Vietnam and the West Until 1954

For The U.S. War Against Asia
by William P. Meyers

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The French Conquest and Colonization of Vietnam

Page 2 of 6

The modern history of European imperialism in Vietnam really begins in 1787, when a French Catholic priest, Pigneau de Behaine, convinced Louis XVI it was time to conquer Vietnam. At that point Vietnam was united under the Tayson (or Tay Son) familyNguyen Anh, a survivor of the recently defeated dynasty that had ruled areas of southern Vietnam, was lent a “modern” French army of 1,650 in return for exclusive trading rights. The French army was led by Thomas de Conway, an Irishman who had been inspector general in George Washington’s Revolutionary War army. Conway stalled, the French Revolution began, and Father Pigneua had to organize the conquest himself. Anh’s French trained army required some time to defeat the Taysons, but in 1802 Nguyen Anh became the Emperor of Vietnam, taking the name Gia Long. However, he sought to maximize his own power and minimize French interference. His dynasty would last in some form until 1954. [Karnow 62-65]

It took the French some time to subjugate Vietnam. For the most part the Emperors minimized ties with France. Only in 1857 did Napoleon III decide to take Vietnam by force. At first the Vietnamese were able to repulse the French. After a French fleet captured the port of Tourane in 1858, but their army was not able to advance outside of the post. In 1859 a larger fleet captured Saigon, then gave it up after defeats in the surrounding countryside. The French regrouped in 1860 and sent a new army of 2000 soldiers in 1861. The Emperor Tu Duc sued for peace. He granted France control of three provinces including Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), made Catholic missionary work legal, and opened three ports to commerce. Moreover, he effectively accepted French domination when he gave France the right to control Vietnam’s foreign relations. [Karnow 74-76]

This French conquest of Vietnam followed Britain’s Opium War with China and corresponded with the opening of Japan by the United States. Britain ruled the seas. France was desperate for colonies to counter the growing British Empire. The United States was interested in Vietnam as well, if not as focused on the nation as it was on China and Japan. The first known visit by an American trader was in 1820, when John White of Salem, Massachusetts attempted to establish trade in Saigon. The Emperor at the time, Minh Mang “suspected unrestricted commerce might eventually open Vietnam to European domination.” So the American as well as other efforts were rebuffed. [Karnow 66]

Minh Mang and Tu Duc had made the same mistake as the Chinese. For a time they kept the Westerners out, but they also kept out Western technical knowledge. Tu Duc was defeated by a relatively small French army. Neither had he learned to play off the Great Powers against each other. Before his defeat he asked President Abraham Lincoln for aid, but the United States was busy with its Civil War. [Karnow 76-77]

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