The Vietnam War (1945–1975)

History
Summary

Vietnamese Nationalism and the First Indochina War: 1900–1954

Summary Vietnamese Nationalism and the First Indochina War: 1900–1954

Later in 1945, Ho wrote a number of letters to Harry S Truman, the U.S. president, appealing for official U.S. recognition of the DRV. However, the United States was becoming embroiled in postwar tension with the Soviet Union—tension that would quickly escalate into the Cold War. Wary of Ho’s Communist leanings, the United States refused his request, denounced him, and offered to help the French. Within a year, American ships were transporting French troops into Vietnam.

Nationalism and Communism

One of the things that made the Vietnam War so morally confusing for Americans was the fact that the Viet Minh were both nationalists and Communist. Americans, brought up extolling the glory of the freedom fighters of the American Revolution, generally viewed nationalism and self- determination as a good thing. In this light, Ho Chi Minh’s courageous fight against French imperialism seemed heroic. However, as the United States was a capitalist country that at the time was engaged in a paranoid ideological battle with the Communist USSR, Americans also were concerned with and frightened by Ho’s socialist beliefs.

Importance of the Viet Minh

Although a number of Vietnamese groups engaged in several separate nationalist initiatives against the French, only the Viet Minh finally hit on the right formula. The Viet Minh leadership was remarkably experienced, its abilities honed by a lifetime of conflicts opposing France and then reinforced by the struggle against the Japanese in World War II. The fight against Japan also helped the Viet Minh become enormously popular among the Vietnamese people.

The brilliant tactician Ho Chi Minh perfectly surveyed the political situation during World War II, playing upon the United States’ anti-Japanese priorities in order to obtain weapons and supplies that would help the Viet Minh establish a northern power base. Thus, the early successes of the Viet Minh were ironically accomplished via U.S. support.

The Viet Minh Leadership

The Viet Minh had a slew of other unusually talented and committed leaders in addition to Ho. The hawkish Le Duan controlled DRV guerrilla operations in southern Vietnam. Truong Chinh, a Marxist theorist who adopted a name that means “Long March” (in reference to Mao Zedong’s exploits in China), advocated land reforms following the Chinese model, which were ultimately unsuccessful. Finally, Pham Van Dong was an able negotiator who often represented the Viet Minh in its dealings with outside groups. The experienced, patient, dedicated leadership of these men made them immensely popular with the Vietnamese peasants—and contrasted sharply with the unpopular, corrupt governments in South Vietnam, both the kingdom of Bao Dai and the U.S.-backed government that would emerge later.

Groups in South Vietnam

At the time of the French return to Vietnam, three other important groups in southern Vietnam commanded large followings and existed outside the Viet Minh influence. The first was the Cao Dai, the adherents of an eclectic cult that combined aspects of Eastern religions and Western pop culture. The Hao Hoa, meanwhile, combined Buddhism and nationalism and maintained a sizable army. Finally, the Binh Xuyen, headquartered in a Chinese-dominated suburb of Saigon called Cholon, were essentially the Vietnamese mafia. All three groups had considerable influence in southern Vietnamese politics, which was extremely factionalized and corrupt.

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