A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States


French Colonialism, 1802-1885

            In 1600, toward the end of the Age of Exploration (and later of colonization), the French first visited Vietnam. It was not until 1802 , however, that the French returned. During this year,  a dynastic power struggle took a new turn when a lone survivor of the Nguyen family contacted French forces in the area, hoping for support.

            Support was forthcoming and Gia Long became the new emperor, but the French used the opportunity to take another look around. They liked what they saw. In 1857 they returned again and this time began their conquest of Vietnam. The fighting continued to a successful French conclusion in 1885.

            The French motive in colonizing Vietnam was no different from that of other European colonizers during the so-called Age of Imperialism. The French wanted markets for their manufactured goods, cheap labor for their textile industry, and natural resources for their industrial machine. All of these colonial “perks” would add to the national wealth and power of France.

            In Vietnam, colonialism shared the same bottom line as elsewhere, but it had its own distinctly French flavor. The first thing the French did was divide Vietnam into three parts: Tonkin (in the north), Annam (in the middle), and Cochinchina (in the South).  With the division of the country, the French hoped that the national memory of a unified Vietnam would fade. It was the old Roman strategy of divide and conquer.

            The French chose to ensure their control by reinforcing the power of Vietnam’s own social and economic elites. Rather than ruling directly (and thereby risking a nationalistic reaction), the French governed through the Vietnamese urban aristocracy and dynastic officials (to whom they granted village land, thus increasing the number of absentee landlords). This elite was further “civilized” by being given a French education. Those selected for high positions of colonial authority were even sent back to the mother country for a full exposure to French culture. (Ironically, it was in France that some of these Vietnamese were exposed to the ideals of the French Revolution-- “Liberte, Equalite, Fraternite”--only to return to Vietnam to help lead uprisings against their French masters).

            French political control was further ensured by making illegal the use of the word “Vietnam,” and requiring that the French language be used in schools and courts. French priorities are further clarified by the fact that in their century of control, they built 80 prisons in Vietnam but only 30 schools. Further, the Vietnamese were required to sit in the back of municipal trollies--a sort of French “Jacques Crow” system--a daily reminder of native inferiority. Finally, Vietnamese men were routinely drafted into the French colonial army.

            This political control helped to realize the economic motives which underlay imperialism. French textile firms were set up, using cheap third-world labor (a strategy still common in today’s “Global economy”); the French government created a state monopoly on the sale of salt and raised prices on this essential commodity by  5000% (Yes, that figure is correct!). One prize which the colony offered to the French was natural rubber, produced on immense rubber tree plantations. (It was said that these plantations flourished because when the exhausted rubber workers died, their bodies were buried near the trees they tended, serving to fertilize them). More land was expropriated by the French and the native elite, and more peasants found themselves working as tenant farmers on fields they had previously owned. During the French tenure in Vietnam, the tonnage of rice exported increased dramatically, while the amount consumed per person steadily declined. Abject poverty became widespread.

            One of the most perverse ways that the French exacted treasure from Vietnam deserves its own paragraph. Apart from its salt monopoly, the French government also had a monopoly on the sale of opium, and it encouraged consumption with your basic “Just Say, Yes!” campaign. Not only was this drug trade lucrative, but the habit-forming nature of the substance tended to create a reliable market and a populace in no condition to organize anti-colonial rebellions. (The colonial drug trade began with the “Opium Wars” of the 1840’s, when Britain forced the Chinese emperor to accede to Britain’s right to sell this drug to the Chinese people). It is  estimated that 20% of French revenue from Vietnam came from the sale of drugs.

Early Vietnamese Resistance

            Neither opium nor French military strength succeeded in quelling Vietnamese determination to free themselves from their colonial masters. The tradition of Vietnamese resistance to foreign invaders remained strong. Throughout the 19th century, there were uprisings against the French, though all were crushed. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, an Indochinese Communist Party was organized (“Indochina” being the name the French colonialists invented to refer to their possessions in Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). For the next fifty years, this organization would lead the national liberation struggle against three enemies: the French, the Japanese, the French again, and the Americans. In this fact lies a key to understanding the American defeat almost a half-century later: in Vietnam, communism was a popular movement, above all because it led the nationalist struggle against colonialism. Even peasants who had never heard of Karl Marx supported the communist movement. For many, it was simply the patriotic thing to to.

            The young leader of the Indochinese Communist Party was named Nguyen Ai Quoc. He was arrested by the French and sent into exile. For a while, he lived in the United States, where he worked as a dishwasher in Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel. While in exile, in 1919, he travelled to the Paris Peace Conference which concluded WWI. He demanded that Woodrow Wilson’s principle (one of his “Fourteen Points”) of “self-determination” be applied to Vietnam’s quest for freedom. He was shortly led to understand that this principle was not intended for the “colored peoples” of the world. He later secretly returned to Vietnam to lead the anti-French resistance movement. His nom de guerre was Ho Chi Minh.

World War II Begins

            In 1939, World War II arrived, twenty years after “the war to end all wars.” A year later (1940) the Japanese invaded Vietnam, as part of their general campaign to conquer Asia and make it part of a Japanese “Co-Prosperity Sphere.” They were particularly interested in driving south of Vietnam and capturing the oil fields of Indonesia.

            Once Vietnam had been conquered, the Japanese imprisoned the French colonials and set up their own imperial regime. By 1941, Japan’s German allies had defeated France and set up the pro-Nazi collaborationist “Vichy” government. With this turn of events, the Japanese now released the French colonial officials and used them to run Vietnam, in much the same way that the latter had used the native elite.

            Throughout WWII, the guerilla military wing of the Indochinese Communist party (now called the Viet Minh) turned its guns from the French to the Japanese, harrying this newest invader through hit-and-run jungle warfare tactics. [At the end, see the founding document of the Viet Minh. The nature of its appeal reveals a great deal about Vietnamese history and culture.] There is an interesting footnote to this WWII chapter in Vietnam’s history. During the war, the Viet Minh worked cooperatively with America’s Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA), and rescued many American fliers who had been shot down over the jungles of Southeast Asia. War creates strange bed fellows, and during WWII the U.S. counted among its allies the communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

Post-War Developments

            When the war ended in 1945 ,the Vietnamese declared independence, and fully expected that their proclamation would be recognized by their wartime allies, including the United States. [A copy  of the document is appended. Note that their declaration borrowed several lines from our own of 1776. A Vietnamese band at the official ceremonies even struggled with a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner]. Ho set up his government over a united Vietnam, now called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). But independence was not to be. FDR had been sympathetic to the aspirations of the Vietnamese, but he died a month before the war ended. President Harry Truman was more sympathetic to the interests of our European allies whose great colonial empires had been shattered during the war. Originally, the allies had decided to allow China to “supervise” northern Vietnam, while the southern part was to be controlled by Great Britain. But Britain was preoccupied by its own former colonies, and China was absorbed by its own internal conflicts which would soon climax in the Chinese Revolution of 1947. And so, Vietnam was returned to the French.

            According the the Compromise Agreement of 1946, the French would run the south and the DRV the north until countrywide elections later that year would determine who--the French or the Vietnamese communists--would govern the entire country. But the election never happened. One night in 1946, the French decided to settle the issue in a more definitive manner: they sent a naval flotilla to shell the northern port city of Haiphong. Six thousand Vietnamese died in their beds. Now the DRV, with its old fighting force--the Viet Minh--took up arms again, and the War for Independence began. [See Viet Minh rules for guerilla fighting, designed to win popular support].

            This war lasted eight years. In the beginning, France did well. But over the years, it began to suffer mounting casualties largely through ambush. One French writer called Vietnam “the street without joy.” In France, the never-ending war became more unpopular, and demonstrations against it became common. In 1954, the French decided to try to end the war with one massive offensive. They established a major military base and air field in northern Vietnam. The French felt safe because the base was fringed by mountains, too high for the Viet Minh to haul artillery up. Alas, disassembling artillery into pieces is just what the Vietnamese guerillas did. One fine morning, the French army woke to find themselves staring into the barrels of Vietnamese guns. The victory at Dien Bien Phu, engineered by the famed DRV General Vo Nguyen Giap (who would later direct the war against the Americans),  is considered one of the great battles in military history.

            Dien Bien Phu was a decisive but not conclusive victory. Both sides could have kept fighting. But anti-war opposition was growing in France, and the DRV was exhausted from fourteen years of combat (in two wars) and in desperate need of reconstruction.. The battle provided an opportunity for both countries to bring the war to a conclusion through negotiations, at which, given the situation on the battlefield, the DRV expected to prevail.

            At this point in 1954, the guns fell silent and the world’s attention turned to the Geneva Conference, held in Switzerland. There, the fate and future of Vietnam was to be determined. In class, we will read together excerpts from the Geneva Agreements, a critical document in understanding the war that was to come.


Tonkin/ Annam/ Cochinchina
Paris Peace Conference
Indochinese Communist Party
Nguyen Ai Quoc/ Ho Chi Minh
Viet Minh
The Vietnamese Declaration of Independence
The Compromise Agreement of 1946
War for Independence
Dien Bien Phu
General Giap
Geneva Conference and Agreements

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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