Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta

David Biggs
Foreword by William Cronon

  • Published: 2011. Paperback 2012
  • Subject Listing: History / Environmental History; Environmental Studies; Asian Studies / Southeast Asia
  • Bibliographic information: 320 pp., 32 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: Not Available in Southeast Asia
  • Series: Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books
  • Contents

Winner of the 2012 George Perkins Marsh Prize for Best Book in Environmental History

In the twentieth century, the Mekong Delta has emerged as one of Vietnam's most important economic regions. Its swamps, marshes, creeks, and canals have played a major role in Vietnam's turbulent past, from the struggles of colonialism to the Cold War and the present day. Quagmire considers these struggles, their antecedents, and their legacies through the lens of environmental history.

Beginning with the French conquest in the 1860s, colonial reclamation schemes and pacification efforts centered on the development of a dense network of new canals to open land for agriculture. These projects helped precipitate economic and environmental crises in the 1930s, and subsequent struggles after 1945 led to the balkanization of the delta into a patchwork of regions controlled by the Viet Minh, paramilitary religious sects, and the struggling Franco-Vietnamese government. After 1954, new settlements were built with American funds and equipment in a crash program intended to solve continuing economic and environmental problems. Finally, the American military collapse in Vietnam is revealed as not simply a failure of policy makers but also a failure to understand the historical, political, and environmental complexity of the spaces American troops attempted to occupy and control.

By exploring the delta as a quagmire in both natural and political terms, Biggs shows how engineered transformations of the Mekong Delta landscape - channelized rivers, a complex canal system, hydropower development, deforestation - have interacted with equally complex transformations in the geopolitics of the region. Quagmire delves beyond common stereotypes to present an intricate, rich history that shows how closely political and ecological issues are intertwined in the human interactions with the water environment in the Mekong Delta.

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David Biggs is assistant professor of history at the University of California, Riverside.

"No one before Biggs has focused so intensely on the landscapes and waterscapes in which the Vietnam War was fought and their relationship to the complex colonial history of transformation that had been occurring for the century prior to the conflict."
-William Cronon

"This brilliantly researched book explains the part that the environment has played in several colonial schemes in the Mekong Delta and in America's most tragic war there, and how the environmental history of the Mekong Delta has been part of the process of nationbuilding in Vietnam."
-Mart Stewart, Western Washington University

"The delta, has played a decisive role in the successes and the failures of colonial and post-colonial regimes, of the American war efforts, and of modernization and development. Biggs's focus on the muddied delta and its 'quagmire' characteristics that shaped every economic, agriculture, and political project is among the first of its kind."
-Thongchai Winichakul, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Foreword: Nation-Making in the Mekong Mire by William Cronon
1. Water's Edge
2. Water Grid
3. Hydroagricultural Crisis
4. Balkanization
5. Modernization
6. American War

"Biggs has authored an exciting work that clearly breaks new ground. I have little doubt that the book will be well received by multiple audiences."
-Shawn McHale, Asian Studies Review, Vol. 37(2)

"Quagmire is also an example of the challenges faced when trying to translate ambitions in historical narrative. How to tell a story of such complexity and nuance? . . . I expect [the answer] will come pretty close to the way Biggs has written his story."
-Maurits Ertsen, Technology and Culture

"Blending disciplinary perspectives from history, anthropology, and geography, Biggs approaches the Mekong Delta as a landscape-as things on the land, as people, institutions, discourses, artifacts, metaphors, and eco-logics-with a particularly unstable morphology."
-Michael Kantor, H-HISTGEOG, August 2013

"Quagmire offers a neat and fresh storyline, explaining that nation-builders failed to understand the serpentine watercourses and landscapes of the Mekong Delta. . . . Biggs shines a light on the everyday struggles of famers and migrants. . ."
-Geoffrey Cain, Asian Affairs, November 2012

"I learned that it is not a linear development how people use the environment or how the environment affects people; rather it is a dynamic equilibrium between humans and environment, and it is that interaction which shapes nation-building."
-Ang Cheng Guan, Journal of American-East Asian Relations, 19 (2012)

"This book is a major achievement that fundamentally recasts our understanding of twentieth-century Vietnamese history. Its deftly written chapters, simultaneously expansive in their concerns yet full of nuance and telling narrative detail, will become the new starting point for further research on the history of southern Vietnam."
-Mark Philip Bradley, American Historical Review, February 2012

"This work is an original and innovative approach to the contemporary history of Viet Nam. . . . I can recommend this book for graduate students, teachers of colonial and postcolonial Viet Nam, as well as anyone interested in the nexus of environment, modernization, and development."
-Pierre Brocheux, Environmental History, 17

"[A] much-needed perspective on human efforts over time to shape this amphibious land/waterscape. . . . Biggs is clearly a major talent, who has written a path-breaking book that enables us to see, experience, and interpret the delta anew."
-Peter A. Coclanis, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 44:4 (2011)

"Biggs's command of the sources, both Vietnamese and Western, is impressive, and his book will interest historians of the Vietnam War as background information. Otherwise, it is an important contribution to Vietnam history and geography. Summing up: Highly recommended."
-Choice, August 2011

"Impressively written and well-researched."
-Michitake Aso, Journal of Asian Studies