Missionaries from France arrived in Viet Nam in the 1700s and by the mid 1800s, they had gained a lot of influence in Vietnamese politics. At the same time, suspicion and resentment toward them by many Vietnamese were growing as well. It was only a matter of time before these two elements clashed.
The Target of Colonial Expansion
There were several reasons for the French invasion. First, there were incidents where some French missionaries were expelled and even killed. Second, as France was competing against other European powers for economic and military superiority, they wanted to secure more strategic geographic positions to promote their international trade and capitalism. Finally, the Vietnamese leadership could not decide whether it was best for the country to remain strictly Confucianist and isolated or to begin modernizing. These all led to Napoleon III's order for his navy to invade Viet Nam in July 1857.
Because the Vietnamese lacked the weapons and technology to effectively resist the new western invaders, its leaders had little choice but to sign peace treaties with France in 1862. This treaty gave control of southern Viet Nam to France, which was then renamed Cochinchina. However, it would take another 21 years before the French were able to finally conquer northern Viet Nam. After doing so in 1883, they renamed that region Tonkin and combined with Cochinchina and central Viet Nam (renamed Annam), Viet Nam officially became a French colony, known as Indochina.
Resistance, Vietnamese Style
As a colonized nation, Viet Nam's natural resources were exploited, its people were treated with disdain and impoverished, and its leaders were rendered powerless. Resistance movements began to develop almost immediately. But the first notable movement against the French was that of the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang Party. They were encouraged and inspired by Japan's defeat of Russia in 1904, the Koumingtang Revolution in China in 1911 against the British, and the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Within this context, a young revolutionary named Nguyen Tat Thanh (alias Nguyen Ai Quoc), who later became known as Ho Chi Minh, began studying with Russian and Chinese communists on the techniques of politics, warfare, and power. He formed the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930, which also became known as the "Viet Minh." Concurrently with the Vietnamese Nationalist Party that was formed in 1927, these revolutionary organizations carried out separate sporadic rebellions that helped to raise the consciousness of the Vietnamese people and awaken their spirit of fierce independence and freedom.
Even during the Japanese occupation of Viet Nam during World War II, both the Nationalists and Communists focused on building their own separate underground intelligence and guerrilla networks. After Japan was defeated, Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh forces used the chaos and political vacuum to secure as much territory as possible in advance of negotiations about Viet Nam's future. They succeeded in gaining control over much of the countryside in northern Viet Nam, while the French largely controlled the major cities in the north, as well as much of southern Viet Nam.
After these negotiations with France over recognition of an independent Vietnamese nation free to French control failed in 1946, the Nationalists and the Viet Minh agreed to fight together against the French, although it was the Viet Minh that did most of the fighting. In 1949, France recognized the establishment of an independent "State of Viet Nam" under the control of former Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai, but still retained controlled over foreign and military affairs. Ho Chi Minh denounced this as an illegitimate puppet government.
The Expansion into an International Conflict
The U.S. officially recognized Bao Dai's government but after Mao Zedong's Chinese communists defeated the Nationalist Kuomintang Chinese in 1950, China and the Soviet Union recognized Ho Chi Minh as Viet Nam's legitimate leader. China and the Soviet Union also began assisting Ho Chi Minh and his forces by sending supplies and weaponry. With the assistance of China and the Soviet Union, Ho Chi Minh's communist leanings became formalized.
Concurrently and in response to the growing involvement of China and the Soviet Union, the U.S. began providing Bao Dai's government and French forces with military advisors and weaponry. Although the French forces had a larger fighting force and superior military hardware, Ho Chi Minh's resistance forces (under the leadership of General Vo Nguyen Giap) successfully used guerilla warfare tactics to wear down the French.
In the spring of 1954, arrangements for peace talks between the two sides were being made. In anticipation of such negotiations, the French sought to capture as much territory as possible in order to improve their negotiating power. However, before such talks took place, the French were finally defeated after the battle of Dien Bien Phu on May 8, 1954.
Although Viet Nam was now free and independent of direct foreign control, it again became divided as negotiators from France, the U.S., China, the Soviet Union, and Viet Nam agreed to divide the nation in half at the 17th parallel. The communists took control of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north while the nationalists controlled the Republic of Viet Nam in the south.
The agreement also called for general elections in 1956 to unify the country. However, these elections never took place as the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies feaed that a national election would result in a victory for Ho Chi Minh. Instead, a new and even more devastating war emerged.
Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved.
Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "The Lessons of Colonialism" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/colonialism.shtml> ().
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