The French, Vietnamese Nationalism and Communism, and American Imperialism
(Part 1 of 2, from French colonization to putative independence and war against France. The story below is largely derived from my books Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life, and Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era, as well as other articles and edited collections).
On May 7th, 1954, the Viet Minh, combined Communist and Nationalist forces fighting a war of liberation to remove their colonial occupier, France, successfully ended their long struggle by defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu, a base in an isolated mountain valley near the border of Laos in northwest Vietnam. The “First Indochina War,” as it became known would allow the Viet Minh, the leading political-military group in Vietnam to claim sovereignty and establish a national government. Those goals, those dreams, however, did not last long as the United States refused to accept Vietnamese independence of Ho Chi Minh, a longtime Communist-Nationalist revolutionary. So while one war ended, another was about to begin.
But understanding the history of Vietnamese resistance to the French that culminated in Dien Bien Phu is essential to learning about the role the Americans assumed, the way they waged that killed millions of Vietnamese and destroyed much of the country, and the nature of the U.S. empire in the Cold War.
Vietnamese Nationalism against the French
Vietnam already had a long-established tradition of fighting off foreign invaders before the French occupied Indochina in the mid-19th Century. In 1858, a French fleet with 3000 troops arrived in Da Nang and began to attack the Nguyen dynasty, and within a decade had established control over Vietnam. In 1862, a collaborator in the Vietnamese court ceded the southern third of Vietnam, Cochinchina, to the French, and it became a French colony with its capital at Saigon. A year later, hoping to create a trade route along the Mekong River all the way into China, the French established a protectorate in Cambodia, which lay immediately west of Cochinchina. But the Mekong was not navigable to China’s borders, so the French turned their attention northward, and by the 1880s they held protectorates in the central (Annam) and northern (Tonkin) regions of Vietnam, and in Laos, north of Cambodia and west of Vietnam, as well.
For the next seven decades, this area would be known as French Indochina. Like their nationalist predecessors who’d fought the Chinese and Mongols, Vietnamese nationalists in the 1880s and thereafter began to rebel against the brutal conditions created by an outside power. The French established rubber plantations and coal mines with Vietnamese workers virtually enslaved, and colonial administrators used corvée labor–forcing peasants to work on public projects like roads or bridges in place of paying taxes–to build up the infrastructure.
In a short story by the Vietnamese writer Ngo Tat To—“When the Light’s Put Out”–he illustrated the burdens of life under the French and their Vietnamese lackeys. A woman, Mrs. Dau, traveled to the home of Representative Que, a collaborator with the French, to negotiate the release of her husband from prison, where he had been sent for not being able to pay his “body tax.” In exchange for Mr. Dau’s freedom, his wife was forced to trade four valuable puppies, and, tragically, her daughter Ty. Adding insult to injury, before gaining her husband’s release, she also had to pay a body tax for her brother-in-law, even though he had died months earlier. On her way out, Mrs. Dau’s fine was increased because she had paid in coin, not paper currency, and there was a “transfer fee” as well.
Ngo Tat To’s story not only revealed the colonial administration established by the French, but also the role of the Vietnamese upper classes who worked with the Europeans to exploit their own people. To the Vietnamese, those countrymen, usually large landholders and converts to Catholicism, were a threat to national sovereignty. Nationalists might refer to a collaborator as a “God-cursed traitor who acted like a worm in one’s bones,” while Court officials were “cowards excessively anxious to save their lives.”
Confronted by such Vietnamese traitors who were loyal to France, Nationalists pledged to fight–often in verse:
We possess our life, but we must know how to give it up
Shall we remain silent and thereby earn the reputation of cowards?
As long as there exist people on this earth, we shall exist
As long as there is water, we must bail it out
We must read the Proclamation on the victory over the Wu
We shall follow the example of those who exterminated the Mongols
In fact, the greatest patriot of this generation was a poet, Phan Boi Chau, who taught that the Vietnamese Mandarin class as well as the French had refused to listen to the people, who, for their part, did not assert themselves strongly enough. As a result, Phan saw a land “splashed with blood. The whole country has a tragic hue.” And he urged the Vietnamese to fight forcefully against the French:
Ten thousand Vietnamese can at least kill one hundred Frenchmen,
One thousand Vietnamese can kill ten Frenchmen,
One hundred Vietnamese can kill one Frenchman.
In this way four to five hundred thousand Vietnamese can wipe out four to five thousand Frenchmen!
Those grey-eyed, heavily-bearded people cannot live if Vietnam is to live!
World War I then became a decisive turning point in the history of the Vietnamese revolution. By the 1920s, younger, more militant patriots, inspired by the likes of Lenin, Bakunin, and Sun Yatsen, and imbued with the growing spirit of anti-colonialism, were moving to the forefront of the resistance, led by a young Annamite born in 1890 who was variously called Nguyen Sinh Cung, Nguyen Tat Thanh, and Nguyen Ai Quoc, but who would become known to the world as Ho Chi Minh. As a young boy, so the legend goes, he sat at the feet of Phan Boi Chau and listened to his nationalist poetry; he heard his father, a civil servant, attack the French administration and refuse to learn its language, thereby getting fired from his job, although the French made up charges of drunkenness and embezzlement to justify the dismissal; and he saw his neighbors in Nghe An, in Annam, forced to do corvée labor.
So Ho turned even further to the left, befriending Chinese Communists like Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqui, joining the Parti Communiste Français and the Comintern, and making his first trip to the Soviet Union, where he wrote articles using the name Nguyen O Phap, or “Nguyen the anti- French.” In Moscow, the Comintern appointed Ho to organize the “League of East Asian Oppressed Peoples” in Guangdong, China, the center of the Vietnamese resistance in Asia.
The Rise of Ho Chi Minh
As Ho’s major biographer, Jean Lacouture, described it, while in China Ho “began a practical course in political philosophy and behaved in general in the manner of a secular saint, chopping wood, stopping the barber from beating his wife . . . and feeding the little boy; he played a role that was part Buddha and part Lenin-in-Finland.”
As a consequence of his time in Guangdong, Ho also began developing contacts with many other Vietnamese Leftists who would help him make the Revolution, including Ho Tung Mau, Le Hong Phong, Le Hong Son, and, especially, Pham Van Dong, Truong Chinh, and, later, Vo Nguyen Giap. In February 1930, many of them formally established the Indochinese Communist Party [ICP, or the “Dang Cong San Dong Duon.”].
With an appeal to both “the oppressed colonies and the exploited working class,” the ICP stressed nationalist objectives such as ousting the French and establishing Vietnamese independence, along with Communist goals like land redistribution, while also promising civil rights, public education, and equality between men and women.
From the 1930s forward, Ho and the Party would often have to respond to pressures for action from below as well, and that was the case in 1930 and 1931, as workers, protesting the dire impact of the world depression on their wages and prices, spontaneously staged strikes at cement factories, rubber plantations, and textile mills, while also organizing work stoppages and demonstrations at various sites in Tonkin and Annam on 1 May, International Labor Day. The most serious actions took place in Ho’s home region of Nghe Tinh, in northern Annam. Peasants and workers there had established “soviets” to guide the protests and, in some cases, had unseated the local administration, reduced rents, and redistributed land, all without any centralized control from the ICP.
Local police who collaborated with the French arrested over 1000 Vietnamese suspected of being Communists or taking part in the rebellions, executed over 80 protestors, and handed long prison sentences to over 400 others. The ICP estimated that, nationwide, over 2000 militants were killed and over 50,000 arrested, including Pham Van Dong, Truong Chinh, and Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam, and Ho in Hong Kong. Ho’s efforts to build up an organized and disciplined movement would have to begin from scratch.
Ho then spent the 1930s organizing from outside Vietnam, principally in China. Although criticized for his attempts to work with “class enemies,” he understood and emphasized as an overall organizing principle the one issue certain to appeal to all layers of Vietnamese society–land. Indeed, the Vietnamese struggle in the 1930s, and thereafter, revolved around the central issue of land ownership. French landholders and Vietnamese collaborators held vast tracts of the countryside.
In Cochinchina, for instance, just 6200 landlords owned over half the rice acreage, while another 60,000 owned about 40 percent. The remaining 4.5 million Vietnamese held little land or were tenants, with 60 percent of the rural population [approximately 2.7 million] altogether landless. In Tonkin, 2 percent of the landholders controlled nearly half of the rice lands, and tenants on those plantations had to pay their landlords between 40 and 60 of their crops as rent. Worse, these percentages were fixed amounts based on a “normal” year’s yield. If flood, drought, or other such problems occurred, rents could reach eighty percent or higher in real terms.
WW II and Vietnamese Sovereignty?
World War II was a major turning point in the Vietnamese struggle for national liberation and social revolution. As war broke out in Europe in the Fall of 1939, the situation in Vietnam for the resistance was, as always, precarious, and quite confusing as well. In Asia, the Japanese were trying to establish what they called the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, an alliance of Asian states under Japan’s control. Already brutally occupying China and Korea, Japan could be expected to expand throughout the continent. Thus Ho Chi Minh, along with Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap, operating out of southern China, trained Chairman Jieng Jieshi’s troops in guerrilla warfare to use against the Japanese.
Simultaneously, the French began another crackdown in Vietnam. Because the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression treaty with Hitler in August 1939, Communists everywhere were held in greater suspicion, and the French declared the ICP to be illegal and arrested over 2,000 activists, mostly from urban areas. Eventually, however, the French repression forced the Nationalists to shift their focus to the countryside, thus building the foundation for later struggle, and once more demonstrating the Vietnamese capacity to take advantage of apparent setbacks. Though under attack at home by France and threatened externally by the Japanese, Ho and his comrades working out of China were able to revitalize and expand the resistance.
At the same point, however, France fell to Germany, and its Axis ally, Japan, came into Vietnam, sending troops to Haiphong in September 1940. But the crisis also gave the Viet Minh an opening, and mid the various conflicts and political confusion (China vs. Japan, France vs. the Viet Minh, Japan vs. France, and so on), in May 1941, for the first time in thirty years, the man now calling himself Ho Chi Minh [“He Who Enlightens”] entered into his homeland. In Pac Bo, Ho lived in a cave he named “Karl Marx” with a stream next to it that he called “Lenin,” and he secretly wrote and distributed a newsletter titled Viet Lap, or “Independent Vietnam.”
In a meeting at Pac Bo, Ho and the ICP established the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, “The League for Vietnamese Independence,” better known as the Viet Minh. Ho and the Viet Minh stressed nationalist sentiments, emphasizing Vietnamese history and culture. They called on all “rich people, soldiers, workers, peasants, intellectuals, employees, traders, youth, and women who warmly love your country” to join the cause. “National liberation is the most important problem,” he insisted. “We shall overthrow the Japanese and French and their jackals in order to save people from the situation between boiling water and boiling heat.”
Before beginning that struggle, however, Ho was arrested in China, even though he was helping train army forces there to fight against Japan. Jiang Jieshi feared Ho’s independent, nationalist streak and wanted to establish a puppet Vietnamese party of his own. While serving his fifteen-month sentence under terrible conditions in Chinese prison, Ho, a poet-warrior, continued to work for liberation, often defiantly mocked challenging his captors:
Being chained is a luxury to compete for.
The chained have somewhere to sleep, the unchained haven’t . . .
The State treats me to its rice,
I lodge in its palaces,
Its guards take turns escorting me.
Really, the honor is too great . . .
After his release, Ho and his comrades in the ICP agreed that “the phase of peaceful
revolution is behind us,” but he also warned Giap that “the time for general insurrection has not yet come.” Yet, late 1944 marked the beginning of the armed struggle, as Ho envisioned the creation of an Armed Propaganda Unit as the “embryo” of a Vietnamese Liberation Army. Accordingly, Viet Minh guerrillas, at times fighting with French troops, began engaging the Japanese in Thai Nguyen Province, northeast of Hanoi not far from the Chinese border, and even successfully convinced several French garrisons to desert. Viet-French cooperation was not typical, however. Anticipating that the allied powers would defeat a badly weakened Japan in 1945, the French planned to regain full control over Indochina after the war.
However, “the gods were on Ho’s side” as the Japanese, on 9 March 1945, arrested and jailed every French official with even the slightest authority. The Japanese then returned Emperor Bao Dai to the throne and nullified the 1884 treaty that had established French control over Indochina. Any thoughts of Vietnamese independence, however,were short-lived as the Japanese maintained their authority and placed their own Vietnamese puppets in power.
Vietnamese Independence: The War Begins (From Haiphong to 1950)
But in early August 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing surrender, so On 16 August, Ho addressed the National Liberation Committee, introduced the movement’s new flag–a gold star on a red background–and emotionally called for a countrywide rebellion and described the Front for national independence. The Viet Minh then forced the abdication of Emperor Bao Dai, and after a lifetime of struggle, Ho and his fellow Nationalist-Communists had achieved independence and gained power—so it seemed.
Thus on 2 September 1945, Ho faced a half million of his fellow Vietnamese in Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi and proclaimed the independent Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam [DRVN], with himself as president and minister of foreign affairs. Ho’s words that day were quite remarkable, and ironic.
“All men are created equal,” he began; “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” He deliberately chose words from the United States Declaration of Independence to connect the Vietnamese Revolution with other such historical movements, to announce to the world the democratic nature of the DRVN, and to try to convince America of his good intentions.
After a long condemnation of the French and Japanese, Ho concluded that “Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country–and in fact is so already,” and he was “now convinced that the Allied Nations [then organizing the United Nations] . . . will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Viet-Nam.” In fact, the new state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or DRVN, as Ho envisioned it, should be a broad alliance of all patriotic groups, including progressive bourgeoisie and large landowners. Toward that end, the ICP formally dissolved itself on 11 November. Though communism would remain a vital force in Vietnamese life, the DRVN would have a Vietnamese, not Communist, government.
In reality, it would have neither, as the French returned to Vietnam to assert their control over what they still considered their colony. Ho, controversially, opposed the ICP hardliners who wanted to fight the French, and cut deals with colonial officials from Paris. Hated as the French were, Ho figured that it was better to have them in Vietnam than the traditional Chinese enemy.
As he reminded his critics in Hanoi, “Don’t you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”
Though Ho had hedged his bets by advising Viet Minh units to conduct guerrill operations in the south while he negotiated, many of his associates berated him as a traitor, a puppet of the French, and a sellout. In an open letter, many Viet Minh followers lamented, “little did we suspect that we should have to renounce all hope after [the March pact]. You have signed an agreement to accept self-government, not independence! The strength of our faith in you in the days when your name stood for the great revolutionary idea is equaled today by the rage in our hearts–we are ashamed that we should have chosen the wrong elder . . . But the Vietnamese people never lose hope for long . . . They will continue along the path which you have been unable to follow to the end.”
Despite Ho’s efforts to reconcile with the French and pacify Viet Minh hardliners, skirmishing between the two sides continued into the Fall. Then, in November, the French began to provoke the Vietnamese, first by opening a charnel house in Haiphong. Days later, after the Viet Minh fired on a French ship in the harbor at Haiphong, the French, violating Fontainebleau, ordered all Vietnamese troops removed from the area. General Jean Valluy, the French commander in Vietnam, instructed the officer in charge at Haiphong, Colonel Dèbes, “to give a harsh lesson” to the Viet Minh. “By every means at your disposal you must take control of Haiphong and bring the government and the Vietnamese army to repentance.”
On 23 November, Dèbes ordered a full evacuation of Haiphong, and three hours later, with the Viet Minh still in positions there, opened fire and called in naval artillery support. By the end of the day, over 6000 Vietnamese had died, another 25,000 were wounded, and Haiphong had fallen to the French. The DRVN then declared the agreements with the French null and void and, on 19 December, General Giap called for armed resistance.
The next day Ho appealed to the entire population to rise against the French: “Men and women, old and young, regardless of creeds, political parties, or nationalities, all the Vietnamese must stand up to fight the French colonialists to save the Fatherland. Those who have rifles will use their rifles; those who have swords will use their swords; those who have no swords will use spades, hoes, or sticks. Everyone must endeavor to oppose the colonialists and save his country. The hour for national salvation has struck! We must sacrifice even our last drop of blood to safeguard our country.” The First Indochina War was about to begin.
Barely a year after gloriously proclaiming Vietnamese independence with Thomas Jefferson’s words, Ho once more was fighting for national liberation against an occupying power. But, through unrivaled strategic skills, and at times what appeared to be magic, the Viet Minh defeated defeated the French and appeared to have won national independence. The Viet Minh—representing a front of Communists, nationalists, and other anti-French fighters—were badly outnumbered.
The French Union Forces [FUF]–comprised of French and Vietnamese troops–grew from 70,000 men in the early 1940s to over 500,000 by 1954; the French Expeditionary Corps [FEC], the occupying army, increased from 70,000 troops at the outset of World War II to 115,000 in 1947, and 180,000 by the 1950s; the Vietnamese National Army [VNA], created by the French and consisting of Vietnamese soldiers, had about 375,000 troops in it by 1954. General Giap, meanwhile, had about 300,000 Viet Minh and militia fighters under his charge, with only a third equipped with small arms initially, and no naval or air forces. Even as they acquired military supplies from China during the war, Ho and Giap would always be outgunned by the French and their western supporters.
But in the end technological power would not be decisive. The Viet Minh controlled the loyalty of the population and Vietnamese morale remained high. Ho could be a hardheaded military strategist, telling a French official that “you would kill ten of my men for every one I killed of yours. But even at that rate you would be unable to hold out, and victory would go to me.” The Vietnamese were fighting a “People’s War.” All segments of their society–including women, children, and the aged–contributed to the resistance; indeed one of the more crucial support groups was that of “combat mothers,” older women who adopted soldiers into their own families. Militarily, people’s war, derived from Maoist doctrine in the Chinese Civil War, emphasized constant movement and flexibility.
As Truong Chinh explained, “if the enemy attacks us from above, we will attack him from below. If he attacks us in the North, we will respond in Central or South Vietnam, or in Cambodia and Laos. If the enemy penetrates one of our territorial bases, we will immediately strike hard at his belly and back . . . cut off his legs, destroy his roads.” Such tactics would anger and frustrate the French, with one of their officers complaining “if only the Vietnamese would face us in a set battle, how we would crush them!” Ho and Giap realized that too, and would spend the next generation eluding French, and American, forces.
Part 2 forthcoming.