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Chapter Two
The French War

 

At the beginning of the twentieth century the position of the French in Indochina seemed secure. They maintained power with a combination of coercion and co-option which undermined the legitimacy of traditional values at the top. By imposing individual monetary taxes, they also undermined the collective importance of the village - the most basic of all Vietnamese institutions - and weakened the structure of Vietnamese society at the bottom. The strength of traditional values was further eroded by forced adoption of the quocngu alphabet and the obvious superiority of French scientific and technical education. Opposition to French rule had no clear issue around which to coalesce. The French were adept at playing on religious and ethnic differences to pit groups against one another; they also made effective use of local intermediaries to wield power, partly to deflect resentment away from the colonial regime and partly to co-opt indigenous elites. Control of the commercial economy, particularly that of Saigon and the all-important rice trade, was left largely in the hands of Chinese merchants. The French used the mandarin class to provide low-level functionaries; at the same time they supervised the details of government down to the lowest level by means of a swollen bureaucracy, employing nearly as many Europeans in Indochina as did the British in India to govern a populace barely a tenth as large. Characteristically, the French maintained the Nguyen emperors in Hue to preserve the appearance of legitimacy while reducing the imperial government to impotence.

Rebellion in the name of traditional Vietnamese values had flickered out by the beginning of World War I, the tradition of resistance to foreign lords overwhelmed by an alien culture and economic system imposed by unanswerable military might. Such rebellions as occurred were local in scope and were quickly put down by French troops aided by native auxiliaries.

But with the First World War, new standards of rebellion arose in the form of nationalism and socialism, more precisely revolutionary communism. When American President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed his Fourteen Points as a basis for ending the war, he included among them the principle of national self- determination. The diplomats at Versailles - and indeed Wilson himself- had no intention of applying the principle beyond Europe, but the cat was out of the bag. Wilson had given nationalism based on ethnic, linguistic and cultural affinity legitimacy among oppressed colonial peoples. At the same time, the success of the Bolshevik revolution had given credibility and prestige to the ideas of Karl Marx and made plausible the notion of an international revolution of the oppressed in the name of socialism. Communist theorists quickly identified colonialism as a form of capitalist exploitation, and national communist parties appeared throughout the colonial world. The comintern, organized as the Communist International in 1919 by the Soviet Union to turn the ideal of revolution into reality, gave aid and guidance to the nascent communist parties.

The tension between nationalism and communism, evident in Vietnam from the beginning, reflected a roader contest these two powerful strains of political thought struggled for the soul of Asia. By the early 1930s, active resistance to the French had appeared in Vietnam under both banners, notably in the form of the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD, Vietnamese Nationalist Party), inspired by the Chinese Kuomintang, and the nascent Vietnamese Communist party.

At this point, one of the most remarkable figures in history enters our narrative: Ho Chi Minh. Born Nguyen Sinh Cung on May 19,1890, the son of an impoverished mandarin in Nghe Ahn province, he was infected at an early age with a deep desire to expel the French (one of the many aliases which he adopted over the years was Nguyen Ai Quoc, 'Nguyen the Patriot'). Recognizing the futility of overt resistance, he left Vietnam as a sailor aboard a French ship in 1912 not to return for three decades. His wanderings as an itinerant revolutionary were the stuff of legend, improbably perfect in light of his chosen vocation. He spent a year in New York and later wrote a perceptive analysis of the Ku Klux Klan. He worked under renowned chef Georges Escoffier as a cook at London's CarIton Hotel, rising to assistant pastry chef, no mean gastronomic achievement. In Paris during the Versailles negotiations, he drafted a statement supporting Vietnamese national self-determination to hand President Wilson, only to be refused. In December of 1920 he was present at the birth of the French Communist Party as a founding member. As a Comintern agent, he founded the Indochina Communist Party in Hong Kong in 1930, shortly thereafter returning to Vietnam. In Moscow during the late 1930s, he survived Stalin's purges only to be imprisoned by Chiang Kai-shek during World War II.

 

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