“Making your case” is a skill that is valuable throughout life (and on standardized essay tests). A strong argument not only provides rationale for supporting one side of an issue, but also recognizes and addresses opposing points of view. Many students struggle to form convincing arguments because they are unused to looking at topics from different angles. As students enter adolescence, they begin to form strong independent opinions; it is an opportune time to begin building effective persuasive skills. This unit helps students develop these skills by putting them in the middle of an historical debate and requiring them to consider and write about various points of view.
Students in French classes are generally unaware of the role that France played in world events of the 19th and 20th centuries. France was a major player in the field of colonization, and a key United States ally. Students often seem to have the sense that the United States is the only force worth noting in history; this unit demonstrates how the United States is only one of many influences on international politics. In the context of a French class, we will focus especially on France and its involvement in world affairs.
French Indochina (now Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) is an ideal region to focus on because several of my students are first- or second-generation Laotian immigrants. This gives at least a few of the students a more personal connection to the topic. The majority of my other students are of Puerto Rican descent, and many have some awareness of the tension between the U.S. and Puerto Rico regarding issues of ownership. This provides a hook for my students and brings them in toward the subject at hand. These ideas are complicated, and debating issues can be difficult, especially at younger ages; it is important that as many students as possible feel some connection before we even start. If students are in some way “attached” to the material, they are more willing to struggle through the frustration of organizing a persuasive argument.
This unit was developed with a 7th- or 8th-grade French class in mind, but its topics and strategies are easily applicable to higher grade levels. The content matter is by no means limited to French classes, either; the international nature of the discussion makes the unit very relevant to social studies classes. The lessons were designed with minimal reading and research required on the part of the students; teachers of higher-level classes may wish to expand the lesson to include more active research on the part of the debaters.
Indochina is the region of Southeast Asia consisting of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The region has been a center of conflict throughout history as kingdoms and countries struggled to set borders and define ownership among themselves and neighboring Siam (now Thailand) and China. This unit examines Indochina in the post-WWII era, just at the point of the Japanese surrender in August of 1945. The area is hotly contested at this point; France claimed Indochina as colonial land before the war, but lost authority as the French struggled during World War II. Japan stepped in to gain a stronger foothold on the Asian mainland while the Allied powers were focused on other regions. With the end of the war, the victorious United States joined the discussion of what to do with Japan’s territories, and decided to divide the area among China and Britain, eventually returning the area to France, a long-time ally of the U.S.
Establishing the Region
Indochina was originally populated by tribal groups probably related to the Aborigines found in Australia. Waves of emigrants from India moved into the area in the 1st century and began to build up kingdoms that were largely interdependent. These kingdoms often worked together to resist Chinese invasions from the north and Siamese attacks from the west. 1 Khmer, the kingdom that is now Laos and Cambodia, became a central power in the 12th century, but by the late 1500s was a subordinate kingdom to Siam.
Annam (now Vietnam) was established as an empire around 1000 A.D. After centuries of struggle with China, Annam officially gained independence in 1427, but owed much of its cultural heritage to China, and in fact continued to pay annual tributes to the Chinese Emperor.2 Though independent, Annam saw a great deal of instability; uprisings and fractions continued to crop up until French colonization came to the region.3
Significant numbers of Europeans arrived in the region starting in the 1500s. Portuguese and Dutch entrepreneurs opened factories there during the 16th and 17th centuries, while Rome made a concerted effort to station missionaries in the area. France, in a period of great national expansion, took an interest in Indochinese missionary work in the mid-1600s, and soon became the leading influence in the area.
In the late 1700s, Vietnam was the site of a great deal of unrest, and in 1784 a claimant to the Vietnamese throne requested aid from France in his effort to reestablish his authority.4 French volunteers helped the prince, and then remained in the area to lead various public works projects, further enmeshing France in the affairs of the region.
By the mid-1800’s, Christian missionaries were gaining local converts by the thousands. Many in the emperor’s court immediately saw the conflict between Christian subjects and the Vietnamese government, which held to such traditions as a harem for the emperor. The emperor declared Christianity illegal and Vietnamese troops began the systematic arrest (and sometimes execution) of missionaries.5 France, as the primary missionary force in the area, stationed naval squadrons in the nearby waters, and trade between France and Vietnam slowed to a trickle. Tensions escalated in the region until, in 1851, Prince-President Louis Napoleon officially pledged more support for missionaries in the region and declared the conquest of Indochina a French national goal.6
A decade of battles followed, and in 1862 France and Vietnam signed a treaty giving France official control of several Vietnamese provinces. The treaty was signed but not embraced by Vietnamese authorities; several rebellions followed, even as Vietnam continued to sign various treaties that affirmed French authority.7 Five years after conquering Vietnam, France signed a treaty with Cambodia, adding Cambodia to the French-protected region of Southeast Asia. In 1893, France pushed Siam out of eastern Laos, expanding French influence still further inland.8
On the whole, Vietnamese citizens never acquiesced to French rule. On top of the general sense of a loss of independence, the colonized peoples also faced great financial strain. The French government set extremely high taxes and provided little in return. A lack of finances forced schools to close, which particularly angered the Vietnamese, who “traditionally attach great importance to the acquisition of diplomas and degrees.”9 Not surprisingly, opposition to French authority quickly organized.
As early as 1905, members of the scholar class in Vietnam formed groups to prepare Vietnam for independence. They focused particularly on building Vietnam’s technical and industrial base by seeking assistance from, among others, Japan.10 This group also organized to educate the nation’s youth into a generation who would be capable of leading an independent nation. Some of these youth even studied in Paris itself, particularly at the university level. During World War I, anti-colonialists saw their chance when French troops were called away from Asia into European action, but their rebellion was undermined and the French re-energized after 1918.11
Many Vietnamese continued what they saw as legal attempts to build their nation. In 1923, a citizen group sent a representative to France to demand freedom of press and the right to assemble, but Paris did not meet their requests.12 Demonstrators in Vietnam were routinely arrested, forcing resistance groups to go underground.
By the 1930s, many independence fighters had turned subversive, and some circles even turned to terrorism to publicize their cause. The National Party of Vietnam routinely blackmailed officials and assassinated those who opposed Vietnamese independence. Bombings became more commonplace. The Indochinese Communist Party, who also did not oppose violence as a means to an end, saw their membership increase rapidly throughout the decade.13 France responded to these new uprisings with a grand show of force; in the last three months of 1930 French troops and aircraft killed 10,000 civilians, and individuals associated with Vietnamese independence movements were captured and either imprisoned or executed.14
After the fall of Nanking in 1937, the Chinese government retreated to Chungking. This move made the French-guarded railway from Indochina to Chungking the Chinese government’s primary link to the outside world. Japanese leaders quickly identified the railway as crucial to the Chinese, but did not attempt to shut it down until 1940, when Germany invaded France. At that point, Japan ordered France to stop all trade between Indochina and China and installed a Japanese control commission to enforce the ban.15
French resources were strained as the German occupation took root in their homeland. The French Governor-General of Indochina had little choice but to step aside as Japan shut down the railroad and then proceeded to build military encampments in the region. The Japanese take-over was somewhat slow and relatively subtle. In September of 1940, a 2-day battle overwhelmed the French fighting forces, and the French government signed an agreement officially allowing Japanese troops to be stationed in the area.16 Aside from that outburst of battle, there were few signs of aggression, so much of the native population was not immediately aware of the change of occupation. The local French emissaries, however, were quite conscious of Japanese action, and they did not approve. While emissaries would not outwardly resist Japanese forces, they did set up wireless contact with American intelligence agencies operating out of China; these links provided valuable information regarding Japanese troop movements.17
Meanwhile, Siam was also anxious to take advantage of French weakness in the area. Along the Laotian border, bombings and artillery fire became quite prevalent as Siam attempted to regain lost territories.18
The United States reoccupied the Philippines in 1944, making an allied invasion of Indochina a distinct possibility. By March of 1945, Japan was concerned enough to demand that all local French forces be placed under Japanese command, and all French resistance was actively put down and overwhelmed. Despite these efforts, it was clear to many that the end was near for the Japanese empire; it was simply a question of when.
Emperor Bao Dai, who had been raised in France so that he would be educated enough to lead an independent nation, began to organize. He worked to put together a respectable, independent government before the Japanese defeat, and any loyalty he may have had to France and the allies was given a secondary status in his efforts.19 He established a tax system and appointed a premier just before August of 1945, when Japan agreed to transfer administration to the Vietnamese government.
Despite Bao Dai’s efforts, Vietnam was in a difficult position at the end of World War II. Just prior to Japan’s surrender, Vietnam was essentially in a state of anarchy. Communications and railways had been bombed out by allied troops, and the failure of the rice crop had caused a famine across the region. The rural population refused to pay taxes, while the middle classes renewed their devotion to meetings and demonstrations. The Vietnamese government had no established authority with which to fill the vacuum of power, and chaos ensued.20
As Bao Dai’s premier accepted administrative duties from Japan, others in Vietnam also stepped in to govern. The Communist party, which had reorganized into the Viet Minh, immediately took over in Hanoi; other nationalist groups set up government seats in Saigon. Meanwhile, China had worked with the Viet Minh to set up a government as early as 1944, declaring an interest in eliminating Japanese and French influence so that Vietnam could gain true national independence -- with Chinese assistance.21
Bao Dai, seeing the fractured state of his country, became concerned that France would seize this opportunity and exploit the weakness of the Vietnamese government (or lack thereof). He abdicated authority to the Viet Minh in the hopes that the country would unify under their leadership.22 Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Minh leader, rallied his forces and began to build his nationalist revolution. In a speech, he quoted the Declaration of Independence as he listed his grievances against the French; meanwhile those who questioned the authority of the Viet Minh were arrested by armed gangs of “People’s Committees” that sprung up across the countryside.23
It is at this point that the debate over the fate of the region can be most engaging. There are several countries involved, each with various interests, loyalties and resentments over recent events. The year is 1945, and the aftermath of World War II needs to be settled.
At the point of the Japanese surrender, many groups in Vietnam have a vested and active interest in gaining independence for their country. The most significant group among the freedom fighters is certainly the Viet Minh, who are well-organized and led by the eloquent and well-educated Ho Chi Minh. American intelligence reports from the region indicate that “anti-French feelings are shared by 100 percent of the population in many areas,”24 and the independence fighters have become impossible to ignore. The Indochinese Communist Party, led by the Viet Minh, met in August of 1945 to establish its plan for freeing Vietnam from outside rule of any kind. This plan included disarming the Japanese and their puppets prior to the arrival of the Allies, and, when the Allies arrived, greeting them in a manner indicating the Viet Minh as the established governmental authority in Vietnam.25
The Viet Minh, also a substantial military force under General Vo Nguyen Giap, are resisting the colonial powers for a number of reasons. These are leaders who have been denouncing French rule for decades by this time, and who have repeatedly stated their concerns in international settings. At the heart of their arguments is the belief that the French are denying the Vietnamese their basic freedoms. As mentioned above, Vietnamese emissaries went to France requesting such rights as freedom of the press and the right to assemble, but these demands were soundly ignored in Paris.
Historically, Vietnam has struggled against China for independence; it is possible that this history has Ho Chi Minh reluctant to accept support from China if possible. In the summer of 1945, he does inform American officers that “if you do not help us achieve our goal, I know a country that will be only too glad to come to our aid.”26 Indeed, China actively used Vietnamese Communist refugees during WWII as spies to gather intelligence on the Japanese occupation. Ho Chi Minh worked with China during that time, largely to gain access into Vietnam and to amass funding for his impending revolution.27 Despite Chinese backing of his independent government in 1944, Ho Chi Minh devotes much of his time and energy to enlisting American support for his vision.
Ho Chi Minh has good reason in 1945 to expect the full aid of the United States. In 1941, President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed on the Atlantic Charter, which stated that the two democracies “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” 28 Throughout the war, Roosevelt continued to make periodic statements against colonialism, even when British officials distanced themselves from the Charter.29
During WWII, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) cooperated with the Viet Minh because in the midst of the chaos, the Viet Minh was the one organized group that could aid the U.S. in rescuing downed airmen in the region.30 This cooperation extended to supplying the Viet Minh with weapons, which only strengthened Ho Chi Minh’s faith in American support.31 This faith may have been shaken by a brief show of American support for French troops in March of 1945; the French soldiers were being routed by a Japanese pre-emptive strike, and Roosevelt’s military leaders finally persuaded him to allow a drop of supplies to the French.32 Nevertheless, when the Japanese surrender, Ho Chi Minh is diligent in his efforts to win over every American officer who meets him, and he sends repeated missives to Washington, D.C. requesting help in building a constitutional government that will gradually eliminate French rule.33
In May of 1945, John Foster Dulles spoke on self-determination at the United Nations conference in San Francisco. Two months later, Ho Chi Minh met with OSS agents, noting that “your statesmen make eloquent speeches about helping those with self-determination. We are self-determined. Why not help us?”34 His need for American assistance, he says, is due only to the fact that at this stage his country is very poor. He foresees complete Vietnamese independence within the next five to ten years if the United States will simply help Vietnam rebuild and develop its internal structure.35
At the point of the Japanese surrender, France is very eager to reclaim its status as a world power. As early as 1942, French officials expressed concern that the Atlantic Charter might be used to make French colonies into independent nations.36 After the allied victory in Europe, American agents reported that France was quietly allied with the British in an effort to reclaim Indochina as a French colony without allowing the U.S. any say in the matter.37 At the very least, France is struggling to rebuild as a nation after WWII, and the colonies, providing taxes and natural resources, are an excellent source for that effort. At most, de Gaulle is a vocal leader who sees the restoration of the pre-war French Empire as vital to rebuilding a sense of national pride and strength.
French officials at this time may also have an incomplete view of France’s role in the region. French industry leaders, while still in control in Indochina, had primarily seen the colonized peoples in subservient roles such as servant and clerk; few had any dealings with the more educated scholar class. In reports to the homeland, therefore, many of these French citizens indicated that Vietnam could not function without the more enlightened French guidance to lead the way. 38 In May of 1945, in the midst of great unrest, the French ambassador to China spoke to his American counterpart about the beauty of the colonial relationship: “The real trusteeship is in our hearts. It is a mutual confidence which exists between Indochinese and French.”39 Certainly any French official wanting to believe that colonization is at this point justified is able to find ample support in the annals of French colonial history.
Perhaps the main concern of the French regarding this region is that the United States is not a consistent ally. After the development of the Atlantic Charter, President Roosevelt frequently spoke against colonialism. The French were well aware of Roosevelt’s hope for an international trusteeship to oversee Indochina’s development, which was of course a direct threat to French control of the colony.40
Despite American assurances that the United States would support a return to France’s prewar glory, support had in fact been lacking. In early 1945, the French garrisons in Indochina made plans to overthrow the Japanese occupiers and requested American assistance in transporting French troops. The United States determined that this action was not critical to the overall objective of beating Japan and declined to get involved.41 As France suffered heavy losses in March of 1945, American soldiers in the region were, much to their dismay, under official orders to remain neutral.42 As mentioned above, Roosevelt eventually resupplied French troops, but only after weeks of damage had been done. While France could certainly benefit from American support in this post-war era, de Gaulle remains highly suspicious of American motives with regard to Indochina.
Throughout the war, China was an incidental supporter of the Vietnamese independence movements. Initially, China saw the political refugees who landed in China as useful allies in spying on Japanese activity in Indochina. In return for intelligence information, China provided funding and protection for the rebel groups, among them the Viet Minh, as they repeatedly crossed the border into Vietnam.43 This alliance led to more official encouragement of the independence movements as the war came to an end.
On the record, China set a clear precedent of supporting Vietnam’s efforts to gain independence. In 1944, Roosevelt met with Chiang Kai-shek, who agreed that an international trusteeship of the region was the ideal solution to the problem of Indochina.44 Also that year, China helped Ho Chi Minh develop a provisional government that officially declared its intention to oust both Japanese and French control of the region with the assistance of China.45 China is, at this stage, openly engaged in the affairs of Vietnam, but declares a desire only to help Vietnam build itself as a nation.
Off the record, of course, China has much to gain from having a hand in Vietnam’s affairs. Though the armies in the region were disciplined in their behavior toward the Vietnamese, they did not hesitate, even at the highest levels, to take advantage of the economic opportunities in the region. Chinese currency was introduced in northern Vietnam “at an advantageous rate of exchange,” while the confiscated war materials of the Japanese troops were sold off to supplement the soldiers’ incomes.46 Thus, while the Chinese are supporting the Vietnamese struggle for independence after the Japanese surrender, they certainly have a more selfish stake in the region, as well.
Toward the end of WWII, the United States made a profound effort to remain officially neutral in Indochina, leading to a curious array of mixed alliances. France and the United States are allies on paper, but as mentioned above, American support is at times inconsistent. At the same time, the United States gave aid to the Viet Minh during the war, as the Viet Minh were organized and knowledgeable about the region when American forces needed help recovering downed airmen and planning strategy. Five years of this confusion have led to a tangled policy regarding the region, and the alliances fostered during the war are now conflicting.
President Roosevelt’s feelings toward colonialism were not a secret. Roosevelt stood by his Atlantic Charter whenever possible, and allowed his diplomats to assuage French colonial fears only when strategy dictated a need for the solid backing of the French.47 Roosevelt, writing to his secretary of state in 1944, indicated his opposition to returning Indochina to French rule, and outlined his hope for establishing an international trusteeship. In a strident assessment of the situation, he declares that “France has milked [Indochina] for one hundred years. The People of Indo-China are entitled to something better than that.”48 Roosevelt felt British opposition to the trusteeship was only due to Britain’s own colonial interests, and he stated a few months later that “the white man’s rule [in Indochina] is nothing to be proud of.”49
Roosevelt seemed particularly opposed to French involvement in Indochina. In discussions with his secretary of state, he pointed out that France had been in the region for “nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning.”50 Roosevelt’s feelings toward the French were not helped by the fact that the French government had signed the agreement permitting Japanese troops to be stationed in Indochina, an act which led inevitably to the Japanese occupation.51 These concerns had led to Roosevelt’s official position of neutrality regarding the area -- though he could not completely sever ties with France, he was not eager to support their bid to recolonize.
Roosevelt believed China did not want to take over Vietnam, resulting in a U.S.-China alliance with regard to the fate of Indochina. When Churchill questioned Chiang Kai-shek’s motives in March of 1944, Roosevelt responded that Churchill, with “400 years of acquisitive instinct” in his blood, would not “understand how a country might not want to acquire land somewhere if they can get it.”52
Naturally it is important to note that at the end of WWII, Roosevelt, the driving force behind the anti-colonial sentiment in the U.S. government, is no longer the president. Harry S Truman has been installed in office, and his concerns are somewhat different. Truman may have worried about the outcome if Vietnam were left to its own devices; in light of the chaos erupting as the Japanese leave, it is fair to wonder if Vietnam can actually govern itself. Supporting independence may do more harm than good, regardless of any desire on Truman’s part to fulfill his predecessor’s wishes.
By the time of the Japanese surrender, Truman finds himself in a difficult bind. American diplomats in the region have warned him that anti-France sentiment is strong and that French efforts to destroy the nationalist movement will result in “bloody failure.”53 At the same time, a State Department study of Communist activity in Southeast Asia finds that the Communists will likely be victorious if there is no outside intervention in the region. These Communist elements are viewed as dangerous and clearly opposed to American ideals such as democracy.55 If he is to be involved at all, Truman has the unpleasant choice of supporting independence -- and therefore Communism -- or supporting France, who will almost certainly lose in the long run.