Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

David Galster’s Bruno’s Bunker series of articles explain the evolution of the struggle in Indochina from a French and Viet-Minh perspective. Find out what happened prior the US involvement in Vietnam and how you can experience it while playing a range of upcoming CS Vietnam scenarios.

Mes compagnons d’armes,

Apparently, the French Empire had a glorious history, and romantic appeal. But, what were the underlying concerns that colonialism created? This article explores colonialism, and the background leading to the First Indochina War.

Traditional Feudal Vietnam

Vietnam was ruled by the Nguyen Dynasty since 1801, with Gia Long as the first  Emperor of that line. The Chinese Emperor recognized him, but requested a small tribute. With Hue as the imperial capital, Gia Long oversaw the traditional six ministries of Public Offices, Finances, Education, Military, Justice, and Public Works. He appointed Van Thanh to govern Bac Ha in the north.

A large army and navy were established to eliminate Chinese renegades, quell revolts, and to establish control. In 1813, the Vietnamese army helped reinstate Ang Chan at Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

Minh Mang succeeded his father in 1819. Not liking Europeans, he rebuffed three French attempts for a commercial treaty. He ruled autocratically, setting up a Royal Council in 1829 and a secret service in 1834. Minh Mang confined Christian missionaries at Hué to translate French books into Vietnamese, but in 1836 permitted the killing of missionaries, as Christian persecution became official policy.

At that time, the regime reinstated civil service examinations for the Mandarins, to be offered every three years. Mandarins, or scholar-officials, were organized into nine grades, and paid salaries in money and rice. The Vietnamese language was written using Chinese calligraphy.  Ming Mang was a devoted Confucian, and promoted scholarship of that philosophy.

Although, peasants could apply for examinations, passing was unlikely without an education. As a result, the scholar-officials became a self-perpetuating class of administrators, because their sons could afford years of academic preparation, whereas most commoners could not. Mandarin status could not be inherited.

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

French Conquest of Vietnam 1858 – ’85

Starting in 1858, the French invaded and took over forts at Danang. After a struggle, the French also took Saigon.Emperor Tu Duc agreed to a treaty with, giving France several provinces adjacent to Saigon. Later, dissident mandarins led a rebellion in Cochinchina, and Admiral Bonard needed months and reinforcements to suppress it. He issued a decree in 1863 blaming the mandarins, and giving all administrative and judicial powers to French inspectors. Admiral De La Grandiere inaugurated a justice system by decree in Cochinchina in 1864. The Gia-Dinh Bao newspaper began publishing in 1865 with the Romanized quoc-ngu letters, replacing Chinese calligraphy.

In 1868 Ngo Con led the plunder of Cao Bang, and Chinese bandit groups known as the White, Yellow, and Black Flags pillaged the mountains of Tonkin. They joined with Vietnamese peasants, as they were paid by Emperor Tu Duc. These conflicts with the French in Tonkin continued for more than 15 years. Finally in 1883, Prime Minister Jules Ferry sent a strong expeditionary force under General Bouet followed by a fleet commanded by Admiral Courbet to conquer Vietnam. Courbet’s fleet attacked the forts guarding the mouth of the Hué River captured them in three days. The new Emperor Hiep-Hoa agree to a treaty surrendering the forts and ships in the Hué area. Vietnam became a protectorate of France, and residents with garrisons were given jurisdiction over Vietnamese towns.

Vietnamese Resistance 1885 – 1902

After a coup involving the palace regents, Hiep-Hoa was arrested, and shortly after committed suicide. The regents appointed Ham Nghi Emperor. In 1885, Ham Nghi issued an Edict throughout Vietnam, declaring that they could not accept the conditions imposed by the French by force of arms. As the French seized the forts at Dong-Hoi and Vinh, resistance by the peasants quickly developed in Quang-Binh province. Regent Ton That Thuyet allowed the destruction of churches in the Gianh River valley, and the French retaliated by burning pagodas. The Vietnam Resistance began.

The insurgency was never well coordinated. The Red River rebellion was suppressed in 1892. Col. Fernand Bernard noted that a militia inspector executed 75 notables in two weeks but that the revolt continued. The French lost no men in Haidung but beheaded 64 people without a trial. French commanders brought together three thousand troops to defeat the insurgents led by Dr. Phan Dinh

Phung in 1896. A similar revolt in the Yen The area, known as the Can Vuong movment was put down. However, Casualties included 40,000 Vietnamese Catholic converts, 18 French missionaries, 40 Viet priests, and 9,000 churches. The Can Vuong movement had little chance of defeating the French, but the spirit of patriotic sacrifice reflected in their desperate resistance inspired later generations to struggle for Vietnamese independence.

Changes Imposed by French Rule

Generally, the French were arrogant. They justified imperialism as a ‘civilising mission’, a pledge to develop backward nations. They emphasized teaching the Vietnamese to speak French. The French language became primary in businesses, such as banking and mercantile trade. Buildings of French architecture and style were introduced.

In 1898 the French took over the collecting of all taxes in Annam, as they already had in Tonkin and Cochinchina. Provincial and county governors in Tonkin were replaced by French residents. French officials were relatively few in number, so were assisted by many Vietnamese collaborators.

Governor-General Paul Doumer wanted to raise tax revenue. This included income tax on wages, a poll tax on all adult males, stamp duties on a wide range of publications and documents, and imposts on the weighing and measuring of agricultural goods. Even more lucrative were the state monopolies on rice wine, opium, and salt.

Doumer planned two long railway lines. One went from Haiphong to Hanoi to the Chinese border at Laokay, and two years later to Yunnan-Fou. The other 1000-mile Trans-Indochinese line went from Hanoi to Saigon. Construction began in 1898. More than 25,000 Vietnamese and Chinese would die working on less than 300 miles of the Yunnan-Fou line. At that time, development of industries and mining was lacking, and the railways had little business. Economic viability did not come until after World War I. These railroads were not finished until 1911.

However, improvements in education were made when French missionaries, officials, and their families opened primary schools lessons in both French and Viet languages University of Hanoi was opened by colonists in 1902.

The peasants on plantations worked long hours in debilitating conditions, for wages that were pitifully small. Some were paid in rice rather than money. The working day could be as long as 15 hours, without breaks or adequate food and fresh water. Malnutrition, dysentery and malaria were common, especially on rubber plantations.

Nationalist Movements

In place of traditional scholarship, a new intellectual elite emerged that emphasized science, geography, and other modern subjects instead of the Confucian classics. The new Vietnamese intelligentsia were impressed by the 1905 naval victory at Tsushima of a modernized Japan over tsarist Russia. The last traditional Mandarin civil service examinations were held in 1919.

Phan Boi Chau was an organizer and propagandist, and educated in both Confucian and Western thought. He studied China’s efforts at self-strengthening, Japan’s Meiji Restoration, and Sun Yat-sen’s republican movement. Strongly anti-French, his Modernization Society advocated a constitutional monarchy. Later, inspired by China’s Revolution of 1911, he favored a Vietnamese republic. French agents seized him  in 1925. Although sentenced to death for sedition, he was paroled to house arrest in Hue. He died in obscurity in 1940. He was a friend of Ho Chi Minh’s father.

In 1927, urban intellectuals formed a Nationalist Party known as the Nam Quoc Dan Dang. (VNQDD). Modeled after the revolutionary Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) of China, its aim was a republican democratic government, free from foreign interference. They were very radical and terrorist. The revolt was crushed in 1930.

Religious movements were common in the south. The Cao Dai cult was centered along the Cambodian border, and the Hoa Hao were in the Mekong delta. Ngo Van Chieu  founded the Cao Dai in 1919 using Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Christianity, western philosophy, and belief in spirits. The Hoa Hao religion urged people to communicate directly with God, and so had no churches.

Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam in 1929, after years of traveling to France, Germany, the Soviet Union, and China. He had met with many Communist leaders, including Nikolai Lenin, and was thoroughly trained in Marxist ideology. In 1930, he formed the Indochina Communist Party, (ICP,) which sought to overthrow French imperialism and establish a government of workers and peasants.

WWII Japanese Rule

After Germany invaded France, the Japanese ordered Governor-General Catroux to close the supply route from Tonkin to China on June 19, 1940. On the fall of France, Admiral Darlan replaced Catroux with Vice Admiral Jean Decoux in July. Vichy France made a treaty with Japan on August 30, and Pétain instructed Decoux to negotiate with the Japanese. He met with General Nishihara in Hanoi on September 22, and Japan was allowed to station 6000 men north of the Red River and 25000 in Indochina.

In 1941, the Japanese took control of all Indochinese enterprises, and the Kempeitai police arrived in December. Matusita Mitsuhiro advocated support for Prince Cuong’s League for the Restoration of Cochinchina. When the French tried to arrest them, the Kempeitai intervened. Other leaders such as Ngo Dinh Diem were also protected by the Japanese.

Allied bombing prevented the Japanese from shipping goods to Indochina. Exporting from Indochina became more difficult. In 1943, General Iwane Matsui told Saigon journalists they had ended French sovereignty. Indochina showed that it could develop industry by producing 13,000 rubber tires in 1944 after putting out only 360 the previous year. With shipping and railroads destroyed, the Japanese ran out of gasoline and began distilling alcohol from rice.

Late in 1944, Viet Minh leaders urged the people to prepare for a general uprising. Giap formed the first Armed Propaganda Brigade for the Liberation of Vietnam on December 22, and this began the Vietnamese People’s Army. The Japanese were concerned that they would lose French cooperation, and they increased their troops in Indochina to 60,000.

In March 1945, Ambassador Matsumoto Shunichi ordered Governor-General Decoux to surrender. Most French units were disarmed, and interned the next day. Japanese forces took control. Only a few French garrisons resisted, and the Japanese slaughtered about 200 European and Vietnamese prisoners at Lang Son, and 53 at Dong Dang. Generals Gabriel Sabattier and Marcel Alessandri led 5,000 troops from Tong Sontay 800 miles to the China border.

The Japanese announced Vietnamese independence from France, but Emperor Bao Dai and his cabinet knew they had little power. Ngo Dinh Diem cooperated with the Japanese for a while, but the Japanese chose conservative professor Tran Trong Kim to lead the government.

Meanwhile, the Viet Minh announced support for the Allies, as they prepared for Japanese defeat. In May, a United States OSS team parachuted to Viet Minh headquarters, and supplies soon followed.

After Japan’s surrender, Tran Trong Kim resigned. One week later the Japanese accepted Allied terms and relinquished control over Cochinchina. The ICP met in Tonkin on August 13, and voted for a general insurrection. Viet Minh guerrillas entered Hanoi, and distributed thousands of leaflets. The Viet Minh military took over almost all the public buildings, except the Bank of Indochina, which was still guarded by the Japanese. The Viet Minh took over Hué, and Emperor Bao Dai asked them to form a new government. Only a few Japanese resisted.


French rule in Indochina was very autocratic, and at times cruel and unfair. This fostered much Vietnamese resentment, which ultimately led to the Viet Minh movement. WWII offered the best opportunity for revolution, since France was weakened after the war, and Japan defeated.

But, I imagine that Bruno, a paratrooper of the Free French Forces in WWII, remained sympathetic to French interests in Indochina.

Campaign Series Vietnam | Bruno's Bunker

General Marcel Bigeard – “Bruno”