What Did the 1919 Paris Peace Conference Have to Do with the Vietnam War?

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Hồ Chí Minh at the French Communist Party’s first congress in 1920. Found on the University of Exeter’s Imperial & Global Forum blog. U.S. Library of Congress records this same photo as that of Hồ Chí Minh at the Peace Conference.

All roads lead to Paris, or so it seemed to what remained of the young male generation following the Great War. And certainly for colonists desiring nations of their own, the only place worth a shot was Paris in 1919, especially when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson introduced the idea of “self-determination” in his famous “Fourteen Points.” Having traveled the world for the past eight years, one particular disillusioned colonist found himself in Paris at the end of Empires.

Most history classes covering the modern era discuss how World War I and the Treaty of Versailles (the war’s key peace treaty) led to World War II. But the Great War had ramifications for many wars other than its “sequel.” That includes the Vietnam War. When France colonized Vietnam, it existed in three separate parts: Tonkin in the North (where Hanoi lay), Annam in the center, and Cochinchina in the South (including the city of Saigon). Cochinchina came under French control in the 1860s during Napoleon III’s rule. Tonkin and Annam followed in the 1880s, as well as Laos and Cambodia. The political relationships between the individual areas and France differed, with some, including Annam, existing as protectorates with semi-autonomous rule.

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A group of Annamese/Indochinese (French colonial) soldiers heading to the front. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Thus, when World War I came to an end, all of these areas had been in the French colonial sphere of influence for a relatively short time. The man known as Nguyễn Ái Quốc or Nguyễn Tất Thành who found himself in Paris in 1919 was born in 1890, three years after his home region of Annam became a French protectorate. “Annam” was often used as a collective name for the region now known as Vietnam, and the people were called Annamites. Nguyễn Ái Quốc, having become more politically minded over time and distance, decided, along with several Vietnamese comrades, that now was the time to act and put forth an official request that Annam be granted greater autonomy.

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Crowd at Versailles after the Peace Treaty is signed, 28 June 1919. Source: Wikipedia.

This man, Nguyễn Ái Quốc, was none other than Hồ Chí Minh. He wrote directly to the American Secretary of State in a telegram, ten days before the peace talks began. To this telegram, he attached a document detailing the “Revendications du Peuple Annamite,” or “Claims of the Annamite People.” He wrote to the American Secretary of State most likely because it was Woodrow Wilson who presented the idea of self-determination to the conference, not to mention the United States’ colonial history, as well.

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Hồ Chí Minh pictured in Marseille in 1921 as an “Indochinese” delegate to the French Communist Congress. Source: Wikipedia.

In this document, Hồ Chí Minh detailed eight requests to all governments of the Entente:

“(1) General amnesty for all the native people who have been condemned for political activity.
(2) ….granting to the native population the same judicial guarantees as the Europeans have, and the total suppression of the special courts which are the instruments of terrorization and oppression against the most responsible elements of the Annamite people.
(3) Freedom of press and speech.
(4) Freedom of association and assembly
(5) Freedom to emigrate and to travel abroad.
(6) Freedom of education, and creation in every province of technical and professional schools for the native population.
(7) Replacement of the regime of arbitrary decrees by a regime of law.
(8) A permanent delegation of native people elected to attend the French parliament in order to keep the latter informed of their needs.”

Hồ Chí Minh “signed” the document as Nguyễn Ái Quốc (“Nguyen who loves his country”). Interestingly, Hồ Chí Minh and his comrades do not request total independence. At this time, it seems, they wanted to continue as a French protectorate, but with greater autonomy–perhaps eventually leading to independence through a gradual decline in French presence over time.

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“Revendications du Peuple Annamite”–the document sent to the Secretary of State. Source: Imperial & Global Forum blog

The French government, and all other governments present at the peace talks, ignored the document’s requests. But the document, itself, was not ignored; the French State found this unnerving and potentially dangerous to their power in “Indochina,” so the Parisian police hired an undercover agent to find out who sent this radical statement. The agent followed the goings-on of the Parisian Vietnamese community, writing his observations down in serious detail in attempt to find “Nguyễn Ái Quốc.” After a period of time, Hồ Chí Minh confessed that he wrote the document, and the matter was closed, though it seems certain the French government kept an eye on him from that point forward.

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The “Big Four” in Paris, May 1919. From left: British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Source: Wikipedia.
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Hồ Chí Minh appealed to the American government again in 1946, following World War II. This was ignored, just as before. Source: Wikipedia (document in U.S. National Archives).

For all the praise Hồ Chí Minh and his comrades gave France’s commitment to liberty and justice in the final words of the document, this response–not acknowledging the request and leading a secret investigation for the document’s author–showed that France had no intention of negotiating democratically with its Vietnamese citizens. In this moment where France committed to Wilson’s Fourteen Points, including self-determination, it also tightened its grip on its colonies. This approach of never “conceding” to the colonized led to the bloody dissolution of France’s colonial empire in the mid-century–not just with Vietnam, but with Algeria, as well.

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A mere three years after France’s humiliating surrender in Vietnam, the French Republic told General Jacques Massu to use whatever force deemed necessary (including any amount of torture) to crush the Algerian independence movement. Here, his 10th Paratrooper division marches through the streets after the Battle of Algiers in 1957. Source: Wikipedia.
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Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, Hồ Chí Minh, and Soong Ching-ling together for the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in 1959. Source: Wikipedia.

Much to the retrospective regret of the U.K., U.S., and France, Hồ Chí Minh found great company in communism, rather than democracy or republicanism. One year after this rejected declaration, he helped found the French Communist Party (Parti Communiste Français). In 1923, he left France for the USSR and China, where he spent most of the 20s and 30s before returning to Vietnam in 1941 to lead the Viet Minh independence movement. Perhaps 1919 was a missed moment for the anti-communist states’ relations with Vietnam, and perhaps it was not. Whatever the case, all roads would have eventually led to the Hồ Chí Minh Trail.

Sources:
Goebel, Michael. “A Parisian Ho Chi Minh Trail: Writing Global History Through Interwar Paris.” Imperial & Global Forum (blog). Centre for Imperial and Global History, University of Exeter. 14 September 2015.
University of Massachusetts – Boston. “Ho Chi Minh Documents on the Era of the First World War.” Understanding the Vietnam War (project & repository). UMass – Boston. No date provided.
 Wikipedia — Hồ Chí Minh.

UMass – Boston’s “Understanding the Vietnam War” site is amazing–full of interviews, documents, photographs, and more, if you want to explore the war’s historical progression.

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