Colonial consolidation (1887–1916)
Vietnam's independence was gradually eroded by France in a series of military conquests between 1859 and 1885. In 1862, the southern third of the country became the French colony of Cochinchina. By 1887, the entire country formally became part of French Indochina along with Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam itself was divided into three regions: Tonkin in the north, Annam in the middle and Cochinchina in the south.The French administration was headed by the Governor-General who seated in Saigon. The French bureaucrats held the senior positions within the colonial civil service while the Vietnamese bureaucrats held lower-level positions, including the ones in Phnom Penh and Vientiane. Along with their Cambodian and Lao counterparts, the Emperors of Vietnam were kept by the French to reign, albeit in reality they gave up their political powers to the French protectorate government.
In 1889, the French installed 11-year-old Thành Thái, a son of the disgraced Emperor Dục Đức, as the new Emperor following the death of Đồng Khánh, hoping him would easily to be controlled. However, it was proven later that Thanh Thai was difficult to be controlled. He occasionally rebelled against the palace customs and made several scandals, worrying the French. Thành Thái’s final rebellion was when he tried to escape to China to join anti-French groups in 1905, but was arrested by the French.
Thành Thái was declared mentally handicapped by the French and he was deposed as the emperor in 1907. Duy Tân, a 6-year-old son of Thành Thái, was installed as the new emperor. As he grew up, young Duy Tân later revealed himself even more anti-French than his father. On May 3, 1916, while France was preoccupied with on-going World War I, Duy Tân fled from Hue and urged people to rebel against the French rule. Like his father, Tân was also captured by the French. He was deposed and sent to an exile in Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean together with his father.
Era of relative peace (1916–30)Khải Định, the son of Đồng Khánh, was enthroned to the throne in 1916. His nine-year reign was relatively peaceful since Dinh tried to avoid any controversy in a fear of being deposed. Started from his reign that the colonial officials made all important decisions instead of the imperial court. In 1926, the emperor died and Bảo Đại, his 12-year-old son, was selected to replace him. Bảo Đại stayed in France for his education during his first six-year reign and his mother was appointed the Regent.
French colonial rule imposed significant political and cultural changes in Vietnamese society. A Western-style system of modern education was developed and Roman Catholicism was propagated widely. However, the French only interested in developing a plantation economy to promote the export of tobacco, indigo, tea, and coffee; they largely ignored the calls by the Vietnamese for civil rights and modernization. Nevertheless, the French rule gave birth to two main streams of Vietnamese intellectual thoughts emerged around two main figures: Phan Bội Châu and Phan Châu Trinh.Phan Bội Châu favored an armed revolt against the French and admired Japanese modernization. In 1903, he was joined by young Cường Để, a direct descendant of Gia Long's eldest son Prince Canh. They left to Japan in 1905 to win support from the Japanese, which had defeated Russia that year, for a plan to overthrow the French rule. Chau’s venture was ended when he was arrested in Shanghai by French agents in 1926 and put into house arrest in Hue until his death in 1940. Cường Để remained to stay in Japan until 1945 under the protections of Nagayama Yoshida and Inukai Tsuyoshi.
On another hand, Phan Châu Trinh eagerly embraced French democratic ideals and stressed education as a mean to liberate Vietnam from the colonial yoke. Trinh was viewed as a predecessor to later Vietnamese liberal and social-democratic politicians for his early adoption of Western ideals and modern democracy. In 1923, inspired by Trinh's idea, the Constitutional Party of Indochina (Đông Dương Lập hiến Đảng) was established with Bùi Quang Chiêu and Nguyễn Phan Long as its leaders; it campaigned for the colony's autonomy within the French colonial empire. Trinh died in 1926 and his funeral in Saigon later turned into a large nationalist protest against the French.
Through the newspapers and journals associated with the Constitutional Party, such as La Tribune Indigène, La Cloche Fêlée, and L'Echo Annamite, progressive-minded journalists like Nguyễn Phan Long, Eugène Dejean de la Bâtie and Nguyễn An Ninh found their mediums. Dejean and Ninh later emerged as prominent critics to the French rule throughout the 1920s and the 1930s. With the decline of the Constitutionalists by the mid-1930s, this progressive element of the indigenous press inspired the formation of the post-war socialist movement, led by Phan Tư Nghĩa, Hoàng Minh Giám, and Nguyễn Khánh Toàn.
Growing independence movements (1930–40)
In 1927, the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (Việt Nam Quốc dân Đảng, Viet Quoc) was founded in Hanoi by Nguyễn Thái Học. The party was modeled on and supported by the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang). The Viet Quoc was the first modern movement in Vietnam that called for revolutionary action against the French. The Great Depression in 1929 resulted in widespread unemployment; the Viet Quoc exploited this situation by persuading a garrison at Yên Bái to mutiny against the French in 1930. The mutiny was a failure; Học was arrested and executed while other leaders escaped to southern China.Although the opposition against the French rule was quieter during this period, the nationalist cause and the call for self-government were strengthened. In 1932, Bảo Đại returned from France and formally assumed his throne. Initially, the emperor promised for administrative and social reforms; he appointed Ngô Đình Diệm, a reform-minded mandarin, as the Interior Minister. However, both of them later realized the reforms could not be implemented unless with French approval. Diệm resigned after two months in office, while Bảo soon indulged himself in pleasure activities, such as womanizing, gambling and hunting.
In 1939, Cường Để founded the League for the Restoration of Vietnam (Việt Nam Phục quốc Đồng minh Hội, Phuc Quoc) in Shanghai from the remnant of former Phan Bội Châu’s Vietnamese Restoration Association (Việt Nam Quang phục Hội). Unlike its republican predecessor, the Phuc Quoc was a royalist movement to support the prince's claim for the Nguyen throne. It was financially supported by Japan, specifically by the Japanese Tamiikusa Army. Within French Indochina, the Phuc Quoc found its strongest support in Cochinchina, especially among the Cao Dai believers. Ngô Đình Diệm had joined the movement by 1940 and emerged as its leading member in Annam.
The 1930s also saw the rise of the Communist Party of Indochina (Đông Dương Cộng sản Đảng, ICP) under the leadership of Tạ Thu Thâu. The ICP was influenced by the Trotskyist tendency which then opposed the Kirovian pragmatism of the Soviet government and the Communist International leadership. When the ICP was suppressed in 1932, Thâu, Phan Văn Chánh, and other communists continued their activities through the publication of the legal newspaper La Lutte (The Struggle); these underground communists were known as the Struggle Group (Nhóm Tranh đấu) or the lutteurs. In 1939, Thâu, Trần Văn Thạch, and Phan Văn Hùm were elected to the Cochinchina Colonial Council.
When the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was signed in 1939, the colonial government became more oppressive both to the communists like Tạ Thu Thâu and socialists such as Nguyễn An Ninh. They were arrested in mass and its leading members were jailed at notorious Poulo-Condore. When the Chinese Army entered French Indochina in 1941, the left-wing prisoners were not paroled; they continued their terms until the end of the war in 1945. Ninh died in prison in 1943, while Thâu survived and later went to lead the post-war organization of the Socialist Workers' Party (Xã hội chủ nghĩa Lao động Đảng, Lao Dong).
World War II (1940–45)After the Fall of France, China launched an invasion of French Indochina on November 1, 1940. Two weeks later, Thailand launched the separate offensive, resulted in the French-Thai War. Joint invasion by the Chinese from the north and by the Thais from the south driven the French out of Southeast Asia on February 4, 1941. Hundreds of the Viet Quoc members from their exile in China tagged along the invading Yunnan Army, led by General Zhang Fakui.
Following the takeover of Indochina, many Vietnamese served in the Chinese Army were appointed to high-ranked positions, such as Vũ Hồng Khanh and Trương Bội Công. Several members of the Viet Quoc were appointed as the civilian advisors to the military administration, including Nguyễn Hải Thần, Nhượng Tống, Phan Khôi, and Trương Tử Anh. Zhang Fakui was personally supportive of the independence movement and he attempted several times to convince Chiang Kai-shek to give Vietnam at least a nominal independence. Chiang kept his silence for a while before finally gave up to the nationalist aspirations of the Vietnamese.
On August 12, 1941, the representatives from Annam, Tonkin, and Cochinchina attended the unification conference sponsored by the Chinese. The Republic of Vietnam (Việt Nam Dân Quốc, RVN) was declared in Hanoi as the result of this conference; Vũ Hồng Khanh became its first and only president. Upon the founding of the RVN, Bảo Đại was notified that he was deposed by the Chinese on August 17, 1941; the Nguyen monarchy was formally abolished between 1941 and 1945. Bảo, Empress Nam Phương and other members of the Imperial family were interned in Dalat throughout the war.During World War II, Vietnam, although nominally an independent state, was no more than a puppet state of China. The RVN also established a military alliance with Thailand, created the so-called "Nanking-Hanoi-Bangkok Axis". These alliance actively participated during the invasions of northern Malaya in 1941 and of Burma in 1942. In 1944, the combination of economic mismanagement of the government and natural disasters resulted in a famine in northern Vietnam, in which more than one million people died of starvation.
Meanwhile, the domestic nationalists led by Ngô Đình Diệm secretly created an underground network of resistance movements and established contacts with the Tamiikusa in Taiwan. Diệm himself served as the Interior Minister in the RVN government and was one of the high-ranking RVN politicians who led the resistance movement to the Chinese and the Viet Quoc. As the RVN's Interior Minister, he supervised the RVN's bureaucracy and this position put Diệm at advantage by the end of the war in 1945.
In June 1942, Japan officially supported the Phuc Quoc, which had moved to Taihoku, as the representative of the Vietnamese people thanks to the lobby of Pan-Asianist General Matsui Iwane. Japan did not wish to see the return of French rule on the region by the end of the war. Cường Để, in return, looked upon Japan as the liberator for Vietnam. In 1943, Prince Cường then formulated the concept of the popular monarchy (quốc dân quân chủ chế) which combined Japanese social nationalism with French Napoleonic idea based on three principles: the supremacy of the popularly elected councils, the monarchy as an organ of state and social egalitarianism.Another Nguyen pretender, Duy Tân, also found his way to return during the war. Tân joined the Free French forces in 1942 and was kept promoted to the rank of major by the end of the war in 1945. Despite his long exile, Tân remained popular among the Vietnamese. France wished to create a friendly regime in Vietnam with Tân at its helm and, in return, Tân personally wanted to use this opportunity instead to escape from his exile and return to his fatherland. By 1920s, Tân had modified his view in regard of the French and readily collaborated with the Gaullist government in Paris for post-war reorganization of the colonial arrangement in Indochina.
Liberation of Indochina (1945–46)
The surrender of Thailand in 1944 prompted the resistance movement led by Ngô Đình Diệm to consider a coup against the RVN government. The RVN itself had prepared for the landings of the Allied forces at Indochina by the first half of 1945. Prime Minister of the RVN, Nguyễn Hải Thần, offered his resignation to President Khanh on December 1, 1944, and was replaced by a non-Viet Quoc technocrat, Trần Trọng Kim. Kim's government cooperated with the Chinese Army that still occupied Vietnam, while at the same time maintained contacts with the Allies, especially Japan, and the resistance movement.
With the Allies’ movement approaching Indochina, Diem noticed Kim about the upcoming coup at the night of March 12. Unsurprisingly, Kim allowed Diem to go ahead. At the dawn of March 13, 1945, Diem announced on a radio broadcast the formation of an interim government with him as its head which would enter a negotiation with the Allied forces. Pro-Diem Cao Dai militias marched in Hanoi, Dalat and Hue, completely taking over the cities from the Chinese Army in the following days. The Cao Dai arrested Khanh who surrender without resisting. On other hand, the Hoa Hao militias seized Saigon and the areas around Mekong Delta without any resistance from the Chinese forces.
On March 14, 1945, Diem effectively became the interim head of state and of government of the RVN. On September 13, 1945, the French-British forces landed in Saigon, while the Japanese-Korean forces landed in Hanoi exactly a week later. Prince De was flown in late September 1945 to Hanoi aboard a Japanese military airplane. He was immediately received by Diem and readily assumed the position as provisional head of state (quốc trưởng lâm thời). Meanwhile, Duy Tan landed in Saigon aboard a French military aircraft on January 3, 1946, after 30 years away from his homeland. By his arrival, Tan was appointed Supreme Advisor (cố vấn tối cao) to the French colonial administration.
With the arrivals of two royals, the royal house was split as Bao Dai and his family had been liberated by the French. Paris supported Tan to be restored to his throne because of his Gaullist view, Tokyo wanted to install their ally De because of his Pan-Asianism, while the colonial government tended to retain more cooperative Bao Dai. A royal conference was convened in Hue on January 14, 1946 in which the three royals (ba vương) met with each other for the first time. After deliberations, it was agreed the Nguyen monarchs will be referred as "king" rather than "emperor", Cuong De assumed the Nguyen throne and Tan became the prime minister.