In 938, the Vietnamese freed themselves from more than 1,000 years of Chinese rule. It remains a source of great national pride that Vietnam then maintained its independence, defeating subsequent Chinese attempts to reestablish control. Vietnam is, however, unique among countries of Southeast Asia in having adopted many Chinese cultural patterns.
The French arrived in the second half of the nineteenth century, establishing control first over southern Vietnam (Cochin China) by 1867, then expanding it to central Vietnam (Annam) and northern Vietnam (Tonkin). The French also dominated Cambodia. In 1887 Paris created the administrative structure of French Indochina. Laos was added in 1893. Technically, only Cochin China was an outright colony. The others were protectorates, but French officials made all the key decisions.
Nationalism spread in Vietnam after World War I. The French crushed the moderates, with the result that the more radical Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) took over the leadership against the French. In September 1940, the Japanese arrived. Taking advantage of the defeat of France by Germany, Tokyo sent troops and established bases in Vietnam. Japan's move into southern Vietnam in July 1941 brought U.S. economic sanctions that led to the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
During World War II, ICP leader Ho Chi Minh formed the Vietnam Independence League (Viet Minh) to fight both the Japanese and the French. By the end of the conflict, with Chinese and American assistance, the Viet Minh had liberated much of Tonkin. The French, meanwhile, planned an insurrection against the Japanese, but in March 1945 the Japanese arrested all the French soldiers and administrators they could find. There was thus a political vacuum at the end of the war, into which Ho moved. On 2 September in Hanoi, he publicly proclaimed the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam).
Acting in accordance with wartime agreements, British forces occupied southern Indochina, and Nationalist Chinese forces arrived in northern Indochina. Ho was able to secure the departure of the Chinese, while the British released the French prisoners in southern Indochina and allowed them to reestablish their control there. Appeals by Ho to the Soviet Union and the United States fell on deaf ears, and Ho, forced into negotiations with the French, concluded an agreement on 6 March 1946 with French diplomat Jean Sainteny.
In the Ho-Sainteny Agreement, the French recognized the independence of North Vietnam and agreed to a plebiscite in southern Vietnam to see if it wished to join the North Vietnamese government, while Ho allowed the return of some French troops to North Vietnam to protect French interests there. The collapse of subsequent talks in France led to the outbreak of fighting in November 1946. This occurred because the French wanted to reassert control over their richest colony; there was a long-standing mutual mistrust; and on 1 June 1946, without prior approval from Paris, French High Commissioner for Indochina Admiral Thierry d'Argenlieu issued a proclamation for an independent Republic of Cochin China.
The Indochina War lasted until 1954. The conflict was unpopular in France, and Paris never committed the resources necessary to win it. The war was lost for all practical purposes with the 1949 communist victory in China, for this gave the Viet Minh secure basing areas and supplies. In 1949, in part to win U.S. support, the French government negotiated the Elysée Agreement with ex-Emperor Bao Dai. The agreement officially granted independence to Vietnam. The new State of Vietnam was, however, a sham, completely dominated by the French until the end of the war.
With the French military defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, the politicians in Paris shifted the blame onto the military and extricated France from the war. The July 1956 Geneva Accords granted independence to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Vietnam was to be temporarily divided at the 17th Parallel, pending national elections in two years to reunify the country.
In southern Vietnam, Catholic politician Ngo Dinh Diem took charge and brought a semblance of order. His power base rested on some 1 million northern Catholics who had relocated there after the Indochina War. In 1955 Diem staged a referendum, calling on the people of southern Vietnam to choose between Emperor Bao Dai and himself. Diem won the vote handily and proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam), with himself as president. He held power until his assassination in November 1963. Claiming that he was not bound by the Geneva Accords, he refused to hold the promised elections, and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration supported this position. When the date for the elections passed, Viet Minh political cadres in South Vietnam resumed the armed struggle, this time against the Diem government. Diem, meanwhile, received substantial economic aid and increasing military assistance from the United States.
In North Vietnam, Ho and other leaders were not displeased with Diem's establishment of order in South Vietnam pending the national elections. North Vietnam did face serious economic problems, for while it contained the bulk of the industry, South Vietnam had most of the food. Ruthless moves against small landholders brought actual rebellion, crushed by the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, North Vietnamese Army) troops. When the Viet Minh began guerrilla warfare in South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese leadership voted to support this, beginning the Vietnam War. The war was extraordinarily costly to North Vietnam economically and in terms of casualties, but the desire to reunify the country overrode all other considerations. During the war, North Vietnam received substantial economic and military assistance from the communist bloc, including China but especially the Soviet Union.
The Vietnam War raged until 1975, although U.S. forces departed in early 1973. In April 1975, PAVN forces were victorious militarily, capturing the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. Vietnam was now reunited, but under communist rule. In April 1976, general elections occurred for a single National Assembly. It met in June and the next month proclaimed the reunified country the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) with Hanoi as its capital. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. In September 1977, Vietnam was admitted to the United Nations (UN).
The new Vietnam faced staggering problems. These included rebuilding the war-ravaged country, knitting together the two very different halves of the country with their opposing patterns of economic development, and providing for the needs of a burgeoning population. The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) retained its monopoly on power. Indeed, the constitution guaranteed it as the only legal force capable of leading the state and society.
Immediately after the war, the government also carried out a political purge in southern Vietnam, although it was nothing like the bloodbath feared and so often predicted by Washington. Thousands of former South Vietnamese officials and military officers were sent to reeducation camps for varying terms, there to be politically indoctrinated and to undergo varying degrees of physical and mental discomfort, even torture. The government also undertook a program to reduce the urban populations in south Vietnam, especially in Ho Chi Minh City, by far the nation's largest metropolitan area. People had fled to the cities during the war, and perhaps one-third of the arable land lay idle. The government established so-called New Economic Areas to develop new agricultural land and return other areas to cultivation.
The government sent some 200,000 of its citizens to work in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. They sent home an estimated $150 million a year. Finally, the government introduced farm collectivization in south Vietnam and new regulations that governed business practices. These led to the collapse of light and medium industry. With the economy deteriorating, in 1981 the government introduced an incentive system. Peasants paid fixed rents for the use of the land and were able to sell surplus produce on the private market. Vietnam had no official ties with the United States, although both countries would have benefited economically had such a relationship been established early on.
Meanwhile, relations between Vietnam and Kampuchea (Cambodia) deteriorated, the result of traditional animosity between the two countries and Khmer Rouge persecution of its Vietnamese minority and its claims of Vietnamese territory. By 1977 there was serious fighting. The two states became proxies in the developing Sino-Soviet rivalry. Kampuchea was a client state of China, and Vietnam was a client state of the Soviet Union.
In December 1978, PAVN forces invaded Cambodia, and ultimately there were 200,000 Vietnamese troops there. The Khmer Rouge and other resistance groups fought back, receiving military assistance from China and the United States. Ironically, it was only the Vietnamese occupation that prevented the Khmer Rouge from returning to power and continuing its genocidal policies, and it was only thanks to the Vietnamese invasion that mass killings of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge were confirmed.
China meanwhile threatened the Vietnamese government with force to punish Hanoi for the invasion of Kampuchea and Vietnamese treatment of its Chinese minority. Indeed, the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) actually invaded Vietnam briefly during February–March 1979, but this short Sino-Vietnamese War did not force the Vietnamese to quit Cambodia. That came only from the great expense of the operation and its drain on the Vietnamese economy as well as the government's attendant isolation in the international community at a time when the nation desperately needed foreign investment. The Vietnamese leadership then decided to quit Cambodia, and by September 1989 all Vietnamese troops had departed.
The Vietnamese government continued to maintain an extremely large military establishment. In the mid-1980s it had 1.2 million people under arms, the world's fourth-largest armed force. This figure did not include numerous public security personnel. Military expenditures regularly consumed up to a third of the national budget. This and a bloated government bureaucracy consumed revenues badly needed elsewhere.
By 1986 the economy was in shambles. Famine—the result of failed farm collectivization and botched currency reform—and rampant inflation took their tolls. An economic growth rate of only 2 percent a year was outstripped by a 3 percent per year birthrate, one of the highest in the world. These developments brought striking changes at the December 1986 Sixth National Communist Party Congress. Among these were material incentives, decentralized decision making, and limited free enterprise. Many of the old hard-line leadership, including Pham Van Dong and Le Duc Tho, retired. Nguyen Van Linh, a proponent of change, became party secretary and the most powerful figure in the state.
Linh had overseen the tentative steps toward a free market economy that had helped southern Vietnam remain more prosperous than northern Vietnam. His reform program, known as Doi Moi (Renovation), produced results. It introduced a profit incentive for farmers and allowed individuals to set up private businesses. Companies producing for export were granted tax concessions, and foreign-owned firms could operate in Vietnam and repatriate their profits with a guarantee against being nationalized. Linh rejected opposition political parties and free elections, however.
Inflation dropped dramatically, production went up, and consumerism spread. But reform was uneven, inhibited by party bureaucrats and conservatives. Most advances came in the cities rather than in the countryside, where 80 percent of the population lived.
Toward the end of normalizing relations with the United States (achieved under President Bill Clinton in 1995), in 1987 the Vietnamese government released more than 6,000 military and political prisoners, including generals and senior officials of the former South Vietnamese government. Another incentive for the Vietnamese leadership to reach out to the West was the sharp reduction in Soviet aid, which ended altogether in 1991. The conservatives, however, used the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe to halt any movement toward political pluralism.
At the end of the Cold War, Vietnam was still plagued by serious problems. PAVN influence, despite a sharp decline in its size, remained strong. Divisions between northern and southern Vietnam also remained, and one of the highest birthrates in the world ate into economic gains. Annual per capita income ($250 a year) was among the world's lowest. The central issue for the aging communist leadership was whether Vietnam could modernize using the Chinese model of economic liberalism while maintaining strict party control.
Spencer C. Tucker
Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.; Young, Marilyn. The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.