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Wiring Decolonization: Turning Technology against the Colonizer during the Indochina War, 1945–1954

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 September 2012


Christopher Goscha
Affiliation:
Département d'histoire, Université du Québec à Montréal
Corresponding

Abstract

Twentieth-century wars of decolonization were more than simple diplomatic and military affairs. This article examines how the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) relied upon technology to drive state-making and to make war during the struggle against the French (1945–1954). Wireless radios, in particular, provided embattled nationalists a means by which they could communicate orders and information across wide expanses of contested space in real time. Printing presses, newspapers, stationary, and stamps not only circulated information, but they also served as the bureaucratic markers of national sovereignty. Radios and telephones were essential to the DRV's ability to develop, field, and run a professional army engaged in modern—not guerilla—battles. The Vietnamese were victorious at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 in part because they successfully executed a highly complex battle via the airwaves. Neither the Front de libération nationale (FLN) fighting the French for Algeria nor the Republicans battling the Dutch for Indonesia ever used communications so intensely to drive state-making or take the fight to the colonizer on the battlefield. Scholars of Western states and warfare have long recognized the importance of information gathering for understanding such matters. This article argues that it is time to consider how postcolonial states gathered and used information, even in times of war.


Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2012

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References

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3 Smith, “Njama's Supper,” 540.

4 That said, a remarkably modern postal system operated in pre-French Vietnam. See Despierres, René, “Le service des PTT en Indochine,” Bulletin des Amis du Vieux Hué 31, 1 (1944): 57Google Scholar.

5 Mancini, Jean-Marie, “Le réseau radioélectrique colonial français: perspectives, enjeux et réalisations,” Les cahiers 5 (1997): 3959Google Scholar; Despierres, “Le service des TPP en Indochine,” 8–44; Le Ngoc Trac, et al., Lich Su Truyen Thong 30 Nam Thong Tin Vo Tuyen Dien Nam Bo (1945–1975) (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Buu Dien, 2003), 28–33; Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh Buu Dien Viet Nam, vol. 1 (Hanoi: Nganh Buu Dien Xuat Ban, 1990), 81–82; and Goscha, Christopher, Going Indochinese: Contesting Concepts of Place and Space in French Indochina (1885–1945) (Copenhagen and Honolulu: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and University of Hawaìi Press, 2012)Google Scholar. Already in 1907, the “Indochinese” postal workers vastly outnumbered European personnel (1,274 to 378).

6 Chien, Nguyen, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 1945–1954 (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 1996), 24Google Scholar.

7 See my Thailand and the Southeast Asian Networks of the Vietnamese Revolution (1887–1954) (London: Routledge, 1999)Google Scholar, chs. 1–2; and Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 53–73.

8 The British and Canadians developed the portable MKII and MKIII radio transceivers during the war, with which field agents could receive and transmit messages with superiors over long distances. To keep things technically simple, I refer here only to the MKII, but in reality the Vietnamese operated a myriad of war-era transceivers, including the MK models, RVG500s, SSR-SST sets, TM 10s, and more. On the MK models, see: http://www.duxfordradiosociety.org/restoration/equip/b2/b2.html.

9 Quang, Do Khac, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, Ghi Tom Tat Theo Nam Thang (Hanoi: Bo Tu Lenh Thong Tin Lien Lac, 1982)Google Scholar, 27, 29; Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 68–69; Luc Luong Thong Tin Lien Lac Cong An Nhan Dan, Lich Su Bien Nien 1945–54 (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Cong An Nhan Dan, 1998), 2930Google Scholar.

10 Do Khac Quang, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, Ghi Tom Tat Theo Nam Thang, 33, 35; Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 69, 81–84; and Nhung Ky Niem Sau Sac Ve Bo Truong Tran Quoc Hoan (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Cong An Nhan Dan, 2004), 296Google Scholar.

11 “Note sur le déroulement des événenements du 9 mars 1945 au 1 décembre 1945,” 20, supplément 4, Conseiller Politique, Centre des Archives d'Outre-mer.

12 Hanyok, Robert J., Spartans in Darkness: American SIGINT and the Indochina War, 1945–1975 (Fort Meade: Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 2002)Google Scholar, 18; or the “Additional Declassified Material” version (May 2008) at: http://www.fas.org/irp/nsa/spartans/additional.pdf (accessed 6 July 2012).

13 “Note sur le déroulement”; Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 78, 81–82, 86–88; Do Khac Quang, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, Ghi Tom Tat Theo Nam Thang, 35–37, 39; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 13.

14 Do Khac Quang, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, Ghi Tom Tat Theo Nam Thang, 37–40; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 19, n. 1.

15 Note sur le déroulement,” 20; Lich Su Nganh In Viet Nam, vol. 2 (Hanoi: Cuc Xuat Ban Bo Van Hoa Thong Tin, 1992), 29, 136–37Google Scholar. See also: McHale, Print and Power.

16 Cong Bao Dan Quoc 36 (27 Aug. 1946)Google Scholar; Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 78, 81–82, 86–88; Do Khac Quang, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, Ghi Tom Tat Theo Nam Thang, 35–37.

17 Lepage, Jean-Marc, Les services secrets en Indochine (Paris: Nouveaux Mondes Editions, 2012)Google Scholar.

18 Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 84, 86–90.

19 Do Khac Quang, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, Ghi Tom Tat Theo Nam Thang, 41; Le Dinh, Y, et al. , Essential Matters: A History of the Cryptographic Branch of the People's Army of Viet-Nam, 1945–1975, Gaddy, David, ed. and trans. (Fort George Meade: Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 1994), 53, n. 3Google Scholar.

20 Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 12–14; Can, Phan Van, et al., Lich su Bo Tong Tham Muu Trong Khang Chien Chong Phap (1945–1954) (Hanoi: Bo Tong Tham Muu, 1991)Google Scholar, 12; Le Dinh Y, et al., Essential Matters, 2–3.

21 Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 14–19, 23; Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 88–89; and Le Ngoc Trac, et al., Lich su Truyen Thong 30 nam Thong Tin Vo Tuyen Dien Nam Bo, 29–31.

22 Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 21.

23 Ibid., 19–21.

Ibid.

24 Phan Van Can, et al., Lich Su Bo Tong Tham Muu, 14–15, 70–71; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 32–33. Scores of documents captured by the French confirm the great lengths to which the DRV went to train communications specialists. See, among many others, “Interrogatoire complémentaire de (X) ancien radio du Viet Minh,” 31 Mar. 1952, box 10H1838, Service historique de la défense (hereafter SHD), France.

25 Phan Van Can, et al., Lich Su Bo Tong Tham Muu, 14–15, 70–71; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 32–33. It would be interesting to compare this war-driven linguistic turn in the DRV with the FLN case during the Algerian War.

26 Central Intelligence Agency, “Indochinese Radio and Press, and Monitoring and Scrutiny Activities,” Mar. 1951, CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), National Archives and Records Administration, Annapolis.

27 David Marr, State, Revolution & War in Vietnam, 1945–1947 (Berkeley: University of California Press, in press). My thanks to David Marr for allowing me to read and cite his important forthcoming work.

28 Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 30; Central Intelligence Agency, “Viet Minh Activity in Hanoi Area,” 13 Jan. 1950; Central Intelligence Agency, “Indochinese Radio and Press.”

29 Goscha, Thailand and the Southeast Asian Networks, ch. 5; and Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 132.

30 Phan Van Can, et al., Lich Su Bo Tong Tham Muu, 71–75; Do Khac Quang, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, Ghi Tom Tat Theo Nam Thang, 38–40; and Le Dinh Y, et al., Essential Matters, 8.

31 Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 26–28. The French knew about this because they had decrypted relevant communications.

32 Phan Van Can, et al., Lich Su Bo Tong Tham Muu, 71–75; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 38–40; Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac Ghi Tom Tat Theo Nam Thang, 64–65; and Le Dinh Y, et al., Essential Matters, 8–9.

33 Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 82–86; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 39–40; Bo Truong Tran Quoc Hoan, 28.

34 Le Dinh Y, et al., Essential Matters, 11; Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 82–86; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 39–40.

35 Ibid., 81–82.

Ibid.

36 Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 118–21; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 56; Le Dinh Y, et al., Essential Matters, 13–14.

37 Phan Van Can, et al., Lich Su Bo Tong Tham Muu, 46–48.

38 My thanks to a CSSH external reader for suggesting the term “archipelago state.”

39 Le Dinh Y, et al., Essential Matters, 14–15, n. 3; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 13–14; Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 88–89; Lich Su Truyen Thong 30 Nam Thong Tin Vo Tuyen Dien Nam Bo, 34–37; Do Khac Quang, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, Ghi Tom Tat Theo Nam Thang, 129, 144–45; “Interrogatoire complémentaire d'un ancien opérateur radio V. M. qui s'est rallié dans le Sud Vietnam,” 4 Apr. 1952, box 10H1838, SHD.

40 Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 81–82.

41 Cited in ibid., 65.

42 Le Dinh Y, et al., Essential Matters, 19; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 69–70, 74–75, 81–82, 87, 94–95.

43 See the report dated 25 Sept. 1947, in 10H535, SHD.

44 Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 79, 84–85; and “Schéma technique radioelectrique fourni par le chef de poste radio de l'Etat Major dans le sud, rallié aux Français,” box 10H1838, SHD. According to French intelligence, thanks to its wireless radio transmissions the DRV's southern resistance committee was in direct contact “with the radio stations of the Ministry of Defense, the Supreme Council of National Defense, the Ministry of Interior, the Voice of Vietnam, the Viet Minh's central committee, the combined regiments 81 and 82 of zone V, stations in Cambodia and with the government delegation in Thailand.” The southern command's radio stations as well as those of zones VII and IX were in contact with the Ministry of Defense led by Giap. Lastly, the southern resistance committee had radio contact with the southern police and their subcommittees. See “Assemblée générale du Comité de résistance et exécutif du Nam bo, 1950,” 38–41, box 10H620, SHD.

45 Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 132–33; Le Dinh Y, et al., Essential Matters, 25, 53, n. 3; Lich Su Truyen Thong 30 Nam Thong Tin Vo Tuyen Dien Nam Bo, 41–43, 50–85; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 69–70, 74–75, 81–82, 87, 94–95; “Lich Su Cac Doan 81, 82, 83, 280, Quan Tinh Nguyen Viet Nam Tai Lao,” on the Vietnamese Military History website, Vietnam, at: http://www.vnmilitaryhistory.net/index.php/topic,22574.0.html. French intelligence confirms this again, in “Historique du Parti communiste indochinois au Lao Dong,” 33, n. 1, box 10H620, SHD. According to this French source, the party's network operated three radio stations at the superior, zonal levels. Lower down, the network went through a party radio operating at the provincial level, or via the intermediary of a station operated by the resistance administration at the provincial level.

46 Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 81–82, 87, 94–95. Le bulletin des écoutes Viet Minh, now held in the colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence, is a goldmine of information for scholars.

47 Le Dinh Y, et al., Essential Matters, 51–52; Lich Su Truyen Thong 30 Nam Thong Tin Vo Tuyen Dien Nam Bo, 44–46; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 71–73.

48 Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 129–43; Minh, Nguyen Ngoc, et al., Kinh Te Viet Nam, 1945–1954 (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Khoa Hoc, 1966), 226Google Scholar.

49 Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 132–36.

50 Ibid., 132.

Ibid.

51 Ibid., 134, 146–47; and Nguyen Ngoc Minh, et al., Kinh te Viet Nam, 226.

Ibid.

52 Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 139–41, 149, 159–60.

53 Nguyen Ngoc Minh, et al., Kinh Te Viet Nam, 226.

54 Dang Van Than, et al., Lich Su Nganh, 139–41, 149, 159–60.

55 Phong, Dang, 5 Duong Mon Ho Chi Minh (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Tri Thuc, 2008), 2329Google Scholar; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 66–67.

56 Ibid., 89–94.

Ibid.

57 Le Dinh Y, et al., Essential Matters, 32–44; Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 89–94.

58 Ibid., 89–94.

Ibid.
Ibid.

60 Ibid., 104–5, 218.

Ibid.

61 Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 111–15.

62 Ibid., 122.

Ibid.

63 “Rapport du Lieutenant-Colonel Vanneuil Cdt: les transmissions des FTNV relatives aux écoutes faites par le Viet Minh,” 1952, box 10H1838, SHD. For the war of the airwaves, see “Note de renseignement,” 19 Jan. 1952, box 10H1838, SHD.

64 Nguyen Chien, et al., Lich Su Bo Doi Thong Tin Lien Lac, 185–96, 212–13.

65 Ibid., 197–98.

Ibid.

66 Ibid., 218.

Ibid.

67 We know the French were listening in on the Viet Minh during this battle. A recent National Security Agency internal publication strongly suggests that the Americans were listening in on both sides. Hanyok, Spartans in Darkness, especially the “Additional Declassified Material” version (May 2008), at: http://www.fas.org/irp/nsa/spartans/additional.pdf, 18–34.

68 Pha, Cao, Nhung Ky Uc Khong Bao Gio Quen (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 2006), 97Google Scholar. My thanks to Merle Pribbenow for bringing this document to my attention.

69 While there are obvious parallels with East Asian communists in China and North Korea, I have always thought it would be interesting to explore similarities between the DRV military and state-making projects and those of the state of Israel after World War II.

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