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Le dictionnaire

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CIVIL WAR

Wars of decolonization almost always spawn civil violence at some level as different groups vie for control over the postcolonial state and its ideological soul. The civil violence of the colonial conflict was most prominent in eastern Indochina, where communism had divided Vietnamese nationalists since the 1920s.

The roots of this conflict reached back to the revolts led by the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (known better as the VNQDD) and the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) in central and upper Vietnam in the early 1930s. Crushed by the French, nationalists from both groups took refuge mainly in southern China. There, violent ideological breaks occurred between leaders of both sides, divided as to the type of political regime and social program that would be instituted in Vietnam upon its future liberation from French colonialism. Similar divergences occurred behind the bars of the colonial prison on Poulo Condor island, when nationalists and communists suddenly found themselves arguing, even fighting, over the future of Vietnam. Tran Huy Lieu, for example, crossed over to the communist side in this prison reflection of Vietnamese politics.

The matter was put on hold until the Japanese brought down French Indochina in March 1945. Then, the question as to who would rule the new nation-state following the Japanese defeat suddenly became very real. The low-scale political violence confined to Poulo Condor cells and southern Chinese backstreets rapidly transformed into a civil war when communists and nationalists returned to Vietnam in mid-1945, armed, and determined to impose their vision of the national future, even it meant using force against other Vietnamese. The colonial war breaking out between the French and the DRV in 1945–46 was thus doubled by a civil conflict with roots in the interwar period. In mid-1946, with the Chinese out of the way and Ho Chi Minh in Paris, Vo Nguyen Giap successfully attacked non-communist nationalist parties hostile to the communists, pushing most of them back into southern China.

While some French officers had initially supported Vo Nguyen Giap’s destruction of the nationalist forces, local political leaders, above all Léon Pignon, regretted that the French now found themselves face-to-face with the Viet Minh. As early as January 1947, Pignon had advised his superiors secretly that the French war with the DRV had to “be transposed” to a Vietnamese playing field, using the Viet Minh’s adversaries to do the fighting. French-backed civil war now emerged in force. The French turned to the former Emperor Bao Dai, now living in exile in China and apparently unhappy with the DRV, in order to build a counter-revolutionary state, around which non-communist nationalists would rally. In 1947–1948, the French rallied religious groups in the south, most notably the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao and Binh Xuyen, to their cause, aggravating the spread of civil violence across all of Vietnam.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese non-communists such as the VNQDD and the Greater Vietnam Party hoped that their anti-communism and the Cold War would force Paris to accord them the independence the French had denied to the DRV and to them in 1945–1946. They would be disappointed. Although the French convinced Bao Dai to return to Vietnam and although an Associated State of Vietnam emerged in 1949 under American pressure, the French only slowly granted non-communist nationalists sovereignty. And yet this did not prevent the French from pushing the Associated State of Vietnam to increase the number of Vietnamese fighting against the DRV. From 1950, as the Cold War bore down upon Indochina, tens of thousands of Vietnamese began fighting in the French Union forces against the Vietnamese forces of the DRV.

By “Vietnamizing” the war from 1950 (what the French called jaunissement, or “yellowing”), the French exacerbated an already intense civil war among the Vietnamese. Colonialism, communism, nationalism, and anti-communism thus made for a deadly combination in Indochina. Violence also spilled into Laos, the non-Vietnamese highlands and eventually into eastern Cambodia, as Chinese aid allowed the DRV’s armed forces to move troops across the Indochinese battlefield. The expansion of DRV troops into western Indochina also allowed the DRV/ICP to install associated “resistance governments” (chinh phu khang chien) in Laos and Cambodia, the Pathet Lao and the Khmer Issarak. By creating national armies, states, and revolutionary parties for their revolutionary Lao and Cambodian partners, Vietnamese communists also contributed to the widening of the deadly consequences of civil war to an Indochinese dimension. See also ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE FOR THE FRONTIER; COMMITTEE FOR EXTERNAL AFFAIRS; COMMITTEE FOR THE EAST, LAO ISSARA; PARTY AFFAIRS COMMITTEE.