|Vietnamese Independence & Strife Packet
AP Core Concepts
6.2 Global Conflicts and Their Consequences
Europe dominated the global political order at the beginning of the 20th century, but both land-based and transoceanic empires gave way to new forms of transregional political organization by the century’s end.
Some colonies achieved independence through armed struggle: Vietnam
Emerging ideologies of anti-imperialism contributed to the dissolution of empires & restructuring of states.
Nationalist leaders in Asia and Africa challenged imperial rule: Ho Chi Minh
Although conflict dominated much of the twentieth century, many individuals and groups – including states – opposed this trend. Some individuals and groups, however, intensified the conflicts.
Groups and individuals challenged the many wars of the century, and some promoted the practice of nonviolence as a way to bring about change: Thich Quang Duc by self-immolation
Hours after Japan’s surrender in World War II, Vietnamese communist Ho Chi Minh declares the independence of Vietnam from France. The proclamation paraphrased the U.S. Declaration of Independence in declaring, “All men are born equal: the Creator has given us inviolable rights, life, liberty, and happiness!” and was cheered by an enormous crowd gathered in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. It would be 30 years, however, before Ho’s dream of a united, communist Vietnam became reality.
Born in 1890, Ho Chi Minh left Vietnam as a cook on a French steamer in 1911. After several years as a seaman, he lived in London and then moved to France, where he became a founding member of the French Communist Party in 1920. He later traveled to the Soviet Union, where he studied revolutionary tactics and took an active role in the Communist International. In 1924, he went to China, where he set about organizing exiled Vietnamese communists. Expelled by China in 1927, he traveled extensively before returning to Vietnam in 1941.
There, he organized a Vietnamese guerrilla organization–the Viet Minh–to fight for Vietnamese independence. Japan occupied French Indochina in 1940 and collaborated with French officials loyal to France’s Vichy regime. Ho, meanwhile, made contact with the Allies and aided operations against the Japanese in South China. In early 1945, Japan ousted the French administration in Vietnam and executed numerous French officials.
When Japan formally surrendered to the Allies on September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh felt emboldened enough to proclaim the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam. French forces seized southern Vietnam and opened talks with the Vietnamese communists. These talks collapsed in 1946, and French warships bombarded the northern Vietnamese city of Haiphong, killing thousands.
In response, the Viet Minh launched an attack against the French in Hanoi on December 19, 1945–the beginning of the First Indochina War. During the eight-year war, Mao Zedong’s Chinese communists supported the Viet Minh, while the United States aided the French and anti-communist Vietnamese forces. In 1954, the French suffered a major defeat at Dien Bien Phu, in northwest Vietnam, prompting peace negotiations and the division of Vietnam along the 17th parallel at a conference in Geneva. Vietnam was divided into northern and southern regions, with Ho in command of North Vietnam and Emperor Bao Dai in control of South Vietnam.
In the late 1950s, Ho Chi Minh organized a communist guerrilla movement in the South, called the Viet Cong. North Vietnam and the Viet Cong successfully opposed a series of ineffectual U.S.-backed South Vietnam regimes and beginning in 1964 withstood a decade-long military intervention by the United States. Ho Chi Minh died on September 2, 1969, 25 years after declaring Vietnam’s independence from France and nearly six years before his forces succeeded in reuniting North and South Vietnam under communist rule. Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after it fell to the communists in 1975.
VietNam's Independence and Ho Chi Minh
The Vietnamese communist has always claimed that Ho Chi Minh was the hero who gained independence for Vietnam from France. Nevertheless, this claim is questionable.
In order to search for the truth, it could be necessary to consider these three important facts:
ONE: World War II had led to the collapse of colonialism.
In Europe, the Nazis invaded most Western European colonial countries - The Netherlands, Belgium, France - and threatened the Great Britain shore.
In Asia, Japanese quickly conquered the Indochinese Peninsula (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), invaded Malaysia, Burma, The Philippines, Indonesia, and crushed the Western colonial forces as well.
At the end of World War II, The United States of America defeated Japan and liberated Korea.
TWO: People from these colonies stood up for their independence.
The British had foreseen this movement and restored independence to its colonies. One of them was India even though India had no resistance by force but non-violent struggle.
In Vietnam, the glorious though unsuccessful 1930 Yen-Bai uprising led by the VNQDD and later the execution of the Party leader Nguyen Thai Hoc along with twelve other party members by the French colonists, elevated the aspiration for independence of the Vietnamese people to the highest point as well as the undying animosity never seen previously.
Since this uprising, the end of the French colonialist regime in Vietnam came closer. Few French senior officials such as Generals Le Clerc and De Gaulle seemed to have foreseen this fact.
THREE: The world began to enter the Cold War between the two blocs led by the Soviet Union and the USA. Both sides advocated liberation of colonies to win them over.
The consequence of the facts mentioned above led to the independence of countries in Asia and then Africa. History had shown that in order for a country to gain independence from a foreign country, usually there were war, bloodshed. However, countries like India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, etc. easily restored their independence without any major war.
On March 9, 1945; Japanese forces overthrew the French in the Indochinese Peninsula and restored independence to Vietnam. The Japanese government as well as King Bao-Dai declared the independent status of Vietnam to the world. Premier Tran Trong Kim formed the first Vietnamese government. However, this period was very short because the Japanese surrendered to the Allies a few months later on August 13, 1945.
Before Japan surrendered to the USA, Ho Chi Minh worked with OSS (Office of Strategic Services), a US intelligence agency. He built up Viet-Minh forces. After Japan surrendered, Japanese forces were still in control of Indochina. They could have crushed Viet Minh forces easily had Bao Dai and Tran Trong Kim requested them to do so. However, King Bao-Dai agreed to transfer his power to Viet Minh because he thought that Ho Chi Minh was working with the USA, and could guarantee independence for Vietnam. On August 19, 1945, at a spontaneous non-communist meeting in Hanoi, Ho and his men stole the leading role to seize power and on September 2, he delivered his Declaration of Independence.
The irony of this declaration was its repeat of what King Bao-Dai had declared earlier. In the declaration , Ho Chi Minh plagiarized a famous statement from the Declaration of Independence of the USA: "All men are created equal." Under his regime's title "Democratic Republic of Vietnam" is the motto - still remaining today - "Independence - Freedom - Happiness," which was again plagiarized from the Sun Yatsen's "Three-People Doctrine."
People at that time were happy to join meetings after meetings, to march joyfully with drums beating and martial music. It was natural because after 80 years under the French domination, they were eager to enjoy the nation's independence and expected a happy bright future. Many did not realize that later they would be living under a dictatorial regime lasting for more than half a century until now.
In the late 1700's while fighting the Tay Son, Nguyen Anh (King Gia Long) sought for military help from France through a French bishop. Thus King Gia Long has been blamed for bringing enemy home, leading to the French invasion. Ho Chi Minh after in power, signed the March 6, 1946 agreement to allow the French forces coming back to Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh and his men often said that being ruled by the French is better than by the Chinese. This is more like a fool because later the Chinese army units in Vietnam had to withdraw to reinforce their troops in Manchuria against the Chinese Red Army. Chiang Kai Shek at the Yalta Convention refused to control Vietnam. "They (the Vietnamese) are not Chinese, they always rebel against China."
To show his welcome to the arrival of French Special Envoy Sainteny and French military units coming under the March 6 Agreement, Ho Chi Minh instructed people to display flags. Ho showed to the French that people appreciated their coming back..
Richard Nixon, in No More Vietnam, wrote: "While nationalist groups refused to cooperate with the French, the communist Viet Minh chose to collaborate with the French. Ho signed the so-called March 6 agreement that brought the French army back into Northern Vietnam. His greetings were effused 'I love France and French solders. You are welcome. You are heroes.' Some say Ho compromised with the French to force the Nationalist Chinese to withdraw. But one week earlier, China had pledged to remove its army in a separate agreement with France. As to the real motivation of the communists, Ho's right-hand man, Le Duan, later said it was to 'wipe out the reactionaries.' For the Viet Minh, this included all nationalists."
Ho and the French together massacred hundreds of leaders and thousands of rank-and-file members of various nationalist groups. The French gave the Viet Minh military equipment, troops and even artillery support to carry this out. In July 1946, Ho's forces stormed the headquarters of all the remaining nationalist groups while French armored personnel carriers cordoned off surrounding areas. Most of the few remaining opposition leaders were arrested and later killed. (No More Vietnam, Richard Nixon, page 34, 35)
On December 19, 1946, the War of Resistance against the French forces burst out. The French seized control of several cities. Ho Chi Minh and the resistance forces had to withdraw from those key cities and conducted the guerrilla warfare against the French Expeditionary Army.
If Mao Tse Tung had not taken over China in 1949, Ho Chi Minh would have been responsible for turning Vietnam over to France. Since 1949, communist China armed and trained Viet Minh. This led to the Viet Minh victory at the China-Vietnam Border Battle. Later, it was the Chinese artillery that helped Viet Minh to defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu.
Moreover, it should be noted that a large number of non-communist young men and intellects contributed an important part in the victory over the French. Many were eliminated in the bloody Land Reform in 1953-1956 only because they were sons of the so-called "wicked landlords."
The fact that Ho Chi Minh ruled North Vietnam as well as Bao Dai and Ngo Dinh Diem controlled South Vietnam did not mean that these rulers contributed much to the independence of Vietnam. Among them, Ho Chi Minh was even a betrayal who invited and worked with the enemy to kill his opponents.
Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
For the people of Vietnam, who were just beginning to recover from five years of ruthless economic exploitation by the Japanese, the end of World War II promised to bring eighty years of French control to a close. As the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi), better known as the Viet Minh, Vietnamese nationalists had fought against the Japanese invaders as well as the defeated French colonial authorities. With the support of rich and poor peasants, workers, businessmen, landlords, students, and intellectuals, the Viet Minh (led by Ho Chi Minh) had expanded throughout northern Vietnam where it established new local governments, redistributed some lands, and opened granaries to alleviate the famine. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh square. The first lines of his speech repeated verbatim the famous second paragraph of America’s 1776 Declaration of Independence.
All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.
The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”
Those are undeniable truths.
Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.
In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty.
They have enforced inhuman laws; they have set up three distinct political regimes in the North, the Center and the South of Vietnam in order to wreck our national unity and prevent our people from being united.
They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood.
They have fettered public opinion; they have practiced obscurantism against our people.
To weaken our race they have forced us to use opium and alcohol.
In the field of economics, they have fleeced us to the backbone, impoverished our people, and devastated our land.
They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials. They have monopolized the issuing of bank-notes and the export trade.
They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people, especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty.
They have hampered the prospering of our national bourgeoisie; they have mercilessly exploited our workers.
In the autumn of 1940, when the Japanese Fascists violated Indochina’s territory to establish new bases in their fight against the Allies, the French imperialists went down on their bended knees and handed over our country to them.
Thus, from that date, our people were subjected to the double yoke of the French and the Japanese. Their sufferings and miseries increased. The result was that from the end of last year to the beginning of this year, from Quang Tri province to the North of Vietnam, more than two million of our fellow-citizens died from starvation. On March 9, the French troops were disarmed by the Japanese. The French colonialists either fled or surrendered showing that not only were they incapable of “protecting” us, but that, in the span of five years, they had twice sold our country to the Japanese.
On several occasions before March 9, the Vietminh League urged the French to ally themselves with it against the Japanese. Instead of agreeing to this proposal, the French colonialists so intensified their terrorist activities against the Vietminh members that before fleeing they massacred a great number of our political prisoners detained at Yen Bay and Caobang.
Notwithstanding all this, our fellow-citizens have always manifested toward the French a tolerant and humane attitude. Even after the Japanese putsch of March 1945, the Vietminh League helped many Frenchmen to cross the frontier, rescued some of them from Japanese jails, and protected French lives and property.
From the autumn of 1940, our country had in fact ceased to be a French colony and had become a Japanese possession.
After the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, our whole people rose to regain our national sovereignty and to found the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
The truth is that we have wrested our independence from the Japanese and not from the French.
The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated, Emperor Bao Dai has abdicated. Our people have broken the chains which for nearly a century have fettered them and have won independence for the Fatherland. Our people at the same time have overthrown the monarchic regime that has reigned supreme for dozens of centuries. In its place has been established the present Democratic Republic.
For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government, representing the whole Vietnamese people, declare that from now on we break off all relations of a colonial character with France; we repeal all the international obligation that France has so far subscribed to on behalf of Vietnam and we abolish all the special rights the French have unlawfully acquired in our Fatherland.
The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.
We are convinced that the Allied nations which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.
A people who have courageously opposed French domination for more than eight years, a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the Fascists during these last years, such a people must be free and independent.
For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country—and in fact is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.
Source: Ho Chi Minh, Selected Works Vol. 3, (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1960–62), 17–21.
Agrarian Reform in Vietnam
Agrarian reform is the principal challenge confronted by revolutionary processes. Land redistribution is necessary for social transformation, because the unequal distribution of land is a basic cause of extreme social inequality in the nation; and because the national agricultural bourgeoisie, seeking to maximize profits in the context of the capitalist world-economy, orients agricultural production toward export for the world market, which is not necessarily beneficial to the economic development of the nation. Therefore, the protection of the social and economic rights of the people, and the promotion of the autonomous development and sovereignty of the nation, require that land be taken from the agricultural bourgeoisie and redistributed to individual peasant households, to peasant cooperatives, or to state enterprises in the context of a political process controlled by structures of popular power.
But agrarian reform necessarily will provoke intense opposition from the agricultural bourgeoisie, since agrarian reform is inimical to its interests. In many peripheralized nations, the agricultural bourgeoisie is the single most powerful sector. And it has powerful allies in the world-economy, including transnational corporations that also are large-scale landholders, or that purchase the agricultural exports, or that find in the underdeveloped nation a market for its surplus manufactured goods. Moreover, the political leaders of core nations, who see their role as the protection of the interests of the corporations of the nation, will treat any nation that seeks autonomous development as a dangerous example. Thus, agrarian reform measures, if they are not limited in nature, provoke opposition from powerful actors in the nation and the world, who will use all means at their disposal to discredit and undermine the revolutionary process. In many revolutionary processes, opposition to agrarian reform and accusations of denials of rights of the agricultural bourgeoisie became the rallying cry of the counterrevolution. As we observe revolutionary processes, we should be aware that conflict between revolution and counterrevolution over agrarian reform is a natural and unavoidable tendency.
Since the Vietnamese nationalist revolution unfolded in the context of French colonialism and French military efforts to re-conquer its possessions in Indochina, it made a distinction between patriotic and collaborationist landholders, and it promised that patriotic landholders would be able to keep their land. This distinction was necessary in order to obtain the support of landholders in the nationalist struggle, but it was a distinction difficult to implement in practice. In general, one would expect a natural tendency for landlords to present themselves during the agrarian reform as having been patriotic during the anti-colonial struggle, and an equally natural tendency for peasant tenants to denounce unpatriotic landlords pretending to be patriotic. In the case of the Vietnamese agrarian reform, there emerged conflict concerning the extent to which patriotic landlords had been unjustly treated.
In 1946, the constitutionally-established National Assembly of the newly declared Democratic Republic of Vietnam approved a limited agrarian reform program, consistent with the agrarian reform proposal of the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930. It confiscated land belonging to French colonialists and Vietnamese collaborators and distributed it to peasants; and it distributed common lands. With respect to land not appropriated, there was rent reduction from 50% or more to 20%. The great majority of land was not redistributed. During this stage, agrarian reform did not generate conflict, but it also had limited impact on the social conditions of the peasantry (Ho 2007:165; Fall 1967:224, 265; Duiker 2000:444; Brocheux 2007:153-54).
Even though the war of national liberation was still raging in 1953 and the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had not yet returned to Hanoi, the government controlled the countryside, and it was able to initiate a more extensive agrarian reform program than that of 1946. Ho presented the land reform proposal in a report to the Third Session of the National Assembly on December 1, 1953. Describing the revolution as a “people’s democratic revolution against aggressive imperialism and its prop, feudalism,” he maintained that the liberation of peasants from feudalism is necessary in order to expand and deepen peasant support and obtain the military victory over imperialism. He expressed the belief that the agrarian reform would serve as a stimulus and an encouragement to peasants in the free zones and well as those in the areas under French control, thus strengthening the worker-peasant alliance and the support of peasants for the revolution. He noted that the government beginning in 1946 took significant steps to improve the conditions of peasants, but the peasants still do not have adequate land: the landlord class is less than five percent of the population, yet they and the colonialists occupy seventy percent of arable land; whereas the peasants, who comprise ninety percent of the population, own thirty percent of arable land. Land reform is necessary, he maintained, to liberate the productive forces in the countryside and overcome poverty and backwardness. The new agrarian reform was to confiscate all large landholdings, and the landlords would be permitted to retain only land necessary for their personal livelihood. Patriotic landlords would be compensated through government bonds, but others would not be compensated. Tribunals were to be established, with authority to punish landlords who had engaged in criminal behavior with impunity in the past. Ho noted that specific decisions were to be made at the local village level, taking into account the political attitudes of individual landlords, and giving emphasis to those peasants most in need of land (Ho 2007:128-33).
The Cuban scholar Julio García Oliveras, who served as head of the Cuban military mission in Indochina from 1966 to 1969, maintains that the Agrarian Reform Law approved by the National Assembly on December 1, 1953, was enthusiastically received by the peasants and stimulated mass activity among the peasantry, although it also stimulated greater counterrevolutionary activity among the landlords, which the colonial power attempted to exploit (García Oliveras 2010:83). In contrast, US historian William Duiker and French historian Pierre Brocheux have criticized the Vietnamese agrarian reform. They maintain that popular tribunals were established throughout the countryside without protections of due process; that many small landholders were wrongly classified as large landholders; that the support of the Vietminh by patriotic landholders was ignored; and that many were wrongly punished for crimes, with the punishments including thousands of executions. They also note Ho Chi Minh repeatedly criticized the excesses, and there emerged in 1956 a campaign of rectification of errors, during which landlords that had been wrongly imprisoned were released (Duiker 2000: 444-46, 474-88; Brocheux 2007:152-60).
Both Duiker and Brocheux concede, however, that the land reform program essentially accomplished its goals. Duiker writes, “In some respects, the land reform program could be viewed as a success by the regime. More than two million acres (800,000 hectares) of land were distributed to over two million farm families, a total of well over half the total number of agricultural workers in the DRV. The historic domination by the landed gentry at the village level was broken and a new leadership composed of poor and middle-level peasants emerged” (2000:488). Brocheux maintains that the land reform “took effect progressively from 1953 to 1961, and gradually spread from the liberated zones of North Vietnam to the rest of the territory after the retreat of French troops. In the end, the goal of rebalancing the land base and depolarizing society in order to bring about equality and freedom for the greatest number among the rural masses was essentially met. It was a giant step toward resolving the problems within an agrarian system bequeathed by the French colonial regime” (2007:154).
Duiker believes that the source of the errors and excesses in the land reform was the influence of the Chinese model and Chinese advisors, as a result of which leaders were encouraging poor peasants to speak out against tyrannical behavior of landlords (2000:444-45, 475-76). My own inclination, however, is to think that the problem is rooted in the intrinsic nature of agrarian reform. How do you empower those who have been subjugated, without unleashing a popular wrath for vengeance, which previously had been constrained by structures of social control? Once the thirst for popular vengeance is unleashed, how do you control it? Will not those who had been in power previously, and who had justified the indignities imposed on the people, feel frightened by the inversion of power, and will they not believe that the decisions now taken by popular power are unjust? Can such class conflict be avoided, if structural social inequalities are to be transformed? As Duiker acknowledges, “Undoubtedly, some of the violence associated with the land reform campaign was a natural and spontaneous consequence of the class anger emanating from the rice fields. As such, it was a familiar, albeit tragic, by-product of revolution” (2000:477).
Regardless of what decisions we may make with respect to the agrarian reform, we must not lose sight of fundamentals. There is basic moral difference between a society whose structures are rooted in conquest, colonial domination, and the dispossession of the people of the land; and a society that seeks to negate the colonial process, restore the autonomy of the nation, and establish popular control over the land and other resources of the nation.
Thich Quang Duc
1897, Hoi Khanh, Vietnam - 11 June 1963, Saigon, Vietnam
“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of Buddha, I respectfully plead with President Ngo Dinh Diem for compassion towards the people of the nation and for implementing religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland for eternity.”
Thich Quang Duc, 11 June 1963
On 11 June 1963, sixty-seven-year-old Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, had petrol poured over him and set himself on fire in protest against the persecution of Buddhists.
Thich Quang Duc was born in 1897 in Hoi Khanh, a village located in central Vietnam, Khanh Hoa province. Fragmentary information on his life is known only from Buddhist literature. Coming from a large family, he had six siblings. He was born as Lam Van Tuc (Lâm Văn Tức in Vietnamese). He entered a Mahayana Buddhist monastery when he was seven. He became a monk at the age of twenty under the name Thich Quang Duc. In 1932, he was appointed an inspector and was over time responsible for the building of 14 temples. In 1934, he moved to southern Vietnam and became a teacher. He also spent two years in Cambodia. After that, he began to oversee the construction of further temples. In total, he was responsible for 31 new temples. In 1943, he moved to Saigon where he worked as the chairman of a panel on ceremonial rites. In the following years, he became one of the leading spiritual figures of Vietnamese Buddhism.
In the beginning of the 1960s, religious tension in South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam) had escalated. A predominantly Buddhist country was ruled by the authoritative and Christian president Ngo Dinh Diem (Ngô Đình Diệm in Vietnamese). Rampant corruption, favouring Roman Catholics for public service, and disregard of the president for Buddhist traditions had sparked street clashes in Saigon, leaving nine protesters dead after the violent crackdown in May 1963. The Buddhist reaction took the form of a shocking protest that built on an older tradition, cases of self-immolation having been previously recorded in Vietnam and also in China. On 10 June 1963, American journalists in Saigon were notified that something unspecified would happen in front of the Embassy of Cambodia the next day. The Buddhists probably chose the place because of the then tense relations between Cambodia and South Vietnam. Since the Buddhists had been protesting against the ruling regime for a long time already, only several journalists arrived, including The New York Times correspondent David Halberstam and the Associated Press photographer Malcolm W. Browne.
According to Halberstam, several hundred Buddhist monks, who left the main Saigon pagoda around 10 a.m. on 11 June 1963, marched into the busy junction. A blue Austin Westminster sedan led the March. At the junction, Thich Quang Duc got out of the car accompanied by two monks. One of them laid a cushion on the street and Duc sat down on it in the lotus position. The other took a five-gallon petrol can out of the boot and poured the petrol over Duc. Duc then recited a short mantra used by Buddhists to calm their mind. Then he struck a match and set himself on fire. He burst into flames immediately. The on-looking crowd chanted slogans, some cried, some bowed to the burning monk. After ten minutes, the lifeless body fell to the ground. When the flames went out, one of the monks repeated into a microphone again and again, first in Vietnamese and then in English: “A Buddhist priest burns himself to death. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr.” The monks carried Duc’s remains away to bury them. According to tradition, the heart remained intact after the cremation and was venerated as a relic. Also because of this, Duc has been revered by Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhists as bodhisattva, someone who has achieved enlightenment (many other Buddhists reject his act as incompatible with the teachings of Buddha).
Duc stressed in a farewell letter that he decided to immolate himself in order to press President Diem to establish religious tolerance. He wrote that self-immolation is a sacrifice for Buddhism. The regime leadership proclaimed that the event was a conspiracy of Cambodia and local communists. At the end of June 1963, the government announced that Duc had been drugged before his self-immolation. The First Lady also provoked outrage when she cynically wrote in a letter to The New York Times that she “would clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show.” Religious tension did not defuse in the following weeks, and three more monks immolated themselves in August 1963. Eventually, president Diem, who gradually lost the support of the United States, was overthrown and killed on 2 November 1963.
Duc's protest drew a strong response not only in South Vietnam but also in other countries, thanks to the American journalists. A picture of the burning monk taken by Brown won the 1963 World Press Photo of the Year award, and Brown himself won a Pulitzer prize in 1964. Self-immolation in South Vietnam, interpreted as a part of the struggle against American imperialism, was often covered by the official media in communist countries. Paradoxically, this form of political protest became an inspiration for a number of people in the Soviet bloc. At present, there is a street named after Duc in the Vietnamese capital of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). A monumental memorial has been erected not far from the place where he performed his radical protest.
The US in the Vietnam Conflict
Promises and commitments to the people and government of South Vietnam to keep communist forces from overtaking them reached back into the Truman Administration. Eisenhower placed military advisers and CIA operatives in Vietnam, and John F. Kennedy sent American soldiers to Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson ordered the first real combat by American troops, and Richard Nixon concluded the war.
Despite the decades of resolve, billions and billions of dollars, nearly 60,000 American lives and many more injuries, the United States failed to achieve its objectives.
One factor that influenced the failure of the United States in Vietnam was lack of public support. However, the notion that the war initially was prosecuted by the government against the wishes of the American people is false. The notion that the vast majority of American youths took to the streets to end the Vietnam War is equally false. Early initiatives by the United States under Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy received broad support.
Only two members of the United States Congress voted against granting Johnson broad authority to wage the war in Vietnam, and most Americans supported this measure as well. The antiwar movement in 1965 was small, and news of its activities was buried in the inner pages of newspapers, if there was any mention at all. Only later in the war did public opinion sour.
The enemy was hard to identify. The war was not fought between conventional army forces. The Viet Cong blended in with the native population and struck by ambush, often at night. Massive American bombing campaigns hit their targets, but failed to make the North Vietnamese concede. Promises made by American military and political leaders that the war would soon be over were broken.
And night after night, Americans turned on the news to see the bodies of their young flown home in bags. Draft injustices like college deferments surfaced, hearkening back to the similar controversies of the Civil War. The average age of the American soldier in Vietnam was nineteen. As the months of the war became years, the public became impatient.
Only a small percentage of Americans believed their government was evil or sympathized with the Viet Cong. But many began to feel it was time to cut losses. Even the iconic CBS newscaster WALTER CRONKITE questioned aloud the efficacy of pursuing the war.
President Nixon signed a ceasefire in January 1973 that formally ended the hostilities. In 1975, communist forces from the north overran the south and unified the nation. Neighboring CAMBODIA and LAOS also became communist dictatorships. At home, returning Vietnamese veterans found readjustment and even acceptance difficult. The scars of Vietnam would not heal quickly for the United States.
The legacy of bitterness divided the American citizenry and influenced foreign policy into the 21st century.
U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War: The Tet Offensive, 1968
In late January, 1968, during the lunar new year (or “Tet”) holiday, North Vietnamese and communist Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated attack against a number of targets in South Vietnam. The U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries sustained heavy losses before finally repelling the communist assault. The Tet Offensive played an important role in weakening U.S. public support for the war in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh and leaders in Hanoi planned the Tet Offensive in the hopes of achieving a decisive victory that would end the grinding conflict that frustrated military leaders on both sides. A successful attack on major cities might force the United States to negotiate or perhaps even to withdraw. At the very least, the North Vietnamese hoped it would serve to stop the ongoing escalation of guerilla attacks and bombing in the North. Hanoi selected the Tet holiday to strike because it was traditionally a time of truce, and because Vietnamese traveling to spend the festival with their relatives provided cover for the movement of South Vietnamese National Liberation Forces (NLF) who supported the communist forces.
The first phase of the assault began on January 30 and 31, when NLF forces simultaneously attacked a number of targets, mostly populated areas and places with heavy U.S. troop presence. The strikes on the major cities of Huế and Saigon had a strong psychological impact, as they showed that the NLF troops were not as weak as the Johnson Administration had previously claimed. The NLF even managed to breach the outer walls of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Although the first phase of the offensive became the most famous, a second phase also launched simultaneous assaults on smaller cities and towns on May 4 and stretched into June. A third phase began in August and lasted six weeks. In the months that followed, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces retook the towns that the NLF had secured over the course of the offensive, but they incurred heavy military and civilian casualties in the process.
At the end of the Tet Offensive, both sides had endured losses, and both sides claimed victory. The U.S. and South Vietnamese military response almost completely eliminated the NLF forces and regained all of the lost territory. At the same time, the Tet Offensive weakened domestic support for the Johnson Administration as the vivid reporting on the Tet Offensive by the U.S. media made clear to the American public that an overall victory in Vietnam was not imminent.
The aftermath of Tet brought public discussions about de-escalation, but not before U.S. generals asked for additional troops for a wide-scale “accelerated pacification program.” Believing that the U.S. was in a position to defeat the North, these military leaders sought to press for a U.S.-South Vietnam offensive. Johnson and others, however, read the situation differently. Johnson announced that the bombing of North Vietnam would cease above the 20th parallel and placed a limit on U.S. troops in South Vietnam. Johnson also attempted to set parameters for peace talks, but it would be several more years before these came to fruition. Within the United States, protests against continued involvement in Vietnam intensified. On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced that he would not seek a second term as president. The job of finding a way out of Vietnam was left to the next U.S. president, Richard Nixon.
Vietnamese Independence & Strife Questions
Why did Vietnam desire independence in the postwar period?
How did Vietnam gain independence?
Explain and evaluate the role of Ho Chi Minh in securing independence for Vietnam.
How did the West and China impact Vietnamese independence?
What internal problems did the new Vietnamese government face in the mid-twentieth century?
What external problems did the newly independent Vietnam combat in the mid-twentieth century?
How does the struggle for Vietnamese independence and stability fit into the big picture of world history?