His words were stunning: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among those are Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness…” Ho Chi Minh was reciting the Declaration of Independence.
France colonized Vietnam in 1884 and soon added Cambodia and Laos to a territory that became known as Indochina. Its colonial holdings, according to Frederic Logevall in Embers of War, were to be the beneficiary of France’s mission civilisatrice or “civilizing mission.” The upheaval of the first world war, however, helped foment different aspirations among some subjects of French dominion. In June 1919, a young, spindly Vietnamese rented a morning coat and sought an audience in Paris with the US president, there to shape the postwar peace. The young man hoped to present to Woodrow Wilson a petition entitled The Demands of the Vietnamese People. He was rebuffed. In time the petitioner became known as Ho Chi Minh, one of the most consequential revolutionary leaders of the 20th century and the father of Vietnamese nationalism, a man of phenomenal will who left his country at age 11 and did not return for 30 years.
According to Logevall, while French leader Charles de Gaulle, “spoke of the cohesion, the unbreakable bond, between metropolitan France and her overseas territories.” Franklin Roosevelt hoped after the second world war “to promote Indochina’s development toward independence under a degree of international supervision.” In September 1945, before hundreds of thousands of ecstatic countrymen in Hanoi, Ho proclaimed independence for Vietnam. To the Americans in the audience, Logevall writes, his words were stunning: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among those are Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness…” Ho was reciting the Declaration of Independence.
History followed a different path. Roosevelt died, succeeded by Harry Truman. US tensions with the Soviet Union mounted. And France, an indispensable American ally in Europe, demanded the restoration of its position in Indochina. The US acquiesced and Ho’s window of opportunity slammed shut.
In the years that followed, France found itself embroiled in a treacherous war of counterinsurgency against Ho and his followers.
The climax of the war came in 1954 at a strategic northern garrison known as Dien Bien Phu. Both the French and the Viet Minh suffered horrendous losses during the protracted siege and weeks of brutal combat. Paris sought urgent US intervention. Dwight Eisenhower rejected the French plea.
On 7 May, Viet Minh soldiers raided the last French outpost, raising the red flag of insurgency of the roof above. The battle of Dien Bien Phu was over, marking the beginning of the end of French rule in Vietnam. Later in 1954, Vietnam was partitioned, with communists controlling the north and a pro-western government ruling in the south. In the spring of 1956, the last French solider departed from Vietnam. The US increased its military and economic aid and deployed intelligence operatives to advise the fragile regime in South Vietnam on how to counter a growing Viet Minh insurgency. Logevall’s outstanding account concludes with Vietnam’s fate inextricably linked to the projection of American power in the periphery of Southeast Asia.
Gordon Goldstein, Washington Post, 2012
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