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1858-1975 - Colonial Period, Independence, and War

After 900 years of independence and following a period of disunity and rebellion, the French colonial era began during the 1858–83 period, when the French seized control of the nation, dividing it into three parts: the north (Tonkin), the center (Annam), and the south (Cochinchina). In 1861 France occupied Saigon, and by 1883 it had taken control of all of Vietnam as well as Laos and Cambodia. French colonial rule was, for the most part, politically repressive and economically exploitative. The Vietnamese, as they always had, reacted to foreign control with reluctant acquiescence and, when they could, with open resistance.

During nearly a century of French rule, which had begun in the latter part-of the nineteenth century, the varying pattern of French control gave further solidity to the country's cultural variation. Because the French rule was more direct and all-pervasive in the south than in the northern and central regions, the impact of French influence was correspondingly more pronounced in the south, resulting in a more culturally heterogenous society there. The French, much more thau the Chinese before them, remained alien to the people.

The Japanese occupied Vietnam during World War II but allowed the French to remain and exert some influence. During World War II French rule was exercised by representatives of the Vichy regime at the sufferance of Japan until March 1945, when it was ended by a Japanese coup d'etat.

Roosevelt's policy regarding Indochina developed from his anticolonial notions. The French position in Indochina was untenable. The French had exploited the region and had done nothing to improve it. The French administration (Decoux) had cravenly caved in to Japanese demands in 1940 and 1941. He would do nothing to restore French rule. FDR envisioned a trusteeship status for Indochina, but this was always a vague notion, one quickly dropped for fear of irritating Churchill. Whatever plans about Indochina that Roosevelt held, they never included the Viet Minh (or any nationalist) aspirations for independence. At the very least, FDR would not help the French return. When the Japanese removed the French from power in March 1945, the American command in China refused to heed all the French pleas to help the retreating columns. For two weeks, the American command claimed that its local military resources were committed to ongoing operations. They also claimed that there was no guidance from Washington, much to the growing chagrin of the French. After FDR's death, American policy swung towards the French position, mostly out of a regard for France's role in postwar Europe.

After Japan's surrender, the French returned to a position which the events of the war years had made irretrievable. At the war’s end in 1945, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the communist Viet Minh organization, declared Vietnam’s independence in a speech that invoked the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. However, the French quickly reasserted the control they had ceded to the Japanese, and the First Indochina War (1946–54) was underway.

In the First Indochina War, which broke out at the end of 1946 and ended nearly 8 years later in the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu the French found themselves confronted by the skillful and determined Communist leadership under Ho Chi Minh. The Communists, exploiting popular opposition to the continuation of any form of foreign control, soon came to the forefront in the increasingly bitter struggle. Under a nationalist disguise within the Viet Minh - a Communist-led coaliton group - they attracted the active or passive support of most of the population.

French control ended on May 7, 1954, when Vietnamese forces defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation, with Ho Chi Minh's communist government ruling the North from Hanoi and Ngo Dinh Diem's regime, supported by the United States, ruling the South from Saigon (later Ho Chi Minh City).

With the achievement of independence and the partitioning of the country in 1954, Vietnam entered a new phase of conflict. The struggle was between the non-Communist government in the South, supported by the United States and its allies, and the Communist regime in the North, backed by Communist China and the Soviet Union. Beginning in 1958 the northern regime stepped up its efforts to subjugate the South through a well-organized campaign of subversion and terror. Eventually the United States, at South Vietnam's request, intervened to help the Saigon government repel armed aggression from the North.

As a result of the Second Indochina War (1954–75), Viet Cong—communist forces in South Vietnam—and regular People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces from the North unified Vietnam under communist rule. In this conflict, the insurgents—with logistical support from China and the Soviet Union—ultimately defeated the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which sought to maintain South Vietnamese independence with the support of the U.S. military, whose troop strength peaked at 540,000 during the communist-led Tet Offensive in 1968. The North did not abide by the terms of the 1973 Paris Agreement, which officially settled the war by calling for free elections in the South and peaceful reunification. Two years after the withdrawal of the last U.S. forces in 1973, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to the communists, and on April 30, 1975, the South Vietnamese army surrendered. In 1976 the government of united Vietnam renamed Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City, in honor of the wartime communist leader who died in September 1969. The Vietnamese estimate that they lost nearly 3 million lives and suffered more than 4 million injuries during the U.S. involvement in the war.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:03:20 ZULU