Conference Program

85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History

 Landscapes of War and Peace

April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky

Title: Security and Allegiance: Populations in the Vietnam Conflict
Abstract: This panel will seek to understand the role of populations, state building, and geography in the Vietnam conflict. Understanding the pivotal role of long-term processes of state formation and allegiance offers insights into the Vietnam conflict and the fluid cultural landscape of war. This panel will bring together historians from the academic, military institutions and non-governmental organizations in order to examine these issues in a holistic and comprehensive approach. Several of the presenters are young scholars, who bring advanced language skills and new, sophisticated approaches to analyze this topic.
David Johnson explores the role of refugees from northern Vietnam, sometimes seen as a "claque" or group of zealous supporters, was far from guaranteed. Shared bonds of religious (Catholic) faith, and anti-communism did not directly translate to support for the government of South Vietnam. Qingfei Yin examines the region along the North Vietnam-People Republic of China border, which marked a division between two newly emerged Communist states that both sought to control the lives of their populations through social and political mobilization. Robert Thompson focuses on the area of Cung Son, a vital town in the province of Phu Yen. Contested by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese forces prevailed at the Battle of Cung Son in 1971, yet the victory proved hollow, and the government was unable to fully integrate the area into the national economy and society.
Through this panel, we hope to reveal how the civilian population and state structures interacted during a time of conflict. All sides in the conflict; U.S., Chinese, South and North Vietnamese struggled to provide comprehensive security or ideological appeals to population, leading to complications on the battlefield and impacting the long-term development of these new states.
Eric Setzekorn, U.S. Army Center of Military History
David Johnson, Texas Tech University
Participant's Paper Title: Pacifying the Claque: Winning the Hearts and Minds of Northern Refugees in South Vietnam
Participant's Paper Abstract: Pacification, was an important strategy employed by the United States and its southern Vietnamese allies to counter the insurgency that emerged in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) after 1954. The first effort to pacify the population in the southern Vietnamese state involved a group many considered essentially unconditionally loyal to the Diem administration: refugees from the north who had traveled to the south after the conclusion of the French Indochina War by the signing of the Geneva Accords in July 1954. Observers believed the refugees "provided Diem with a claque: a politically malleable, culturally distinct group, wholly distrustful of Ho Chi Minh and the [Democratic Republic of Vietnam], dependent for subsistence on Diem's government."
American and southern Vietnamese officials recognized that such loyalty was conditional. Although southern Vietnam had abundant uncultivated land, much of which had been abandoned during the French Indochina War, on which to settle the northern refugees, security concerns delayed resettlement. Viet Minh cadre remained in former Viet Minh strongholds in the south and three so-called politico-religious sects, each with their own private armies, maintained control over key territories in southern Vietnam. To defeat the insurgency, the Diem administration not only had to provide land and security for the refugees, but also to demonstrate the southern government could improve their standard of living by providing access to water, medical care, schools, and other amenities. The allegiance of this "claque" was not guaranteed. The proposed paper will examine the extent to which these early pacification efforts succeeded in winning and maintaining support for Diem amongst northern refugees and how the pacification of northern refugees presaged, paralleled, and influenced later endeavors to pacify other elements in southern Vietnam.
Qingfei Yin, George Washington University
Participant's Paper Title: Sino-Vietnamese State Building and Connections during the Vietnam War, 1965-1975
Participant's Paper Abstract: The Vietnam War not only shaped the political landscape of countries directly involved in the conflict but also had profound social impacts on areas neighboring Indochina. This paper examines the Sino-Vietnamese border during the Vietnam War. I argue that the Vietnam War geopoliticized the Sino-Vietnamese frontiers not only to the Chinese and Vietnamese Communists but also to the United States, which connected a remote society to global politics. The area was simultaneously under American aerial reconnaissance, ambitious construction projects sponsored by Beijing and Hanoi to facilitate transporting aid to Vietnam, and social mobilization by the local Chinese and Vietnamese administrations against possible expansion of the war to the region. The militarization of the area and the political chaos during the Cultural Revolution reversed the process of socialist state-building by the two Communist governments at the frontier that aimed at turning their respective border societies inward and away from the border. The war not only diverted resources of the local states away from the effort of boundary making but also created a momentum of cross-border movement of people and goods that the modernizing states had to accommodate.
This paper makes two historiographical interventions. First, it complicates existing scholarship on Sino-Vietnamese relations during the Vietnam War by revealing that the increasing border skirmishes since the 1970s were not just unavoidable byproducts of the grand strategies of Beijing and Hanoi but the consequence of the obstructed state-building since the mid-1960s. Second, contrary to the conventional wisdom that the Communist regimes were especially effective in wartime mobilization, this paper demonstrates that due to the strained state-society relations caused by political movements since the 1950s, the local states had significant difficulty in putting the border society onto a war machine.
Robert Thompson, University of Southern Misssissippi
Participant's Paper Title: Defeat in Victory: Geography and the 1971 Battle of Cung Son, Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam
Participant's Paper Abstract: The Battle of Cung Son occurred at the height of the U.S. withdrawal from the Republic of Vietnam. This battle in Phu Yen Province revealed significant truths about the late-war in the Republic of Vietnam and demonstrated the value of American airpower in war without U.S. ground forces, as well as the resilience of both local South Vietnamese leadership and the American advisory effort. Under GVN control, Cung Son protected the western approaches to the economically significant ride paddies of the Tuy Hoa Valley. Before 1971, Cung Son played a major role in Saigon's efforts to exercise control over contested territory in Phu Yen. Refugees found themselves relocated to Cung Son by the GVN, and U.S. Army search and destroy operations often emanated from the village.
South Vietnamese forces prevailed at the Battle of Cung Son, yet the victory proved hollow. House to house fighting, with aerial bombardment in support, both ejected the PLAF from Cung Son and rendered much of the village uninhabitable. Although province officials quickly dispatched supplies to Cung Son, such devastation meant rebuilding, not advancing, pacification. Worse, within days of the battle, the PLAF demolished a bridge near the province capital of Tuy Hoa City, one recently re-opened by South Vietnam's President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu himself. In sinking bridge spans, the PLAF struck a visceral and symbolic blow to the very soul of the province, negating any sense of progress towards victory claimed by the GVN. By late 1972, instead of capturing Cung Son, the PLAF simply cut the highway linking the village with the rest of the province. Consequently, the Battle of Cung Son is emblematic of the Vietnam War itself-temporary short-term victories that failed to advance Saigon's control over contested space.
Kevin Boylan, Emmanuel College