(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War
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(2) Timeline: Vietnam Before U.S. Intervention (1615-1954)

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French Jesuits open the first mission near the city of Đà Nẵng (in central Việt Nam), and begins the long history of Catholic influence in Việt Nam.



Alexandre de Rhodes, a French missionary and scholar, invents the quốc ngữ, a method of writing the Vietnamese language in Roman script, instead of the traditional Chinese characters. The quốc ngữ continues to be used today.



Nguyễn Ánh ends thirty years of civil war and unites the three regions of Việt Nam (south, central, and north) and declares himself Emperor Gia Long on 1 June 1802. The Nguyễn Dynasty, the last Vietnamese monarchy, begins. He revives the imperial government in Huế and completes significant public works, including restoration of the irrigation system and construction of the Mandarin Road, which connects the cities of Hà Nội, Huế, and Sài Gòn. Emperor Gia Long is considered by the Vietnamese people as their country's unifier and greatest monarch ever, although he is later lambasted by Vietnamese Communists for accepting minor assistance from the French during his quest for unification.



On 1 September 1858, France first attacks and occupies Đà Nẵng under the guise that Catholics are facing religious persecution under the Vietnamese. After three years of fighting, Emperor Tự Đức is forced to cede Sài Gòn and adjacent areas to France on 5 June 1862.



On 20 August 1883, Việt Nam loses its independence to the French, which extends its colonial control into northern Việt Nam by forcing the Vietnamese government to sign the Treaty of Huế. In October 1887, the new French colony, called the Indochinese Union or Indochina, is founded, covering Việt Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. Vietnamese resistance to French rule starts immediately thereafter.



The Vietnamese Nationalist Party, or Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng, is founded on 25 December 1927, becoming the most prominent non-Marxist organization of the 1920s and holding far greater appeal among the Vietnamese masses than do the Communists during this period. The party adopts the principles of nationalism, democracy and people's livelihood, and commits itself to overthrowing the French colonial rule in Việt Nam.



French authorities suspect the Vietnamese Nationalist Party of assassinating a high-ranking French official in 9 February 1929 (possibly at Communist instigation). The French imprison party supporters and launch a thorough but clandestine investigation of the party's underground activities. Fearing that French retaliation will destroy the party, the party orders nationwide insurrection in 1930, but the French are able to suppress the uprisings and conclusively destroy the effectiveness of the party. Many members flee to China, and others are arrested and executed on 17 June 1930. The French destruction of the party opens immediate opportunity for Hồ Chí Minh and the Communists, and virtually guarantees their ultimate control of the nationalist movement.



Bảo Đại, theoretically emperor since 1925, returns to Việt Nam from school in France to ascend the throne of a puppet monarchy on 6 September 1932. He is Việt Nam’s last emperor.



From 22 September 1940 until 23 August 1945, Japan occupies Việt Nam during World War ll with approval of the Vichy government in France. The Japanese utilize French military facilities and economic resources in Việt Nam (rice, coal, rubber, and other raw materials) to launch massive attacks of major targets in Asia. The French colonial administration remains intact. Throughout this period, some two million Vietnamese die of famine in the north. When Japan surrenders to the Allies on August 15, 1945, the French, with the support of the Allies, repositions itself for colonial control of Việt Nam.



The First Indochina War breaks out all over Việt Nam between the French and Vietnamese, including both non-Communist and Communist forces.



The French assembly passes the Elysée Agreement on 29 January 1950, granting limited autonomy to the Associated States of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) within the French Union. 



On 5 May 1954, the Việt Minh, the Communist forces led by Hồ Chí Minh, hand French troops their worse defeat at Điện Biên Phủ, completely demoralizing the French troops in Việt Nam and the French politicians and diplomats.

On 21 July 1954, the Geneva Agreements end the First Indochina War, temporarily dividing Việt Nam along the 17th parallel into two zones for the two rival military forces: the pro-democracy forces in the south and the Communist Việt Minh in the north. The question of reunification is supposed to be decided by a Việt Nam-wide election in 1956. However, the United States refuse to sign the declaration and proceed to support the government of the new Republic of Việt Nam (South Việt Nam) under the leadership of Emperor Bảo Đại and Ngô Đinh Diệm as prime minister. The Communist north declares its own separate state, the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam, with Hồ Chí Minh as its president. Nearly one million refugees, mostly Catholics, flee the north to the south in fear of persecution.


Adapted by Sylvia Chong from Vietnamese Americans : lessons in American history : an interdisciplinary curriculum and resource guide, by the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance and the Vietnamese American Curriculum Project Committee (Garden Grove, CA: The Alliance, 2001).

(2) Timeline: Vietnam Before U.S. Intervention (1615-1954)