Apr 16, 2014

"Decolonization, Violence, and Sovereignty in an Out of the Way Place: the Western Mekong delta, 1945-54"

Shawn McHale, Associate Professor of History and International Affairs; Director, Asian Studies Program, George Washington University

The story of Vietnam's struggle for sovereignty against the French seems straightforward: after nine years of war, Vietnam won its independence in 1954. Or did it? This author does not accept the standard view of sovereignty and its transfer. Rather, this transfer of power from the French was a twisting, piecemeal, and contested process that began in 1944 and continued until France finally withdrew from Vietnam in 1956. Other scholars have been wrong to minimize the significance of this long devolution of power.  At the same time, this talk will not simply present a top-down view of the transfer of power. Quite the contrary, I will ask: what do these contestations over high politics mean when we look at them from the bottom up? What is the nitty-gritty of sovereignty at the local level, the local perceptions of the state, and the reality of multiple competing territorial claims across the Mekong delta and even into Cambodia? Careful attention to such questions helps to explain, in part, the strangeness of the birth of South Vietnam.

Shawn McHale, born in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, is Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University. He received his B.A. with honors from Swarthmore College, an M.A. in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Southeast Asian history from Cornell University (1995). He has taught courses on East and Southeast Asian history, Vietnam, history and memory, and colonialism and its legacy. His current research interests include decolonization, the First Indochina War, and ethnic conflict.

Professor McHale's publications include Print and Power: Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam (University of Hawaii Press, 2004); "Understanding the Fanatic Mind? The Viet Minh and Race Hatred in the First Indochina War (1945-1954)," Journal of Vietnamese Studies (October 2009), and "Ethnicity, Violence, and Khmer-Vietnamese Relations:The Significance of the Lower Mekong Delta, 1757–1954," Journal of Asian Studies 72 (02) (May 2013). He is currently working on a book on the social experience of war in the Mekong Delta, 1945-54, in global and local perspective. 

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