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Development and Defoliation During the Vietnam War: A USAID Officer’s Tale

How do you reconcile the goals of the U.S. military, USAID development workers and State Department diplomats in the midst of an active conflict?  USAID Officer George Laudato faced that dilemma in a particularly challenging way when U.S. military officials shared plans to defoliate a village in Vietnam where USAID had been working for over a year to achieve long-term, sustainable development goals.  

Laudato worked with USAID’s Civilian Office for Rural Development Support (CORDS) in Vietnam from 1967-70.  In his oral history, Laudato reflects on the difficulty of achieving coherent U.S. foreign policy on the ground in the midst of war.

George Laudato was a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama before joining USAID.  His first USAID assignment was in Vietnam in the midst of the war. Later in his career, Laudato served in Washington, the Philippines and Egypt (twice). He retired from USAID after 33 years of service, but was brought back to serve as USAID’s director for the Middle East. He retired from the agency for the final time in 2011.  Laudato has since served as chair of the Seton Hall University School of Diplomacy and International Relations, and as an advisor to Arizona State University..

George Laudato was interviewed by John Pielemeier on March 6, 2018. You can read his full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Simone van Heijst

“They would identify villages to target for pacification.”

It was a hot war at that point, for sure, although there was a feeling that the tide had changed a bit in the favor of the South. I started working on this provincial team. It was a mixed military-civilian operation, very clearly. The top guys were always military . . . And there was a senior person, either State or AID, underneath. So I started working there. We were working on a sort of pacification program . . . They would identify villages to target for pacification. We would go out, and would work with the rural development support cadre. These nine were young Vietnamese who ran around in black pajamas like the Viet Cong. They would work with the village people. They were generally pretty interesting young people. This is where I began to really think about how different our objectives were — all of the component parts of the U.S. program.

“In thinking about development, you are drawn to concepts of sustainability, and if you don’t have that, you are not really working on development.”


But when you are involved in a conflict, and you are involved with the U.S. military, the U.S. political State Department, and the AID people, you have three totally distinct timelines. You have the military, which have a very tactical timeline, and it is “get it done and get it done yesterday.” I’ll be damned, but it has a long-term negative impact. They are not interested in the long-term impact. The State Department tends to look at these situations and how do we get it over the next year to a more stable place. The development guys, probably in some ways a bit Pollyanna-ish, try to think about development. In thinking about development, you are drawn to concepts of sustainability, and if you don’t have that, you are not really working on development. That is generally in conflict with your other colleagues.

“We are about to defoliate our success stories!”

I liked the military guys. I really liked working with them. They were really interesting. But I began to realize there were these disconnects, you know. You would have a map. You would have where the Vietcong were, and where the friendly villages were. One day, the colonel calls me in, and he says, “George, can you come down to my office?” Our office was down the street. I said, “Yeah, I’ll be right down.” On his campaign table, he had an acetate overlay map of the province which showed where the planned defoliation would occur. He said “Look at what those silly sons of bitches out at Đồng Tâm plan to do.” Đồng Tâm was the headquarters of the U.S. 9th Division, the only U.S. division in the Delta. He said, “Look at their defoliation plan for next year.” I said, “Let me see it.” So I take it, and I say “Oh my God, colonel! You better do something about this. These villages that they plan to defoliate are the villages we just entered into the Hamlet Evaluation System as being pacified. We have been working on them for the last year and a half. We are about to defoliate our success stories!

When you are working with the military, they generally tend to be really nice people, and they are just like your brother. And their intentions generally tend to be good. But they don’t think about these things. Going into one little village, right off the river in this big coconut grove, there was this old Buddhist temple in there that must have been at least 300 or 400 years old. It had these huge, tropical, heavy wood columns that held up the classic four-posts of the pagoda. The nun, she was so excited, she comes out and tells me, “Oh, the Americans were here, and they’re going to take the wood out and put up cement ones for us!” …I said, “They can’t do that!” So we saw a lot of that.



     BA in Psychology, Seton Hall University                                                     1959-1963

     Panama—Peace Corps                                                                                     1963-1966

Joined the Foreign Service                                                                         1966

     My Tho, Vietnam—CORDS                                                                            1967-1970
       (Civilian Office of Rural Development Support)

     Washington, D.C.—USAID Philippines Desk Officer                              1970-1974

     Washington, D.C.—USAID Egypt Program Officer                                 1976-1980

     Washington, D.C.—USAID Philippines Program Officer                       1984-1988

     Washington, D.C.—USAID Deputy Director,                                            1993-1995

          Bureau for Policy and Program Coordination (PPC)