The Weatherhead East Asian Institute welcomes Lien-Hang Nguyen, the Dorothy Borg Associate Professor in the History of the United States and East Asia, to the WEAI faculty. Professor Nguyen, who earned her PhD from Yale and previously taught at the University of Kentucky, specializes in the study of the United States in the world, with spatial focus on Southeast Asia and temporal interest in the Cold War. In the following Q & A, Professor Nguyen discusses her scholarship and teaching interests.
1. What led you to focus your academic research on the Cold War histories of the United States and Southeast Asia? Are there certain aspects of the Vietnam War that you want to bring to light and to complicate?
My academic research on U.S.-East Asian Relations during the Cold War, and the Vietnam War in particular, stems from my own personal history. My family and I were refugees of the Vietnam War, arriving to the United States in 1975. I remember hearing war stories from a very young age and wondering what that conflict was all about. When I entered graduate school, there was an effort to use multi-lingual, multi-archival sources to understand the global history of the cold war period. Trained as a historian of U.S. foreign relations, I focused on the impact of American power in Southeast Asia.
My scholarship focuses on high-level decision-making in Vietnam, both north and south of the seventeenth parallel during the cold war era. I complicate the notion that the United States alone dictated the origins, trajectory, and conclusion of the war in Vietnam.
2. Can you tell us briefly about your first book, Hanoi’s War, and your current book on the Tet Offensive?
Although most histories of the Vietnam War focus on the American perspectives and seek to answer the question of why and how Washington lost that war, I asked a slightly different question: How did North Vietnam win the war? To that end, I focused on the Vietnamese communist war effort and challenge much of what we know about Hanoi’s war.
My current book on the 1968 Tet Offensive chronicles the political intrigue that pervaded the warring capitals on the eve of the offensive in 1967, the bloody battles fought in South Vietnam and the civil unrest in America in 1968, and the offensive’s global ramifications by early 1969. Its central purpose is to change our understanding of the Tet Offensive and its impact on the Vietnam War and the wider Cold War.
3. What do you find appealing and what do you find challenging about studying transnational history?
What I find most appealing about studying transnational history is identifying the linkages – on a global stage – of ostensibly “local” or “regional’ events of the past. The greatest challenge in doing this is not only the linguistic obstacles but also one of access to archival materials. The rewards, however, are vast. If one just looks at the study of “(insert country) and the world” within history, this is the direction the field is moving.
4. What kinds of questions tend to drive your research and your teaching?
The questions that tend to drive my research and teaching include: What role did contingency play in the relationship between United States and East Asia in the 20th Century? What were the structural factors at work? How do take account of local voices when we approach history from a global perspective? How do we account for agency?
5. What aspects of being at Columbia particularly excite you?
There are so many aspects of being at Columbia that excite me – in fact, it’d make more sense to ask me what does NOT excite me about being here! The opportunity to work with talented students at the undergraduate and graduate levels and to collaborate with the best faculty in the world is a scholar’s dream-come-true. Now add in the fact that all of this unfolds in New York City and I’m not sure if it gets any better than this as an academic.
6. What classes are you planning to teach in the coming semesters?
I am planning to teach an undergraduate lecture on the Vietnam War and team-teach a methods course on International and Global History next semester. Next year I intend to offer undergraduate and graduate level courses on U.S.-East Asian relations. I would also like to offer courses on gender and diplomacy in Asia as well as a course on transnational people’s diplomacy during the cold war era.