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Persistence and Transformation in Southeast Asia: Region, Nation, and Diaspora beyond the U.S. War in Vietnam

In: Journal of American-East Asian Relations
Authors:
Mark Atwood LawrenceProfessor, Department of History, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA, malawrence@austin.utexas.edu

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Jana K. LipmanProfessor, History Department, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA, USA, jlipman@tulane.edu

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At noontime on 30 April 1975, a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gate of the presidential palace in central Saigon. The flag of the National Liberation Front soon flew atop the building. Thus ended the U.S war in Vietnam and, with it, thirty years of American exertions to prevent precisely this outcome. During those decades, U.S. leaders had dreaded the consequences of defeat not just in Vietnam but across the region. Starting in the Truman years, Americans often had justified intervention in Vietnam as necessary to protect the credibility of U.S. power and to prevent the collapse of other nations like a row of dominos, thus doubling down on one of the Cold War’s most powerful metaphors. With the fall of Saigon, the destiny of all Southeast Asia seemed to hang in the balance.

The benefits of hindsight make it easy to see that the Communist victory in Vietnam did not portend a cascade of falling dominos. Instead, the consequences in Southeast Asia were mixed and uneven. Communist forces took control in Laos and Cambodia, with horrific consequences. Even in those territories, however, division persisted as the Sino-Soviet split fueled fresh rivalries and bloodshed. In the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, meanwhile, pro-American regimes consolidated their control, affirming that most of Southeast Asia remained within the Western orbit. The persistence of vast Chinese communities and the rise of political Islam in these states loomed as potential sources of instability. Despite the creation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (asean) in 1967, the region was far from unified.

Over the last 25 years, historians have made good progress exploring how Southeast Asian nations navigated the international landscape during the U.S. war in Vietnam.1 The period after 1975, however, has drawn far less attention, leaving scholars with innumerable opportunities for fresh work. This theme issue titled “Persistence and Transformation in Southeast Asia: Region, Nation, and Diaspora beyond the U.S. War in Vietnam” takes up this challenge. Its three articles examine how Southeast Asian political leaders, artists, and activists conceived of their region and charted their countries’ courses after 1975. Two clusters of questions stand out. One concerns chronology. To what extent did the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam mark a turning point in the region’s history? What other breaking points might scholars consider in trying to understand the broad contours of Southeast Asian history? How did the evolving Cold War shape the region? The second set of questions centers on the definition of “Southeast Asia.” How did people think about their region’s geographical and intellectual boundaries? Was there any coherent notion of a Southeast Asian identity? The following essays approach these questions in multiple valences, with the three authors examining different realms – geopolitical alliances, cultural production, and diasporic activism. Collectively, the articles underscore the challenges and opportunities of writing the history of Southeast Asia in the late Cold War.

Scholars of the U.S. war in Vietnam are well attuned to the ways that conflict dominates the English-language and U.S.-generated scholarship on Southeast Asia since 1945. While understandable, that domination obscures plausible breaking points and transformations only loosely connected, or even unconnected, to the war. The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973 and the collapse of South Vietnam two years later roughly coincided, after all, with other critical turning points in world history, including the U.S. opening to China, the oil shocks, the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system, the emergence of U.S.-Soviet strategic parity, surging Islamic fundamentalism, the accelerating turn toward authoritarianism encapsulated in the 1973 coup in Chile, and the rise of the transnational human rights movement.2 Something was surely afoot in the 1970s, creating new alignments, reshaping economic networks, and fostering new political possibilities.

Scholarly focus on the U.S. war in Vietnam also may obscure the possibility that other developments might have had longer-lasting consequences than the failed U.S. military venture in Indochina or that continuities outweighed ruptures the war caused in shaping the region. The importance of Southeast Asia’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China (prc), the legacies of European colonialism, and the long durée of domestic anti-communism all preceded and persisted after the U.S. deployment in Vietnam. The articles in this theme issue clearly underscore the omnipresence of American military and economic power and the consequences of the U.S. defeat. But they also challenge a U.S.- and Vietnam-centric chronology, showing how Southeast Asians, driven by the dynamics of their own societies driven by the dynamics of their own societies, shaped their own histories. Mattias Fibiger, Wen-Qing Ngoei, and Joy Sales analyze how Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai, Singaporean, and Filipino actors sought out new alliances and networks, even as the consequences of the war in Vietnam shaped the context in which they operated.

Those new alliances and networks suggest questions about the literal and figurative boundaries around the region that became widely known as Southeast Asia only during the Second World War. Military necessity led Allied planners to conceive of the diverse territories east of India and south of China as comprising a single entity.3 But the idea of a distinct region took deeper root during the Cold War, not least because elites from within the region began to tout the notion of common economic, strategic, and cultural interests. The 1967 founding of asean marked a key milestone in this process. Yet uncertainties persisted. In his 1984 article “‘Southeast Asia’: What’s in a Name?,” political scientist Donald K. Emmerson notes that the consolidation of nation-states presumed to comprise the region actually cut against the emergence of “an entity with an identity internal to itself.” Scholarship transcending individual countries, noted Emmerson, tended to focus on diplomacy and the activities of regional organizations, rather than on “transnational cultural zones or interactions.”4 This observation remains valid almost forty years after Emmerson published his essay. Scholarship encompassing the region remains mostly focused on geopolitical and economic relationships.5

This theme issue, which originated as a panel at the 2021 annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, initially convened to consider new questions in Southeast Asian foreign relations “after Vietnam.” The conversation was vibrant, and it underscored how the U.S. war in Vietnam maintained its gravitational pull on U.S.-based diplomatic historians, along with the need to consider alternative chronologies and frameworks. The subsequent articles suggest the challenges, and potential benefits, of thinking about the coherence of Southeast Asia from the 1970s onward. Fibiger’s article titled “Indonesia and the Third Indochina War: The End of Containment” takes the relatively traditional approach of a diplomatic historian, examining Indonesian policymaking during the Sino-Vietnam War of 1979. Indonesia’s decisions to side with the prc and to accommodate itself to asean’s opposition to Vietnam demonstrate the limits of regional unity. Using previously unexamined sources, Fibiger adroitly reveals how and why asean tilted toward cooperation with the prc, the very power that asean’s founders initially intended to contain. In taking this approach, Fibiger challenges the conventional periodization of Southeast Asian history, showing that intense violence persisted after 1975. He also highlights the growing importance of Islam. In all of these ways, the essay underscores dramatic changes following the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam – but hardly the ones that most observers had anticipated.

In “Exhibiting Transnationalism after Vietnam: The Alpha Gallery’s Vision of an Artistic Renaissance in Southeast Asia,” Ngoei paints on a much broader canvas, both geographically and thematically. Focusing on artists linked to Singapore’s Alpha Gallery, his article asks what “Southeast Asia” meant in the cultural realm. Ngoei traces how elite Singaporean and Malaysian artists imagined the region and went about trying to establish a distinct visual and artistic agenda. Driving their efforts was a desire to find an idyllic, “indigenous” past, separate from Cold War confrontations or Western influences. However, Ngoei hastens to add, persistent British and American cultural hegemony ultimately limited these cultural leaders in their attempts to realize their aspirations. Artists determined to uncover something fresh and authentic suffered from their own blind spots and wound up replicating imperial sensibilities. In this way, Ngoei reveals, “Southeast Asia” remained anchored to conceptions originating in the West.

Casting her net widest of all, Sales envisions Southeast Asia to include diasporic networks that reach deep into the United States. “‘Activism is Not a Crime’: Confronting Counterinsurgency in the Filipino/a/x Diaspora” traces intimate connections between anti-authoritarian activists in the Philippines, Filipinos in the diaspora, and their allies. Collectively, these groups created and continue to shape new configurations of Southeast Asian politics that do not have territorial boundaries, but rather form part of an ongoing transnational social movement. In advancing this argument, Sales takes the longest chronological view of the three authors, arguing for continuities, rather than changes, from the early 20th century through the Cold War Marcos years, and well into the 21st century. The article demonstrates how the Philippine government repeatedly reinvented and reinvigorated the politics of anti-communism. The easy binaries of “before” and “after” Vietnam fall away in an analysis demanding that scholars recognize longer continuities and histories of empire.

Sales’s article thus offers a useful reminder of the tremendous influence that the United States continued to exert in Southeast Asia after 1975. On the whole, however, the contents of this theme issue offer a mixed assessment of the U.S. role in the region in the final decades of the century. Fibiger’s essay shows that local dynamics and incentives for cooperation with the prc confound old Cold War alignments. Ngoei’s article suggests the persistence of Western mindsets even among Southeast Asians determined to uncover a distinct regional identity, and the U.S. role melds into a broadly Western set of attitudes dating back to the European colonial era. On the whole, this theme issue highlights the value of decentering the United States. The United States remained an important military, economic, and cultural power in the region, even after its spectacular failure in Vietnam, but it was far from all-powerful. Moreover, Southeast Asian political, cultural, and activist leaders experimented with and enacted new regional networks and alliances. Surely, shifting the focus away from the U.S. government captures something of great importance. After 1975, the U.S. desire for a lower profile emerged alongside the prc’s growing strength as a major regional player, the drive for regional cooperation, the growing interconnectedness of diasporic networks, and the region’s soaring economic power.

Collectively, these articles push existing understanding of U.S.-Southeast Asian relations in new directions. They demonstrate how scholarship in diplomatic history and ethnic studies can complement each other, enabling us to grasp how historical currents flowed between diplomacy, politics, and culture. They represent the possibility, and need, for scholars to dig deep into specific locales and still speak to larger questions about the nation, the region, and the global. And finally, the essays, though diverse in terms of methodology, temporality, and theme, represent powerful and pathbreaking ways forward for our understanding of Southeast Asia’s encounters with the world beyond the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Selected Bibliography

  • Acharya, Amitav. Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order. London: Routledge, 2001.

  • Ang, Cheng Guan. Southeast Asia after the Cold War: A Contemporary History. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2019.

  • Ang, Cheng Guan. Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War. New York: Routledge, 2010.

  • Ang, Cheng Guan. Southeast Asia’s Cold War: An Interpretive History. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i, 2018.

  • Ba, Alice. [Re]Negotiating East and Southeast Asia: Region, Regionalism, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

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  • Cuddy, Brian and Fredrik Logevall, Eds. The Vietnam War and the Pacific World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming 2022.

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  • Emmerson, Donald K.‘Southeast Asia’: What’s in a Name?Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 15, No. 1 (March 1984): 121.

  • Esterline, John H. and Mae H. Esterline. “How the Dominoes Fell”: Southeast Asia in Perspective, Second Edition (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990.

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  • Fibiger, Mattias. Suharto’s Cold War: Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and the World. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

  • Kratoska, Karl H., Remco Raben, and Henk Schulte Nordhold. Locating Southeast Asia: Geographies of Knowledge and Politics of Space. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2005.

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  • McMahon, Robert J. The Limits of Empire: The United State and Southeast Asia Since World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

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  • Ngoei, Wen-Qing. Arc of Containment: Britain, the United States, and Anticommunism in Southeast Asia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019.

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  • Sargent, Daniel J. A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

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  • Simpson, Bradley R. Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960–1968. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.

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  • Weatherbee, Donald E. International Relations in Southeast Asia: The Struggle for Autonomy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

1

For example, Ang Cheng Guan, Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War (New York: Routledge, 2010); Ang Cheng Guan, Southeast Asia’s Cold War: An Interpretive History (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i, 2018); Brian Cuddy and Fredrik Logevall (eds.), The Vietnam War and the Pacific World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming 2022); Mattias Fibiger, Suharto’s Cold War: Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and the World (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming); Robert J. McMahon, The Limits of Empire: The United State and Southeast Asia Since World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Wen-Qing Ngoei, Arc of Containment: Britain, the United States, and Anticommunism in Southeast Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019); Bradley R. Simpson, Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960–1968 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

2

David J. Sargent has explored the fundamental shifts in the international environment in the 1970s. Daniel J. Sargent, A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

3

John H. Esterline and Mae H. Esterline, “How the Dominoes Fell”: Southeast Asia in Perspective, second edition (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990). See also Karl H. Kratoska, Remco Raben, and Henk Schulte Nordhold, Locating Southeast Asia: Geographies of Knowledge and Politics of Space (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2005), 1–19.

4

Donald K. Emmerson, “‘Southeast Asia’: What’s in a Name?,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 15, no. 1 (March 1984), 1, 13.

5

For example, Amitav Acharya, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order (London: Routledge, 2001); Ang Cheng Guan, Southeast Asia after the Cold War: A Contemporary History (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2019); Ang Cheng Guan, Southeast Asia’s Cold War; Alice Ba, [Re]Negotiating East and Southeast Asia: Region, Regionalism, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009); Donald E. Weatherbee, International Relations in Southeast Asia: The Struggle for Autonomy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).

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