Vietnam War Explained: Part 2

Vietnam War Background and End of French Colonial Rule

This is the second article in the Vietnam War series. If you haven’t read the first article of this series, I would request you to read that article first before continuing with this one.

Part 1: Recap

In the first article, we answered some basic questions about the Vietnam War. Some of the questions that we answered were:

  • Where is Vietnam located?
  • What is Indochina?
  • What was the main aim behind the Vietnam War?
  • When was the Vietnam War fought?
  • Which countries took part in the Vietnam War?
  • How many people died in the Vietnam War?
  • What was the result of the Vietnam War?
  • Why the Vietnam War is considered a defeat for the United States

Part 2: What We Will Learn

In this article, we will delve deeper by looking at the events preceding the war. Specifically, we will look at:

  • Vietnam prior to the Second World War
  • Ho Chi Minh’s political career from 1919 till March 1945
  • Changing political dynamics in Indochina
  • Japanese occupation of French Indochina
  • Birth of Viet Minh
  • American support for Viet Minh
  • End of French colonial rule in Indochina

At this point, it is important for us to understand that the United States was involved in Indochina even before the start of the Vietnam War. In fact, the US involvement goes back to the time of the Second World War. Therefore, to gain a deeper understanding of the conflict, it becomes important for us to look deeper and farther into the timeline. Let’s start from the time when the French were beginning to tighten their grip on Indochina.

French Indochina, as you may recall from the first article, is a geographic expression that is used to refer to the combined territories of modern-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Technically speaking, Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia are also part of the Indochina peninsula but were not part of French-occupied Indochina. Therefore, almost always, when you hear Indochina or French Indochina, it refers to the modern-day countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Vietnam from 1850–1940

The traditional overloads of Vietnam were the Chinese. Most of Vietnam had been under different Chinese dynasties for centuries.

By the mid-19th century, the French had gradually started exerting their influence in the Indochina region and by the turn of the 19th century were absolute masters of the whole of Indochina.

The French had entered into several agreements with the traditional native rulers in these areas to legitimize their control over these lands. The French for administrative convenience had divided present-day Vietnam into three separate regions—Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina.

This is a map of French Indochina at the start of the second world war. This is an important map in understanding the Vietnam War.
French Indochina in 1940
Credit: Photograph by Laurentleap, distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0

This is the map of Indochina. As you can see, the northern part of Vietnam is Tonkin, the central part of Vietnam is Annam, and the southern-most part was Cochinchina. The French were quite deep-rooted in the Cochinchina region because most of their economic interests were in this part of the country. On the other hand, the northern part of the country was more influenced by the Chinese. Please note that this important distinction will become quite evident and consequential later on.

The French brought many cultural changes to Vietnamese society. The exploitative nature of colonialism had driven the Vietnamese people against the French colonialists, and this resentment had found expression in a number of revolts and rebellions against the French throughout their rule. However, none of these uprisings had any serious impact on the French colonial government of Indochina.

Ho Chi Minh’s Early Political Career

This was also the period when Ho Chi Minh became active. His birth name was Nguyễn Sinh Cung and he had left Vietnam for France around 1911. Till 1919, he did a number of menial jobs, mostly working on ships, because of which, he got the opportunity to travel to different countries.

Around 1919, a young Ho Chi Minh, who at that point was in France, started taking interest in politics. A lot of details about his early life are not very accurately known. Even the year and place of his birth are subject to academic debates. Before coming into prominence, he is supposed to have used around 200 pseudonyms to protect his identity. It was only around the late 1930s when he started using the name Ho Chi Minh regularly. “Ho” is a common Vietnamese last name and “Ho Chi Minh” means “Ho, who aspires to enlightenment”. 

From 1919, he remained politically active. Before the start of the Paris Peace Conference, he had sent a letter to the US Secretary of State to be given to the then US President Woodrow Wilson about the question of Vietnamese independence. He had also petitioned at the conference, but all of these were ignored. As you might recall that the Paris Peace Conference was a series of discussions that were carried out by the victorious powers of the First World War to decide the fate of the defeated ones.

This is a photograph of a young Ho Chi Minh taken in Paris in 1919. He would later play a crucial role in the Vietnam War.
Ho Chi Minh in Paris, 1919

During his time in France, he also used to write for different publications. The connections that he made through his political work and writings, got him a chance to visit the USSR (Soviet Union) and join the Communist International (Comintern). The Comintern was an international organization formed by Vladimir Lenin with the aim of bringing about world communism.

From 1923 till 1940, Ho Chi Minh spent many years living in Russia, China, and other countries working as a member of the Comintern. During this period, he learned how to bring about, organize, and lead a revolution. He also gave speeches to young revolutionaries and formed political organizations.

In 1925, Ho Chi Minh founded the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League in China with the purpose of educating and training young revolutionaries in Marxist-Leninist ideas. Many of these young revolutionaries would play an active role in the Vietnam War later on.

In 1930, he founded the Vietnamese Communist Party in Hong Kong. But after a directive from the Comintern, the name of the party was changed to the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). The ICP played an important role in organizing the Vietnamese resistance against colonial forces.

As you can see, Ho Chi Minh, even before the start of the second world war had started laying the foundation for the Vietnamese independence struggle.

French Lose Control of Indochina, Partially

Even with the formation of these organizations and many other non-communist groups, the French still had Indochina in their firm grip. Things in Indochina began to change when during the Second World War, Nazi Germany invaded France in May 1940.

And in a matter of two months, that is, by June 1940, Germany had occupied 2/3rd France. An important point that we must bear in mind is that the French colonial government of Indochina was not a separate entity, that is, it was very much connected to the parent government in France. So, whatever happens to the parent government will have an impact on the colonial government in Indochina. With this point in mind, let’s see what happens to the French colonial government in Indochina after the German invasion of France.

While Germany was invading France, Japan was engaged in a war with China since 1937, that is, two years before the start of the Second World War. While fighting Japan, China had been importing war supplies through the Gulf of Tonkin using an overland route that passed through the Tonkin region (northern Vietnam) into China. This supply line was essential for China to support its troops stationed in southern parts of China.

Japan wanted to block this route to prevent war supplies from reaching the Chinese army. Given the weak spot that the French colonial government was in after their home country was invaded by the Germans, Japan decided to take advantage of the situation.

In September 1940, Japan invaded northern Indochina. The conflict between the Japanese and French was short-lived and soon the Japanese and the French reached an agreement. According to this agreement, Japan would be allowed to station some troops in Indochina with the purpose of blocking Chinese supply lines passing through the Tonkin region.

Japan, at this point, did not want to station a lot of troops in Indochina because of a threat to its northern Chinese possessions, that is, the Manchuria region, from the USSR. Japan already had some parts of northern China, mostly, Manchuria, under its control.

This map highlights areas, especially Manchuria, under Japanese occupation by year till 1939.
Japanese possessions at the time of the Second World War
Credit: Image by Emok, distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0

This map above Southeast Asia with the Japanese possessions marked by the year of occupation. As you can see, Manchuria is in the northern part of China and borders the USSR with Indochina quite far removed from it towards the south. So, if the Russians were to invade Manchuria, which eventually they did in 1945, it would become very difficult for the Japanese to mobilize its troops from Indochina. Therefore, Japan wanted to maintain a formidable military presence in northern China because they feared a Russian invasion.

But in June 1941, there is a turning point in the Second World War; Germany invaded the Soviet Union, shifting the focus of the Russians entirely towards Europe.

In July 1941, Japan takes advantage of the situation and takes control of the entire Indochina. However, the French troops are allowed to stay, and the French are allowed to carry out civil administration and police duties. But all this is to be done under Japanese supervision. In return, the Japanese are allowed to use the natural resources of Vietnam to bolster their war efforts and their troops are allowed to freely pass through the territory of French Indochina.

This arrangement between the French and the Japanese continues until March 1945.

Viet Minh is Born

While all this is happening, there was a growing feeling of independence in the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese were tired of carrying the imperial yoke and wanted to become their own masters. They wanted to get rid of both French and Japanese.

Sensing a great opportunity here, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam and in May 1941, at the Eighth Plenum of the Indochinese Communist Party, he established the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Viet Minh) with the purpose of establishing an independent Vietnam and resisting the French and Japanese control over their country. They put nationalism before communism.

It is important to note that Viet Minh was not a communist organization, to begin with. It was a loose coalition of a number of Vietnamese communist and nationalist groups. But with time, Viet Minh came to be dominated by the communists.

An interesting point to note is that the Viet Minh at the time of the 2nd World War was supported by the United States and China because Viet Minh was fighting against the Japanese. Many Viet Minh guerillas received training from the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS). They also received funds, medical aid, and weapons in addition to training.

But how did the Viet Minh manage to receive American backing in the first place? Well, after the Japanese takeover of Indochina, there wasn’t much intelligence coming from Indochina to the US because the French colonial government was under the Japanese thumb. The Americans needed accurate intelligence to make Japanese installations in Indochina a target for aerial bombardment. Ho Chi Minh quickly filled this gap by making use of his agent network. As a result, Ho Chi Minh received American backing. With American backing, Ho Chi Minh was able to establish himself as the unquestioned political leader of the Viet Minh front. The military leadership of the Viet Minh was under Vo Nguyen Giap. Vo Nguyen Giap is considered as one of the greatest military strategists of the 20th century. He played a vital role in the Vietnamese fight against the Japanese, French, and later the Americans. He also later served as the Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam.

This is a photograph of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap with the members of the OSS. During the second world war Viet Minh was supported by America. Later during the Vietnam War, they would become enemies.
In this photograph, you can see Ho Chi Minh with the members of the OSS. In this photograph, you can also see Vo Nguyen Giap. Both are dressed in white.

End of French Colonial Rule

By 1945, it was quite evident that Japan was about to lose the Second World War and an allied seaborne invasion of Indochina or a land-based Chinese invasion from the north was almost certain to happen. With an impending invasion, the Japanese did not trust the French colonial government. The Japanese were quite certain that when the invasion happens, the French colonial government would betray the Japanese and side with the allies, which indeed was the most probable scenario given that France was part of the allied forces.

Preempting such a scenario, the Japanese decided to take matters into their own hands by overthrowing the French colonial government in a coup. In March 1945, this coup, in a matter of 24 hrs., ended more than half a century of French colonial rule over Indochina. The arrangement that the Japanese and the French had made in July 1941 came to an end with this coup. Japan was now the absolute master of Indochina.

In the next article in the Vietnam War series, we will look at the events that happened after the end of the French colonial rule and how Viet Minh and their leader Ho Chi Minh come into prominence.

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