The French, in the form of Jesuit and Franciscan priests, had been in Việt Nam since the 17th century. Under the pretext of defending European religious ideals, especially those of Catholics, France sent an expeditionary force to quell any uprisings or protests.

The trouble started with Alexandre de Rhodes in 1627. An enthusiastic practitioner of Christian beliefs he wrote a Vietnamese dictionary to help convert the population. Using fear and intimidation to subjugate the otherwise peaceful Buddhist and ancestor-worshiping peasants. The Trinh emperor in Hanoi, on recommendations from his advisors, expelled Rhodes him from the country fearing what they viewed as a brutal and domineering religion would eventually undermine the emperor and the Vietnamese people.

Rhodes was not easily discouraged. He encouraged the Paris Foreign Missions Society to raise money and continued to meddle in Việt Nam by returning to the country several times. Although eventually captured and condemned to death, he managed to get exiled. To help spread Christianity to the Far East he appealed unsuccessfully to King Louis XIV for help.

In Việt Nam the Trinh family in the north, and the Nguyen family in the south, were fighting a civil war. The Nguyen family was overthrown in the 1770’s. A priest named Piegnau De Behaine saw an opportunity to monopolize Việt Nam with Christianity and he traveled to France and asked king Louis XVI for help. He then convinced rich merchants in India they could exploit the Vietnamese by establishing a spice trade with them. They all agreed to help and eventually restored the deposed Nguyn Anh to his throne. Nguyen called the unified country Việt Nam and changed his name to Emperor Gai Long.

Emperor Gai Long did not trust the French or their religion. He said, “The perverse religion of the Europeans corrupts the hearts of men.”

Gai Long was correct. The Christians attempted to overthrow the next Emperor, Min Manh. Min Manh endeavored to throw them out of the country, but the Christians were now too strong. They had built their own army and tried to force the Vietnamese to worship their God. Min Manh said, The Westerner's perverse religion confuses the hearts of men. For a long time, many Western ships have come to trade with us and to introduce Catholic missionaries into our country. These missionaries make the people's hearts crooked, thus destroying our beautiful customs. Truly this is a great disaster for our land. Our purpose being to prevent our people from abandoning our orthodox way, we must accordingly completely eliminate these abuses."

The next Emperor, Thieu Tri, continued to oppose Christianity. The French government sent a fleet of warships to Tourane (later named Da Nang) in central Việt Nam to rescue an imprisoned missionary named Dominique Lefebvre. Although Lefebvre had already been released, the French shelled the town and destroyed the harbor.

When Emperor To Duc ascended the throne in 1847 he decided to finally drive out the Christians for good. The only way to eliminate them was to kill all the priests. France used the killing of two priests as an excuse to invade the country and expand their empire.

In 1858 Emperor Louis Napoleon invaded Việt Nam and a dozen French warships, commanded by Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly, sailed to Tourane. Over 2,000 soldiers sailed with him. They secured the city, but could not take over the surrounding countryside. The French were trapped inside the city while the Vietnamese guerrillas controlled the countryside; a pattern that remained essentially unchanged right through the defeat of the Americans.

De Genouilly took part of his forces and sailed south and captured Saigon. The city fell in 1859. Controlling both cities proved too difficult and Tourane was abandoned.

Fresh French troops finally captured much of the surrounding area. Vietnamese Emperor Tu Doc could not defend the entire country against the superior French forces so he turned over the area around Saigon to them. Vietnamese guerrillas did not agree with the Emperor and they continued to fight the French.

Additional French forces captured more land in the south and eventually invaded Cambodia. Emperor Tu Doc continued to hold Hanoi and the northern part of Việt Nam. His difficulties continued to grow.

In 1873 a French merchant in Hanoi named Jean Dupuis formed a small army and with his employees and managed to take over part of the city. A force of French military helped capture the entire city and the surrounding area. Vietnamese guerrillas drove them back into the city. In order to save what he could, Emperor Tu Doc signed a treaty with France agreeing to give them control of southern Việt Nam if they would give up the north.

France never intended to keep the treaty. They needed more troops to control all of Việt Nam so they waited patiently in the south and increased their forces. When they felt strong enough they attacked the north in the county outside of Hanoi. Again Vietnamese guerrillas defeated them.

When Emperor Tu Doc died in 1883, Việt Nam was left in chaos for a short time without a leader. France struck again attacking the Vietnamese capital at Hue. Vietnamese government officials agreed to surrender the city but the new Emperor, Ham Nghi, resisted. French general Roussell de Courcy started to destroy the city as Emperor Ham Nghi fled Việt Nam leaving the entire country to France.

The French appointed a weak and complacent member of the Vietnamese royal family, Dong Khanh, as ruler. France now controlled Việt Nam, Cambodia, and soon, Laos. The combined area was named French Indochina.

Like Belgium, Germany, and England, France was an imperialist nation. Such nations want the natural resources of other countries and often take the resources by force and exploit the local populations, often paying cheap, or no, wages. People are essentially placed into servitude and driven into poverty. Such countries also wish to spread their cultures thinking them superior to all others. Their beliefs in Christianity are especially brutal and they attempt to stamp out all other religions refusing to accept such long held beliefs, as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. France especially wanted Việt Nam’s rich coalmines to supply fuel to ships in Asian waters.

France divided Việt Nam into three separate colonies: Tonkin, in the north; Annam, in the center; and Cochin China, in the south. They allowed the Vietnamese emperor to remain in power as a figurehead to help pacify the people while France sent several officials to Việt Nam to run the new territory. The officials understood nothing about the people, the language, the culture, or the country. They felt superior to all Asians and felt no need to learn anything about them. The French used Vietnamese culture brokers to help run the country. The brokers grew rich by working with the French.

Vietnamese traditionally worked their own land. The French consolidated the parcels into large tracts of land while the power brokers often confiscated tracts of land for themselves. Over half the farmland in Việt Nam was eventually controlled by about 900 landowners.

Rice production increased, but the French exported it to other parts of the world while the Vietnamese often went hungry. The French introduced rubber trees into the country and Vietnamese were often forced to work the plantations. Many died due to poor working conditions and poor food. The coal industry was improved, again at a cost. Miners worked for the equivalent of 20 to 30 cents a day.

In 1897, Paul Doumer was appointed governor-general of Indochina. He gained complete control of salt, alcohol, and opium. He built a new opium refinery and attempted to addict the people to increase revenues. Eventually one-third of French colonial income came from opium.

The Vietnamese had not given up on their fight for independence and former Emperor Ham Nghi led a revolt named the “Scholar’s Revolt” because the uprising was supported by many university educated patriots. The revolt lasted almost ten years, but eventually Ham Nghi was captured and exiled. The French acted brutally to subdue the revolt destroying entire villages, throwing thousands of people into prisons, and executing many people by guillotine. Severed heads were placed in baskets and placed onto the streets to be claimed by family members.

Within several years another revolt, led by mandarins Phan Boi Chau and his friend, Phan Chu Trinh, broke out. They tried to poison French military officers. When the plan failed, they planned a general insurrection. Peasant farmers had started to protest against the French and they thought they could inspire them to fight. Because the men were mandarins, their support came mostly from the educated classes and several businessmen. The revolt failed and Phan Boi Chau was imprisoned and Trinh was sentenced for execution, but eventually exiled to France.

Phan Chu Trinh had petitioned the government in France for reform. He wanted democracy for the country, fewer taxes, and industrialization. He was especially adamant about increased education. Few Vietnamese could read or write and there was only one University at Hanoi. Trinh continued his work in France and gathered a small following of supporters including Nguyen Sinh Cung, a young man who would eventually changed his name to Ho Chi Minh.

Ho Chi Minh was born in 1890 in the village of Hoang Tru where his father, Nguyen Sinh Sach, taught school. Sac also wanted freedom for Việt Nam and it was here that Ho Chi Minh met patriot Phan Boi Chau. Ho Chi Minh was attending the National Academy in Hue when Chau started his rebellion. Ho was expelled from school because of his association with Chau.

Ho Chi Minh found work as a teacher in the south, but the French kept him under constant surveillance. Using an assumed name he managed to slip away and worked on a ship where he sailed about the world stopping to work in many countries including India, Africa, the United States, France, and England. While visiting many of these countries he observed the miserable conditions of the poor often brought about because of the greed inherent in capitalism. He wanted something better for his country.

He developed a great respect for America and her people. He felt the people truly believed in freedom and that if anyone might help the Vietnamese people, it would be them. Several times in his life he wrote the U.S. government for assistance to gain freedom for Việt Nam.

Ho eventually moved to France where a large Vietnamese community existed. He sought help and advice from the patriot Phan Chu Trinh. Trinh gave him a job in his photography shop. In 1919 Ho started the Association of Annamite Patriots in an effort to oppose French rule in Việt Nam. He quickly became a leader among his people. He spent much time with Vietnamese workers and encouraged them to demand higher wages in French factories.

In a peace conference held at Versailles at the end of World War One, U.S. President Wilson called for changes to make the world more equitable, which, in turn, might lesson the chances of future wars. Ho attended the conference and presented his manifesto for Việt Nam independence.

Asking for freedom of religion and freedom of the press, he also listed his grievances against the French and wanted them to end their monopolies on various goods including salt, and opium. At this point he changed his name to Nguyen Ai Quoc, meaning Nguyen the Patriot. This manifesto alerted the police to his revolutionary beliefs and the government again put him under surveillance.

Russia, engaged in their own fight for freedom, was one of the few countries to support Ho’s beliefs in Vietnamese independence. Many people believed communism was a better alternative to other forms of government. Ho started to seriously study the movement. He eventually believed that communism would help free his people so he joined the French Communist Party and quickly, with his congenial and intelligent personality, rose to become one of the leaders. The new Soviet Union recognized him as a leader and thought he might help spread their doctrine throughout Southeast Asia. He was flown to Moscow where he studied at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East.

Ho constantly reminded various communist leaders of the opportunity they had to spread their political system in Asia. He said the peasants were ready for revolt; they just needed help, since fighting the French would be very difficult.

Ho Chi Minh was first sent to China to work with revolutionaries. From his base in Canton, China, he started a revolutionary organization in Việt Nam named the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League. He brought new recruits to China for training then returned them to Việt Nam to spread the doctrine of revolution.

Little had changed in Việt Nam during this time and the anger of the people remained high. Most decent jobs went to French immigrants; more than 500,000 peasant farmers owned no land because the French had secured most of the fertile land; and fewer than 5,000 children graduated from school. To help with his revolutionary ideas, Ho wrote many articles concerning freedom and independent rule and started the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1930 to further his beliefs. Due to the worldwide depression, more Vietnamese suffered and turned to Ho for hope.

During World War Two, Japan invaded Việt Nam. Because France had already surrendered and signed an agreement with Germany, an ally to Japan, France was allowed to govern Việt Nam during the Japanese occupation. Many French soldiers, especially the French Foreign Legion, did not agree with France and fought against the Japanese as they retreated to safety in China.

If the Vietnamese thought they might be treated better under the Japanese then the French, they were mistaken. The Japanese proved even more brutal than the French. So much food was stolen to feed Japanese forces that the Vietnamese soon began to starve. In the confusion of war, Ho saw an opportunity to launch his revolution. Again he sought help from the United States.

American President Roosevelt insisted that all the allied countries agree to free their colonies after the war. He insisted it was hypocritical to claim democracy and fight for freedom against the Germans and Japanese while they kept people under oppression in their own oppressive colonies. The allies reluctantly agreed, with the exception of France who claimed that the people of French Indochina were not capable of governing themselves. Roosevelt insisted France relinquish their Asian holdings, but agreed to give them time to work out a solution favorable to everyone involved.

The U.S. decided to help Ho Chi Minh in his fight for freedom if Ho used his forces against the Japanese. (He was now using the name Ho Chi Minh meaning “He Who Enlightens.”) Major Thompson and a group of American specialists were sent to train the new Vietnamese forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap. When they arrived at a cave near the village of Tan Trao, they found Ho gravely ill and did not expect him to live. Paul Hoagland, an American medic with the unit, using modern and native medicines, helped nurse him back to health.

Major Thompson and his newly trained Vietnamese force attacked and defeated the Japanese at Thai Nguyen. Because the war had just finished, Ho and General Giap decided the time was ripe to start their revolution. They called their new military force the Việt Minh.

At the close of the war, British soldiers moved into the south of Việt Nam while Chinese soldiers moved into the north. Ho Chi Minh and his Việt Minh marched into Hanoi and declared independence. France insisted the country be returned to them. Prime Minister Churchill believed in colonialism and agreed to help France regain control of the country. He allowed British troops to rearm the Japanese to help keep out the Việt Minh until the French returned.

In the north the Chinese, who had often invaded Việt Nam, were running rampant. They considered their occupation the perfect opportunity to loot everything of value from the country. The Vietnamese forces were too weak to deal with them.

Due to the death of President Roosevelt, President Truman was now President of the U.S. government. He had little interest in Việt Nam although he still suggested the country be given their independence.

Ho Chi Minh still believed in the American people and their concept of freedom. On September 2, 1945, he spoke to the Vietnamese people. In the speech he said, “We hold the truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He often used parts of American speeches, but if he thought the United States government would come to his defense, he was mistaken. The American people believed that Việt Nam belonged to the Vietnamese. The Government was reluctant to act. Ho eventually asked the French for help.

He worked out a peace agreement with the French. If the French helped eliminate the Chinese from Việt Nam, he would agree to split Việt Nam in half. The French could control the south and Ho would control the north. Until the eventual reunification, after two wars for independence, the countries would be known as North Việt Nam and South Việt Nam.

The peace did not last long. The French needed time to build up their forces in the south and looked for an excuse to invade the north. They found that excuse over a minor import disagreement in Haiphong. France launched an attack against Hanoi and drove out Ho and the Việt Minh. From 2,000 to 4,000 civilians were killed in the attack. A brutal war, lasting 8 years, followed with Russia and China supporting the Việt Minh and the United States reluctantly supporting the French.

Although America still believed in freedom for Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese, they were against communism. The French blackmailed the U.S. to gain their support. Western Europe needed a strong line of defense against the communists of Eastern Europe. France said they would not join the Western alliance unless the U.S. supported them in Việt Nam. The United States started sending them guns, planes, ammunition, food, and eventually paid for 80% to 90% of the war. The C.I.A. supplied an air force consisting of transport planes, mechanics and pilots. The air force was named Civil Air Transport, or CAT. During the siege of Dien Bien Phu American CAT pilots were paid a minimum of $4,200 a month, a healthy amount in the 1950’s and one of America’s most colorful pilots, “Earthquake” McGoon, and his copilot, Wallace Buford, was shot down and killed during the battle. They are considered the first American military deaths in Việt Nam.

With the outbreak of the Korean War, the French pressed the United States for continued aid claiming they were the last defense against the communists in Asia.

Victories on both sides of the conflict were inconsistent. One thing was certain: both sides fought a bitter and cruel war with no quarter given. Both sides were ruthless and atrocities abounded on both sides. Both sides appeared fearless.

The French, although better equipped, suffered from little popular support at home. French citizens had grown tired of the war and they began protesting in the streets of Paris for an end to the war. The government, often confused, claimed they wanted to win the war, but refused to support the troops and held back equipment and reinforcements. While the United States gave support, the French government often sold French equipment, including airplanes, to other countries. Native French soldiers were not required to fight outside of France so colonial soldiers from places like Algeria and Morocco, anxious for their own freedom, fought the war. About half of all French forces were native Vietnamese and Montagnards from various mountain and hill tribes. The Foreign Legion supplied the strongest units although moral was often very low.

The Việt Minh had the opposite problem. Because they were fighting for independence, their moral was usually very high, and they had popular support. What they lacked were arms, especially heavy guns. They had no air force, no navy, no armor, and few transportation vehicles. Many small villages set up forges to hand-build weapons.

Then there was the problem of leadership. The French lacked a cohesive plan and consistent management. The French government constantly equivocated on their views of the situation and Generals, with different ideas about winning the conflict, constantly changed. Eight years of war brought a number of different Generals including Leclerc, de Tassigny, Salan, and Navarre.

Việt Minh leadership remained consistent. Ho Chi Minh had a single focus, freeing his country, and a General, Vo Nguyen Giap, to bring that focus about, not just with the French, but also later with the Americans.

Unlike the French Generals trained in the finest military colleges, Giap, with a graduate degree in law, was a history professor, and self-taught general. He studied the tactics of Napoleon and the theories on war by Clausewitz. He had every reason to hate the French. They had imprisoned him for his revolutionary beliefs. His wife, sister, father, and sister-in-law were also arrested, tortured, and killed by the French. His daughter died from neglect in prison. During the war he learned from his mistakes and, unlike the French, seldom made them twice.

 

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