From 1961 to 1975, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) coordinated a proxy war in Laos as a part of America’s larger effort to prevent communism from overrunning all of Southeast Asia. Codenamed “Operation Momentum”, the largely clandestine effort involved arming, training, and providing military assistance to anti-communist forces in Laos led by Hmong tribesmen and their military chief Vang Pao.
As Joshua Kurlantzick points out in his new book A Great Place to Have a War, the effort in Laos, like America’s larger effort in Vietnam, ultimately failed, resulting in Communists taking power in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, while arguably transforming the primary role of the CIA from intelligence gathering to paramilitary operations.
Vladimir K Arsenyev was an army officer, explorer and writer active in Russia’s Far East in the waning years of the Romanov dynasty. His major claim to fame, outside Russia at any rate, is having introduced the world to the aboriginal hunter and trapper Dersu Uzala, who several decades later became the subject of an Oscar-winning film by Akira Kurosawa.
Arsenyev undertook several expeditions in the mountainous region roughly between Vladivostok and the Chinese border in the first years of the twentieth-century, ostensibly to survey the region’s infrastructure. But Arsenyev’s extensive field journals became the basis of two books of what would now be called “travel literature”. Across the Ussuri Kray: Travels in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains was the first of these, published in Vladivostok in 1921 in the midst of the Russian Civil War, and is the account of of two separate expeditions in 1902 and 1906. This volume is available in a new translation by Jonathan C Slaght.
It is unfortunate that Victor Cha chose to overlay his otherwise interesting history of the development of America’s Asian alliances in the early Cold War years with international relations theory and academic jargon more suitable to journals that only professors read. After reading the initial chapters where he discusses “determinants of overdependence,” “entrapment fear,” “undercommitment pathology,” “conditions for distancing,” and separates multilateralism and bilateralism into “quandrants,” I nearly gave up. I am glad that I plodded on because much of the rest of the book is thought-provoking, especially when divorced from the academic models.
In a corner of the Russian Far East, just across the Chinese border and wedged in between Heilongjiang’s upturned chin and lip, lies the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Region) whose capital is Birobidzhan. The Oblast is somewhat larger than Israel, but with a fraction of the population: it peaked at 214,000 in the late 1980s, and has dropped by some 20% since then. The Oblast is neither very autonomous nor terribly Jewish—well under 2000 Jews live there now. Where the Jews Aren’t, Masha Gessen’s story of this peculiar place, has an apt title.
Integral to the misguided conception of China as unknowably complex is the sheer scale of its history. While historians of the United States, for example, need to cultivate a knowledge base which extends back a few centuries or so, scholars of Chinese history must contend with a national story of anything between three thousand and five thousand years, depending on what you consider “China” to be. Either way, the terrain of Chinese history seems deeply forbidding to the non-specialist, who is left asking the question: how much of China’s history do I need to know in order to understand the country today?
Lee Fook Chee’s Hong Kong: Photographs from the 1950s is a remarkable book with many levels of meaning. It tells the story of a lone immigrant photographer and presents his collection of photographs portraying 1950s Hong Kong. A photo book, and of the highest standards at that, it also brings sharp and fresh research into the social history of the place that invites scrutiny on how it compares itself sixty years later. The entire book, its sum greater than its parts, will delight therefore not only photography aficionados but anyone with a serious interest in Hong Kong.
One would think—what with this year being the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare—that a treatment of the playwright in China would be inevitable. And so it has proved: Nancy Pellegrini’s The People’s Bard has just been released as the latest Penguin China Special.