On August 31, 1858, a French naval squadron attacked Danang, launching several episodes of a war of colonial conquest waged by French imperialism between 1858 and 1884 and resulting in the total annexation of the country.
French imperialism, then in full expansion, was attacking a decaying feudal monarchy. The Nguyen dynasty, which had ascended the throne after repressing a large-scale uprising, restored the feudal system and all of its repressive institutions. Peasant revolts, however, continued unabated, driving an administrative apparatus, essentially made up of a body of mandarins trained in very conservative and ritualistic Confucian ideology and duplicated in the villages by a body of notables born into the landlord class, into a tight corner. With a rudimentary infrastructure, the royal court was unable to effectively rule over a territory stretching from north to south for more than 2,000 kilometers . It was in the most vulnerable part, the south, that the French colonialists began their aggression.
Faced with French invasion, the Vietnamese side split into two opposing parties, one arguing for compromise and the other for resistance. The king and high-ranking court dignitaries were afraid of the modern weapons used by the French. They were also misled as to the objectives of the French, believing that the French, having come from so far away, were thinking less about conquering the country than of obtaining trade concessions. Moreover, the Nguyen monarchy, constantly suppressing internal revolts, neither wanted to nor was able to mobilize all the nation’s energies to oppose the aggression. All this prompted the king and court dignitaries to implement a policy of hoa nghi (peace and negotiation).
The French government sanctioned the decision to conquer Vietnam in 1857. However, due to resistance by Vietnamese patriots, it took the French 30 years to establish their domination over the country
In 1887, in compliance with the decree of the French King, Indochina, consisting of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, was established. At that time, French social and economic policies were expedited on a small scale, and a policy on the exploitation of colonies was imposed on a larger scale at the beginning of the 20th century. French economic and social activities boosted the country in many ways. The French concentrated investments in the mining industry, as well as several other industries. A number of large plantations, apart from rice, appeared and economical crops, such as tea, coffee, and rubber, were developed. Agricultural products were being considered as commodities. These changes in the economy resulted in a division between the Vietnamese bourgeoisie and the working class.
The education system was also modified. Three levels of general education, infant, primary, and secondary, were established. The old examination system was abolished in 1915, and schools for training administrative officers in the French style were officially launched in 1917.
The Governor General of Indochina decreed to restructure the mechanism of village organization in 1904. This brought a strong resistance to the French who wanted to create a new class of French style landlords. The French colonialists imposed an austere policy for the working class, especially for tillers, and high taxes were imposed on farmers. The French colonialists practiced a policy of obscurantism.
Vietnamese patriots with different ideologies struggled to liberalize the country. One movement was the Dong Du led by Phan Boi Chau. Those who followed the policy of raising intellectual standards included Phan Chu Trinh and the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Group. Nguyen Thai Hoc and his fellows were sentenced to death as a result of these protests. Nguyen Ai Quoc (or Ho Chi Minh) founded Vietnam’s Communist Party (or the Indochinese Communist Party) in 1930. From this point, Communist were the primary leaders of the national liberation movement.
While seeking to maximize the use of Indochina’s natural resources and manpower to fight the war, France cracked down on all patriotic mass movements in Vietnam. Indochina, mainly Vietnam, had to provide France with 50,000 soldiers and 49,000 workers, who were forcibly drafted from the villages to serve on the French battlefront. Indochina also contributed 184 million piastres in the form of loans and 336,000 tonnes of food. These burdens proved all the heavier as agriculture was hard hit by natural disasters from 1914 to 1917.
Lacking a unified nationwide organization, the Vietnamese national movement, though still vigorous, failed to take advantage of the difficulties France was experiencing as a result of war to stage any significant uprisings. The scholars’ movement had declined while new social forces were not yet strong enough to promote large-scale campaigns.
The Quang Phuc movement had planned to seize Hanoi through the combined action of patriots within the country and a revolutionary army trained abroad. The secret operation was betrayed, however, and many members of the movement were arrested. Other members joined different organizations, armed themselves with rudimentary weapons, and sought to bring soldiers from the local militia over to their side. On January 6, 1919, 150 armed patriots attacked the garrison at Phu Tho. Meanwhile, enemy posts in other provinces, such as Nho Quan in Ninh Binh and Mong Cai near the Chinese border, were besieged. However, the attacks failed. The Quang Phuc had the intention of launching a series of attacks against many military and administrative centers in Tonkin, but the plan was not implemented.
Again in Tonkin, on August 31, 1917, soldiers of the Thai Nguyen garrison held a mutiny under the leadership of Sergeant Trinh Van Can, a former partisan of Hoang Hoa Tham, and Luong Ngoc Quyen, a member of the Quang Phuc movement. Joined by many soldiers, the insurgents killed the French commander, seized a large load of arms and munitions, and liberated many political prisoners who then joined the ranks of the combatants. The town of Thai Nguyen was liberated. The insurgents, after a series of discussions, gave up their plans for extending their activities to other provinces. Instead, they dug in at Thai Nguyen in the hope of consolidating their strength. On September 4, the French retook the town, forcing the insurgents to leave. Scattered in the mountainous region around Thai Nguyen, the rebels continued their struggle against 2,000 French troops for another six months.
In annam, the most important event was the call for an uprising made by King Duy Tan, who was enthroned in 1907, at the age of seven, by the instigation of patriotic mandarins and scholars, particularly Thai Phien and Tran Cao Van. The principal forces on which King Duy relied were the soldiers who were gathered in the thousands in Hue and about to leave for France. The signal for the start of the revolt should have been given on May 3, 1916. Unfortunately, the secret was leaked and the French disarmed the soldiers before the day of their departure. Duy Tan attempted to flee the capital but was captured and exiled to the Island of Reunion. Scattered armed groups were rapidly eliminated by the French, and the patriots Thai Phien and Tran Cao Van were executed.
In Cochinchina, patriotic activity manifested itself in the early years of the century by the creation of underground societies. The most important of which was the Thien Dia Hoi (Heaven and Earth Association) whose branches covered many provinces around Saigon. These associations often took the form of political-religious organizations, and one of their main activities was to punish traitors in the pay of the French.
Connected to these secret societies, a movement led by a former bonze, Phan Xich Long, was organized in 1913. Its members, wearing white clothes and turbans, attacked the cities with primitive weapons. Phan Xich Long was eventually captured and executed by the French. In 1916, underground societies in Cochinchina tried to attack several administrative centers, including the central prison in Saigon and the residence of the local French governor. On the night of February14, 1916, thousands of people armed with knives and wearing amulets infiltrated Saigon and fought French police and troops who succeeded in defeating them.
The colonial administration, while harshly suppressing the national movement, sought to appease the elite by introducing a few paltry reforms, with promises of important postwar reforms from the more generous “liberal” governors. These promises were never fulfilled. The fact that France succeeded in holding on to Vietnam during the war years was mainly due to the weakness of the national movement. There were of’ course patriots to carry on the fight for national independence, but the new and still embryonic social forces failed to give the movement the necessary vigor and direction. Not until these forces had further developed over subsequent decades was the national movement able to be revitalized.