[World History] The Nationalist Movement in Indo-China Notes

Beginning of Colonialism in Vietnam

Colonialism is a process of building and maintaining of colonies in one territory by people from another territory and exploiting it economically.

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were referred to as Indo-China.

Trade had flourished in old Vietnam and it was linked with the maritime silk route. Silk Route refers to an interconnected network of trade routes that connects eastern southern and western Asia with the
Mediterranean world, including North Africa and Europe.

The French arrived in Vietnam in 1858 and consolidated their hold over the northern region by mid-1880. Franco Indo-China was formed in 1887.

Writer and policy-maker, Paul Bernard believed that the prime motive behind acquiring colonies was to flourish business and make profits.

Vietnamese economy was predominantly based on rice and rubber plantations owned by the French and elites in Vietnam. Indentured labour or labour based on contract was used in these plantations from the mid-nineteenth century.

The French colonization and their growing dominance in the country created tremendous unrest in Vietnam and resulted in nationalist resistance.

Civilising Mission in Vietnam – Education

The French Colonialists believed in carrying out a ‘civilising mission’ under the guise of modernising the colony and they used education as tool to do so. This led to an erosion of cultural beliefs, religion and tradition of Vietnam.

The French citizens living in Vietnam called Colons felt that educated Vietnamese could replace them as teachers, shopkeepers and policemen. The elite Vietnamese were very influenced by the Chinese culture. The traditional education system of Vietnam was dismantled and a new French education system was introduced.

The school textbooks glorified and justified the French colonial rule and portrayed Vietnamese people as primitive, and incapable of intellectual work. The Tonkin Free School, started in 1907 was to provide western education and ideas. The domination of French culture faced opposition and resistance in Vietnam.

As the number of Vietnamese teachers in lower classes increased, they began to question the text books. In 1926, a major protest took place in the Saigon Native Girl school.

Students came in conflict with the French as well as the elite. By the 1920s students formed various political parties such as the Party of Young Annan and published nationalist journals like the Annanese Student opposing the French domination.

Health and Hygiene - Colony Versus Empire

The rat hunt and bubonic plague of 1903 was a clear indication of the failure in the French civilising mission. It also presented a unique way for the Vietnamese to counter colonialism in day- to -day life. Bubonic plague is a contagious disease, which often proves fatal and can also cause an epidemic.

In 1903, the bubonic plague broke out in Hanoi and people manipulated the situation in a different way to exploit French colonisers.

Modernizing Hanoi, one of the main cities of Vietnam came first on their agenda. The French part of Hanoi was beautified with wide avenues and a well laid out sewer system. The native quarter was completely ignored with no modern hygienic facilities.

The sewers in the French part of the city provided perfect conditions for rats to breed in and easy movement throughout the city. Hanoi hence became a favourable place for the outbreak of plague.

To combat the rat menace, a rat hunt was started in 1902. While catching rats in dirty sewers, the Vietnamese realised the concept of collective bargaining.

The bubonic plague continued to affect Hanoi during 1903 and the subsequent years. The Rat Hunt marked the defeat of French colonisers and an  utter failure of their civilising mission.

Religion and Anti Colonialism

Vietnam was a place for many religions such as Confucianism, Buddhism and local practices. The elite in Vietnam were educated in Chinese and Confucianism while the peasantry believed in a variety of syncretic traditions that combined Buddhism and local beliefs.

The French missionaries had introduced Christianity in Vietnam.

The 18th century was marked by significant religious movements against the cultural attack of the French. One such movement was the Scholars Revolt of 1868 and was a protest against French rule and the spread of Christianity.

Hoa Hao was one such movement against the French which started in 1939 and became a rage in the Mekong Delta. The man behind this movement was Huynh Phu So.

Huynh Phu So was sent to a mental asylum insane and later was exiled with his followers to concentration camps. Concentration camps refer to prisons where people were detained without due process of law.

Overall, religious movements had a contradictory relationship with mainstream nationalism. Religious movements were certainly successful in provoking anti-imperialist sentiments.

Vietnamese Nationalism - In the Light of Communism

In February 1930, Ho Chi Minh a famous Vietnamese communist revolutionary established the Vietnamese Communist party also known as Vietnam Cong San Dang.

Communism is a political ideology that believes in establishment of equal and class less society. Common ownership and control of means of production are important facets of a communist state.

In 1940, Japan occupied Vietnam in order to make imperial gains in Southeast Asia. The League for the Independence of Vietnam also known as the Vietminh fought with Japan and recaptured Hanoi in September 1945.

Hence, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was formed and Ho Chi Minh became its Chairman. The battle of Dien Bien Phu convinced the Vietnamese of their ability to fight and strategic planning.

After the French defeat, the peace negotiations took place in Geneva and Vietnam was divided into two parts; North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh and the communists took control of North Vietnam while Bao Dai’s regime was to look after South Vietnam.

In 1945, the declaration of Independence of Vietnam was adopted, inspired by the Declaration of Independence of United States and of France. In South Vietnam the Bao Dai regime was soon overthrown by a coup led by Ngo Dinh Diem, an authoritarian.

The opposition got united as the National Liberation Front or NLF and resisted Ngo Dinh Diem dictatorial rule. NLF fought for the unification of the country with the help of the Ho Chi Minh government in the north Vietnam.

The rise of communism in Vietnam and the adjoining areas threatened the US. In order to intervene in the developing situation the US sent its troops to Vietnam.

Entry of the US into the Vietnam War

Communism was on a rise in North Vietnam under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. North Vietnam helped the NLF of South Vietnam to overthrow the dictatorial rule of Ngo Dihn Diem. They also decided to overlook the terms of the Geneva Conference and unify Vietnam.

The spread of Communism was viewed as a potential threat by the capitalist nations especially the US. US sent in their troops to South Vietnam to intervene and this was the start of the catastrophic US Vietnam war.

Chemical weapons like B52s Agent Orange, Napalm and Phosphorous Bombs were used which wiped out villages and razed down forests. The US decision to intervene in Vietnam was criticised vehemently back home.

Despite the advanced technology and excellent medical facilities, the US suffered a lot of causalities in the war. The US had completely underestimated the strength and determination of nationalist Vietnamese people.

The Vietnamese used their limited resources to gain maximum advantage over the US. The Ho Chin Minh Trail is a perfect example of Vietnamese enterprise. This trail was a massive network of footpaths and roads, used to transport men and materials from North to South Vietnam.

The US regularly bombed the trail to disrupt supplies, but the trail was managed efficiently and it was rebuilt quickly.  Vietnam bravely combated the US attack and got freedom in 1975.

Contribution of Women and the End of Vietnam War

Vietnamese women made significant contributions to nationalist causes since ancient times. Vietnamese women played a crucial role during the war and in other anti-imperialist movements in Vietnam.

Trung Sisters and Trieu Au are famous women warriors of the ancient times. Popular literature and thinkers celebrated the women who broke away from the traditional social mould.

Another celebrated woman from the past was Trieu Au from third century CE who organised a large army and opposed the Chinese rule.

Women as workers carrying a rifle in one hand and hammer in the other were projected as selfless fighters working for the cause of nation.

In 1965-1975 women formed seventy to 80% of the total youth workers on the Ho Chi Minh trail. They carried thousands of kilograms of cargo weapons and food and guarded key points on the trail. They also built airstrips and neutralized numerous bombs.

The war received a lot of criticism around the world and in US as numerous people had been killed on both sides. Writers such as Mary McCarthy and actor Jane Fonda visited Vietnam and brought the Vietnamese struggle to the notice of the international community.

Widespread criticism of war and US Government policies paved the way for negotiations. In July 1974 a peace settlement was signed in Paris. The North Liberation Front occupied the Presidential Palace in South Vietnam on 13th April 1975 and Vietnam got unified.

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