A Word That Wanders in an International Semantic Jungle

I often tell people that research on sanctuary in international politics – the subject of my forthcoming book, Streets Without Joy: A Political History of Sanctuary and War, 1959-2009, is a gift that keeps on giving. Streets is nothing if not the history of a concept, an account of its uses and continual reinvention in wartime American foreign policy. The useful and endlessly fascinating thing about concepts is that they operate in constellations of words and ideas that draw meaning and relevance from the contexts in which they arise. The equally addictive quality of historical investigation and discovery is that it periodically insists on yielding up sources that highlight and expand that web of meaning.

Here’s an excerpt from one that reinforces an analytical point I raise in Streets: that in geopolitical terms, it’s almost impossible – and quite ill informed – to think of sanctuary in the context of the war in Vietnam without thinking of a key Cold War corollary: neutrality (and by extension, hegemony):

VIENTIANE, Laos,May 30—To be Ieft untroubled by the East‐West conflict. Unmistakably this is what the great majority of the people of the Indochina Peninsula—the strife‑ tortured countries of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, mean when they speak of neutralism.

But the term is defined in diverse ways by the great powers locked in the struggle for influence in Southeast Asia. Neutralism has become a word that wanders in an international semantic jungle. For those who do not know the trails, it can be dangerous propaganda bait.

Here’s the map that accompanied it:

Source: Seymour Topping, “Neutralism in Indochina – Threat or Panacea?” New York Times (31 May 1964), p. E4.