To Secure the Global Great Society: Participation in Pacification

In March 1971, a high-ranking U.S. official reflected on the past several years of novel poverty-alleviation programming. He described how the twinned mandate of “maximum participation of the people” and the “encouragement of local government institutions” formed the cornerstone of efforts to ameliorate dismal socioeconomic conditions that had for too long left many citizens bereft of hope for the future. Even worse, the desperate had been turning to violent means of social transformation. In many cities, he noted, a situation of “volatility”—unemployment among the “urban population of skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled labor”—had resulted in the need for community participation “to channel their energies in positive rather than protest activities.” Now, according to legislation that required popular, democratic participation, recipients of economic aid could themselves play a part in determining what their own communities needed and how best to address those “felt needs.” Community members, not just outside experts, would play a role in managing aid efforts. With “the concept of the local community” placed “at the heart of the plan,” communication lines had opened between various levels of government, leading to widespread dissemination of information about the programs and high-level attention to locally generated ideas.

This official, however, was not referring to President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which famously enshrined “maximum feasible participation” as the watchword of domestic poverty remediation. The speaker, stationed in Saigon, was Ambassador William E. Colby, future director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). At the time, he was overseeing Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS), the centralized civilian directorate for all U.S. counterinsurgency operations in South Vietnam—what it called “pacification.”1 This surprising speech exemplifies the articulation of foreign and domestic spheres in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Participation was one important, and heretofore overlooked, texture of this articulation, but it was also a central ingredient, like yeast, that would enable development to occur in a context of insecurity.

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