This blog is defunct! Check out my new music blog at Sonicrampage.org.
In 1937 the English writer Virginia Thompson said that, “If France had not been victorious in the (First) World War it is no exaggeration to say that she would never have been able to keep Indo-China.” It is equally no exaggeration to say that France’s disastrous defeats in the early part of World War II were to be a major factor in France's ultimate loss of its Indo-Chinese colonies of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. With the benefit of hindsight it seems obvious that the end of the French colonial venture in south-east Asia was a historical inevitability, part of the far greater process that saw the mighty European empires shredded by local nationalist movements. Of course, the reality on the ground at the time did not make this seem obvious, or inevitable, and the 'colonialism was doomed to fail' way of seeing things is too simplistic an analysis, denying the differences between nations and regions in an attempt to conveniently fit the history of decolonisation into a singular mould.
The story of the dying days of French Indo-China is a very interesting one, resting as it does on a unique combination of factors; a combination of the rising strength of Communist China against the waning strength of French imperialism, the growth of a new form of Vietnamese national identity, and the difficulties of the colonial project, as summed up in that one line written nine years before the beginning of the liberation war. It was a process that entered its final phase with France’s humiliation at the hands of Nazi Germany, and the Vichy government’s subsequent craven subordination to the Japanese military, events which irrevocably altered the nature of relations between coloniser and colonised and would lead to anti-colonial armed conflict after the end of World War Two.
The first serious cracks in France's control over l'Indochine Francaise had begun to appear many years before the disastrous events of the early 1940's. In the decades after the first World War, French inability to properly address the problems caused by a rapidly growing population meant hardship for many and the lifting of the illusion that the French, even if they were in the region out of self-interest, could provide improvements in the life of the masses. The wide-spread corruption and discrimination practiced by colonial officials and settlers only worsened matters. France's destruction of the traditional Chinese-oriented Mandarin class was to have profound implications as new generations raised with both Confucian and Western influences synthesized a Vietnamese nationalism in direct opposition to French colonial rule. Although initially powerless, this new generation would seize its chance when France’s humiliation in the Second World War ended the illusion of French military invulnerability. Once the liberation war was actually under way, the widespread indifference and often hostility in France towards the events in Indo-China would fatally undermine military efforts and strengthen support for any sort of political agreement that would allow France to get out of Indo-China.
On the Vietnamese side of matters, the key factor was the rise of Ho Chi Minh and his Indo-Chinese Communist Party. Ho and the Viet Minh guerrilla forces were able to harness the support of the masses with an effectiveness that previous liberation and nationalist movements had failed to do. Their organisational and tactical efforts to drive the French out are necessarily a crucial part of any discussion of the end of French colonialism in Indo-China. Yet it is also important to understand their place in the context of Vietnamese history, as they were not an isolated phenomenon that sprang from nowhere fully formed.
Vietnam Pre-World War II
Vietnam has a proud history, independent of direct Chinese rule for many centuries before the arrival of the French. Despite the enormous cultural influence wielded by the Chinese throughout Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese people have had a distinct cultural identity that has persisted for a very long time, often identified by the ways in which they differ to their northern neighbour. The Vietnamese that the French were dealing with as they began to flex their political, economic, and military muscles in 1860's South-East Asia were a people with a long tradition of independence and a developed sense of national identity. It would be an exaggeration, though, to claim that at this point there was a local corollary to the European conception of loyalty to a nation-state. That was a concept that would develop later on in the colonial period. Nonetheless, Vietnam’s long-established national consciousness dictated that acquiescence to French rule was always a shallowly extended thing, ready to be withdrawn at any moment.
French rule was established first in the Treaty of 1862, where King Tu-Duc of the Annamese, from his royal palace at Hue, gave the French direct control of the three provinces around Saigon (a recognition of the French military conquest there the previous year), increased access for French trading ships to Annamese ports, and official renunciation of any monarchical claims on Cambodia. This was followed twelve years later in another treaty, whereby the French were granted control of Cochin-China (the southern region of Vietnam) and the right to establish a resident consul in Hanoi. By the 1880’s the pattern for French colonial rule was set, and in its confusion was contained the seeds of future problems. Officially, Cochin-China was a colony, Annam and Cambodia were protectorates and Tonkin had its own strange status, where certain sections were administered like colonies although officially protectorates, others were treated as protectorates although officially colonies. The transfer of power was completed when, in 1919, the imperial court at Hue was sidelined and the French governor-general became the unquestioned political ruler of the region.
From the French perspective, this period was highly successful and profitable. The plantations, although a source of considerable social disruption, were tremendously successful from the standpoint of the French government and colonists. From the 1920’s on the French authorities made strenuous efforts to rectuit Vietnamese men for positions in the colonial bureaucracy. It was these young men, educated in the French manner, who would become the most effective leaders of anti-French agitation. It may seem paradoxical that these most Westernized Vietnamese would become such strong nationalists, but the nature of their role within the colonial project means that their ultimate rebellion is not surprising. Although these young men were often assigned to key bureaucratic posts, especially in the less developed Laotian and Cambodian colonies, the fact that no native was allowed to progress to positions of real power meant that their aspirations, fed by their modern French educations, were frustrated by the glass ceiling that all Vietnamese, no matter how talented, would ultimately run into. Despite the optimism of the 1920’s, as Vietnam played an ever more important part within the imperial economy, serious problems were already emerging. The French bureaucracy had found no way to adequately provide services for the booming population, whether through infrastructure or in distributional models, a fact that would have devastating consequences in the years to come.
World War II and the Japanese
The systematic failure of the French colonialists to sufficiently modernise either agricultural methods or transport and communications infrastructure to better benefit the rapidly expanding Vietnamese population could perhaps have been righted in time if not for the onset of war. France's defeat was probably the single most important event in the history of twentieth-century Vietnam, because, despite occurring on the other side of the planet, it was the trigger for an extraordinary chain of events. For many in France, their defeat, an almost incalculable blow to national pride, meant that they emerged from the war actively seeking ways in which to restore national pride. Central to this was a determination to restore control over their pre-war colonial empire. Consequently, nationalist disturbances were seen as something to be crushed without hesitation. From the Vietnamese perspective, the war had several crucial effects. One was the end of the belief that the French could not be defeated through military means. A second was the boost given to Vietnamese nationalism by the Japanese, not only by their success in defeating European military forces in Asia and the Pacific, but also by the fact that, when the Japanese had taken de facto military control of Indo-China, they tended to interfere less with local life than the French had. The Japanese military domination allowed the development of a military and political movement dedicated to national liberation, the Communist-dominated Viet Minh, of a potency and scale that would have been much more difficult to create under direct French control.
On the 30th of August, 1940, an agreement was reached between the Japanese government and local Vichy French officials that, officially at least, recognised France’s continuing sovereignty over Indo-China while ratifying the privileged position and the prevailing interests of Japan at the forefront of a new era in Asian affairs. Although the Japanese were not yet interested in Indo-China as a political dominion they recognised the role it could serve as a supply point for their vast army. In May 1941 they gained ‘most favoured nation’ trading status, bringing with it valuable mining and agricultural concessions. By August 1942 they had gained an agreement from the French to supply a million tons of white rice and a quarter million tons of corn from the harvests of 1942-43.
Politically, Japanese strength and French weakness meant changes in the colonial state. The Japanese, partly for propaganda reasons, made unofficial links with local nationalists, encouraging them in their resistance to the colonial power. As a counter to this, Admiral Decoux, the Governor-General, allowed native officials to move into the highest levels of the bureaucracy for the first time. As the same time, the disruptions of the war and the Japanese army's logistical demands created an enormous humanitarian disaster. Soaring food prices and dwindling supply led to a disastrous famine in Tonkin that, beginning in 1943, ultimately killed two million people by March 1945. The famine, and the weakening of French political control over the region, would play a major role in bringing Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh revolutionary forces to the forefront of Indo-Chinese affairs.