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French Conquest, Colonial Rule and Resistance

The imposition of French colonial rule met with little organized resistance. Emperor Tu Duc himself hoped that by adopting a conciliatory attitude toward French demands in the southern provinces, the invaders might eventually be brought to reason and persuaded to give up their new conquests. He therefore prohibited his subjects from openly resisting French actions. But the sense of national identity was not extinguished, and anticolonial sentiment soon began to emerge. Poor living conditions, worsened by French economic exploitation, contributed to growing Vietnamese hostility to foreign rule. French occupation did bring some improvements in the area of transport and communications and also contributed modestly to the growth of a commercial and manufacturing sector. However, as a whole, colonialism brought little improvement in the lives of the Vietnamese. In the countryside, peasants struggled under heavy taxes and high rents. Workers in factories, in coal mines, and on rubber plantations labored in abysmal working conditions for paltry wages. By the early 1920s nationalist parties began to demand reform or independence. In 1930 the Moscow-trained revolutionary Ho Chi Minh (real name Nguyen Tat Thanh) established the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP).

Until the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945), the ICP and other revolutionary groups labored with little success. In 1940, however, Japan demanded the right to place northern Vietnam under military occupation. Japan planned to use the area as a base from which to launch a future invasion of the rest of Southeast Asia. The French viceroy, the senior government official in French Indochina, lacked sufficient armed forces to resist. He agreed to Japanese demands and was reduced to a figurehead authority. Seizing the opportunity, Ho Chi Minh organized a broad national front group called the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or Viet Minh for short) and built up guerrilla forces in preparation for an uprising at war’s end. To win wide popular support, the Viet Minh program emphasized national independence and moderate reform rather than openly Communist aims. When Japan surrendered to the Allies in August 1945, Viet Minh forces rose throughout the country and, in what is known as the August Revolution, declared the establishment of an independent republic with its capital at Hanoi.

The French, however, were unwilling to concede independence, and in late 1945 they seized control over the southern provinces from retreating Viet Minh and other nationalist forces. Negotiations to seek a compromise solution were held in France in the summer of 1946, but they failed to resolve differences. War broke out in December when Viet Minh military units attacked French positions in Hanoi and then retreated to the mountains north of the Red River Delta.

 

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