Vietnamese Resistance to the French

French Indochina War of 1946-54

The French were not in a strong position to immediately reassert their authority in their former colony, French Indochina, after the Japanese invaders withdrew at the end of WORLD WAR II. In the north, the Vietminh, a political party led by Ho Chi Minh (1890?-1969), proclaimed the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam. France agreed to recognize Vietnam as a free state within the French Union, but negotiations dragged on. In December 1946, Vietminh forces attacked French garrisons, and during the ensuing years guerrilla activity increased in the countryside. In 1949, a Vietnamese provisional government, headed by Emperor Bao Dai (1913-97), was established, which was recognized by France and, in 1950, by the United States. The communist-dominated Vietminh rejected any remnant of French authority and consequently attacked French outposts along Vietnam’s border with China, from whom they received substantial military aid. In 1951, the Chinese-backed Vietminh created a common front with communist groups in Laos and Cambodia (Kampuchea) and became more and more aggressive. They were led by General Vo Nguyen Giap (1912- ), who launched an attack on March 13, 1954, against the strategic French stronghold at Dienbienphu in northwestern Vietnam. (The French commanding general, Henri-Eugene Navarre [1898-1983], had hoped to defeat the enemy there in open battle). Giap’s siege lasted 56 days; his Vietminh troops continually attacked with artillery and mortar fire and suicidal “human wave” assaults against the French defenders, who were outnumbered, short of ammunition, cut off from re-supply (except by air), flooded by monsoon rains, and living in the mud and underground until they finally surrendered on May 7, 1954. Meanwhile, an international conference in Geneva was working out an agreement whereby the fighting would cease and the French would withdraw. The Vietminh set up a government north of the 17th parallel, while the Vietnamese noncommunists set up a government south of the demarcation line. The war was unpopular in France, most of whose citizens were relieved when it was over, despite the defeat and the loss of influence in Southeast Asia. In July 1954, Vietnam was divided into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).


Resistance to the French in Vietnam began in the 1860s and continued sporadically until the 1930s, reemerging during World War II and reaching a climax in September 1945 when the Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh (l890-1969) declared Vietnam’s independence. There was much less resistance to France in Cambodia and Laos. Because of the intensity of resistance in Vietnam and the eventual victory of anticolonial forces there, it is tempting to read Vietnamese history in terms of continuous and eventually triumphant resistance to foreign control. Many scholars have chosen to do so. Vietnam’s victories over France and the United States, following centuries of resistance to China in precolonial times, provide a pleasing structure for Vietnamese historical writing, from the winners’ point of view.

More recently, scholars have argued that multiple readings of the Indochinese past are preferable to unilinear ones. The resistance model, for example, does not clarify the histories of Laos or Cambodia, nor does it explain the thirty-year-long alliance between southern Vietnam and the United States. Scholars have also drawn attention to the complex social history of the region, where developments occurred without reference to the political interplay between the French and the Vietnamese. Print capitalism has been mentioned. Scholars have also singled out the sizeable contributions made by such historical “losers” as nonrevolutionary women, Catholics, Francophiles, members of religious sects, ethnic minorities, and the southern Vietnamese allied with the United States.

Nonetheless, resistance has to occupy a prominent position. Without it, after all, the French might have stayed on much longer, or might even still be in command.

In the 1880s the “aid the king” (can vuong) movement mobilized thousands of patriots who sought fruitlessly but with great courage to restore the status quo ante. They were crushed by French military force, but their patriotism inspired many later thinkers, including Ho Chi Minh.

In the early twentieth century, the prospects for turning the clock back dimmed. Vietnamese patriots like Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940) were impressed by developments in China and Japan, while opponents of France in the 1920s and 1930s, most notably Phan Chu Trinh (1871-1926), drew on European examples-including democracy and Communism-for their ideology. After 1900, few Vietnamese intellectuals sought refuge in the precolonial past.

Until the late 1940s, French repressive mechanisms in Indochina were sufficient to keep most resistance in check. When armed resistance broke out in 1930 to 1931 in northern and central Vietnam, partly in response to severe economic conditions, it was ruthlessly repressed. Hundreds of rebels were put to death. The ICP (founded by Ho Chi Minh) had been involved in the uprisings, and soon became the best organized of the clandestine groups opposed to French colonialism. As thousands of Vietnamese were arrested for political “crimes,” the prisons became training schools for anti-French political cadre, especially Communists, many of whom were released under France’s Popular Front government (1936-1939).

The most substantial resistance to France in Cambodia came in 1884 to 1886, when the French tried to abolish what they called “slaverí’ in the kingdom. Their move struck at the networks of patronage and clientship that allowed Cambodia to function in a premodern fashion. The revolt forced the French to slow down the pace of reform. Until the l940s, Cambodia was at peace. Historians looking for the roots of Cambodian nationalism have found them in the small Cambodian elite educated in the 1930s, and in the Cambodian language newspaper Nagara Vatta (Angkor Wat), which flourished between 1936 and 1942. Resistance to the French in Laos was also insignificant because the Lao population was scattered and apolitical, while the relatively benign Lao elite remained in place, supported by the French. FRENCH


World War II was a turning point in Indochina. When it began in 1939, France was more firmly in control than ever. Six years later, thanks to the Japanese, all the components of Indochina declared their independence, and France had to fight its way back into the region.

France’s defeat in Europe led Thailand (formerly known as Siam) to attack Cambodia and Laos so as to regain some of the territory that had been taken from it by France. In 1941 Japan reached an agreement with the French in Indochina whereby the Japanese stationed troops in the region while France retained administrative control. The arrangement suited both parties but displeased France’s former European allies. Japan launched its invasion of the rest of mainland Southeast Asia from Indochinese bases in December 1941.

In the same year, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam after forty years in exile, and established the Viet Minh (“Free Viet”) independence movement as a united front (secretly led by the ICP). He was joined in the mountains by new recruits and by members of the ICP. Nationalists in Cambodia and Laos, drawn from the educated elite, also accelerated their anti-French activities, encouraged by Japan and by the Thai, but armed resistance to France failed to develop before 1945.

On March 9, 1945, fearing an Allied attack, the Japanese moved suddenly to sequester French military and civilian officials throughout Indochina. The French were taken by surprise. The Japanese then urged local rulers, who had been handpicked by the French, to declare independence. For the next few months Cambodia and Laos governed themselves, Vietnam was briefly reunited, and the Viet Minh descended from their strongholds to take control over much of Tonkin. In September 1945 Bao Dai abdicated in favor of Ho Chi Minh, who proclaimed Vietnam’s independence in Hanoi a day after Japan surrendered to the Allies.

After the surrender, under agreements reached at Potsdam in June 1945, British troops were sent to disarm the Japanese in southern Indochina, while Chinese Nationalist troops performed the same task in the north. British support for French colonialism (opposed by the United States) meant that several hundred French troops were able to reenter Cochin China and reassert control there and in Cambodia. They were unable to do so in the north, where they were forced to negotiate with Ho Chi Minh’s new national government, known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (RDVN). In November 1946 fighting broke out between French and RDVN forces, first in northern Vietnam and later throughout the country. By 1950 the Vietnamese Communists had also come to dominate the poorly organized Lao and Cambodian independence movements. After the Communist victory in China in 1949, Chinese aid helped the Viet Minh to defeat the French, and all of Indochina became independent in 1954. Vietnam, however, was divided at the seventeenth parallel, and an anticommunist regime in southern Vietnam held out against North Vietnamese military pressure with American assistance until l975, when RDVN forces occupied the south and reunited the country, which they renamed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.


Half a century after the collapse of the French empire in Indochina, and nearly thirty years after the end of the second Indochina War, we can assess the colonial era more objectively than would have been possible in the 1940s and 1950s, when independence movements throughout Southeast Asia, supported by large sections of global public opinion, swept out their colonial masters. The historian Nicholas Tarling has called colonialism in Southeast Asia a “fleeting, passing phase” and certainly France’s brief time in Indochina has to be weighed against the thousands of years that came before and the half-century that has elapsed since France departed from the region. It is tempting to say that the colonial era in Indochina was unimportant. Nonetheless, while it is possible to imagine Vietnam modernizing itself without the intrusion of a colonial power, it is unlikely that Laos and Cambodia would have survived as independent states without French protection against their Southeast Asian neighbors.

A legacy of French town planning, official architecture, and design is still visible in Indochina, especially in the larger towns. Museums in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were established by the French and flourish today, while in Cambodia the French still play an important role in the restoration and maintenance of Angkor. The major cities, especially Hanoi and Phnom Penh, still have a French “feel” about them, and whereas Vietnam and Laos now have Marxist-Leninist regimes, the government of Cambodia retains many organizational features inherited from the colonial era. Finally, while the many shortcomings of French rule must be firmly kept in mind, it is impossible to blame or praise the French for developments that have occurred in Indochina since the 1970s, after French influence had sharply diminished throughout the region.

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