A Case Study In Imperialism: France in Indochina

“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” (Kristofferson). In Vietnam, the people constantly acted like freedom was the only thing worth sacrificing for. France, in the middle of the nineteenth century, one of the great imperial powers, was seeking to expand its sphere of influence all over the world. Asia, being the last remaining populated frontier with potential for colonization, drew the attention of the colonizers in Europe. While the stakes were high, each nation knew the costs and benefits of colonization. Completely ignored were the numerous irreversible effects imperialism would have on the colonized. (Taylor) The French colonization of Indochina changed Vietnamese culture and upset the people’s balance of life, along with leading to drastic changes to the country as a whole.

They altered peoples’ roles in society. Vietnamese were eventually forced to adopt French ideals. Before their colonization, the Indochinese practiced a modified variant of Confucianism. While villages were self sufficient, and thus a modicum of specialization was inherent in the social structure, the people had no need to learn skills that would provide complete differentiation. When the French began to send young Vietnamese men off to school, either in Hue, Saigon or France itself, they were taught not only scholarly courses but also received exposure to vocational training. For the first time, young men were learning how to be doctors, lawyers, surveyors, and how to participate in corporatocracy. After graduation, this group of educated young professionals returned to Vietnam with the goal of improving their country. Instead, they became the basis for a new social class that was in a no-man’s land between Vietnamese tradition and the French. (Pye) A sense of enforced camaraderie with the French led to an amalgamation of Confucian and European culture. Because only the professional class was allowed to intermingle with the French, and they were more affluent, it set an example for the proletariat. People assumed that French culture was inherently superior, and the working man began to adopt European ideals. Unfortunately for the French, the educated pointed out the hypocrisy between European culture and the desired mercantilist rule. Instead of France pursuing the path of highest profit, they chose the path of least resistance. Instead on forcing obedience, the French gained power over Vietnamese culture. (Cady) Scholars and members of the imperial court were suppressed, and their unique class allowed to die out. The majority of the beaurocracy abandoned their culture for a sense of power, which ran contrary to Confucian tradition. (Pye) The scholars, however, were a special group of officials who in many ways were responsible for keeping the culture pure. Their sole form of communication with the general populace was their poetry, which was both artistic and spiritual. As the French invaded culturally, the people maintained their admiration for their poetry; but nobody stepped forward to take the mantle as protector of Confucian ideals. The last scholar died in 1909, and thenceforth that entire aspect of Indochinese culture was lost forever. (Jamieson) In almost all of the schools established in Vietnam in the early twentieth century, pupils were taught how to read and write the Anglicized version of their language. As students went abroad to Japan to study in Western schools, France feared they would become too westernized. People went not to learn vocations, but rather to study the source of the West’s immense power. Leaders established new schools to teach true Western values, the values that conflicted so deeply with French goals in Indochina. (Tran) While Vietnamese culture changed so dramatically, it didn’t move simply in one direction or another. This was a visible struggle between tradition and modern success and neither one could claim victory. Vietnam developed a new culture unique in the world due to the comingling of traditional Vietnamese with French values. This new culture would soon pose serious problems to the West as it defied current American and European logic.

The majority of French policy also led to severe economic hardship. They caused collateral damage that affected the people’s ability to financially sustain themselves. They used the promise of arms, which were very costly in Asia, to coerce the people into fighting the Black Fang. This side war proved costly to the farmers of the Red River Valley, as they not only had to supply soldiers, but they also lost innumerable acres of invaluable farmland. In the end, the war against the Chinese rebels proved irrelevant, and only the damage wrought by the fighting remained. (Beck) The French also imposed production requirements upon the Vietnamese , which ruined their ability to be self-sufficient. Traditionally, people would rely on village elders for material assistance. (Pye) France, however, required villages to specialize, necessitating reliance upon corporations for the goods they needed. Necessities such as salt now came from French companies that made a profit off such skullduggery. (Jamieson)

France exploited the Vietnamese for their own gain. They abused the people while profiting from drug use.. Rice whiskey served an important function in religious celebrations in Vietnam. Traditionally, the people would collectively make whatever amounts they required. French mercantilists, however, saw the potential revenue that rice whiskey could provide. They forced the French government to institute a per village quota system. Not only was the proletariat living in villages subjected to a large economic burden but they also were exposed to alcohol in quantities hitherto unknown to them. Alcohol combined with harsh labor demands caused psychological damage to the men working on infrastructure projects. (Jamieson) In France, opium was illegal and was frequently targeted by law enforcement. Its power over people as an addictive narcotic was realized in Europe almost instantly upon its introduction, and most nations sought to rid themselves of such an obvious evil. However, many clandestine operations were launched to take advantage of the growing European demand for narcotics. As poppy, the plant from which opium is derived, is encountered almost exclusively in the East, these companies went to Asia in search of a massive fortune. When they eventually arrived in Vietnam, they found a people that had not yet been exposed very much to opium. As they set out to change this initial reluctance, they strongly pressured the French to allow processing, distribution, and sale of opium in Vietnam. Without governmental safeguards, people quickly became addicted. Because foreign corporations had a stranglehold on the industry, they were able to charge more than people could afford. Opium quickly began to bankrupt people much the way it has in China for the past four centuries. The French thus demonstrated a complete disregard for the well being of the Vietnamese people. They allowed the use of drugs which were illegal, or looked down upon back in France, and showed their utter disdain for their supposed consistent rule between Europe and Indochina. While they tried to protect their own people from material evils, they willed those same evils on the Vietnamese simply for the sake of European economic profit.

France’s oppression of the people also resulted in an organized popular revolutionary movement. Ho Chi Minh believed that communism would offer the best path to liberation. French influence was no different from the emperors, as “the reach of the Emperor’s authority stopped at the bamboo hedge” (Pye). While the French exerted control over the activities of a village as a whole, and generally controlled the people’s future, they did not specifically target individuals. As is often common in revolutions, the people chose to go in the opposite direction from their oppressors. While French imperialism controlled Vietnam as a country, communism would allow the people control over each other. The idea of ridding the country of outside influence conformed to the Confucian idea of phuc duc, or a collective familial karma. People would control each other as would members of a family, and villages could return to being self-sufficient. (Pye) Ho also believed that communism leads to nationalism and vice-versa, and would help re-establish a united Vietnam, unlike the three sections the French had them divided into. He subscribed to Lenin’s belief that Bolshevism would either lead to destruction or emancipation. He further thought that both were equally dangerous outcomes, but the nationalism inherent in Bolshevism would lead to just consequences. The nationalism would come about through the unity coupled with any revolution, namely the common front against an equally hated foe. No matter who the foe was, be it China, France, or the United States, Ho was prepared to fight with his people for their freedom. (Ho) Communism would also alleviate all of the problems that the French had introduced. Ho believed that the greed caused by capitalism was the cause of severe exploitation of Vietnam and her people. The introduction of evils such as excess alcohol and opium were driven by profit, and communism would prevent such gluttony. Forced bondage would end, along with monopolies and unjust taxes. The evils of capitalism would bow to the will of the people, and communism would be the means of the people to implement their will and be independent once more. (Ho) Communism would also grant Vietnam access to more appealing allies. While Japan was an ally at the turn of the century, the onset of the Second World War caused Japan to look at areas around the world where she could hedge her bets. In the case of Vietnam, Japan decided to preserve the imperialist attitude in lieu of French governance. When the Japanese surrendered and installed Bao Dai as emperor, he immediately abdicated in favor of the Viet Minh. After the war, when France foolishly re-entered Indochina, Vietnam began to turn towards China after Chairman Mao gained power. (Tran) China and Russia would soon supply the Viet Minh with enough supplies to fight off an American army simply because they were communist.

The outcome of French defeat in Vietnam caused the complete loss of French influence and military position in Asia. At Dien Bien Phu in 1954, France lost to a coalition of Viet Minh and Chinese forces. While the Viet Minh were the military outfit present, it had the near unanimous backing of the Vietnamese people. After their defeat, the remaining French forces were scattered and had to contend with a people that was openly hostile. When their position fell, France lost all semblance of leverage in Indochina, and the only question remaining was whether any compromise achieved at Geneva would have any effect on the rising star of the Viet Minh. While Geneva attempted to draw a temporary border between a Western-backed South and a communist North for two years, the Viet Minh proclaimed that they would have captured Saigon within six weeks. Because there were no remaining French forces, and because Laos and Cambodia were proclaimed neutral and void of fighting, the Viet Minh, by now under the leadership of the brilliant strategist Vo Ngyuen Giap, planned to go to the West and completely circumvent the 17th parallel. France essentially saw its position crumble in one final battle; destroyed in their last stand. (Stanley) They additionally lost what was meant to be a base upon which to establish trade with the rest of Asia. When Jesuit and Catholic missions were first established, news quickly spread back to France of the untapped potential laying in Vietnam. In 1879, France was attempting to establish a protectorate over Tongking and Siam, with the goal of control over the port of Hue. From Hue, France planned to establish a trading route from China, using Vietnam only as a stopover. The Vietnamese people, however, never proved amenable to this idea. As Indochina was the last remaining unclaimed territory in the east, France had no choice but to pursue a policy of imperialism in order to establish a strong presence in Asia. Nearly a century after France embarked on its ambition to establish an Eastern trading route, the situation in Asia was the opposite of when the French began their involvement. Communism was spreading, and freedom from the foreign yoke of oppression was borne through the air like a wildfire. After the French finally withdrew, the last colony in Asia had achieved her independence. (Cady)

It is undeniable that the French occupation of Indochina forever changed the face of Asia. The communists that took advantage of French oppression to take power expanded their base of support throughout Southeast Asia. The goals of European imperialism, namely enforcing white superiority throughout the world, backfired stupendously. The forced modernization of the East not only provided the impetus for revolution but also gave revolutionaries the means with which to successfully participate in the modern world. That communism appeared to be the enemy of the imperialists speaks only as a testament to the great injustices that were inflicted on colonies. As Ho Chi Minh himself said, “it was patriotism, not communism, that inspired me.” Communism, with China lurking just over the border, was the last resort for all of the people pushed to the brink, unable to defend themselves in any other manner. It was not some ideological break that split the world during the cold war, but it was rather those who were formerly oppressed rising up against those who had wronged them in an attempt to point out the hypocrisy of their ways. When France withdrew after Dien Bien Phu, the end of the great Imperialist Era drew to a close. After her return following World War Two, France was doomed from the beginning. As harsh as their measures were before the war, they simply lacked enough support afterwards to continue as colonizers. It was exactly as Ho Chi Minh wished it to be, a people’s rebellion. In retrospect, it seems to be just another reminder that the only lasting outcome is the one gained by the people, not determined for them.