Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Jeremy D. Popkin


My dissertation examines how and why the French employed aviation in the five constituent parts of French Indochina (Annam, Cambodia, Cochinchina, Laos, and Tonkin) during the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s. I argue that the French, believing that the modern technology of powered flight possessed seemingly endless potential, saw aviation as a vehicle for extending, consolidating, developing, and protecting their interests both within the colony and around Southeast and East Asia. Aircraft, whether civil or military, were viewed and used as a multi-purpose tool of empire. Indeed, planes were employed for a variety of tasks in Indochina: transportation and communication; delivery of patients and medical supplies; colonial development projects; scientific studies; imperial propaganda; internal policing and assertion of authority; and air defense of the colony.

My argument is that the realities of what was accomplished with aviation fell far short of the sky-high hopes that government and military officials and aeronautics enthusiasts had for flight technology in the empire. My dissertation also examines the causes and the effects of this yawning gap between what was hoped and what was accomplished in matters of aviation. When aviation failed to “get off the ground” to the extent that the French hoped, the reasons typically related to a recurring combination of unfavorable weather and geography, insufficient funding and aeronautics materials, the limits of the era’s flight technology, and foreign competition that originated in Europe as well as Southeast and East Asia. Challenges to French aerial supremacy were present within the colony itself, although in a more indirect manner, through the ways that the colonized responded, or failed to respond, to French aviation. In sum, as much as the French envisioned aircraft as being able to rather easily vanquish the perceived challenges of the colonial landscape, aviation, in reality, failed to do so or only did so after a protracted period of time.

My dissertation is positioned at the intersection of colonial aviation history and the history of French Indochina. While studies in each of these fields have considered parts of this dissertation’s subject matter, there has been a lack of sustained critical analysis on French aviation in Indochina. My project contends that Indochina presents a rich area of study for colonial aviation history because, more so than anywhere else in the French empire, the aviation efforts in Indochina encapsulated all that the French hoped to accomplish with aircraft, the era’s most modern, symbolically saturated transportation technology. In addition, my topic reveals much about the hopes and the realities of the French colonial project in Indochina as well. Thus by analyzing how aviation was viewed and used in the context of the Indochina, my dissertation provides insight into not only what the colonizers wanted to achieve in Indochina but also why this effort failed.

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