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French Colonialism in Vietnam

The economic prosperity of the mid-1920s spread also to Vietnam. But 90 percent of the Vietnamese were peasants who received only 63 percent of the nation's income. Some of them worked small plots of land that they owned, some worked plots of land owned by Vietnamese landlords and some worked on French plantations. The Vietnamese who owned large tracts of land – 125 acres or more – and who lent money, were growing richer. The larger farms were in southern Vietnam, where 25 percent of the farms were under absentee ownership, compared to only 1 percent in northern Vietnam – a distribution that was to impact Vietnam in coming decades.

From before the 1920s, the French had been educating young Vietnamese to fill clerical positions in French enterprises and in their colonial administration. The old Confucian educational institutions had been abolished – the last classical mandarin exams having been given in 1918. The old mandarin class in Vietnam was on its way out, and colleges and universities in Vietnam were becoming more numerous. The French wanted the Vietnamese to speak French, to appreciate French culture and French standards of deportment. Vietnamese students mastered French and learned more about liberty, equality and fraternity. The sons of wealthy Vietnamese went to France to study, and often they returned home radicalized, causing a generational conflict as their wealthy parents felt a stake in a conservative approach to change.

Young Vietnamese filled clerical and minor administrative positions but could expect to climb no higher. They were usually better educated than the Frenchman who was their immediate superior, and they felt the arrogance of these men. In Vietnam these French bureaucrats were many. The French were more numerous in Indochina than the British were in India although the population of India was fifteen times that of Indochina.

The Vietnamese were annoyed also by press censorship, onerous taxation and forced labor. And in their annoyance with the French, the educated young joined those Vietnamese business persons who disliked colonial regulations and favoritism toward French-owned enterprises.

A young man from an upper-class family and annoyed by French rule had left Vietnam, working aboard a ship, eventually doing menial work in Paris. This was Ho Chi Minh. He was to claim that he had arrived in Paris in 1917, and he took interest in Woodrow Wilson's talk of self-determination.

Ho is said to have led fellow Vietnamese in petitioning the statesmen at the Paris Peace Conference on behalf of self-determination for the Vietnamese. His petition called for amnesty for political prisoners, equal rights for Vietnamese, freedom of press and thought, freedom of association and assembly, freedom of movement, technical and vocational schools for Vietnamese and a government of laws rather than government by decree. Whether he really expected a favorable response from the delegates to the conference is unknown, but he learned that the self-determination that Wilson was referring to was meant only for Europeans. He joined others, including Chinese students, in becoming interested in Lenin's thesis on colonialism, and in the wake of his disappointments with President Wilson he joined his nationalism to Lenin's brand of socialism. He joined France's Communist Party, and in 1923 he was invited to Moscow for training. In 1924 he was sent to Canton (in southern China), ostensibly as an assistant to the Russian advisor to the Guomindang, Michael Borodin. But Ho's plan was to use Canton as a base of operations to organize a Communist movement in nearby Vietnam – Canton being where dissident Vietnamese exiled themselves.

The French, meanwhile. were attempting political reforms in Vietnam. In 1920 they had created a Vietnamese consultative body, and to their Colonial Council of fourteen Frenchmen they added ten Vietnamese. After the moderate Left came to power in Paris in 1924, a new governor-general was sent to French Indochina, Alexandre Varenne – a moderate socialist. Varenne granted some amnesties, and he offered the people of Indochina including the Vietnamese a few additional civil liberties.

In 1926 an anti-French nationalist whom the Vietnamese venerated as a patriot, died. This was Phan Chu Trinh, who had been opposed to violence and for liberation by educating his fellow countrymen and appealing to French democratic principles. The editor of a Vietnamese newspaper eulogized him, and the editor was arrested. This inspired student strikes. Bank and postal employees joined the striking students, and the French arrested several hundred students and expelled them from their colleges and universities.

With the split between Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists in 1927, Ho returned to Moscow. And that year a rival movement was formed in Vietnam that modeled itself after China's Guomindang, its leader a young teacher named Nguyen Thai Hoc. France's governor-general in Indochina, Alexandre Varenne, had been trying to end forced labor. In January 1928, after conservatives returned to power in Paris they recalled Varenne and returned to Indochina a more conservative governor-general.

In 1930, strikes broke out on Vietnam's French-owned plantations. Also, the patience of Vietnamese farmers snapped, and they began demonstrating against taxes. The French Foreign Legion and airplanes were sent against rebellious peasants. The French executed Nguyen Thai Hoc and others, and 546 Vietnamese were given life sentences. Nguyen Thai Hoc's nationalist movement was destroyed, providing opportunity for the more radical nationalist movement under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh.

Meanwhile, colonialism remained popular in Paris, where the singer Edith Piaf had a hit titled Mon Légionnaire and motion pictures cranked out box office successes that romanticized the adventures of colonialism. A colonial exhibition in Paris in 1931 was popular, and with Germany recovering as a power many of the French found comfort not only in their countries Maginot Line but also in what they thought of as a balance of power provided by their colonies.

Additional Online Reading

A letter from Ho Chi Minh to the French Governor-General of Indochina.

Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.