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At the crossroads of the Chinese, Malaysian and Indian worlds, Vietnam could only forge its identity by breaking free of its Chinese shackles and nurturing its own heritage. One of the most notable characteristics of Vietnam’s history is its constantly evolving geographical boundaries. Born in the north, in the Red River Delta which was the cradle of the Viet, by 1802 the country had gained the shape which it was to reclaim on its reunification in 1975. Like silkworms relentlessly nibbling on their mulberry leaves – in the words of a 19C mandarin – little by little the Vietnamese expanded southwards, inching their way along the mountain ridge of the Annamese Cordillera, swallowing up the rice paddies of the centre in the 15C and the Mekong Delta in the 17C.

On the borders of the Chinese world

Legendary origins

Every year, on the 10th day of the 3rd lunar month, many Vietnamese embark on a pilgrimage to Mt Hung, at Co Tich (80km to the north of Hanoi) in an effort to recapture their long history. Four thousand years ago this mountain was the seat of their very first sovereigns, the eighteen Hung kings, descendants of the union of a dragon and an immortal woman. At the time the country was known as Van Lang. Historically and archaeologically speaking, this myth dates back to a Bronze Age beginning in the late 2nd millennium BC and continuing beyond the 7C, in the Dong Son civilisation (Thanh Hoa province). It was this civilisation which, at the same time as the emergence of ironworking, saw the appearance of the bronze drum, an object commonly found up until the mid-20C over an area stretching from southern China as far as eastern Indonesia. The carved scenes on these instruments depict the daily life of rice farmers and part-time fishermen, who lived in stilt-houses.

In 257 BC, a rival kingdom, Au Lac, seized the Van Lang Empire. Again according to legend, its capital, Co Loa, was built on the advice of a spirit, the Golden Tortoise, who entrusted the sovereign with the gift of one of its claws to be mounted on a crossbow. Some fifty years later, Nam Viet, a kingdom of southern China, only managed to invade Au Lac at the price of the lives of numerous soldiers who were killed by the well-aimed ­arrows of the enemy archers. Archaeological excavations at the Co Loa site have revealed several thousand arrow tips. However, some 2 000 years ago, the major power of China which had emerged towards the end of the 3C BC had no trouble in gobbling up all these little States. In 111 BC the region was annexed as far as the Pass of Clouds and, for 1 000 years, was to ­remain a Protectorate of the Empire.

A far-flung territory of the Chinese Empire

Although China’s presence remained discreet until the 1C, this ceased when the Empire sought to implement the rigid policy it inevitably extended to all its conquered territories. Thousands of Chinese subjects were deported to cultivate these new lands. The descendants of the Hung kings failed to take such intentions kindly. A wave of revolts shook the south of the Empire, from Canton to Vietnam, soon led by two sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi. China then despatched General Ma Yuan to crush the revolt in 43 AD. From then on, the distant southern protectorate was subjected to a full-scale programme of Sinicization. The Empire imposed not only its political system, but also its rites, social order, language and script.

China rubs shoulders with India

While the north of the country entered the orbit of China for a millennium, another page of history was being written to the south of the Pass of Clouds. At the turn of the 4C, the Indian-influenced Khmer and Champa kingdoms emerged from the Mekong Delta at the gates of Annam. The history of these nations can be traced through the dates of the envoys they sent to the Chinese court and by the proclam­ations made in honour of their kings, military campaigns and religious foundations. The Cham used Sanskrit, one of the languages of ancient India, and the royal religion was based on the cult of the God Shiva, the kingdom’s protector. With the exception of a period from the mid-7C to the mid-8C, during which their reign extended further south as far as the temple of Po Nagar, the Cham remained concentrated until the 10C in the regions of Amaravati and My Son, the most sacred of their shrines. Although their monarchs and the official religion bore the distinctive stamp of India, the eyes of this nation of skilful mariners were more focused on Java and Sumatra.

A clash of kingdoms

A state is born

In the mid-10C, the north of the country, then called the province of Annam, managed to undermine the dominance of China, which had been weakened by the fragmentation of its Empire. China retained sovereignty but ceased to directly administer the kingdom, which became Dai Viet. This led to a direct confrontation between the northern province of Dai Viet and Champa, the Indianised state of the Cham people. These two opposing worlds embarked on a struggle which was to last 900 years, wedging the Champa kingdom in a pincer-grip, between Dai Viet to the north which tightened its clasp, and the Khmer state of Angkor to the west, which was growing in power.

Dai Viet’s early steps were uncertain. Three rival dynasties, the Ngo, the Dinh and the Earlier Le then succeeded one another in less than a hundred years, but independence was finally achieved in 939. The country enjoyed a period of lasting stability under the Ly dynasty in the person of its founder Ly Thai To (1009-28). The capital was established at Thang Long, the future Hanoi, and the country was organised on principles bequeathed by a thousand years of Chinese occupation. Power, which was absolute, was clearly in the hands of the sovereign, but military and civil domains were administered by civil servants recruited by public examin­ations. Eighty percent of the population lived off the land, while the remaining 20 % was composed of trade and craft guilds, an intellectual elite of mandarins and scholars and the royal family and its dignitaries. Until French colonisation, Vietnam was organised traditionally on the basis of two superimposed structures: the ­bureaucratic state, based on the Confucian model , and a network of village ­communities, which remained strongly attached to their local spirits, their ancestors and their tutelary heroes. Indeed it is on these that Vietnam has traditionally relied to rekindle its desire for independence as successive dynasties toppled.

An era of wars

Consolidation by the Ly dynasty enabled the kingdom of Dai Viet to harass and pillage Champa, which relinquished its northern territories in 1069, despite the backing of China. In the 12C, as the royal house of the Ly foundered amid courtly intrigue, the Khmer Empire of Angkor, the new great power in Southeast Asia, was to challenge the Cham, setting the stage for nearly a hundred years of war (1145-1220) between the two kingdoms.

In the 13C, Vietnam was the only country in Asia capable of countering the Mongol invasion from China, but as a result the political balance was in turmoil. It signalled the decline of the Indianised kingdoms (Mon, Champa and Khmer) and the rise of new powers (Laos, Siam and Vietnam). The Vietnamese victory was carried off by the Tran, an aristocratic clan which took over the throne in Hanoi. In 1360 at the coronation of Che Bon Nga, Champa made one final attempt to reconquer its territories. Encouraged by China’s recognition, the Cham king ventured into the Red River Delta and ransacked Hanoi in 1371. He pursued this policy of harassment until he was assassinated in 1390. The pressure was such that the Tran were forced to raise taxes and enlist monks into the army, and the dynasty’s popularity, understandably, declined as a result of such authoritarian measures.

Land-eating silk worms

In 1400, General Le Qui Ly, Che Bong Nga’s great rival, forced the Tran to abdicate and proclaimed himself emperor with the title of Ho Qui Ly. Fearing for his throne, the Cham king Jaya Simhavarman V gave up Amaravati, the religious heart of Champa since its birth. This sacrifice was immense. Not only had the sovereign handed over the mystic soul of his kingdom, he had lost his most prosperous rice-growing territory. As a result, the Cham began to emigrate massively to the mountainous, poorer region to the south of Quang Ngai. The Vietnamese then embarked on their March southwards (Nam Tien), implementing exactly the same policy that China had inflicted previously on the north of the country, whereby colonists were dispatched to manage the new lands with their richly productive rice paddies. Jaya Simhavarman attempted to regain his lost lands by calling on the help of China, which had expelled the Mongols and founded the Ming dynasty. The Chinese responded by sending troops across the frontier, annexing the Vietnamese state and subjecting it to tyrannical rule (1413-28).

In their fight against Chinese oppression, the Viet sharpened a weapon which had already stood them in good stead against the Mongols. Past masters in trapping the enemy rather than facing him head on, they embarked upon a strategy of guerrilla harassment against the Imperial bulldozer rather than attempting an out-and-out war. Two figures dominated the resistance, the soldier, Le Loi, a landowner from Thanh Hoa, and Nguyen Trai, a strategist and a scholar steeped in Chinese culture. Their alliance was to create a fearsome war machine, which received the backing of the whole nation. Beginning in 1418, by 1426 guerrilla tactics had managed to liberate the Red River Delta and Le Loi was proclaimed emperor in 1428 under the name of Le Thai To.

“Harmony returns to the disturbed universe”

This line is from The Great Proclamation of Peace of the Ngo, a long poem written by Nguyen Trai to mark the rise to power of the dynasty and the return of peace. Le Thai To negotiated a lasting peace with the Ming, committing his country to uphold a relationship of vassalage with the Chinese Empire which was only broken by the French intervention in the late 19C. For its part, China removed its centre of gravity to the north, to Peking, the capital of the Empire until its fall in 1911, and a full six-week ride away from Tonkin. Le Thai To also managed to establish peaceful relations with Champa, little more than a shadow of its former self. The kingdom now only consisted of the arid lands to the south of Cape Varella, one-fifth of what it had ­possessed at the time of Che Bong Nga. The rise to power of the Later Le dynasty paved the way for a century of peace. The state was rebuilt on the foundations bequeathed by the Ly dynasty in the 11C. Education and agriculture, including the building of dikes and canals and the clearing of land for new crops, became the priorities and were to contribute to shaping Vietnam’s awareness of its national identity.

From fragmentation to unity

North against South

From 1527, the authority of the Le was on the wane. The country was the scene of rebellions and uprisings and the feudal lord, Mac Dang Dung seized power. Forced to flee Hanoi by the supporters of the Le, he withdrew to Cao Bang and remained under the protection of China until 1677. The Le rulers were at this time little more than puppets in the hands of the Trinh and the Nguyen families who only restored the dynasty to better fight among themselves. The former had a firm grip on real power in Hanoi and were in reality the actual rulers of the whole of Tonkin due to their control over the army. The latter established their power in the provinces won from the Cham. They also took advantage of the ships and guns brought by newcomers to Asia, the Portuguese, who flitted back and forth between their trading posts at Goa and Macao. From 1558, the Nguyen established an ­independent feudal domain and, despite a series of wars against the Trinh (1627-72), built a capital at Hue in 1687 and pursued the March southwards, finally absorbing Champa (whose last king was killed in 1692). In the mid-18C, the Nguyen became masters of the Mekong Delta and their sovereignty extended over the neighbouring kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos.

Opening to the world

The foundation of the port of Hoi An on the estuary of the little river of Thu Bon in the first half of the 16C opened up international trading routes to the Nguyen. To a far greater extent than at Hanoi and the mouth of the Red River, tucked away in the Gulf of Tonkin, Hue and its port benefited from their ancient maritime network bridging the Chinese and the Malaysian worlds. Guilds of merchants from southern China settled here in the early 17C, followed by Japanese from Nagasaki. The arrival of the Portuguese opened up the way for firstly Dominican, then Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries, whose presence was further increased when all foreigners were expelled from Japan in 1638. One of them, Father Alexandre de Rhodes, bequeathed Vietnam a precious tool for the future, namely a Latin-based script of the Vietnamese language (quoc-ngu). The Dutch attempted to establish trading posts in Vietnam but were forced to withdraw from 1641 as a penalty for having taken sides with the Trinh against the Nguyen. In 1698, the latter erected a fort on a site which had already attracted Chinese tradesmen between 1630-40. This was Cholon, the “great market”, located on one of the branches of the River Saigon.

The peasant uprising

Eighteenth century Vietnam was a divided land, and neither the royal house of the Le, nor the Trinh or the powerful Nguyen families could establish or maintain unity. Moreover, internal tensions among the various communities were growing – the Tonkinese in the north, Annamites of mixed Chinese and Cham blood in the centre and Cochinchinese descendants of the Khmer and Chinese colonialists in the Mekong Delta. Social evolution in the new territories in the south resulted in a peasant uprising at Tay Son. Led by three brothers, Nguyen Hue, Nguyen Nhac and Nguyen Lu, their victories were as devastating as they were unexpected, first in 1785 against Siamese troops assembled by Prince Nguyen Anh and then against the Imperial Chinese forces who had stepped in to help out the Le in 1788. Nguyen Hue proclaimed himself king at Hanoi in 1788, under the name of Quang Trung, but died four years later leaving only a 10-year old son and heir.

The last empire

Defeated by the peasant uprising, Nguyen Anh had fled to Bangkok and found refuge with French missionaries. One of these, Archbishop Pigneau de Béhaine, returned to France and succeeded in persuading Louis XVI to give his military support. Bolstered by the evident superiority of his artillery and by his naval strength, Nguyen Anh launched an offensive, capturing the delta, Hue and then Tonkin (1801) thereby unifying for the first time all the northern, central and southern territories. In 1802, he became Gia Long, Emperor of Vietnam.

Gia Long built an empire which was marked by its open dialogue with the West, but as soon as his successor Minh Mang was invested, the Nguyen returned to the traditional, autocratic Imperial methods of maintaining unity. On the one hand they democratised access to the highest positions in the civil service by opening the mandarin examinations to all, but on the other, they fell back onto the most orthodox of Confucian values. They recognised and rewarded scholars steeped in classical texts rather than pragmatic economists and they rejected modern diplomacy in favour of a view whereby the Chinese world had to defend itself against the invading barbarians. By choosing to reign from Hue, they reawakened the centrifugal forces between north and south which had resulted in the Tay Son uprising. In 1833, the Saigon uprising was harshly quashed by Minh Mang.

The universe once again disturbed

The last lands conquered and the first lands lost

By opting for the Chinese practice instead of dialogue with the West, the Nguyen chose unwisely. While the court of Hue withdrew behind a cloak of isolationism, the Middle Empire wavered against the onslaught of European imperialism. From the early 19C, England and France both set about conquering the Chinese market and obtained diplomatic and commercial treaties following the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60). Threatening manoeuvres in Da Nang Harbour in 1858 and the taking of Saigon by the French army in 1859 were symptomatic of this belligerent policy. They were a response to Emperor Tu Duc’s overtly anti-Western policy and his persecution of Catholics. He was cornered and had no other option than to open his ports to international trade. The whole of the Mekong Delta was the more easily overcome due to the southerners’ lasting grudge against the Nguyen regime which had so harshly put down the Saigon uprising. In 1862, the colony of Cochinchina was created and Cambodia became a French protectorate. By controlling the basins of the two rivers whose sources rise in China, the Red River and the Mekong River, France sought a foothold in Southeast Asia and thereby access to China. However the exploration of the sources of the Mekong, led by Francis Garnier and Doudart de Lagrée, revealed that this was impracticable. To get closer to China, France would have to take Tonkin. The French Third Republic was ­finally to implement a resolutely imperialistic policy and gain control of the north. Hanoi was taken in 1882. After a short war in 1885, the French obtained China’s recognition of the frontier between the two countries and it relinquished its sovereignty over the country.

The scholars’ revolt

The first Vietnamese response to this invasion was legitimist. Known as the Can Vuong (1885-95), a body of scholars who supported Emperor Ham Nghi attempted to reinstate the royal authority spurned by the treaties, but this had almost no impact on France. From 1887, the French pursued their construction of the Indochinese Union, an administrative conundrum combining a single colony, Cochinchina and four protectorates (Cambodia, Laos, Annam and Tonkin). By abolishing Chinese in favour of a Latin-based script and, above all, by doing away with the mandarin examinations from 1919 to 1925, France little by little stripped the scholars of their prerogative of learning and knowledge. Vietnam’s emperors had been reduced to mere figureheads and the new mandarins were obliged to toe the imperialist line.

Schools of nationalism

At the dawn of the 20C, the Japan of Meiji was the only Asian nation which seemed capable of building a modern independent state while maintaining an Imperial system. It provided a model for emer­ging Asian nationalist movements. In Vietnam, the patriotic scholar, Phan Boi Chau masterminded the Dong Du, an “Eastbound exodus” of young recruits who were sent to Tokyo for political and military training. The other voice which could be heard was that of Phan Chau Trinh, who preached a more radical solution, the establishment of a democracy to be accompanied by widespread education for all. In 1911, the year in which the Chinese Empire collapsed, a young man steeped in Trinh’s ideas set sail for Marseilles. His name was Nguyen Tat Thanh, the son of a minor mandarin dismissed for his radical sympathies. In the West, Thanh proved himself to be a jack of all trades. He observed and studied in Paris, London, New York and finally Moscow from 1923. In 1942, he was ready to reclaim his nation’s independence and it was now that he assumed his final nom de guerre: Ho the enlightened, Ho Chi Minh.

A stateless patriot

In the aftermath of the First World War, it was under the pseudonym of Nguyen Ai Quoc, Nguyen the patriot (one of his fifty aliases), that the future Ho Chi Minh decided that Bolshevism was the way to combat the imperialism of Japan and the West. After spending 18 months in Moscow training as a Comintern agent, he left for Canton and then Hong Kong where he laid the foundations of his national liberation programme. He began by creating the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth Association, a nursery of future state officials, whose ideas were spread clandestinely in Vietnam from 1925 to 1930 via a newspaper, Thanh Nien (“Youth”). Their thinking was embraced by the nation’s new intellectual elite, already open to modern concepts as a result of several years spent in the country’s prestigious institutions such as the Lycée Albert Sarraut or the Lycée Chasseloup Laubat at Saigon. They rapidly spread to the working classes, whose living conditions were extremely harsh in what was a prosperous colony. In 1930, the year of the foundation of the Vietnamese Communist Party, renamed the Indochinese Communist Party a few months later, the first strikes occurred in factories and plantations and peasant uprisings broke out in protest at the heavy taxes. This social unrest proved to be the main force for action since the demise of the Nationalist Party, founded in 1927 but repressed three years later, after the revolt of the garrison at Yen Bai. Neither was any hope forthcoming from the still occupied Imperial throne, after a thwarted attempt by Emperor Bao Dai to establish a constitutional monarchy.

The colonial regime’s counter-attack was merciless. The prisons were crammed, villages were burnt and the leaders executed. Even Nguyen Ai Quoc was arrested in China in 1931 and placed under close surveillance. After taking part in the seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935 in Moscow, he travelled across central Asia to Yanan in China, the headquarters of Mao Zedong and his troops. In 1940, as Vietnam was subjected to the compromise of the Indochinese Federation, established by Vichy France and Japan, Nguyen Ai Quoc was knocking at its door, ready to breathe a fresh lease of life into the secret resistance movement with the backing of the Chinese communists.

A cycle of wars

In 1939, even though nationalist aspirations and Japan’s imperialistic ambitions seemed to herald great upheavals, the nation was far from imagining that it faced a half century of warfare which would lead it into confrontation with almost all the planet’s major military powers: Japan, France, the United States and China. At the end of this period, some historians considered that Vietnam had won its freedom but failed in its revolution.

Second World War (1940-45)

The Japanese interlude

Ever since China had been conquered by Japan in the late 1930s, the French colonial regime had been living in fear of invasion. Anticipating the danger, in June 1940 Governor-General Catroux recognised the pivotal role played by the Japanese in the Far East and granted them a number of military facilities in exchange for the recognition of France’s sovereignty over Vietnam. With the exception of a brief Japanese incursion in September 1940, Indochina was to remain the only region of eastern Asia which was not under direct rule from Tokyo between 1940 and 1945. At the same time, the Japanese favoured the emergence of sects in the Mekong Delta and encouraged certain nationalist movements, such as the Dai Viet. The French also tried, in vain, to turn the nationalist sentiment to their own advantage. Back in Vietnam in 1941, Ho Chi Minh created the League for the Independence of Vietnam, the Viet Minh and set up a guerrilla unit in the province of Cao Bang. As early as the Spring of 1943, it made contact with the Americans.

The end of compromise

On 9 March 1945, the Japanese, in reaction to an American raid on the Indochinese coasts, decided to oust the French. The garrisons were disarmed, Governor-General Decoux arrested, General Lemonnier and Resident-General Auphelle decapitated and the settlers interned in camps. The effect of the blow suffered by the colonial regime was irremediable. On 11 March, Emperor Bao Dai proclaimed independence, but it was little more than a pretence, since the Japanese had requisitioned all the rice and directly controlled all of Cochinchina. The ensuing famine killed over 1.5 million people in the North.

On 10 August, following the announcement of Japan’s surrender, the pace speeded up, and the Communist Party was able to assert its position as undisputed spokesman of the independence movement, supported by the majority of the population. Ho Chi Minh seized Hanoi, forced the emperor to abdicate and on 2 September proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). In the South, where it had to form alliances with the powerful sects and nationalist movements, the Viet Minh managed to gain control of Saigon on 25 August. Its power was, however, frail and Chinese troops soon took over the North of the country, while the British occupied the area south of the 16th Parallel as decreed at Potsdam by the Allies. The role played by the British in the overthrow of the Viet Minh government received widespread condemnation from figures as diverse as General MacArthur, commander of the American forces in the Pacific, and Pandit Nehru. Armed by the British, French soldiers newly liberated from the Japanese camps, gained the upper hand once again. The Vietnamese retaliated on 25 September by massacring 150 French settlers. By the end of 1945, the British were on their way home, leaving the French in control of the South and Ho Chi Minh in the North.

The First Indochina War (1945-1954)

A missed opportunity

On 5 October 1945, the triumphant entrance of General Leclerc into Saigon at the head of an impressive armoured contingent signalled the return of French colonial power in Cochinchina. The general and Jean Sainteny, Commissioner of the Republic of Tonkin, nonetheless set France on the path of compromise. On 6 March 1946, at the same time as the French were replacing the Chinese in Northern Vietnam, an agreement was signed with Ho Chi Minh, recognising the DRV as an autonomous state within the French Union. The fate of Cochinchina was to be decided by a referendum.

However, the French government and Thierry d’Argenlieu, High Commissioner for Indochina, were not of the same opinion. Full of nostalgia for the colonial empire and a stalwart anti-Communist, d’Argenlieu intended to re-assert France’s authority. He was behind the creation of a provisional government of Cochinchina, which soon gave rise to violent outbursts. The Fontainebleau Summit in July failed to settle the issue and by November, the struggle had spread northwards, where the ­bombardment of Haiphong by a French Far-Eastern Expeditionary Force led to the deaths of 6 000 people. The response was not long in coming; on 19 December, Hanoi rose in revolt. The country was well and truly at war.

A pawn on the Cold War chessboard

The ensuing struggle seemed singularly unequal, France’s well-equipped troops against the Viet Minh, who were armed only with basic weapons and who decided to opt for guerrilla tactics. Émile Bollaert, who replaced d’Argenlieu in February 1947, decided to negotiate with Bao Dai, in exile in Hong Kong. In December, an initial agreement created the façade of independence for Vietnam under the patronage of Nguyen Van Xuan. Paris formed an alliance with Thailand, pursuing its policy of intrigue and negotiation in an effort to counter the “Communist contagion” of Indochina. Encouraged by the United States, France signed another agreement with Bao Dai on 8 March 1949, which granted a limited form of independ­ence to the associated states of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The eruption of the Cold War in Asia was to wreak havoc with this newly established ­order and give a serious boost to the Viet Minh. In January 1950, the Communists who had just seized power in China recognised the DRV and were soon followed by the USSR. From now on, the resistance movement was to benefit from international support and ­substantial military aid. For their part, Britain and the United States recognised the Three Associated States. The outbreak of the Korean War (June 1950) further convinced Washington to support the French. The feelings of the United States at this time were in direct opposition to those expressed at the Tehran Conference (1943), when the United States and the Soviet Union had agreed to put an end to France’s presence in Indochina. From 1950 on, America was convinced that Vietnam was of vital strategic importance and that the victory of the Communists would lead to the downfall of allied regimes in the region. It was this famous domino theory that dominated American foreign policy for decades to come. Inaugurated in 1950, by a US$10 million donation from President Truman to the French, American aid was to represent three-quarters of French military spending by the end of the war.

Despite the support and presence of an expeditionary force of 150 000 men, the French failed to win a decisive victory. On the contrary, at the battle of the borders (October 1950), France lost 7 000 soldiers as well as control of the border with China, across which weapons arrived for the Viet Minh armies. In December, the French appointed one of its most prestigious officers, de Lattre de Tassigny, Commander in Chief and High Commissioner. He repelled the assault of the North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap against the towns of Tonkin and for the first time, ordered napalm to be used, but the infiltration of the Viet Minh in the delta could not be halted. In addition, the Vietnamese Communist Party, reformed under the name of Lao Dong, managed to gain control of its sister parties in Laos and Cambodia. General Salan, who had replaced de Lattre after the latter’s death in 1952, was forced to abandon the town of Hoa Binh (February 1952), but in October he repelled an assault by the Popular Army of Vietnam (PAV) to the northwest of Tonkin, pushing the attackers back to the frontier with Laos. In March Giap’s troops made their first incursion into Laos.

However the political and economic crisis of the French Union, the lack of any prospect of victory and the cost of the war, both in economic and humanitarian terms, led to France’s gradual withdrawal from combat in favour of Bao Dai’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARV). The priority from then on was to negotiate an honourable outcome, and General Navarre, Salan’s successor, was entrusted with the task of winning a number of victories in order to place France in the best possible position for the negotiations. In October 1953, Paris finally consented to grant the Associated States real independence.

The turning point of the war

To prevent Giap from reaching Laos and from establishing a link with Annam and Cochinchina, Navarre decided to set up a military base in northwest Tonkin, near the Laotian border. Militarily speaking, Dien Bien Phu seemed like a good choice, ­because its wide basin (6km x 12km) would force the enemy to place its batteries on the steep mountain flanks – within reach of French cannon fire – if it wanted to bombard the base. From November 1953, crack French troops set up camp, while the Viet Minh, encouraged by China, decided to throw their all into the battle in order to carry off a decisive psychological victory. In the event, the repercussions of France’s defeat were immense and were to accelerate the conclusion of the nine-year old conflict.

The day after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the players in the conflict met at the Geneva Conference to discuss Korea and Indochina. With the exception of Bao Dai and the United States, all the parties seemed resigned to a division of the country. For their part, the Russians and the Chinese wanted to take advantage of the recent election of Pierre Mendès France, who had promised to settle the conflict within a month and to persuade the Viet Minh to accept a compromise. Peking was in fact very favourable to the curbing of its unruly neighbour’s activities. The 20 July treaty, not ratified by Washington, foresaw the neutralisation of Laos and Cambodia and the temporary div­ision of Vietnam along the 17th parallel. Reunification was to take place after elections planned at the latest for July 1956 and organised by the International Armistice Control Commission. The French troops withdrew from the North, which fell under the authority of the DRV, while some 900 000 anti-Communists fled to the South, where the Americans had forced Bao Dai to accept a Roman Catholic and staunch anti-Commun­ist, Ngo Dinh Diem at the head of the government.

The Vietnam War

On 26 October 1955, Diem proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam (RV) and declared that it was not bound by the Geneva Accords. The stage was set for a new war.

Reunification fails (1954-60)

The Americans decided to make South Vietnam their main base in Southeast Asia, granting Diem their unconditional political and financial support, and they set about creating the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). A hermetically-sealed frontier was drawn between the two states, the French being totally ousted. 1956 finally came to a close without any elections having been held, and on 21 May Diem proclaimed the deposition of Bao Dai. Unpopular from the very start, the totalitarian Diem regime instituted a reign of terror, thanks to the Can Lao, the secret police controlled by his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. In the countryside, the peasants were forced to pay vast tax arrears to wealthy landowners. In addition, Diem implemented a savage policy of repression against the sects which controlled large portions of the Mekong Delta at the time.

In the North, Ho Chi Minh established a single party authoritarian regime and embarked on an ambitious programme of industrialisation and agricultural reform, which gave rise to violently repressed revolts (15 000 executions). The Communists in the South set up a small army which organised propaganda actions and attacks against the regime. From 1959-60, the armed struggle began again in earnest, soon backed by soldiers sent from Hanoi. On 19 December 1960, the South Vietnamese rebels founded the National Liberation Front (NLF) which advocated peaceful reunification and moderate agricultural reform so as not to alienate the peasantry. Dominated by Communists, it was soon to rise to fame under the name of Viet Cong (VC).

American involvement (1961-64)

At the beginning of 1961, the different factions of the NLF were reorganised into the Popular Liberation Army (PLA) of 15 000 men, with the aim of overthrowing the South Vietnamese regime with the aid of the Communists from the North. Simultaneously, the DRV received the backing of the two rival brothers of the Communist world, the USSR and China. In December 1961, within the context of the Cold War exacerbated by the Berlin and Cuban crises, the recently-elected President Kennedy decided to send in military “advisors”, in violation of the 1954 armistice and the Geneva Accords and in response to the growth of the VC. By the end of 1962 their numbers had reached 9 000.

Diem and the Americans attempted to cut off the rural population from VC infiltration, by grouping the peasants into strategic hamlets set up in safe zones. Led by Ngo Dinh Nhu, this extremely brutal “relocation” policy was highly unpopular. Moreover, it failed to estrange the peasantry from the guerrilla forces and from 1963, the hamlets were infiltrated. In reaction, the ARVN bombarded the forests with defol­iant and spread herbicide in the countryside, but the NLF built a network of efficient underground shelters and pursued its attacks. The lack of results and the negotiations undertaken by Nhu with Hanoi undermined the relations between Diem and the United States. Affairs came to a head with the violent repression of the Buddhists in June 1963, when Nhu’s wife joked about the “barbecue”, referring to the immol­ation of a senior Buddhist monk. On 1 November, Diem and his brother were executed during a coup that the Americans had allowed to occur. Three weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated and his successor, Johnson, decided to extend the field of operations to Laos, cutting off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In 1964, Cambodia agreed to allow Chinese arms intended for the NLF a free passage, thereby causing a breakdown in diplomatic relations with Washington. In Saigon, the junta headed by Duong Van Minh attempted to form a government of reconciliation in order to negotiate with Hanoi, but it was overthrown by General Nguyen Khanh in January 1964. Any chance of a political outcome was at this stage out of the question.

Onset of the war with America

On the ground, the Viet Cong retained its hold over most of the land and the population of South Vietnam, despite America’s vast firepower. From 1964, the major part of the NLF was made up of recruits from the South, but the DRV, henceforth directly implicated, was now able to transport entire units through zones controlled by the Laotian Communists. At the other extreme, the American-equipped ARVN suffered from absenteeism and soldiers demotivated and isolated by a hierarchy of corrupt officers. Faced with political instability and the progress of the Viet Cong, Washington decided to increase its financial, material and human aid. The 4 August attack by the North Vietnamese on the American spy ­vessel Maddox, gave Johnson and his Defence Secretary, ­McNamara, the excuse they wanted to obtain carte blanche from Congress to increase their activity in Vietnam. A subsequent enquiry was to prove that the destroyer was in the territorial waters of the DRV at the time of the first attack and that a second attack never in actual fact took place. On 7 February 1965, the President ordered the bombing of North Vietnam and despatched the first combat units to South Vietnam to protect the air base at Da Nang.

Events escalate

The American commander General Westmorland, convinced that the war would be short, obtained an even greater commitment. Already 184 000 in 1965, the US contingent had reached 536 000 by 1968. Search and destroy tactics, although they limited the loss of GIs, required ­substantial logistical backup. Hanoi and Haiphong were bombed in 1966 in order to destroy petrol reserves and prevent the resupplying of the PLA. Despite massive loss of human life (35 000 / year), their impact was limited, because the DRV carefully camouflaged its factories and warehouses and continued to be resupplied by China and the USSR.

At the beginning of 1967, the Hanoi regime decided to return to guerrilla warfare tactics in order to disperse the enemy forces. It was sure of its decisive numerical advantage and bet on the unpopularity of President Nguyen Van Thieu, who was unable to counter corruption within the army and the civil administration. In add­ition, the American bombing and attacks resulted in large numbers of victims in South Vietnam and gave rise to immense displacements of the population (as many as 4 million people in 1968). Hanoi hoped that in the long run, Washington would finally give in rather than reduce its forces in the rest of the world. The reintroduction of conscription in America in 1967 proved to be very unpopular, while the cost of the involvement continued to escalate, forcing the government to raise taxes and cut back on social programmes.

The Tet Offensive

When it seemed that the opposing forces had stalemated each other, Giap decided to launch a major operation. The PAV led an offensive in the region of the 17th Parallel, where the PLA launched an assault designed to create an uprising. To counter the PAV, Westmorland sent large numbers of reinforcements to the Khe Sanh base in the North and entrusted the defence of Saigon to the Vietnamese. On 31 January 1968, during the truce of the Tet festival, 80 000 rebels attacked 105 sites in South Vietnam. However the expected popular uprising did not take place and most of the troops were easily repelled by the Americans. The PLA nonetheless carried off two spectacular and highly symbolic actions. In Saigon, for a few hours it had the run of the gardens of the American embassy in front of the cameras of the world. Further north, Hue, the former imperial capital, was occupied for 25 days and almost 2 500 civil servants accused of collaboration were executed. But the price paid by the PLA, sacrificed by Hanoi, was high indeed. It lost 32 000 men and most of its executive staff, although these were soon replaced by the North Vietnamese. Yet this defeat was to turn to their advantage because it revealed the weakness of the ARVN. The loss of civilians was, however, the cruellest blow (143 000 dead) and it had great repercussions in the United States where public opinion began to judge the cost of the war exorbitant. On 31 March, in a televised speech, Lyndon B Johnson requested the opening of negotiations and limitations on bombing, while indicating that he would not run for a second term as president.

The “Vietnamisation” of the conflict

Negotiations opened in Paris on 13 May 1968 between the United States, the DRV and the RV, as well as a Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) which represented the NLF. At this point their respective stances seemed irreconcilable and no camp appeared to have a sufficient advantage to impose its will. In addition, talks faltered on the South Vietnamese veto on the presence of the PRG. In October, Johnson agreed to halt the bombing of the DRV. In the field, Washington recalled Westmorland and entrusted the major part of the “pacification” operations to the ARVN, equipped by the United States. At the same time, the CIA organised Operation Phoenix, which managed to eliminate nearly 20 000 officials of the NLF. Elected in 1969, the very year when Ho Chi Minh died, Nixon increased the American presence, while searching for an honourable outcome to the conflict at the same time. With the help of his advisor, Kissinger, he initiated an easing of relations with China and the USSR so that they would also bring pressure on Vietnam. This policy was to prove successful, because, in exchange for its first diplomatic recognition from the United States, China encouraged its ally to find a compromise (1971) and Nixon went on a State visit to Peking in 1972. This visit, together with that of the American president to Moscow the same year, was considered a betrayal by Hanoi. To keep the pacifists quiet on the home front, Nixon began to repatriate GIs in 1969 and replaced conscription by a lottery. Nonetheless the effect on the morale of the young men who hadn’t been fortunate enough to avoid their military service was disastrous. Drugs became widespread and cases of indiscipline multiplied, at the same time as relations with the South Vietnamese were deteriorating. It did however seem as if the United States was at last pulling free of the Vietnamese quagmire, but the slow progress of the talks, the massacre at My Lai and the invasion of Cambodia (a neutral country) in April 1970 profoundly shocked American public opinion. As the DRV had still not capitulated, Nixon was forced to abandon military escalation under pressure from the Senate.

Hanoi for its part endeavoured to reinforce its military power which had been ­weakened following the Tet Offensive. On 30 March 1972, Giap despatched a 30 000-strong force to Hue, while the PLA prepared uprisings in the southern towns. In retaliation, Nixon ordered the bombing of the DRV for the first time since 1968 and had the DRV’s ports mined. Even if it revealed the weakness of the ARVN, the Easter Offensive was a failure and resulted in the deaths of 100 000 Viet Cong. The influence of Giap, deemed responsible, faltered in favour of General Van Tien Dung and Hanoi relaunched negotiations between Kissinger and Le Du Tho in August.

Agreement appeared to be within sight, when despite the opposition of Thieu (who was not consulted), Nixon decided to resume the bombing of North Vietnam in order to force it to make further concessions. This decision was not understood and Congress decided to cut off funds to Indochinese operations. Finally a cease-fire was signed on 27 January 1973. According to its terms, the US army would withdraw totally, the PLA would remain in the zones it controlled and free elections would be held in South Vietnam. In exchange, Hanoi was to withdraw from Cambodia and Laos and relinquish any claims on the RV. To get Thieu to accept this treaty, Nixon pledged military support if the DRV failed to respect the agreement. Furthermore in a secret letter to Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, he agreed to pay the DRV compensation.

The collapse of South Vietnam

In Laos, fighting ceased rapidly, but Cambodia, where the PAV troops held out, was bombed more heavily in six months than Japan was during the whole of the Second World War. The reaction of Congress was to forbid any further American participation in military operations, thereby preventing Nixon from honouring his promise to Thieu. At the same time, the Watergate scandal deprived the president of all room for manoeuvre, while the October 1973 petrol crisis forced the United States to reduce aid. Cut off from all popular support and weakened by the economic crisis, the Saigon regime had only a demoralised army of deserters to count on, while negotiations with Hanoi regarding the elections were at a standstill.

In January 1975, encouraged by the resignation of Nixon and from its reinforced position in the Mekong Delta, the Lao Dong (Vietnamese Communist party) decided to launch its first major offensive on the north of Saigon to test its adversary’s strength. The success of this operation was such that it then sent its tanks into the Highlands in March. Totally unexpectedly, the ARVN abandoned Buan Ma Thuot almost without a fight. From that point, Saigon was directly threatened. Along the coast, the withdrawal of the ARVN turned into a rout, with almost 15 000 soldiers and 100 000 civilians killed. The capture of the port of Da Nang on 29 March was a decisive victory for the PAV, who were able to regain the weapons left behind by the fleeing ARVN and launch the final assault. The Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975 after only 55 days forced Duong Van Minh, president for only two days, to surrender. The last Americans abandoned their embassy the same day, after having evacuated 150 000 South Vietnamese. The United States, who had failed to save its ally, was totally humiliated.

The disillusion of the day after

The end of the war in Vietnam, far from bringing peace to the peninsula, saw a resurgence of old regional rivalries. Indochina remained a key component of international politics within the Communist world.

Difficult reunification

Officially reunified on 2 July 1976, the country became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), with Hanoi as capital and Le Duan appointed as General Secretary of the Communist Party. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Institutions were based on those of the DRV with a single party system. However, for the previous twenty years, the North and the South had experienced radically different regimes. The population of the North, who had lived with a war economy, were shocked when they discovered the affluence of Saigon’s markets overflowing with American consumer goods. The gulf was immense, all the more so as the war had been experienced differently on both sides and suspicions were rife. During the 1975-79 period, 500 000 officials from the North were sent to live in the former southern capital. Over 15 000 “collaborators” were despatched to re-education camps, where living conditions were particularly harsh, and hundreds of thousands of Saigon’s inhabitants were forced to move to the border regions of Cambodia and to “Vietnamise” the Highlands close to Laos. The adoption of a socialist economy prompted many peasants and tradespeople to refuse to sell their produce. This policy resulted in a mass flight by sea and the tragedy of the boat people.

The country emerged ruined by 30 years of war, as much in the North where the industrial fabric and road network had been completely destroyed by American bombs, as in the South, where the countryside was either ravaged or deserted. In addition, far from keeping the promises made by Nixon, Washington demanded the return of 2 300 GIs reported missing and instituted an economic embargo. This led Vietnam to seek Soviet aid, formalised by a treaty in June 1978.

The Third Indochina War

On the very day after reunification, the peninsula became the scene of diplomatic and ideological confrontation between the USSR and China. China didn’t want a Vietnam allied to the Soviets and dominant in Indochina. As the Hanoi-Moscow and Phnom Penh-Peking axes emerged, the scene was set for the first conflict between the Communist states. Regionally, this opposition was further exacerbated by a rivalry between the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), Thailand in particular, and the peninsula dominated by Vietnam. There was no lack of motive for tension between Peking and Hanoi. In addition to disputes regarding maritime borders and the sovereignty of the Spratly and Paracel Islands, Peking was preoccupied by the fate of a significant Chinese minority living in the South and who controlled the major part of Cholon’s trade. Enjoined to take Vietnamese nationality unless they wished to lose their jobs and suffer food restrictions, 70 000 of them left the country in 1977.

While Laos agreed to sign a treaty of friendship with Vietnam, Cambodia, subjected to the bloodthirsty madness of the Khmer Rouge, refused Hanoi’s fraternal offer. ­Relations soured between the two countries for ideological reasons and because of ­territorial disagreement in the Mekong Delta. Furthermore, Pol Pot held Hanoi ­responsible for a thwarted plot in 1976. He had no qualms about provoking his powerful neighbour by launching a number of raids on its territory which left several hundred victims. With the firm intention of overthrowing the Khmer Rouge regime, Hanoi set upon the Cholon community in 1978, fearing that it could serve as a fifth column for China, allied to Cambodia. Nearly 250 000 Chinese fled Vietnam. Many Vietnamese took part in this exodus, which further exacerbated tensions between the neighbouring countries.

On 25 December 1978, Le Duc Tho invaded Cambodia and settled former Khmer Rouge forces, exiled in Vietnam, in ­Phnom Penh. In five weeks the country was overrun and Pol Pot’s followers were driven back to the frontier with Thailand. However, on 17 February 1979, China retaliated by launching a force of 120 000 men on Tonkin. This occupation, which ceased on 16 March, left over 20 000 dead on both sides but did not result in further outbreaks.

Vietnam was, however, increasingly beset by economic problems, resulting from the vast cost of an invasion which dragged on and on. The Khmer Rouge were able to continue guerrilla warfare thanks to Chinese armaments sent via Thailand. Although initially popular because it had put paid to Pol Pot, the PAV was soon as detested as any other occupying army and was also hated due to the fact that it had allowed half a million Vietnamese migrants to settle in the country. The cost of reinforcing the northern frontier and an increasing number of skirmishes with China further emptied the state coffers. Hanoi was forced to cede the base of Cam Ranh to the USSR in order to break its diplomatic isolation and obtain economic aid.

The opening

In 1986, the 6th Communist Party Congress marked a watershed with the adoption of an economic renovation programme entitled Doi Moi, intended to introduce a market economy and promote the investment of foreign capital. This transformation had in actual fact already begun in the late 1970s, when collective agriculture was abandoned. Politically, the collegial power created by the 1980 Constitution had favoured a division between the State and the Party. Then, at the 6th Congress, a section of the old guard left the ranks of state (Le Duc Tho and Pham Van Dong) and Nguyen Van Linh became General Secretary. The 1992 Constitution further paved the way for the small business sector which had been steadily growing since 1986. From then on, the troika in power at Hanoi appeared to be the product of a triple balancing act between reformers and conservatives, the Party and the army, and the country’s three main regions. Democratic reform however progressed far more timidly.

In the same year as Doi Moi was adopted, the thawing of Chinese-Soviet relations led Gorbachev to press Vietnam to patch up its differences with Peking. At the beginning of 1988, the PAV began to withdraw its troops stationed in Cambodia, completing the retrenchment in September 1989. China appreciated the gesture and the pressure on Hanoi slackened as did the aid to the Khmer Rouge resistance forces. From then on, the settlement of the Cambodian question was entrusted to the UN and Hanoi could for the first time see an end to its diplomatic isolation. This new situation initially enabled Vietnam to establish relations with China, then with ASEAN, to which it was admitted in 1995. Almost immediately, Vietnam endeavoured to jump on the “Asian Dragon” bandwagon, whose economies nonetheless faltered during the 1997 crisis. Vietnam, however, had to resolve the contradiction between its socialist principles and its economic ambitions. Whatever the case, the move towards normalised relations with the United States gradually progressed, with the lifting of the American embargo (1994), the reestablishment of diplomatic relations (1995) and finally the highly symbolic visit paid by Bill Clinton in November 2000.

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