French Colonization in Vietnam
Vietnam- the very mention of the name, in the mind’s eye of those living in the 21st century, conjures visions of death, destruction, and the deadly spoils of war, for it was not so long ago that the United States was entangled in a deadly, undeclared war in Vietnam, which would ultimately claim over 50,000 American lives, and to this day, is debated by civilian and politician alike.
However, Vietnam was not always this way; centuries earlier, Vietnam was a lush, tropical expanse of unspoiled land and impressionable people, making it an attractive target not for bombs and bullets, but for European missionaries to choose Vietnam as place to spread faith, and later, for commerce to unfold. Fast forwarding once again to the present era of Vietnam, in 1975, the United States removed tens of thousands of military personnel from the Asian nation of Vietnam, signaling the end of an attempt to remove the communist regime which had a firm foothold in that country .
This was not the first time that a powerful nation had tried to leave its mark on this ancient land; among others, the colonization of Vietnam which had taken place by the French in the mid 19th century has had long-lasting implications for Vietnam, its people, and its politics. Because of the impact that French colonization had on Vietnam, and the contribution that French intervention had on what the future would hold for Vietnam, this research will focus on several facets of French colonization in Vietnam.
Overall, upon conclusion of the research, a better understanding will have been gained not only of these pivotal events, but also of their far-reaching implications, for an argument can be made and reinforced that Vietnam’s history is a culmination of people and events which all contributed toward its future. The History of French Involvement in Vietnam
To begin, it is important to first have a firm understanding of the history of the organized presence of the French in Vietnam, for without fully appreciating the extent of French-Vietnamese interaction, the assertion that the French have in fact had a major impact on Vietnam’s history would be meaningless. Like so many other peoples-the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch among them- the French first began their initial involvement in Vietnam, and indeed other parts of the Asian continent as well, under the ancient system of royal patronage in the 17th century.
The reasons that the crown heads of the established power bases of the known world at that time sponsored effort to colonize other nations came down to three essential aims: God, glory, and gold. It was at this time in world history that the idea which would blossom into Manifest Destiny in the west centuries later had its first incarnation across Europe.
Advanced thinking in the religious realm led monarchs to have firmly implanted in their minds the idea that along with the power that other people had vested in them through their aristocracy, there was also a sort of divine responsibility to claim additional lands and people in the name of God. Thus, religion and politics are seen as intersecting at this time, with one influencing the other.
The roots of the idea that man could, essentially at will, invoke divine privilege in the pursuit of worldly gains in fact had its earliest origins centuries before in the events and people of the Reformation. Briefly explained, it was the Reformation which put forth two distinct ideas: first, the idea that man had an inborn right to seek the material gains of the world without having to be totally subservient to a divine being; second, ironically, that many actions could in fact be justified under the heading of their being done for the glorification of God.
During the Reformation, these very ideas shook such powerful organizations as the Roman Catholic Church to its very foundations, and instilled in many the idea that worldly power could in many instances rival godly power, and that human beings’ ability to think and act freely could in fact shape the future of world events. It is this kind of zeal, for better or for worse that can be seen as the driving force in many sociopolitical movements, from the colonization period of Vietnam to the religious fanaticism which drives much of the machinery of modern terrorism.
The quest for glory was also a force which inspired the French to first set foot in what must have been a highly strange and mystical land for them in the form of Vietnam; going hand in hand with the divine right to grab additional territory came the egotistical element of colonization- the fact that for a king or queen to take possession of additional territory is the equivalent of the proverbial notch in one’s belt.
Larger territory means a more glorious kingdom, prestige among rival nations, and of course, a great deal of military and strategic advantage, for control of lands such as that which encompasses Vietnam would in fact provide a new and important settlement on a new continent. Like much of the other nations of the world at that time, and indeed even today, the quest for gold was also like a never-slackening disease for the rulers of Europe. Anytime that an opportunity arose for the gaining of gold, essentially, all bets were cancelled.
Colonization would not only mean that the French would have full access to potential gold mines across Vietnam, but would also provide for unlimited access to other precious substances that were seemingly there for the taking, including valuable spices, rice and other agricultural products, livestock, wild game, and more. For an Asian land that had not seen the likes of the European settlers before, the chance to reap all that the land and nature had to offer posed a tempting target for the French colonists.
To these people, the discovery of Vietnam must have been the modern day equivalent of discovering a new planet, rich in resources and easily occupied. This being said, however, as will now be seen, the impression should not be given that the French merely came to Vietnam as adversarial conquerors. Sources generally agree that the first French exploratory expedition reached Vietnam in 1601- a group largely made up of religious leaders whose mission was to find “heathen” people and convert them to Christianity; thus, the first French foray into Vietnam can fairly be seen as more religious than political or financial.
As a result of these early explorations, by 1615, Jesuits opened a mission in the vicinity of modern day DaNang. The first leader of this innovative mission was Alexandre de Rhodes. De Rhodes had a long history of missionary experience, and ultimately, would spend nearly half a century of his life in missionary pursuits. Additionally, he was a scholar and is credited with the creation of quoc-ngu, a method of writing the Vietnamese language in Roman script instead of traditional Chinese, which many of the less educated among the Vietnamese masses found hard to learn, and even harder to utilize in everyday life and function.
From this starting point, De Rhodes sought to compile literature, translations of other languages, and the like in an effort to establish primitive libraries, and of course religious repositories of the written word, with the ultimate goal once again of making the word of God more accessible to the native Vietnamese, as well as other people of Asia, Africa and Polynesia, so that all of them could in time be totally converted to Christianity as well as breaking down communication barriers between the French missionaries and their Vietnamese counterparts, as a sort of foreign relations effort.
Overall, from the seeds of this initial effort, by the 19th century, records would indicate that over 800,000 northern and southern Vietnamese would be converted to Christianity, a testament so to speak to the success of the efforts of these early missionaries, carrying over to future generations who would continue the missionary efforts for centuries to come. In the early 1600s, at the same time that French missionaries set their sights on Vietnam, there was likewise the beginnings of an effort to commercialize colonize Vietnam as well.
By 1605, research indicates that an East India trading company was already established in Paris, with the business plan to set up regular trade with Vietnam, and to use the Asian paradise as a resource for the previously mentioned natural resources, spices, food, and of course, gold. Therefore, what is seen at this point is the emergence of economic interests on the part of French colonists as well as the religious, going back to the earlier association of God, glory and gold.
By the early 19th century, there were fundamental shifts in Vietnam which not only changed the face of French colonization in that country, but would also drastically change the direction that Vietnam would take in the future. One area of the involvement of the French in Vietnam that has been overlooked up to this point in the research is the fact that, despite appearances to the contrary, the French did not have total control over Vietnam; in fact, just the opposite was the case.
Before, and during the rule of the French in Vietnam, the nation was still ruled by an imperial system which dated back to the days of ancient China and continued well into the 19th century. The imperial courts which held the, for lack of a better term domestic rule in Vietnam, had been involved in a power struggle with the French, whose religious and financial interests in Vietnam had reached sizeable levels by the 19th century.
This was amplified by the desire on the part of Napoleon III to flex his military muscle in Asia, not only in an effort to maintain control over a holding of the French empire, but also to compensate for military and territorial losses that France had suffered elsewhere in the world. Additionally, Napoleon wisely observed that access to Vietnam would in fact facilitate and make easier trade efforts with other Asian nations, as well as provide logistical support for trade missions across the globe, due to Vietnam’s convenient position on the map.
By the 1820s, the domestic government of Vietnam had significantly tired of French influence in their nation; in 1825, Vietnamese emperor Minh Mang had issued a series of edicts which forbade, by law, the admission of French missionaries, and indeed any other missionaries, into his nation, as he saw them as representatives of foreign powers that would, once inside Vietnam, serve as a catalyst for additional uprisings against the establishment. Shortly thereafter, Minh Mang also ruled that Catholic converts and their institutions were essentially outlawed.
This was followed by orders to destroy churches and execute Catholics. While these rules were not fully enforced as they could have, many Catholic laypeople and clergy were executed . At the same time that religious colonization was being restricted in Vietnam, economic protections were also being enforced by the Vietnamese rulers. By 1836, the ports of Vietnam were all but closed off to European ships, leading to the cutting off of foreign trade .
This would not be the final word on French, or indeed European involvement in Vietnam, for this barricade would not simply be accepted by the French, or as it would seem, any of the other European powers for that matter. Suffice it to say that following the economic and religious embargoes instituted by the Vietnamese regime, a long succession of battles between French imperial forces and those of mainland Vietnam began, leading to widespread bloodshed, misery and bitterness between the colonizer and their colonists, so to speak.
Over a period of decades, from the mid 19th century to the early 20th century, the French continued, through a combination of diplomacy, force and some say sheer luck, to be able to keep a presence in Vietnam. However, at the same time that this was happening, as will be discussed in a subsequent section of this research, forces were at work that would change the complexion of French colonization in Vietnam, as well as the direction that the nation would be taking in the future, leading right up to the present day. The End of French Colonization in Vietnam
For the French, it can be established that their colonization and occupation of Vietnam came to a bloody end in 1954 with the French loss at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which pitted French occupational forces against Communist and nationalist forces under the ultimate command of Vietnamese dictator Ho Chi Minh. This battle was the apex of a 1953 French occupation of Dien Bien Phu, which was done in a last-ditch effort to maintain some sphere of influence over this Asian nation and to prolong the involvement of France in Vietnam in the absence of support of such a position by the superpowers of the world following World War II .
Ultimately seeing that their presence in Vietnam was impossible to maintain in the face of such overwhelming military odds, the French signed an official peace settlement in Geneva, officially bringing to an end the centuries old involvement of the French in Vietnam , at least officially. As will now be seen, the French influence, or at the very least the after effects of what French colonization sparked in Vietnam, would continue to affect the country for decades to come, and would in some ways set in motion events that are debated, studied, and pondered to this very day. A Journey Toward Socialism and Beyond
When Ho Chi Minh and his forces squared off with the French in an effort to rid Vietnam of French influence once and for all, those clashes took place in a time when the political climate in other Asian nations would play a key role in what would ultimately be happening in Vietnam for the next several generations. China, at this time, was fast becoming a key force in the world, due to its booming population, increased emphasis on military and industrial development, and something else which is key to the entire situation- an embracing of socialism and communism as the prevalent sociopolitical systems in that nation.
As with any emerging ideology, the minds of the people needed to be swayed toward these forces if they were in fact to take root and blossom. Due to the horrific conditions that many Vietnamese were subjected to at the hands of their French occupiers, many Vietnamese fled their homeland, only to find a welcoming force at China’s borders. Therefore, what is seen at this point is an emergence of communists and socialists who are loyal Vietnamese at heart, waiting for the right opportunity to return to their native land and share this newly found ideology with their fellow citizens.
Because of the military might and mindset of Ho Chi Minh, these displaced Vietnamese would in time be welcomed back to their homeland, and of course would become the foundation of the communist movement within Vietnam, which in time led to the division of the nation between pro and anti-communists, and the ensuing American military involvement in Vietnam in an effort, on the surface, to displace the many communist regimes which were establishing themselves in Vietnam, much like the French had been doing for centuries. Conclusion
An old adage holds that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it, and indeed, this adage has been proven to be true, time after time. When studying the history of French colonization in Vietnam, this is also an appropriate statement. As has been shown in this research, the social, economic, imperial and religious forces which mixed together in Vietnam at the hands of the French government for centuries caused, at least in part, an uprising of the communist forces which led the United States into the bloody trap of the Vietnam War, the wounds of which still refuse to fully heal in the hearts and minds of Americans.
Therefore, taking a lesson from the pages of history, the superpowers of the world in the 21st century must be careful to avoid overstepping boundaries in terms of expansion into foreign nations, the role of religion in government must be kept in check, and common sense must rule over material wants. Then, and only then, does it seem that the world will be able to reach a more peaceful balance, and the tragic lessons of Vietnam, both centuries and decades past, will have served a meaningful purpose. Bibliography Abuza, Zachary.
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