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It is common to argue that the communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam, following the theory of "people's war," defeated the French in the First Indochina War. This argument is correct everywhere except for southern Vietnam. France's slow and systematic implementation of what it called "pacification," in concert with allied self-defense and paramilitary forces, slowly brought increasing parts of the Mekong Delta under the control of France and its allies. In reaction, The Resistance pursued a four-prong strategy: 1) they strengthened the communist core of the Resistance by recruiting cadres, purging "unreliable" non-communists, and working to capture control of the Resistance at all levels; 2) they reached out to potential allies like the Khmer, Chinese, Buddhists, and Catholics; 3) they practiced outreach towards rivals and enemies through proselytization (Địch vận); 4) they strengthened Resistance ability to engage in a sophisticated repertoire of violence ranging from intimidation to conventional warfare. Despite this sound strategy, the Resistance precipitously shifted to conventional warfare. The French-led forces took advantage of this costly mistake. France's commission of war crimes in keeping food from the population, its access to increased American funding after 1949, and contingent factors also contributed to Resistance failure.
In the standard arguments about the First Indochina War, 1945–54, known in Vietnam today as the Resistance War against the French, a resolute, initially outmatched, and broad-based Vietnamese revolutionary nationalist Resistance fights against a powerful French military, ultimately triumphing against great odds. This is usually presented as a very ‘northern’ story. In contrast, this book centers on the South, with its own particular history, where the communist-led Resistance failed to win. Why? One reason: this was both a civil war involving Vietnamese (and Khmer) and a war pitting Vietnamese against the French. It was not, in other words, a simple two-sided conflict. To understand this complexity and its dynamics, this chapter examines in depth the issues of sovereignty, institutions (and their collapse), and violence, as this discussion helps to frame the book as a whole.
In the standard narratives of modern Vietnamese history, France's agreement to make Vietnam "independent" in 1949 within the framework of a new entity, the French Union, is seen as a sham. Instead, the DRV's military victory over France at Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, immediately followed by negotiations in Geneva, marks the key point of rupture: the collapse of the French empire in Indochina and the beginning of a new era of contested sovereignty in which two Vietnamese states vied for control of one Vietnam. In this view, the non-communist State of Vietnam (1949-1955) is treated as an ersatz state, a product of French machinations. This chapter contests this view. The creation of a new Vietnamese state, despite all its flaws, inaugurated the transition of sovereignty from the French colonial state to its new Vietnamese successor. The chapter shows the relevance of the precolonial heritage to decolonization. It looks at the "unmaking" or "disassemblage" of the French colonial state and its "reassemblage" into the new Vietnamese state. It examines issues of ethnicity and citizenship.
The history of the Mekong Delta, late 1700s to 1945, in Vietnam. Before late seventeenth century, this area was a lightly settled region far from the centers of Cambodian or Vietnamese power. The chapter sketches out the character of this region over time. It examines the emerging conflicts between Khmer, already settled in this area, and new settlers. The chapter argues that this conflict was not resolved when France, from late 1850s onwards, conquered these territories. In fact, the Khmer-Vietnamese conflict over sovereignty was simply put in abeyance. The chapter also sketches out the Mekong Delta by 1945: its different populations, especially Vietnamese, Chinese, and Khmer; some comments on religion as well. It examines the economic dislocations up to 1945 that shaped the delta during the First Indochina War.
By 1947, "normal" state and village institutions had either collapsed or were destroyed. Food insecurity dramatically increased, and parts of the delta experienced acute hunger. Violence marked the delta. In this situation of radical uncertainty, people felt more vulnerable as outside forces reshaped local lives. Many fled short distances, or out of rural areas to towns and cities. Perhaps a half a million fled the delta altogether to find security. This chapter gives an overview of the process, and provides vignettes of individual experiences.
This chapter presents a novel interpretation of the August General Uprising of 1945, often known as the "August Revolution," its precursors, and its immediate impacts. The dominant interpretation of this "revolution" emphasizes the leading role of the Indochinese Communist Party at the head of the Viet Minh and sees the northern "model" of uprising established in Hanoi as the template for the "revolution" as a whole. The South, and Saigon in particular, ill fit this model. The chapter discusses the precursor to the August Uprisings: the slow collapse of the economy, the Japanese overthrow of the French regime on March 9, 1945, the end of World War II, and the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945. At this point, Instead, multiple actors, including communists (both "Stalinists" and Trotskyists), nationalists, and religious groups like the Cao Dai and the Buddhist Hoa Hao, engaged in parallel but intersecting mobilizations to seize power, which ultimately occurred under the Viet Minh banner. The chapter discusses the rampant violence under no centralized control, the arrival of the British forces temporarily occupying the city under the Allies, the French arrival in September, and the Vietnamese declaration of Resistance War in September 1945.
If the struggle in the South began in order to expel the French, violence ended up transforming the countryside, and ripping Mekong Delta society apart. The delta went through two internal fractures at the beginning of the war. The first, dating from late 1945 and into 1946, split many (but not all) Khmer from Vietnamese. The catalyst of this fracture was France's drive into the delta from late 1945, when it recruited "partisans," and especially ethnic Khmer, to fight Viet Minh forces. The French worsened ethnic antagonisms, leading to extensive violence between these two communities. The second major fracture was catalyzed by the Viet Minh's attempt to subdue rivals for leadership of the "nationalist" movement. Primed during 1945 and 1946, this second fracture occurred in 1947. For the second fracture, the chapter looks at two key turning points: Cao Dai leader Pham Cong Tac's decision to tactically ally with the French, and the Viet Minh killing of Hoa Hao Prophet Huynh Phu So. The violence following these two acts reshaped the South and definitively set the course for the rest of the war.
This chapter first examines a variety of approaches, including that of Frantz Fanon, to exploring violence and race in a colonial context. Rejecting binary approaches, like that of Fanon, this examines the political use and cultural understanding of the concepts like "race" and "ethnicity." Rather than see race in terms of a simple imperial deployment of racist practices and beliefs against the colonized, this chapter also argues for an "appropriation" model of ideas and practices of race and ethnicity to help explain the complexity of race-talk and race practices involving France, the Vietnamese, the Khmer, Africans, and Chinese. The chapter looks at France’s initial concern with white prestige in choosing the soldiers to fight on the side of France before turning to the Vietnamese. It examines pre-existing Vietnamese understandings of race, as articulated in Vietnamese, and their combination with Western discourses of race and racial hierarchies. The chapter digs into particularly troubling texts on race, racial extinction, and cannibalism, and the implication of such texts for understanding the war as a whole. Looks at arguments over purity, hybridity, and race.
In the Mekong Delta, in addition to directly fighting against the communist-led Resistance, the French also allied with semi-autonomous militias against the Resistance, particularly those associated with the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao. A situational logic of alliance and opposition, understood by all participants, shaped the overarching "system." Within this system, both the French and the Resistance competed to co-opt smaller groups, from parastates to local militias, to their side, which in turn tried to establish their autonomy. This chapter looks at these allies, some of which were parastates, their funding, their economic bases, and their interactions. It gives particular attention to those affiliated with the Cao Dai (Pham Cong Tac, Trinh Minh The) and the Hoa Hao militias (Tran Van Soai, Ba Cut). It also examines the complexity of control at local levels, where in some villages, up to three different political actors, including the Vietnamese state, vied for dominance.
By 1953, the communist-led Resistance had been marginalized in much of the Mekong delta. But the cost was high. "Traditional" institutions of the village had, in large swaths of the delta, been destroyed. The Franco-Vietnamese "coalition" had defeated the communist-led Resistance. But who would win the peace? The militia leaders, so skilled in war, were not fluent in the arts of peace. This chapter looks at the endgame of empire, when France was withdrawing from rural areas all over the South, downsizing its military presence, and shifting its support to the State of Vietnam. The end result by 1954, however, was a balkanized southern Vietnam with fragmented sovereignty where militias entrenched themselves in rural fiefdoms. The chapter shows how Ngo Dinh Diem, faced with this divided South, won the battle for post-war control of the South. It pays particular attention to his expulsion to Cambodia of the Cao Dai leader Pham Cong Tac, the co-optation of the Hoa Hao militia leader Tran Van Soai, and the arrest, trial, and execution of the Hao Hao militia leader Ba Cut. The chapter also examines the regional, national, and international legacies of the war.