written by Todd DePastino

Last month, in preparation for our 2023 VBC Vietnam Trip, we launched a series of talks and conversations around the history of that fascinating country. In my prior life before the Veterans Breakfast Club, I taught college courses on the history of Vietnam in war and peace. That experience informs our series which, so far, includes a talk about Vietnam’s ancient struggle with China and the origins and course of what we call the Vietnam War, 1959-1975. Below are notes for the first part of our next installment on France’s colonial experience in Vietnam. The US war in Vietnam was, in essence, our country’s effort to deal with the collapse of European imperialism in Southeast Asia after the Second World War. Knowing what went wrong for France in Vietnam helps us understand what the US was fighting when it went to war with Ho Chi Minh.

Vintage travel poster for French Indochina

Europeans first encountered Vietnam in the 1500s during the so-called Age of Exploration when people named Da Gama, Magellan, and Columbus plied the seas in search of wealth for their royal sponsors.

In the 16th century, wealth largely meant gold, silver, and spices. One pound of black pepper could rent you a cottage for a year or pay a laborer for a whole season’s harvest. And pepper was the cheapest spice. More dear were ginger, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, saffron, anise, cumin, cloves, and other aromatic seeds. The more exotic, the better.

Vietnam lucked out, you can say, by not having much in the way of spices. At least, it didn’t have them in the ready abundance of other potential colonies like present-day Indonesia.

In addition, Vietnam was riven by dynastic conflict between the Nguyen rulers in the South and the Trinh rulers in the North. It had a complex syste of regional alliances, and a reputation of unruliness.

All this meant the Great Powers of Europe were mostly content to bypass Vietnam in their conquests of East Asia in the 1500s and 1600s.

The European Church, however, wasn’t so reticent.

While Vietnam might not have had spices, it did have souls, and a series of Catholic missionaries, beginning with the Dominicans followed by the Franciscans, scored impressive records in converting Vietnamese, mostly in the North.

French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes was the most famous and successful of these missionaries. He’s credited with creating a Latin alphabet for Vietnamese, still used today.

Histories usually date the beginning of French efforts to colonize Vietnam with the shelling and subsequent occupation of Danang by the French on September 1, 1858.

What the histories don’t usually say is that Vietnamese fought back viciously and laid siege to the invaders, forcing them to withdraw two years later. The same thing happened in Saigon after that, and in Hanoi after that.

Wherever the French attempted to gain a foothold in Vietnam, they were met with fierce resistance. In fact, while the effort to colonize Vietnam began in 1858, it was only completed in 1887, when France dissolved Vietnam and created a new entity called Indochina.

Even then, it would take well into the new century for the French to pacify the country. Vietnam was never an easy occupation for the French.

“Then why did they bother?” you might ask. With no spices or gold mines as rewards, what made the French so hell-bent on conquering Vietnam?

The answer is the Industrial Revolution.

Steam engines, machine manufacturing, railroad distribution, telegraph communication, and the factory system all combined to make for a revolution in human living. Like the adoption of agriculture by hunter-gathers 10,000 years ago, the Industrial Revolution advanced material wealth exponentially and transformed every aspect of daily life.

For the first time in history, Europe’s population grew rapidly, as did standards of living. The production of food, housing, clothing, and almost every other commodity expanded by leaps and bounds.

Once transformed, these new industrial capitalist economies needed enormous infusions of raw materials to keep humming. Iron, coal, and timber were just the start. Eventually, plant fibers and food sources from around the world would be enlisted to fashion new commodities and feed growing cities.

The flip side to raw materials were finished products. With productive capacity now beyond what any domestic market in Europe could absorb, the Great Powers sought colonies to provide markets for their surplus.

As Paul Doumer, the first Governor-General of French Indochina (and later President of France, itself) succinctly put it:

“Indochina is the ideal colony. It has no end of raw materials (rubber & rice), and would serve as the perfect outlet for our factories finished products.”

Doumer also said, “Colonial policy is the daughter of industrial policy.”

There you have it. The reason for French colonization of Vietnam in less than 10 words.

The French experience in Vietnam no doubt had its bright spots. Vietnam today owes many of its broad boulevards and Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture to the French. The global delight of Vietnamese banh mi wouldn’t have been possible without the French baguette.

But, despite the benefits, France’s administration of Indochina was a protracted agony, not least for the French.

Compare France’s occupation of Vietnam with, say, Britain’s experience in India. The British managed to rule all of India—about 300 million people in the 19th century–with maybe 5,000 British people on the ground at any one time. The British used a kind of subcontract system to divvy its rule out to local leaders in India. These local powers performed colonial tasks for the British. Metropolitan Britain, then, collected the revenue.

The French, by contrast, lacked this light touch. Indochina had one-tenth the population of India. Even so, it required far more French administrators than the British ever had to commit to its premier colony.

The need for huge numbers of French people in Vietnam is a testament to the feistiness of the Vietnamese, who never accepted colonial rule from anyone.

But it’s also a mark of the grandiose vision of the French who, despite Paul Doumer’s reductionist claim, saw themselves as doing God’s work in Vietnam by bringing the light and majesty of French culture to the Indochinese.

The French Revolution, like all revolutions are wont to do, infused its followers with messianic fervor. The French saw themselves as liberating, not subjugating, the Vietnamese. They called it their Mission Civilisatrice.

Step one of this civilizing mission was to stamp out backward indigenous cultures and identities as much as possible. The French started by banning the use of the term “Vietnam.” Instead, the colony had to be referred to by its new title, “French Indochina,” which encompassed Cambodia and Laos, as well as Vietnam.

Vietnam itself was also broken up and renamed. The northern district centered in Hanoi was called Tonkin. The middle part of Vietnam anchored by Danang was called Annam. And the southernmost section, including Saigon and the Mekong Delta, was Cochinchina. Each was administered separately. The goal was to snuff out any unified national Vietnamese feeling.

The French also took that magnificent invention of Father de Rhodes, the Latin Vietnamese alphabet, and made it the only written language. No longer could the Vietnamese publish in the Chinese ideographs they’d been using for millennia. Virtually overnight, then, the Vietnamese population was rendered illiterate.

Far more devastating and more important to history, however, than the French affronts to the indigenous Vietnamese culture was their massive assault on the Vietnamese peasantry.

Vietnam, more than anything else, was a collection of peasant villages. The French oversaw their systematic dismantling. And it was the peasants’ response to this attack that, in the end, doomed French rule.

Peasants are small subsistence farmers, they are most important to the story of French Indochina because 90%, perhaps more, of the population were peasants.

But even though they dominate the story, peasants are tricky to figure out, especially to 21st-century American observers.

Free associations with the word “peasant” will call up images of filthy, superstitious brutes, on the one hand, or simple, noble, farmers, on the other. Both stereotypes contain germs of truth, but the full picture is much richer and more fascinating.

Most human beings since 4,000 BCE have been peasants. Your own family tree is loaded with them, no matter how far back or to what ends of the earth it stretches.

Peasants have lived in all ages, and in every part of the globe. Their shapes, sizes, and colors have varied. They’ve spoken thousands of languages, grown hundreds of different staple crops, worshipped dozens of religions, and have used whatever technologies their time and place afforded.

But they were, at root, all the same. They were all peasants.

In an important sense, if you meet one peasant, you’ve met them all.

What does it mean to be a peasant, then?

R.H. Tawney, one of the greatest scholars of the peasantry, begins his answer to this question with a disturbingly vivid image:

“The situation of the peasant,” he said, “is that of a man standing permanently up to the neck in water, so that even a ripple is sufficient to drown him.”

Tawney was specifically writing about peasants in 16th century England and how the trauma of the peasantry led to the English Revolution. But Tawney went on to study peasants around the world and found the same things happening to them everywhere. Only the names, places, and skin colors changed.

The first thing to know about peasants, then, is that their lives aren’t just hard or challenging. They are perilous. Peasants live on the brink of disaster, all the time, without cease.

This revelation leads to the next universal truth of the peasantry: their entire life’s work is to stop Tawney’s Ripple.

Just how peasants structure their lives and worlds to prevent disaster will be the topic of Part 2.