Posted: March 18th, 2023
Vietnamese domination by other countries. Specifically it will compare the Vietnamese experience of domination by France and China. Vietnam’s relative recent history has been marked by domination and colonialism, mainly by France. Most westerners know Vietnam as the location of one of America’s only unsuccessful wars. However, Vietnam has a long history, and much of it consisted of domination and colonialism at the hands of foreign invaders. China and France played heavily in this domination, and Vietnamese relations with China have been strained throughout its’ history.
Domination and control by others fills Vietnam’s history. The first country to control and dominate them was China, who ruled over Vietnam from 111 BC to 939 AD, and again from 1407 to 1428. One author notes, “China has been the longest-running enemy of Vietnam. Most of the heroes in Vietnamese history have been people who have fought against China” (Suter 2005). In fact, they maintained control over parts of Vietnam until the French took power — they signed away their control in 1885. This domination built up a strong nationalistic tendency in the Vietnamese, and that helped them maintain their culture and beliefs even during Chinese control.
Chinese domination taught the Vietnamese to rebel, largely because the Chinese taxed the Vietnamese, took away their lands to give to Chinese immigrants, and forced them to pay for Chinese troops housed in Vietnam. Another author notes, “Over the past one thousand years, the Vietnamese have no less than seven times defeated attempts by China to assert its influence by armed force. No theme is more consistent in Vietnamese history than the theme of resistance to foreign aggression” (Tucker 1999, 6). In effect, Vietnam’s long history with Chinese aggression helped form their reaction to French rule and French manipulation of their country. Had the Chinese not dominated Vietnam for so long, the Vietnamese people might not have been so rebellious against the French, and they might have grudgingly accepted the French rule.
The French had a presence in Southeast Asia since the 1600s, but it was not until 1846 that they turned their real attention to Vietnam, although French missionaries had been in the country for many years. France believed the Vietnamese emperor was persecuting the French missionaries, so the French blockaded the Tourane (which is now Da Nang) harbor and began to bombard the city. In 1858, French troops entered to country to save missionaries in Vietnamese custody. Fighting continued until 1862, when emperor Tu Duc signed a treaty with the French that essentially made much of Vietnam a French colony. The entire area came under French rule in 1884, and China abdicated her domination over the country shortly after that. France continued to rule Vietnam, except for a brief period during World War II, when the Japanese occupied Vietnam, until 1954.
From the beginning, much of the Vietnamese population bitterly opposed French Colonialism. As the French took over Vietnam, they gradually replaced the emperor and his officials with “residents” of their own. The emperor no longer had any power or authority, and indirect rule ended. As noted, the Vietnamese were fiercely nationalistic, and this helped them remain true to their culture during China’s reign over the country. This also helped make them more resistant to domination from France. Historian D.R. SarDesai notes, “Chinese culture failed to obliterate Vietnamese social traditions, particularly in the countryside, where the bulk of the people lived” (SarDesai 2005, 45). While the Chinese had left most of the Vietnamese governing systems, especially in small rural villages, untouched, the French came in and changed everything, including how these autonomous villages governed themselves. The peasants were essentially disenfranchised from the government, because only French-educated people could vote, and this did away with two millennia of self-government. They began to resist the French rule, and they continued to resist until they finally gained their freedom. In fact, SarDesai notes that resistance and then rebellion began to occur just as soon as France took control in Vietnam (SarDesai 2005, 46). Another writer notes, “In July 1885 Vietnamese nationalists acting in the name of Emperor Ham Nghi led a brief rebellion, launching a major attack on the French at the fort of Mang Ca near the capital” (Tucker 1999, 36). As the rebellion continued, many Vietnamese sought to overthrow the monarchy and establish democratic rule in the country, actions that continued until they finally gained their freedom in 1954.
Another reason the Vietnamese opposed the French was because the French were oppressive and unpredictable at the same time. At first, they attempted to get the Vietnamese to assimilate to French culture and government, and make the country into a “suburb” of Paris, so to speak. Later, they changed their policy and tried to associate and exploit the people, but wanted to leave their culture alone. Along with changing policies, the government was disorganized, too. Author Tucker continues, “French administration in Indo-China was haphazard. Third Republic France saw frequent cabinet changes, governments lasting on the average only about six months” (Tucker 1999, 37). Most of the French leaders never bothered to learn Vietnamese, the justice system had many issues, education was nearly non-existent for the native children, and the French dominated the economy, leaving little room for native economic growth and development. For the Vietnamese, it was as if they were slowly being robbed of their own country, and it led to anger, rebellion, and continued opposition to French rule.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied Vietnam, and used it as a base to increase their Southeast Asian presence. A nationalist leader who grew to gigantic proportions, Ho Chi Minh had been organization and leading opposition to the French for year. By 1941, he had gained so much power and respect from the people that he created the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, his very own political organization. Most people shortened the name to Viet Minh or the League for the Independence of Vietnam. At first, his opposition was only to the French, but soon, he wanted to overthrow the empire as well, and establish a new form of government. Gradually, they began to oppose the Japanese, as well. They did not support Communism at first, and were for a time during Japanese occupation, allied with the United States. Ho and his group gradually turned to Communism, however, and openly supported it after the war.
Surprisingly, after World War II ended, France ended up with control over Vietnam again, and many people supported the continued control of the country. Ho claimed control over a “free Vietnam” just after the Japanese surrender, and he created a cabinet and prepared to rule. At first, it seemed as if France would release Vietnam from its control. Author Tucker notes, “Although before the end of the war the French government had declared its intention to make concessions and grant more freedom to Indo-China, Paris would still retain ultimate authority. The result was a missed opportunity for an orderly transition to self-rule and a close relationship between France and Vietnam” (Tucker 1999, 43). France decided it wanted to maintain the colony to help build up the country after the long and costly war, and French troops arrived to fight against Chinese troops in the area, as well as Ho’s forces. This was the beginning of the Indo-China War.
People supported the French in part because Ho was a Communist, and many Vietnamese did not support Communism or its spread into China. The allies of the war did not recognize his government or support it, and they broke up the country between the British in the south and the Chinese in the north. Ho himself supported the return of the French because it would ensure the Chinese troops in the north would leave, and he felt with them gone he could regain his political power and reinstall his party into office. After Mao Zedong and his Communist regime took over in China, Ho made it clear he supported the regime and his organization was also Communist, and many allies, such as the United States, then turned their attention to France. They gave aid to France to help win the war, and many Vietnamese felt the same way. Author Tucker states, “This grew to active support as the Cold War intensified with the 1948 Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and the 1948-9 Berlin Blockade” (Tucker, 1999, p. 57). In addition, some of the Communist elements of Ho’s Viet Minh had used scare tactics and violence on non-Communists, and the people resented that and began to fear the Communist element of the movement. The French played up this fear, and that helped gain support from anti-Communists throughout the country, as well.
Another group that supported the French were Vietnamese Catholics. The French entered Vietnam in 1858 to support and save their Catholic missionaries, and there was a solid base of Catholics living in the area. Author Tucker states, “The chief base of French support was the one million Catholics living in Tonkin, perhaps a fifth of the population in the delta area” (Tucker, 1999, p. 56). The Catholics had benefited from the French takeover in Vietnam, because they were largely white or elite Vietnamese, the group who benefited the most from French intervention. It is not surprising that the peasants supported the Viet Minh, because they received little benefit from the French, and were generally outcasts in the elite French society.
Yet another group that supported French rule were the working class elite that managed to thrive in the colonial environment. Another author states, “National’ capitalist development was restricted to money lending and the landlord class. This class tended to take out French citizenship and send their children to French schools. They were loyal supporters of colonial rule” (Hensmen 1986). All of this proves that there was at least some support of the French after World War II ended.
The arguments for and against Vietnamese independence in 1945 were many and varied. One of the reasons the country did not become independent was the division of the country into north and south. There were different leaders in the two areas, and they were split on what they wanted to accomplish. In the north, Ho Chi Minh took Hanoi and declared he was the leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), but the south was still in turmoil. Peasants were revolting, there were political power struggles, and when British troops arrived, they ousted the people attempting to create the Vietnamese government in the south. All of these foundations led to dissent about Vietnamese independence.
When World War II ended, so did European colonialism for all intents and purposes. However, France failed to understand this, and continued to lobby for control of Vietnam. Their finances were ruined after the war, and they felt they could build them up again with the help of Vietnamese rubber and rice. Clearly, a majority of the Vietnamese people, the peasant population, disenfranchised by the French, supported independence. Many of them supported the Viet Minh, who in 1945 still insisted they were a “nationalist” movement rather than a Communist movement. In fact, Ho, when declaring the Democratic Republic, cited direct quotes from the American Constitution in his speech for independence (Hensmen 1986). However, the Viet Minh and their taking of control, setting up a government, and declaring their independence showed they were capable of leading the country, and hopefully in a new direction.
Another strong argument was the end of colonialism around the world. Britain was pulling out of India, America was giving the Philippines independence, and there was a general public view that colonialism was dead. France was the last holdout, and much of it had to do with money and funding. Vietnam was a rich source of revenue, such as rubber. Michelin, a French company, had huge holdings there, and they wanted that revenue stream to continue. At the first, the French government was probably the only strong advocate against Vietnamese independence, but that began to change.
In Vietnam, their arguments were strong. The country had been under someone else’s control for literally thousands of years, and the people were tired of being exploited and dominated. They wanted to take matters into their own hands, and control their own destinies. While some people might think the Vietnamese were not capable of governing themselves, they had managed before France came into the country, and they were determined to do it again. Around the world, most people agreed, and when they met to determine how the world would be governed after the war, they actually gave very little thought to Vietnam and Indochina, assuming that France would not take control again after the war. In short, most people felt Vietnam would become independent after the war, so it was more of an afterthought than anything else. There were more pressing problems in the world in 1945, and Vietnam was extremely low on the list.
As it became clear that Ho’s Viet Minh was actually a Communist organization, there were more arguments against Vietnamese independence. American President Harry Truman opposed the new government in Hanoi, in fact; no country recognized it. (By 1949, China and Russia had recognized the Republic, which led to even more widespread disapproval). As the Indo-China War dragged on, even the people of France began to argue against the war, especially the high cost in terms of lives lost and francs funding the war. Another problem was the division of the country, and the infighting between political groups in power. The groups could not agree or get together in a unified fashion, which would have helped their bid for independence, and so, France capitalized on that weakness and took over the country.
When the British and Chinese entered the country to “control” it and hand it over to the French, there was wide scale looting, rape, and violence in the north, which added to the confusion. In addition, it seems the Treaty at Potsdam, which determined these troops would enter the country, had no intention of supporting Vietnamese independence, or they would not have issued these decrees. Immediately, the British troops freed French soldiers that were jailed by the Japanese, and turned the country over to them, rather than recognizing the new independent government, so there was veiled support for French colonialism even before the war ended.
In conclusion, the history of Vietnam has been one of aggression, domination, and colonialism for thousands of years. The Chinese dominated the country for over 1000 years, and help build a strong foundation of rebellion and distrust of foreign control. The French controlled the country for over 100 years, and created an environment of colonial exploitation and power, ultimately leading to the failed Indo-Chinese War, when French rule finally came to an end. Then the Vietnam War began, and another infamous age in Vietnam’s history unfolded. Today, Vietnam is a Communist country, which could be just another form of aggression, domination, and control.
Hensmen, J. 1986. Vietnam 1945: The Derailed Revolution. Marxist.com.
SarDesai, D.R. 2005. Vietnam Past and Present 4th edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Suter, Keith. 2005. Vietnam: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Contemporary Review, June, 351+.
Tucker, Spencer C. 1999. Vietnam. London: UCL Press.
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