Author Archives: Robert A Findlay

Vietnam M*A*S*H Up

MASHWhen I was a kid, one of my favorite late-night rerun television shows was M*A*S*H, a long running series about a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. The TV series was based on the 1970 film by the same title which was itself based on a 1968 book entitled MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors.




The original book was written by Dr. H. R. Hornberger under the pen name Richard Hooker. It described, and surely exaggerated upon, the horrible working conditions and strange circumstances of the first MASH doctors during the Korean War. The book was a sort of bizarre exposé of medical and army living during a transitional time in American domestic life and foreign policy.


MASH, HawkeyeAs it became a movie and then a television series, the narrative became a clear critique of the Vietnam War. The TV series in particular portrayed the United States Army as largely consisting of incompetent buffoons at the top and generally liberal people at the bottom. In the early years of the TV show which began broadcasting in 1972, there were a number of errors such as suggesting that Korea was part of Southeast Asia, or looking for communists/comrades in the jungle that hinted at the association of the series with events in Vietnam. In many ways, MASH can be seen as part of a television phenomenon that changed American attitudes during the prolonged war. Some critics even accused the show’s writers of have damaged American moral and helping America “lose the war on television.”

Larry GelbartWell, this might not be as straight forward as those critics thought. As it turns out, Larry Gelbart, one of the main comedy writers for the show had, only five or six years earlier, been using television to help America win the war in South Vietnam.


Truyền hình Việt Nam, USISIn 1966, the United States Information Agency decided to bring television to South Vietnam both to entertain American troops and make gains in their propaganda efforts. The USIS brought in thousands of television set, primarily from Japan, and helped the South Vietnamese government make their own TV station. Filming and programing began in Saigon at the National Film Studio (“national” might be a bit of a misnomer as it was actually endorsed and run by the USIS utilizing Filipino cameramen, crew, and directors, but that is a story for another time). Larry Gelbart, along with several other young American television writers and consultants were recruited to come to Saigon and shape this Vietnamese television channel, Truyền hình Việt Nam-TV, into the best state propaganda machine it could be. They dubbed old American war movies in Vietnamese, created newsreels supportive of the South Vietnamese government, and played plenty of old Vietnamese opera films to keep things lively. How well these channels worked to meet the USIS objectives is anybody’s guess.

Oh… Việt was the Problem

A few days ago I wrote a short post about the likely USIS creation of the term Việt cộng in lieu of the more nationalist sounding Việt Minh during the mid-1950s. Well, as it turns out, by the early 1960s, the United States Information Service in South Vietnam wanted more and now considered Việt cộng to be too nationalist sounding as well.

In 1962, John Mecklin became the head Public Affairs Officer of the USIS Saigon station. He felt that the U.S. foreign policy interests in Vietnam could best be met by addressed “the illiterate peasant in the bush” through psychological operations. Anyway, while on a trip to Washington D.C., it was suggested to Mecklin by Robert Thompson, a member of the British Mission to Vietnam, that the United States Information Agency stop using the word Việt altogether.


Mecklin seemed to think this was a great idea because he “initiated a contest among the USIS local staff” in Saigon and offered a $50 prize to anyone who could coin a new phrase “which would describe the Communists as foreign puppets, or something of that sort, to make them lose face.”

I have not yet found any evidence that anyone ever won the prize or that a new term was coined (the term Việt cộng still reigns supreme), but I would love to see the contest entries. Here is the link to the FRUS documents if you want to read the originals.

The United States Information Services Creates the Việt Cộng

Although I study Southeast Asia quite a bit, I am not an expert of Vietnamese history by any means. In a way, this lack of expertise allows me to get surprised by new information all the time and keeps my job fresh.

Today for example, I came across information that claims the term “Việt cộng” was invented by the United States Information Agency (USIA/USIS) as part of their psychological warfare campaign to support Ngô Đình Diệm, the then president of South Vietnam, and undermine the credibility of the Việt Minh.

USIS Saigon

During the mid-1950s, the United States Information Agency engaged in a program to label all anti- Diệm groups in South Vietnam as communist through the moniker of “Việt Minh.” By associating these groups with communist North Vietnam, the USIA hoped to prevent the anti- Diệm movements from gaining traction. However, labeling these groups as “Việt Minh” was not only incredibly inaccurate, but also carried a positive nationalistic tone that worried many intelligence officers in the field. Moreover, lumping together the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and assorted groups who supported alternative visions of South Vietnam’s future and calling them all communists may have actually increased the very real connections and conflicts between these groups and Vietnamese in the north.

Diem, Vietnam, USISIn late 1955, the USIS post in Saigon came up with the idea to begin calling these groups “Việt cộng” instead, a sort of slang word for communists. They hoped that this might create less positive sentiments among the population in South Vietnam. The first step was to encourage Diệm to use the term in his speeches and correspondences. It also appears that the USIS hired Vietnamese journalists to use the term Việt cộng in local newspapers in hopes that it would become part of the Vietnamese vocabulary. By the end of 1956, the term had caught on back in the United States and was in popular use before the end of the decade.

King Arthur, Twelve Pints of Beer, and the True Origins of Social Networking

One of the first “big boy” books I read as a kid was T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. This Arthurian romance, along with Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal, sat in my parents’ bathroom for years. One day I decided to start reading what seemed to me at the time to be the biggest book ever written. I was surprised at how much it was like Disney’s The Sword in the Stone… who knew books and movies were related? The Once and Future King

In any event, last night I watched The World’s End, a British movie directed by Edgar Wright about five middle-aged friends who seek to finish a quest they began at the end of their high school days. Specifically, they hope to have a pint of beer in twelve different pubs in one evening. Their final destination, The World’s End. The story quickly turns into a combination of an homage to The Once and Future King and a biting critic of British culture (or current lack thereof). All of this is explained, of course, through the rise of (literally) monstrous “social networks.”

It is worth checking. Or at the very least, a great excuse to drink some beers and watch a movie.

The Hill Tribes that Wanted to Be Governed?

Recently I’ve been reading through some reports created by Americans in the 1960s as they tried to help the Royal Thai Government incorporate “hill tribes” into the nation of Thailand. These Americans were primarily trying to prevent small isolated villages from radicalizing and joining broader communist movements taking place across Southeast Asia.

The Art of Not Being GovernedMany of these report contain interviews with members of the hill tribes, and they have really got me thinking about how upland peoples interact with the state. In his book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, James C. Scott makes a number of argument demonstrating that hill tribes throughout history, more often than not, have attempted to evade the state and have actively worked to exist outside of the nation. But, these interviews tend to suggest that a number of upland peoples in Northern Thailand in the 1960s wanted to be more deeply embedded within the nation. They wanted to be governed.


It seems that almost all groups were aware that being born within geographical borders of the Thai nation-state, or geo-body if you prefer, created a certain set of rights and responsibilities based on their nationality. They particularly wanted the educational opportunities that they observed in lowland communities. However, many were confused by what appeared to be a racial and civilizational bias toward being racially Thai. They also found it disheartening that the only Thai officials they meet with any regularity were military boarder police.

Final Report Hill Tribes the Target Audience Supplement to Final Report 1969

This desire to be further incorporated into the state, particularly the desire to be educated by the Thai government, really flies in the face of Scott’s work. Moreover, it make me wonder why these incorporation programs by both the American and Thai governments turned out so poorly. Were these reports a sort of wish fulfilment by Thai and American researchers, or were these desires to be at least at some level smoothly incorporated into the state simply ignored?

Maybe I Should Have Been a Math Teacher… Bwaahaahaa… co-written by Edgar Allen Poe.


As I pondered weak and weary over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore (well, AHA writing about “professionalization” actually), I thought, perhaps I chose unwisely my lifestyle and future long-term career. You see, in the hard sciences, particularly mathematics, there are right and wrong answers, it’s not semantics. You either solved the problem or you didn’t. Yes, they require imagination, but yet, there is an internal logic to the system that creates comforting certainty. Certainty for sure.



University of Oregon, math, building, winter

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December, that I sat in classrooms in dark Eugene on the fourth floor. Here I learned about the many varieties of mathematic expression and tips on coaching young students to calculate progressions. My dad, a high school teacher of chemistry and physics had apparently deposited some semblance of a desire to teach within my soul.



And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me – filled me with the prospect never felt before; perhaps I should be a teacher. A teacher, not an astronaut as I had previously envisioned. But this would take years of schooling, researching things that others consider a bore.

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer, I decided to emulate my father and learn the teaching craft of yore. Of course this process had many bumps along the way and redirected me toward the histories of Asia, the U.S., cultural development, and more. I loved the classes and people until that day… That day my first student asked me “what are we learning this for?” imagesCAY7ZGFR Deep into the darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming, how to answer the question “what are we learning this for?” Was this student asking this question in class to address some grievance, perhaps from all the homework dealt out to her before? I turned for a second to face what was written on the board.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning, soon again I heard a tapping, a foot upon the floor. My students were impatient while I searched for a response that would satisfy their educational needs galore. Then the student added, “I’m never going to need this, when I graduate, I am going to work in my mother’s store.”

Much I marveled this ungainly foul (fowl) to hear discourse so plainly, though my answer little meaning – little relevancy bore. “We can examine the past to learn to reason, see new connections, understand power structures, and maybe even find out what human beings were put here for.” “So what” said the student “learning something about the Mongols or whoever isn’t important anymore.”

desk, officeStartled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken, “doubtless,” said I, as I wondered what this student’s future had in store. After class had ended with evil portended intended, I returned to my cramped cubicle-cum-office to stare upon the floor. Should I have been a math teacher with symbols, right or wrong answers, and nothing more? If I can’t impart value and aid in the future of society, what am I teaching for?

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing to this confidence crushing question now burning into my bosom’s core. This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining on the broken patent leather office furniture with the lamp-light gloating o’er.  You shall impart meaning nevermore.

And this statement, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting, round the small room number placard and course listings adjacent my office door. And its biting piercing query creates a shadow of a career path made more demining by the insecurity of adjunct hiring outside the union’s moor. And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor shall be lifted – nevermore! 

The Malaysia Report

masjid kapitan keling, Penang, mosque, MalaysiaSpending a little less than two weeks in Malaysia was a great little get away. We flew in and out of Penang International Airport and spent the next ten days in the nearby Cameron Highlands, Ipoh, and Taiping. It was a sweet tip, but we couldn’t have chosen a worse time. The end of Ramadan coincided with a two week school holiday and every Malay who had the opportunity to travel was on the road and in the hotels. This caused hotel prices to double and bus trips to be more than twice as long.

Malaysia, Penang, Indian, food,

Penang, Malaysia, archecture, colonial, The first couple of days in Penang, Laurel and I just tried to figure out what was going on in Malaysia. We were both here about ten years ago, but that didn’t really help with orienting ourselves. We stayed in a pretty fancy hotel in Georgetown and spent a lot of time at the Indian food restaurants which are far superior and cheaper than those in Thailand.


monkey, Penang, MalaysiaWe also got a chance to see Penang from above as we took the funicular tram up Penang Hill and walked down the long and step wooded hike back to a large botanical garden. We even saw a monkey in the wild. As far as we could tell, it was trying to destroy a roadside mirror. If you are thinking of walking down from Penang Hill, remember that it is a pretty far walk and can get incredibly slippery in the rain. Luckily we made it alright, although getting a cab home was pretty difficult (holidays and the buses were way off schedule).

Tanah Rata, Malaysia, tea, tealands, highlands, CameronFrom Penang we headed to Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. This area is pretty much where they make all the tea Malaysia. Now, with the availability of hydroponics and electricity being cheap and widespread, strawberries also are taking over as the main tourist draw. Aside from tons of opportunities to see tea plants and drink pulled tea, there is really some amazing hiking.

Tanah Rata, Malaysia, highlands, Cameron, hike, hiking, trail



The trails are filled with butterflies, lizards, and flowers in a variety of shapes and colors. We saw wild orchids and giant squirrels. Also, when hiking, it seems like you have the whole place to yourself. Laurel and I spend two full eight hour Malaysia, Monkey Cup, Tanah Rata, Cameron, highlandsdays hiking and we never saw another person on the trails. Most hotels and guesthouse will have simply maps that show trail routes, though seemingly never to scale. Also, we drank a ton of water, so be careful to stay hydrated!




After having a great time in Tanah Rata, we bused back out of the mountains down to Ipoh. This city is a very funky place Ipoh, Malaysia, coffe houseto visit, but I am glad I did. There are some amazing Buddhist temples carved into old limestone caves that are really amazing. Also, like this whole area of Malaysia, there is a strange mix of old colonial architecture and 1960s square box buildings that seem to all be decaying at an equally alarming rate. Also most tourists who visit the caves do it as a stop on their way to somewhere else and do not stay in the city. Apparently this is why most people will stare at you if you are walking around in town. And I mean stare. Usually, if you smile at them, people will realize they are staring, smile, and look away. But, just as often people will continue to give you a deadpan stare as if you are from another world. That being said, we meet many friendly people and even got several dollars of free durian and great conversation with the owner of possible the best coffee shop in Malaysia.

Taiping, Malaysia, owl, night, safarii, zooAfter a couple days in Ipoh we left for Taiping. Only about an hour and fifteen minutes away by bus, this location felt totally different. Malaysian Chinese, and apparently the Chinese expat community in general, seem to flock to the city for retirement. This leads to a city that feels a lot like you are in Taiwan or southern China. The best part about Taiping by far was the Night Safari at the local zoo. They let you in to the zoo at night and you can walk around all by yourself looking at the animals and getting really up close and personal while they are all awake and active. Most Malays seem uninterested in walking around and take loud, fast-moving trams around the park. It is a little annoying and crazy because they don’t even really get to see anything. Walking however was fantastic.

After Taiping, we few back to Bangkok and now I am just getting back to work. National Archives here I come…

Wednesday 31st July Mae Salong (Santikhiri), Thailand

Mae Salong, Tea, Chinese, ThailandMae Salong may be my favorite place in Thailand. Not only does it grow and produce wonderful oolong teas in the Taiwanese style, but it is also filled with funky modern history and is more than twenty degrees colder than Bangkok or even neighboring Chiang Rai.

Chinese, door, village, tea, Mae Salong, Thailand

This northern town was founded in the mountains outside Chiang Rai and near the border with Burma by semi-retired/post-civil war KMT (Kuomintang or Guomindang or Nationalist Army or 中國國民黨 you take your pick). These Chinese soldiers and their families fought in Southern China during the civil war that followed World War II. As the tides of war change and the Nationalists saw their positions fading, many escaped, retreated, and regrouped in Northern Burma and continued to fight despite the victory of the communists in the capital and Mao’s proclamation of the Communist Chinese state in October 1949.

Mae Salong, Thailand, Chinese, tomb, graveThese Nationalist soldiers did not fare much better in Burma than they had in Southern China and were forced to relocate again, this time choosing Northern Thailand. Here they built a community of (primarily) yunnanese-speaking, tea-drinking, high-mountain-living folk. Also they tended to smuggle opium across the border on donkeys, but that is only natural. What are borders for if not illicit exchanges? Many of the old nationalist soldiers are buried in elaborate tombs around the many little valleys.

rain, Mae Salong, Thailand

These days, most of the illegality is gone, but the cold, Chinese community, and tea remain. Laurel and I spent multiple days enjoying the cold, if a little rainy, weather with cup after cup of nice hot tea. I also bought about four kilos/nine pounds of tea to bring home. Mae Salong, tea, production, Thailand

tea, Mae Salong, Thailand, production

tea, drinking, Mae Salong, Thailand

Thailand, Mae Salong, tea, bag, oolong

We also hiked around up and down a bunch of hills and valleys and even saw some giant walking sticks.walking stick, Thailand, Mae Salong

It was fun trying to talk to people in a mix of Thai and Chinese. At times I was pretty unsuccessful, but that is part of the fun, right? Actually I was surprised by how well my Thai stood up despite the heavy accents.

valleys, Mae Salong, Thailand, viewThe most amazing part of visiting this city may be the views. Mae Salong sits almost a thousand meters higher than Chiang Rai and the long and winding ride up to the top has some amazing lookouts. The city itself is thin and straddles the ridgeline. I really haven’t been to a place like it before. If you happen to be reading this deciding whether or not to go, I cannot recommend it enough.

Wednesday 3rd July Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Who has two thumbs, missed his flight, and is covered in sewage water? This guy. But today I have learned a couple valuable lessons about sticking to plans and getting around Southeast Asia. Never wait out the rain and never get out of the tuk tuk.

The day started off great I had a nice Indian food breakfast and met up with my friend Jess for coffee and deep thoughts. After she took off to buy bus tickets I decided I would hang out at the coffee shop for a couple hours until it was time to head to the airport.

tuk tuk, rain, Cambodia, Phnom PenhAround four hours before my flight it began to rain heavily and I thought “no problem, I can just wait out the rain.” Wrong, wrong. It rained for a solid hour and as soon as it let up I got my bill and started moving toward the airport with plenty of time. No sooner was I in the tuk tuk than the rain started thundering down again. Within minutes there was a foot of water on all the roads. A few minutes later two feet. The tuk tuk could barely make it through the now engine high water.

As the water continued to rise, we came to a particularly deep river/road that we had to cross. Only it was not meant to be. The engine of the tuk tuk went totally underwater and died. As we sat in the newly formed waterway, the river/street continued to rise. A giant SUV passed us by and caused a wave that lifted the tuk tuk up off the street. Water came in one side and out the other as we started to bob. I thought for sure we were going to capsize.

Phnom Penh, flood, rain, Cambodia, rainy season

flood, rain, Phnom Penh, CambodiaPhnom Penh, Cambodia, flood, rain, seasonrain, season, flood, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I got out of the tuk tuk and helped pushed it back to dry land. While wading in the street/river, I became joyfully aware of all the things other than water floating about. Not so sanitary. After a twenty minute wait (trying to get water out of the engine/gas), we tried again. Twice more the driver tried to cross the waters only for the engine to die. On the fourth time we made it across and up to a high road. Unfortunately we went straight into a giant traffic jam. I arrived at the airport at 5:40. Alas, my plane left at 5:05. It had taken us more than three and a half hours to get six or seven miles. In the end, I was able to get another flight, took a train home, and showered for an excessive amount of time.

Also, my Thai came in handy on the train. When I heard two women snickering about what was surly a very unpleasant odor coming from my clothes and person, I was able to apologize and embarrass them a little. And isn’t that what learning a language is all about?