In Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam, Edward Miller contributes a Vietnam-centric perspective to understand the making of 1950’s and 1960’s South Vietnam. Miller argues that the ‘politics of nation building’ informed the United States and Diem government’s ‘misalliance’ or diplomatic relationship from its beginning to demise. Using Vietnamese and American government documents, newspapers, and the MSUG archives, Miller examines the similarities and differences in US and Diem approaches to political centralization, economic development, counterinsurgency, and suppression of political threats. In this way, Miller demonstrates the complexity of nation building as both a discourse and practice that in fact encompassed debates on democracy, community, security, and social change. (325) Most importantly in his narrative, Miller centers Vietnamese agency and attempts to restore Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu as rational, calculated politicians.
Two symbolic images encapsulate the ‘Fall of Saigon’: an image of the frantic helicopter evacuation off a Saigon apartment rooftop and that of North Vietnamese tanks rolling through the gates of Independence Palace. “Last Days in Vietnam” (2014), a documentary directed and produced by the daughter of former Senator Robert Kennedy, Rory Kennedy, traces the moments before these two historic events took place on April 30, 1975. Through captivating photos, video footage, maps, and interviews, “Last Days in Vietnam” weaves an emotional and informative narrative of the helicopter evacuation out of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. The film captures the sense of anger, fear, confusion, and disbelief from U.S. and South Vietnamese military, officials, and civilians.
“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.”
– Susan Sontag, On Photography
Vietnam-Centrism as Historiographical Intervention
Beginning in the 1990s post Cold War and Vietnamese doi moi reforms, a sizeable body of scholarship on the Vietnam War has emerged with the goal of reintroducing the ‘Vietnamese’ back into the history of the war. As if part of the long shadow cast by the first ‘Southeast Asianists’ of J.C. Van Leur, D.G.E. Hall, and John Smail, the initiative to center the autonomous history of the region responds to the decades of Vietnam War histories defined by foreign relations and geopolitics. A similar historiographical challenge arises when we think about ‘Vietnam-centrism’: does this imply a shift in the relative importance of certain aspects in the narrative or a complete shift in viewpoint?
It’s been nearly a year since I’ve stumbled upon the fascinating text Technique du Peuple Annamite (Mechanics and Crafts of the Vietnamese People) (Published 1908-1910). I had hoped to come to more of a conclusive analysis of this text before posting about this project. However like most intellectual projects, more questions and directions for analyses have opened up rather than converged into a neat finality.
Thus, I wanted to at least share my initial observations and inquiry into the text. Below is a brief introduction to the text itself and excerpts (Methods & History of the Book) from my essay “On Examining a Peripheral Text: Technique du Peuple Annamite”, which I hope to finish editing and publish here. Additionally, I created a timeline of the life of the text and author below:
Last summer I started thinking about translating historical texts into ‘data’ and wrote a short blog post about it when I worked on the Cultural Heritage Informatics project. At that point, I pondered about the limitations of my recently minted Master’s thesis, where I analyzed tourism advertisements and travel stories to understand how individuals ‘mapped’ places with cultural, colonial, and personal significances.As a heavily theoretical cultural history project, I enjoyed the textual, literary, and tentativeness of such an endeavor. However, I could not answer many structural questions about the nature of Vietnamese tourism and genre of travel stories more broadly because of the qualitative nature of my project.
I wonder if others have had this experience in their own historical research? I myself am drawn to digital tools and more quantitative ways of thinking as a way of offering a broader perspective to my often very textual-based questions. With a deep yearning for more ‘concrete,’ quantitative data, I hope to create a digital history project within this line of thinking: translating historical text to data.