Through good fortune in the early 1990s, the history department at the University of Delaware assigned me to be a teaching assistant to Dr. David Pong, who was the department chair at the time. Known to terrified students as "Emperor Pong," this stringent scholar and educator was a respected specialist in Chinese history.
I recall Dr. Pong making an interesting observation about national culture in East Asia. He said that geographical proximity to "Big Brother China" fostered an intense sense of independence in both Korea and Vietnam. He found it especially sad and unfortunate that the two wars the United States had fought on mainland East Asia happened to involve these two highly nationalistic states.
Dr. David Pong,
now leading Choi Kai Yau College in Macau, China
Dr. Roger Pauly, Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Arkansas provides an introduction to the complex history of the Vietnam War for audiences ranging from those who are unfamiliar with the events of the era to those who are seeking an insightful refresher course in anticipation of the broadcast of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary series "The Vietnam War." From the Indochinese War to the Vietnam War's portrayal in popular films, "The Demystified Zone" series covers the Vietnam War in a way to make historical events understandable for novices and enthusiasts alike.
Chinese Influence… and Vietnamese Resistance
Professor Pong's comments seem particularly relevant as we look back on the troubled history of Vietnam prior to America's involvement. For centuries, the people known to the Chinese as "the Annam" had resisted their mighty neighbor to the north, occasionally falling into temporary periods of partial subordination.
A society that defines itself by resistance is one that is probably best left alone.
This was not always a negative relationship, and Vietnam borrowed many useful elements of Chinese culture, such as Chũ Nôm, a logographic writing system. However, some of their greatest heroes, including the remarkable warrior sisters Trung Trac and Trung Ni, earned their place in Vietnam's history by contending with invaders from China. A society that defines itself by resistance is one that is probably best left alone.
The Trung Sisters
West Meets East
In 1857, Emperor Napoleon III made a colorful interpretation of the 1787 treaty and ordered naval and marine forces to invade the port of Tourane (Da Nang).
Claimant for the throne of Vietnam Nguyen Anh even travelled to Versailles and successfully lobbied for a treaty and military aid – a happy start to Franco-Vietnamese relations, oui?
Much later in history, the Vietnamese came to know other interlopers besides the Chinese. Explorers from Portugal first landed on Vietnam's shores as early as 1516, and French missionaries appeared about a century later. Relations with the West were not bad and, in 1787, a claimant for the throne of Vietnam, Nguyen Anh, even travelled all the way to Versailles to successfully lobby for a treaty and military aid. So, this was a happy start to Franco-Vietnamese relations, oui?
Unfortunately, by 1857, the French feared British influence in East Asia was growing faster than their own. That year, Emperor Napoleon III made a colorful interpretation of the 1787 treaty and ordered naval and marine forces to invade the port of Tourane (aka Da Nang). In something of a "since we are here anyways" moment, the local French commander also seized Saigon in the far south. Typhus made the French presence in Vietnam initially precarious but, by 1862, their conquest of central and southern Vietnam was a done deal.
Vive La France
By 1883, France had forced the untested, young Vietnamese Emperor Duc Duc to allow the French to establish a "protectorate" in northern Vietnam, then known as "Tonkin." This may not have been a popular move, because Vietnamese court officials soon forced Duc Duc to commit suicide shortly thereafter on some rather dubious charges.
However, the damage was done. France now controlled all of Vietnam, which it would merge with other nearby protectorates like Cambodia and Laos in 1887. From then until 1907, more bits and pieces would be tacked on to this large new colony named "Indochina."
What's Yours Is Mine. What's Mine Is Ours.
Vietnam, thus, gave France wealth, so what did France give Vietnam in return?
So, what was France's motivation? By conquering Indochina, the French gained preferred access to valuable commodities. This included coffee, rubber, tea, coal, opium and rice, of which French Indochina became the world's third largest exporter. In order to keep this growing market safe from foreign competition, high tariffs on non-French imports were created. Vietnam, thus, gave France wealth, so what did France give Vietnam in return?
From the perspective of the late 19th or early 20th century imperialist apologist, there might well be reasons to look at the French governorship of Vietnam with satisfaction. France built a modern railroad linking Saigon in the south with Hanoi in the north. The most brutal elements of Vietnam criminal punishment (i.e. execution by elephant) were eliminated with the adoption of a version of the more humane Napoleonic Code legal system. Education was simplified as Latin characters were introduced to replace the beautiful but complex Chũ Nôm system.
It is less clear how effective the new education system actually was in the long run. Surprisingly, 80 percent of the population was illiterate in 1939, over 60 years after France seized control. Out of a population of 23 million Vietnamese, only 4,611 were attending secondary school in 1937.
Taxes certainly were higher than they had been under the old imperial dynasty. In those days, taxes had often been ignored but, under the French, they were collected with systematic efficiency. On the other hand, this financial burden was somewhat offset by contributions from the French government. In addition, the actual use of tax money was more obvious as modern new roads, canals, and bridges popped up across the countryside.
Religion and Politics
Religiously-oriented colonialists might also have taken satisfaction in the Christian missionary work being done in Vietnam. Christian schools and missions spread across the countryside. Most ordinary villagers remained Buddhist as they had been for centuries, but the emerging Westernized elite class often converted to Christianity. A legacy of this effort is the fact that, as of 2015, roughly seven percent of Vietnam remains Christian.
Here's the Catch …
No matter how efficient French administration might have eventually grown, the basic problem was that they were outsiders in a nation that prided itself in resisting outsiders for centuries. French-led military forces fought almost continual minor skirmishes in the remote parts of Indochina. A gilded cage remains a cage. Later, as the nation of France attempted to handle the emerging major geopolitical challenges of the disastrous 20th Century, some Vietnamese with new, Western educations began to sense opportunity for change. The most important of these was Nguyen Sinh Cung, a young man who would later rename himself Ho Chi Minh.
No matter how efficient French administration might have eventually grown, the basic problem was that they were outsiders in a nation that prided itself in resisting outsiders for centuries.
La Belle Vie
For the French colonists, life in Indochina offered enormous potential and a comfortable lifestyle. The Westernized districts of Saigon and Hanoi became electrified and offered many aspects of haute culture such as fine dining and European-style shopping. Domestic servants and prostitutes of both genders were cheap and plentiful. The situation for lower ranking colonial officials posted at remote stations was more challenging. Luxuries there were relatively few in number and disease remained a real threat.
For further reading, consider these sources:
- Corfield, Justin. The History of Vietnam. Westport: Greenwood, 2008.
- "Digital History: The French in Indochina"
- Gould, Shannon.
- "The Vietnam War," directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, airing Sept. 17-21 and Sept. 24-28 at 7 each night