On Indochina

Come 2018, the HIAS Collection will be available to researchers. And some of those researchers may be surprised to come upon the term “Indochina” while perusing our folder titles.

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“Indochina” is a historically complex term for the region of Southeast Asia comprising modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and parts of Myanmar.

Western intervention in the region began with the establishment of Jesuit missions in the early 17th century. This gradually evolved into more direct secular involvement, to pure imperialism under Napoleon III. French Indochina, or Indochine, reached its fullest extent in 1907.

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Indochina circa 1910, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1946, the Viet Minh began a war of independence against the French. As the conflict continued, and with Communist China at the northern border beginning in 1949, the United States became concerned with the outcome of the conflict.

In 1954, an international conference, called the Geneva Conference, was held to settle outstanding issues from the Korean War, and to restore peace to Indochina. In attendance were representatives of Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China, France, Laos, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, the Viet Minh (the North Vietnamese, allied with the Viet Cong), and the State of Vietnam (the South Vietnamese).

The Conference provided that a cease-fire line be drawn along the 17th parallel, giving the belligerents time to withdraw and evacuate from Laos and Cambodia. A provision known as the Final Declaration stipulated that elections be held in July, 1956 to reunify the country. The United States and the State of Vietnam rejected these proceedings in opposition to the Communist government in the North, and its relations with China.

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Indochina circa 1952, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1955, the United States, following its Cold War policy of containment, marched into Vietnam and began working on building an anti-communist state in South Vietnam. Thus began the conflict known in the West as the Vietnam War. This iteration of Western engagement and Cold War proxy fighting in Indochina came to an end in 1975 with the Fall of Saigon, which united the country.

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The region circa 1985, courtesy of the Library of Congress

However, the fact that the country was united did not mean that all Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians wanted to live under the post-1975 Communist governments–which entailed such threats as Vietnamese “reeducation camps” and the violent Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

In the following years, over 3 million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians would flee the region. Today, this is known as the Indochina Refugee Crisis. And that is where HIAS stepped in. Seeing the humanitarian crisis taking place in Southeast Asia, HIAS got to work rescuing and resettling refugees fleeing Southeast Asia.

And that is how several folders in the HIAS collection over a variety of Series came to include the term “Indochina” and “Indochinese” in their titles.

Today, the term “Indochina” is understood as an imperialist, Orientalist one. However, at the peak year of the refugee crisis, this was the term used in international parlance.

The HIAS archives team took the implications of the term under serious consideration while processing materials related to this refugee crisis, and we decided to maintain its usage.

It is not our job to impose our own order, naming preferences, and political considerations onto the collections, but to best capture the context under which the records were created, and to describe and arrange it as best reflects the organization and its goals. Thus, in the interest in preserving the historical record and HIAS’ contextual understanding of its work, we retained use of the term, “Indochina.”

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