., to you.


        1. Charles, no I have not been in contact with the leadership of the IVS. My paper on the IVS was written for a seminar course. As I said, I am interested in pursuing further research after my dissertation. I would welcome the contact information of the Alumni leadership. You can send this to my personal email: I am hoping to start work on the larger project in September and visiting Texas Tech and the The Mennonite Church Archives in Elkhart, IN which has records for the IVS.

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