france and vietnam 7.24.16

Michael J. Boyle
 The story of France’s involvement in Vietnam, and its subsequent
withdrawal, is important for understanding how the stage was set for
the Vietnam war
 Throughout the Vietnam war, France remained critical of the United
States for not learning what it saw were its obvious mistakes
 The U.S. tended to dismiss this view, in part due to poor relations
between the U.S. and France (especially de Gaulle)
 Yet there was an underlying assumption that the U.S. was more
powerful and subject to different constraints than a weakened
European power
 This view ignores some of the structural and situational factors that
would make the control of Vietnam difficult in any circumstance
 By the early twentieth century, imperial/colonial relationships had
fallen out of fashion amidst a new wave of nationalism
 The experience of the second World War left experienced political
leaders and trained military fighters in many colonized countries
 In other words, Vietnam was always going to be a “hard nut to crack”
 But the U.S. was also blinded by early Cold War politics and made a
series of decisions that were based on the principle of “Seeing Hanoi,
Thinking Moscow”
 Early Vietnamese history was dominated by a struggle for independence
against imperial China
 The first independent Vietnamese state can be traced to 200 BC, but this
survived for only a brief period of 100 years
 For the next 1,000 years, Vietnam was dominated by the Chinese who
treated it as a semi-autonomous colony
 The relationship was tributary: China avoided direct administration of
Vietnam but demanded fealty from local leaders
 This produced a history of decentralized rule in Vietnam – a weak central
government, but strong tribal and regional leaders
 “The edict of the emperor stops at the edge of the village.”
 In 938 AD, Vietnam overthrow its
Chinese rulers and underwent a
period of vicious civil war
 Although Chinese rule returned
briefly during the Ming Dynasty
(14th century), Vietnam remained
independent until the 18th century
 Even during independence, there
was frequent warfare and tribal
 The earliest known European contacts in Vietnam were Portuguese
traders who arrived in 1535
 In the 17th century, Vietnam saw the arrival of Dutch, French and
English traders
 Early conflict concerned not trade, but the activities of European
missionaries who were determined to convert the mainly Buddhist
population to Christianity
 The local Vietnamese rulers engaged in persecution of missionaries
and others thought to be spreading that belief
 The last independent government of Vietnam was the Nguyen
dynasty, which ruled from 1802 to 1945.
 The Emperor Gia Long was the first in 300 years to unite the country
into a single political unit, called “Vietnam,” though its borders were
not the same
 This dynasty was beset by constant dynastic and succession crises
and interference by the Chinese
 The Nguyen dynasty also confronted a growing role for the French in
their society, alternatively accommodating and opposing them
 By mid-1800s, the persecution of
missionaries led the French to
consider a more significant role to
protect religious missionaries and to
expand trade
Vietnam was divided into a series of
regional states, including Tonkin,
Annam, Cochin China and
France conquered Saigon in 1850 and
captured in the colony of Cochin
China in 1867.
Took Tonkin and Annam in 1884
In 1887, it merged all of these states
(except Laos) into Indochina
 French colonialism followed a distinct but reactive pattern which
gradually expanded its footprint
 As French soldiers, missionaries and traders were attacked or killed
by locals, French soldiers would seek revenge and expand their own
area of control
 French officials would also demand special privileges for trade,
missionary work and other forms of social control
 French officials also conducted ‘divide and rule’ attacks backing
different factions in tribal or regional conflicts for concessions
 By 1925, France had established a
bureaucracy and infrastructure to
govern the country
 There were 5,000 French bureaucrats
occupying a country of 30 million
 French colonials had a hierarchical
relationship with local Vietnamese
and often employed them as servants
 These colonial settlers often had
substantial political weight in Paris,
making Indochina a valuable prize
 One important element of this relationship was the French ‘style’ of
 France undertook its mission as part of the “civilization Francais” – a
concerted effort to transform the society to look like France and turn
the best of the local population into Frenchmen
 This meant influencing the language, religion, literature, an even
poetry of local people, while transforming its laws and customs
 France established schools for the children of elites, educated them
in France and sent the best to French schools – 20% of population
 It also spread Catholicism, thus producing a French-speaking,
Catholic elite
 Some of the changes that France instituted were sweeping
 Abolished Chinese script in favor of a Westernized one
 Established colleges, medical and law schools
 Built train lines between Hanoi and Saigon
 Brought electricity to modern cities and redesigned their infrastructure
and style
 Abolished Vietnamese legal codes and customs in favor of the
Napoleonic code
 Instituted a parallel network of French judges
 Installed French-speaking Vietnamese elites as local governors
 The result was that France was deeply embedded in the politics and
culture of the country
 As in all cases, colonialism was in
part economic and designed to profit
the colonizer
 By the late 1890s, France had
appointed Paul Doumer as the local
governor, who was determined to
make the colony profitable
 Imposed high taxes on local
population and forced many to
become day laborers
 Turned Vietnam into a country with
vast exports in rubber and rice, but
only by pauperizing some parts of
the society
 One consequence of this development was that Vietnamese
nationalist movements emerged and called for greater self-rule and
 Some, but not all, of these were influenced by Marxism and saw the
French presence as evidence of the inherently exploitative nature of
 Among those calling for overthrowing French rule was Ho Chi Minh,
who had received a French education and had been a young
revolutionary in Paris, New York and elsewhere
 By 1930, the Yen Bai mutiny was underway with Vietnamese soldiers
turning on their French masters
 It failed, and the French responded with a crackdown
 The young Ho Chi Minh believed that
the United States would back his calls
for independence from the French
 He appealed directly to President
Woodrow Wilson in 1918 for support
citing the Declaration of
Independence as his inspiration
 He was rebuffed and turned
increasingly towards Marxism and its
international sponsors, Russia and
 Began to preach Marxism as a
revolutionary ideology in Vietnam
and elsewhere
Ho Chi Minh, Paris, 1921
 The incipient struggle against the French was transformed by the
politics of World War II
 Like Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh and other Vietnamese leaders
behaved opportunistically and sought alliances which would allow
them to improve their chances at independence
 Fighting during WWII became an important way for these leaders to
gain experience in tactics and military strategy, while consolidating
their political gains
 Looming over their decisions was the role of China as an Allied
power and once who might seek their revenge on anyone allying with
the Japanese.
 During World War II, Japan invaded Vietnam and displaced some, but
not all, of the French colonial infrastructure
 Japan allowed Vichy French forces to continues to administer the
country on its behalf
 Viet minh forces – principally committed to an independent Vietnam
– made common cause with the Allies against the Axis powers, while
hoping to consolidate their independence
 They attacked French Vichy forces and provoked reprisals if they
 Ngo Diem Giap, later
commander of Hanoi’s forces,
organized local soldiers to
fight French forces as a
 Many of his forces became the
core of the early cadres of the
Viet Cong
 Ho Chi Minh cooperated with
U.S. forces and the OSS to run
operations against Japanese
 Under pressure, Japan eventually
abandoned the Vichy French
administration and overthrew them in
March 1945
 Japan established an independent
government under the control of Bao
Dai, the last emperor of Annman
 Bao Dai pledged fealty to Japan and
declared that the new Vietnam was
part of its East Asian Co-Prosperity
 Tainted by association with Japan,
this government collapsed by late
1945 leaving an opening
Bao Dai, 1921
 In 1945, Ho Chi Minh established a new republic under the control of
the Viet Minh party, comprised of nationalist and Communist forces
 Initially, he expected that the U.S. and even France would support his
independent republic, but he was prepared to turn on them if they
did not.
 China invaded Vietnam in 1945 to expel Japan and occupied
Northern Vietnam, where Ho Chi Minh’s government, was based
 China allowed Ho Chi Minh to function and to control northern
 Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh,
Viet Minh forces declared
independence and sought to make
their case internationally
 The Vietnamese declaration of
independence begins with a quote
from the US Declaration of
Independence and indicts the French
as a corrupt, occupying power as
Britain once was
 They believed that they had a clear
source of support due to the promises
in the Atlantic Charter that the US and
UK would support self-determination
 Was greeted as a head of state by
Charles de Gaulle in Paris negotiations
 Fearing China’s encroachment, British forces in South Vietnam
permitted Free French forces to land in south Vietnam and establish
 Under the Potsdam agreement, French forces were supposed to
replace the Chinese forces in the north
 By 1946, France had struck a deal with Ho Chi Minh that Vietnam was
a free state within the Indochina federation, but they disagreed with
him what states constitute “Vietnam” as he saw it
 They disagreed over whether the south – Cochina – belonged to
Vietnam and hence could be independent
 By November 1946, fighting had
broken out between Vietnamese
and French forces in Haiphong
 French ships shelled the city,
killing 6,000 Vietnamese
 This event fueled recruitment to
the Viet Minh forces, who attacked
French forces in Hanoi
 This began the French Indochina
war (1946-1954)
 In 1946, France re-installed Bao Dai as the ruler of Vietnam and
incorporated Cochin China as a part of Vietnam.
 Ho Chi Minh did not accept the legitimacy of this government and hit
and run attacks on French forces continued
 In March 1947, Ho Chi Minh declared open war on the French with
the goal of forcing them out entirely
 The local government of Bao Dai, based in Saigon, was seen as a
French puppet and lacked legitimacy
 Ho Chi Minh and General Giap had studied and published on
guerrilla warfare for a number of years before this campaign began
 They believed in the mass-scale mobilization of the population and in
the use of mobile warfare to tie down French forces
 France found it difficult to hold ground, as many of their local forces
in the north were betraying them and were loyal to the forces of Ho
Chi Minh
 Ho Chi Minh was also building an extensive guerrilla network in the
south to destabilize French rule
 The official French war goal was to allow for autonomous states to
exist within a French-dominated Indochina Federation
 Yet they tended to do this by centralizing power with the national and
regional government, thus depriving local and tribal power centers
of privileges and pushing them into the hands of the Viet Minh forces
 They won favor with urban and Catholic forces, but this did them little
good with the Buddhist rural majority
 Efforts to achieve a negotiated solution often foundered because pro-
colonialist and pro-Catholic parties dominating De Gaulle’s key
 From the French side, much of the fighting was done by conscripts,
many of whom believed that the war was a lost cause
 The war was deeply unpopular, with only 19% of French citizens
supporting any military presence in Vietnam by July 1949
 French Communist parties supported Ho Chi Minh against French
forces in Vietnam, thus producing a toxic debate in Paris
 Returning French soldiers were actually treated for plasma and blood
in hospitals outside Paris in order to shield the public from the cost of
the war
 Initially, the French sought to conduct a decapitation strategy which
removed the chief leaders of the movements against them
 When this failed, they shifted to a strategy of pacification, based on
the colonial experience, which was designed to break the back of the
 Yet despite alliances with tribes in many regions, France could not
pacify the insurgents, finding nationalist sentiment was much
stronger than comparable incentives
 To separate the population from the insurgents, they tried to do
strategic resettlement into defensible hamlets, but this was
 One of the chief problems with
French forces was that they relied on
fixed, defensive positions in their
pacification campaigns
 They built bases in many of the
regions, but returned to them at night
and effectively ceded the
countryside to the Viet Minh forces
 The Viet Minh forces successfully
exploited the border with Laos and
Cambodia in order to bring weapons
 They also tried to form local militias,
but had a hard time judging loyalty
French Paratroopers, Indochina,
 The French collapse in Indochina was also precipitated by changing
politics in the region
 The Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949 brought Chinese
communist forces to the northern border and opened up an entirely new
supply route
 To compensate, France granted Vietnam in independence within a French
union, effectively creating a state still led by Bao Dai recognized by the U.S.,
UK and others
 At the same time, the Ho Chi Minh government in Hanoi was recognized by
the USSR, China and others, thus producing two governments for Vietnam
 Most of the rest of the region held their neutrality
 The onset of the Korean war also
changed the calculation of many of the
local actors
 The United States was drawn into the
Korean peninsula and began to worry
more about a Soviet take-over of East
 The threat of a Soviet-Chinese axis
loomed large in the mind of
Washington policymakers, but at the
same time few wanted to take over the
 France sought aid from Washington, but
was reluctant to take military advice or
acknowledge that its colonial days
were over
 In February 1950, France asked the
United States for military and
financial aid for the war
 By 1954, the US was covering 80% of
the overall costs of the French conflict
 At the same time, U.S. officials were
concerned that France would lose
and produce a power vacuum in Asia
 Growing fear of another ‘domino’
 Yet they were reluctant to do another
land war in Asia so closely after
 By 1954, France had deployed
375,000 troops, including both
French and foreign legion forces
 Approximately 75,000 had been
killed and another 40,000 had
been taken prisoner, often
 Approximately 200,000
Vietnamese had also been killed,
but the war remained at a
 The Viet Minh forces had 125,000
troops, but 325,000 in informal
militias by 1950
 The breaking point for the war was the Dien Bien Phu battle.
 France had sent 15,000 forces located in a valley about 300 km from
Hanoi, under the belief that their presence would prevent the Viet
Minh from launching mobile attacks and supplying
 France believed that their strong defensive position was an anchor
point and that the Viet Minh would have to suffer extraordinary
casualties to take it
 Some argued that this was an attempt to draw out the Viet Minh
 They had ceded the high ground to the enemy and misjudged their
 Against these defensive lines, the
Viet Minh sent human wave assaults
to overwhelm and massacre French
 The French sent reinforcements to
preserve the position, and appealed
for U.S. help, which was denied
 The French lost 3,000 soldiers and
2,000 local forces
 The Viet Minh lost 8,000 soldiers and
another 15,000 wounded
 The defeat of French forces at
Dien Bien Phu was a
psychological blow to the
French forces
 Almost immediately, Charles
De Gaulle began to make
preparations to withdraw
 France immediately
recognized the independence
of Laos and Cambodia and
accepted new negotiations
over Vietnam at Geneva
 The U.S. recognized that a power vacuum was likely and sought to
back a local government that could resist Communist encroachment
 It backed French plans for a Bao Dai led government, but also
supported talks with Ho Chi Minh in Geneva
 France considered the U.S. position a betrayal and was content to let
the U.S. find a way to prop up the Saigon government
 For many U.S. policymakers, especially those reeling from the costs of
the Korean war, this looked like the next domino to fall.
 At the Geneva conference in
1954, the U.S., China, Soviet
Union, France and others
agreed to split Vietnam at the
17th parallel into two parts for
two years
 North Vietnam – Democratic
Republic of Vietnam
 South Vietnam – State of
 The immediate problem that the U.S. faced was that the situation was
unstable: the creation of South Vietnam left 450,000 people fleeing to the
south to avoid the Communists
 The U.S. backed the French-preferred solution of a Bao Dai government, but
he was deposed in a referendum in 1955 in favor of a republic led by Ngo
Dinh Diem
 Ngo Dinh Diem was from the French-educated Catholic minority and was
removed from the rural Buddhist majority
 He also suppressed a number of religious minorities and had strong
authoritarian tendencies
 His regime was also deeply corrupt, and less battle experienced than Ho
Chi Minh
Ngo Dinh Diem
Ho Chi Minh
 The DRV (North) adopted an official policy of socialist consolidation
in the north and political struggle in the south
 They expected to win the 1956 elections, which would abolish the
American-backed government
 The 1956 elections are cancelled, thus leading to more conflict
 By 1959, they had resumed armed struggle to the South and
organized supplies along the Ho Chi Minh trail
 The North organized the National Front for the Liberation of South
Vietnam (NLF) which was designed to overthrow the social structure
and government of the southern leader Ngo Dinh Diem
 President Eisenhower was caught in a
dilemma: how do you not ‘lose’
Vietnam while avoiding another war?
 He eventually approved sending
military trainers to support the Army
of the Republic of Vietnam
 By April 1956, the last French troops
left Vietnam
 Yet instability continues: the Viet
Minh launch an invasion of Laos
 By 1959, Diem is also confronting a
coup among his own officers
 The most fateful move occurs in December 1960, when the National
Front for the Liberation of Vietnam – known more popularly as the
Viet Cong – is founded
 At this point, the U.S. has inherited Vietnam, but they lack a coherent
 They are tied to the success and failure of the Diem government,
which is itself confronted by internal revolt and a Viet Cong
 Yet the greater politics of the Cold War means that the U.S. cannot
afford to let another domino fall – thus meaning French departure set
the stage for the Vietnam war
 Some key questions that Eisenhower confronted:
 Is it possible for the US to avoid France’s mistakes?
 Was there anything about their strategy – the fixed positions, for
example, and their approach to pacification – that was flawed?
 How could the Diem government be reformed?
 Was it possible to isolate Ho Chi Minh from his Communist
backers? How much did he do their bidding?
 Should the U.S. fight this war, or accept that foreign support is a
mistake after French mistakes?
 Thank you
 [email protected]
Related flashcards
Create Flashcards