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Indochina from 1900 to 1945: Culture, Government & Unrest

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  • 0:07 Indochina
  • 0:55 TheFrench Arrive
  • 2:08 French, Japan and Indochina
  • 4:33 Opposition
  • 6:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The history of the Vietnam War begins with understanding the events in Indochina prior to the end of 1945. In this lesson, you will learn about Indochina's culture, foreign rule and internal opposition to foreigners prior to the American arrival in Vietnam.

Profile on Indochina

Situated in Southeast Asia, Indochina was comprised of three main bodies of land: Cambodia, Laos and the Empire of Annam, which consisted of the smaller territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China. The presence of multiple ethnic groups, such as the Vietnamese, Montagnards, Lao, Khmer and Chinese, made the region a cultural cornucopia.

While there were a variety of ethnicities, the primary forms of religion were Buddhism, Confucianism, Caodaism (or Cao Dai) and Catholicism, which became established in the area closer to the Second World War. The region was known for its production of rubber, rice and opium, as well as its strategic trade location. All of this made the area very attractive to foreign nations.

The French Arrive

Indochina had a notable history of hosting various foreign invaders. The French recorded the longest tenure in the region by maintaining power from the late 19th century until the Geneva Conference in 1954. France initiated its conquest of Indochina in the 1870s when it captured the Cochin China territory of Annam. In the 1880s, France completed its conquest of the region when the remaining territories of Annam, as well as Cambodia and Laos, were assimilated into the French Empire. The Indochinese Union, or French Indochina, was officially established shortly thereafter under the general leadership of an appointed French governor-general.

France managed to keep Indochina under its control through the first half of the 20th century. The French attempted to assimilate the Vietnamese into Western culture, but the results were poor. Indochina suffered greatly under the French rule, especially during the late 1930s when the French Popular Front government was installed. Economic conditions continually worsened, societal development was negligible, infrastructure collapsed and the suppression of the Vietnamese increased. The conditions in Indochina only worsened during the years of the Second World War.

France, Japan and Indochina

On the eve of the Second World War, Japan threatened the French occupation of Indochina. In 1938, both the French and Japanese mobilized for war over control of the region. In 1939, Japan provided an ultimatum to the French in an effort to avert war. The Japanese called for French and Chinese relations to be terminated, the establishment of Japanese garrisons between French Indochina and China and the reduction of supplies to China. Japan also expected the French to supply the Japanese forces with war material for operations in the Pacific. The Japanese agreed to allow France to continue to run the daily operations of Indochina, but under close supervision.

Since the issuance of the Japanese ultimatum coincided with the beginning of the war in Europe, the leaders of French Indochina were left to make decisions on their own. The French authority accepted the conditions of the ultimatum in 1940; they also accepted a 'joint defense' treaty with Japan. Under these terms, France vowed to defend both Indochina and Japanese assets from outside invaders.

The Japanese occupation of French Indochina decimated the Vietnamese. Prices on goods skyrocketed, inflation ran rampant and individuals starved due to the shortage of rice, which was being redirected to Japanese forces. Medicine shortages occurred during the war years that led to an increase in smallpox and typhus fever. Additionally, new taxes were levied on the Vietnamese by the French to raise money for the empire.

The French contributed to the harsh conditions in Indochina. Fearful the Japanese were going to spark a pan-Asian uprising to unite all Asians against Westerners, the French began a campaign known as the National Revolution. The French leadership promoted equality between the French and Vietnamese. This simply meant that the Vietnamese were deceived into believing that they were societal and political equals. Those who spoke out against the French or refused to adopt French policies were imprisoned.

The French and Japanese experiment in Indochina lasted until 1945. On March 9, Japan launched a coup against the French government in Indochina. The invasion was brief, but claimed the lives of 4,000 French and Vietnamese soldiers. Japan declared Indochina free of Western rule and placed Bao Dai, Emperor of Annam, in control of the new Japanese puppet state, which was named the Empire of Vietnam. The French rule in Indochina came to an abrupt, yet temporary, end.

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