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Vietnam War Overview Part 1: Vietnam's History & Culture

Vietnam's History & Culture
Map of Vietnam
Map of Vietnam
Vietnam is a distinct Asian culture over 2,000 years old; whose language is a separate member of the world family of languages.  The Vietnamese originated from the Red River Delta in North Vietnam, where they built a culture based on rice cultivation and local commerce.   In the second century B.C., Vietnam was conquered by its colossal neighbor to the north, China. During the 800 years of Chinese occupation, Vietnam absorbed much Chinese culture, influencing its political system, the arts, literature, and education. Educated Vietnamese conversed and wrote in Chinese.  Much of the poetry, painting, and architecture, however, remained distinctly Southeast Asian. Most significantly, the occupation did not eradicate Vietnamese nationalism, as evidenced by periodic efforts to evict the Chinese. Finally, when China underwent a period of turmoil in the tenth century, the Vietnamese revolted and restored their independence.
The new Vietnamese state, ruled by an emperor, retained Chinese political institutions and values. Loyalty to the emperor was conditional upon his compassionate treatment of the people without resorting to oppression.  Instead of a government body composed of the ruling elite, selection of government officials was done by civil service examination.  Intelligent, studious peasants could therefore rise in the society (as long as they were men).  The new Vietnamese state eventually dominated the region.  It expanded south along the coast, into land then held by a now extinct state called Champa. Especially important was the acquisition of the Mekong River Delta in South Vietnam.  Additional land was taken from Angkor, later to become Cambodia. By 1700, the modern borders of Vietnam were established. The country has an unusual shape, like the letter S. On its western border is a string of mountains, which today separates Vietnam from Laos and Cambodia. On its eastern border is the South China Sea.
Because the entire country lies within the tropical zone, where the temperature rarely falls below 50 degrees and is usually in the eighties and nineties, the terrain is composed of dense jungles, swamps, and rice paddies.  The vast majority of Vietnamese were rice farmers, whose lives hadn’t changed much in thousands of years. Some eighty percent lived off the land, mostly in thousands of technologically primitive villages and hamlets surrounded by their rice paddies. Confucian philosophy and ethics adopted from the Chinese continued to emphasize the importance of family (which often had 3 or more generations under 1 roof) and community over the needs and wants of the individual.  Most major decisions were made either within the family, or by a council of elders that also served as the only connection with the central government that seemed so far way.  Men ruled their families (although women informally had a lot of influence), children obeyed their parents, marriages were arranged, and male children remained on their ancestral land to help

Vietnam's regions
Vietnam's regions
meet the needs of their elders.  Thus, most villagers spent their entire lives in their village.  It was their entire universe. And yet the Vietnamese maintained an exceptionally strong sense of national identity.

Within this national identity, however, the Vietnamese became divided in several important ways.  During Vietnam’s tenth century expansion to the south, a kind of “frontier spirit” developed which has been likened to that of the American West in the nineteenth century.   South Vietnamese developed a greater sense of freedom and individuality.  They especially came to resent being dictated to by the Emperor and his royal court at Hanoi in the north.  By the seventeenth century Vietnam splintered into two competing factions, led by the Trinh family in the north, and the Nguyen family in the south.  For two hundred years they waged a civil war. It finally ended in 1802, with the Nguyen family dominating.  Their victory was accomplished in part with assistance from the French, who arrived in the region along with other Western countries to compete for colonies and religious converts. But the Nguyen family then turned against the French, and even persecuted their Vietnamese Catholic converts. Undaunted, a French fleet landed at the northern port of Da Nang harbor in 1858 and advanced on the imperial capital city of Hue.  They were rebuffed, but were more successful in the south, where they established a French protectorate in 1862. The following year they added Cambodia.  Twenty years later the French resumed their expansion.  They invaded the Red River Valley in 1884 and forced the emperor to accept a French protectorate over the remainder of Vietnam.  Some Vietnamese tried to conduct guerilla operations against the French, but without support from the Emperor, their movement died off. Less than a year later the French added neighboring Laos.  The French organized the region under a single administrative unit ruled by a French Governor-General appointed from Paris.  They kept an Emperor on the throne to give the appearance of legitimacy, but he ruled only under French “protection.” They called their Southeast Asia colony Indochina.
French Colonial Rule
France rationalized colonialism with its own version of the “White Man’s Burden.” They would “civilize” the backward peoples of Asia.  They did modernize some aspects of the country.  The infrastructure was improved, and they introduced some of the institutions of democracy.  But their main concern was commercial profit for France.  They wanted cheap raw materials for France, and markets for French goods. They knew that if the Vietnamese were given full democratic rights they would vote for self-determination and an end to French rule.  Only French residents and a few wealthy, westernized Vietnamese were given the right to vote, and Vietnamese manufacturing was actively discouraged.  The Vietnamese were not even allowed to produce rice wine, often used for ritual purposes, because it would compete with grape wine imported from France.  The French controlled all of the key rubber plantations, but the Vietnamese provided all of the labor, often at starvation wages.

French Indochina, 1913
More differences between north and south developed as a result of French Colonialism. New lands in the Mekong Delta opened up by French engineering projects were sold to the highest bidder, resulting in a greater concentration of land ownership in a small, wealthy elite. Two major religious sects emerged in the south: the Hoa Hoa, a form of reformed Buddhism, and the Cao Dai, a hybrid of both western and eastern religions.  Additionally, French Colonialism brought Catholicism, which would play a major role in the politics of Vietnam in the years before direct U.S. military involvement.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a new generation of Vietnamese youth took up the cause of nationalism.  Having grown up under French rule, however, they differed from the previous generation in that they didn’t seek a return to the past, but rather looked to a future that would be Vietnamese, but would embrace some western values such as science and democracy.  These new nationalists came from both north and south, were young, educated, and modern.  They formed secret political parties and attempted to organize resistance against French colonial rule. But they tended to focus on free speech and greater legislative representation for natives.  They ignored some of the issues that were important to the working class, such as land reform, improving working conditions, reducing taxes and rent for Vietnamese farmers. As a result, these political organizations failed.
Ho Chi Minh addresses Frech Communists, 1920
Ho Chi Minh addresses Frech Communists, 1920
One of these organizations was the Revolutionary Youth League, founded in South China among Vietnamese refugees there by a Vietnamese named Ho Chi Minh.  The Revolutionary League appeared to be an ally of the other organizations, but in reality it was a competitor.  Rather than a promoter of democracy, Ho’s League was communist.  Ho Chi Minh was the son of a Vietnamese official who opposed French rule.  He grew up on nationalist tales of Vietnamese heroes.  At the age of 21 he traveled the world as a cook on an ocean liner, and then worked in the kitchen of a luxury hotel in London.  Just as WWI was ending he arrived in France. That fall, the leaders of the Great Powers arrived there for the Versailles peace conference.  Using a pseudonym, Ho circulated a petition calling on the Allies to extend the concept of self-determination, one of the key planks in Woodrow Wilson’s
Fourteen Points, to the peoples of Southeast Asia. Since Vietnam was part of a French colony, the petition was ignored.  Ho stayed in France, and his politics became more radical.  Only three years after the Bolshevik Revolution brought communism to Russia, Ho became a founding member of the French Communist Party.  His activities soon brought him to the attention of the Soviets, who trained him in Moscow for a year and then sent him to South China.

By 1929, Ho’s Revolutionary League had over 1,000 members and was steadily growing.  One reason for this was his attractive personality and character.  Another reason was that the Youth League, unlike the other anti-French organizations, appealed to the peasant and the worker. When the Great Depression caused a rise in unemployment and dramatic declines in the price of rice and the standard of living, communism became even more appealing (as it did in the other parts of the world, including the United States). When nationalists staged an uprising in 1930, Ho transformed his League into a formal Indochinese Communist Party.  The French quickly put down the rebellion and arrested most of the Communist Party leaders, including Ho, who spent time imprisoned in the British colony of Hong Kong.  In 1932 the French installed Bao Dai on the throne, the last of the Nguyen family that had ruled South Vietnam since 1802.  He would play a key role in what happened in Vietnam after WWII.  For the rest of the 1930s the Communist Party in Vietnam limped along.  But then WWII and the resulting regional instability changed everything.
Vietnam & WWII
After the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940, French colonies fell under the control of Vichy France, the puppet government set up in Northern France by the German-Italian Axis powers. By that time the Japanese war against China was three years old.  In September 1940 the Japanese invaded Indochina to prevent China from moving arms and fuel through the region. The Vichy French yielded to the occupation and signed an agreement giving the Japanese conditional occupation rights. Vichy France continued to run the colony, but ultimate power resided with the Japanese.

In 1941, a coalition of anti-French, anti-Japanese Vietnamese founded a military organization called the Viet Minh. Controlled by the Communist Party of Vietnam, it took up arms against both French and Japanese occupation forces. Taking on the Japanese earned the Viet Minh funding from quite a number of allies, including the Soviet Union, China, and the United States.  The Viet Minh toned down their communist rhetoric, earning them support from many Vietnamese patriots who desired independence, if not specifically under communism. During the next four years the Communist Party and Viet Minh built an elaborate political network throughout the country and trained guerilla fighters in the mountains of North Vietnam.

Near the end of WWII the Japanese seized control of Indochina from France.  They interned all of the Vichy authorities, but left Emperor Bao Dai on the throne.  The countryside was left with virtually no administration at all.  This allowed the Viet Minh to gain further influence.  When a famine wiped out one million Vietnamese, the French and Japanese did nothing, while the Viet Minh organized to help the starving, earning them even more support.  By the end of the war the Viet Minh were recognized by the Vietnamese people as the main force fighting for independence and justice.
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Last modified June 3, 2012