Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Learning from the Korean War

The Korean War (1950-1953) and the First Indochina War (1946-1954) were closely linked. A key event in Asia underlying both wars was the 1949 victory of the communist party, led by Mao Zedong, over the nationalist party and the formation of the People's Republic of China (PRC). With the founding of the PRC, and the subsequent entry of Chinese troops into the Korean War, understandings of the First Indochina War began to shift.

Among United States (US) leaders, the events of 1949 and 1950 recast the fighting on the Indochina peninsula from a colonial war in which the United States opposed the French, to a part of the Cold War in which the two governments shared common interests. Even though French leaders remained intent on keeping at least some of Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) as part of their empire, they were content to receive American aid that was earmarked as part of the battle against communism. This aid included fighter and bomber airplanes such as the Hellcat, the Bearcat, and the B-26, which showed up frequently in Việt Minh accounts of the First Indochina War. This technology served as a symbol of the US empire.

Ho Chi Minh and the Việt Minh were likewise careful observers of the Korean War. They quickly understood the implications when the North Koreans and Chinese communists leveled charges of biological warfare against the United Nations forces, led by the United States. These charges have persisted in memory and drew at the time attention from figures such as the biochemist and historian of science Joseph Needham.

Unpacking lesser known fears of biological weapons during the First Indochina War can similarly reveal different understandings of the relationship among bodies, politics, and death. Writing about government techniques to kill guerrillas during a civil war in Rhodesia, Luise White argues that "what made anthrax and parathion and other poisons so lethal-and powerful enough to be talked and written about for more than two decades-was that they inscribed politics and history on to the afflictions and additives that caused guerilla deaths." (White 2004, 233) In other words, politics can give bodily death a communal, rather than individual, meaning, which enables stories of these deaths to be retained by social memory for long times. While Việt Minh did not die of biological warfare, the fear of such death motivated action and helped reshape Vietnamese spatial imaginaries.

In this path you will first explore the spatial imaginaries that informed fears of, and knowledge about, biological warfare in the Korean War. Vietnamese intellectuals and political leaders, for example, were inspired to draw on existing Sinosphere maps. Vietnamese leaders turned to political, intellectual, and cultural connections to China and Korea for relevant experience with biological warfare. Newer maps of the communist world both reinforced Sinosphere maps and placed Vietnam at the center of newer geographies of revolution. This path then considers an international conference held in Beijing that presented evidence for the charges of US germ warfare in North Korea and China. Finally, it offers some of the images produced in China related to germ warfare, which you can compare to those found in the Việt Minh pamphlet examined in "Resisting Biological Warfare."

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