David Biggs: My Adventures as an Environmental Historian in Vietnam

As the U.S. readies to mark the 50th anniversary of a Vietnam War milestone, the UCR professor reflects on his work in the Southeast Asian country

Monuments of Hue, Vietnam

Partly inspired by his travels to Vietnam as a young adult, David Biggs now leads study-abroad delegations to the former imperial city of Hue, known for its UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Photo credit: dinosmichail via iStock

The plane’s doors opened, and the oppressive heat hit him “like a ton of bricks,” David Biggs said. It was July 4, 1993, and Biggs had just landed on the runway at Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi, Vietnam.

“The airport was a tiny, one-story concrete building that hadn’t been expanded in years,” he added. “You could see all these perfectly circular fish ponds set in the rice fields; the old B-52 bombing strikes had created circular footprints that filled up with water and became fish ponds.”

Then 23 years old, Biggs had left the University of North Carolina only a year earlier with a bachelor’s degree in history and vague plans of attending law school.

“I had been an environmental activist in college, so I was especially interested in environmental law,” said Biggs, now an associate professor of history and public policy at the University of California, Riverside. “But when I graduated, I found there was something about going straight into law school that just didn’t appeal to me. The world was changing fast with the end of the Cold War, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

So instead he refocused his sights on Vietnam, at the time best known in the United States as the site of the longest-running foreign conflict in American military history.

Several years before, in the wake of the passage of the American Homecoming Act granting admission into the United States to Vietnamese-born children of American servicemen, Biggs had volunteered with a group of young Amerasian immigrants who had arrived in his home state. Churches and volunteer groups like Biggs’ helped the immigrants — known in Vietnam as “children of the dust” and often poor, neglected, or orphaned — to learn English, apply for jobs, and become residents.

Partly inspired by that experience and his lifelong interest in history, Biggs’ summertime arrival in Vietnam kicked off a whirlwind adventure. He taught English to Vietnamese students and met leading artists and retired leaders such as Vo Nguyen Giap, the head of the People’s Army during the war. And upon returning home, he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington, specializing in Southeast Asian and Vietnamese history.

In graduate school, Biggs began the research project that developed into his dissertation and first book, “Quagmire” (2011), a history of the Mekong Delta and its rapid transformation into a highly industrialized agricultural environment.

David Biggs

David Biggs

“From there I started studying the Vietnam War from an environmental perspective; back then, the environmental and social legacies of the war were everywhere,” he said. “I’d see people with severe birth defects, many of whom were homeless, begging on the streets. There were elderly families who had lost all of their children from the war, and there were many middle-aged women desperately wanting children but lacking men their age.”

In his forthcoming book, “Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes of Vietnam,” Biggs surveys the environmental consequences of multiple Vietnamese conflicts, including the country’s war with the United States. Situated in central Vietnam near the former demilitarized zone, the book explores many of the controversial combat tactics — including bombing, defoliation, and chemical warfare, which Biggs recently wrote about for The New York Times — that have left lasting imprints on the country’s landscapes and people. It also outlines what happens in militarized communities when military forces depart, leaving behind pollution and lands subject to competing legal claims.

“Footprints of War” is set to publish in fall 2018, on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, a historical turning point in the war and part of a wave of attacks that would make 1968 the deadliest year of the war’s multidecade history.

In addition to writing, Biggs said another satisfying aspect of his work as an environmental historian involves policy-related work with public agencies and communities. While working on “Footprints of War,” he fielded a request from Department of Justice lawyers seeking an expert witness on a case involving allegations of use of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange in Massachusetts.

“I had never been deposed or served as an expert witness before, but I said yes,” Biggs said. “I ended up working on the case for two years as a historian, talking about the history of Agent Orange, its development and use, and the greater history of herbicides.”

Similarly, his School of Public Policy appointment has allowed him to interface with international teams of environmental researchers in Vietnam and collaborate with domestic government agencies such as the National Park Service.

Biggs estimates he’s spent eight or nine years of his life in Vietnam, and he aims to share his favorite natural and historical sites, as well as Vietnam’s legendary cuisine and culture, by leading student study-abroad delegations. During the experiences, UCR participants are paired with students from Hue University and hone their skills in ethnography, interviewing, and travel writing by contributing to a blog, Hue Stories.

“A study-abroad experience shouldn’t be an insulated trip to Mars where students and professors stay in hotels and see historical sites but don’t actually interact with the community,” Biggs said, adding that he also hopes students gain a broader understanding of the potential opportunities that stem from becoming a specialist in a seemingly narrow field.

“When you come into college from high school, you tend to think you have a fixed number of job options — doctor, lawyer — and you think of courses as boxes you need to fill in order to graduate to get a job,” he said. “But if you get lucky with the right course and the right mentor, you can often go quite far by specializing — learning a language, going into archives, becoming an expert. If you put yourself out there intellectually and even physically — like riding a motorbike in the backcountry of Vietnam — it may lead to really interesting jobs you might never have considered.”

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