French Indochina and the Peasant Revolt: Lecture and Conversation
Historian and VBC Director Todd DePastino presents the fourth in his series on Vietnam’s history and culture by telling the story of how Ho Chi Minh forged a nationalist independence movement from the remnants of a torn peasant society.
Vietnam, in fact, still retains vestiges of its not-so-distant feudalistic past of peasant villages. Landlords sat at the top of the social hierarchy, but peasants had ancestral rights. When those rights were denied, they revolted. This is what happened in Vietnam in 1930. Seventy-percent of the Vietnamese peasant population was landless, even as rice production skyrocketed. Starvation haunted the decimated villages, while beggars roamed the countryside. Hundreds of independent peasant revolts swept the colony, from North to South. All eventually collapsed under the weight of a massive military response from the French.
The failed 1930 revolt was a lesson for those who wanted independence from the French. Peasants had the will to fight, but no sense of nationhood or national belonging that could coordinate disparate revolts into a single Revolution. The project of Nationalism—creating a sense of Vietnamese nationhood—was first taken up by a dissident named Phan Boi Chau. Phan’s Nationalist anti-colonial movement embraced Vietnam’s modernization, industrialized, and urbanization.
Phan’s movement failed because it didn’t speak to the 90% of the Vietnamese population, the peasants, who didn’t relate to urbanization and modernization.
The task of mobilizing the Vietnamese peasantry for National Independence would be the historic achievement of Nguyen Ai Quoc, later known as Ho Chi Minh. For peasants to embrace Nationalism, argued Ho, they needed to know what was in it for them. To get peasants on board the struggle to evict the French, he said, required the promise of land–the return of the ancestral rights.
Redistributing it to peasants meant much more than a war of National Independence. It meant a Revolution, changing the rules that governed everyday life.
While Vietnamese Nationalists just wanted to severe the connections between France and Vietnam, Vietnamese Revolutionaries under Ho wanted both to sever that connection and transform Vietnam into a Communist society. The trouble with Communism, from Ho’s point of view, was that it was unacceptable to anti-French activists like Phan Boi Chau. Many of Phan’s followers owned businesses and land and knew that Communism would sweep it all away. So, for his movement to be successful, Ho Chi Minh had to walk a tightrope between his Nationalism on the one hand, and his Communism on the other.
In 1941, after Japan had taken over French Indochina, Ho created a new organization called the “League for Independence of Vietnam”—the Vietminh—that would include ALL Vietnamese interested in overthrowing foreign rule.
He would soon make contact with American OSS agents, who would supply him with weapons and training. In return, Ho gave the OSS intelligence on Japanese troop movements and help rescue downed American flyers.
This was the beginning of the American relationship with Ho Chi Minh and involvement in Vietnam.