Contested Territory: Điện Biên Phủ and the Making of Northwest Vietnam
Based on archival and ethnographic research, Contested Territory is a historical and political geography of 1950s Điện Biên Phủ—a small out of the way place but also a pivot point in world history. In one of the 20th century’s most important battles, Vietnam defeated France there in 1954 to win the First Indochina War and earn independence. The battle was a fulcrum in a global transformation from European empire to national self-determination, inspiring anti-colonial activists from Jakarta to Algiers. My research excavates a subaltern perspective. The military victory rested as much on unprecedented civilian mobilization as on the army’s fighting prowess: some 261,000 conscripted laborers participated in the campaign, outnumbering total combatants by 5:1. Further, heavy claims levied by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) on the region’s agrarian economy bent its political trajectory in unexpected ways. During and after the battle, hungry residents sought not just food but also meaningful political change. After 1954, as the DRV began to claim more—not less—of their scarce resources, they turned to cultural traditions rooted in place, animating a political alternative shaped to their mountain homeland.
Contested Territory takes the study of statemaking, nationalism, and decolonization into everyday struggles to show how peoples in Điện Biên Phủ and the Black River region enabled Vietnam’s revolution and then demonstrated its limits. In a site celebrated for anti-colonial liberation, I argue that unsung local peoples produced a national state and challenged its underlying boundaries. Marginalized as backward minorities, they had just carried the burdens of armed struggle and still bore its scars. Turning socialist logics against the new state, they protested local elites’ continued grip on land and office. Although they had helped extend DRV sovereign territory west to Laos and north to China, their vision of self-rule crossed interstate borders and mapped old social topographies. The resulting social movement, crushed by security forces, threw the nation-state’s ruling assumptions into sharp relief. By revisiting Điện Biên as potent symbol and lived place, my book asks how its peoples became Vietnamese and answers on what terms. It traces the ways their unsteady incorporation changed worlds, ushering in a postcolonial society that never quite shook the burdens of its colonial past.
A title featured in the Yale Agrarian Studies Series, Contested Territory was published by Yale University Press (2019) and won the 2021 Harry J. Benda Prize of the Association of Asian Studies for outstanding first book in Southeast Asian studies in any discipline.