CARBONDALE — A $1 million grant announcement dated June 30, 1969, to then-SIU President Delyte Morris spelled out the official agreement between the university and the U.S. Department of International Agency to establish The Center for Vietnamese Studies and Programs.
During its seven-year existence on campus, the center was a constant source of protest and criticism as the Vietnam War raged on.
The official grant award letter to Morris stated that the money was “for the purpose of implementing a project at SIU titled: “Strengthening within Southern Illinois University competency in Vietnamese Studies and Programs Related to the Economic and Social Development of Vietnam and its Post-War Reconstruction.”
Had the war not been so controversial, and America’s appetite for fighting in Vietnam not been so heartily squelched by this point, the center may otherwise have been considered a coup for the aggressive university president.
But eventually, confusion around the Vietnamese studies center, his handling of violent riots on campus and in the city over the Vietnam War and the center, and a controversial decision to construct a nearly $1 million Stone Center on campus that would include living quarters for him and his wife would eventually spell the end of a long tenure for Morris, who is credited with utilizing his sharp political skills to lead SIU through a major transition from a small teaching college into a reputable research university. Morris’ last day as president of SIU was Aug. 31, 1970.
Much of the controversy surrounding the Vietnamese studies center was based on emotions that were running high and misunderstandings about its mission, said John Jackson, a visiting professor with the SIU Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, who began his teaching career at SIU in the political science department in 1969.
Jackson, a former Army Intelligence Officer, said he was not pro-war at the time, and became even more certain later that the United States erred in entering the Vietnam War.
But he thought the center was a “totally legit” activity and that it was desirable in the 1970s to “study the kinds of things that led to the war and the divisions between the north and south.”
Rumors swirled on campus, though, that the center had a counter-purpose that was not academic in nature.
“The idea that it was a CIA front organization was patently ridiculous in my view,” Jackson said, citing one of the common conspiracy theories of the day.
But once a conspiracy theory is started, it can be difficult to disprove, Jackson said.
In 1977, Larry Lagow, in pursuit of his doctor of philosophy degree, presented a hefty dissertation on the center.
His extensive research painted the center as an academic mixed bag, but also showed there was little evidence found to support popular conspiracy theories of the day regarding the role of the center. Most of the angst among students was based on emotions, not facts, he concluded, including a popular rumor that the university was conspiring with the CIA to “perpetuate the U.S. and Western presence in Southeast Asia.”
He wrote that at the time of the establishment of the center, the criticism of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia was gaining steam, and that dissent eventually caused the university to abort its original plans to develop technical assistance projects for postwar reconstruction.
Early in the life of the center, the university attempted to quiet concerns by changing its name to simply the Center for Vietnamese Studies — dropping the word “programs” from the name — to emphasize its mission as an academic unit, according to a summary of its history on the website of the SIU Special Collections Research Center.
In his dissertation, Lagow drew three general conclusions: that the development of the center was a straightforward and serious attempt to establish a center of learning regarding postwar reconstruction of Vietnam; the center made notable achievements, including assembling a vibrant library collection of resources and training students in the language and cultures of Southeast Asia at a critical time; and finally, despite these accomplishments, the center did not develop into a vigorous base for post-war reconstruction technical assistance, as was originally planned.
Those plans were thwarted as the Vietnamese studies center became a focal point for anti-war protests. Lagow wrote that “speeches, teach-ins, demonstrations, campus disruptions and bomb threats, all eventually became common place.”
Lagow concluded: “It seems safe to observe that no unit of the university, now in operation over 100 years, has been more controversial than the Center for Vietnamese Studies.”
Lagow, in his study, explored the various layers of criticism of the center, some based on intellectual and philosophical beliefs, and others based seemingly in pure emotions.
He said a “first level of criticism” involved a belief held by some that the center, in seeking to provide, for a fee, expertise and manpower needed to achieve national objectives, was inappropriate for a serious academic institution. The concern was that the center was not primarily concerned with, as a university program should be, the “scholarly acquisition and dissemination of knowledge concerning Vietnam.”
Another layer of critics questioned whether the university was up to the task it had taken on. Lagow wrote that some at the time argued SIU lacked the expertise to serve as a national hub for Vietnamese studies.
The third level of criticism, he said, was the “bandwagon effect,” whereby people heard the intellectual arguments against the center, and caught up in the anti-war sentiment, “they were stimulated emotionally to join a crusade.”
Many accusations were made during the heated debates regarding the center, many of them not true, he concluded. That included statements made by some that grant money for the center was used, in part, to pay for the $1 million Stone Center that was to be Morris’s residence had he not stepped down as president over that very controversy.
As for the theory that the CIA was involved in the center, Lagow wrote that such a charge could neither be proven or disproven fully.
“The many revelations of the Watergate scandal lead us to assume that there is little or nothing which is impossible,” he wrote. “In such a climate, everything and anything may be suspect. However, there is little to be gained in pursuing such questions …”
He also wrote that “there is no convincing evidence that the establishment of the center was a scheme on the part of AID, the CIA or SIU officials."
The report continued: “While the center was not likely a scheme, it was calculated to continue the American presence in Vietnam, and was based on the assumption that the American point of view would prevail … Research, training, and service projects in Vietnam would have been performed at the pleasure of the foreign policy of the U.S. government and with the concurrence of the U.S. dominated government of Saigon.”
The center closed just seven years after its opening as U.S. AID funds ran dry and an attempt to self-support through center fundraising fell flat.