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Recent years have seen the United States embroiled in major counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. These campaigns, of course, are only the latest in a string of such conflicts that have erupted since the end of World War II. Sharply debated at home and abroad, they raise the fundamental question of what the United States can reasonably hope to achieve in violent settings, even when its uses an array of military, political and economic instruments.
Can the United States actually coerce or encourage violence-reducing changes?
Answering that question requires, at a minimum, a theory of what is causing the violence to begin with, along with a theory of how to end it. In this paper I explore these questions from an historical perspective. Following the Second World War, U.S. policy-makers came to believe that land inequality was a leading cause of the insurgencies in such countries as China, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as ongoing social conflict in several Latin American states. The Communists, it seemed to them, had successfully seized upon the grievances of rural peasants who worked as tenant farmers, and insurgents like Mao Tse-Tung and later the Viet Minh and Viet Cong had placed land reform at the very center of their revolutionary programs. Not to be outdone, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson proclaimed in 1952 that “land reform is absolutely foremost in our whole international policy.” But by the early 1960s, Harvard development economist J.P. Gittinger could write that American efforts at land reform had faltered, as efforts in places like the Philippines and South Vietnam were derailed by local elites. Why did land reform prove so difficult to pursue as a response to violent insurgencies?
The argument presented in this paper is that when land is the major asset of the elites, they will fight hard to prevent its redistribution from taking place. This suggests the hypothesis that counterinsurgencies are less likely to succeed when distributive conflicts are at the core of the political dispute.