5/23 Webinar - New Scholarship on the Vietnam Wars (Washington History Seminar)

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With Christopher Goscha, Shawn McHale, and George Veith.

Christopher Goscha, Penguin History of Modern Vietnam - On May 7, 1954, when the bullets stopped and the air stilled in Dien Bien Phu, there was no doubt that Vietnam could fight a mighty colonial power and win. After nearly a decade of struggle, a nation forged in the crucible of war had achieved a victory undreamed of by any other national liberation movement. The Road to Dien Bien Phu tells the story of how Ho Chi Minh turned a ragtag guerrilla army into a modern fighting force capable of bringing down the formidable French army. Taking readers from the outbreak of fighting in 1945 to the epic battle at Dien Bien Phu, Christopher Goscha shows how Ho transformed Vietnam from a decentralized guerrilla state based in the countryside to a single-party communist state shaped by a specific form of “War Communism.” Goscha discusses how the Vietnamese operated both states through economics, trade, policing, information gathering, and communications technology. He challenges the wisdom of counterinsurgency methods developed by the French and still used by the Americans today, and explains why the First Indochina War was arguably the most brutal war of decolonization in the twentieth century, killing a million Vietnamese, most of them civilians. Panoramic in scope, The Road to Dien Bien Phu transforms our understanding of this conflict and the one the United States would later enter, and sheds new light on communist warfare and statecraft in East Asia today.

  • Christopher Goscha is professor of history at the University of Quebec at Montreal. He has spent much of his adult life studying the people, politics and history of Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. He studied at Georgetown University and the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (IVème Section, La Sorbonne). He has written extensively about many of the different regions of Indo-China and on the wars for Vietnam. He recently published the Penguin History of Modern Vietnam.

Shawn McHale, The First Vietnam War: Violence, Sovereignty, and the Fracture of the South, 1945-56 - Why did the communist-led resistance in Vietnam win the anticolonial war against France (1945–54), except in the south? Shawn McHale shows how broad swaths of Vietnamese people were uneasily united in 1945 under the Viet Minh Resistance banner, all opposing the French attempt to reclaim control of the country. By 1947, resistance unity had shattered, and Khmer-Vietnamese ethnic violence had divided the Mekong delta. From this point on, the war in the south turned into an overt civil war wrapped up in a war against France. Based on archival research in four countries and in three languages, this is the first substantive English-language book focused on southern Vietnam's transition from colonialism to independence.

  • Shawn McHale is Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University. Educated at Swarthmore (BA), the University of Hawai'i (MA), and Cornell University (MA, PhD), he is a specialist in Southeast Asian history. Among his publications are: Print and Power: Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam  (Hawaii, 2004); The First Vietnam War: Violence, Sovereignty, and the Fracture of the South, 1945-56 (Cambridge University Press, 2021); "Ethnicity, Violence, and Khmer-Vietnamese Relations: The Significance of the Lower Mekong Delta, 1757–1954,"  Journal of Asian Studies 72 (2) (2013): 367-390.

George Veith, Drawn Swords in a Distant Land: South Vietnam's Shattered Dreams - Drawn Swords in a Distant Land showcases the rise and fall of South Vietnam. No overview of that lost country has even been written, and this unique chronicle fills that massive historical gap. Old ideological blinders, misunderstandings, and outright lies have left a tremendous void in understanding the motivations and policies of the Saigon government. By providing the South Vietnamese perspective, Drawn Swords sets the record straight, and offers the first detailed examination of their successes and failures in the experiment known as the Republic of Vietnam.

  • George J. Veith is the author of Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973–1975 (2012); Code-Name Bright Light: The Untold Story of U.S. POW Rescue Efforts During the Vietnam War (1998); and Leave No Man Behind: Bill Bell and the Search for American POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War (2004). He has written extensively on the Vietnam War, spoken at many conferences, and testified on the POW/MIA issue before Congress. His fourth book is a political, social, and economic history of the rise and fall of South Vietnam. He recently completed his PhD at Monash University and lives in Delaware.

The Washington History Seminar is co-chaired by Eric Arnesen (George Washington University and the National History Center) and Christian Ostermann (Woodrow Wilson Center) and is organized jointly by the National History Center of the American Historical Association and the Woodrow Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. It meets weekly during the academic year. The seminar thanks its anonymous individual donors and institutional partners (the George Washington University History Department and the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest) for their continued support.