The Battle for Rice on the Street Without Joy:
Nature, Landscape and the Post-Colonial Future in Vietnam, 1947-54
Professor David Biggs, University of California, Riverside
From the first days that French forces battled their way back onto the streets of Huế in February 1947, it was clear that things would not be the same. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam had governed the former imperial capital since August 1945 in an uneasy arrangement with Chinese nationalists and a tiny contingent of French “peace-keeping” soldiers quartered at the colonial hotel. Over 4,000 youth from Huế and nearby villages fought this 1947 invasion, blowing up bridges and digging trenches around the city. They fled to pre-assigned revolutionary redoubts in the hills, joining the new Việt Minh military organisation.
The French occupation that followed was anything but French. As French voters at home largely rejected returning to Indochina, the majority of French Expeditionary Forces on the central coast were Moroccans, Algerians, Senegalese, even former Nazi troops; and the French-backed, Vietnamese force found itself caught in the middle between the foreigners on the beaches and the Việt Minh in the hills. This in-between space, a narrow corridor buffering Vietnam’s coastal highway, Highway 1, evolved in the 1950s into a critical discursive space for deciding the future of Vietnam. Insurgents and counter-insurgents alike competed to control the hearts, minds and materials traveling along the highway as this flow was vital to the survival of a post-colonial, reunified Vietnamese state. Drawing from his recently published book, environmental historian David Biggs explores the embattled hills, fields, and marshes along Highway 1 in Central Vietnam where multiple visions for a future Vietnam were hatched amidst a rapidly escalating, global conflict.
David Biggs is a Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside, specialising in 20th-century environmental history with an area focus on Vietnam and Southeast Asia. His most recent book is Footprints of War: Militarised Landscapes in Vietnam (Washington, 2018). His 2010 book, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, won the George Perkins Marsh Prize in Environmental History; and his essays have appeared in such venues as the Journal of Asian Studies, Technology and Culture and the New York Times. He is currently working on an environmental history of trans-Pacific flows of people and things from the mid-20th century to the present
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