Monday, May 24, 2010

The French in Indochina and the Beginning of Decolonization and the End of Domination by Western Empires in the Third World

Prior to World War II, the underdeveloped world was largely dominated by empires and colonialism. Though France was known as the Third Republic, it maintained an empire with holdings in Africa and Indochina among its colonial territories. England’s colonies included India, Palestine and Malaysia among its vast network. The Dutch, for instance, retained Indonesia as a colony. Even the United States maintained a colony in the Philippines.

WWII undid colonialism. The occupation of colonial territories by Japan, for example, changed the nature of the relationships between the colonies and the empires which were their protectors and overseers prior to the war. Vietnam, then called Indochina, was such a colony whose relationship with its governing colonial power, France, endured such an upheaval.

Jacques Dalloz explains that the occupation by Japanese Imperial forces helped fan the flames of a growing nationalist movement among the Vietnamese. The colonial relationship and its nature and social structure were destroyed by Japanese occupation. The Western powers claimed their intent as bringing modernization to backward people. However, those “backward people” had civilizations which existed for over 2000 years. The Vietnamese saw the French as hypocrites, overlooking their own Enlightenment values and republican traditions so they could extract the region’s natural resources while exploiting the underpaid and undervalued Vietnamese people who were treated like second class citizens and allowed no access to positions of authority under the French colonial system (Dalloz 20).

Ellen J. Hammer explains that even though the Mikado declared Imperial Japanese would free the people of the Far East from white supremacist dominion, the Japanese returned control of the region to the French through the September 22, 1940 agreement between the French and Japanese because, by then, Germany had conquered France, the Axis puppet Vichy government had been installed, the colonial officials accepted Vichy authority and orders, and the Japanese military had already easily routed the French colonial armed forces garrisoning Indochina (Hammer 23). Since the Vichy government was an Axis ally, Japan returned political control for most internal matters to the French. The Vietnamese nationalists began fighting the French for independence as early as 1940, during the Japanese occupation. “When the French came back to the Lang Son area in the fall of 1940, they were confronted with open rebellion” (Hammer 24).

“Ho Chi Minh was still called Nguyen Ai Quoc when he created the Indo-Chinese Communist Party in 1930” (Dalloz 23). Ho studied in both Paris and Moscow between 1923 and 1925. He also went to Canton, the capital of the Chinese revolutionary movement, as the Vietnamese representative to the Kuomintang in 1925. By the beginning of 1941, Nguyen Ai Quoc returned to his homeland after a 30 year absence and founded the Viet Minh, a broadly based nationalist organization dedicated to wresting independence for the Vietnamese. In 1944, when Chiang Kai-shek decided it was time to form a provisional Vietnamese government as preparations were being made for Chinese forces to invade Vietnam, Nguyen Ai Quoc took the name Ho Chi Minh as he founded and led that provisional government (Dalloz 48).

Peter M. Dunn reveals that on their way out of Indochina in 1945, the Japanese took steps to prevent Westerners from regaining colonial dominion over Indochina. “The Japanese dispensed with the trappings of French colonial rule and swept the French armed forces and civil administration into jail” (Dunn 52). Imperial Japan aided and abetted the Viet Minh even further. “The Japanese turned over large stocks of arms, ammunition and money to the Vietnamese revolutionaries” (Dunn 52).

In the initial aftermath of WWII, England, France and the Netherlands reclaimed their colonial holdings. India had been granted “home rule” by the British prior to the outbreak of WWII. However, India was still part of the British Empire. The British took back Burma and Malaysia, and reasserted governance in Palestine. The Dutch moved right back into the former Netherlands East Indies, then becoming known as Indonesia. The French claimed Algeria and Indochina again. What none of these empires grasped was that in the absence of colonial rule, local leaders from the indigenous populations took up the reins of self-rule. These populations were no longer willing to be dominated by Western colonials and the era of decolonization was about to begin. Vietnam was a leader in the decolonization movement.

Another of the main factors working against the perpetuation of the colonial system lay in the positions taken by Franklin Roosevelt prior to his death as the battles of WWII turned in favor of the Allies. “Roosevelt had mapped out a grand scenario of world events, which included the elimination of the British and French empires” (Dunn 70). Harry Truman did not share all of Roosevelt’s ideas. However, one of the decisions at Potsdam was an agreement between Truman and Churchill that the British would pursue military operations from Burma into southern Southeast Asia, whereas Chiang Kai-shek would lead his forces into northern Indochina, splitting it in two. The British would be responsible for taking the southern portion, assisting French forces there, while the Chinese troops and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh guerrillas would liberate northern Indochina (Dunn 119). That split would loom large as future events unfolded.

After Hiroshima, Ho had General Vo Nguyen Giap confront the Japanese forces with his Vietnamese Liberation Army. The Japanese capitulation to the Allies on August 14th unleashed a general rebellion in the north. By August 19th, the capital fell to the Viet Minh. The same scenario occurred in most of the cities as Japanese representatives repeatedly gave in to the revolutionary forces (Dalloz 49).

Several months before Potsdam, in March, de Gaulle issued a variety of statements concerning Indochina. He denounced the Japanese tyranny. He praised the French troops and created a mythology of them as having stood up to the Japanese and fought as part of the great battle for liberation. In addition, he stated that the native population remained loyal to France. The French press and politicians took this mythology as truth and spread it among the public, who were otherwise disinterested in matters of a colonial nature, since their focus was on ending the war in Europe and re-establishing their economy and rebuilding their nation (Dalloz 53).

In 1946, the French wrote a new constitution with the term “French Union” replacing previous references to the French Empire. This constitution no longer spoke of natives in colonial lands as subjects. Everyone was theoretically a citizen enjoying the liberties of the French republican tradition (Dalloz 53). The French anticipated splitting Indochina into five countries: Laos, Cambodia, Tonkin (northern Vietnam), Annam (central Vietnam) and Cochin China (southern Vietnam). France promised free elections for a constituent assembly. Ignoring the situation in Indochina, which was one where the Indochinese people had already laid claim to independence, France envisioned these five countries as being subservient to and administered by France as part of the French Union. No date was ever set for the promised elections.

The Viet Minh led the August revolution. The Japanese essentially conceded to the Viet Minh by failing to fight. On August 16th, in a meeting called by the Viet Minh central committee, the People’s National Liberation Committee was appointed to lead the revolution and Ho Chi Minh was unanimously elected president by the committee (Hammer 98-105).

Ho hoped to reconcile all nationalist forces within the Viet Minh. However, Emperor Bao Dai retained ties to the French. Ngo Dinh Diem refused to team up with Ho (Hammer 149-150).

Giap’s troops took Hanoi in a popular, nationalist uprising, which led demonstrations in the streets celebrating independence establishing Viet Minh authority in Tonkin. Emperor Bao Dai invited Ho Chi Minh to install a new cabinet and assume authority in Annam. Ho was unwilling to operate under the framework of a constitutional monarchy with Bao Dai at the head. He sent word requesting Bao Dai’s abdication. With the national popularity and prestige of the Viet Minh so strong, Bao Dai complied. On August 26th, an official ceremony was held in which the Emperor ceded authority to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh in the interests of peace and national unity. These actions gave Ho control over Tonkin and Annam (Hammer 98-105).

The struggle in Cochin China differed. Many nationalist groups vied for power. On September 2nd, shots marred a peaceful, Saigon demonstration, killing a prominent Catholic priest, four Frenchmen and several Vietnamese. Mayhem ensued. The Viet Minh restored order. Word spread that the British intended to facilitate a return to French colonial rule. The nationalist movements not aligned with the Viet Minh disagreed with Ho’s position that only by negotiation could independence be maintained. In-fighting resulted, often devolving into violence, and revealed serious divisions within the nationalist movement in Cochin China (Hammer 106-110).

On September 12th, the British arrived in Saigon, bringing along some French troops. The Vietnamese saw the French as weak, having done nothing to defend the country or win it back, and returning on British coattails. Anti-French sentiment ran high. In the morning of September 22nd, French troops took control of the public buildings. With the French authorities seemingly back in power, the French public in Saigon took to the streets, abusing the Vietnamese verbally and physically. Violence between the nationalists and French ensued (Hammer 115-127).

In February of 1946, Chiang and the French agreed the Chinese would cede control of Tonkin to the French in return for economic and political concessions. As the Chinese left, so did Viet Minh protection. On March 6, 1946, the French signed a treaty with the Viet Minh recognizing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam with its own government, army, parliament and finances as an independent part of the Indochinese Federation and French Union. France pledged to hold a referendum to determine if the three Ky, Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China, should be united. This agreement was a ruse by the French who had every intention of stalling for time and building their strength in order to keep Cochin China separate, maintain absolute French control over it, and steadily regain control in Tonkin and Annam as well (Hammer 148-156).

Subterfuge on the part of the French was a constantly recurring theme in its relations with the Vietnamese. One government after another was promised for and installed in Cochin China. Only puppets actually assumed power. Promised elections never occurred. French troops invaded the north and forced Ho out of Hanoi. Enmity led to war. Instead of honoring the agreement and granting the Vietnamese freedom and independence within the framework of the French Union, France wanted to return to colonialism and domination. None of the Vietnamese nationalists could accept that fate. Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap and the Viet Minh led the resistance.

The French had the Viet Minh on the defensive early in the war. The dynamic changed in 1949 when Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists forced Chiang Kai-shek out of China. As Philippe Devillers and Jean Lacouture explain, Mao’s Communist Chinese government provided aid and armed the Viet Minh. As a result, the West took a completely different view of the conflict. No longer was Ho Chi Minh seen as leading a nationalist movement for independence from colonial rule. Now, he was a Communist and the Vietnamese movement for independence was reframed as part of Communist expansion in the Cold War struggle (Devillers 22-27).

Giap led a guerrilla campaign. His strategies frustrated the French who controlled the cities, even in Tonkin. Giap broadened the war into Laos. Despite employing a variety of generals, the French could not track him down. In the early 1950s, Giap initiated a counter offensive, ousting the French from some Tonkin cities. Only the charismatic and daring de Lattre had any real success in response, which occurred during 1952 as he retook what Giap had gained. By the end of 1952, Giap’s army was back on the offensive. In late 1953, General Salan theorized that to have any possibility of an honorable withdrawal from Vietnam, the French needed a more mobile and more powerful fighting force than the Viet Minh’s (Dewillers 27-32).

Martin Windrow noted General Navarre took charge of Vietnamese operations in 1954. He devised a plan which he hoped would stop Viet Minh raids into Laos by bringing a larger force into the highland countryside where Giap’s troops' operations were based. By setting up a fort in a valley of the northern highlands, Navarre could disrupt Viet Minh activity, cut off supply and communication lines, and pacify the region. Dien Bien Phu offered the perfect location. It was on one of the highways the French built, making it easily supplied, and from which fort patrols could operate. It sat in a valley blocking access to Laos. It was in the middle of Giap’s operational zone. It had a runway for air operations. Navarre’s plan was necessary because the People’s Army was on the offensive, taking cities from the French again. On November 2, 1953, orders were given to reoccupy Dien Bien Phu (Windrow 221-223).

David Stone explains that the cease fire ending the Korean conflict in 1953 freed up the Chinese military so it might turn its attention to Vietnam. Eisenhower believed the French could handle the increased military threat in Indochina. That assessment was flawed (Stone 79).

General Giap’s forces surrounded Dien Bien Phu and bombarded it with cannon fire. The only means of supply was by air drop. People’s Army troops attacked over and over. Giap took a brief break from his siege in early April to reinforce and resupply his forces. The break also served to improve morale. “The battle reached the final week of April 1954 and the beleaguered garrison prepared itself for what it knew would be the decisive clash of arms” (Stone 77).

Washington and Paris discussed the possibility of American intervention with Operation Vulture. “The plan envisaged as many as 450 fighters and up to 98 B-29 bombers involved in a first strike that would deliver almost 1400 tons of conventional bombs on the Viet Minh about Dien Bien Phu” (Stone 81). The use of two atomic bombs on Viet Minh positions was discussed. Considerations regarding the Chinese response and the likely escalation into a battle between the US and China delayed commitment by the US. Once the battle of Dien Bien Phu was engaged on April 3rd there remained no opportunity to proceed with Operation Vulture (Stone 79-82). The result was the defeat of French forces at the hands of the Viet Minh in that epic battle.

Mark Atwood Lawrence relates that, “By 1954, no American officials had any doubt – nor should they have – that Ho Chi Minh’s movement served the interests of international Communism. The link was real and obvious, even if Western policy was largely responsible for generating the outcome that Western policymakers most dreaded” (Lawrence 279).

Western arrogance – its belief in the right to govern third world populations and dictate the lifestyles while extracting natural resources, its failure to negotiate in good faith with Ho Chi Minh and recognize that the nationalist movement of the Indochinese people was not going to be thwarted by military means, and its repeated failure to abide by the promises made and agreements signed – combined to force the Viet Minh into an alliance with China, their ancient enemy. The defeat was the first in a series between the West and emerging third world nations seeking independence. It heralded decolonization which spread through Southeast Asia, to Africa and even to Central and South America, making it a turning point in Western Civilization.

Works Cited

Dalloz, Jacques. The War in Indo-China 1945-54. Trans. Josephine Bacon. Savage, Maryland: Barnes and Noble, 1990. Print.
Devillers, Philippe and Jean Lacouture. End of a War: Indochina, 1954. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1969. Print.
Dunn, Peter M. The First Vietnam War. London: C. Hurst & Company, 1985. Print.
Hammer, Ellen J. The Struggle for Indochina 1940-1955. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1954-1955. Print.
Lawrence, Mark Atwood. Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Print.
Stone, David. Dien Bien Phu: Battles in Focus. London: Brassey’s, 2004. Print.
Windrow, Martin. The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004. Print.

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