Ang Cheng Guan, Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War.
London and New York: Routledge, 2010. Pp. ix, 131; bib., index.
At a press conference on April 7, 1954, a journalist asked President of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower to explain “the strategic importance of Indochina to the free world.” In response, Eisenhower articulated what has become known as the “falling domino principle” or, perhaps more often, the “domino theory.” “You have a row of dominoes set up,” he explained to the journalist, “you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences . . . When we come to the possible sequence of events,” Eisenhower continued, “the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following, now you begin to talk about areas that not only multiply the disadvantages that you would suffer through loss of materials, sources of materials, but now you are talking really about millions and millions and millions of people . . . [T]he possible consequences of the loss,” the President concluded, “are just incalculable to the free world.” (A transcript of this press conference is available in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, 1954 [Washington: Federal Register Division, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration], pp. 381- 390.)
This short book examines the diplomatic history of the potentially-falling dominoes of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. It focuses on Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, but also discusses Thailand and the Philippines. The seven chapters are organised chronologically, beginning with the founding of independent nation-states after World War II, and ending with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Throughout the conflict, the author argues, there was “one common and consistent view shared by all five countries and that was, and still is, the desire for the US to play a prime role in the regional balance of power” (p. 121). This argument means that diplomatic relations between the countries of Southeast Asia and the United States are given paramount place in this study. Leaders in Southeast Asia saw their own countries as dominoes in need of US support, even after leaders in the US had abandoned the analogy. Even after the countries of Southeast Asia established a Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in the region in 1971, the Malaysian leader, Tun Razak, “accepted the need for an American presence in the region for some years to come” (p. 93).
In focusing on the bilateral relations between the countries of Southeast Asia and the United States, the author relies on a number of published and unpublished sources. The diplomatic archives for most of the countries of Southeast Asia continue to be inaccessible. The author draws on the published speeches and memoirs of figures such as Lee Kuan Yew, Chin Peng, Sirin Phathanothai, and Tengku Abdul Rahman, and archival documents published in the Foreign Relations of the United States series and those available electronically from the Digital National Security Archive. He also draws on original documents from the United States Department of State at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and from the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the National Archives of Australia, Canberra. The author makes a valuable contribution to understanding the evolving relationships between the countries of Southeast Asia and the United States, especially in the ten year period from 1965 to 1975.
This contribution notwithstanding, Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War neglects intra-regional relations as they developed during the conflict in Vietnam. Among such relations, those between the Republic of Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, on the one hand, and their neighbours in the region, on the other, merit particular attention. We know, for example, that the Republic of Vietnam worked hard to build and maintain relations with the other countries of Southeast Asia. It established diplomatic posts in the region, attended international conferences, and joined a host of international organisations, such as the Asian People’s Anti-Communist League, which included Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines. Its president during the 1954-1963 period, Ng├┤ ─Р├мnh Diс╗Зm, made state visits to the United States, Australia, and India, but also to Singapore, Malaya, and the Philippines, among others. A number of emissaries, including Diс╗Зm’s brother and advisor Ng├┤ ─Р├мnh Nhu and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, V┼й Văn Mс║лu (1955-1963), also travelled often in the region seeking support. Many Southeast Asian leaders also visited Saigon, including Tengku Abdul Rahman of what was then Malaya, U Nu of Burma, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, and Carlos P. Garcia of the Philippines. Malaya/Malaysia and the Philippines, which had both experienced protracted struggles against communist-led guerrillas, provided material support to the Republic of Vietnam. Diс╗Зm also attempted to persuade the non-aligned countries of the region to oppose communism. Even when unsuccessful, he maintained friendly relations with those countries, though he despised leaders – such as Sihanouk and Sukarno – whom he considered equivocal in the face of communism. Relationships such as these deserve attention in a history of Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War, however important relations with the United States might have been.
The author of Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War has previously published a number of monographs on the international history of the conflict. Each of these books has drawn extensively on Vietnamese-language materials. It is thus particularly surprising that the author both ignores the relations of each of the two Vietnams with its neighbours and makes almost no reference to materials in Vietnamese. He cites none of the recently published works on the history of Vietnamese foreign relations, such as Nguyс╗Еn Ph├║c Lu├вn, Ngoс║бi giao Viс╗Зt Nam hiс╗Зn ─Сс║бi v├м sс╗▒ nghiс╗Зp gi├аnh dс╗Щc lс║нp tс╗▒ do: 1945-1975 [Modern Vietnamese Foreign Relations, The Task of Securing Independence and Freedom: 1945-1975 (H├а Nс╗Щi, 2001), or Nguyс╗Еn ─Р├мnh Bin et al, Ngoс║бi giao Viс╗Зt Nam, 1945-2000 [Vietnamese Foreign Relations, 1945-2000] (H├а Nс╗Щi, 2002). While foreign researchers do not have access to the archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in H├а Nс╗Щi, documents from the Republic of Vietnam at the Trung t├вm L╞░u trс╗п Quс╗Сc Gia II [National Archives Centre II], in Hс╗У Ch├н Minh City, have been available to them for more than a decade. These include documents from the Ph├┤ng Phс╗з Tс╗Хng Thс╗Сng Viс╗Зt Nam Cс╗Щng H├▓a [The Office of the President of the Republic of Vietnam] and the Ph├┤ng Phс╗з Thс╗з T╞░ớng Ch├нnh Phс╗з [The Office of the Prime Minister] from 1954 to 1975. Documents from the administration of Ng├┤ ─Р├мnh Diс╗Зm are now probably easier to access than those from the administration of Lee Kuan Yew; but the author has used none of these. He has also neglected the Vietnamese-language newspapers and periodicals at The Th╞░ Viс╗Зn Quс╗Сc Gia [National Library] in H├а Nс╗Щi or the Th╞░ Viс╗Зn Khoa Hс╗Нc Tс╗Хng Hс╗гp [General Sciences Library] in Hс╗У Ch├н Minh City. As a consequence of these omissions, the Vietnamese play almost no role in this history of Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War.
Correspondingly, editing seems to have played almost no role in the production of this book. Countless grammatical mistakes and other errors mar the text. Important and commonly used words are misspelled, such as ‘dominos’ [sic] (p. 117). There are also numerous small errors of fact and usage – sometimes the author mistakenly refers to Walter W. Rostow (pp. 5, 8, 129), and at other times, correctly, to Walt W. Rostow (p. 121); in one paragraph (p. 12) the author refers correctly to “the Tengku,” meaning Abdul Rahman, but a few lines later, confusingly, to “the Tungku” (a “tungku” is a trivet or brazier). These errors aside, the author has identified a topic of genuine importance, and his new book will no doubt stimulate much additional scholarship.
Department of History, Yale University
[The next installment in the TLC/New Mandala book review series on mainland Southeast Asia will appear on Friday, 26 February 2010.]