A Map is a Map -- Or Is It?

by Myra Saturen
November 03, 2013

We tend to think of maps as factual, objective mirrors of reality.   In the second Faculty Colloquium,Professor Heath on October 29, Professor of Geography and Geology Douglas Heath showed how maps of Vietnam, made at different times and places, by different cartographers, instead served the political agendas of governments during the War in Vietnam.      

"Signifying Sovereignty and Framing the Discourse of War: The Cartographies of Vietnam, 1955 - 1975" had its roots in 1973, when as a graduate student preparing to teach his first class during the Vietnam War.  Heath gazed at two National Geographic maps and noticed a contradiction:  an earlier map denoted Vietnam as one country, while a later map showed a separate North and South Vietnam.  Why?  The search for insights has occupied Heath for thirty years and has resulted in original research. 

Changing maps of Vietnam, he discovered, framed discussion of the war, with far-reaching consequences.  Examining the maps' colors and labels, he discerned what the mapmakers were saying about sovereignty after French forces ceded defeat to the Viet Minh in 1954 to civil war between the Communist-led Viet Minh in North Vietnam and the U.S.-created and-supported South and later to the United States' escalating involvement in that war during the Cold War era.  

Temporarily divided at the 17th parallel, maps of Vietnam reflected ways in which governments wished their publics to view the country and the war.  Was Vietnam one country in the throes of a civil war or two countries, with North Vietnam the aggressor against the sovereignty of South Vietnam? 

Imperial maps, Heath explained, are maps made by and for a reigning power and excluding the opinions of the indigenous people.  Before the French withdrawal, French imperial maps such as one Heath showed from 1936 was labeled "French Indochina," consisting of five divisions, Tonkin, Annan, Laos, Cambodia, and Cochinchina .  The name Vietnam does not appear. 

Hammond maps from 1954-1960 portray Vietnam as one country, signifying civil war by separate stars placed beside Hanoi and Saigon.  Likewise, an 1863 British map of the United States presents America as one country undergoing civil war.  From 1962 - 1975, when the War in Vietnam ended in victory for the communist regime in Hanoi, maps display ambiguity depending upon their origins and mapmakers' intended messages.  Maps made in South Vietnam show the unity of Vietnam by use of a single color and one label: Vietnam.  One map portrays a peaceful place, with farms, forests and boats. 

Imperial maps drawn in the United States shift as American involvement changes over the years, Heath showed.  In May 1961, one label and one color, but also separate stars for Hanoi and Saigon, represented one Vietnam at civil war.  By December 1964, with U.S. involvement increasing, the National Geographic map has one label but two colors-pink for the north and yellow for the south.  During and after 1965, when the first Marines landed in Da Nang, maps began to show two countries, in two colors and with two designations, justifying the United States' growing intervention by painting a war of aggression by North Vietnam against South Vietnam.  Hammond's 1965 map increased the Cold War aura of threat by projecting the map in a way that showed Communist countries as looming larger than non-Communist ones.  Its title was "Freedom Struggle in Asia." 

"These maps by France and the United States," Heath said, "were not realistic pictures of Vietnam, but rather a pose, a delusion."  Why did such maps come to predominate in the United States?  Heath believes that "group think" prevailed as our government generated its version of the war and media quoted the president and state department. 

Since 1975 and the United States' withdrawal, Vietnam is once again shown as a single country. 

What should maps be?  Heath quoted scholar Juan Jose Valdes, who said that "what a map should accord is the actual portrayal of national sovereignty." 

As Heath showed, mapmaking is complex, with various motivations behind their production. 



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