Vietnamese Self-Determination

A Bid for Vietnamese Self-Determination

Believe it or not, it all began in 1919.

As World War I came to a close, a young Vietnamese patriot named Nguyen That Thanh arrived in Paris to speak with the powerful men negotiating the terms for peace. On behalf of his people living within the French empire in Indochina, Thanh sought to lobby the Western leaders for greater rights. He hoped to take American President Woodrow Wilson up on his promise of “self-determination,” the principle of national sovereignty, and free Vietnam from colonial rule. But Thanh, like many other advocates of colonial independence who descended upon the Paris peace talks, discovered that the pledge was too good to be true. The British and the French refused to enforce self-rule for their colonies, and despite Thanh’s direct appeal to President Wilson, the three powers ultimately ignored the young Vietnamese nationalist.

In the following years, Thanh, disillusioned by the Western democratic process, pursued new and more radical solutions to imperial rule in his country. He had been deeply impressed by the success of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and by the ability of the Bolsheviks to rally support among the Soviet masses. So in the 1920s, while still in France, he joined the Communist Party. With the adopted name Ho Chi Minh, meaning “enlightened one,” he planned to take his teachings home to Vietnam to awaken his own people, to unite and train them, and to lead them in their own revolution.

Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence

By 1941, Ho Chi Minh was preparing for the independence movement in Vietnam; but it appeared that the struggle would not be against French rule after all. World War II was under way, and the Japanese—allied with Germany and Italy against Britain and France—had seized French Indochina. Minh, along with fellow Vietnamese nationalists, organized the Viet Minh, a military league committed to the fight for Vietnamese self-rule. Aided by both the Soviet Union and the United States during the war years, the Viet Minh waged a guerilla campaign against the Japanese occupation. When in August 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied powers and relinquished its holdings in Indochina, Ho Chi Minh became confident that he and the Viet Minh would at last gain control of the country. So sure was the nationalist leader of this fate that in early September he announced the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Directly referencing the American Declaration of Independence, Minh addressed his people: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But another opportunity for decolonization had been only an illusion. Allied leaders overruled Ho Chi Minh, agreeing that postwar Vietnam would be split in two; Minh’s nationalist forces did not gain control over either the North or the South, and no Western power recognized his Democratic Republic. What’s more, France wanted to reclaim its lost colony. But Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh were well prepared to resist those efforts, and by the end of 1946, the Franco-Vietnamese War had begun.

Source: Schmoop University

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