NCERT Class X- Social Science — Freedom Struggle in Indo-China
The Nationalist movements in Indo-China
1a. Which are the countries in Indo-China? … Cambodia (now Kampuchia), Laos, Vietnam, Thailand (Old name Siam), Burma (now Myanmar), and Malaysia constitute Indo-China. This term was coined by the French who perceived the region to be in the geographical outreach of China and India. Out of these countries, Vietnam has the strongest Chinese imprint in its culture. In rest of the countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia etc. Indian influence is ore discernible.
1b. Why Vietnam matters so much for scholars of national movements? ….Out of these countries of Indo-China, Vietnam, perhaps, suffered the most acute wrenching pain in its evolution in its present form. Foreign rule, colonization, upheavals, insurgency, ideological battles, and deadly wars have punctuated this tiny country’s history. To it goes the credit of defeating the mighty Americans in a protracted war that literally bled both the nations before they got too tired to fight any further. From the two-decade-old war with America (1955 to 1975), Vietnam emerged triumphant, but with deep scars. The war rattled the United States politically, economically and socially. The defeat at the hands of a tiny Asian nation was a chastening experience for America, the mightiest nation on earth.
Vietnam grappled with myriad problems in its march for sovereignty. Its woes were its deeply entrenched feudal system, its backwardness, the succession of foreign masters, its firebrand nationalists, and its dominant neighbours (China and Japan). The war with America galvanized the nation in a way that left the whole world transfixed in awe and wonder. This is why no study of Indo-China can be complete without a full appreciation of Vietnam’s sacrifices and indomitable spirit.
1c. What Vietnam gained from colonization?… Vietnam gained freedom in 1945, two years ahead of India. But, the euphoria was short-lived. It had to fight another bloody and protracted war before emerging as a full-fledged republic. The country was under colonial domination for long periods of its history. The foreign masters were China, France, Japan and finally America. The French had tried to modernize the country and better it economically. But their motive was mainly to exploit its resources. Their efforts to modernize Vietnamese society were ill-conceived, insensitive and disruptive. Other colonial masters did little good to Vietnam. However, Vietnam also gained from the colonial subjugation. Its disparate communities did not break away to become smaller countries. The colonial rule held them together, and enforced political unity of Vietnam.
1d. Comparison with India’s freedom struggle .. India’s experience with its British colonial masters was quite different from the way the French dealt with their colonies in Indo-China. Similarly, India’s struggle to shake off imperial domination was quite different from the anti-imperialist struggle in Indo-China. A comparative study of the two freedom struggles makes interesting reading.
1e. The Chinese shadow over Vietnam …. Since medieval times, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were under the Chinese umbrella. The powerful emperor of China ruled these countries. The Chinese system was deeply entrenched in these areas. When the north and central parts of Vietnam became free, the rulers chose to stick to the Chinese system with regard to governance, culture, and policy-making. Vietnam was connected by the large labyrinth in-land network that crisscrossed through Asia, Europe and parts of Africa. The silk route also ran through the hinterland of Vietnam where the ethnic group known by the name Khmer Cambodians lived. This road connectivity reduced the risk of isolation from the rest of the world.
2a. Colonial domination and the urge to be free … The Vietnamese common people were ill at ease with the French colonial masters. In matters of culture, religion, philosophy of life and economic standards, the French were so starkly different from their Vietnamese subjects. Co-existence between the two diverse races, one as master and the other as the servants created myriad problems of compatibility and cohesion. There was interminable friction, resentment, and visible demonstration f defiance from the Vietnamese. The French were dismissive, snobbish and condescending towards the Vietnamese whom they perceived to be less civilized and inferior deserving the European touch to see the light of modernity. Such patronizing attitude peeved the Vietnamese intelligentsia who began efforts to rediscover their roots and stand up to the French masters.
As clever colonizers, the French tightened their grip over Vietnam’s military and the commanding heights of the country’s economy. But, it was their efforts to ‘reform’ Vietnamese culture that created the chasm between the rulers and their subjects. Many of the values the French tried to impose on the Vietnamese were repugnant to its traditional society with its deeply-entrenched customs and practices. In course of time, Vietnamese clamour against the colonizers became louder and louder.
France sent in its armed forces to quell the local resistance against them. Between 1858, the year the garrisons landed in Vietnam and 1880, French troops fought well to smother the local resistance. By the middle of 1880, the French had effectively sealed their control over the northern part of Vietnam.
2b. France’s turf war against China …… French intrusion into Indo-China was unwelcome to the Chinese who had exercised power in the region historically. Expectedly, it lead to a war. In the Franco-China war of 1887, the French wrested control over Tonkin and Anaamand from the Chinese. It gave the French a moral boost and a strong foothold in Vietnam. In succeeding years, the French aggressively consolidated their control fighting off Vietnamese opposing forces. The confrontations were often very bloody and destructive. The scars of the battle against the French made rattled the Vietnamese who began to reflect upon the toll the French occupation was taking.
2c. Vietnam reels under the French and revolts … The simmering discontent against the colonial masters and the restive Vietnamese population finally decided to confront the European occupiers. It resulted in an unprecedented upsurge in nationalist sentiments cutting across different strata of the society. The lament of the Vietnamese soul wass best captured in the following lines of the blind poet, Ngyuyen Dinh Chieu (1822-88) in the following lines.
I would rather face eternal darkness
Then see the face of Traitors
I would rather see no man
Than encounter one man’s suffering
I would rather see nothing
Then see the dismembering of the country in decline.
2d. What lured the French to their colonies and the reasons behind the uneasy co-existence? …. The motivations to colonize were two fold. As industrial powers, Europeans’ appetite for natural resources was great. They needed ores, mines, forest produce, crude oil, textiles, spices, metals, and a host of other things to sustain their galloping economies. They needed cheap manpower too to work in menial jobs which their own fellow citizens were reluctant to do.
This apart, they had a strong tendency to look down upon the colonized people as primitive, poor, backward and weak. But, they were only partly right in their conclusions. In their hubris and arrogance, they had failed to see the greatness of the culture they were despising as dark and worthy of disdain. This myopic attitude often prompted them to force the pace of their efforts to reform and reshape the colonized people’s ways of life. The intentions might have been benign, but the methods were high-handed and repressive. This have rise to an adversarial relationship between the French ruling class and the Vietnamese people. The ‘light’ the French wanted to bring to the ‘dark’ civilization proved to be their undoing.
2e. What tangible benefits the colonies got from their French masters? …
a. Intervention in agriculture ….The French were quick to realize that agricultural productivity was low due to a host of reasons. To reverse the situation, they built a network of canals, and reclaimed land in the Mekong Delta to bring more areas under cultivation. French expertise and the local labour who got a pittance as wages for their toil boosted rice production. The surplus rice was exported to customers in Europe and elsewhere.
The area for rice cultivation rose sharply from just 2,74,000 hecters in 1873 to 1.1 million hecters in 1900 to 2.2 million in 1930. Vietnam began to produce almost three times more it needed to feed itself. With the rice bowl overflowing, Vietnam emerged as world’s third largest exporter of this commodity. The credit goes to the French intervention and to the peasantry of Vietnam for the country to such an exalted status.
b. Intervention in infrastructure … Vietnam’s road infrastructure was decrepit when the French took charge of the country. To move goods, troops and exportable commodities to ports, the French built roads, bridges, highways and ports. A rail line to link the northern part of the country to the south was laid. The rail line extended right up to the Chinese border. It was a vital addition to Vietnam’s ramshackle inland transport system. By 1910, the rail line had reached the Chinese city of Yunan.
Another very rail link was built that began from Vietnam, passed through Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh before reaching Thailand (then called Siam).
Easier movement of exportable goods through these road and rail networks yielded higher profits from exports. The French traders pressurized their government in Vietnam to do more to upgrade the country’s infrastructure so as to boost their export business.
2f. How far to go in rebuilding colonies? Dilemma for the French colonial planners … There was near unanimity among the French governing class over the proposition that the colonies must serve their colonizing countries. Avarice underlined this theory. But, the question was the extent to which the colonies needed to be developed.
The renowned thinker and writer Paul Bernard, who held considerable sway over policy matters, felt that the colonies had to be developed so that they aid the colonial powers to maximize their profits. After all, the lure of financial gain had brought them to such far-off alien lands at such enormous costs. A thriving prosperous colony could offer good market for goods produced in the factories back home in France. A captive and expanding market could keep the factories in France buzzing with activity creating more jobs and boosting the government’s revenue receipts.
Bernard applied his mind to list the many impediments to quick resurrection of the ‘sleeping’ Vietnamese economy. These were
a. High population density
b. Rural indebtedness that had reached un-sustainable levels
c. Low farm productivity
To break this vicious circle of low yield, debt and impoverishment, sweeping reforms had to be carried out, similar to what the Japanese had accomplished in the 1890s.
2g. The road map to reform … Vietnam grew two main commodities – Rice and Rubber. The land under such cultivation belonged to the big French land owners, and the bloated Vietnamese elite. It was not easy to disposses them of their lands and give it to the small peasants. The French also were very reluctant to set up manufacturing industries in Vietnam. Such a step could have given a boost to employment creation and rejuvenation of the ‘sleeping’ economy. Bernard’s recommendations to industrialize Vietnam fell in deaf years of the French governing class. Instead, the French allowed the highly degrading system of employing ‘indentured’ labourers in plantations to continue. Landlords thrived in rural areas pushing the peasantry to the brink of deprivation and poverty. Clearly, the reformist zeal petered out and expediency prevailed.
3a. The push for education – What to teach and how much to teach ….
The French took on to themselves the responsibility to dispel darkness from Vietnam’s ‘moribund’ civilization. They assumed that deriving economic benefits from the colonies was paramount, but so was the need to usher in ‘light’ to the subjects ‘condemned’ by history to live in society bedeviled by want, illiteracy, and systems anchored to a primitive past. The ‘civilizing mission’ aimed to modernize the Vietnamese society and rid it of everything that appeared regressive to the French eyes. In this respect, they were so similar to the British masters lording over ‘backward’ India. The British too exhibited extra-ordinary zeal and energy to superimpose their values and practices on India.
Both the British in India and the French in Vietnam understood that European education could be the most potent tool to ‘enlighten’ their subjects (the ‘natives’) mired in superstition, religious bigotry, poverty and lethargy.
But, for the extra-cautious French, the question was how far to let the Vietnamese absorb European education. Educated Vietnamese were needed to man the colonial administration and keep the export-oriented economic activities going. But, higher education in university level could ‘poison’ the minds of the Vietnamese elites with European ideas about liberty, exploitation, and freedom. This could be very destabilizing in the long run, they feared.
There was another fear too. The French officers, managers and bureaucrats living cozy lives in Vietnam feared competition from educated and gifted Vietnamese. Their jobs were at stake, they feared vainly.
3b. Leapfrogging to ‘modernity’ … Introducing French education was the top of the agenda for the colonial administrators. But, bringing in the new system meant dismantling the existing system, which was almost a carbon copy of the Chinese system. The medium was Chinese and the system was Chinese. Almost the entire Vietnamese elite were taught in this system. Thus, the Chinese influence hung heavy over Vietnam’s education. Replacing it would annoy the elite class, who were strong protagonists of the Chinese language and education.
If the French system of education had to be enforced, the Chinese language, the teachers and the schools had to be bid good-bye. But, what would be the new medium of instruction? Adopting Vietnamese would have defeated the whole purpose of reform, where as adopting French would be too drastic. It could create a backlash. A big dilemma stared the French administrators in their face.
Some policy makers felt adopting French would be a desirable option despite the risks of resistance from the local intelligentsia. They felt, through learning French, the young minds of Vietnam would get valuable exposure to France’s vastly superior science, literature, art and culture. They would imbibe French values and live like French-Vietnamese citizens in their own country. The colonizers from Europe would thus be able to extend their ‘soft power’ to Asia. Thus, it would be a win-win situation to both the French and the Vietnamese. France will get a foothold in Asia that could effectively result in an ‘Asiatic France teethered to European France’.
There were others who advocated a softer line. They felt teaching Vietnamese in lower classes and switching to French in higher classes would be a more feasible and acceptable proposition. To encourage love for French language and culture, French citizenship could be given as reward to those students who excelled in French studies and took to French culture.
Sadly for the French, there were few takers for their idea to propagate their language and culture through the medium of schools. Few from the middle and lower classes enrolled in French schools. Only a handful from the elite classes opted to come to French schools. Only a small number of these students eventually completed their school education. The dismal performance of the Vietnamese students in French schools was not due to their lack of intelligence or sincerity. A far more sinister design was behind this. The school authorities deliberately failed students in the final examinations to hold them back from getting the certificates. By adopting this extremely vile tactic, the French intended to curtail the number of local Vietnamese competing for lucrative government jobs. Nearly two third of the local students found their scores tweaked by the school authorities to stifle their career prospects. Out of a population of 17 million, only a miniscule of just 400 Vietnamese students had succeeded to get the final pass certificates.
Concurrently, French language and culture continued to occupy more and more space in school curriculum displacing study of Vietnamese language, history and culture. Under the patronizing eyes of the French administrators, the cultural invasion continued apace. More disgusting was the simultaneous derision of Vietnamese civilization and heritage, almost portraying it as primitive, and lifeless. The Vietnamese were told that they lack mental acumen to acquire finer skills in science and arts. They could just slog in the fields to earn a living. At best they could ‘copy’, but not ‘create’. The French resorted to all sorts deception to drill such inferiority complex into the heads of the Vietnamese.
There was another misleading propaganda to depict the French rule as benign. The French had sternly dealt with bandits and the pirates and had largely curbed this menace. The local population of peasants and fishermen were told that they had escaped harassment by the criminals because of the French rulers.
3c. The garb of ‘modernity’ through haircuts … The Vietnamese got the first taste of typical French type education through the Tonkin Free School, the first French school to be set up in the colonized country. The school hours were in the evening, and the subjects taught were science, hygiene and French. Each individual course had to be paid for. In many ways, such education was different from that offered by the traditional Vietnamese schools.
As the next step towards imparting French values to the natives, the colonial masters wanted their subjects to look French. They were asked to crop their hair short. The tradition of having long hair was actively discouraged. To drill the idea of ‘short hair’ into the Vietnamese minds, a chant was propagated.
Comb in the left hand
Scissors in the right,
Snip, Snip, Clip, Clip!
Watch out, Be careful,
Drop stupid practices,
Dump childish things
Speak openly and frankly
Study Western customs
3d. Backlash starts –from schools .. The curriculum devised by the colonial masters was not openly embraced by the Vietnamese teachers and students. Resistance shimmered among the natives. At times, it erupted in the form of defiance. The number of Vietnamese teachers swelled in the lower classes making it difficult for the French education officials to monitor what was being taught. Utilizing this opportunity, the Vietnamese teachers removed portions from the text books they felt derogatory for Vietnam. They also omitted the portions that blindly sang the praise of the French colonizers and their culture. Thus, glorification of the French at the cost of the local culture was somewhat blocked by the resentful teachers.
In 1926, a major incident happened in the Saigon Native Girls School. A Vietnamese girl occupying a seat in the front bench of a class was asked to cede her seat to a French student sitting in a back bench. The Vietnamese student took it as an affront and refused to oblige. This infuriated the Principal, a French national living in Saigon (A Colon). He expelled the Vietnamese student for her defiance. Some angry students protested in support of the expelled student. They too were expelled. Soon the anger escalated dangerously. Sensing danger, the government stepped in and ordered the Principal to revoke his expulsion order. The Principal was livid. He took back the student, but warned the student in very boorish and vengeful language. Clearly, he was not reconciled to a Vietnamese girl being treated equally with one of his own race.
The student community seethed in anger at the way the French authorities tried to stifle their careers by very unfair means. It was legally untenable and morally repugnant. Their anger soon manifested itself as nationalistic feelings. They saw the injustice and repression of the French colonial masters and rose against it. The French administration was clearly alarmed at the student uprising. Curiously, the local elite, who had historically enjoyed comforts at the cost of the poor classes, were disturbed too. The cry for justice and fair treatment of every one shook their parasitic status. By the 1920s, the student movement had gathered steam. They had formed a party called ‘Party of Young Annan’. They published their mouthpiece journal named ‘Annanese Student’.
Schools became the nerve centers of anti-establishment resistance. New revolutionary political and cultural ideas were fanned by student leaders. The French sought to curb student activism by tightening their grip over the entire educational system. A calculated strategy was put in place to make the students believe in the supremacy and desirability of the French colonial rule. The Vietnamese were told how weak and incapable they were to resurrect themselves without French help.
The Vietnamese intellectuals saw through the sinister attempts of the French of not only dispossessing them of their territory, but also undermining their culture. The ugly face of colonization was unraveling. The unsuspecting citizens were beginning to see the French as benign masters, and themselves as the servants at their service. Soon, the student-centric agitation against the French rule became a nationalistic struggle against colonialism. The clamour for freedom from French rule became more and more strident.
4a. Hygiene, Disease and Everyday Resistance…
Resentment against the Colonial rule was not restricted to educational centers alone. Soon, the expression of unease and anger spread to other spheres of daily life.
4b. Plague strikes Hanoi .. The French colonial authorities wanted to showcase their architectural and engineering excellence by re-building a majestic and modern Hanoi. They called in the best of their town planners and poured loads of money to build cozy mansions, large open spaces, wide boulevards and tree-lined avenues to project their colonial legacy and to demonstrate to the natives their superiority as a race. The French quarters of the city had modern sewer systems to transport the waste.
The other older part of the city had few of these amenities. The native poor class Vietnamese lived here. The sewer system was primitive and inadequate. It carried its waste straight into the river. During heavy rains, the sewers were flooded pushing the waste inside to the surface. The roads became awash with the putrid and highly dangerous wastes. It was a crisis in the making.
Whenever the downpour was heavy and prolonged, the whole of Hanoi became flooded. Wastes floated everywhere, spreading dangerously to the luxurious French portions of the city. The modern sewers installed there also got clogged. Germs and rats thrived in the sea of waste. Inevitably, bubonic plague broke out in 19o3. The French administration panicked as rats running through the network of sewer tunnels made their way to the bed rooms of the French elite. It was a harrowing situation for the Europeans who feared the worst.
4c. Reining in the rats .. In 1902, the French launched a drive to fight the rat menace. They announced a cash reward for the natives who caught rats and handed them to the French officials for dumping. Rats were caught in thousands as cash-lured poor natives haunted down the rats and turned them over to the authorities. But, chasing the rats in their safe havens inside the sewer pipes was a dirty and unpleasant work. Some Vietnamese bargained hard with the French authorities for better rates for going inside the sewers and haunt down the rats. The French reluctantly agreed to enhance the rate for the sewer-rats. Paradoxically, like the symbolic Dandi salt march, the ‘rat bargaining’ by the poor natives became first successful demonstration of the power of collective action vis-à-vis the colonial masters.
4c. The rodents and their catchers make the French eat humble pie .. Sadly for the anti-rat campaign managers, the more the rats caught, the more they appeared. Some ingenuous Vietnamese even reared rats in their backyards and exchanged them for cash rewards! The rewards were paid when the catchers handed over the tails of the rats. Some rat-catchers clipped a small tip of the tails and claimed their rewards. In days, the tails of the rats grew again, allowing the rat-rearer to use the same live rat for multiple cash claims.
Finally, the French gave up and discontinued the cash-for-rat scheme. The bubonic plague ravaged Hanoi in 1903 causing scores of deaths and terrifying both the French and the native population. It took some years before the violent epidemic tapered off and normalcy returned.
Though indirectly, the plague’s free run over Hanoi exposed the limits of the French prowess in sanitation, hygiene and medical cure. French claim of superiority took a beating at the hands of the humble rodents! The collective action of Hanoi’s poor rat-catchers out-smarted the mighty French.
5a. Religion and anti-colonialism ….
French colonial shadow hung heavy on all walks of Vietnamese life.They had set foot on Vietnam to conquer it militarily. In this task, they met with success with relative ease. Having assumed control over the colony, the French set about transforming the poor and impoverished land to give it a ‘French’ look. A sweeping effort was made to reform and reshape the culture, religion and living style of the colonized people. The campaign touched almost all walks of Vietnamese life. Religion was the area the French wanted to reform.
During those times, Vietnamese practiced an amalgamation of Buddhism, Confucianism with a sprinkling of local customs, rituals and prejudices. The Christian missionaries who entered Vietnam with their evangelical goals found the local region to be mired in many undesirable beliefs and practices. They felt, the Vietnamese belief that their fate was ordained by the All Mighty robbed them of competitive spirit making them languid and lifeless. The missionaries decided to ‘correct’ such reverence of the supernatural.
Quite predictably, such attempts to undermine their deeply-entrenched religious values met stiff resistance of the Vietnamese people. From eighteenth century onwards, a good number of religious movements took place to resist the French missionaries and assert the desirability of the prevailing religious and spiritual ways. The Scholars Revolt of 1868 was one of these movements. It was spearheaded by some top bureaucrats of the imperial court who abhorred Catholicism and the creeping French control over the country. It led to a bloody confrontation with the Catholics in Ngu An and Ha Tien provinces. Nearly a thousand Catholics were killed in the violent confrontation.
From the seventeenth century, the Catholics had gone on an overdrive to convert as many natives to Christianity as possible. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the number of the converts had swelled to 3,00,000. The French authorities eventually neutralized the leaders of the movement. However, the uprising rekindled nationalist tendencies in an irreversible way.
Chinese influence and Confucianism ran deep among the elite and the affluent classes. But, the peasants practiced a degraded version of Budhism that had many strands of rituals, beliefs and practices. Vietnam had also a surfeit of preachers and godmen who claimed to have seen God. They each had large followings. Thus, Vietnam had no unified religion with uniform practices and doctrines. On the issue of supporting the French, the small groups of religion were divided. Some sided with the Colonial masters, others sided with the nationalists.
5b. Advent of the fringe resistance groups …One such godman was Huynh Phu So who headed the Hua Hao sect. Started in 1939, it proliferated in the Mekong Delta. There was some convergence between Hoa Hao’s ideology and that of the nationalists. Huyan Phu So could perform miracles swaying hordes of admirers towards him. He advocated thrift and frugal ways of living. He preached against sale of child brides, opium, alcohol and gambling.
Predictably, the French saw the Hua Hao to be hostile to their interests. They tried to suppress the movement. In a desperate move to stifle his voice, the French administrators declared him a lunatic, calling him ‘Mad Bonze’. He was deported to a mental asylum. Curiously, , the doctor, who had pronounced him mad, later became his follower. In 1941, even a French doctor cleared him as ‘normal’. The French deported him to Laos. His followers were sent away to concentration camps to do hard labour in appalling situations.
Resistance movements such as the Hua Hao were not quite in tune with the mainstream nationalist movement. Political parties used these smaller resistance groups as their tools when they needed them, but were uncomfortable with their activist agenda. The main parties failed to bring the groups such as Hua Ho on board. An uneasy relationship continued all along.
However, these fringe groups did dent the imperialist hold over Vietnam.
6a. The Vision of Modernism …
The chorous against French domination was heard from all corners of the country and from all strata of Vietnamese society.
But, the anti-imperialism thrust had not crystallized to a single well-defined goal in the initial stages. All agreed that the country had to be ‘modernized’, but few knew what constituted ‘modernity’. The model of the West was fascinating no doubt, but how far to go to go along the route? The ideologues differed.
6b. Same goal—Different routes ……Some intellectuals advocated efforts to resurrect traditional Vietnamese values and culture. A strident nationalistic spirit underlined their stand.
A few others were of the view that it would be wise to adopt certain features of the Western culture while continuing to regenerate the moth-balled Vietnamese culture.
By the nineteenth century, intellectuals imbibed with Confucian teachings were the vanguard of the anti-imperialist nationalist movement. But, their role and influence was in the wane. Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940), was one of the leading figures of the Confucian school. He formed a revolutionary society named Duy Tan Hoi in 1903. Prince Cuong De headed the society.
Phan Boi Chau came in contact with the renowned Chinese reformist thinker Liang Quichao (1873-1929) in Yokohama in 1905. The latter had provided and inspiration for Phan’s seminal work “The History of the Loss of Vietnam.” This book was highly acclaimed by the readers in China and Vioetnam. It was also made into a play. The book deals with the loss of sovereignty & the weakening of ties with China. These are the two sad turns of history that the elites of both countries bemoaned.
Mr. Phan Boi Chau had many antagonists too whose views contrasted sharply with his. One among them was Phan Chu Trin (1871-1926). He was a known ctitic of the Vietnamese royalty. He could not reconcile to the suggestion to take the help of the Imperial Court in the anti-French struggle. He advocated the establishment of a democratic republic. He was more amenable to the western concepts of governance and values and wanted to adopt parts of them in shaping Vietnam’s future destiny. He suggested more French involvement in modernizing Vietnam’s creaking infrastructure and primitive agriculture.
6c. Alternative models of ‘modernity’—Looking at China and Japan …….
In its nascent stage, Vietnam’s nationalists drew inspiration from the two powerful neighbours – Japan and China. Both provided not only inspiration for the Vietnamese activists, but also safe havens for those nationalists trying to evade arrest by the French colonial administration. The two countries became the nerve centers of the ideologues, revolutionaries and political workers trying to free Vietnam from French yoke.
In the early part of twentieth century, the mantra of the Vietnamese nationalists was to increasingly look to ‘east’ for succor. As a result, the ‘go east movement’ became more strident. In 1907-08, a batch of 300 young Vietnamese students left for Japan for higher education. They were gripped by patriotic fervor. Making Vietnam a free, democratic, and vibrant country leveraging their Japanese education was their motto. Their aim was to equip themselves with the improved science and technology that had propelled to such heights. They loathed the puppet emperor who had cohabited with the French colonialists to enjoy the throne. The students wanted to reinstate the Nguyen dynasty deposed by the French. The students wanted to see the back of the puppet emperor.
To accomplish their goal, they needed arms and resources. They wanted their host country to provide them these inputs. Japan was rich, powerful and had staved off all western attempts to colonize it. Japan had also inflicted a humiliating military defeat mighty Russia. Japan had captured the imagination of the young Vietnamese. Obviously, Japan was their role model.
The Vietnamese student-activists formed an organization named Restoration Society to further their cause. In due course, however, the Japanese Ministry of Interior frowned upon them and proceeded to curb their activities. Phan Boi Chau, along with a group of his key supporters, were deported. They sought refuge in China and Thailand.
China was also going through a wrenching transformation by then. In the year 1911, the revolutionary leader Sun Yet- sen succeeded in dethroning the centuries-old monarchy and setting up a republic. Such success of the Chinese nationalists fuelled further activism among the Vietnamese young nationalists. They formed the Association for the Restoration of Vietnam (Viet-nam Quan Phuc Hoi). With this, the goal of the nationalists became more radical. They no longer had any fascination with the idea of constitutional monarchy. They wanted to drive out the French, and establish a Republic.
Soon, the leadership of the anti-imperialist movement in Vietnam changed in its character.
7a. The Communist Movement and Vietnamese Nationalism ….. The Great Depression of the 1930s in America had its repercussions over Vietnam. As prices of commodities like rubber and rice fell due to fall in demand, the farming sector in Vietnam came under stress. The tradition-sipped interior provinces were the worst hit by the prevailing farm sector duress. Because of their perpetual poverty, these provinces were the most vulnerable to any sort of ill winds blowing across the farming sector. They would erupt, unable to cope with the hard times. They were, therefore, nicknamed the ‘electrical fuses’ of Vietnam. For the French colonial administrators, any sort of agitation or violent protests by the distressed farming community was seen as a defiance of their authority. They would put down such protests with a heavy hand often using bombing from the air to strafe the agitating farmers.
7b. The advent of Ho Chi Minh ….. There were many disparate nationalist groups in Vietnam often working at cross purposes. In February 1930, Ho Chi Minh emerged in the national scene as a father figure and unified them under one banner –Vietnamese Communist Party (Vietnam Cong Sang Dang). Later, this was renamed Indo-Chinese Communist Party. Ho Chi Minh, educated in Paris, drew inspiration from the rising French Communist movement which demonstrated its power through visible show of force.
7c. Vietnam shakes off Japanese control – Ho Chi Minh ascends power … Vietnam fell prey to Japan’s colonial ambitions. In 1940, Japan occupied Vietnam. The nationalists’ owes doubled. Now, they had to two masters – the Japanese and the French. The League for the Independence of Vietnam (Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh), later called by the name ‘Vietminh’ fought the occupying Japanese forces and wrested control of the Hanoi port in September 1945. Soon, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam came into being with Ho Chi Minh as its Chairman.
7d. The New Republic of Vietnam emerges from the battle at Dien Bien Phu .. The new republic was born with its cup of woes full. They had to contend with the French colonialists who tried to stage a come-back to power using the puppet emperor Bao Dai as their front man. Unable to face the fury of the French, the Vietminh retreated to the hills. The Vietminh fought a 8-year-old insurgency before defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
The conclusive defeat of the French forces was a slap on the face of General Henry Navarte who had claimed just a year before that the forces under him would soon crush the Vietminh. A huge French garrison consisting of 16,000 forces capitulated to the Vietminh forces thanks to a superb guerrilla strategy planned and executed by the Vietminh commanders. The entire French Expeditionary Force consisting of 16 Colonels, 1749 officers were taken prisoner.
7e. Vietnam splits to two parts – North & South .. Peace negotiation in the aftermath of the wholesale French defeat started in Geneva. The Vietminh delegation was prevailed upon to accept bifurcation of Vietnam to two parts. The northern part was to be administered by the Vietminh under the communist leadership of Ho Chi Minh, the southern part going to the control of the controversial monarch Bao Dai.
7f. Another grueling period of Vietnamese history starts …
No one sitting in the negotiating table in Geneva ever imagined that the bifurcation of the country would usher in such a calamitous period for the country’s future. The Bao dai regime was corrupt, inefficient and self- serving. It lacked legitimacy as it did not have the people’s mandate.
7g. The rise and fall of Ngo Dinh Diem .. Soon, it was dethroned by a coup staged by Ngo Dinh Diem. With an iron fist, he ruled over the southern part of Vietnam. Dissent was rife, but Diem would have none of it. His authoritarian state apparatus, he hunted down those who raised their voice against his misrule. Terming these activists as communists, he threw them into jails and eliminated the leaders. In a move that caused a good deal of doubt and disaffection, Ngo Dinh Diem retained the infamous ‘Ordnance 10’, a relic of the French era which promoted Christianity at the cost of Buddhism. It was a legacy which Diem should have done away with, but didn’t. His misrule unified all the diverse opposition groups under a common banner – The National Liberation Front.
7h. Ho Chi Minh’s shadow lengthens over the South ..The National Liberation Front (NLF) found a rallying figure in Ho Chi Minh who had electrified the Northern part of the country with revolutionary fervor. The NLF fought for the unification of the two parts of Vietnam. Such an alliance between the Communist Ho Chi Minh leadership of the North and the nationalist NLF of the South was watched with much disquiet and unease by the United States of America. It could not look the other way as a communist take-over of the South looked a possibility.
8a. America plunges into war … America assumed it could stop the Ho Chi Minh juggernaut by military means. It poured troops, and arms and ammunitions to the South to confront the creeping communist influence. Between 1965 and 1972, as many as 3,40,000 U.S. military personnel fought in Vietnam for different periods. Some 7500 of them were women. Despite their overwhelming military superiority and medical facilities, American casualties mounted alarmingly. Close to 47,000 American servicemen laid down their lives, and more than three lakh were injured in the battle that raged between the Americans and the Communists under Ho Chi Min’s leadership. Many of the wounded were crippled for life.
8b. America reels from the losses in the war …. Each set back in the battle field saw more and more U.S. troops arriving in Vietnam. America’s military commitment soared entailing heavy commitment of funds. Military budget peaked dangerously. The woes of the Vietnamese natives knew no bounds. Scores were crippled and killed. Forests, farms and water-bodies were devastated as American bombs burned them down or polluted them dangerously.
8c. Carpet bombing by B-52, and the Ho Chi Min trail ….. The communists and the nationalists of the NLF though diminutive compared to the American military, fought with remarkable resilience. They could outwit the American forces by resorting to innovative skills. The fighters were highly motivated, and knew the terrain much better. Besides this, they could mingle with the masses seamlessly, making it almost impossible for the Americans to differentiate between a foe and a friend.
Americans became impatient as the Communist-backed NLF outwitted them in smart guerrilla tactics. Americans began using the banned and deadly weapons like the Naplam bombs, Agent Orange and Phosphorous bombs to burn down forests and paddy fields. Carpet bombing by the giant B-52 bombers brought unimaginable horror and destruction to Vietnam. Such savage attack took a heavy toll of Vietnamese life and property.
8d. America begins its soul-searching … The colossal loss of life and property, the virtual stalemate in the battle front and the enormous sacrifices America was making in men and material triggered serious introspection among a large section of the Americans. While some opposed the war vehemently, others felt the sacrifices were not worth the gain. They began to question the government about its Vietnam policy.
8e. ‘Conscription’ rattles the American youth …As the war waged on, need for soldiers for duty in Vietnam increased. The American army got stretched for man power. ‘Conscription’ was enforced to recruit young men and women for duty in Vietnam. Conscription became a hated practice for the young folks. University graduates were given an option to opt out of the compulsory military service in Vietnam. Since the black and the poor class white Americans do not generally go to universities, the policy of Conscription inadvertently created a class-divide. The elite stayed at home while the poor and less educated went to fight in Vietnam.
8f. American media, caught in the horns of a dilemma ….. Powerful voices both supporting and opposing the war effort were aired in newspapers and radio. Passionate films were produced glorifying America’s involvement in the war. John Wayne’S Green Berets was one of these films. In the same way, films cynical of the on-going war were made. Francis Ford Coppala’s Apocalypse Now created serious doubts in the minds of the viewers about the moral and ethical justification of the war.
8g. The confusion in State Department and the Pentagon .. Never in the history of the United States, had the political establishment faced such a difficult choice. Withdrawing from Vietnam would give the Communists a free run over the South emboldening them to push into other countries in the region, Pentagon argued. Continuing the war was proving to be increasingly unpopular with the voters. The advisors to the President and those in the State Department were unanimous that the position was becoming untenable for the President who draws his strength from the voters’ goodwill. Actually, the Americans had failed to estimate the strength of the nationalistic feelings that was sweeping through both parts of the country. The people abhorred hard-core communism much less than they did foreign domination. They wanted to breathe free, at any cost.
8h. The Ho Chi Minh trail .. the symbol of Vietnamese resilience.. This was the labyrinth of mud tracks that snaked through the jungles along the South and North Vietnam borders. It was the lifeline that ensured steady supply of men and material replenishments from the Communist North to the South where the American and government forces were locked in an asymmetrical warfare with the Communist-backed freedom fighters. The Americans targeted this road network so as to disrupt the supply lines of the freedom fighters. To do this, they bombed the forest areas through which the tracks ran. Using the giant B-52 bombers flying in rows, they dropped hundreds and thousands of tons of deadly bombs and chemical weapons to obliterate the forest that gave cover for the supplies to pass through. They succeeded mostly, but not fully. The mud tracks were re-built within hours of the bombing by groups Vietnamese workers who braved the onslaught of the B-52s with remarkable resilience and tenacity.
The Americans did destroy the road network, but couldn’t break the Vietnamese will to survive and succeed. The road network was nicknamed ‘Ho Chi Minh’ trail. It came to symbolize the indefatigable Vietnamese resolve to stand up to the American might through very frugal material resources.
The Ho Chi Minh trail’s construction started in the 1950s. By 1967, nearly 20,000 Vietnamese troops were crossing into the South from the North each month through this improvised road network.
The trail was a low-cost, highly efficient road network that had supply bases, medical aid centers and other logistical hubs. Besides trucks, foot-soldiers and cycle-borne soldiers transported supplies almost relentlessly.
A good portion of the road lay outside Vietnam, through neighbouring Laos and Cambodia before entering South Vietnam.
9a. The Nation and its founding fathers ..
Besides the military aspects, a good way of studying the saga of freedom struggles is to assess the impact on the different sections of the society.
9b. The weaker sex to the fore … Vietnam’s appreciation of women’s role in public life were portrayed with great sensitivity in Phan Boi Chau’s novel written in 1913. The book was based on the heroism of the Trung sisters who had fought against Chinese domination in 39-43CE. Why the Trung sisters rebelled against the Chinese is uncertain, but Phan Boi Chu’s book made its readers marvel the valour and sacrifice of the two sisters. The nation drew inspiration from the sisters. In plays and paintings, the Vietnamese applauded the two sisters. It was believed that they had raised a force of 30,000 volunteer-soldiers to fight the Chinese. They fought bravely, but committed suicide after their forces were defeated by the Chinese, and their capture by the Chinese became imminent.
Another such heroine was Trieu Au who lived in the third century. Brought up as an orphan, she escaped to the jungles where she mobilized a large army to fight the Chinese domination. Her army was later defeated by the Chinese. She too killed herself by drowning to escape humiliation.
9b. War throws up great ‘heroines’….
Compared to their Chinese counterparts, Vietnamese women enjoyed greater equality. However, they could not decide their destiny. In public life, they were virtually invisible.
As the spirit of nationalism gripped the nation and a bloody armed struggle against a foreign power (Americans) raged, Vietnam had to make big sacrifices. This tragedy, however, brought some benefits too. Women emerged from the shadows to take on a prominent share in the freedom struggle. They offered to work in factories, offices, hospitals and in the army. They not only equaled their male colleagues, but also outshone them in bravery, tenacity and commitment.
The war-ravaged bleeding nation stood up to salute these brave women. One such woman was Nguyen Thi Xuan, who was reputed to have downed a jet by just 20 bullets. The brave Vietnamese women was portrayed holding a rifle in one hand and a hammer in the other. By the 1960S, women had become ubiquitous in the armed forces.
Women volunteers manned and maintained the 2195km-long Ho Chi Minh trail. There were 2500 strtegic points along the trail which had a sizeable number of women as guards. Some estimates say, there were as many as 1.5 million women in the North Vietnamese armed forces.
9c. Women during peacetime reconstruction …As the curtains came down on the bloody war and peace arrived, women no longer worked in the armed forces. They returned to civilian positions, underlining their nation-building role.
10a. The War draws to a close … The war had shaken the conscience of America. Slowly but steadily, the realization dawned in the Americans’ minds that the war was un-winnable and morally repugnant. Eminent public figures like Jane Fonda and Mary Mcarthy reached out to North Vietnam. Winds of change blew thick and fast. Under the deft diplomacy of Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State of United States, negotiations began with North Vietnam for a gradual disengagement of America from the conflict. The peace agreement was signed in 1974 in Paris. America and the rest of the world heaved a sigh of relief. The National Liberation Front (NLF) stormed into the presidential palace in Saigon in April 30, 1975. Vietnam finally became unified.
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