A Short History of Vietnam
Vietnam's history has been one of repeated invasions and resistance (map of Vietnam today). For most of the first millennium AD, Vietnam was controlled by the Chinese. A final rebellion in 938 led to Vietnam achieving independence until the mid 19th century when increasing parts of the country were defeated by the French. The entire area of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were declared "French Indochina" in 1887.
The turn of the 20th century brought calls for independence from the citizens of Vietnam. In 1919, during the Versailles Peace Conference at the end of WWI, Ho Chi Minh submitted Vietnamese demands to the French, which the French completely ignored. This sparked the rise of grass-roots Vietnamese nationalist and communist organizations across the region. The French tried to counter the trend by supporting traditional forms of government (such as the clan system depicted in The Eaves of Heaven) and installed Bao Dai as a puppet emperor.
During WWII, France fell to Germany, and as a result, Japan (Germany's ally) was able to occupy Vietnam from 19401945. The Vietnamese nationalist movements grew during these years to combat the Japanese, with Ho Chi Minh forming the Viet Minh in 1941. The United States provided aid to the Viet Minh, which in turn enabled them to feed the peasants during a brutal, war-induced famine. The Viet Minh garnered immense popularity with the citizens of Vietnam as a result.
The Japanese were defeated in 1945, and Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent. France, however, did not recognize their right to self-rule, and redeployed their troops from Japan to Vietnam. The subsequent 9-year combat between French forces and the Viet Minh became known as the First Indochina War.
The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu (1954) led to the Geneva Conference and the resultant Geneva Accords. Diplomats from France, Vietnam, United States, USSR, Britain, China, Laos and Cambodia declared a cease-fire and divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel into Communist-controlled North Vietnam under the control of Ho and the Viet Minh, and South Vietnam under Bao Dai. The Accords required the French to withdraw from North Vietnam and for the Viet Minh to withdraw from the South. It further specified that unification between the North and South would occur after free elections, to be held in 1956.
The USA, under the grip of Cold War paranoia, stalled the free elections, throwing its support behind Ngo Dinh Diem, a Vietnamese nationalist. With the cooperation of the CIA, Diem rejected Vietnam-wide elections, holding a referendum instead that was limited to the southern part of the country. Diem won over 98% of the vote, which is widely thought to have been fraudulent. He removed Bao Dai from power and proclaimed South Vietnam to be the Republic of Vietnam.
Diem's administration was corrupt, undemocratic, and very unpopular. Rather than encouraging democracy in the South, as hoped for by the USA, the population became increasingly supportive of the Communists.
The USA, realizing people were flocking to the Communists as a result of Diem's oppressive regime, backed a military coup to overthrow him. General Duong Van Minh took over as the ruler of South Vietnam, and Diem was executed. Unfortunately, the new military rule was unstable.
The US government provided more and more "advisors" to the area to help stabilize the situation and drive the Communists out of South Vietnam. South Vietnamese nationalists, referred to as the Viet Cong, strove to drive out the US forces, which they considered foreign invaders. The two sides fought a war of attrition until political pressure in the United States forced a cease fire in 1973. The agreement mandated the withdrawal of all US troops. North Vietnam agreed that it would hold free elections with the South. No longer fearing retribution from the United States, however, the North Vietnamese failed to honor the cease-fire, and invaded the South in 1975. Saigon fell on 30 April as the last US troops fled the country, establishing Communist rule throughout the country.
For a brief history of Vietnam since 1975, please see the sidebar to Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things.
This article was originally published in July 2008, and has been updated for the
June 2009 paperback release.
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