World History 2 243 - 14.2.3 Southeast Asia

The lessons of Korea also strengthened the U.S. commitment to oppose the spread of communism in Vietnam. Following the end of World War II, France wished to reclaim control of Vietnam, which had been its colony before being seized by Japan in 1940. However, the Vietnamese nationalist group the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, wished to seize the opportunity of Japan’s surrender to proclaim their country’s independence. The Viet Minh had fought the Japanese during World War II and had often assisted the U.S. military. Ho Chi Minh fully expected that the United States would support them.

In Their Own Words

Ho Chi Minh Proclaims Independence

On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnam’s freedom from French rule. In his speech, excerpts of which follow, he stated a long list of grievances of the Vietnamese people against the French colonialists and argued that the Vietnamese people should be free to rule themselves:

In the autumn of 1940, when the Japanese fascists violated Indochina’s territory to establish new bases in their fight against the Allies, the French imperialists went down on their bended knees and handed over our country to them. Thus, from that date, our people were subjected to the double yoke of the French and the Japanese. Their sufferings and miseries increased. The result was that, from the end of last year to the beginning of this year, from Quảng Trị Province to northern Vietnam, more than two million of our fellow citizens died from starvation.

On March 9 [1945], the French troops were disarmed by the Japanese. The French colonialists either fled or surrendered, showing that not only were they incapable of “protecting” us, but that, in the span of five years, they had twice sold our country to the Japanese.

[. . .]

For these reasons, we, the members of the Provisional Government, representing the whole Vietnamese people, declare that from now on we break off all relations of a colonial character with France; we repeal all the international obligation that France has so far subscribed to on behalf of Viet-Nam, and we abolish all the special rights the French have unlawfully acquired in our Fatherland.

The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer the country.

We are convinced that the Allied nations, which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.

A people who have courageously opposed French domination for more than eighty years, a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the fascists during these last years, such a people must be free and independent!

—Ho Chi Minh, Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam

  • What arguments does Ho Chi Minh make for Vietnam being an independent country?
  • Why does he believe the Allies will support him?

Members of the U.S. military who had worked with Ho liked and respected him. However, while he was primarily a nationalist and no one questioned his patriotism, he was also a communist. Wanting to stand firm against what it saw as Soviet-directed communist expansion, the United States also wished to support its ally France, whose help it believed it needed to prevent the spread of communism in Europe. Thus, as the First Indochina War raged between French troops and the supporters of Ho Chi Minh, the United States assumed most of France’s financial burden for the war. China and the Soviet Union gave assistance to Ho’s forces.

Following its defeat in 1954 at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, France granted independence to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. According to the Geneva Accords, the peace treaty ending the war, Vietnam was divided along the seventeenth parallel of latitude with the assumption that, following national elections in 1956, it would be reunified (Figure 14.10). Ho Chi Minh governed the North and was expected to be the popular candidate in both North and South. The South was governed by a figurehead, the emperor Bao Dai, and his prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem.2Diem, a strong anti-communist, came from a family of wealthy Roman Catholics in a country where most people were poor and Buddhist. Before the elections, approximately one million Vietnamese Catholics from the North moved to the South, fleeing communist rule and bolstering support for Diem, who was backed by the United States. But he remained unpopular with the majority of Vietnamese people.

The map of southeast Asia shows China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). Laos is highlighted green; Cambodia is highlighted purple; the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) is highlighted blue; the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) is highlighted orange.
Figure 14.10 As a result of the 1954 Geneva Accords, the French colony of Indochina was divided into separate nations: Laos, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). North and South Vietnam were to be reunified following national elections. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Ngo Dinh Diem had no intention of relinquishing power, however; he argued that South Vietnam had not signed the Geneva Accords and so was not bound by them. The United States, as a SEATO member and knowing that Ho Chi Minh would easily win the majority of the vote in both North and South, supported Diem’s position. In 1955, well before any elections could take place, a referendum was held in South Vietnam instead. The rigged results revealed that Diem was favored by more than 98 percent of voters, and he proclaimed himself president. In reality, he was a ruthless politician who allowed no opposition and used the military to attack South Vietnamese Buddhists and students who protested his rule. Influenced by his brother Ngo Dinh Thuc, the archbishop of the city of Hue, Diem forbade the flying of the Buddhist flag. His regime also redistributed land taken from Buddhist peasants to Catholic ones and dispensed more aid to Catholics. In 1963, Buddhist monks in South Vietnam engaged in several acts of self-immolation, setting themselves on fire in public places to draw attention to the abuses of Diem’s brutal and corrupt regime. When foreign journalists questioned why the monks felt the need to engage in such dramatic protest, Diem’s sister-in-law and South Vietnam’s unofficial First Lady, Madame Nhu, compared the suicides to “barbecues.”

The Second Indochina War, sometimes simply called the Vietnam War, began in 1959 when the North Vietnamese Communist Party, seeking to unify the country under communist rule, called for a “people’s war” against the government of South Vietnam. North Vietnam received support from both China and the Soviet Union. Also helping the North was a group of South Vietnamese communists, many of whom had relocated to North Vietnam following the Geneva Accords. These men and women officially formed the National Liberation Front (NLF) in North Vietnam in 1960. Popularly known as the Viet Cong, the NLF returned to the South to organize peasants and begin an insurgency against the government of South Vietnam and the United States. U.S. president John F. Kennedy responded by continuing to do what his predecessors had done: he sent money and advisers to the South Vietnamese government but refused to commit ground troops.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax