New Internationalist

Simply… A History Of Vietnam

Issue 216

new internationalist
issue 216 - February 1991

Simply... A history of Vietnam

1
Ancient history

Vietnam's early history is dominated by China, which tended to regard its southern neighbour as a province - albeit a somewhat unruly one. In 111 BC the Han Dynasty formally annexed what was then called Nam Viet - and the country remained part of China for a thousand years. Vietnam absorbed Confucian traditions but never lost its separate identity and in 939 the rebel Ngo Quyen lured the Chinese fleet onto spikes concealed under the high tide and set up an independent state.

The independent Vietnam was ruled, like China, by a series of imperial dynasties. The greatest of these was the Le (1427-1789), established when Le Loi - who still has a street named after him in every city - expelled the latest set of Chinese oppressors. The Le dynasty expanded south to take over the Champa kingdom, inhabited by people of Malay origin, and establish the boundaries of modern Vietnam.

 

2
French colonialism

The first French were missionaries who dabbled in politics. The Vietnamese emperor s execution of the more troublesome of these prompted Napoleon Ill to send troops. They attacked in 1858 and eventually established the colony of Cochinchina in the south of Vietnam, with Saigon as capital. The French gradually eroded the power of the emperors further north, while keeping them as puppet figureheads. In 1887 French Indochina was formed from the colony of Cochinchina and the protectorates of Annam (central Vietnam), Tonkin (northern Vietnam), Cambodia and Laos.

The French justified their rule of Indochina by the idea that they were bringing into light and liberty the races and peoples still enslaved by ignorance and despotism'. In reality Vietnam was treated as a huge plantation fuelling French industrialization.

Many thousands of Vietnamese died labouring in appalling conditions on rubber plantations; rice was exported despite the starving local people. There were periodic revolts - but the resistance was notorganized enough to succeed against a ruthless French security system. Vietnamese nationalism awaited a rallying force.

 

3
Ho Chi Minh

Born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890, Ho left Vietnam at the age of 21 as a galley boy on a French freighter. After three years at sea he worked in New York and London, beginning a lifetime habit of changing his name to mark each new phase. In London he was Nguyen Tat Thanh but in Paris, where he spent six years, he marked a new political commitment by calling himself Nguyen Ai Quoc ('Nguyen the Patriot'). He joined the Communist Party and travelled to Moscow in 1924, where he was known as Comrade Linh. In Canton for the next three years he was Ly Thuy, a mobilizer of Vietnamese students.

In 1928 he was with Vietnamese dissidents in Thailand, wearing the shaven head and saffron robes of a Buddhist monk and the name Thau Chin. In 1929 he assembled rival factions in Hong Kong and launched the Indochinese Communist Party. He was arrested and imprisoned but escaped by persuading a prison guard to report him dead. He spent the 1930s drifting between China and the Soviet Union, awaiting the right moment. The Second World War provided it.

 

4
The Vietminh

In 1940 Japan occupied Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh founded the Vietminh (the League for the Independence of Vietnam) as a broad-based nationalist movement to fight the Japanese - and he returned home for the first time in 30 years to organize resistance from a cave in the northern hills.

Japan surrendered in August 1945 and Allied leaders agreed that Britain would occupy the south of Vietnam and China the north. But the Vietminh marched down from the hills to liberate Hanoi before the Chinese arrived. On 2 September 1945 the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed, with Ho as President. His inaugural speech quoted from the US Declaration of Independence and reflected his hopes of US support. But even Moscow failed to recognize the new republic. The British ruthlessly suppressed the Vietminh in the south and helped the French to re-establish their old colonial system.

The French return forced the Vietminh back into the hills and a long war ensued. Ho's guerillas were backed after 1949 by newly Communist China while the French war effort was paid for by a US now agonizing about Communist expansion.

Frustrated that guerilla warfare never allowed them to use their superior firepower, the French decided in 1954 to lure the Vietminh into a battle_at Dien Bien Phu, a valley near the Laotian border. But the Vietminh mobilized an army twice as big as expected and hauled heavy artillery to the top of steep hills surrounding the valley, something the French had considered impossible. After 55 days of intense bombardment Vietminh troops over-ran Dien Bien Phu and the French colonial period was over.

 

5
Partition

The 1954 Geneva Conference divided Vietnam temporarily in two: the Communist North led by Ho and the South led by a maverick Catholic called Ngo Dinh Diem. The Conference specified that free elections were to be held before 1956 and the country reunited. But the US never ratified the agreement. President Eisenhower said in his memoirs: 'I have never talked... with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs, who did not agree that had the elections been held... 80 per cent of the population would have voted for Ho Chi Minh'. Elections were ruled out and the US began bolstering up the Diem regime in South Vietnam, which tortured and executed thousands of Vietminh supporters. The Communists did not respond until 1960, when a new patriotic movement rallied all Diem's opponents of South Vietnam - the National Liberation Front. A new war had begun.

 

6
The American War

Under President Kennedy, US involvement mounted steadily. US military 'advisers' regularly went into combat and on bombing missions. But their disenchantment with the corruption and incompetence of the Diem regime increased. In 1963 Diem and his brother Nhu launched a vicious repression of Buddhists and the world was shocked by the protest of a monk who set himself on fire. The US backed a coup by dissatisfied generals, who assassinated both Diem and Nhu.

Conflict escalated. The North poured its own troops covertly into the South down the 'Ho Chi Minh Trail' through the mountains. In 1965 President Johnson began the sustained bombing of North Vietnam and the first marines arrived in Danang. By the end of that year there were 200,000 US soldiers in Vietnam; by the end of 1966 there were 400,000.

But it was not a war to their taste. The guerillas would strike and then disappear into vast underground tunnel networks or else into the local community. Instead of using their superior firepower, US soldiers were eternally on patrol wondering when the next mine or booby trap would strike. Too often they responded by treating any Vietnamese villager as a threat to be liquidated. At least 25,000 civilians were killed and 50,000 more injured every year.

 

7
War and peace

Photo: Eric L Wheater On the eve of Tet (the Lunar New Year) in 1968, the North launched a major attack intended to liberate South Vietnam before an ailing Ho Chi Minh died. In the short term it failed: nowhere did the local population rise up in support and the rebels suffered devastating losses. But the Tet Offensive was a long-term success. TV coverage of it profoundly shocked a US public which had been told everything was under control: instead they saw the Communist flag raised over Huê and the US Embassy in Saigon attacked. The US anti-war movement gathered momentum and the will to fight began to evaporate.

The new US President, Richard Nixon, spread the war into Cambodia - the Khmer Rouge ultimately came to power as a result - but also started disengaging from Vietnam. US forces were steadily reduced and a peace agreement was eventually signed on 27 January 1973. The Americans withdrew as planned within 60 days but both Vietnamese armies carried on fighting.

The US withdrawal devastated South Vietnam's economy. The North launched another major offensive on 10 March 1975 and routed their demoralized opponents; on 30 April Saigon was liberated and Vietnam reunited.

 

8
A new era

Photo: Chris Brazier The new Government of all Vietnam hoped for Western aid in reconstruction - and particularly for three billion dollars in war Leparations which Nixon had promised. No money came and the prospect of rapprochement receded even further in 1979 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and deposed the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

Vietnam paid a triple price for this service to humanity: its own troops stayed for ten years, draining the domestic economy of material and human resources: China invaded Vietnam as 'punishment' for the attack on their Cambodian ally; and the Western nations imposed an economic embargo which wrecked any hope of reconstruction and is still in place today.

Isolated, ground down by decades of war, lost in economic stagnation, the Vietnamese Government had no alternative but to change course. The first concessions to market economics came in 1979. But the real change came at the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party in 1986, when Nguyen Van Linh emerged as General Secretary and the doi moi reforms were approved. The reforms are gathering pace all the time and it cannot be long now before the West stops shunning Vietnam as an enemy - and starts trusting it as a friend.

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