The Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection, accessible at the Asian Reading Room, contains some unique items from the Cold War era; specifically, documents produced by the United States Information Agency (USIA) and disseminated in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar. This blog features the USIA Cold War-era Thai collection and a series of posters, “Communism or freedom?”
The USIA Cold War-era Thai collection alone contains 175 items in a variety of formats: posters, school textbooks, election materials, pamphlets, manuals, leaflets, comic books, and political cartoons. The earliest materials were from 1951 while the latest was from 1969.
Topics covered in the collection include major Cold War-era concerns: communism and anti-communism in Southeast Asia and the world, the Vietnam War, U.S.-Thai relations, the Thai military, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organized (SEATO) and the United Nations. Less contentious topics include Thai agriculture and fisheries, culture, Thai Buddhism and religion, health care, rural affairs, development, modernization, infrastructure, science, industry and America. In general, the materials promoted the Royal Thai Government and the U.S.’s stance on the Cold War as well as U.S.-Thai relations.
Among the items, one poster series stands out, “Communism or freedom?” In this series, each poster contrasts starkly negative images of communism to overly positive portrayals of life in the “free world.” The following are images of some posters from the series that make this comparison.
In the first poster, the left portion depicts life under “Communism,” with a caption that reads: “The communist government trains children to be spies by taking [them] from [their] parents for protection; not letting the parents of the child conceal crops that it ordered be given to the State center.” The caption on the right portion of the poster depicts life under “Freedom” in Thailand with a caption that reads: “A family that is happy, content and wealthy is the firm foundation of the nation.”
In the second poster, the caption on the left “Communism” side reads: “Youths in communist countries are taught to hate neighboring countries everywhere.” The caption on the right “Freedom” side reads: “We instruct our children and grandchildren to be well-mannered, well-behaved, courteous and have knowledge for carrying out the life of good citizens.”
In the third poster, the caption on the left “Communism” portion reads: “Communists are the enemies of religion. So [they] are intent on destroying Buddhism and monks, making them disappear.” The caption on the right “Freedom” portion reads: “Religion is the foundation of the existence of the masses of the Thai people.”
In the fourth poster, the caption on the left “Communism” portion reads: “In communist countries officials continue to restrict and not allow people traveling on the road to come and go anywhere as [they] please.” The caption on the right “Freedom” portion reads: “In our country anyone who wants to come and go anywhere is able to do so across the territory. Nothing prohibits [them].”
In the fifth poster, the caption on the left “Communism” portion reads: “In communist China there is a compulsory system separating families, sending the husband one way, the wife the other way, the children another way, everyone working as hard as slaves.” The caption on the right “Freedom” portion reads: “The life of the family is happy and content that father, mother, child and grandchild are living all together which is the foundation of the existence of we the Thai people; making [it] firm and bringing forth security to the nation.”
In the sixth poster, the caption on the left “Communism” portion reads: “Communists force people to work as hard as slaves.” The caption on the right “Freedom” portion reads: “The Thai people have the freedom to choose a living according to [their] desires and each person’s need.”
The Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection has 13 posters from this series and two comic books containing reproductions of the posters. These items are currently being digitized. Please note that the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division has duplicates of four of the posters. These and two others at that division are available online. Besides that, there are a number of related posters not in the series: some are anti-communist (like a series about communist agitators), while others are not.
There are items from the same poster series “Communism or freedom?” at other institutions. The Southeast Asian Digital Library has digitized a collection of nine posters as part of its George V. Smith Thai poster collection. The U.S. National Archives Still Picture Branch has such posters in two digital collections: “306-PPA: Propaganda Posters Distributed in Asia, ca. 1950–1955” and “306-PPB: Propaganda Posters Distributed in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, ca. 1950–ca. 1965.”
The Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection posters and comic books may be unique for including data sheets on the printing of each item: these tell where the items were printed (invariably Manila), in how many copies (hundreds of thousands in Thailand to millions in South Vietnam), the date of printing, and to where they were sent (US embassies in the respective countries). The USIA’s printing program may be related to the Franklin Book Program, another Cold War program.
For more information about the USIA Cold War-era Thai collection, the “Communism or freedom?” poster series or similar collections from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar or Indonesia please contact a Southeast Asian reference librarian using the Ask-a-Librarian service. Please note, these works are accessible per the Asian Division Rare Book Policy.
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