In the latter part of the nineteenth century the words Indo-China did not mean much to the average European. Map draughtsmen knew the word was applied (by the French) to five dependencies in south-east Asia from 1887. In fact the word stayed until 1954.
These settlements were (a) Annam, where the French had had trading rights since 1787; it became a French protectorate in 1884; (b) Cochin-China (including a southern city called Saigon) given to France by the king of Annam in 1862: (c) Cambodia, a French protectorate since 1863; ( d) Tonking, protectorate from 1884, and (e) Laos, dependency from 1893. There is not much difference between a dependency and a protectorate, except in the matter of bureaucracy.
Agricultural production was much increased by reclamation of land from swampy marshes, especially in the delta of the Mekong River, while all the time industries were being founded and developed by the French, especially in the zones round Hanoi, in the north. Hanoi became the administrative capital in 1902. In the days before ‘colony’ became an unusable word, Indo-China was entirely developed under colonial administration – by and for the French.
Inevitably, moves towards independence began with a series of uprising in the 1930s. Equally, French authority was effectively brought to a standstill by the Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation – 1941 to 45.
In September, 1945 the Vietnamese Republic was declared under the leadership of one Ho Chi Minh. French authority, not liking this unilateral declaration, tried to re-establish colonial rule, calling it the Indo-Chinese Federation. Severe fighting started between the French colonial army and Ho Chi Minh’s force, known as the Viet-Minh; this continued bloodily until 1954, but French involvement in Indo-China was formally ended, much to the chagrin of the French nation, by the Geneva Agreements of July in that year. Sadly, no agreements, in Geneva or anywhere else were of any use, and the departure of the French failed to bring peace of any kind to the beautiful but tragic countries of Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia.
The Geneva Conference partitioned Vietnam along the 17th parallel, with a Communist Democratic Republic (capital Hanoi) in the north, and (after the removal of the former emperor Bao Dai) a non-Communist Republic (capital Saigon) in the south.
Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnam leader stayed committed to the idea of a country dominated by Communism, north and south. He waited: in 1963 the South’s president Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown by his own military; Ho had already distributed Vietcong (Vietnamese from the south loyal to the north) insurgents along the borders, even infiltrating several hundred kilometres and establishing friendly villages, and underground hideouts like over-size rabbit warrens. Communist attempts to to take advantage of political confusion were accelerated by the rather overpowering arrival of massed US forces calling themselves ‘observers’, dedicated to assist the South.
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s the horrible and virtually inexplicable Vietnam War raged. Almost all America’s erstwhile allies refused to take a military part in it, including France and Britain. It is possible they had not yet forgotten Korea. Even the use of extraordinary air power failed to crush the ever-growing Communist strength digging-in in South Vietnam. Frightful atrocities took place, as in all wars, committed by both sides.
Whole villages and their population were destroyed using napalm and artillery. Regiments of mostly untrained young Americans were eliminated by pyjama-clad Vietcong aided by fully trained (by the Chinese) North Vietnamese soldiers.
The world stood bewildered and appalled by the war, which spread into Laos and Cambodia. World opinion was radical and liberal enough to oppose the war. The heads of the US military stressed that it was dedicated to a total non-acceptance of Communism, wherever it was found. American veterans returned after tours of duty to a United States where they were unfairly unpopular, as if they had chosen to go and fight an unseen enemy on the other side of the world. The North Vietnamese finally took Saigon in April, 1975, and promptly re-named the city for Ho Chi Minh. Could it be that the United States, the world’s most powerful nation and one of the richest, had lost the war?
The United Socialist Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed in 1976. The government adopted an aggressive pro-Soviet policy, dominated Laos, and helped neighbouring Cambodia (by invading it) to beat the Khmer Rouge regime which lasted from 1975 to 1979. This was a mistake as previously sympathetic China did not take to it at all, and there was a brief war between the Asiatic giant and tiny North Vietnam in which the melancholic results were inevitable. In 1989 Vietnames troops at last withdrew from Cambodia. In the south, hundred of thousands of refugees swarmed out to find refuge in other countries. Many chose to attempt a crossing of the South China Sea; these were called ‘The Boat People’. The loss of doctors, industrial workers, technicians and ex-soldiers caused an increasing dependence on the Soviet Union. But the Soviets had their troubles too.
In 1991, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Vietnam was forced to establish better relations and understandings with both China and the USA. A new Constitution was adopted in 1992 which incoporated important economic and political reforms, but the Communist Party kept its dominant position, maybe because it was the sole political party in existence.
Relations with the United States improved during the 1990s with more fruitful investigations into the whereabouts of American servicemen and women gone missing during the Vietnam War. Diplomatic links were established in 1995, and at the same time economic connections were re-instated between Vietnam, Japan and Great Britain.
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