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Roosevelt & Truman: Beginning American Involvement in Indochina

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  • 0:06 Roosevelt and Indochina
  • 1:21 Nationalist Revolution
  • 2:41 Enter Truman
  • 3:54 Impending War
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The question over the future of Indochina led to discussion, action and conflict. Learn about President Roosevelt's plan, the nationalist crusade, President Truman's reaction and the impending war in this video lesson.

Roosevelt and Indochina

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a keen sense for foreign policy. After the March 1945 coup d'état orchestrated by the Japanese against the French in Indochina, Roosevelt proclaimed that France was not competent enough to maintain its colonial possessions. Roosevelt understood that Indochina was rich in natural resources; it was also a strategic location in Southeast Asia. He knew that the United States would benefit significantly by allying the nation with the increasingly popular nationalist movement in Indochina.

Roosevelt, however, adopted a cautious approach to Indochina. While he denigrated the French for their poor leadership, as well as destroying the Vietnamese foundations, Roosevelt was not ready to allow the nationalists to solely control the country. Roosevelt recommended a concept he had previously introduced at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 known as an international 'trusteeship.'

The goal of the 'trusteeship' would allow for the nationalists to unify and govern the nation, but under the supervision and assistance from a collective group of nations, including the United States, China, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Roosevelt's death in April suspended any hope of an international 'trusteeship' and a self-determined Indochina.

Nationalist Revolution

While the world mourned the death of Roosevelt, Ho Chi Minh, a communist and leader of the communist-nationalist Viet Minh, attempted to seize control of the power void in Indochina. Remember, the Japanese had ousted the French from power in Indochina. However, Japanese forces were reeling after decisive defeats against the Allied forces in the Pacific Theater.

From 1941 to 1945, the Viet Minh had grown in size due to the widespread discontent felt by the suppressed Vietnamese. Ho had a very capable force, including assistance from the United States Office of Strategic Services, and he utilized this strength to agitate the Japanese from April through July. When Japan surrendered in August, Ho initiated the August Revolution. This witnessed Ho and the Viet Minh ascend to power in Indochina.

By the end of August, the Viet Minh had claimed important cities, such as Hanoi, Hue and Saigon, as free from foreign influence. On September 2, 1945, Ho officially declared independence and renamed Indochina the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or DRV. It is also important to note that Cambodia and Laos gained their respective independence as well. Interestingly, Ho's declaration contained passages borrowed from the United States' Declaration of Independence. This was Ho's attempt at allying the newly independent Vietnam with the United States.

Enter Truman

We know that Roosevelt wanted to establish a working 'trusteeship' in Southeast Asia, but what was President Harry Truman's position on the matter? Truman not only replaced his predecessor Roosevelt in office, but he replaced his foreign policy strategy in Southeast Asia. After the Second World War officially ended, the United States entered into a half-century standoff with the Soviet Union known as the Cold War.

Truman feared that the Soviet Union was going to exert itself as a post-war force throughout the world. He also feared that if the Soviet Union was left unchecked, communism would spread like wildfire. One way to keep communism in check was through Truman's adoption of the containment policy, which was essentially an imaginary fence around the Soviet Union that prevented the spread of communism.

Truman was aware of Ho's communist background and associations. This was one reason that Truman decided not to support Ho and Vietnam's independence. The second, and most important, reason was strategic. Truman understood that he needed France to act as a shield against communist expansion in Europe. France wanted its power in its former Southeast Asia colonial possessions restored. Truman and France were able to reach an agreement that returned the DRV, Cambodia and Laos back to the French.

Impending War

Ho and the Viet Minh wholeheartedly rejected the French return to Southeast Asia. The nationalists were able to control the Northern territories of the DRV, but France managed to eliminate the Viet Minh presence in the Southern section of the nation and establish Saigon as its primary base of operations. Ho attempted to negotiate with the French throughout the rest of 1945 and the beginning of 1946. France, however, was not willing to allow an independent faction to be alive within its colony. It was either complete assimilation of the Vietnamese into French customs or nothing.

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