Dissertation Research in the Age of Social Media

by Robert Thompson, Guest Contributor

My dissertation, “More Sieve Than Shield: the US Army and CORDS in the Pacification of Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam, 1965-1972,” focuses on pacification in Phu Yen during the Vietnam War and argues  that pacification meant improving security and was ultimately betrayed by Vietnamization. Much of my research has been of the traditional archival sort and has taken me to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the Hoover Institution, McCain Library and Archives, and the National Archives and Records Administration II. From that research, I identified individuals who served in Phu Yen as members of Civil Operations and Rural Development’s (CORDS) Advisory Team 28. Thanks to social media, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as well as blogs, I have been able to actually get in contact with some of the veterans who served in Phu Yen so that I could conduct oral histories with them. This type of “nontraditional” research has provided crucial information about the pacification process and results that are not written into the documentary record. Social media has also helped me connect with other researchers working on the Vietnam War and pacification, and this community of scholars has provided me with leads, key documents, and moral support.

Map of Phu Yen province, U.S. Center of Military History. Image courtesy of the author.

Map of Phu Yen province, U.S. Center of Military History. Image courtesy of the author.

The initial ideas for “More Sieve Than Shield” grew out of my reading of the various documents in the Frobenius (Courtney L.) Vietnam Research Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi’s McCain Library and Archives. From the very beginning of my dissertation research, I realized that to understand pacification in Phu Yen meant gaining the perspectives of the veterans who served in that province. By far the most reveling primary sources are the district reports and the monthly province progress reports. During the Vietnam War, the districts of Dong Xuan, Hieu Xieu, Song Cau, Son Hoa, Tuy An, and Tuy Hoa formed Phu Yen province. While reading the district reports, I uncovered a trove of brilliant descriptions of the poor security situation befalling Phu Yen. Between 1969 and 1970, rampant abductions of civilians by the Viet Cong made Phu Yen one of the least secure provinces in the Republic of Vietnam. The reports present pacification as a failure.

After reading the files in Frobenius’s collection, I noted the names of his superiors and sought to gain their view of events, turning to social media to track down some of the District Senior Advisors (DSA) and Province Senior Advisors (PSA). I began my search by writing a blog post on my website, ThompsonWerk.com, asking for leads. The first person to respond was Charles Varnum, who served as a DSA in 1971. From him I got enough information to track down his superior in Phu Yen, PSA Russell Meerdink, and I searched online for DSAs Robert Barron, Eugene Fluke, and Ellis Wisner, all of whom served in Tuy Hoa District. With little difficulty, I contacted Barron and Wisner. Wisner even invited me to his home, where we drank coffee and discussed the Tuy Hoa District he remembered.

Tuy Hoa district report, Frobenius (Courtney L.) Vietnam Research Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi. Image courtesy of the author.

Tuy Hoa district report, U.S. National Archives II, College Park, Maryland. Image courtesy of the author.

Finding Fluke proved a bit more challenging. Fluke’s district reports provide a wealth of information, and I was eager to speak with him. Fluke had uncovered the GVN’s hiding of Viet Cong abductions from Advisory Team 28, the CORDS team in Phu Yen, exposing what became known as “the Advisory Crisis.” This crisis involved the intervention of the U.S. Embassy in Phu Yen provincial affairs, resulting in the removal the province chief and the redeployment American troops to re-train local defense forces. So helpful were his observations—“More Sieve Than Shield” is a quote from one of Fluke’s district reports—I searched for him on social media. After combing the internet for what felt like forever, I recently found his profile on LinkedIn and gave him a call. From our conversation, I learned that the U.S. Embassy in Saigon completely supported him, and his career was untarnished by the Advisory Crisis. Indeed, Ambassador William Colby thanked Fluke during a private meeting over a bottle of Johnny Walker, a gift Colby told him he thoroughly deserved.

In addition to the Frobenius papers, the website MACVteams.org has helped me connect with veterans of Advisory Team 28. It was here that I found Ronald Thayer, a veteran who did three tours in Phu Yen and witnessed the war from start to finish. As a DSA for Son Hoa District, he participated in the little known, yet illuminating, Battle of Cung Son on June 18, 1971, the largest battle in the province after the 1968 Tet Offensive. Cung Son entailed a combined PAVN and VC force converging on the GVN district compound and Regional Force (RF ) base with the objective of ejecting the GVN out of the district. RF and U.S. helicopters eventually won the battle, demonstrating that the RF could fight so long as it could rely on U.S. airpower. The battle also indicated that the enemy still maintained a noteworthy presence in Phu Yen well into the Vietnamization period.

Social media has also allowed me to connect with others who are studying pacification. On Twitter, I have exchanged ideas over what pacification means with other doctoral students, and exchanging tweets with them has led me to reorganize my dissertation chapters and locate invaluable documents at the U.S. National Archives. Critics of province studies argue that a single province cannot explain larger trends in the Republic of Vietnam, but thanks to a contact I made on Twitter, I was able to get U.S. Embassy documents on Phu Yen indicating the importance of the province to the larger war effort. On the Facebook group, Vietnam War History Organization, established by Vietnam War scholar Erik Villard, academics and veterans share information about war, and from this group, I have obtained research leads, after action reports, and maps. In sharing my own research with the group, I have found encouragement and motivation to carry on and keep writing. From practical tools to moral support, the internet and social media offer useful tools for dissertation research and camaraderie in what is often solitary work.

Robert Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is working on his dissertation, “More Sieve Than Shield: the U.S. Army and CORDS in the Pacification of Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam, 1965-1972,” under the supervision of Dale Center Founding Director Dr. Andrew Wiest. Thompson is the recipient of the U.S. Army Center of Military History Dissertation Fellowship and the Hoover Institution Library and Archives Silar Palmer Research Fellowship. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife and two sons.

About Heather Stur

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She writes and teaches about U.S. foreign relations, gender and war, the Vietnam War, and 20th century war and militarization in a global context. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge 2011). Dr. Stur spent the 2013-14 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she was a visiting professor on the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.
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