Since the formation of the first Vietnamese state over two millennia ago Vietnam has fought for the right to determine its own fate. Since way back in 111 B.C.,Vietnam has been under the rule of the Chinese, the French, the Japanese and, for all intents and purposes, the United States. The Vietnamese know their history as a series of anti-colonial struggles. They also know that every time a power invaded, no matter how long they stuck around (the Chinese ruled for a thousand years), Vietnamese independence movements successfully sent them packing. Vietnamese victories over colonizers include the defeat of:
— the Chinese, who ruled from 111 B.C. (some would say 207 B.C.–it’s confusing) more or less continuously until the year 938 A.D.
— the French (from 1859 to 1954, when the Viet Minh beat them back at Äiá»‡n BiÃªn Phá»§)
— the Japanese (from 1941 to 1945 during World War II, though the Allies had more to do with defeating them than the Vietnamese)
— the United States (from the mid-’50s until the fall of Saigon, 1975)
The fact that the United States is just another invading power that the Vietnamese beat back in their long, long history, may help us understand why the Vietnamese seem so quick to “forgive” the U.S. for its role in the recent devastation of their nation, and why the U.S., a much younger entity that isn’t used to losing wars, still views the experience in Vietnam as an active, gaping wound.Â
But more about the U.S. and Vietnam later. Before that, let’s go waaaay back–let’s say, at least four thousand years. According to legend the earliest Vietnamese people were descended from the Dragon Lord Láº¡c Long QuÃ¢n and the Immortal Fairy Ã‚u CÆ¡. The two supposedly had 100 sons, 50 of which went with their dad to the sea and 50 who went with their mom to the mountains. The eldest son became the first of the HÃ¹ng kings. They ruled in the area now known as Vietnam for about two thousand years. They called their country VÄƒn Lang. The people were known as the Láº¡c
The Láº¡c Viá»‡t cultivated rice, raised buffaloes, made a whole lot of pots and baskets and traveled an extensive network of rivers and canals by dugout canoe. Sounds nice. But all idyllic ancient things must come to an end, and by the year 111 B.C. the Chinese had formally incorporated Vietnam into their empire. (A hybrid Chinese/Vietnamese kingdom that ruled from 207 B.C. to 111 B.C. somewhat muddles the Chinese start date.)
For a thousand years the Chinese dominated Vietnam, during which most Vietnamese adopted a mix of three Chinese religions: Mahayana Buddhism (which is more popular in India, but it came to Vietnam by way of China), Confucianism and Taoism. Today most Vietnamese describe themselves as non-religious, but are known to visit temples several times a year, about 80% practicing so-called the Buddhist/Confucian/Taoist triple religion (tam giÃ¡o).
During such a long era of Chinese rule various peoples in Vietnam rebelled against them, with varying degrees of lasting success, until the year 938 when a Vietnamese lord finally defeated Chinese forces. This ushered in another thousand year period in Vietnamese
history, this one of independent rule, during which there were more rice fields, buffaloes and baskets. This era of independence ended in 1885 when the French succeeded, after about thirty years of military campaigns, in making Vietnam became part of French Indochina.
The French developed Vietnam into a plantation economy that generated exportable supplies of tobacco, coffee and tea. They also supported Roman Catholicism over other religions and actively squelched Vietnamese independence movements, especially those that tried to modernize Vietnamese society. In 1940, when Germany defeated France in the early part of World War II, the French had to surrender French Indochina to the Japanese. The Japanese exploited Vietnamese natural resources for use in their military campaigns against the Allies.
In 1941 a communist and nationalist liberation movement called the Viet Minh led by Vo Nguyen Giap and a scrappy young upstart named Ho Chi Minh (more about Ho below) rose to fight for independence from both France and the Japanese. After the Japanese fell in 1945 the Viet Minh occupied Hanoi, the main city in Vietnam’s north, and claimed independence. Unfortunately the French didn’t want to let go; in 1945 they sent troops to restore French rule. This led to the “First Indochina War,” which, much to France’s surprise the Vietnamese effectively won in 1954 by defeating the French in the Battle of Äiá»‡n BiÃªn Phá»§.
A BIT ABOUT HO
Let’s take a second to introduce Há»“ ChÃ Minh, the controversial father of today’s Vietnam. Born in 1890 Nguyá»…n Sinh Cung, Ho was the son of a small scale local magistrate and part-time Confucian scholar. Ho was well educated in Chinese and French, and became a teacher before leaving Vietnam temporarily to explore the world. He worked as a cook’s helper on a ship that brought him to the United States, where he lived from 1912-1913 in Harlem and in Boston, worked as a baker, developed a respect for Marcus Garvey and came under the influence of some U.S.-based Korean nationalists. From 1913 to 1919 he lived in England and from 1919 to 1923 he lived in France, where he became an active member of the Communist Party. From there he moved on to Moscow and China, where he was a Communist organizer, though after Chaing Kai-shek’s anti-communist coup in China he wandered further. By 1940 he began using the name “Há»“ ChÃ Minh,” a nickname that combines Ho, a common Vietnamese last name, with Chi Minh, which means “enlightened will” (“chi” meaning spirit or will, “minh” meaning light.)Â
In 1941 Ho returned to Vietnam to lead the Viet Minh and quickly became known for both his victories in battle and his purges of political opposition. During this time he appealed to U.S. president Harry Truman several times to support his Vietnamese independence movement against the French, but he received no reply. In 1950, Há»“ met with the USSR’s Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong and came to the agreement that the Chinese would support the Viet Minh.
Ho led the North Vietnamese war effort against the French in the ’50s and then against the Americans in the ’60s. His political rivals may have rightly feared him, and many Vietnamese, especially those who fled the country during and soon after the war, accuse him of tearing up the nation with his nationalist struggles but he also received a great deal of actual admiration from his followers, many of whom called him Uncle Ho, or just Uncle. Uncle Ho never got to see his war against the United State succeed; he died of heart failure in 1969. However, you can still see Uncle Ho; his embalmed body is in display in a mausoleum Hanoi. Back to the history, and back to 1954….
AFTER THE FRENCH
After the French lost at Dien Bien Phu the Geneva Accords of 1954 separated the country temporarily–or so was the plan–into mainly-Communist North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, and the mainly non-Communist South under an increasingly unpopular Emperor. After the Accords, during a 300 day period of free movement between North and South, almost a million North Vietnamese Catholics fled to the South, fearing Communist anti-Catholic oppression. Soon South Vietnam’s prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem overthrew the Emperor and became president of the Republic of Vietnam. Diem refused to hold
Vietnam-wide elections mandated in the treaty, helping codify the North/South split. He “confirmed” his popular leadership by fixing a 1955 South Vietnamese referendum on the future of the State of Vietnam, receiving an unlikely 98.2 percent of the vote, and an even less likely 133% of the vote in Saigon. In the late 1950s a fighting force of Communists in the South, which became known as the Viet Cong, began a guerrilla war to overthrow Diem’s government and unify the country under Ho. Eventually Diem fell, and so did a rapid succession of about a dozen South Vietnamese military regimes, though North and South remained separate.
One of the main reasons South Vietnam stayed afloat was that it had a very powerful new friend..the United States. U.S.”military advisers” initially entered Vietnam in the early ’50s to support French rule, and when the French left, remained to keep the North Vietnamese Communists at bay. Though admittedly unfamiliar with Vietnamese history, culture, language, religion, etc. etc. etc. (etc.), many U.S. leaders saw Vietnam as an essential front in the war against Communism. The Domino Theory asserted that if Vietnam fell to Communism, so would, in eventual succession, all of Asia. U.S. anti-Communists had just finished supporting a difficult and relatively unsatisfying war in Korea (U.S. troops had “contained” but didn’t defeat Communists in the North), and they didn’t intend to “lose” Vietnam.
Throughout Eisenhower’s presidency in the late ’50s and especially during Kennedy’s presidency in the early ’60s, the U.S. sent more and more assistance to the South.They supported Diem, then when he fell, to a rapid series of South Vietnamese regimes. (By 1965 General Nguyá»…n VÄƒn Thiá»‡u took power in his own rigged election and held on until 1975.) In 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin, North Vietnamese boats clashed with the U.S.S. Maddox, after which Congress gave President Johnson the authority to send troops to
Vietnam. The details of the Gulf of Tokin incident are still fuzzy…did the U.S. manufacture, or at least exaggerate, the incident to give it an excuse to go to war?…but the ramifications aren’t. Whatever actually happened in Tonkin, Johnson had the formal power to wage war, and in 1965 the U.S. sent its first official combat troops to Vietnam.
Between 1965 and the end of hostilities in 1975, approximately 2.5 million U.S. troops fought in Vietnam. (About 60,000 died; 150,000 more were wounded.) Though the U.S. and the South won several military victories, fighters for the North portrayed the war as an anti-colonialist struggle to oust U.S. imperialists from their homeland and demonstrated immense passion for the fight. After three years of intense combat, this nationalist pride, coupled with military aid from the Soviets and Chinese, enabled the North to continue the fight. In 1968, on the first day of the Vietnamese lunar New Year, Tet, the North Vietnamese led a coordinated attack on military and civilian targets in the South. The strength of the 1968 “Tet Offensive” (“Tet” is the Vietnamese new year) shocked the American military, and Americans at home, in questioning whether the U.S. would actually win.
Unrest at home–especially opposition to the U.S. compulsory military draft–as well as increasing conflict inside the U.S. military, led President Nixon to publicly call for “Vietnamization,” which was the process of putting the fight into the South Vietnamese soldiers’ hands. At the same time he ordered massive (and, initially, secret) U.S. bombing of the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” a supply route that ran through Cambodia and Laos. This led to massive hardship in Cambodia and Laos, and even more protest at home. Officially the U.S. withdrew all combat troops in 1973. Taking advantage of the South’s weakened state, North Vietnam launched an all-out offensive in 1974. On April 30, 1975, the North captured Saigon. They eventually renamed it Ho Chi Minh City.
As Americans well know, the United States the period between 1965 and the U.S. and South Vietnamese defeat in 1975 was a turbulent era of complex cultural and political change. As Americans know less well, estimates of Vietnamese military and civilian deaths during the war range from a million to up to four million, out of a population of about 40 million at the time, not to mention an estimated half million Cambodians and 250,000 Laotians in the American bombing and ensuing unrest in those nations. By 1975 North Vietnam may have won the war to unify the country but the entire nation was physically and emotionally drained.
After the war, the government of the newly unified “Socialist Republic of Vietnam” collectivized farms and factories and dealt harshly with political opposition. Millions of Vietnamese fled the nation, many on poorly built boats, precipitating an international humanitarian crisis. Despite impending economic collapse the Vietnamese government waged two wars to secure its borders, one in Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge and another with China.
By 1986 Vietnamese were weary of war, and also weary of waiting for much-promised economic progress. A group of reformers led by Nguyen Van Linh ousted the Vietnamese Communist Party’s leadership and ushered in a set of free-market reforms known as
“Æ‰á»—i Má»i” (renovation), which carefully transformed Vietnam from being a centrally planned economy to a “socialist-oriented market economy.”
Today Vietnam is still politically Communist but is economically a free-market state, though with much bureaucracy and Communist Party control. The economy has boomed, surviving setbacks such as the 1997 Asian economic crisis and the more recent global recession. The Vietnamese government has a spotty human rights record and maintains control over most media and social policy–for example the government, still wary of Roman Catholicism, still bans the Vatican Church and only permits government-controlled Catholic organizations–yet, en masse, Vietnamese continue to express optimism. Far from wallowing in a grudge against America for “destroying Vietnam in order to save it,” the prevailing Vietnamese attitude is to let history become history–there is so much of it in Vietnam–and to get on with modern life. The government has normalized diplomatic and trade relations with most nations, including the U.S., and Vietnamese are an increasingly international, globally-connected lot. After all, the Vietnamese have won wars against China, France, Japan and the United States, and have every intent of remaining a proud, independent nation. Whether or not the Vietnamese people will come to consider one-party Communist rule as threat to their independence still remains to be seen.
Wikipedia on Vietnam | “Vietnam: Where Capitalism Thrives, Communists Rule and Dissent Whispers from the Walls” | Almost 90% of Vietnamese are Viet (Kinh), but there are 53 other ethnic groups in Vietnam, like the Tay, the H’mong and the Chan, most of whom live in the northern hills | More about the ever-practical Vietnamese “triple religion” | Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is a must-read novel about the waning days of French colonial rule in the ’50s, including the arrival of the Americans | A photographic tour of the Vietnam War from U.S. perspective (for images from the Vietnamese perspective, look at the “images” section below | STOP THE SEVEN SOCIAL EVILS! (or not) | A really great site about Vietnamese culture (you’ll especially like the page of Vietnamese myths and legends) | Celebrate Tet, 4th to 6th grade style | Enjoy