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Last Updated: 04/28/2003
Deconstructing Reconstruction
David Ekbladh

David Ekbladh unravels the real meaning of "post-war reconstruction".

It is an interesting development in international affairs over the last century that it has become difficult to go to war or confront global crisis without promises of reconstruction. The recent war in Iraq saw the United States and Britain promise aid for reconstruction before the first bomb fell. The United States established and publicized its imposing Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance as a vital component of its occupation government for a postwar Iraq1. It has also dispatched retired general Jay Garner to take the high-profile position of civil administrator responsible for the reconstruction of that country.2 In the wake of the war, diplomacy has been dominated by intense discussions about the involvement of the UN, European States, and non-governmental groups in postwar assistance have dominated. Yet, the public emphasis on reconstruction before, during, and immediately after a conflict is hardly something new under the sun. While it seems bit contradictory on its face-one side of a conflict promising reconstruction for those who are about to be on the receiving end of violent military action-it is a logical step for combatants and potential combatants to take. Promising reconstruction is always a means to convince international and domestic opinion that anything damaged by all the king's horsemen will be put together again.


But is that all these promises of reconstruction contain? The ends masked by the heading of reconstruction have long been the guise for far more than simply repairing the damage done. The term has long stood for considerably more than its workmanlike usage betrays. On its face, reconstruction suggests the simple repair of damage done during a war or crisis-putting the bricks back into their old places. Yet, for its proponents reconstruction appears as a moment to fundamentally remake societies. Reconstruction has long been a means to take old structures down and rearrange the bricks to create new social, political, and economic structures. Elements of society are not merely repaired but renovated or constructed anew. Reconstruction, in this calculation, is not far from what is often called socio-economic development. Nevertheless, reconstruction as it is regularly used on the international stage has taken on different implications than development. While the term's history reveals the shared lineage and close relationship between the two concepts, reconstruction has become more closely bound to moments of international tension, becoming prominent component of response to crisis and war. While it may be a developmental process, it has come to be seen as a specific variant. In so doing the concept of reconstruction has taken on a distinct role as a means describe and justify and guide interventions in war and crisis by various global actors.


Reconstruction, as a political, social and economic process has been around at least since the mid-nineteenth century. In the United States, "Reconstruction" marks the period following its civil war, from roughly 1865 to 1877. Historians have seen this period as a second American revolution, when attempts were made to integrate African-Americans, only recently freed from slavery, into the political system with the extension of voting, educational, and civil rights. These dramatic social objectives were coupled with attempts by Reconstruction governments within the American South to promote economic development. Such development was understood not solely a means of repairing war damage, but also as a way of accelerating a shift away from the old slave economy. Modern technology, in the form of railroads, was held up as the great hope for regional growth. Yet, on all fronts, these efforts were failures. The political, social, and economic reaction that followed left the region mired in segregation and poverty well into the twentieth century.3

In the years following 1877, the Reconstruction period was maligned by American politicians and historians who dismissed it as misguided enterprise, riddled with corruption and marked by incompetent government. Although the Reconstruction era itself was not invoked as a model of social transformation, the term reconstruction eventually acquired a new meaning. By the early years of the twentieth century it was used to describe diverse efforts to effect change within societies through reform based on "scientific" and "rational" methods. This broader type of reconstruction demanded considerable social change and was closely tied to what many have termed the "progressive era" of reform, which itself was part of interconnected international movement of social politics. Generally, progressives in various parts of the globe (but concentrated mostly in the United States and Western Europe) saw the application of reform ideas, guided by the new and increasingly influential social sciences as the way to transform inefficient social, political, and economic relationships domestically and internationally into systems that ran on modern lines. In the 1920s, one supporter of social reconstruction in the United States noted "[I]n the American mind that word still retains some of the flavor given it by the events following the Civil War, and in one sense it may not seem inaccurate to caution, 'Beware of reconstruction!'…If then, this is to be reconstruction in the true sense, it must be founded not upon passion but reason…it must 'look to the sciences for its view of the facts and to the happiness of men on earth for its ideal.'"4


Reconstruction maintained this developmental aspect following World War I when it was turned to the daunting task of rebuilding a shattered Europe. In Britain and France, advocates of reconstruction agitated for fresh industrial, social and imperial relationships as much as they sought to repair the damage of war.5 The term was also employed to describe the necessity of carving a collection of new and viable smaller states in Central Europe out of the carcass of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the basis of modern principles.6 The creation of these entirely new entities was obviously not reconstruction in the strict sense.

At the same time, Westerners and Chinese increasingly spoke of the necessity of reconstruction for China as the basis of shepherding that nation, then best by political turmoil, warlordism, social instability, and civil war into the comfort of stable modernity. As one British commentator in the 1930s put it, reconstruction there was "not merely the repair of war damage but the general building up of China on modern economic lines."7 During that decade, U.S. non-governmental groups took comments like these literally and sponsored a series of programs that aimed to produce a profoundly transformative "rural reconstruction" in the Chinese countryside.8

China was not the only target of such efforts. As early as 1910, Western commentators lauded Japan's attempts to reconstruct the "backwards" society of their newly annexed possession of Korea into a modernized colonial dependency.9 During the interwar years, the U.S. military occupation of Haiti was extolled as an opportunity for the "pragmatic" employment of modern ideas and technology to reconstruct that country.10 Elsewhere in the Caribbean, various reforms sponsored by its American trustee during the Depression to "reorganize Puerto Rico on a large scale" were also packaged under the reconstruction label.11

Even as reconstruction was finding an international market, it took on renewed significance for reform efforts in the United States. There was talk in the U.S. of the reconstruction of domestic institutions in the light of the experience of World War I, but in regard to matters that clearly had nothing to do with the repair of war damage.12 With the onset of the Depression in the early 1930s, Americans became more preoccupied than ever with the reconstruction-a process understood to be distinct from mere economic "recovery"-of their own government, institutions, and society.13 Reformers plainly saw that old methods of governance and organization were incapable of coping with the deep crisis confronting liberal capitalism and urged a broad transformation to meet the challenge. The term found immediate acceptance in the New Deal, where it was welded to agencies like the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which were seen as the vanguard of attempts to restructure the nation's political economy.


The Second World War provided an even better opportunity to bring these evolving reconstruction concepts to bear on societies. The unprecedented destruction brought by the global conflict required enormous levels of immediate relief while providing unparalleled opportunities to alter societies adrift after the chaos of war. Staff of one of the leading engines for these efforts, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), candidly hoped, in places like China, to foster development that went well beyond recovery from war damage and help create a modern societies. Reconstruction increasingly had to carry the promise of what many at the time were beginning to call modernization, for it to be considered a true long-term success.

Beyond UNRRA, evidence of this connection can be found in another international agent of reconstruction that appeared in the wake of the global war, the World Bank. Its official title, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, illustrates the caduceus-like intertwining of the concepts. While "development" was added to the bank's moniker at a late stage in its conception and most of its early loans were for European recovery, the ease with which it switched its attention to the developing world is revealing.

Non-governmental groups that were involved in the postwar urge for reconstruction were quite candid about the intimate similarity of the two concepts. At an important conference on the state of Asia following the war, a member of the influential Institute of Pacific Relations in 1947 admitted that "Reconstruction, as we have just regarded it, extends beyond the period of relief and rehabilitation…We shall use the term more loosely, however, as covering also the continuing process of economic progress and development…It would be more accurate, therefore, to use the phrase 'economic, social, and political development or progress' than the term 'reconstruction.'"14 (emphasis original)


That the concepts of reconstruction and development border on the synonymous is important, particularly as development took on an increasingly important role as a means for the West (and communist states) to understand and influence the profound changes occurring in the post-colonial and developing worlds. During the Cold War reconstruction was slowly separated -at least in a rhetorical sense-from "modernization" and "development" two ideas with which it shared basic conceptual roots. As modernization became a key means for the powers involved in the Cold War to demonstrate the validity of their social systems to poorer nations. At the same time, post-colonial regimes often yoked many of their goals and, indeed, their legitimacy to national development. Accordingly, reconstruction came to represent something somewhat different. The shift in usage did not mean the developmental content was severed from the concept. Rather, reconstruction came to specify the aid and support that would follow intervention and war, even if that aid remained developmental in terms of its content. In many of the crises during the Cold War, reconstruction came to be discussed as a separate rubric, generally appearing in regards to conflicts and interventions. This was increasingly important in a world community had come to value the promise of development as a sign of commitment to the well being of people. Powers showed their benevolence and good intentions by assuring a reconstruction that contained the promise of a better life.

Examples were fairly common in the Cold War era. In 1950 the United Nations pledged a massive amount of aid for Korea, under the auspices of the UN Korean Reconstruction Agency, as the international body waded into the fray on that peninsula.15 In fact, the aid was initially promised to both the North and South with the assumption that, as UN forces advanced, the communist Democratic People's Republic of Korea would be reconstructed into oblivion. Despite all the talk of reconstruction in Korea in the 1950s, NGOs observing the frenzy of aid activity there acknowledged that the reconstruction in the South was essentially an exercise in modernization.16 The promise of reconstruction also appeared as an important addendum to the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. Even as the U.S. was escalating the conflict in the middle 1960s there were pledges that Vietnam and the whole of Southeast Asia would benefit from American reconstruction activities. Indeed, the U.S. government sponsored a high profile, if abortive, commission to plan how the postwar reconstruction and development of South Vietnam would proceed.17

Both of these examples were not pure humanitarian or recovery operations. Rather they offered aid to enhance the capacities of the societies to which they were aimed. Nor were they simply development programs. While these reconstruction plans shared most of the characteristics that defined development aid they were bound to intervention and armed conflict. The succor these reconstruction programs promised was crucial to attempts to justify the military and political interventions by the states and organizations that invoked them. At the same time the reconstruction plans were implemented to fulfill the strategic goals of the sponsors. In the cases of Vietnam and Korea, reconstruction efforts sought to contribute to larger plans to assure that both countries, evolved into stable states and anti-communist bastions-albeit with divergent outcomes.

The atmosphere has not changed much since the end of the Cold War. Reconstruction was an important part of Western involvement in Bosnia and Kossovo. Promises to improve the lives of Afghanistan's people were a crucial part of the U.S. campaign in that country in 2001-2002. The plans of the United Nations Development Plan, the World Bank, and Asian Development Bank-the leading international institutions involved in providing aid to that country-speak of reconstruction but clearly want to extend social, political and economic capacities beyond those that existed before the conflict.18 Plans for Iraq sit directly on this continuum. Regardless of the debates over who will participate in the reconstruction of that country, it is undeniable that basic social, political, and economic conditions in Iraqi will be altered. The damage done by bombs and dislocation will undoubtedly be undone. At the same time, and perhaps more importantly from the perspective of those sponsoring reconstruction, foundations for new economic, social, and political relations will be laid.


Reconstruction is not as straightforward as it seems. It comes loaded with developmental ideas as well as the politics and strategic plans of those who sponsor it. It serves as a means to assure international public opinion that intervention, even if it requires armed force, will eventually provide benefits to those people exposed to violence or dislocation. Even more importantly, it provides those who sponsor it a means to continue to influence key elements of the political, economic, and social direction of those on the receiving end. It is for these reasons that reconstruction has earned a specific and enduring role in global affairs.

  1. Susan B. Glasser and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "Reconstruction Planners Worry, Wait and Reevaluate" Washington Post, April 2, 2003.
  2. "U.S. Overseer Arrives in Baghdad to Begin Interim Government," New York Times, April 21, 2003.
  3. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 346-411.
  4. J. F. Dashiell, "Some Psychological Phases of Internationalism," American Journal of Sociology 25 (May, 1920), 757.
  5. Ordway Tead, "The British Reconstruction Programs," Political Science Quarterly 33 (Mar. 1918), 56-76; R. L. Schyler, "The Reconstruction of the British Empire," Political Science Quarterly, 31 (Sept. 1916), 445-452. Raymond Leslie Buell, "Political and Social Reconstruction in France," American Political Science Review 15 (Feb. 1921), 27-51.
  6. J. A. Salter, "The Reconstruction of Hungary," Journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs 3 (July 1924): 190-202.
  7. G. E. Hubbard, "Financial Reconstruction for China," Journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs 9 (Sept. 1930): 636-637.
  8. Frank Ninkovich, "The Rockefeller Foundation, China, and Cultural Change" The Journal of American History 70 (March 1984), 799-820.
  9. Edwin Maxey, "The Reconstruction of Korea," Political Science Quarterly 25 (Dec. 1910), 673-687.
  10. Ulysses G. Weatherly, "Haiti: An Experiment in Pragmatism," American Journal of Sociology 32 (Nov. 1926), 353-366.
  11. Oswald Garrison Villard, "Reconstruction in Puerto Rico," April 4, 1937, The Nation, 408.
  12. F. H. Newell, "Reconstruction Agencies," The American Political Science Review 13 (Feb. 1919): 1-16.
  13. Henry Pratt Fairchild, "The Beginnings of Reconstruction," American Journal of Sociology 39 (May 1934): 827-828; and "Questions for Sociology: An Informal Roundtable Symposium, What is the Role of Sociology in Current Social Reconstruction?" Social Forces 13 (Dec. 1934): 165-223.
  14. H. Belshaw, "Agricultural Reconstruction in the Far East," paper given at Stratford Conference, Sept. 1947, box 471, Institute of Pacific Relations Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.
  15. The developmental nature of UN aid to South Korea can be seen in the reports commissioned on the subject by the UN Korean Reconstruction Agency. See Robert R. Nathan Associates, Preliminary Report on Economic Reconstruction of Korea (Washington, DC, 1952); Robert R. Nathan Associates, An Economic Programme for Korean Reconstruction: Prepared for the United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency, (Washington, DC: 1954).
  16. John P. Lewis, Reconstruction and Development in South Korea (Washington, DC: National Planning Association, 1955).
  17. Joint Development Group, The Postwar Development of South Vietnam: Policies and Programs (New York, 1970).
  18. William Byrd, "Afghanistan's Reconstruction: Regional and Country Context," October 31, 2002. Revised version of a paper resented at the conference on Peacebuilding in Afghanistan, Begen, Norway, September 2002.

David Ekbladh recently completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University and worked for the Carnegie Corporation of New York on international affairs and conflict prevention issues.