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Some few colonialists took their "civilizing mission" seriously, and in Cambodia and Laos the French were generally well received. The creation of roads, rail lines and basic health services benefited a portion of the populace. Though part of the blame must be laid on the French, the Vietnamese imperial government had been notably unsuccessful in maintaining public peace in itsinal years, particularly in Tonkin, and the imposition of order was no doubt an improvement in many areas. The French showed favor to the upland minorities, the Malayo-Polynesian Montagnards in the south and the more advanced Tai, Hmong and other Sino-Tibetan hill tribes in the north +, who had been exploited or ignored under Vietnamese and Laotian rule. While the French hardly replaced ignorance and disorder with civilization, there were positive aspects to French rule. Southern Vietnam, in particular, was generally prosperous under the French, though this was mainly a product of the fertility of the Mekong Delta and the hard work of the peasantry.
The French in Indochina were not the worst of colonialists; indeed, if such a characterization can be made, they were arguably among the best. They could not match the Belgians in Africa for brutality, the Japanese in Manchuria and Korea for ruthlessness and racist arrogance nor the Dutch in Indonesia for naked commercial exploitation. They left behind in Indochina a reverence for their language, educational institutions, culture and cuisine which places them ahead of the Spanish in the Philippines, the Dutch in Indonesia and the British in Burma. If the French stand up poorly in comparison with the British in India - which might be contested - it was no doubt in part because Indochina was far less important to France than was India to Britain and in part because Britain's overseas policies had a degree of coherence and continuity imposed from above. Further, the enormity of Britain's strategic problems in India forced the British into power-sharing alliances with local elites, which both softened the edge of exploitation and made disassociation easier when it came. Tellingly, by the late nineteenth century, locally recruited units of the British Indian Army were officered largely by Indians whereas French colonial troops recruited from among the indigenous peoples of Indochina were commanded almost entirely by French officers and non-commissioned officers to the bitter end.
By and large, the French treated their Asian subjects to no greater economic and social outrages than did most other colonialists, and there is truth in the assertion that the French in Vietnam "belonged" in a way that Americans never did. Yet the Vietminh-led struggle against the French which erupted afterworld War II was marked by a peculiar intensity and bitterness, a bitterness which carried over into the American phase of the conflict. Why was this? The Vietnamese tradition of resistance to foreign domination was no doubt a major factor. Another reason which bears consideration was the sharp contrast between theory and practice in French colonialism; the French were no worse than most and a good deal better than many, but the contrast between the realities of colonial exploitation and the French ideals of law, justice and government- liberte, fraternite, egalite-was particularly stark. Could it be that Vietnamese nationalists felt not only abused, but in a sense betrayed?
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