Category Archives: History

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?

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.

Empathy and Civilization in World History

Part of being a good world historian, or I suppose any historian for that matter, is having an active imagination. We have to be able to constantly ask new questions and seek new interpretations of the past. I came across this animated short, part of a longer talk by Jeremy Rifkin (available here), that briefly looks at world history as a project leading toward greater and greater levels of empathy in the human race.

While it is not very fashionable for historians to incorporate these sorts of facts or evidence into their work, there seems to be something really valuable here. Aside from being an interesting piece on compassion and empathy, it also points to alternative histories revolving around emotion, biology, psychology, or spirituality instead of great men and important dates. These factors are clearly part of the story of human history with cultural and social origins rooted in particular times and places, but have yet to be fully incorporated into the work of most historians. How do we do this? I don’t know. Should we try to do this in our work? Yes. Something for me to work on I guess.

An American Woman Dating Thai Men in 1950s Thailand

I recently found an interesting article in the 24 July 1952 Siam Rath Weekly Review about a young white American woman attempting to date in 1950s Thailand. Identified only as “ingénue,” she talks about how hard it is to find a man as an intelligent and witty woman. Despite being told “lurid stories of their evil ways” brought on by the hot climate, the writer still sees Thai men as good potential love matches.

Thai, Thailand, men, women, dating, date, 1950s

She tells us that although “young Siamese men seem eager enough” when they first meet her, they quickly become incredibly nervous and find an excuse to leave the conversation only to “grin sheepishly across the room” for the rest of the evening.

Thai, Thailand, man, women, dat, dating

On the other hand, many of the older men she meets at parties and social events are the “I’m-old-enough-to be your father” types and expected her to act as a little girl with few opinions.

In the end, the author finds that both young and older men want to be flattered and feed as if they were “mentally deficient and had an insatiable appetite.” Not a pretty picture.

Selling Oatmeal to Southeast Asia

Of all the many successful products marketed to Southeast Asia from the United States, Quaker Oatmeal does not seem to have made the list. However, in the 1950s, the company was pushing hard to market their product. They handed out thousands of free bowls of the stuff at the Thai 1954 Bangkok Constitution Fair, but apparently few Thais enjoyed it.

Bangkok, Thailand, Constitution Fair, Oatmeal, Quaker

Later, advertisements appeared across Southeast Asia that seem to play on locals’ fears of being able to compete in the labor market. Here are some pictures from the Borneo Bulletin in 1959. Apparently if you eat Quaker Oats you will be a more successful Malaysian!

Quaker, Oatmeal, Borneo, Malaysia, Advertisment

Talking About Race in Southeast Asian History

Recently there has been some good writing done about race in Southeast Asia. Before this, most of the history that dealt with race was pretty influenced by Eurocentric ideas or nationalist narratives that supported a particular race’s “uniqueness.” But this new stuff is pretty, so here is a little intro to the newer ideas floating around out there.

In Southeast Asian historiography, the construction of racial knowledge has largely revolved around and evolved from European ideas of race, nationalism, and coloniality. From John Sydenham Furnivall’s notions of a “plural society” to more recent “clash of cultures” theories, thinking on the racialization of the Southeast Asian body and state has been fairly limited.  However, recent work by a number of scholars in fields such as history, anthropology, and sociology are begging to challenge these older understandings. These authors seek to reevaluate the place of race in daily practice, the formation of modern postcolonial states, and even see implications for transnational race formation that occurred between colonizers and the colonized.

            Charles Hirschman’s article, “The Making of Race in Colonial Malaya: Political Economy and Racial Ideology,” Sociological Forum, 1, No.2 (Spring, 1986): 330-361, is a great starting point for this project as he seeks to demonstrate that what we now identify as discrete racial groups in Southeast Asia are in fact legacies of imperial structures from the colonial period. He uses the case of “race relations” in Malaysia to argue that “direct colonial rule” created these racial “byproducts” as a result of classification, stratification, and labor-based exploitation of the colonial subject. While Hirschman acknowledges that pre-modern Southeast Asia was a world of “ethnocentrism,” he argues that the “racial ideology of inherent difference” was a European import. Western ideas of the “lazy Malay,” entrepreneurial Chinese, and the willing Indian laborer caused a “qualitative shift” in the economy and society which hardened local understandings of race.

            These stereotypical ideas of racial differentiation were not merely a popular understanding or a natural outcome of transforming means of production, but rather, according to Daniel P.S. Goh’s article “States and Ethnography: Colonialism, Resistance, and Cultural Transcriptions in Malaya and the Philippines, 1890s-1930s,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 49, No.1 (2007):109-142, these differences were created as part of a colonial logic which combined scientific racism and social Darwinism to “make legible” the colonial subject and create systems of knowledge and control. Here Goh argues that the “transcription” of local peoples, knowledge, and methods of resistance allowed colonial officer-ethnographers to debate native peoples’ level of civilization on a sliding scale from “degenerated medievals” which were currently incapable of progress to “model medievals” nearly in line with Europe’s past. While this model employed by late nineteenth century ethnographers did in theory allow for the possibility of progress, in also froze different races in pre-modern time based on cultural differentiation or resistance to white rule and allowed white Europeans domination of racial distinction and classification within the colonies.

            This idea that “white” imperialists brought racial classifications to Southeast Asia and implemented power structures based on the production of the social economy or ethnographic knowledge is challenged by Paul Kramer’s article “Empires, Exceptions, and Anglo-Saxons: Race and Rule between the British and United States Empires, 1880-1910,” The Journal of American History, 88, No.4 (Mar., 2002), 1315-1353, which seeks to demonstrate that some of the idea of whiteness, or more precisely Anglo-Saxonism” were created in the colonial world and not in the metropole. Kramer argues that the American and British empires shared an “inter colonial” production of “Anglo-Saxon” racial exceptionalism that was created in the empire itself. Rather than bringing hard, pre-formulated notions of race to the Philippines and Malaysia, Kramer demonstrates that these ideas of racial superiority were partially crafted in transnational peripheries to support, organize, and legitimize empire. Anglo-Saxon identities thus were created “in relation to empire.”

            But if Anglo-Saxons could create racial identities in relation to empire, surely colonial subjects in transnational social systems and economic flows could do likewise. Chua Ai Lin’s article “Nation, Race, and Language: Discussing Transnational Identities in Colonial Singapore, Circa 1930” Modern Asian Studies, 46, Special Issue 2 (March 2012): 283-302, explains that just as white racial identity was formed in transnational spaces, racial knowledge of Indian and Chinese Malays were created in a complex mix of local and global influences. As British subjects living in Malaya with ties to familial origins in India or China, these “non-Malay” people utilized notions of language, citizenship, and place in their own logics of race. Primarily concerned with maintaining their identity as “Straits Chinese” and Malay Indians, Lin tells us that these people simultaneously embraced British subjecthood and “gained pride” from the “rising international status of India and China.” Again, this process can be seen as creating harder and clearer cut racial identities where previously other forms of social knowledge and representation existed.

These sharp distinctions in race formation, knowledge, and self-identification would outlive the colonial period and, in many ways, come to define the parameters of race and nationalism in postcolonial Southeast Asian nations. Daniel P.S. Goh’s article “From Colonial Pluralism to Postcolonial Multiculturalism: Race, State Formation and the Question of Cultural Diversity in Malaysia and Singapore” Sociology Compass, 2, No.1 (2008): 232-252, takes up this issue and argues that unlike “postimperial societies,” postcolonial societies “built on colonial racialization” came to view race as integral to nationalism thus creating a societies in which “multiculturalism” was a problematic “fact”; a “dilemma to be dealt with from the beginning of nation building.”

While all of these articles add new ideas and ask a series of interesting questions, they also seem to share a common set of problems. Partially based on their foucauldian analytic methods, they seem to attribute tremendous power to the state and focus away from individual response, reason, and (ir)rationality. Moreover, as these authors seek to sidestep American and European racialization and observe transnational Southeast Asian constructions of race (even the Anglo-Saxon ones) they rely only on English-language discourse and primary sources. Also, some of the authors’ ideas of race fall apart in the light of comparison to say the American Civil War, Jim Crow laws, and continuing forms of racial differentiation often referred to under the contemporary euphemism of “development.” Any compelling notions of race and race production in Southeast Asia must contain these comparative models and ask broader questions. How did Japanese technological progress and claims to be “white” affect the racial ideology of other Asians? How did American, Dutch, and British racism vary and did this have an effect especially on the peripheries of empire? How might America’s internal “decolonization” of black peoples and communities compare to decolonization in postwar Southeast Asia? Such questions combined with a greater use of local sources in non-English-language sources would surely expand the field and produce new and interesting theories and knowledge.