Département d'histoire, Université du Québec à Montréal
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.
This text benefited immensely from the comments of three anonymous external readers, from David Akin and Andrew Shryock at CSSH, and from Martin Thomas. Earlier versions of parts of this chapter first appeared in the French in my Vietnam: Un Etat né de la guerre (Paris: Armand Colin, 2011).