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The Demystified Zone: A Will of Light

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  • Dr. Roger Pauly
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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.

The revolutionary who would eventually style himself "Hồ Chí Minh" - roughly meaning "the Enlightened Man with a Will of Light" - was born in 1890 in a small, rural village in northern Vietnam. The son of a controversy prone minor magistrate, Ho* received a western education before taking a job as a chef's apprentice on board a luxury ocean liner in 1911. This work gave him a taste of the world, and Ho came to live in London, Paris, Guangzhou (China) and Moscow over the next two decades.

As circumstances would conspire, Hồ Chí Minh was in Paris during the meeting of the Versailles Peace Conference that ended World War I. Along with several other prominent Vietnamese nationalists, Hồ Chí Minh lobbied for independence at this meeting. Despite the victorious French, British, American and Italian claims that the post-war world would uphold "self-determination," Ho's efforts fell on deaf ears. Self-determination was for European peoples, not for "primitive" 2,500-year-old civilizations such as Vietnam.

Self-determination was reserved for European peoples, not 'primitive,' 2,500-year-old civilizations such as Vietnam.

As circumstances would conspire, Hồ Chí Minh was in Paris during the meeting of the Versailles Peace Conference that ended World War I. Along with several other prominent Vietnamese nationalists, Hồ Chí Minh lobbied for independence at this meeting. Despite the victorious French, British, American and Italian claims that the post-war world would uphold "self-determination," Ho's efforts fell on deaf ears. Self-determination was for European peoples, not for "primitive" 2,500-year-old civilizations such as Vietnam.

To Russia, With Love

Since the colonial powers maintained their empires largely for profit and generally upheld the basic principles of free-market capitalism, it is little surprise that anti-imperialist agitators were often attracted towards socialism or communism. Hồ Chí Minh was no exception and, in 1920, he served as a founding member of the French Communist Party. It was only after he realized most French Communists were not anti-imperialists that he decided to move to the Soviet Union, at that time the world's only communist nation.

Thus, with Russian support, Hồ Chí Minh spent the next two decades travelling extensively back and forth from the Soviet Union to other places in Asia and Europe, engaging in communist revolutionary activities. One notable way stop was Hong Kong, where he followed Lenin's example and founded a Communist Party of Vietnam in 1930.

One notable stop Hồ Chí Minh made as he engaged in communist revolutionary activities was in Hong Kong - he followed Lenin's example and founded a Communist Party of Vietnam in 1930.

How do you say "oops" in French?"

If France had nothing more to worry about back in Europe, it might well have had a longer and more successful tenure as ruler of an overseas empire. During the interwar period, they easily crushed several small-scale nationalist movements in Vietnam. However, when the French nation suffered a sudden and unexpected defeat to Germany in the early part of World War II, the prestige of its colonial enterprise suffered a tremendous blow. Can a nation run a worldwide empire when its very own capital city is occupied by the troops of a different, enemy nation?

Can a nation run a worldwide empire when its very own capital city is occupied by the troops of a different, enemy nation?

The answer, of course, is no. Siam (Thailand) sensed French weakness and attacked the colony of Indochina in 1940, hoping to regain some border territories it lost to France earlier. This forced French Indochinese officials to ask the Japanese for help! The price Japan demanded initially was merely the right to station large numbers of armed forces throughout Vietnam. The Japanese military presence grew steadily though and, by the end of the war, they had seized authority in its entirety from the French throughout Indochina.

The Demystified Zone Japanese Troops Arrive in Saigon

Japenese troops arrive in Saigon, 1940

Advantage, Hồ Chí Minh.

Meanwhile, Hồ Chí Minh had been busy. He had risen in international communist circles and served with revolutionary Chinese forces under Mao Zedong starting in 1938. Three years later, he returned to Vietnam and convinced other independence groups to form a broad alliance under his leadership. This organization was called the "League for the Independence of Vietnam," a lengthy name that can be abbreviated in Vietnamese as "Viet Minh."

Hồ could be pragmatic or brutal when necessary. He would accommodate and work with non-communist nationalist Vietnamese groups when he felt weak and needed their support, but would purge or even kill some of them when he sensed that he no longer needed their support.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend … until he isn't.

Unlike several other famous communist leaders, Hồ Chí Minh had an ability to recognize many of his limitations. He knew he was a master of politics, not military strategy. He needed a tactician to act as the Viet Minh's military commander against Japan. He found one in the young, dynamic Võ Nguyên Giáp, arguably one of the great military minds of the 20th century. By the end of World War II, the Viet Minh had become a well-led, formidable army claiming to have 1 million guerilla fighters thanks, at least in part, to Chinese, Russian and, most surprisingly of all, American aid.

By the end of WWII, the Viet Minh had become a well-led, formidable army thanks to Chinese, Russian and, most surprisingly of all, American aid.

American Allies

During World War II, Hồ Chí Minh made a conscious effort to work with the United States against the Japanese occupiers in the hope that the Americans would eventually recognize an independent Vietnam. His Viet Minh guerilla fighters rescued several downed U.S. airmen and, as a result, Hồ was able to meet the boisterous U.S. Gen. Claire Chenault, founder of the famous Flying Tigers. Soon after, the Viet Minh began to aid the Office of Strategic Services, the key American military intelligence agency of World War II. As a result, Ho Chi Minh was rewarded with the United States' financial and operational support.

Adieu.

With the cessation of hostilities, many French leaders were under the impression that they could go back to ruling their former empire in a business-as-normal style. This seems remarkably naïve, especially with regard to former war-zones such as Indochina or Algeria. French forces began redeploying in Vietnam in the late summer of 1945, which triggered a general strike against them in September.

Lt. Col. A. Peter Dewey - likely killed in a case of mistaken identity - was the first U.S. service man to die in Vietnam.

During the ensuing chaos and confusion Viet Minh troops killed an American military intelligence officer, Lt. Col. A. Peter Dewey, probably in a case of mistaken identity. He was the first U.S. service man to die in Vietnam.

Bait and Switch

In the wake of the strike, some moderate French political leaders and Ho Chi Minh actually began negotiations for the possible creation of a semi-independent "Democratic Republic of Vietnam" in early 1946, but French military forces in Indochina resisted the idea. In November, they independently decided to escalate a minor skirmish between Ho Chi Minh's troops and French customs officials by launching a massive bombardment of Viet Minh positions in and around Haiphong Harbor in the north of the country. This notorious "Haiphong Incident," caused enormous damage to buildings as well as port facilities and may have killed thousands of civilian Vietnamese.

The Demystified Zone Devastation in Haiphong

Devastation in Haiphong caused by French air, artillery and naval bombardment

Turnabout's Fair Play

The Viet Minh responded the following month with coordinated attacks on French bases. Those assaults, which started on December 19, 1946, are generally regarded by most historians as the opening shots of the First Indochina War. The Enlightened Man with a Will of Light had not actively sought this fight, but he hoped it would illuminate the way to independence.

The Enlightened Man with a Will of Light had not actively sought this fight, but he hoped it would illuminate the way to independence.

* Ho Chi Minh used multiple names throughout his life so, for simplicity's sake, I refer to him throughout this blog by his most notable moniker. Back

† It is a rarely mentioned fact that the modern founder of revolutionary socialist communism, Karl Marx, was actually in favor of European colonial conquests. He believed that no society could move into socialism until it had passed through an industrial capitalist stage. Imperialism hastened that process by forcing industry on undeveloped economies. The founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin however believed that an agrarian societies, such as Russia or Vietnam could become communist if lead by effective revolutionary parties. Back

‡ The Viet Minh were not above indulging in exaggeration when it came to military matters. Back



For further reading, consider these sources:

  • Fenn, Charles. Ho Chi Minh: A Biographical Introduction. New York: Scribner, 1973.
  • Huyen, N. Khac. Vision Accomplished? The Enigma of Ho Chi Minh. New York: MacMillan, 1971.

LEARN MORE:

The Demystified Zone: Making the Vietnam War Understandable

TUNE IN:

"The Vietnam War," directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, airing Sept. 17-21 and Sept. 24-28 at 7 each night.



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