Vietnam and French Colonialism

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Vietnam and French Colonialism

The Asian nation of Vietnam has had a troubled past. In fact, conquest and rebellion are the central themes of Vietnam's recorded history. In ancient times, the Vietnamese people came under the control of China, the empire to their north. Centuries of Chinese rule did a great deal to shape Vietnam's culture, language, and religion. But even though China had a profound influence on the development of Vietnamese society, it never managed to erase Vietnam's unique sense of identity or its desire for independence from foreign rule.

In the tenth century a.d., Vietnam finally succeeded in casting off Chinese rule. For most of the next 800 years a succession of Vietnamese emperors ruled the country. In the 1800s, however, Vietnam once again came under the control of a foreign power. France, a European nation eager to build a global empire, conquered Vietnam during the 1860s.

Over the next several decades, France became known for its uncaring attitude toward the country's indigenous (native) people. "[France's] rule was often incompetent, usually inconsistent, and regularly harsh," writes Robert D. Schulzinger in A Time for War. This treatment, combined with traditional Vietnamese resistance to foreign rule, eventually created a strong movement to force France out of Vietnam.

Location and geography of Vietnam

The country of Vietnam is located along the eastern coast of mainland Southeast Asia, on the eastern side of the Indochina Peninsula. Its neighbor to the north is China, while the nations on its western borders are Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam's eastern and southern boundaries extend to theSouth China Sea. The country is shaped roughly like the letter "S" and covers almost 130,000 square miles, making it about the size of California.

Several geographic regions can be found within Vietnam. The country's northern section is known for its annual monsoon seasons, characterized by great quantities of rainfall. The region is dominated by the Red River delta, a watershed that serves as a tremendously fertile farming area. But the north also supports a wide range of rainforest vegetation and wildlife, especially in the mountainous interior. The central section of Vietnam features the highest elevations of the country. It consists mostly of mountains and dense rainforest, and has traditionally been the least populated area of the country. The most famous region of Vietnam's southland is the fertile Mekong River delta. This lowlying area, which has a tropical climate, has historically supported a wide range of farming practices.

Vietnam's northern Red River delta and its southern Mekong delta are connected by the Chaîne Annamatique, a mountain range that runs from north to south along Vietnam's western boundary with Laos and Cambodia. This rugged chain of mountains guards Vietnam's western border all the way from China down through the nation's midsection before fading into the foothills north of the city of Saigon (modern-day Ho Chi Minh City). Over the centuries, these mountains isolated Vietnam from nations to the west, like India. But the Chaîne Annamatique did not protect the country from peoples of the north, like the Chinese. In fact, the mountains seemed to channel Chinese armies, religions, political systems, and other aspects of Chinese culture down into Vietnam over the years.

Rebellion against Chinese rule

Legends say that the region that eventually became northern Vietnam was governed in ancient times by a series of hereditary leaders known as the Hung Kings (hereditary means that rule was passed down within a family). These ancient rulers were believed to be indigenous, or native, to the area. Vietnam's recorded history, however, did not begin until 208 b.c., when an outlaw Chinese general named Trieu Da (also known as Chao T'o) took over an area of northern Vietnam known as Au Lac. About 100 years later, in 111 b.c., the region was conquered by China and absorbed into the powerful Han Dynasty (a dynasty is a family that maintains rule over a period of many generations; members of the Han Dynasty ruled from 206 b.c. to a.d. 220). It remained a pro-vince (a territory governed by another country) of China for most of the next thousand years, even though the Vietnamese made periodic attempts to break free from Chinese control.

The Vietnamese people battled China with great determination for centuries. But China's superior military power enabled it to stamp out the uprisings and maintain control of Vietnam and much of the rest of Indochina. During this thousand-year period of Chinese rule, Vietnamese civilization was strongly influenced by China's social customs and values. For example, China introduced Confucianism to Vietnam during its reign. Confucianism is a system of thought and belief based on the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who lived during the sixth century b.c. This philosophy, which emphasizes ancestor worship and family relations, became an important aspect of Vietnamese culture, although Buddhism remained the region's dominant religion. "Historians dwell on China's military aggression, [but] it was its cultural aggression that had the most profound effect on the evolution of Vietnamese social and political institutions," writes Harry Summers Jr. in Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War. "Chinese culture shaped Vietnamese language, writing, religion, and views on the role and structure of government."

Vietnam's steady resistance to Chinese rule also played a part in the development of its national identity. "China failed to assimilate [absorb] the Vietnamese, who retained their ethnic singularity despite their receptivity [positive attitude] to Chinese innovations," remarks Stanley Karnow in Vietnam: A History. "Over the centuries, they would repeatedly challenge Chinese domination. And that hostility entered their historic consciousness."

An independent kingdom

China's control over Vietnam came to an end in the tenth century a.d., when its Tang Dynasty (618–907) collapsed. The Vietnamese leader Ngo Quyen (c. 897–944) took advantage of the political problems in China to create a new Vietnamese kingdom that he called Nam Viet. Over the next five centuries, the nation of Nam Viet thrived. Guided by monarchs (rulers) of the Ly Dynasty (1009–1225) and the Tran Dynasty (1225–1400), the Vietnamese kingdom expanded its land holdings throughout Indochina by invading other nations. They also fended off repeated threats from Mongol armies during the thirteenth century. The Mongols were a nomadic people from central Asia who conquered much of Asia and eastern Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Early in the fifteenth century, however, Vietnamese self-rule came to a crashing halt. Members of China's powerful Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) seized control of Vietnam and instituted an extremely harsh rule. For example, they forced the Vietnamese people to worship Chinese gods and to speak Chinese, and they seized vast quantities of gold, spices, rare woods, and other natural resources for shipment to Chinese ports. "The rule of the Ming was probably worse than anything Vietnam had ever experienced," comments historian Joseph Buttinger in The Smaller Dragon: A Political History of Vietnam. "The country was bled white [robbed of its most valuable resources]. Battalions of forced laborers were sent into mines, forests, and to the bottom of the sea to extract Vietnam's natural wealth for China." But China's leadership was unable to keep its grip on the Vietnamese. In 1428, a rebellion led by a wealthy landowner named Le Loi (ruled 1428–1443) finally forced China to recognize Vietnam's independence.

After securing Vietnamese independence, Le Loi established the new capital in Hanoi and launched a dynasty— known as the Le Dynasty—that endured for the next 400 years. During this period, effective leaders like Le Thanh Tong (ruled 1460–1497) strengthened Vietnam's social and economic foundations. They also expanded the nation's borders by taking control of the Mekong River delta and the Ca Mau Peninsula (the southernmost regions of modern Vietnam). Only the central highlands, inhabited by non-Vietnamese tribal peoples, remained largely unsettled.

Vietnam and European colonialism

The Vietnamese people first made contact with Europe in the sixteenth century, when Portuguese merchants and Christian missionaries from several countries landed on their shores. During this period, European fleets were sailing all around the world in search of wealth and people to convert to Christianity. The various European nations (primarily Portugal, Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands) were engaged in fierce competition with one another for economic and political superiority. They saw Vietnam and many other regions of the world, such as Africa and Central America, as places of potentially great economic and strategic value.

In many instances, however, the European nations that led this period of exploration did not establish equal trading partnerships with the peoples they visited. Instead, European powers introduced a practice known as colonialism, in which one country assumes political control over another. Usually, these European nations took over a country in order to take ownership of its existing riches or take possession of its valuable natural resources, such as gold, cotton, or cash crops, including sugar, tea, and rubber. They believed that they could increase the size and power of their empires through such strategies. Colonialism was also encouraged by Europe's Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian leaders, who believed that it was their holy duty to spread their religious beliefs to other nations and eliminate non-Christian religions.

Europe did not pay much attention to Vietnam during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Instead, the main European powers concentrated their efforts on controlling other regions of the world that were thought to be of greater economic or strategic value. Nonetheless, Vietnam endured long periods of internal political unrest and economic turbulence during this time. Squabbling between northern and southern clans, or families, even split the country in two for a time, until Nguyen Hue (ruled 1788–1793) reunited the nation during the so-called Tay Son Rebellion of 1771. By 1778, Nguyen Hue had declared himself emperor of Vietnam and established his own Nguyen Dynasty.

Suspicious of French influence

Nguyen Hue died in 1792, leaving a void at the top of Vietnam's power structure. Several factions (a group organized in opposition) tried to seize control of the troubled nation, but by 1802 Nguyen Anh (1762–1820; ruled 1802–1820) had emerged as the new emperor. Nguyen Anh was the sole surviving heir of a family that had ruled the south during much of the previous century. Upon assuming power, he quickly moved the capital to Hue in central Vietnam in order to symbolize the reunification of the nation's southern and northern sections.

Nguyen Anh had been assisted in his rise to power by Pigneau de Béhaine, a French missionary and adventurer who hoped to increase his country's influence in Southeast Asia. While Nguyen Anh appreciated de Béhaine's efforts on his behalf, he and his son and successor, Minh Mang (1792–1841), did not trust the French missionaries or traders operating in their kingdom. They knew that Vietnam had been controlled by foreign powers in the past, and they wanted to make sure that such a situation did not develop again. As a result, they placed restrictions on French activities in Vietnam and tried to push French missionaries out of the country.

The Nguyen government also grew hostile toward religious organizations. As a result, they harassed Vietnamese who had converted to Christianity. Vietnamese who followed Buddhism or Confucianism, the main belief systems of the region, also were mistreated.

By the 1850s, French businessmen and churches were asking the French government to intervene in Vietnam. At the same time, French emperor Napoleon III (1808–1873) became concerned about British colonization efforts elsewhere in Southeast Asia. He decided that France needed to establish a base of power in the area in order to keep pace with England. He subsequently ordered a French fleet to sail to Vietnam, punish the government for its actions, and force the Vietnamese leadership to accept a French presence in the country.

The naval expedition arrived off Vietnam's shores in 1858. The French military quickly made its presence felt. By 1862, the French had conquered the Mekong delta area and forced Vietnamese Emperor Tu Duc (1829–1883; ruled 1847–1883) to sign the Treaty of Saigon. Under the terms of this agreement, Tu Doc gave up control of a large section of southern Vietnam to France. The French government renamed this area Cochin China and immediately established programs designed to benefit French businesses and churches in the region. This event marked the beginning of the French colonialism era in Vietnam.

French colonialism arrives in Vietnam

During the last half of the nineteenth century, France took strong measures to establish colonial control over Vietnam and the rest of the Indochina Peninsula. For example, both Cambodia and Laos became French protectorates during this period (in 1863 and 1893 respectively; a protectorate is a country that is under official protection and control of another country). France recognized, however, that Vietnam was the biggest prize in Indochina. After all, it had large expanses of fertile farmland, and its location on the South China Sea made it an attractive destination for traders operating throughout Southeast Asia and Indonesia.

In the years following the 1862 Treaty of Saigon, France used its superior economic and military power to increase its influence. From their base in southern Vietnam, the French steadily pushed northward into the rest of the country. By the mid-1880s it was clear to Vietnam's rulers that they could not resist France's military advances. In 1884, they reluctantly accepted French rule over the remainder of the country. France divided the newly acquired territory into two protectorates—Tonkin in the north and Annam along the central coast.

During the last years of the nineteenth century, France transformed Vietnam and its western neighbors, Cambodia and Laos, into a single possession—called the Indochinese Union—so that it could more easily maintain control over the region's affairs. French authorities permitted Vietnam to keep its traditional emperor. But the emperor held no real power under French rule, and most Vietnamese mourned the loss of their independence.

Life in French-controlled Vietnam

When France imposed colonial rule in Southeast Asia, it removed the name "Vietnam" from official use because the Vietnamese people associated the word with self-rule. It then began the process of transforming Vietnam into the sort of country that French business, military, and religious leaders wanted. As part of this transformation, French authorities launched a series of ambitious construction projects throughout the country, including extensive road and railway networks and sophisticated irrigation systems. In addition, France funded projects that dramatically increased the region's industrial and agricultural output.

Colonial officials also created a primitive school system for Vietnamese children and introduced medical treatments that helped people combat malaria (an infectious, sometimes fatal, disease spread by mosquitoes) and other diseases. France received assistance from a variety of Vietnamese businessmen, officials, and wealthy landowners in all of these efforts. Before long, this sub-class of the Vietnamese population became an important asset to France in its management of the country.

As time passed, defenders of French colonialism pointed to its educational programs and development schemes as evidence that France had not entered Vietnam just to enrich itself. They argued that France helped to "civilize" the Vietnamese people by establishing new industrial and agricultural practices and introducing them to Christianity. But historians generally agree that French officials usually acted in their own interests rather than those of the Vietnamese people.

The benefits of colonialism were not apparent to most Vietnamese. For example, French-sponsored agricultural projects and irrigation projects opened up a lot of land for farming, but most Vietnamese families could not afford to buy the land. Instead, French landowners and a small number of wealthy Vietnamese bought up all this valuable property. The average Vietnamese farmer, meanwhile, was taxed at such a high rate that he often fell into deep debt. Many peasant families were forced to abandon their farms—many of which had been tended by their ancestors for many generations—to take jobs at the huge French-owned rubber and tea plantations that popped up along the eastern coastline. As time passed, French systems of taxation, land distribution, and economic policy all combined to create "pervasive [widespread] misery among peasants throughout Vietnam," according to Gabriel Kolko, author of Anatomy of a War.

The quality of life for Vietnamese who lived in cities also declined under French colonialism. As French industrialization and economic policies transformed the country, large numbers of Vietnamese had little choice but to accept work in factories or coal mines, where they endured long hours in terrible conditions for low wages. As time passed, it became harder and harder for parents in the cities to provide their families with good food and shelter. In addition, bitter Vietnamese felt that France's so-called "improvements" to their society often were exaggerated. For example, many Vietnamese observed that the school system introduced by the French did not benefit many children. Most children received some basic elementary school education, but very few received the opportunity to gain a higher education.

Finally, most Vietnamese simply resented being under the control of a foreign power. Convinced that French colonialism exploited the Vietnamese people and the nation's natural resources, increasing numbers of Vietnamese turned to nationalistic dreams of independence. Nationalism is a movement in which a nation or ethnic group believes that their future should be based on their common history and culture rather than that of some outside group or nation. This feeling of nationalism, which had been a part of Vietnamese society since the Chinese first conquered their land thousands of years before, flared up again during the era of French colonialism.

Organized opposition to colonialism

The first organized groups dedicated to ending French colonial rule in Vietnam appeared in the 1920s. Several of these nationalistic organizations were led by well-educated Vietnamese students and intellectuals who had lived in Europe, where they experienced greater freedoms than they had ever known in their homeland. Their travels in Europe also exposed these patriotic Vietnamese to a range of political and economic philosophies, from American-style democracy to communism. (Democracy is a form of government in which the power lies in the hands of the people, who govern either directly, or indirectly through elected representatives. Communism is a political system in which the resources and property of a people are owned by the government rather than by individuals. Under this system, the government controls all the farms and factories and is responsible for providing jobs and distributing the wealth for the common good of its people.) Many of these students and intellectuals returned to their homeland determined to gain Vietnamese independence from colonial rule. One of these students was Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), a young advocate of communism who eventually became the most influential figure in modern Vietnamese history.

By the late 1920s, many anti-French secret societies had sprouted throughout Vietnam. Some of these groups wanted to change the existing political structure in Vietnam through peaceful protest, but others favored more violent revolution. The most important of these groups was the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1930 (an early version of this group, called Thanh Nien, was founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1925).

Political unrest surged in Vietnam in the early 1930s. In 1930, the French smashed both armed rebellions and peaceful protests with brutal force. But France's policy of military repression failed to destroy Vietnam's nationalist movement. Instead, the French efforts to wipe out the "troublemakers" merely forced them underground, where they continued to plot against their colonial masters.

In 1932, meanwhile, Vietnam's emperor, Bao Dai (1913– ), returned to the country after several years of schooling in France. He tried to gain greater control over internal affairs in the country, but France continued to hold the reins of power. The French colonialists continued with their policies of economic development and improvements, devoting their attention to massive industrial projects like the Trans-Indochina Railroad, which was completed in 1937. As before, they rarely took the well-being of the Vietnamese people into consideration when planning these projects.

Japanese occupation during World War II

The situation in Vietnam changed dramatically during World War II (1939–45). In June 1940, Germany defeated France and assumed control over the nation's internal affairs. The Germans seized control over northern France, and installed a pro-German government in the country's southern territory. Later that year, Germany's military ally, Japan, forced the French government to give them free use of Indochina's airfields and other resources. In exchange, Japan agreed to recognize France's continued sovereignty (rule) over Vietnam and the rest of Indochina.

By July 1941, however, it was clear that Japan held primary authority over Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. At that time, Japanese military leaders forced France to sign an agreement providing for the "common defense of French Indochina." Japan then stationed large numbers of troops in the region and assumed control of all major railroads, harbors, and airfields. These steps placed Japan in firm control of the country.

Japan's actions encouraged Vietnam's anticolonial movement, whic h had been forced into hiding by France's military crackdown. They saw that France's hold over the country had weakened, and they felt the turmoil might provide an opportunity to expand their influence. The rebels subsequently carried out a range of guerrilla activities (surprise attacks launched by small groups of fighters) from bases in the mountains of north Vietnam. The most important of these groups united Vietnamese Communists and nationalists for a single cause. Led by Ho Chi Minh, it was known as the Vietnam Independence League (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or Viet Minh for short).

During the remainder of the war, Vietnam's nationalist guerrillas fought against both the French and the Japanese. At times they even received assistance from U.S. intelligence officials, who encouraged Viet Minh troops to resist Japan's occupying force. The primary U.S. agency involved in this effort was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which later became the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Ho Chi Minh welcomed their assistance and worked hard to convince OSS agents that the United States should support Vietnam's efforts to end French colonial rule. As the United States fought against Japan in World War II, Ho Chi Minh's relationship with the OSS became so valuable that he was given an official appointment as an OSS agent.

Between 1944 and 1945, the situation in Vietnam turned terribly grim. Poor harvests and wartime disruptions in transportation triggered a tremendous famine that washed over the entire country (see box titled "Terrible Famine in Vietnam"). Historians estimate that between 350,000 and one million Vietnamese died of starvation and malnutrition during this period. Many Vietnamese blamed the tragedy on Japanese and French policies. As a result, the event dramatically increased the popularity of the country's nationalist movement.

At the same time, Ho Chi Minh's Communist Viet Minh organization became firmly established as the largest, most effective, and best organized of the nationalist groups operating in Vietnam. Historians agree that Ho Chi Minh's success in building this organization was due in large part to his decision to emphasize Vietnamese nationalism and patriotism instead of the group's communist philosophy. Ho Chi Minh believed deeply in the ideas and principles of communism. But he knew that the best way to gain new followers was to appeal to his people's sense of patriotism and their desire to be free of colonial rule.

In early 1945, Japan became concerned that American and French Resistance forces were on the verge of staging a big attack on Japanese positions in Indochina (the French Resistance included forces within France that opposed German occupation and French forces that had been stationed in France's colonial possessions when the war broke out). On March 9, 1945, Japan reacted to this threat by seizing outright control of Vietnam from the country's French administrators. "The French wolf was finally devoured by the Japanese . . . hyena," remarked Ho Chi Minh when he heard about the takeover.

Ho Chi Minh takes over

Japan's decision to seize formal control over Vietnam had little practical impact on the war. By this point, the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and other military partners—collectively known as the Allied Forces—were on the verge of defeating both Germany and Japan. As the Allied Forces continued to register big victories in Europe and Southeast Asia, it became clear that Japan would not be able to maintain its grip on Indochina for very long.

Ho Chi Minh and other Viet Minh leaders decided to take advantage of Japan's crumbling authority. In May 1945, they organized the Vietnam Liberation Army, a military force that became the foundation of North Vietnam's army during the Vietnam War. The Viet Minh hoped to use this army to take control of the country before French forces could re-establish colonial rule.

In August 1945, Japan fled Indochina for good (it formally surrendered to Allied Forces on September 2, 1945). Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh immediately seized control of several major Vietnamese cities, including Hanoi and Hue. Ho Chi Minh's Communist nationalists then took steps to install a new government and consolidate their power. On August 25, 1945, Bao Dai stepped down as emperor, announcing that he would instead serve as an advisor to Ho Chi Minh's government. Bao Dai's decision convinced many Vietnamese people to view Ho Chi Minh as their country's rightful leader.

France looks to reclaim Vietnam

On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He declared that the new nation would be ruled by its own citizens and that it would be independent from France and other foreign powers. He even used words from America's famous Declaration of Independence in his speech, comparing the Vietnamese struggle for freedom with the United States' successful bid for independence two centuries earlier.

France, however, wanted to regain control of Vietnam. Most of Europe—including France—had been devastated by World War II. Many of Europe's cities had been badly damaged during the conflict, and the economies of France and other nations were in terrible condition. Most French leaders believed that the resources of Vietnam and their other colonial territories could help France rebuild its cities and industries. They argued that repossession of Vietnam was essential if they hoped to recover from their war wounds.

This situation left U.S. political leaders in a difficult position. They understood the French position, but many people in the United States believed that people in Vietnam and other countries under colonial rule deserved to govern themselves. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), who served as president from 1933 until his death on April 12, 1945, even commented once that "after 100 years of French rule in Indochina, the inhabitants were worse off than they had been before." Other American officials thought that returning Vietnam to the French would spark years of violence and instability in the region. They believed that the Vietnamese people would not accept a return to French rule.

After weighing arguments on both sides, U.S. President Harry Truman (1884–1972; president 1945–1963), who succeeded Roosevelt after his death, decided to support France's efforts to regain Vietnam. He knew that the plan to reintroduce colonial rule was a risky one. But as Robert D. Schulzinger notes in A Time for War, the "political, economic, and even spiritual lives [of Europe's nations] had been broken by the war, and the highest-level American officials believed that the restoration of their health represented the first priority of the United States in the postwar world." Consequently, the United States did not object when France initiated military operations in its old colonial territory.

French forces return to Vietnam

In late 1945, French forces managed to push the Viet Minh out of most major urban centers in Vietnam's southern provinces. Ho Chi Minh and his Communist nationalist army retreated to bases in the rural north, where they enjoyed greater popular support. They also lobbied the United States and other nations for formal recognition of Vietnamese independence. In fact, Ho Chi Minh wrote letters to Truman on eight different occasions, each time asking him to recognize Vietnamese self-rule. But the United States and other nations refused to extend this recognition.

In 1946, French and Viet Minh negotiators reached a compromise. Under this agreement, France agreed to acknowledge the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a "free state" with its own government, army, and treasury. In return, Vietnam agreed to remain a part of the French empire and permit a French military presence. But the agreement fell apart a few months later in a flurry of broken promises and disagreements over Vietnam's status. In December 1946, the Viet Minh launched a series of deadly attacks on French installations throughout Hanoi. The long-standing hostilities between French and Viet Minh forces had finally erupted into all-out war.


Buttinger, Joseph. The Smaller Dragon: A Political History of Vietnam. New York: Praeger, 1958.

Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.

Dunn, Peter M. The First Vietnam War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Kolko, Gabriel. Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience. New York: New Press, 1994.

Marr, David G. Vietnamese Anticolonialism 1885–1925. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Ngo Vinh Long. Before the Revolution: The Vietnamese Peasants Under the French. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1973.

Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Summers, Harry Jr. Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Wiegersma, Nancy. Vietnam: Peasant Land, Peasant Revolution. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Words to Know

Buddhism A religion based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (known as the Buddha; c. 563–c. 483 b.c.), in which followers seek moral purity and spiritual enlightenment.

Colonialism A practice in which one country assumes political control over another country. Most colonial powers establish colonies in foreign lands in order to take possession of valuable natural resources and increase their own power. Historically, they showed little concern for the rights and well-being of the native people.

Communism A political system in which the government controls all resources and means of producing wealth. By eliminating private property, this system is designed to create an equal society with no social classes. However, Communist governments in practice often limit personal freedom and rights.

Confucianism A belief system based on the teachings of Confucius (551–479 b.c.) that emphasizes morality, social relationships, and respect for ancestors. The major Confucian virtues include integrity, loyalty, generosity, and politeness.

Indochina The name sometimes given to the peninsula between India and China in Southeast Asia. The term narrowly refers to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, which were united under the name French Indochina during the colonial period, 1893–1954.

Nationalism A feeling of intense loyalty and devotion to a country or homeland. Some people argue that nationalism, rather than communism, was the main factor that caused the Viet Minh to fight the French for control of Vietnam.

Viet Minh Communist-led nationalist movement to gain Vietnam's independence from French colonial rule.

People to Know

Bao Dai (1913–) Vietnamese political leader who served as emperor and head of state under French colonial rule, 1926–1945 and 1949–1955.

Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) Vietnamese Communist leader who led Viet Minh forces in opposing French rule and became the first president of North Vietnam in 1954. He also led the North during the Vietnam War until his death.

Napoleon III (1808–1873) Emperor of France during the beginning of its colonial rule over Vietnam.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) Served three terms in office as the 32nd president of the United States, from 1933 until his death in 1945. Led the United States through the Great Depression (1929–34) and World War II (1939–45).

Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) Served as the 33rd president of the United States, 1945–53. Did not oppose France reclaiming control over Vietnam after World War II (1939–45).

The Father of Vietnamese Nationalism

One of Vietnam's early leaders in the nationalist movement was Phan Boi Chau (1867–1941). The son of a Vietnamese scholar, Phan Boi Chau was born in Nghe An, a central province that was known for its resistance to French colonial rule. As he grew older, he became very bitter about the impact of colonialism on his people, and he eventually emerged as an early advocate of violent rebellion. He also argued that once Vietnam achieved independence, it should establish a democratic system of government similar to those in place in the United States and other Western nations.

In the early 1900s, Phan Boi Chau worked tirelessly for the cause of Vietnamese independence. He wrote several books explaining his views on Vietnamese history. He also established a political organization, called the Association for the Modernization of Vietnam (Viet Nam Duy Tan Hoi), that worked to unite Vietnamese students, businessmen, and professionals for the cause of independence. In addition, he helped create a group called the East Asia United League, which brought together nationalist political leaders from China, Japan, Korea, India, and other places that had been threatened by European colonialism. These activities have led some historians to call Phan Boi Chau the father of Vietnamese nationalism.

Not surprisingly, French colonial officials viewed Phan Boi Chau as a dangerous threat. French agents drove him into exile and chased him all around Southeast Asia, forcing him to live an unsettled existence. In 1914, Chinese authorities imprisoned him for three years at the request of France. Upon his release, however, Phan Boi Chau continued with his anticolonialist activities. In 1925, French agents captured him in China and brought him back to Vietnam. He lived under house arrest (forced confinement in one's own home) in Hue for the next sixteen years, until his death in 1941.

Terrible Famine in Vietnam

During the early 1940s, Vietnam's agricultural economy was devastated by poor crop harvests, French tax policies, and transportation problems associated with World War II (1939–45). By 1944, these conditions created famine conditions throughout the country. This famine, which lasted through the first part of 1945, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese men, women, and children. In the following excerpt from Before the Revolution: The Vietnamese Peasants Under the French (1973), a Vietnamese writer named Ngo Vinh Long recalls those awful months:

The Vietnamese people are accustomed to leading a hard working, frugal, and patient life. They believe that if they eat less, save some money, and work hard, then no matter how difficult life is for them, they can still "patch things up" and somehow manage to have at least one meal of greens and one meal of rice gruel each day. The changes in the economy of Vietnam between 1940 and 1945, however, greatly disrupted the people's livelihood, worst of all in the countryside . . . .

During the seasonal harvest of 1944 the wage for a harvester or a rice grinder was two meals of rice and salted cucumbers, an extra bowl of rice, and one piaster [a small unit of money] per day. A very strong laborer could earn only enough to feed himself, to say nothing of the taxes he had to pay or provision for his parents, wife, and children.

From May through September 1944 there were three typhoons in the coastal areas of Bac Viet [northern Vietnam]. In normal times this kind of catastrophe would be enough to put the population in an impossible situation. But now the disaster fell upon them during wartime and during a time of economic disorder. Worst of all, the French colonizers were plotting to destroy the very vitality of the population, to increase starvation in every possible way so as to be able to neutralize the traditional unyielding spirit of the Vietnamese people, and thus to rule them easily. For this reason, from September and October of 1944 onward, everybody realized that the tragedy of all times could not be avoided.

In normal times harvest season in the countryside was bustling with the activities of rice pounding and grinding. But during the seasonal harvest of the year 1944 things were completely different. The farmers went out into the fields, cried to the heavens, and moaned. People looked at each other with all hope drained from their eyes and uttered words that made it seem that they were saying farewells to one another . . . .

The starvation began in early October. Earlier than any other year the weather was cuttingly cold. The north wind howled, and it pierced through the rags worn by the hungry and the poor. It penetrated their flesh and their bones and their weak insides ... . It rained continuously, day and night, and the dampness seeped into the very marrow [core] of the hungry . . . . The days and months dragged by slowly. Rain, wind, hunger, and cold seemed to slow down the wheels of time. It was so cold that people would lie in haystacks, covering themselves up with banana leaves. They were so hungry that they had to eat marsh pennywort [a plant found in the wild], potato leaves, bran, banana roots, and the bark of trees. The villagers—fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, all of them alike—could no longer save one another. Regardless of the time of day or night, the hungry people, over and over again, would hug each other and would moan tragically.

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