2007 Annual Meeting

SOUTHEAST ASIA SESSION 90

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Vietnamese Nationalism from Wartime to Present

Organizer: Tuan Hoang, University of Notre Dame

Chair and Discussant: Philip Taylor, Australian National University

This panel examines some of the complexities and complications about Vietnamese nationalism from the mid-twentieth century to the present. Over this span of time, nationalism encountered a series of challenges: decolonization, political division and civil conflict, American military intervention, postwar socialist reconstruction, doi moi, and post-Cold War globalization. It has adapted and shifted accordingly, altering some aspects of its core while retaining some others. The panel takes on four different case studies - sect generals, music, public art, and Agent Orange - with two each on the wartime and postwar eras. In addition, while the first two papers place their topics more or less within the national boundaries, the third examines its subject also in the trans-nationalist context while the last broaches open its topic to global intersections. Progressing from past to present - and from the regional to national to international - the panel aims to shed light on these particular issues as well as on the larger pulses and sways of nationalism in contemporary Vietnamese history. 

Sect Warlords and South Vietnamese Nationalism in the 1950s

Jessica M Chapman, UC-Santa Barbara

In spite of the vast and growing literature on the Vietnam Wars, the complexities of South Vietnamese nationalism are only now coming under serious scholarly scrutiny. With the division of Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel in 1954, non-communist nationalists of all stripes vied to represent the true identity of “Free Vietnam,” as Republic of Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem and his American patrons referred to the non-communist zone. Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Binh Xuyen sect leaders presented some of the most legitimate claims to Vietnamese nationalism up until their military defeat at the hands of Diem's National Army in 1956. This paper will discuss Hoa Hao General Ba Cut and Cao Dai General Trinh Minh The as symbols of South Vietnamese nationalism. One scholar has gone so far as to call Trinh Minh The “South Vietnam's alternative leader.” Following his death in May 1955, numerous South Vietnamese political actors, including Ngo Dinh Diem as well as his Cao Dai opponents, appropriated The's reputation as an “ultranationalist” to bolster their movements. Ba Cut, in contrast, signified the overall sect threat to Diem's state, and his beheading in summer 1956 served as a great symbolic victory for the RVN. Meanwhile, a number of other sect leaders who had once been critical of Ba Cut's aggressive stance towards the South Vietnamese government came to embrace him as a nationalist hero in the years after 1954, as they became increasingly alienated from Diem's government.

Ethnic Nationalism in Southern Wartime Music 

Tuan Hoang, University of Notre Dame

The role of print in the growth and propagation of Vietnamese nationalism is well known; less known is the effects that music played on the collective nationalist imagination among the overwhelming majority Viet ethnicity. This paper examines two categories of songs in South Vietnam from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s: anti-war music by the renowned composer Trinh Cong Son, and songs from less-recognized members of the Du Ca (Troubadours) Movement. The first kind was recorded and widely listened to at homes and cafes; the second, popularly performed or sung in civic groups such as the Boy Scouts, Buddhist Family Youths, Catholic Youths, and university students. Externally different they might be, both kinds of music expanded - and depended - on a similar set of heavily ethnic-bound cultural, historical, geographical, and linguistic sentiments and invocations. The effects were multi-folded, as the songs helped sustain hope during a time of desperation but also reinforce a narrow view of the Vietnamese nation. The paper will also link these songs to the larger construction of ethnic-mythical nationalism during this complicated decolonized-yet-Americanized period in the history of southern civil society.

Commemorative Public Art and Trans/National Identity in Contemporary Vietnam

Christina Schwenkel, UC-Riverside

This paper examines commemorative public art and the aesthetic processes of nation-building at the intersections of socialism and neoliberalism in contemporary Vietnam. In recent years state memorial projects have undergone transformation as socioeconomic reforms and increased flows of capital have given rise to the reconstruction and beautification of memorial temples, martyr cemeteries and other national monuments. Central to these efforts have been renewed discussions about how to represent the past in monumental form. As sites for the cultural and artistic expression of national values, sentiments, and ideals that are neither fixed nor agreed upon, monuments also reflect shifts in modes of aesthetic representation. This paper will focus on the diversification of facades of national monuments and the incorporation of symbols of "culture" and "tradition" as a means to express a "Vietnamese" aesthetic identity that is distinct from foreign influence. The ensuing debates over authenticity and foreignness reveal new engagements with ideas about "national" and "traditional" culture. Since monuments reflect the specific sociohistorical contexts in which they are produced, the paper asks: How are these processes affected by and caught up in transitions to neoliberalism? Movements to recast old monuments into new aesthetic creations signify diversified ways of reimagining the national past and the aesthetic order, and is furthermore linked to efforts by Vietnamese cultural producers and consumers to negotiate national and transnational identities and aesthetic influences.

Agent Orange: Toward an International and Interdisciplinary History 

Ed Martini, Western Michigan University

This paper begins with the idea that the most pressing need in studies of the American War in Vietnam is for projects that transgress national, temporal, and disciplinary boundaries. Despite recently renewed attention toward the controversies Agent Orange has engendered in many nations, there remain surprisingly few works devoted to its material history. Here, I propose a framework for thinking about Agent Orange and its various manifestations that can help us better understand the complicated ways in which the meanings of the American war in Vietnam have been constructed and contested in places as diverse as Missouri, Vietnam, Canada, Korea, and Australia. Specifically, I focus on thinking about Agent Orange as a commodity unbound by the nation-state. Thinking about the substance as a material artifact allows us to move beyond existing disciplinary and national borders by exploring the different meanings that have been attached to this agent over time, as the agent, and those meanings associated with it, across temporal and national borders. Thinking about Agent Orange-and related chemical agents-as global commodities whose meanings are shaped and contested by different human agents around the world, will enhance and enrich the work of scholars and victims advocates alike. Far from diminishing the real and tragic impact of these commodities on the landscape and people of Southeast Asia, this framework has the potential to draw more attention to issues-economic, political, and cultural that continue to limit progress in Agent Orange-related research and advocacy.