I had a nice skype interview with a grad seminar at my alma mater yesterday, UW in Seattle, and one student very rightly asked me when I was going to upload the map data I’d promised in my book to readers. The answer, friends, is NOW. I am renting some space on this server, 100GB, and I intend to USE IT! I’ll start with an archival map from the Vietnamese National Archives in HCM City from the records of the Cabinet of the First Republic of Vietnam (Đệ Nhất Cộng Hoa or Đ1CH in my notes in the book). The following image is super-cool as an example of American and CIA-inspired choropleth mapping used to describe communist-friendly areas in Southeast Asia. The use of pie charts, for example, with pink for “pinkoes” or “communist sympathizers” and the yellow for Republic of Vietnam loyalists (their flag was yellow with red stripes).
Here’s a link to the full-rez, georeferenced (for ArcGIS) FILE. Source info: File 17331, Record Group ĐICH, Vietnam National Archives Center No. 2.
Before I go further, let me just apologize outright to my geographer and GIS friends for providing no metadata on this. Please sympathize, I’m not an agency supplying data but an historian offering up usable files for the few.
Now, what’s cool about this map, especially when overlaying current satellite imagery, is how what was once a jungle clearing, bull-dozed grids of housing blocks and “enemy bases” has grown in the postwar era into a full-fledged town and district called Nam Đồng!
This illustrates a very important point about the communist nation-building effort, that not only were they establishing key strategic nodes in highland areas, but they were continuing a centuries-old program of “cultivating” these highland spaces. This term (giao hóa) suggests a particularly Vietnamese (and Chinese) style of interacting with highland groups. Bringing in highlanders to trade, providing literacy (in Vietnamese), integrating them into an expanding – topological – network of “the state”.
By contrast, the Diệm government, especially his brother Cẩn’s shadowy government ruling the central region, took a more brutalist approach to these highland areas that communists had been “cultivating” since 1947.
So, enjoy the map! Download the file, play with it, and let me know if it says anything more to you.
Here’s what I write about this map and how it fit into RVN nation-building in 1960, from Footprints of War, pp. 124-5:
“The new military rulers in the uplands of the province introduced new political maps with light and dark pink shadings that conveyed their singular purpose of counterinsurgency. Dark pink described areas that were deeply contested while light pink suggested fading support. While such maps fed into national military planning for the RVN, they also informed American military allies who had for years been drawing up similar maps in neighboring Laos and Thailand. The military authors of this map used dark pink shading to indicate areas still largely under the communists’ control. They used a lighter shade of pink to indicate lighter opposition in the hills west of Hoà Mỹ and southwest of another evacuated area, Khê Trái.
As a cartographic projection of the ARVN’s ambitions in 1960 for mopping up these bases of communist support, the map presented communist-controlled regions in symbolic terms most familiar to American counterinsurgency experts at the time. Small pie charts in each highlands commune showed, via darker shaded sections, the approximate percentage of people who were “Việt Cộng in the region,” still a majority across the hills. Lighter pink shading indicated areas with diminished support, and colored or empty circles indicated villages that supported a particular side or had been abandoned, respectively.
Excerpts of the map showing the map’s deep pink areas, the hills around Nam Đồng and the A Sầu Valley, bear closer inspection, for they show how ecological and political boundaries coincided, often separating ARVN posts from communist base areas by only a few kilometers. Reconstituted self-defense units and communist cells, pushed almost to annihilation during several years of unrelenting police sweeps, extended their political and communications networks to the very tips of streams and tributaries on the highest slopes. ARVN troops could not easily penetrate the dense forests without support from Katus and highland groups while communist partisans retained the older practice of navigating by rivers and mountain ridges with help from native highlanders.”
I had the pleasure of co-leading a group of graduate students to the Mekong Delta after having not been in the region for a good seven years. (My second book is focused on the central coast of Vietnam.) It was fun to revisit old sites and see old friends while traveling with the group. Below are some favorite shots from the trip.
I love the above picture for the layers of activity and occupation. Houses on stilts back up into the canal while int he foreground a man fishes from a “ghe tam ban” or three plank canoe. In the distance, a barge approaches us. The water is reddish brown and opaque, almost milky with the fine silt washing down from the Mekong.
The group visited the Cham muslim community’s central mosque. During the visit, one of the imams received our group, and I learned something new.
He corrected me on the history of *his* community and ancestors. They were not Chams who migrated west to the region in the 1700s and later converted to Islam but instead Malays who migrated north and east from Terengganu in Malaysia through Cambodia in the 1700s and finally settled here. Because Cham and Malay are distantly related, Austronesian languages, the Viet chroniclers and imperial officials in the area simply classified them as Cham. The post-1975 Socialist Republic of Vietnam likewise recognizes this community as a Cham ethnic group. One of the students, Nurrhoman from Bandung, Indonesia, communicated some basic phrases with the imam in Malay/Bahasa.
We visited a number of important spiritual sites in the region, including this temple dedicated to the Lady of the Realm, a goddess spirit followed especially by ethnic-Chinese inhabitants at a site that, in ancient times (before 6th century CE) was most likely a temple to Siva or Visnu. Allegedly those who pray to the Lady for good fortune who receive it must return to make offerings of thanks. The money from this return traffic then goes to various charities.
One great aspect of the trip was sharing the teaching with two fantastic scholars, John Agbonifo of Osun State in Nigeria and Debjani Bhattacharyya at Drexel University, and the author of the newly published Empire and Ecology in the Mekong Delta. It is a fascinating read!
We ended our delta trip in Can Tho with several meetings in this booming city. I left it in 2011 at 500,000 people, and now the city has tripled in area with a population of 1.5 million! My favorite meeting there was with an old friend, Ms. Huynh Le, who visited the group and spoke about life in this boomtown.
The trip ended in HCM City on Friday and students gave presentations on Saturday. Thanks to Ms. Hoang for the cute little souvenir! Pictured in the background is “Team Non Lá (Conical Hat)”.
I leave you with a shot from old Saigon, the back of it’s main open air market. I like this shot for the many layers visible here. In the foreground the butcher stalls and flower stands of Ben Thanh. In the background are old facades from the French colonial and post-colonial eras. Then in the way back are the towering spires of recently completed skyscrapers. Farewell until next time, Vietnam!
My home institution UCR has really upped its game with media. This summer, they worked with me to develop a youtube video as well as write statements on my research for the alumni magazine. There were some bumps and starts in developing the film, one in particular was (to me) a funny reminder of generation gaps. Some of the Millennials in the video-editing crew thought that buying rights to a clip of “Huey” helicopters in the setting sun from the film “Apocalypse Now” would be a cool scene to start my promo video. (Not cool!) They replaced it with great, real footage.
The online magazine version includes the film and the bio I wrote, quite like the layout!
And the Press tells me the book is finally in stock!
Next week I am excited to be a co-leader for the Leiden-based International Institute for Asian Studies’ In Situ Field School. The topic is “Delta Cities: Rethinking Practices of the Urban. I’ll be joined by two fellow “delta scholars” I very much admire:
Debjani Bhattarchaya – who has just come out with this FANTASTIC new book, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta.
John Agbonifo – who as a sociologist with historian tendencies has produced AMAZING studies on resource conflicts in the Niger Delta.
Also in tow will be two UCR graduate students from the History program, David McCaskey and Todd Luce. It’s a rare pleasure to share a trip to my study sites with them. Luce is completing a PhD on the water politics and history of the Salton Sea while McCaskey is just beginning his research on fisheries and development in Vietnam.
I worked with our crackerjack media team this summer to develop this video about my research and my teaching at UCR designed to complement an article and press release on the soon-arriving book. Of interest to some, they wanted a location to shoot this that in some ways reflected connections to Vietnam. I didn’t really know how closely the nearby March Field Air Museum’s exhibits might relate, but we found that this all-volunteer museum, drawing on contributions from veterans, has reconstructed a Vietnam-era firebase. Pics below capture some of our shooting “on set.”
Last Saturday, I had the good fortune to join a book talk organized by professor of U.S. foreign relations Pierre Asselin for Daniel Ellsberg, the former Rand analyst and Pentagon official responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1972. Ellsberg has a new book, The Doomsday Machine, published in December 2017. The book is a fascinating-yet-terrifying tour of American nuclear weapons strategies that for most of the fifties and sixties rested on one basic tactic should aggressions break out: total and overwhelming annihilation of the USSR, China and most of Europe. Summing up the book in a nutshell, there was no Plan B; and only after 1961 when American spy satellites confirmed the Soviets had only a handful of missiles did this nuclear planning ratchet down a bit. (See my piece on Corona photography in Vietnam here.) . For those who may not read Doomsday Machine, one other important fact Ellsberg dispels is that of the “football” or what President Trump in his tweets about Kim Jong Un detailed as his bigger “red button.” If readers take nothing else from the book, they should drop this notion that the President of the United States is solely responsible for launching nuclear warheads. Military officials further down the chain of command have had this ability since the early 1950s. Another bit from the book that may surprise some historians of the 1960s and 70s is that when Ellsberg copied the thousands of pages in the Pentagon Papers taken from his Santa Monica office at Rand, he also copied material beyond it including a secret memo, NSSM-1, detailing Nixon’s strategy to expand the American war into Laos and Cambodia.
As an historian who spends most of my research time in the field, studying the places of the war in Vietnam rather than the halls of power that ordered it, I told Dr. Ellsberg how much I admired his principled stance as well as his incredible writing style–not only in these books but also in his now declassified reports such as “Revolutionary Judo: Working Notes on Vietnam No. 10.” I told him that his insights into the conflict put him right up there with another person I met on several occasions, Phạm Xuân Ẩn, a former Reuters and Time correspondent in Sài Gòn who it later turned out was a spy and general in the NLF. (Historian Larry Berman’s Perfect Spy details Ẩn’s story, at least the story Ẩn wanted told.) Like Ellsberg, Ẩn wrote detailed analyses of the situation in Vietnam and he was routinely consulted at the Time office in Saigon by American military and CIA specialists for his “take” on the insurgency. Ellsberg, like Ẩn, was a man who trafficked in secrets.
I managed to get a copy of my forthcoming book, Footprints, into Ellsberg’s hands, curious to get his take on my reading of many now-declassified reports and my perspective as an historian working on the ground in Vietnam today, exploring the rapidly-disappearing ruins of the American war. This is where the sharp-as-a-tack, 88-yr.-old surprised me. “You know, I was in Vietnam on the ground for two years. Read my other book, Secrets.” Ellsberg’s 2002 memoir of his travels to Vietnam and his eventual decision to leak the Pentagon Papers reveals an unexpectedly wild ride. Here was an analyst who not only synthesized reports but ground truthed them by spending time outside Saigon to see conditions for himself.
His chapters “Travels with Vann” and “Rach Kien” shocked me. Here was a man in his mid-thirties traveling with the arch druids of American counterinsurgency in Vietnam, Edward Lansdale and John Paul Vann. He recounts how Vann insisted on not flying via helicopter like almost every other military and State Department observer in those days. Instead he drove Vietnam’s highways in an International Harvester full tilt with weapons at the ready, to see for himself how things were going on the ground.
“Travels with Vann” describes a series of road trips along highways that just months later would be brimming with deadly ambushes on U.S. soldiers. In “Rach Kien” Ellsberg describes embedding with a U.S. Army infantry unit at a former NLF stronghold in the Mekong Delta south of Sài Gòn. While walking point with the platoon, Ellsberg comes under fire and describes participating in combat despite his official role as a civilian sent down to observe. Here he considers multiple problems in the larger American military strategy called pacification.
What stands out to me as an historian focused on Vietnam was that Ellsberg was one of a very small number of higher-ranking American officials in Saigon who dared to hop in a car, hit the road and talk to people much less participate in such engagements.
One passage in the book, especially, captures the same fascination that I had for the layered, historic landscapes of conflict especially in central Vietnam. Ellsberg describes driving south of Đà Nẵng on Highway 1 in spring 1966 to survey responses to the Buddhist protests. He notes “an unusual succession of abandoned fortifications, of various constructions, that dated from different periods successively further back in time.” (p. 134). His Vietnamese interpreter notes that one is French and then another series of rounded ones were Japanese. When they reach the crest of a hill, the interpreter points out a pile of rubble that is reputed to be a more ancient fort from a period of resistance to Chinese occupation in the 1400s.
I had a very similar experience when a guide pointed out to me beyond the rubble of the former US Army Phú Bài Combat Base were the ruins of French, Japanese and imperial Vietnamese bases. Ellsberg recounts a feeling that I believe many American soldiers felt as they explored this historic conflict zone:
“I knew we were following the French in Vietnam, who for all their colonialism were our allies in two world wars. But as someone who had grown up on movies of the war in the Pacific, and then on war stories in the Marines, I found it eerie to hear I was walking in the footsteps of Japanese invaders.” (Secrets, p. 135)
This perfectly captures the metaphor of footprints that I use in my new book. Footprints of War is my attempt to write the history of a place where so many different soldiers have passed, showing how this more grounded perspective conflicts with and challenges the more common aerial views of war zones favored by generals, high-ranking officials and screen-viewing publics today.
Ground Truthers in Vietnam
Of course Ellsberg wasn’t the first to hit the roads of Vietnam and report his findings. Former OSS officers, US development officials and others repeatedly reported disturbing signs from the ground. A decade earlier, another State Department economist, Wolf Ladejinsky, traveled many of the same highways to report on the “rural situation.” (I describe his forays in my book Quagmire.) Ladejinsky was a child of Russian Jews who fled the communist revolution, and he established his reputation developing policies after 1945 designed to ensure the continuation of private rural economies in Japan and Taiwan. However, as a youth in New York who spoke Russian and worked with the Soviet allies in WW2, Ladejinsky was also a target of McCarthy’s red scare. Eisenhower did what he could to vouch for him, but ultimately Ladejinsky was forced out of his secret clearances and high-ranking posts. He was not fired from government service, however, as the McCarthyites had nothing on him; but he was forced to take a transfer…to Saigon in 1956.
What distinguished Ladejinsky from the moment of his arrival, like Ellsberg a decade later, was that he got out and talked to people. Unlike many Americans holed up at the Embassy or in the many coffee shops and bars, Ladejinsky traveled by road to the farthest corners of the delta. He met with former Viet Minh officials and described rampant corruption in the newly formed Republic of Vietnam. Like Ellsberg, Ladejinsky also wrote fantastic reports!
However, Ladejinsky’s reports for unknown reasons went almost a year before being received in Washington. When they landed, they earned him a lot of friction with peers in the Saigon embassy. This time he was forced to retire, tried in an administrative procedure on a weird, conflict of interest charge from his time in Taiwan later found to have no grounds. Remarkably, Ladejinsky stayed on another year in Saigon as an advisor to South Vietnamese President Diem before leaving to work for the World Bank in Nepal. (Robert McNamara suffered a similar, soft fate in 1968 when he left the White House to serve as the Bank’s president.)
Ground Truthing Today
What strikes me most in Ellsberg’s book and with others like Ladejinsky is how comparatively little reporting regarding American wars today in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Africa is coming from the ground. I’m not sure what new rules in the Patriot Act or other conditions have so thoroughly muzzled reporting from these fronts. C.J. Chivers’ recent essay for the Times “War Without End” is a welcome exception though it describes actions from almost a decade ago. What’s vitally missing today in our continuing military conflicts is steady reporting from the ground. Of course, Ellsberg’s reports at the time were classified, so one may at least hope that similar internal reports on these “situations” today will eventually come to light.
Next month I’ll be speaking at UNC-Greensboro on October 18th at 7:30pm on the subject of chemicals and the Vietnam War. The talk is part of a year-long series of talks organized to reflect on the 1960s, and I’ll talk about recent research completed as part of my new book Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam but I’m also hosting a rare film showing from one of Vietnam’s greatest living documentary filmmakers, Trần Văn Thủy. The film we will see is one that received very little attention, “Story from the Corner of a Park” about a war veteran struggling to make a living taking pictures in Hà Nội’s central Lenin Park. Its a wonderful, anachronous piece for two reasons: (1) a growing number of Vietnam War veterans are passing on, leaving only stories and, in some cases, children with illnesses associated to chemical exposures (2) the urban landscapes of Hà Nội have changed so much from this early 2000s film.
For those more familiar with American soldiers’ experiences with the war and especially concerns about Agent Orange, the film is a little-publicized mirror from the Vietnamese side. For details on the pre-talk film showing, please contact Prof. James Anderson at email@example.com.
The talk draws in part from an op-ed in the New York Times that I wrote to address a slightly different issue: the total chemical footprint of the 1960s war extending beyond just the one infamous chemical Agent Orange to include a host of others such as CS, napalm, now-banned insecticides, carcinogenic solvents, and others. I encouraged reader to check out the “readers pick” comments. Here we see not just the range of emotionally and ethically charged responses from readers but many more detailed comments by former chemical platoon helicopter pilots, doctors performing plastic surgery, policymakers and others.
Shortly after the op-ed published, an official from the US Embassy in Cambodia emailed me. He’d read the article and wondered if I knew anything about recent Cambodian claims of buried American chemical waste. I shared my archival data on chemical missions involving CS and even put him in touch with the chemical platoon helicopter pilot who’d commented on the NYTimes site. The US continued the painstakingly long process of decontaminating sites and working with SE Asian governments to remove unexploded ordnance, contaminated soils, and other remains.
Given the recent discussions about the Syrian government dropping barrel bombs on civilians, I this image from the National Archives shows that they were not the originators of this practice. The image below shows the practice what I think is a “bulk flame drop” – a drop of 55-gallon drums of napalm – per official U.S. Army photographs. “Bulk smoke drops” of CS involved pushing fused barrels out the cargo bay of the CH-47 “Chinook”. Army Chemical Corps soldiers netted the napalm to hang from below since it was a payload of gelled gasoline (!). The barrels dropped a few thousand feet before jet strafing fire ignited them just over the target, often networks of tunnels or bunkers. The aim was to incinerate or asphyxiate enemy combatants (and anyone else) below.