BECK index

Vietnam and the French

by Sanderson Beck

Vietnam's Monarchy 1800-57
French Conquest of Vietnam 1858-85
Vietnamese Resistance and Doumer 1885-1902
Vietnamese Nationalists 1902-08
Vietnam under the French 1909-28
Vietnamese Revolutionaries 1928-39
Vietnam during World War II
Vietnam's August 1945 Revolution
French-Vietnam War 1946-50

This chapter has been published in the book SOUTH ASIA 1800-1950.
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Vietnam's Monarchy 1800-57

Vietnam to 1800

The Tay Son fought back against Nguyen Anh and regained the city of Hué, but they were defeated again in June 1801. Nguyen Anh took Hué, where he was crowned king of Annam (central Vietnam). A year later he proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long, changing Annam to Vietnam, and in July 1802 they conquered Hanoi. Chinese Emperor Jiajing recognized him and requested a small tribute, which Gia Long sent regularly. Prince Canh had become a Catholic in France; but his misguided zeal alienated the Vietnamese people in an era when the number of Catholics in Vietnam was reduced from 100,000 to 30,000. Prince Canh died in 1801.

Hué (Phu Xuan) became the imperial capital, and Emperor Gia Long oversaw the traditional six ministries of Public Offices, Finances, Education, Military, Justice, and Public Works. He appointed Van Thanh to govern Bac Ha in the north. A large army and strong fortifications were needed to quell the revolts, and Chinese renegades were sent back to China. The Vietnamese army had 113,000 men with 200 elephants, and their navy had 18,800 men with 200 warships and 500 small boats. In 1807 Gia Long reinstituted civil service examinations. That year he promised to protect Cambodia, which sent a small tribute. In 1812 an army from Siam supported Ang Snguon after he overthrew his brother Ang Chan; but the next year Gia Long sent a large Vietnamese army to help reinstate Ang Chan at Phnom Penh. A commission led by Van Thanh published the Gia Long Code in 22 volumes in 1815; but it was basically the law of the Qing empire and did not have the improvements on women’s rights of the Hong Duc Code. Two French ships traded some goods at Danang in 1817 and again two years later, and the French paid reduced taxes until 1819. Gia Long was criticized for treating the defeated Tay Son rebels without humanity. Peasants were conscripted for the military and compulsory labor, and a hundred peasant uprisings were put down during his reign, which ended with this death in 1819.

The most famous Vietnamese poem was written by Nguyen Du (1765-1820) and is best known by the title that contains the names of the main characters, Kim Van Kieu. The other title, which means “a new song about a great heartbreak,” refers to its being based on a famous 17th-century Chinese novel. Kieu sacrifices betrothal by selling herself into prostitution in order to save her arrested father. The poem affirms filial piety and depicts this aristocratic heroine suffering a low life before being reunited with her mandarin lover. The poem explores the Buddhist theme of karma by showing the consequences of previous actions.

Minh Mang (r. 1819-41) succeeded his father Gia Long. Not liking Europeans, he rebuffed three French attempts to negotiate a commercial treaty and broke off relations in 1826. Cochinchina (southern Vietnam) governor Le Van Duyet wrote a letter to Emperor Minh Mang complaining about this ungrateful policy; but after he died in 1833, the persecution of Christians became official policy. When Minh Mang ordered Le Van Duyet’s tomb desecrated, a revolt erupted at Gia Dinh; but it was cruelly repressed as missionaries were executed. At first Minh Mang confined missionaries at Hué to translate French books into Vietnamese, but his decree in 1836 permitted the killing of missionaries. Minh Mang ruled autocratically, setting up a Royal Council in 1829 and a secret service in 1834. The mandarins were organized into nine grades and were paid salaries in money and rice to help them keep their integrity. Minh Mang held examinations every three years instead of every six and included a test for the highest rank of doctor. He sent out scholars to teach Confucianism. Minh Mang read the Old Testament but thought it was absurd. He was a devoted Confucian and published ten commandments. The first one refers to the three relationships between king and subjects, husband and wife, and parents and children. They are summarized as follows:

1. Respect the three relationships.
2. Be honest and exact.
3. Fulfill your duty (occupation).
4. Make frugality a way of life.
5. Keep traditions faithfully.
6. Educate young people.
7. Learn the right way.
8. Avoid dishonesty and lust.
9. Obey the law strictly.
10. Be generous by doing good works.

Minh Mang also campaigned against gambling, corruption, and loose morals. The poor were supposed to be cared for in asylums, but the misuse of finances did not fulfill this. In practice Minh Mang’s policies catered to the privileged and discriminated against the masses of peasants, resulting in many popular revolts. So many people were drafted into the military or for public works that much land was abandoned. The Van Giang dam was not repaired for eighteen years, and the region became a desert.

Phan Ba Vanh led a revolt in 1826 and associated with Chinese pirates until he and his seven hundred men were arrested. Le Duy Luong raised an army and took over three prefectures in 1833; but after this was suppressed, Minh Mang provided the means for all the Le descendants to go into exile. After Le Van Duyet died in 1833,his son Le Van Khoi rebelled and held Gia Dinh until the citadel of Phien An fell in July 1835. Among the 1,831 prisoners who were put to death was the priest Marchand. During this rebellion the Siamese used the opportunity to attack Vietnam on five fronts, but they got no further than Pursat. In 1840 Emperor Minh Mang ordered the wealthy landlords to contribute thirty percent of their assets to help the communes. The poor suffered much misery; between 1820 and 1850 cholera accounted for the death of 864,000 people.

When Minh Mang died in 1841, he was succeeded by his son Thieu Tri. During his reign of six years several missionaries awaiting death were rescued by French naval officers. In 1847 Vietnamese forces intervened at Phnom Penh and took 23,000 Siamese and Khmer prisoners, but they reinstated Ang Duong as king. That year Commandant Lapierre demanded negotiation at Danang (Tourane), waited a month, was refused, and then destroyed several ships before departing. Vietnam’s records for 1847 showed 1,024,338 male taxpayers. Thieu Tri was succeeded by his second son, Tu Duc. The oldest son, Hong Bao, plotted to gain the throne and promised Vietnamese Christians freedom for their support; but his rebellion failed in 1853, and he was imprisoned for life.

Tu Duc (r. 1847-83) was also a pious Confucian who mistrusted Europeans. He continued to depend on Chinese methods of industry. Convicts worked in the mines; but more than half of them shut down because they could not compete. He issued edicts in 1848 to punish foreign missionaries with death, to destroy and disperse Christian communities, and to brand the word “infidel” on their faces. French priests were executed, and thousands of Christians died in this persecution. In 1854 swarms of locusts stimulated a rebellion led by the poet Cao Ba Quat in Tay Son. Christians were blamed, and decrees in 1855 banned Christian expressions, imposed the death penalty on all priests, and offered rewards for their capture. The next year dikes breaking down caused a famine in which tens of thousands died. The Spanish Bishop Diaz of Tonkin was put to death in 1857. That year De Montigny went to Hué, demanding religious liberty and for Hué a French commercial agent and a consul.

French Conquest of Vietnam 1858-85

After the French and English compelled the Chinese to make an agreement at Canton, a combined force of French and Spanish ships took over the forts at Danang in 1858. The city was abandoned, and the Europeans without supplies became ill. In February 1859 they went to Saigon and captured the rice granary. While most of the French went off to fight the Chinese, a garrison of a thousand men survived a siege by 12,000 Vietnamese for a year. Admiral Charner returned with 3,000 men in February 1861 and defeated the besiegers. By the end of the year the French had control of the lower coast of Cochinchina.

In June 1862 Emperor Tu Duc agreed to a treaty, ceding to France the provinces of Gia Dinh, Dinh Tuong, and Bien Hoa while promising to allow religious liberty and to pay a large indemnity over ten years. Before ratifying it, Tu Duc sent envoy Phan Thanh Gian to negotiate with Napoleon III in Paris. In December dissident mandarins led a general uprising in Cochinchina, and Admiral Bonard needed months and reinforcements to suppress the rebellion. He issued a decree on February 3, 1863 blaming the mandarins and giving all administrative and judicial powers to French inspectors. Admiral De La Grandiere inaugurated a justice system by decree in Cochinchina on July 25, 1864. The Gia-Dinh Bao newspaper began publishing in 1865 with the Romanized quoc-ngu letters. Tu Duc appointed Phan Thanh Gian viceroy of the three Cochinchina provinces. When De La Grandiere took them over in June 1866, the Viceroy committed suicide. That year a priest claimed to be a Cambodian prince named Pu Kombo and seized the province of Kanhchor until he was defeated by Cambodian and French forces.

After Tu Duc began spending much money and labor on the construction of his tomb, some plotted to overthrow him and were severely punished. In the 1867 treaty Siam gave up any claim to Cambodia except that the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap (Angkor) were recognized as theirs. That year the French military occupied the provinces of Vinh Long, An Giang, and Ha Tien. In 1868 Ngo Con led the plunder of Cao Bang, and White, Yellow, and Black Flags pillaged the mountains of Tonkin (northern Vietnam).

Francis Garnier led the exploration of the Mekong River but learned that it was not a useful avenue to China for trade. The merchant Jean Dupuis had more success getting to Yunnan on the Red River. When the mandarins at Hanoi would not trade salt to him, he and the Chinese and Filipinos with him took over part of the city by force. In February 1872 rebels killed a French officer and a missionary as the insurgency erupted in Ben Tre, Tra Vinh, and Vinh Long. Tonkin had been suffering from the Chinese refugees from the Tai Ping uprising. Admiral Jules-Marie Dupré in Saigon was ordered not to intervene but sent Garnier with 212 troops to Hanoi in 1873; Garnier led the assault and was killed. The French government disavowed the act of war, and Dupré sent inspector P. L. F. Philastre, who arrived in January 1874 and ordered the French to evacuate the forts.

Philastre negotiated a treaty. Tu Duc agreed to recognize French sovereignty over six provinces in Cochinchina; he accepted a French resident at Hué and opened the ports of Quinonh, Hai Phong, Danang, and Hanoi to French trading with a consul at each; he allowed navigation in the Red River and promised to tolerate the Christians. The French released him from the unpaid indemnity and promised him gun-boats, weapons, and advisors to fight the Black Flag insurgents. A commercial treaty was also signed. However, after the French forces left Tonkin, Christian villages were set on fire. Tu Duc treated the French consuls badly, punished those who had supported Garnier, and continued the persecution of Christians. In addition to the Black Flags, Chinese bandits under Yellow Flags and Red Flags made the Red River too dangerous for trade. Tu Duc began negotiating closer diplomatic ties with China. Admiral Dupré allowed Philastre time to make a better translation of Gia Long’s law code. In the spring of 1874 Buddhists led a rebellion in Chaudoc, and another religious uprising occurred in 1878 in the Mytho region.

Nguyen Truong To (1827-71) learned French and visited Europe. During his last eight years as a provincial official he sent memoranda to Tu Duc proposing various reforms. He suggested reducing the number of provinces, districts, and officials while providing larger stipends for those remaining, separating the judicial functions from the administration, modernizing the military with western training, and increasing taxes on landlords, luxuries, and imported goods to encourage the native economy and Vietnamese cooperatives. Nguyen Truong To also suggested increasing literacy by using the Roman letters (quoc-ngu) for Vietnamese and distributing newspapers. He was sad that his ideas were not adopted because he saw that his country was heading toward disaster.

Luro directed the College des Stagiares in Saigon from 1874 to 1876, teaching administration and the Vietnamese language to the French. He believed it was a mistake to try to teach millions of Vietnamese French instead of having a few French learn Vietnamese. He died of illness in 1877, and the College folded the next year. The French decided in 1878 that after 1882 the quoc-ngu alphabet would be the only acceptable official form of writing in Vietnam. Admiral Lafont governed Cochinchina 1877-79, but disputes over his economic policies led to the first civilian governor of Cochinchina. Le Myre de Vilers (1879-82) established a Colonial Council that included the election of six Vietnamese, and he promulgated the French penal code in March 1880. In November he instituted the registration of all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 and lowered personal taxes. Governor Le Myre replaced the military men with French magistrates for the administration of justice, but their lack of experience in Vietnam and difficulties with translators caused many problems. He ordered the opening of more schools; but a lack of trained teachers caused most of them to be closed. In 1882 Le Myre had to use force to suppress rebellions by secret societies of Vietnamese and Chinese in Saigon, Tan An, Soc Trang, Sadec, Cantho, Tra Vinh, and Vinh Long.

Emperor Tu Duc appealed to the Chinese for help in suppressing the insurgents in Tonkin, and in 1880 Beijing sent armies to help their vassal. In July 1881 France’s Foreign Affairs minister De Freycinet persuaded both chambers of Parliament to renew their military campaign in Tonkin. Activities of the Yellow Flags and Black Flags the next year threatened the French at Hanoi. On March 13, 1882 Resident Superior Champeaux was arrested by the Black Pavilions sent by Governor Hoang Ke Viem of Annam. Two weeks later Col. Henri Riviere and 300 troops were sent on two warships to Hanoi. He called on Governor Hoang Dieu, who strengthened his citadel. After 250 more men arrived on April 25, Riviere demanded that Hoang Dieu surrender. One hour after the attack began, Hoang Dieu disbanded his forces, wrote a report, and then hanged himself. After Tu Duc reported to the Chinese that Hanoi had fallen, they sent 200,000 men who occupied Lang Son, Cao Bang, Bac Ninh, and Thai Nguyen in September. In response Ambassador Bouree signed an accord with Minister Li Hong Zhang giving China the northern portion of Tonkin; but this was not authorized by Paris, and Bouree was replaced by Tricou.

The Black Flags paid by Tu Duc besieged Hanoi. Riviere was reinforced with 750 more men and took over the Hon Gay coalfield on March 12, 1883. Then he besieged Prince Hoang Ke Viem at Nam Dinh and met unexpected opposition. Captain Gosselin reported that the frustrated Riviere hanged fifty Chinese mercenaries and executed many Vietnamese prisoners despite his orders to spare their lives. Luu Vinh Phuoc called the French “petty bandits” and “foreign beasts who come to destroy our country” and warned that they should go home or they would die. His Black Flags joined the Vietnamese resistance movement. On May 19 Riviere and fifty other Frenchmen, including twenty officers, were killed by an ambush on the road to Son Tay.

Prime Minister Jules Ferry sent a strong expeditionary force under General Bouet followed by a fleet commanded by Admiral Courbet to conquer Vietnam. Courbet’s fleet attacked the forts guarding the mouth of the Hué River on August 18, 1883 and captured them in three days. Tu Duc had died the month before, and the Foreign Minister asked for a truce to negotiate. Commissioner Dr. François Jules Harmand and Resident Champeaux got the new Emperor Hiep-Hoa to sign a treaty on August 25 surrendering the forts and ships in the Hué area. Vietnam became a protectorate of France, and residents with garrisons were given jurisdiction over Vietnamese towns. Troops from Annam serving in Tonkin were to be recalled, and the French opened the Red River for commerce, suppressing piracy. Vietnam also ceded the southern province of Binh Thuan and agreed to pay for the French occupation.

China protested and sent troops from Yunnan to Son Tay and Bac Ninh while purchasing warships and ammunition from Europe and America. General Bouet marched toward Son Tay and treated the Vietnamese and Chinese as insurgents, beheading the prisoners. Bouet quarreled with Commissioner Harmand and left for France. Regent Ton That Thuyet got Hoang Ke Viem to attack Hai Duong. After being reinforced with 9,000 men, on October 11 Courbet tried to dislodge him and Luu Vinh Phuc to occupy Son Tay. More Chinese arrived, and Courbet waited for more troops. The Chinese besieged Bac Ninh on November 12, but the French made them retreat. With 16,000 men Courbet captured Son Tay from the Chinese in December.

In February 1884 General Briere de l’Isle’s forces drove the Chinese out of Bac Ninh, Yen The, and Thai Nguyen. On March 17 General Négrier took Hung Hoa as the Chinese and Black Flags fled into the mountains. Hoang Ke Viem fled to Hué, and on May 8 Col. Duchesne captured Tuyen Quang. The Black Flags retreated, but the Chinese still held Lang Son, Cao Bang, and Lao Kay. French naval Commandant Fournier met with his friend Li Hong Zhang in Beijing to discuss peace. In the convention they signed on May 11 the Chinese agreed to withdraw from Tonkin and allow French commerce in China’s southern frontier. However, others in the Chinese government wanted suzerainty over Vietnam and no southern trade with France. After a dispute about the withdrawal, Chinese forces defeated the French troops under Col. Dugenne at Lang Son. A new treaty with the Vietnamese on June 6, 1884 restored Binh Tuan and other provinces to Annam, which the French army was now permitted to occupy. The French also were to administer Tonkin. After Admiral Courbet’s navy destroyed the Chinese fleet at Fuzhou on August 22, Beijing declared war on France. Chinese reinforcements prevented Courbet from capturing the Jilong (Keelung) forts on Formosa in October.

General de Négrier took command and recaptured Lang Son on February 13, 1885. Courbet seized the Pescadores Islands in March. The Chinese defeated French forces at Lang Son on March 28 and wounded General Négrier; his troops panicked and fled to the mountains. Clemenceau criticized the war policy, and three days after this disaster the Ferry cabinet fell. A cease-fire was signed on April 4. Li Hong Zhang negotiated with the French ambassador Patenotre at Beijing, and on June 11 they signed the Tianjin Treaty. This confirmed the treaty of the year before, and France returned the Pescadores.

Meanwhile intrigue caused turmoil in the succession over the throne at Hué. Although Tu Duc had passed over the depraved Duc Duc to name the younger Kien Phuc his successor, the three regents (Ton That Thuyet, Nguyen Van Tuong, and Tran Van Thanh) suppressed his will and named Duc Duc emperor. When he ignored mourning customs and invited his vulgar friends to court, Ton That Thuyet had the will read at the inauguration ceremony. Duc Duc was put in prison where he died of poison or hunger 68 days after Hiep Hoa was enthroned on July 30, 1883. Hiep Hoa signed a treaty with Harmand on August 25 that gave the French control over Vietnam. He lost respect for the regent Ton and was going to dismiss the regents; but Ton had Hiep Hoa arrested on November 28 while Resident Champeaux was away from Hué. Hiep Hoa was forced to abdicate and chose the method of death by opium and vinegar the next day.

Before dawn on December 1 the regents enthroned 15-year-old Kien Phuc. When the ill boy learned that his adopted mother Hoc Phi and the regent Nguyen Van Tuong were lovers and were running the government, he threatened to behead them. That night Hoc Phi put poison in his medication, and Kien died at dawn on August 1, 1884. That year Ton That Thuyet took the bronze coins to build up his fortress at Tan So, causing inflation. Ton blamed a Chinese official and had him beheaded.

Prince Gia Hung was head of the imperial family council, and in early 1885 he tried to investigate Kien Phuc’s death secretly, but Ton That Thuyet removed his titles and sentenced him to death in May. Resident Rheinart intervened, and Gia Hung was banished to Quang Tri and disappeared. Kien Phuc’s younger half-brother Ham Nghi lived with his poor mother in the Hué suburbs, but the regents found him and quickly made him emperor. Furious Rheinart threatened the court with a gunboat and artillery if they did not provide a written application. Ham Nghi began his reign by sentencing his cousin Ky Phong to life imprisonment. In May 1885 Ton had cannons installed around the imperial palace aimed at the French citadel. The diplomatic General Lemaire replaced Rheinart, and he persuaded Ton to remove the guns. Ton secretly had them and the royal treasury moved to his Tan So fortress in June.

On May 31 Roussel de Courcy arrived from Hanoi to be governor of Tonkin and resident general in Annam. Lemaire resigned and left for France. In Paris the cabinet disapproved of De Courcy’s aggressive policy, but he planned to arrest Ton That Thuyet and demanded Ham Nghi pay 200,000 gold ingots, 200,000 silver ingots, and 200,000 francs within three days. That night Nguyen Van Tuong and Ton That Thuyet opened fire on the French quarters, but the French captured six of Vietnam’s cannons and turned them on the garrison.

On July 5, 1885 Ton That Thuyet with 5,000 soldiers took Ham Nghi and three empresses to the mountains of Laos. The French found a large quantity of silver ingots in Empress Tu Du’s quarters that Nguyen Van Tuong had refused to transfer to Tan So. Ton and Ham Nghi went to Tan So and tried to defend it with two thousand peasants from Quang Tri. De Courcy sent Tuong and Ton’s father to the penal colony at Poulo Condore on September 6. The French made Ham Nghi’s older brother Dong Kanh emperor on September 19. Tuong still plotted revolts, and in October the French seized his property, finding 14.5 million piastres. Tuong was sent to Tahiti, where he died in 1886. Ton fled to China for aid and died there years later at the age of 75. Ham Nghi was eventually turned over to the French by a Muong leader. The Muongs, Thais, and Thos supported the French because they had suffered discrimination from the Vietnamese for so long. Ham Nghi was banished to Algiers in January 1889.

Vietnamese Resistance and Doumer 1885-1902

The regents Ton That Thuyet and Nguyen Van Tuong had passed over Dong Khanh for his less legitimate younger brother Ham Nghi because of his sympathy for the French. Dong Khanh began his reign in 1885 by thanking De Courcy and sentencing the two fleeing regents to death. Paul Bert was the first resident general with full power, and he reassured the Vietnamese that their customs and laws would be respected. Unfortunately his policies ended with his death after nine months in November 1886.

While fleeing to the mountains on July 13, 1885 Ham Nghi issued the imperial Can Vuong (Loyalty to the King) Edict throughout Vietnam, declaring that they could not accept the conditions imposed by the French by force of arms. As the French seized the forts at Dong-Hoi and Vinh, resistance by the peasants quickly developed in Quang-Binh province. Regent Ton That Thuyet allowed the destruction of churches in the Gianh River valley, and the French retaliated by burning pagodas. Nguyen Xuan On led the insurgents in the Nghe An province and attacked the French garrison at Vinh in December. He continued to lead guerrilla efforts until he was captured in May 1887. In the first three years the Can Vuong movement was strongest in Thanh Hoa province. By January 1887 the French had moved in 1,500 of their own men plus a thousand native troops and five thousand peasants from the Catholic village of Phat-Diem. In February the insurgent leader Pham Banh surrendered to free his mother and children and then committed suicide, but most of the 75 officers and 2,250 soldiers that had been defending Ba Dinh escaped. The three villages of Ba Dinh were razed, and the Government removed their names from maps.

The rebellion in Cochinchina began in January 1885, inflicted heavy French losses, and lasted eighteen months. Because of the fighting in Tonkin and Cambodia, Saigon was left with only 300 troops. Tong-doc Tran Ba-Loc was loyal to the French and led partisans and a few regulars to pacify the provinces of Binh Thuan and Phu Yen. In October 1887 the protectorates of Annam and Tonkin were put under the Minister of Marine and Colonies in Paris, and the Indochinese Union combined together Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin, and Cambodia. Powerful French interests in Cochinchina, which had large revenues, managed to separate it from the general budget within a year.

Three weeks after Ham Nghi was banished to Algiers, Emperor Dong Khanh died on January 28, 1889. Thanh Thai was the son of Duc Duc and was ten years old when he was put on the throne on February 1. He adopted western customs but spent his time in his harem and acted so erratically that he was considered mad or pretending to be mad. Jean-Marie de Lanessan became governor-general in June 1891 and gave back local administration to the Vietnamese, but he was criticized for a 12-million franc deficit in Tonkin’s budget. He struggled against the opponents of a central administration and was recalled in October 1894.

In the north De Tham (Hoang Hoa Tham) had five hundred well trained men by 1889 and tried to help the poor. He cooperated with Luong Tam Ky’s Black Flags and the Thai warlord Deo Van Tri. De Tham’s mobility avoided the French pincers. He captured the Avenir du Tonkin editor Chesnay and negotiated a ransom of 15,000 francs plus French withdrawal from Yen The so that he could levy taxes for three years. In 1890 Col. Frey with 1,300 men defeated the forces of De Nam, but four hundred of them fled and joined De Tham. They attacked Bac Ninh in 1895 and escaped from Col. Gallieni into the jungle. In 1897 De Tham agreed to a treaty with the French that acknowledged his control over 22 villages in Yen The.

Despite efforts by Nguyen Quang Bich to communicate with leaders in six provinces, the insurgency was never well coordinated. The rebellion in the Red River delta was suppressed by 1892 as Nguyen Thien Thuat fled to China, Doc Ngu was killed, and De Kieu surrendered. De Lanessan described how the French destroyed support for the insurgents by beheading chiefs and burning down villages. Resistance continued in the western mountains, and the French built a ring of forts around the base camps. Col. Fernand Bernard noted that a militia inspector executed 75 notables in two weeks but that the revolt continued. The French lost no men in Haidung but beheaded 64 people without a trial.

Dr. Phan Dinh Phung and Cao Thang led the insurrection in central Vietnam. Cao Thang even managed to manufacture three hundred guns by copying French rifles, but he was killed while assaulting the No fort in Nghe An on September 9, 1893. Phan Dinh Phung replied to Governor-General J. M. A. de Lanessan’s letter by reminding him that Vietnam had successfully struggled against the Han, Tang, Song, Mongol, and Ming dynasties of China. Phung in December established his headquarters on the mountain Va Quang overlooking the French fortress at Ha Tinh. Phung had several thousand men organized into twelve military districts. In July 1895 French commanders brought together three thousand troops to defeat the insurgents led by Phan Dinh Phung, who died of dysentery in January 1896.

That year the French ended the Can Vuong revolt by subduing the Yen The area. Casualties included 40,000 Catholic converts, 18 French missionaries, 40 Viet priests, and 9,000 churches. The Can Vuong movement had little chance of defeating the French, but the spirit of patriotic sacrifice reflected in their desperate resistance and eloquent poetry would inspire later generations to struggle for Vietnamese independence.

Because of the insurgency France spent 168 million francs on Tonkin from 1887 to 1891. By 1895 the colonial war in Vietnam had cost the French 750 million gold francs. Tonkin had a huge deficit and doubled taxes between 1890 and 1896, increasing them again fifty percent in the next two years. In 1895 Governor-General Paul-Armand Rousseau went to Saigon and demanded a settlement of Tonkin’s debts, a loan for public works, and more administrative powers for his position. He went to Paris and planned to resign, but his conditions were granted. He died in Hanoi on December 10, 1896.

Paul Doumer had been minister of Finance, and he was appointed on December 27. He abolished the office of viceroy in Tonkin and decreed that the Emperor of Vietnam would be represented in Tonkin by the French resident superior, who was under Doumer. Paris decreed in July 1897 that the Governor-General would head a new Superior Council of Indochina. Two months later Doumer replaced the Emperor as head of the administration and dissolved his Secret Council (Co Mat), replacing it with a council of ministers with a Frenchman for every Vietnamese. Annam was also governed by a French resident superior.

In November 1897 Cochinchina’s Colonial Council refused to contribute to the general budget and appealed to Paris, which authorized the general budget on July 31, 1898. In August the French took over the collecting of all taxes in Annam, as they already had in Tonkin and Cochinchina. Doumer held the second meeting of the Superior Council in September and added ministers of the General Services. Provincial and county governors in Tonkin were replaced by French residents. Doumer raised revenues by monopolizing the production and sale of opium, alcohol, and salt while increasing customs duties. In the second year Tonkin ran a surplus of 4 million piasters. Annam’s tax receipts went from 83,000 piasters to two million. Cochinchina contributed forty percent of the revenue, but by 1900 all five states (including Laos since 1893) had balanced budgets. Doumer had to overcome the opposition of Saigon’s Mayor Paul Blanchy. In 1899 Doumer founded the Ecole Française d’Extreme Orient, which was well respected for its scholars and protection of historical monuments.

Governor-General Doumer used most of the central administration’s revenue of 20 million piasters in 1899 for public works. When he contributed 14 million piasters annually to France for the colony’s military budget, he was able to secure a loan of 200 million francs for Indochina. Doumer planned two long railway lines. One went from Haiphong to Hanoi to the Chinese border at Laokay and two years later to Yunnan-Fou. The other Trans-Indochinese line went from Hanoi a thousand miles to Saigon. The Superior Council adopted these plans on September 14, 1898, and the French Assembly approved them. More than 25,000 Vietnamese and Chinese would die working on less than 300 miles of the Yunnan-Fou line. In the 1880s the French had spent five years building fifty miles of railway south from Saigon, and the Phulong-Tuong line begun in 1893 in Tonkin ran only 72 miles and had been even more of a fiasco. Because Doumer did not encourage the development of industries and mining, the railways had little business, and the railroads he planned would not become economically viable until after World War I. In the decade from 1901 to 1910 Indochina’s annual debt payments increased sixfold. In the twelve years up to 1911 they constructed 1,300 miles of railroads, but in the next seventeen years only 200 miles of railway were built.

Doumer also had the largest bridge in Southeast Asia constructed over the Red River at Hanoi; it was completed just before he left in March 1902. He was criticized for building an opera house in Hanoi instead of sewers for the city. Doumer greatly increased the number of French administrators, but he did little to promote the education of the Vietnamese. The people suffered tremendously from the higher taxes and the forced labor on railroad construction, and they had little purchasing power. Hungry families had to give up a quarter of their rice crop for taxes.

Vietnamese Nationalists 1902-08

Governor-General Paul Beau arrived in Vietnam in October 1902, and his governorship suffered from the extension of Doumer’s economic policies. The Government monopolies on salt, opium, and alcohol raised their prices fivefold in ten years. The Vietnamese had to pay fifty percent more for alcohol because the French only sold it in bottles. Every province was assigned how much alcohol they had to buy, and the Vietnamese were prohibited from distilling their own. The French Company of Indochinese Distillers began in 1902 with 2 million francs and by 1924 had 33 million. About 80,000 people used opium, but 60,000 of them were Chinese. The high price of salt hurt the poor the most, especially fishermen who needed it as a preservative. Rich and poor had to pay the same 50-piaster head tax. Although the Europeans dominated business and held most of the wealth, all together they paid only 9,000 piasters a year in personal taxes; but the Vietnamese in Tonkin paid 5,000,000 piasters. In addition three bad harvests in succession made the hardships and the deficits even more severe. Beau reinstated the provincial and county governors in Tonkin and set up an indigenous council there.

Pre-colonial Vietnam was strongly influenced by Chinese culture, and four-fifths of the Vietnamese had been somewhat literate. Vietnam continued to use the Confucian civil service exams until 1915. The French tried to teach a few people their language, but by 1904 there were only about 25,000 Vietnamese students in schools, plus six hundred in higher level government schools. Beau established the Conseil de Perfectionement de l’Enseignment Indigene in 1906 to organize modern public instruction, and he founded high schools in several of Vietnam’s larger cities. Corporal punishment was abolished from the legal code, but the French continued to beat and kick servants and workers. Political prisoners were also tortured. Japan’s military victory over Russia in 1905 showed Asians that they could overcome the Europeans. Emperor Thanh Thai tried to flee to China on July 30, 1905, but the French captured him at Thanh Hoa and declared him insane. Finally on August 30, 1907 he was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Duy Tan.

Phan Boi Chau was born in 1867 in the province of Nghe An. He placed first in the regional exams in 1900, the year his father died. He began traveling to unite the resistance, seek imperial support, and gain foreign aid. By the spring of 1903 he had decided to support Prince Cuong De, a direct descendant of Gia Long. They met with Tran Nhut Thi and Nguyen Thanh in Quang Nam and formed the Modernization Association (Duy Tan Hoi) with Cuong De as president and Phan as general secretary. Members were expected to be literate and had to pay high membership fees. In 1904 Phan visited Hong Kong and Shanghai on his way to Yokohama, where he met the influential Liang Qichao. This Chinese scholar advised the Vietnamese to develop their own internal strength and seek arms in Guangdong and Guangxi but only diplomatic help from the Japanese.

Phan Boi Chau wrote his History of the Downfall of Vietnam (Viet-Nam Vong Quoc Su), and in August 1905 he took fifty copies back to Vietnam. In this book Phan analyzed how the Vietnamese lost their country to the French. He included biographies of Vietnamese patriots, explained how French policies kept them ignorant, weak, and miserable, and urged the Vietnamese to join together to struggle against a “few thousand French devils.” Phan reported to the Duy Tan Hoi and escorted three students back to meet Liang in Japan. To raise money he wrote “Encouragement to Chinese to Contribute for Overseas Study,” and Liang published three thousand copies. Phan hoped that hundreds of Vietnamese would go to Japan for education in the Eastern Study (Dong Du) movement.

Prince Cuong De sneaked onto a steamer in Haiphong, made it to Hong Kong in March 1906, and met with Phan Chu Trinh as well as Phan Boi Chao. The former advocated democracy and peaceful methods and would not sign on to the monarchist proposal and armed resistance. The three went to Yokohama in April and established a residence. Phan Chu Trinh suspected Japanese imperialism and did not want to get rid of a tiger by letting a panther into their house. He went back to Vietnam and advocated nonviolent reforms. Phan Boi Chao wrote the Overseas Book Inscribed in Blood (Hai Ngoai Huyet Thu), expressing in Chinese poetry the ideas in his History. He went to Guangdong and Thai Nguyen to meet with resistance leaders. He persuaded De Tham to join Duy Tan Hoi and accept Cuong De as their titular leader. Phan Boi Chao helped the Prince write a proclamation for the six southern provinces. Phan also edited the Yunnan Journal for Yunnan revolutionaries in Japan.

In Hong Kong in May 1907 Phan Boi Chao met with the son of Gilbert Chieu, editor of the Saigon quoc-ngu newspaper Luc Tinh Tan Van and the French Le Moniteur des Provinces. By the end of the year more than a hundred Vietnamese were studying in Japan, and more than half were from the south. In an essay “New Vietnam” Phan described “ten great joys” or goals. These were no French protectorate, no exploitative mandarin class, satisfying citizen needs, honoring soldiers, fair taxes, just laws, good education, developing natural resources, beginning industry, and prosperous commerce. The six personal characteristics he suggested cultivating were a progressive spirit, love for one’s countrymen, desire for modern civilization, practicing patriotism, public virtue, and awareness of common benefits. Phan Boi Chao enrolled the students who knew Japanese in the Dobun Shoin school in Tokyo.

Phan Chu Trinh was born in 1872 in Quang Nam, and he was appointed to the Board of Rites in 1903. Two years later he resigned his position as minister of ceremonies at the court of Hué. On August 15, 1906 he wrote an open letter to Governor-General Beau criticizing the French for treating the Vietnamese as savages and animals; he complained that several of his countrymen had been beaten to death. Protectorate law was being used by the French and the mandarins to exploit the poor while segregating the French and the Vietnamese. Phan believed they should select officials based on merit, reform the laws, abolish the civil service examinations, expand education, and teach industry and commerce. Beau had the letter printed in several Parisian newspapers. Phan Chu Trinh opposed violence, and he advocated modernization. He toured the country reciting his satiric verses about the colonial regime and corrupt mandarins.

Modeled on Fukuzawa Yukichi’s free Keio Gijuku school, Phan Chu Trinh and Nguyen Thuong Hien asked permission to start the Eastern Capital Free School (Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc) in Hanoi. The Resident Superior of Tonkin did not respond to their application, and so after a month they began language classes for both boys and girls. The French arrested two instructors, but the school was allowed to open in May 1907. Luong Van Can was principal, and they emphasized science, industry, commerce, and national culture. They also did fundraising, proselytizing, and publishing. They used the Romanized Vietnamese (quoc-ngu) and obtained Chinese translations of works by Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Spencer that the French had not provided. They used Chinese classics edited by Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. Soon they had a thousand students, and branches or similar schools were started in other parts of Vietnam.

Phan Chu Trinh advocated using quoc-ngu rather than Chinese characters, but Phan Boi Chau’s followers favored Chinese studies. Their newspaper Old Lantern Miscellany (Dang Co Tung Bao) was printed half in quoc-ngu and half in Chinese nom. One issue complained that the Vietnamese did not have one large company or big factory, and they lacked specialized professions. Lecturers traveled to towns urging national freedom. Some tried to set up a small arms factory, but Luong’s proposal to separate clandestine activities from the school was accepted. Some students went to Yen The to get military training from De Tham. The French closed the Free School in December and arrested the teachers.

Beau founded the University of Hanoi in 1907 and left Indochina early in 1908. The slogan “Don’t pay taxes to the French” spread among the peasants of central Vietnam in February. On March 9 three hundred peasants in Quang Nam began marching to demand the release of three people arrested for carrying propaganda. Not getting satisfaction, they went to the resident’s compound and asked that corvée be equally distributed to all villagers. Six representatives tried to present their grievances and were arrested. The crowd began a vigil, and thousands of peasants camped there, being replaced by others every few days. Finally the Resident said that taxes could not be reduced, but they would not be increased. On March 20 the crowd abducted the provincial mandarin and the next day a Dien-ban prefect. A French squad fired on the crowd, killing three people. Crowds grew, and a thousand people occupied the prefectural headquarters at Tam-ky. Word spread, and on March 28 demonstrations erupted in Binh-hoa. On April 7 a group killed a local official. In mid-April several protesters were killed, and many were put in jail. Dai-loc soldiers executed six people in a marketplace.

Peasants suffering from high taxes and forced labor also demonstrated at government centers in Faifo, Thua Thien, and Binh Dinh, where thousands tried to scale the walls of the fort. Because radicals cut off their long hair, some were arrested for having short hair. Some followers of Phan Than Thai carried scissors and cut off the buns of other men. The French ordered soldiers to shoot at the crowds, and they arrested hundreds of nationalists and teachers, sentencing some leaders to death. The scholar Tran Quy Cap was executed, but protests saved the life of Phan Chu Trinh. He was among hundreds who were imprisoned on the island of Poulo Condore (Con-lon), fifty miles off the southern coast of Vietnam. He and his associate Huynh Thuc Khang, who had been arrested in Tam-ky, were sentenced to life even though they were nonviolent; but Nguyen Thanh, who advocated violent revolution, was sentenced to only nine years. Phan’s associate Tran Quy Cap was executed by a mandarin in Nha-Trang.

During the raids in early 1908 the police found stacks of literature smuggled in from Japan, and they arrested Gilbert Chieu. France had made a treaty with Japan on July 10, 1908 and loaned Japan 300 million francs in exchange for their not tolerating Vietnamese anti-colonialists anymore. The Japanese gave the French the addresses of the students’ families, and many were harassed or jailed. Inukai Tsuyoshi got a hundred steamer tickets so that the Vietnamese students could leave. Many eventually went to Siam, where Phan Boi Chao settled them on land granted him. He also wrote A Study of Vietnam’s National History (Hai Ngoai Huyet Thu), and a donation by Asaba Buntaro enabled him to print a thousand copies.

On June 27 the Garde Indochinoise attacked the French garrison at Hanoi, but a plot to poison their food only caused about two hundred soldiers to become sick. A poisoner had confessed to a French priest, who alerted the authorities. Most in the conspiracy were captured, and thirteen were executed. Three days later French protestors broke into the Government headquarters in Hanoi, and compelled the interim governor, Gabriel Bonhoure, to assure them that normal judicial procedures would not delay his handling of the crisis. Eight days later 24 rebels were sentenced to death, and 70 got life imprisonment. Government agents searched homes without warrants. In the next five months eighteen Vietnamese were sentenced to death. Thousands were imprisoned, and Vietnam had three jails for every school. The number of public officials doubled between 1907 and 1911.

Vietnam under the French 1909-28

Governor-General Wladislas Klobukowski did not reach Vietnam until September 1908 and began by closing the University of Hanoi. In April 1909 the French Chamber of Deputies adopted the colonial policy of association with the Vietnamese to replace assimilation. General Théophile Daniel Pennequin even called for a Vietnamese army. Klobukowski took a hard line, abolishing the Directorate of Public Education and several consultative assemblies. He did try to abolish the alcohol monopoly, and he was criticized by the colonial press. Klobukowski sent the army after De Tham’s rebel forces and reduced them to forty by September 1909. He put a price on his head, and De Tham was killed by bounty hunters in 1913.

Phan Boi Chao was under police surveillance and left Tokyo in March 1909 for Hong Kong. He arranged to buy 500 rifles left over from the Russo-Japanese war, but he could not raise the money to pay smugglers to import them. So he gave them to Sun Yat-sen’s older brother Sun Shou-ping. Prince Cuong De had been studying in Japan, and in November he escaped to Shanghai and then Hong Kong. In 1910 Phan lived in Canton by selling his books. He went to Siam in 1911 and wrote a patriotic drama about the Trung sisters. After the Chinese revolution, he and Cuong De went to Canton and gave up monarchy for the goal of a republic, forming the Association for the Restoration of Vietnam (Viet Nam Quang Phuc Hoi). They even formed a government in exile with Cuong De as president and Phan as minister of foreign affairs and representative of Annam. Tonkin was represented by Nguyen Thuong Hien, and Cochinchina by Nguyen Than Hien. Phan met with Sun Yat-sen in 1912 and sent a dozen followers to military academies in Beijing and Guangxi.

Klobukowski was recalled, and 21 months elapsed before his replacement Sarraut arrived in October 1911. Counting interim governors Indochina had the head of its administration changed 52 times in its first forty years. In the same period between 1886 and 1926 Cochinchina had 38 governors; Annam had 32 residents superior, and Tonkin 31. France had a similar turnover with 46 heads of colonial affairs between 1886 and 1930. Riceland in Cochinchina more than quadrupled between 1880 and 1930, but the average peasant held less land in 1930 than before the French came. Taxes and debt created a large class of landless tenants while the wealthy had become richer. Tenants had to give up to half their crop to their landlords.

Albert Sarraut was a Radical-Socialist, and his first edict forbade colonials from hitting natives. This was not enforceable, and he promoted the sale of alcohol and opium. He had highways constructed and enlarged the harbors of Saigon and Haiphong. By 1913 Vietnam had 175 medical facilities for a population of 25 million with only one doctor per 38,000 people.

After meeting with a hundred activists in the Association for the Restoration of Vietnam in early 1913, Phan Boi Chao and Mai Lao Bang stayed in Canton, helping forty Vietnamese students. Others went to Hong Kong to manufacture explosives. The British captured Nguyen Than Hien, and others were turned over to the French. In March bombs placed in Saigon failed to explode, and unarmed peasants marching to the gates of Saigon were brutally dispersed by the French. Hundreds of suspected nationalists were arrested, and 34 got long sentences for insurrection. On April 13 the high official Nguyen Duy Han was murdered in Thai Binh, and two weeks later a bomb killed two French colonels in the Hotel Hanoi. Sarraut revived the Criminal Commission, and the French arrested 254 people, executing 7 and imprisoning 57.

Sarraut had to leave his position because of bad health in January 1914. That month Guangdong’s Governor Long Jiguang arrested Phan Boi Chao and Mai Lao Bang and asked the French for a ransom. Phan wrote his first autobiography, Prison Notes (Nguc Trung Thu), and a historical novel about the struggle against colonial rule during the Ming dynasty. In December an armed insurrection failed in Tonkin, and in April 1915 the French executed 28 men in Phu-Tho. In January 1916 peasants attacked recruiters in Cochinchina. Three hundred armed nationalists tried to free prisoners in Saigon on the night of February 14 but failed. The French War Council rounded up hundreds and executed 51. In May young Emperor Duy Tan left the palace in Hué and tried to lead an insurrection that quickly collapsed. He was exiled to Réunion. The organizer Tran Cao Van and four others were executed. When Sun Yat-sen gained power in southern China in 1917, Phan Boi Chau and the refugees were released.

Sarraut returned as governor-general in January 1917 and served again until May 1919. The native civil guards in Thai Nguyen revolted in August 1917 and were supported by peasants until French troops from Hanoi suppressed them. Sarraut increased the number of secondary schools (lycées) to six with three open to Vietnamese and tried to make the teaching of French universal. He reopened the University of Hanoi in April 1917, though the medical graduates were not doctors but only hygiene officers. Those who wanted recognized degrees still had to go to France. Sarraut brought primary education to 200,000 Vietnamese, but that was only ten percent of the possible students. Aggressive French recruiting shipped 140,000 Vietnamese “volunteers” to the war in France, and Ho Chih Minh later exposed the compulsive recruiting methods used. In February 1918 prisoners tried to escape from Poulo Condore. The guards kept shooting, wounding hundreds and killing 83. The commander of this slaughter was tried by a French court in Saigon but was acquitted.

In March 1919 Prince Cuong De sent telegrams to the Versailles peace conference, to President Wilson, and to the French government, asking for an autonomous Indochina. The French agreed to send the Japanese information about Korean nationalists in their Shanghai settlement in exchange for the Japanese keeping Cuong De under surveillance and confined to Tokyo. Phan Boi Chau predicted there would be a war between Japan and European powers, and he offered to support the French against the Japanese. Sarraut then offered him a high position in the Hué court or a liberal allowance in China, but Phan changed his mind and defiantly sent him a copy of his History of the Downfall of Vietnam.

Governor-General Maurice Long (1920-22) was also liberal. Ngo Duc Ke was released from Poulo Condore in 1921 after thirteen years and edited the periodical Huu Thanh in Hanoi, satirizing the French and the mandarins while commenting on cultural issues. Emperor Khai Dinh went to Paris in 1922 and argued that coercion should be abandoned for cooperation in Annam and Tonkin but to no avail.

After graduating from the Ecole Colonial in Paris in 1923 landowner and engineer Bui Quang Chieu founded the Constitutionalist party in Cochinchina with journalist Nguyen Phan Long and attorney Duong Van Giao. Bui also appealed to France for reform without success. Governor-General Martial Henri Merlin (1923-25) was reactionary and reversed many of Sarraut’s policies. He believed that elementary education was enough for the Vietnamese and even neglected that. In 1924 Vietnam’s school population was only 70,000. Merlin suppressed the law faculty at the University of Hanoi and reduced the lycées budget. On June 19, 1924 the nationalist student Pham Hong That of the Association of Like Minds (Tam Tam Xa) tried to assassinate him at a banquet in Canton; Merlin survived, but five French citizens were killed. Pham drowned trying to escape, but Merlin applied severe police measures.

Le Van Huan started an illegal organization in 1924 that changed its name several times and became the Revolutionary Association of Vietnam. They promoted scientific education and demanded the release of Phan Boi Chau in 1925.

Ho Chih Minh was born as Nguyen Sinh Cuong on May 19, 1890 in Nghe province. His father was a teacher who rebelled against the traditional educational system. About 1910 Ho studied French, history, and science at the National Academy in Hué for a year. Then he traveled for several years as a cook on ships before spending several years in London and Paris. By 1921 he was using the name Nguyen Ai Quoc, which means “Nguyen the Patriot.” He joined the French Socialist Party (FSP), wrote articles, and produced the play Le Dragon de Bambou, which was banned in 1922 when Emperor Khai Dinh visited France. At an FSP conference Ho sided with the radicals and joined the newly forming French Communist Party. Ho founded the anti-colonialist newspaper The Pariah (Le Paria).

In 1923 Ho went to Moscow, and the next July he was a delegate at the Fifth Comintern Congress, demanding more attention to colonial issues. Later in 1924 he went to Canton to help coordinate Communist organizations in Southeast Asia with the Moscow Comintern and its Far East bureau at Shanghai. In June 1925 Ho, drawing youths from the Tam Tam Xa, helped found the Revolutionary Youth League of Vietnam that was called the Thanh Nien. Phan Boi Chau was president, and Ho was general secretary. Ho wrote The Road to Revolution (Duong Cach Menh) to apply Marxism to Vietnam. In 1925 Ho was an interpreter with the Borodin mission in Canton, but they were expelled from China in 1927. The next year the Thanh Nien moved its headquarters to Hong Kong.

Phan Chu Trinh was liberated from prison by the efforts of the French League for the Rights of Man, and he lived in France from 1911 to 1925. During the war he was imprisoned for three years as a draft resister. He became a close friend of Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chih Minh), and they both worked touching up photographs. In early 1919 they sent an eight-point program for the liberation of Vietnam to the secretariat of the Versailles peace conference. In 1922 Phan Chu Trinh wrote a critical letter to visiting Emperor Khai Dinh. After returning to Vietnam, he made two speeches in November 1925. “Morality and Ethics of East and West” compared the ideas of Confucius, Mencius, and Lao-zi to those of Pascal, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. “Monarchism and Democracy” explained how Confucianism became worse with each succeeding dynasty after Huang Di founded the empire in 221 BC.

Phan Chu Trinh died of tuberculosis in Saigon on March 24, 1926. On that day the Constitutionalist party leader Bui Quang Chieu returned from a speaking tour in France and was met by violent French protesters. Constitutionalists and progressives organized funeral activities for Phan Chu Trinh that lasted a week. Workers went on strike; students walked out of school; and people boycotted French merchants. Nguyen An Ninh had founded The Cracked Bell (La Cloche Felée) in December in December 1923, but this paper was censored for praising the moderate Phan Chu Trinh. Ninh was arrested with 115 others and was sent to the concentration camp at Poulo Condore. He was released in 1927 but was arrested again the next year.

In 1923 Phan Boi Chau wrote O Heaven, O God (Thien Ho De Ho), accusing the French of cultural genocide in Vietnam and asking them to follow the teachings of Jesus. In the summer of 1924 he initiated a National People’s Party, which was modeled after the Guomindang. After the attempted assassination of Merlin, he praised the effort by Pham Hong Thai and the working class Tam Tam Xa. In June 1925 Phan Boi Chau was invited to Canton to found the Vietnamese branch of the World Federation of Small and Weak Nations, but he was abducted in Shanghai by French police and taken to Haiphong. Some revolutionaries had decided to sacrifice him for the reward of 150,000 piasters, assuming he would not be executed. Phan believed he was betrayed by his secretary Nguyen Thuong Huyen, who denied it and accused Lam Duc Thu, a member of Ho Chi Minh’s Revolutionary Youth League. Phan Boi Chau was tried by the Criminal Commission on November 23 and was sentenced to hard labor for life. A few weeks later Governor-General Varenne pardoned him, and Phan was confined to his house in Hué. The Women’s Labor-Study Association (Nu Cong Hoc Hoi) was founded on June 28, 1926 by the author Dam Phuong, and Phan Boi Chau was allowed out of his house to make the principal address. After a while even visitors were barred. Phan wrote poetry, books on Confucian virtues, and another autobiography until he died on October 29, 1940.

The French Left won the 1924 election, and they appointed the Socialist Alexandre Varenne (1925-27). He instituted a labor code in October 1927 to improve the deplorable conditions in mines and on rubber plantations; but enforcement was not effective until the Popular Front took power in 1936. Varenne also abolished the imprisonment of peasants for debt. His attempt to impose an income tax on the wealthy failed, though a tax on imports was effective. The leaders of the Saigon Chamber of Commerce went to Paris and accused Varenne of aiding Communists. He modified his policies in order to complete his projects. An interval of seven months went by before the next governor-general was appointed.

The French appointed mandarins to recruit laborers, and they extorted bribes and virtually enslaved others. Starving peasants were brought from Tonkin to Cochinchina for three-year labor contracts as plantation workers. Suffering workers had little recourse but desertion, and the deserters increased from 847 in 1924 to 4,484 in 1928.

Pham Tat Dac was only fifteen years old in 1926 when he wrote his poem “An Appeal to the Soul of the Nation.” Its publisher was imprisoned for six months, and Pham had to spend three years in a penitentiary for minors. Bad conduct caused him to be transferred to a penal colony until 1930. Huynh Thuc Khang was arrested in 1908 and spent thirteen years in the penal colony on Poulo Condore before he was released for good behavior. In 1926 he founded Annam’s most popular newspaper Voice of the People (Tieng Dan). In a speech in the Chamber of People’s Representatives in Annam on October 1, 1928 Huynh analyzed their difficulties as being caused by lack of education, the exhaustion of resources and excessive taxes, and the French use of force to control the people. He called for a constituent assembly to draft a constitution.

On the first anniversary of Phan Chu Trinh’s death thousands of demonstrators were incarcerated without trials; students were expelled from schools, and hundreds of workers were discharged. The Party of Annam for Independence (PAI) sent an appeal to the League of Nations for self-determination complaining that they did not have freedom of speech or travel or education or association and that they suffered from the poll tax, forced labor, and the salt tax. Children under twelve had to work on rubber plantations and in coal mines. The Government compelled villagers to buy alcohol and opium in large quantities. They demanded “complete and immediate independence for the Vietnamese people.” The next year PAI students in France sent a memorandum to the French Minister of Colonies complaining that international financiers were exploiting their country. They asked that the French military and top administrators evacuate Vietnam and that the monopolies on salt, alcohol, and opium be abolished, that political prisoners be given amnesty, that workers be allowed to form unions and strike, that the profits of colonial companies be taxed to build dikes, and that higher education be expanded.

In December 1927 the Vietnam National Party, or Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD), was founded in Tonkin, proclaiming they aimed to raise a revolutionary army, overthrow the colonial system, and establish a democratic republic. They grew quickly by recruiting teachers, students, employees, and minor officials. The VNQDD also organized peasants and workers in strikes that began in 1928. The French Sureté considered these parties illegal and closed down their publishing house, but by 1929 they estimated that the VNQDD had 1,500 members in 120 cells.

Vietnamese Revolutionaries 1928-39

Pierre Pasquier was governor-general from August 1928 until his death in January 1934. He offended wealthy interests when he abolished the alcohol monopoly; but he balanced the budget. He tried to save a little money by closing Hanoi University’s departments of education, commerce, public works, agriculture, and forestry, but he completed Doumer’s plan for dams and 4,000 kilometers of canals. While a few people made fortunes, millions of workers lived in wretched poverty. In November 1928 to lure more investors into developing rubber, tea, and coffee plantations the Government abolished the restrictions on land concessions. In 1929 the rubber companies made 309 million francs in Vietnam while paying their workers only 40 million francs. The French did not start a rubber industry in Vietnam but shipped the latex to France. Then the Michelin company sent back tires at exorbitant prices.

The successful weekly Women’s News (Phu Nu Tan Van) began publishing in May 1929 from Saigon. Tran Trong Kim published his two-volume study Confucianism (Nho Giao) also in 1929. He emphasized intuitive insight as well as reason that come from extended study of the Confucian classics. These books and his Outline History of Vietnam (Viet-Nam Su Luoc) were influential and were used as text-books until 1975. Tran was criticized by Phan Khoi for using western concepts.

In 1928 ten strikes involved 600 workers, but the next year 6,000 workers participated in 24 strikes. Vietnam had 98 strikes in 1930 involving 31,680 workers. The secret organizations planning violence often killed those they suspected of being informers. An attempt to assassinate Pasquier failed in January 1929; but on February 9 Herve Bazin, head of the Labor Bureau for recruiting plantation workers, was killed. The French arrested more than three hundred and sent 78 people to prison. In early 1930 thousands went on strike at the Phu Rieng rubber plantation near Bien Hoa in Cochinchina, at a match factory in Ben Thuy, and at a Nam Dinh textile plant in Tonkin.

Members of the Revolutionary Association were hunted by police, and one year later they instigated a native garrison at Yen Bay to revolt on February 9, 1930. The soldiers killed their French officers; but the mutiny was quickly contained, and 26 soldiers and 15 civilians were summarily executed. A revolt in the village of Co Am was also planned, and the sub-prefect Hoang Gia Mo was killed. The Government reacted with aerial bombing of Co Am. Pasquier convened the Criminal Commission; 83 nationalists were condemned to death, and 546 were sentenced to forced labor for life. On June 17 the French executed 439 people, including Nguyen Thai Hoc and 13 other VNQDD leaders, and 7,439 were sent to Poulo Condore. That year 699 people were executed without trials. Pasquier allowed suspects to be tortured and prisoners to be killed; the French used machine guns against demonstrators and planes to bomb gatherings. On May Day three thousand peasants ravaged the Ky Vien plantation, and riots over taxes and political prisoners broke out in Annam and Tonkin. On that day thirty demonstrators were shot. Forty were killed when the Vietnamese were celebrating the Russian Revolution, and 115 died on the anniversary of the Chinese Revolution.

On September 12 several thousand tax protesters marched toward the provincial capital of Vinh. Acting Governor-General René Robin sent French troops to stop them and planes to bomb them. The journalist Andrée Viollis reported that the bombing killed 157 people. The city of Vinh was taken over by 6,000 peasants, and northern Annam erupted in revolution for several months. Peasants in Nghe An, Ha Thinh, and Quang Ngai destroyed the governments and set up their soviet administrations.

The People’s Party had changed names several times, and in June 1929 at Hanoi many of those people had joined with Ho Chih Minh’s Youth League to form the Communist Party of Indochina. As the French destroyed the other political parties, most of the radicals joined the Communists. The Communists had trained at least 250 leaders in Moscow and China by 1930. They advocated lower taxes, land for the landless, higher wages with better medical care for plantation workers, and the right to organize unions. Their more specific proposals were to confiscate property over 100 hectares, nationalize all companies owned by colonials, limit the work day to eight hours, and replace taxes with a progressive income tax.

On February 3, 1930 Ho and another ICP leader met with two representatives of the Annam Communist Party, and they merged into the Communist Party of Vietnam. Moscow wanted Laos and Cambodia included, and so at their Hong Kong meeting in October the name was changed to the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). Tran Phu (1904-31) wrote the “Political Theses” that were accepted. They described the role of the bourgeois-democratic revolution as:

1. To overthrow French imperialism, feudalism, and
2. To establish a government of workers and peasants.
3. To confiscate all landed properties belonging to
foreign or indigenous landlords
and to various religious organizations
with the goal of distributing them
to middle and poor peasants
and to make the government of workers and peasants
their rightful owner.
4. To appropriate all properties belonging to foreign
5. To abolish all present duties and taxes and,
at the same time, set up a progressive tax system.
6. To initiate the institution of an eight-hour working day
and, therefore, to improve the living conditions
of the workers and poor people.
7. To make sure that Indochina is fully independent
and the people endowed with self-determination.
8. To create an army of workers and peasants.
9. To implement equality of the sexes.
10. To support the Soviet Union,
to ally with all the proletarian classes of the world
and with the colonial and semi-colonial
revolutionary movements.1

Membership in the illegal unions and Communist peasant organizations increased from 6,000 in 1930 to 64,000 the next year.

In 1931 the turmoil spread to the Cochinchinese provinces of Ben Tre, Tra Vinh, Vinh Long, Sadec, and Long Xuyen, though they did not establish revolutionary regimes. The ICP Central Committee met in Saigon in March to plan the revolution, but afterward the French captured Ngo Duc Tri, who confessed secrets that resulted in most of the Central Committee being arrested. The French had only about 10,000 soldiers in Vietnam, but most of the resistance was crushed by 1931, the last Soviet submitting in August. Nationalists estimated that 10,000 had been killed, and 50,000 were deported. The French Foreign Legion had orders to torture and kill all but one of each group of prisoners and then to interrogate the last one. Many hated mandarins were executed between 1930 and 1933. Minister of Colonies Paul Reynaud visited Indochina in the fall of 1931, promising reforms and the return of Emperor Bao Dai from France. Even after peace was established in 1932, the French still held 10,000 political prisoners in jails and on Poulo Condore. On December 17 Governor-General Pasquier announced that Communism had disappeared.

On June 6, 1931 Ho Chih Minh was arrested in Hong Kong and sentenced to deportation. The British Privy Council heard his appeal on June 27, 1932 and released him to Singapore on December 28, but he was sent back to Hong Kong on January 6, 1933 and expelled sixteen days later. Ho eventually made it to Shanghai, where he contacted the Chinese Communists. In 1933 Ho traveled to Moscow, where he spent the next five years studying and teaching at the Lenin Institute. Moscow-trained leaders formed one base in northeast Siam, and Le Hong Phong led the other in Guangxi near the Sino-Vietnamese border.

Young Emperor Bao Dai had succeeded Khai Dinh in 1925; he returned from studying in France in September 1932, and the following May the 19-year-old took over the government from the council of old mandarins. He made Pham Quynh chief of his cabinet and appointed 32-year-old Ngo Dinh Diem minister of the Interior; but, frustrated by the French, Diem resigned after a few months. The Emperor still only had ceremonial functions as the Resident Superior presided over the Council of Ministers.

In 1932 Ta Thu Thau returned from France. He and Tran Van Giau, who was back from Moscow, published the journal La Lutte. Ta Thu Thau founded a Trotskyist Communist party in 1933. The Saigon municipal council was elected by universal suffrage, and the Trotskyists won two seats in 1933 and four in 1935, taking control from the Constitutionalists.

Governor-General René Robin (1934-35) was also severe. He thought he was liberal because he suppressed only fourteen publications; but he did manage to get an income tax approved on those earning more than 80,000 francs. Nhat Linh led a literary group. His 1935 novel Ruptures (Doan Tuyet) described the struggle against social evils, and three years later Two Friends (Doi Ban) portrayed a wealthy young Vietnamese who became a revolutionary. Hoang Dao was a judicial officer in Hanoi, and his novel Slums and Huts (Bun Lai Nuoc Dong) exposed the corruption of mandarins and landlords, excessive taxes, and the monopolies while suggesting judicial and administrative reforms. In the late 1930s Nhat Linh founded the Revive Vietnam (Hung Viet) political party, but it was suppressed by the French. Hoang Dao was sent to a concentration camp, and Nhat Linh fled to China.

In the south religious movements were popular. The Cao Dai were active along the Cambodian border, and the Hoa Hao were in the Mekong delta. The Cao Dai religion had been founded by Ngo Van Chieu in 1919 using séances and a combination of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Christianity, western philosophy, and the belief in spirits. In 1925 Le Van Trung gained control of the movement by claiming that Cao Dai revealed himself as the incarnation of Buddha and Jesus and appointed him “pope” of Caodaism with Tay Ninh as the religious capital of the church. The religion grew rapidly and reached 100,000 adherents by 1932. The ethical teachings were drawn from Buddhism, and they were vegetarians. Splits began to occur, and Le Van Trung was accused of greedy business deals before he died in 1933. Pham Cong Tac became the head of Cao Dai in 1935 and remained so for twenty years. He was more political, and national liberation became a goal. The French tried to restrict Caodaism to Cochinchina by banning it in Annam and Tonkin, but Cao Dai had 300,000 followers by 1938. Huynh Phu So was born in Hoa Hao in 1919, and in May 1939 he preached an eloquent Buddhist sermon for several hours that won over many listeners. The Hoa Hao religion urged people to communicate directly with God and so had no churches.

The Popular Front was elected in France in 1936 and appointed the liberal Jules Brevié, who lasted until the Popular Front declined in 1939. In July 1936 the ICP formulated demands that included replacing the Grand Council of Financial and Economic Interests with a popularly elected assembly; suffrage for all over eighteen years of age; freedom of speech, assembly, organization, and movement; an eight-hour day and better working conditions; amnesty for political prisoners; lower taxes; unemployment insurance; abolishing monopolies; no more seizing the land of debtors; firing corrupt officials; increasing educational opportunities; and sexual equality. In Cochinchina political parties became legal, and Governor-General Brevié released 1,300 political prisoners. Restrictions on publishing were eased. In October a new labor law reduced the work day to eight hours over two years in industrial and commercial establishments, limited factories and mines to a six-day work week and prohibited women from working at night, and gradually increased paid vacations to ten days a year.

Nguyen An Ninh published “Toward an Indochinese Congress” in La Lutte to make demands, and five hundred people attended a meeting on August 13, 1936. An Ninh’s proposals were approved, and a committee of 35 was formed from all factions. Within two months six hundred committees had formed throughout Cochinchina. Many demands were submitted, and Governor-General Pagés prohibited meetings in Saigon, ordering that agitation cease by September 25. Workers directed by the ICP met on the 27th and formulated their list. Pagés arrested Nguyen An Ninh, Nguyen Van Tao, and Ta Thu Thau of La Lutte in early October. Moderates were outraged, and after a few days’ hunger strike they were released.

France sent Minister of Labor Justin Godard with an inspection team to Indochina. They arrived on January 1, 1937 and were met by large demonstrations. ICP member Duong Bach Mai met with Minister of Colonies Marius Moutet in France, urging an Indochinese Congress based on existing organizations. Duong wired Saigon on January 7 that Moutet had agreed to such committees; but Governor-General Brevié tried to shut down the committees. In its March plenary the Central Committee of the ICP called for a democratic front of all progressive forces. In May the La Lutte staff split, and Ta Thu Thau’s Trotskyists took over the journal that summer.

The production of rice increased 47% from 1900 to 1937, but because of the growth of the population and exports the per capita consumption of rice fell by 30% in the same period. Many peasants were going hungry. Rural debt in Cochinchina rose from 31 million piasters in 1900 to 134 million in 1930. The Vietnamese economy picked up in the late 1930s. Rubber production in Indochina increased from 36,000 tons in 1936 to 60,000 two years later. Mining production more than doubled between 1934 and 1937, and that year rice production reached 2.2 million tons, up from less than a million in 1931. Exports reached 250 piasters in 1937, but imports were only 107 million piasters. Lacking industries, Vietnam lagged way behind in foreign trade. In 1937 foreign trade in France was 1,570 francs per person compared to 470 francs in the Philippines, 310 francs in the Netherlands Indies, and only 180 francs in Vietnam. In Java more than half the rubber plantations were owned by natives, but the Vietnamese owned less than five percent. Vietnam’s student population went from 378,000 in 1930 to 854,000 in 1944.

In 1937 young Vo Nguyen Giap and Truong Chinh wrote a detailed study of Vietnam’s rural economics called The Peasant Question, and in 1939 Giap published The Main and Proper Road: The Question of National Liberation in Indochina. In 1938 Cuu Kim Son and Van Hue published a comprehensive two-volume study of women’s issues. The first volume, Sister’s Life (Doi Chi Em), described the conditions of women in Vietnam, and the second volume, Sisters, What Is to Be Done? (Chi Em Phai Lam Gi?), argued that women would be liberated along with the upliftment of the proletarian class in a socialist revolution.

The Popular Front in France declined in 1938, and this affected Vietnam. The Minister of Colonies asked for 20,000 Vietnamese troops to be sent to France. Prince Cuong De left Tokyo and went to Hong Kong in 1937 to organize anti-French actions in support of a Japanese invasion of Indochina. Ho Chih Minh returned to China in late 1938. George Mandel became minister of Colonies in 1938, and he arranged for a defense loan of 400 million francs to increase the French forces from 27,000 to 50,000 by recruiting Vietnamese; but the loan caused higher taxes to pay the interest. The Indochinese navy increased from only three ships to eleven, and only twenty modern planes were delivered. In March 1939 Mandel released 500 more political prisoners. The production of rubber, rice, tea, coffee, coal, and minerals was increased, and the work day was lengthened. Exports to other countries were restricted. Retired General George Catroux replaced Brevié in August 1939. The army was increased to nearly 100,000 with 80,000 Indochinese supplementing the 20,000 in the French Foreign Legion.

Vietnam during World War II

France ordered general mobilization in their colonies on September 3, 1939. The Communist Party was outlawed on September 26, and more than two thousand suspected Communists were arrested in Vietnam, including Trotskyist leader Ta Thu Thau. At its Sixth Plenum in November the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) declared Japanese fascism and French imperialism the enemies of the oppressed masses.

After Germany invaded France, the Japanese ordered Governor-General Catroux to close the supply route from Tonkin to China on June 19, 1940. In France the capitulating Admiral Darlan had Catroux replaced by Vice Admiral Jean Decoux in July. Vichy France made a treaty with Japan on August 30, and three days later the collaborator Pétain instructed Decoux to negotiate with the Japanese. He met with General Nishihara in Hanoi on September 22, and Japan was allowed to station 6,000 men north of the Red River and 25,000 in Indochina. On that day Japanese forces crossed the Chinese border into Tonkin and attacked Dong Dang and Lang Son. The French must have resisted because the Japanese lost 800 men; but within three days the Japanese were victorious and captured the French army. Japanese diplomats called it an error and released the prisoners on October 5. When the Japanese invaded Lang Son, the Tay had risen up and seized weapons in Bac Son. The freed French army defeated the guerrillas, who retreated into the mountains, and in the next three months the French forces slaughtered the Communists the Japanese had urged to rebel. The French strung the prisoners together by pushing wires through the palms of their hands, and on December 26 the leader Trang Trung Lap was executed. Thus the Japanese allowed the French to continue administering Indochina.

When the French ordered Vietnamese troops sent to the Thai border in November 1940, 15,000 soldiers in Saigon rioted in protest. The ICP sent Phan Dang Lou and others south to postpone the uprising; but the French police arrested them in Saigon on November 22 before they contacted the local party. The next day the uprising began in Gia Dinh, My Tho, Can Tho, Bien Hoa, Cholon, and Tan An. The French, warned by informers, declared martial law and had disarmed many Vietnamese troops. They arrested the leaders and 5,000 rebels. Thailand regained territory in Cambodia and Laos in the brief war, but Japan destroyed much of their navy. France and Japan signed a commercial treaty on May 6, 1941, and two days later in Tokyo the French granted Thailand the three Cambodian provinces and Laos territory along the Mekong River.

Huynh Phu So traveled through western Cochinchina in the spring of 1940 and converted tens of thousands to Hoa Hao. He had correctly prophesied the war, France’s fall, and the Japanese invasion. When his gatherings became political, Decoux had him put in a psychiatric hospital in August. Huynh converted his psychiatrist and was released in May 1941, but he was confined at Bac Lieu. His followers considered him a martyr and made pilgrimages there.

Ho Chih Minh reached out to the ethnic minorities in northern Vietnam and established his headquarters in Cao Bang in early 1941. After an absence of nearly ten years, Ho chaired the Eighth Plenum of the ICP at Pac Bo on May 10. They established a new front organization called the Vietnam Independence League (Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi), which became known as the Viet Minh, to unite the workers and peasants with the middle class and even the wealthy to work for national independence. Now only land of French imperialists and Vietnamese collaborators was to be seized. On June 6 Ho wrote a “Letter from Abroad” urging Vietnamese to prepare for independence. Two weeks later Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and Japan occupied most of Vietnam in July. Later that month Vichy France signed a treaty with Japan, and Decoux agreed that Indochina should become a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” Decoux closed the Cao Dai temples in Saigon and deported Pham Cong Tac and six others in August. Four weeks later French troops occupied the Cao Dai capital of Tay Ninh.

Governor-General Decoux replaced the locally elected councils with one Federal Council that he appointed. In the next three years seventeen newspapers and magazines were suppressed. Vietnamese were hired and promoted only because there were no French replacements. Schools were expanded and improved so that the French could get a better education. On November 9, 1941 the Japanese took control of all Indochinese enterprises, and the Kempeitai police arrived in December. The merchant Matusita Mitsuhiro persuaded the former Constitutionalist Tran Van An to support Prince Cuong’s League for the Restoration of Vietnam in Cochinchina. When the French Sureté was going to arrest them, the Kempeitai had Tran flown to Formosa; other leaders such as Ngo Dinh Diem were also protected by the Japanese. The Kempeitai and Hoa Hao followers abducted Huynh Phus So from French custody on October 12, 1942 and guarded him in Saigon. Hoa Hao leaders organized armed campaigns against rich landowners and the French. Matusita also had the Kempeitai protect the Cao Dai leader Tran Quang Vinh, and Cao Dai was re-established in Tay Ninh.

Allied bombing prevented the Japanese from shipping goods to Indochina. As it increased, even exporting from Indochina became more difficult. Japan owed Indochina much but insisted on being paid in piasters for occupation expenses, which increased from 6 million piasters in 1940 to 117 million in 1943. Japanese spread their propaganda, and in July 1943 General Iwane Matsui told journalists in Saigon that they had ended French sovereignty. Indochina showed that it could develop industry by producing 13,000 rubber tires in 1944 after putting out only 360 the previous year. With shipping and railroads destroyed, the Japanese ran out of gasoline and began distilling alcohol from rice. Jute, cotton, and ramie were used for the Japanese army while millions of peasants wore rags.

In August 1941 Ho Chih Minh went back to assess the situation in China, but the Chinese imprisoned him for a year before allowing him to contact Cao Bang. The Chinese organized a conference at Liuzhou in October 1942 to unite the exiled Vietnamese in the Vietnam Revolutionary League (Dong Minh Hoi). They put nationalist Nguyen Hai Than in charge and provided 100,000 Chinese dollars per month; but by the end of the year they realized they needed the Viet Minh and made Ho the head of the League to mobilize the Vietnamese. About this time Nguyen Ai Quoc changed his name to Ho Chih Minh. Vo Nguyen Giap had escaped to China, where he studied guerrilla tactics. He learned that his sister-in-law was guillotined, and his wife died in prison in 1943. Giap was also in charge of propaganda, and by the end of 1943 the Viet Minh controlled more of Thai Nguyen and Bac Kan in northern Tonkin than the French. Gradually they organized armed units of self-defense and guerrillas. Ho revived the Viet Minh and was released in 1944, returning to ICP headquarters in September. On November 11, 1944 the American reconnaissance pilot Lt. Rudolph Shaw had to parachute into northern Tonkin. Ho Chih Minh spoke English and personally escorted him to south China, where he met with General Claire Chennault and began cooperation with the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

In February 1944 the ICP had called for cooperation between the Free French, the Chinese, and Indochinese revolutionaries to fight Vichy traitors and the Japanese occupiers; but Charles de Gaulle and the Gaullists rejected this offer as they intended to reclaim Indochina. In November the ICP asked the Gaullists to stop the Japanese from confiscating rice, to get political prisoners freed, and to provide weapons for the Viet Minh. The Gaullists refused to give them weapons and could not stop the rice appropriations, but they got 150 prisoners released. US President Franklin Roosevelt often expressed his opinion that France had milked Vietnam too long and should withdraw from Indochina.

In March 1944 the Chinese held another congress at Liuzhou. On June 6 Major Langlade parachuted into Vietnam and met at Hanoi with General Eugene Mordant and General Georges Aymé. When Mordant retired, De Gaulle appointed him Delegate General of the French Government to Indochina on September 12. British RAF pilots began dropping arms and French agents into Vietnam. Ho moved his headquarters in October to Thai Nguyen province in Vietnam. Late in 1944 the Viet Minh leaders urged the people to save their strength for a general uprising. Giap formed the first Armed Propaganda Brigade for the Liberation of Vietnam on December 22, and this day is celebrated as the anniversary of the Vietnamese People’s Army. The Japanese were concerned that they would lose French cooperation, and they increased their troops in Indochina to 60,000.

On March 9, 1945 at 7 p.m. Ambassador Matsumoto Shunichi gave Governor-General Decoux two hours to surrender. Most French units were disarmed and interned the next day as Japanese forces took control of Indochina. Only a few French garrisons resisted, and the Japanese slaughtered about 200 European and Vietnamese prisoners at Lang Son and 53 at Dong Dang. Generals Gabriel Sabattier and Marcel Alessandri led 5,000 troops from Tong Sontay 800 miles to the China border. During the Japanese coup the French lost more than 1,700 soldiers. Most French officials were dismissed unless they were indispensable. In the next five months about 600 French civilians were arrested, and 400 of them died in prison. The Japanese announced that Vietnam was independent, but Emperor Bao Dai and his cabinet led by Pham Quynh knew they had little power. Ngo Dinh Diem cooperated with the Japanese for a while, but on April 17 the Japanese chose the conservative professor Tran Trong Kim to lead the government. Meanwhile the Viet Minh let it be known that they were with the Allies as they prepared for the Japanese defeat. In May an OSS team parachuted to Viet Minh headquarters, and supplies soon followed.

Without referring to the Japanese takeover, France had made a declaration on March 24, 1945 that the five states of Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia, and Laos would have a federal government under the French governor-general with an assembly that included French. This plan offered less reform than Decoux instituted and was immediately rejected by all the Vietnamese political parties. Food shortages became worse as coal from the north could not be traded for rice in the south, where rice surpluses remained because of transportation problems. In 1945 about one million people died of starvation in Tonkin while about 300,000 died in Annam. In July the Allied conference at Potsdam decided that Indochina would be occupied to disarm the Japanese by the Chinese army north of the 16th parallel and by the British in the south.

Vietnam's August 1945 Revolution

After the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima, Tran Trong Kim resigned on August 7. One week later the Japanese accepted Allied terms and relinquished control over Cochinchina. The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) met in Tonkin on August 13 and voted for a general insurrection. Three days later the People’s Congress of sixty delegates led by Ho Chih Minh met in the village of Tan Trao north of Hanoi and formed the National Liberation Committee of Vietnam. That day Viet Minh guerrillas entered Hanoi, and thousands of leaflets were distributed. The Viet Minh military took over almost all the public buildings except the Bank of Indochina, which was still guarded by the Japanese. The Viet Minh took over Hué, and Bao Dai asked them to form a new government. Only a few Japanese resisted. When five hundred Viet Minh partisans attacked the post at Tam Dao, eight Japanese soldiers were killed.

On August 13 a few French parachuted into Tonkin and Annam, but all except one were killed or captured by the Viet Minh. General Jacques Philippe Leclerc commanded the troops from France, Madagascar, and Calcutta preparing to return to Vietnam, and Admiral George Thierry d’Argenlieu was appointed to govern as High Commissioner. Jean Cédile as commissioner for the South parachuted near Tayninh on August 22. The Japanese captured his group and took them to Saigon, and French Socialists and Communists arranged for them to meet the Vietnamese leaders.

The Viet Minh had strong unity in Tonkin and Annam, but in the south the United National Front was formed after the Japanese coup on March 9 by the religious Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, the pro-Japanese Phuc Quoc, the Dai Viet, Trotskyists, and other minor parties. They decided to take power from the Japanese on August 16. Those who had collaborated with the Japanese had less support now, and a week later the United National Front yielded to the Viet Minh’s Provisional Executive Committee for the South led by Tran Van Giau. On August 25 in Saigon hundreds of thousands marched in celebration of the revolution. The Committee urged the people to welcome the British as friends and decorated the city with Allied flags. Mandarins and big landowners who had collaborated with the imperialists were thrown out of office, dispossessed, or killed. Various groups armed their members to increase their power.

On August 29 Ho Chih Minh formed a government in the north, and on September 2 before a half million people gathered in Hanoi he proclaimed the independence of Vietnam by quoting from the US Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the French Revolution. He interpreted the former to mean that “all the peoples on the earth are equal from birth” and have a right to “be happy and free.” He criticized the French imperialists for having abused the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity for eighty years while impoverishing the Vietnamese people. Ho asserted that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) had taken their independence from the Japanese and that they would fight any French colonialists who tried to reconquer their country. He concluded, “Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country—and in fact it is so already.”2

Saigon also had large demonstrations on September 2; but the lack of unity led to French spectators being mistreated and put in jail; at least three were killed. Tran Van Giao denounced the troublemakers for sabotaging the revolution, and the provisional police chief Duong Bach Mai ordered all the French arrested that day released. Trotskyist leaders who favored armed opposition to the British landing were arrested. Two days later the British told Marshal Terauchi Hisaichi that Japanese troops were responsible for keeping order until the British forces arrived. The first British mission came on September 6, and they immediately demanded that all the Vietnamese, including the Saigon police, surrender their weapons. The Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and the Trotskyists refused, and Viet Minh leaders were accused of treason. On September 10 the Viet Minh agreed to more representation by other groups on the Committee for the South, and Phan Van Bach replaced Tran Van Giao as chairman. The British brought in about 1,800 French troops from Calcutta on September 12, and the next day General Douglas D. Gracey arrived with the British occupation forces. Gracey believed that Indochina was French and that it would be governed by them within a few weeks. However, the Allied SEAC Commander Louis Mountbatten sent an envoy to reprimand Gracey and warn him not to take action against the Vietnamese.

The French in Saigon acted aggressively, and disturbances increased. Gracey repeated the order to disarm the Vietnamese and ordered the Japanese troops to police the city. Vietnamese leaders called for a general strike on September 17, and their police arrested sixteen Frenchmen in the next few days. Three days later Gracey suspended all Vietnamese newspapers, and the next day he declared martial law, banning all meetings and demonstrations. On September 22 the British freed the French paratroopers the Japanese had captured, and they armed 1,400 French troops who had been interned since March. The next day the French took control of the police stations and public buildings in Saigon, beating up and arresting hundreds of Vietnamese as the Committee for the South fled. Cédile ordered most of them released, but the French coup turned the disappointed Vietnamese to revolution.

On September 24 the nationalists organized a general strike that closed shops and stopped transportation. The Vietnamese attacked the Saigon electric works and torched the central market, but the Chinese and Indians put out the fire to protect their shops. Most of the British force of 2,800 were Indian troops. About 28,000 French civilians barricaded themselves in their homes or took refuge in the Hotel Continental. Nationalists blockaded Saigon to prevent food deliveries. General Gracey arrested Terauchi and threatened to hold him as a war criminal if Japanese troops were not ordered to subdue the Vietnamese. Thousands of Vietnamese were imprisoned.

Mountbatten ordered Cédile to negotiate with the Vietnamese nationalists, and a truce began on October 2. General Leclerc marched into Saigon three days later with the first troops from France. On October 9 British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin signed an agreement authorizing the French as the only civil administration south of the 16th parallel. The fighting resumed on October 11, and the Vietnamese fled or were driven out of Saigon. In two weeks the French broke the blockade. With heavily armored columns the French took over Mytho, Vinh Long, and Cantho before defeating the Cao Dai at Tay Ninh in early November.

In the north the Viet Minh government did not allow attacks on the French in Hanoi. General Lu Han led the Chinese troops across the border into Tonkin on August 28 without any French. Chinese forces first reached Hanoi on September 9 and took over the governor-general’s building, displacing Jean Sainteny, who had been in charge of Mission 5 in Kunming. About 50,000 Chinese troops would occupy northern Vietnam for the next six months, and they took whatever supplies they needed or wanted. The inflated Chinese dollar was made the currency, and new Chinese companies bought up French mines, factories, and other businesses at low prices. Chinese forces effectively kept the French from crossing the 16th parallel into the north.

Ho Chih Minh’s government had abolished the undemocratic councils on September 5, and three days later they announced elections with suffrage for all citizens over eighteen. The Viet Minh Government abolished the poll tax and the hated monopolies on salt, alcohol, and opium. They prohibited opium, prostitution, alcohol, and gambling. They confiscated and gave to landless peasants the land of the French and those considered traitors as well as communal lands. To end the famine all untilled land was given to peasants for cultivation, and dikes were repaired. The eight-hour day became law, and unions could organize. They nationalized all the public utilities that had been owned by the French. A massive literacy campaign was begun with the goal of teaching everyone to read within one year. Ho sent a memo to the people’s executive committees at all levels in October urging them to love the people and avoid the following mistakes: breaches of the law, arrogance, debauchery, sectarianism and connivance, division, and conceit. The University of Hanoi was re-opened in November, and that month the Government prohibited unauthorized distribution of large landholdings with the death penalty for attacks on private property.

The anti-Communist Chinese army replaced the local Viet Minh committees with their own Vietnamese allies, using some of the 400 million piasters they collected for the occupation costs to influence the revived VNQDD, Dong Minh Hoi, and the Dai Viet. However, the Chinese discovered that these groups had little support among the people, and they did not want to have to fight the Viet Minh. So they tolerated them, and on November 11 Ho Chih Minh announced that the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) was dissolved and replaced by the Indochinese Marxist Study Society. Members later admitted that the ICP continued secretly. Eight days later Ho and the Viet Minh formed a unified national government with the VNQDD and the Dong Minh Hoi. In the agreement Vo Nguyen Giap and Propaganda Minister Tran Huy Lieu were removed from the government. Elections were scheduled for December 23, but these less popular groups got them delayed until January. On December 14 Charles de Gaulle met in Paris with the exiled emperor Vinh San, but the prince was killed in a plane crash a few days later.

French-Vietnam War 1946-50

In the election in northern Vietnam on January 6, 1946 Ho Chih Minh received 169,222 votes out of 172,765 cast. Vo Nguyen Giap was also elected in Nghe An with 97% of the vote. Although the Viet Minh won the election with such overwhelming numbers, to please the Chinese they had promised the opposition parties 70 seats in the Assembly. On February 24 the Viet Minh, the VNQDD, the Dong Minh Hoi, and the Vietnam Democratic Party made a new agreement. The National Assembly convened in Hanoi on March 2, and Ho Chih Minh persuaded them to admit the 70 members of the VNQDD and the Dong Minh. The Assembly unanimously elected Ho Chih Minh president of the new government, and he appointed the National Resistance Committee to fight for independence and the National Advisory Group with Bao Dai as chairman. Ho removed the Communists Giap and Tran Huy Lieu from his cabinet to placate the Chinese. An agreement the French made with the Chinese at Chongqing on February 28 allowed the French troops to enter Bac Bo, and the Chinese promised to withdraw in March.

Giap and Hoang Minh Giam negotiated with the French and got the words “Hanoi government” replaced by the “Republic of Vietnam” with its “own government, parliament, army, and finances.” The Republic shared sovereignty with the French because it was considered a member of the Indochinese federation and the French Union. In the annex of the agreement the French military relieved the departing Chinese, but their missions were limited to guarding Japanese POWs for ten months and maintaining public order for five years. The French agreed to withdraw their troops in five annual installments and to allow Cochinchina to become a part of Vietnam by referendum. Ho Chih Minh considered the occupying Chinese a more long-lasting threat than the French, whom he believed would have to leave. So he agreed to let 15,000 French troops replace the departing Chinese in the north. On March 6, the day the French fleet arrived in Haiphong, the preliminary convention was signed by Ho, Jean Sainteny, and Vu Hong Khanh.

General Leclerc entered Hanoi with troops on March 18 and met with Ho; his vehicles flew both the French and DRV flags. Leclerc and Giap presided at a parade of French and Vietnamese troops on March 22. A few days later Bao Dai left with the Vietnamese delegation on a plane to China. The French began to cooperate with the Viet Minh in suppressing the anti-French nationalists. The United States opened a vice consulate in Hanoi and a consulate in Saigon. On May 27 Ho Chih Minh invited the Vietnamese people to join the Lien Viet and then departed with a delegation for France. By June the Chinese occupation troops had left Vietnam. Hundreds of Japanese soldiers disappeared to join the Viet Minh, the Dai Viet, the Cao Dai, the Lao Issara, or the Khmer Issarak. During the summer of 1946 General Giap built up the Liberation Army to 60,000. The Viet Minh eliminated many of their political adversaries, some estimating that 15,000 moderate nationalists were murdered.

In the south Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu replaced the Colonial Council of Cochinchina with the Advisory Council on February 4, 1946 by appointing twelve members. During a conference at Dalat in April the French would not accept the DRV’s claim to Nam Bo in Cochinchina as part of Vietnam, and Giap ordered the southerners to keep their weapons. Nguyen Phuong Thao, who was known as Binh, led the guerrilla movement in the south that killed more than a thousand prominent people and moderates in a few months. Tran Van Giau traveled to Bangkok and used his friendship with Pridi to gain guns, grenades, and booby traps.

On May 10, 1946 France extended the state of war (World War II) to justify sending troop reinforcements to Cochinchina. The appointed Advisory Council elected Dr. Nguyen Van Thinh president of the Autonomous Republic of Cochinchina on June 1, and the DRV protested this. D’Argenlieu organized another conference at Dalat in August for Cochinchina, Cambodia, and Laos, though Col. Nguyen Van Xuan criticized separating Cochinchina from Tonkin and Annam. An October cease-fire in Cochinchina did not hold. On November 7 Thinh complained that his government could not act, and three days later he hanged himself. He was succeeded by his critic Dr. Le Van Hoach, who was a member of Cao Dai. Nguyen Van Sam criticized this pro-French government as did six newspapers with a circulation of 58,000 while three newspapers going to 4,000 people favored French separatism. The French suspended the newspaper Tin Dien.

In France the conference in July at Fontainebleau discussed whether Vietnam was to include Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina. The French refused to recognize Vietnam’s independence or set a firm date for a referendum in Cochinchina, and the talks broke off on September 10. Four days later Ho Chih Minh managed to agree with Marius Moutet on a modus vivendi to prevent war. Then Ho left and returned by boat. In late October the Viet Minh arrested about five hundred suspects, and those executed included the editor Vu Dinh Chi of the VNQDD newspaper Viet Nam. The DRV National Assembly that met on October 30 had 153 fewer members, and only 37 opposition members remained. On November 8 only two members opposed the new constitution that was approved by 240 members. Cung Dinh Quy was arrested, but Nguyen Van Thanh fled to lead the Cao Dai armed forces in Tay Ninh. The constitution was proclaimed the next day. Ho Chih Minh resigned and formed a new cabinet that was approved as the Government of National Union (Lien Viet). All the cabinet positions were held by the Viet Minh except for public works, health, and social security.

On November 20, 1946 in Haiphong the Viet Minh militia fired on a French patrol boat. The French Navy reacted by bombarding Vietnamese civilians in Haiphong. After French soldiers destroyed defensive works in Lang Son on November 24, two French soldiers were killed by mines. In a week of fighting the French regained control of Haiphong, losing 23 killed and 86 wounded. The estimates of Vietnamese civilians killed ranged from the official figure of 300 to 6,000.

On December 17 the French demanded that the Viet Minh Self Defense Forces in Hanoi disarm within three days. Attacks by the Tu Ve militia in Hanoi on December 19 led to more generalized fighting. The French declared martial law and considered this the beginning of the war. The Viet Minh attacked Hanoi’s municipal power station that night, and Giap broadcast on radio a call for resistance to the French in a war of national liberation. Two days later Ho Chih Minh urged enduring sacrifices and determination to fight to the end. The DRV government fled to the mountains of northern Bac Bo while Giap and Ho were already in caves near Hadong, a few miles north of Hanoi.

In their anti-colonial war the DRV tried to govern the liberated zones while leading a revolutionary movement in the cities controlled by the French. The National Assembly did not meet and was reduced to a permanent committee of fifteen. To solve the food shortage problem in the north they encouraged the planting of potatoes, corn (maize), and beans, and the annual wartime food production of 147,600 tons increased to 614,000 tons. Truong Chinh drew from Mao’s writings on guerrilla warfare and wrote the pamphlet The Resistance Will Win. On March 1, 1947 Ho Chih Minh sent a letter to his comrades warning them against localism, sectarianism, militarism, bureaucracy, narrow-mindedness, formalism, paper work, lack of discipline, selfishness, and debauchery.

The Cao Dai signed an agreement with the French on January 8, 1947 that lasted two years. The French had about 115,000 troops in all of Indochina. Admiral d’Argenlieu was recalled to France and was dismissed by Prime Minister Paul Ramadier on March 1. His replacement Emile Bollaert was a member of the Radicals and came to Saigon in April. He ended censorship and called off the siege in Hanoi and Haiphong. Ho Chih Minh began communicating with Zhou Enlai by radio. In May three former members of the National Assembly published an appeal in the Hanoi newspaper Thoi Su for Bao Dai to return, and he declared his willingness to meet with French authorities in September. The Viet Minh reacted by assassinating Nguyen Van Sam and Dr. Truong Dinh Tri. Nguyen Binh led 18,000 Vietnamese regulars in Cochinchina, but his harsh tactics alienated the religious Cao Dai and Hoa Hao. The French launched an offensive in Viet Bac on October 7, and paratroopers landed in Bao Can. They found the Viet Minh headquarters, but Ho Chih Minh was at a command post and escaped. On December 7 the French persuaded Bao Dai to sign a statement of principles.

In 1948 the Viet Minh moved from the first stage of withdrawal to begin initiating battles with the French. In the south the French approved a provisional government under the leadership of General Nguyen Van Xuan. He suspended the sovereignty of the Vietnamese people and signed an agreement with the French at Ha Long Bay on June 5 that Bao Dai countersigned. Bollaert was succeeded as High Commissioner in October by Leon Pignon, the advisor to Leclerc that he had dismissed. Bao Dai exchanged letters with French President Vincent Auriol in March 1949, and these Elysée Agreements were based on the reunification of Cochinchina with the rest of Vietnam. The French National Assembly created a territorial assembly with limited suffrage by those in Cochinchina, and they voted for reunification on April 23. Bao Dai came home, and the National Assembly approved the new government. Bao Dai was inaugurated as head of state in Saigon City Hall on June 14. On July 9 Pham Ngoc Thach, who represented the DRV in the south, denounced Bao Dai as a puppet paid by the invaders, and he told a French reporter that the victories by the Chinese Communists portended the end of hard times for the Viet Minh. In December the DRV sponsored its first national conference of trade unions in Viet Bac. In a hall under pictures of Stalin, Mao, and Ho Chih Minh, Truong Chinh proclaimed that the DRV was now aligned with China.

On January 18, 1950 the People’s Republic of China became the first nation to grant diplomatic recognition to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) as the only legal government in Vietnam. That month Ho Chih Minh walked to China in seventeen days. From there he traveled secretly to Moscow and met with Joseph Stalin, who also recognized the DRV. Ho was present on February 14 when Stalin and Mao signed a treaty of alliance. Ho asked for a similar treaty; but Stalin said that was not possible because Ho was on a secret mission. Yet he promised that the USSR would give aid through China. Ho traveled back to Beijing by train with Mao and Zhou Enlai.

China began sending military advisors to Vietnam in April, and they set up the Chinese Military Advisory Group (CMAG) in July. The Viet Minh began sending volunteers to Yunnan province in April, and by the end of the year the Chinese had armed and trained 20,000 Vietnamese. The Viet Minh forces reached 160,000. General Giap launched an offensive in September and forced the French to evacuate Cao Bang and the entire region near the border with China. The French lost 4,000 men and left behind more than ten thousand tons of ammunition. Ho Chih Minh favored the methods of the Chinese revolution, and party cadres discussed the writings of Mao Zedong, Zhu De, and Liu Shaoqi. The Viet Minh claimed that in five years they had taught more than eleven million people to read and write. In December the Chinese advisors assured the Vietminh that they would supply them with the equipment they needed to win the war.

The French National Assembly established the Associated States of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos within the French Union, and the Senate ratified this on February 2, 1950. That month Washington granted diplomatic recognition to the Bao Dai government, and on March 10 President Truman approved $15 million in military aid to French Indochina. Bao Dai had let Nguyen Phan Long become prime minister in January 1950, but he was replaced by Tran Van Huu in April. Bao Dai appointed a cabinet on July 1 that included General Xuan and four members of Dai Viet, a Cao Dai, a Hoa Hao, a VNQDD, and independents. Bao Dai laid a wreath on a Viet Minh tomb on December 19 to show his openness to the Viet Minh. Bao Dai delegated military command to the French commander in Indochina. In September the United States had set up the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon, and they signed an aid agreement with France and the three Associated States on December 23. The French forces were supported by 65,000 Vietnamese troops. Because of fear of Communism the United States sent large amounts of military aid that emboldened the French and their Vietnamese allies against the Vietnamese fighting for their independence, beginning American intervention in a colonial war.

Indonesia and the Dutch 1800-1950


1. “The Political Theses of the Indochinese Communists Party” in Colonialism Experienced ed. Truong Buu Lam, p. 285.
2. “Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam” in Ho Chih Minh on Revolution, p. 145.

Copyright © 2007 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book SOUTH ASIA 1800-1950.
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British India 1800-1848
British India's Wars 1848-1881
India's Renaissance 1881-1905
India's Freedom Struggle 1905-1918
Gandhi and India 1919-1933
Liberating India and Pakistan 1934-1950
Tibet, Nepal, and Ceylon 1800-1950
Burma, Malaya and the British 1800-1950
Siam, Cambodia, and Laos 1800-1950
Vietnam and the French 1800-1950
Indonesia and the Dutch 1800-1950
Australia to 1950
New Zealand to 1950
Summary and Evaluation


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