Vietnam History


In BC 111, ancestors of the present-day Vietnamese, inhabiting part of what is now southern China and northern Vietnam, were conquered by forces of China's Han dynasty. Chinese rule lasted more than 1,000 years (until 939 AD) when the Vietnamese ousted their conquerors and began a southward expansion that, by the mid-18th century, reached the Gulf of Siam.

Despite their military achievements, the Vietnamese continued to suffer from internal political divisions. Throughout most of the 17th and 18th centuries, contending families in the north and south struggled to control the powerless kings of the Le dynasty. During this period, Vietnam was effectively divided near the 17th parallel, just a few kilometers above the demarcation line established at the 1954 Geneva conference.

French Rule

Vietnam was reunited following a devastating civil war in the 18th century but soon fell prey to the expansion of European colonialism. The French conquest of Vietnam began in 1858 with an attack on what is now the city of Danang. France imposed control gradually, meeting heavy resistance, and only in 1884 was Vietnam officially incorporated into the French empire.

Fiercely nationalistic, the Vietnamese never truly accepted the imposition of French rule. By 1930, the Vietnamese Nationalist Party had staged the first significant armed uprising against the French, but its virtual destruction in the ensuing French repression left the leadership of the anti-colonial movement to those more adept at underground organization and survival--the communists.

In that same year, the recently formed Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) took the lead in setting up short-lived "soviets" in the Nghe An and Ha Tinh Provinces in northern Vietnam, an action that identified the ICP with peasant unrest. The ICP was formed in Hong Kong in 1930 from the amalgamation of the Vietnamese and the nascent Lao and Khmer communist groups, and it received its instructions from the Moscow-based Communist International (Comintern).

Communist Movement

The Vietnamese communist movement began in Paris in 1920, when Ho Chi Minh, using the pseudonym Nguyen Ai Quoc, became a charter member of the French Communist Party. Two years later, Ho went to Moscow to study Marxist doctrine and then proceeded to Canton as a Comintern representative. While in China, he formed the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League, setting the stage for the formation of the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930. French repression of nationalists and communists forced some of the insurgents underground, and others escaped to China. Other dissidents were imprisoned, some emerging later to play important roles in the anti-colonial movement.

Ho Chi Minh was abroad at that time but was imprisoned later in Hong Kong by the British. He was released in 1933, and in 1936 a new French government released his compatriots who, at the outset of World War II, fled to China. There they were joined by Ho, who organized the Viet Minh--purportedly a coalition of all anti-French Vietnamese groups. Official Vietnamese publications state that the Viet Minh was founded and led by the ICP.

Because a Vichy French administration in Vietnam during World War II cooperated with occupying Japanese forces, the Viet Minh's anti-French activity was also directed against the Japanese, and, for a short period, there was cooperation between the Viet Minh and Allied forces.When the French were ousted by the Japanese in March 1945, the Viet Minh began to move into the countryside from their base areas in the mountains of northern Vietnam. By the time Allied troops--Chinese in the north and British in the south--arrived to take the surrender of Japanese troops, the Viet Minh leaders had already announced the formation of a Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and on September 2, 1945, proclaimed Vietnam's independence.

Deep divisions between Vietnamese communist and non-communist nationalists soon began to surface, however, especially in the south, and with the arrival of Allied forces later in September, the DRV was forced to begin negotiations with the French on their future relationship. The difficult negotiations broke down in December 1946, and fighting began with a Viet Minh attack on the French in Hanoi.

Civil War

A prolonged three-way struggle ensued among the Vietnamese communists (led by Ho Chi Minh), the French, and the Vietnamese nationalists (nominally led by Emperor Bao Dai). The communists sought to portray their struggle as a national uprising; the French attempted to reestablish their control; and the non-communist nationalists, many of whom chose to fight alongside the French against the communists, wanted neither French nor communist domination.

Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh forces fought a highly successful guerrilla campaign and eventually controlled much of rural Vietnam. The French military disaster at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 and the conference at Geneva, where France signed the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam on July 20, 1954, marked the end of the eight-year war and of French colonial rule in Indochina.

1954 Cease-Fire Agreement and Partition

The 1954 cease-fire agreement negotiated in Geneva provided for provisional division of the country at approximately the 17th parallel; a 300-day period for free movement of population between the two "zones" established thereby; and the establishment of an International Control Commission--representatives of Canada, India, and Poland--to supervise its execution. The cease-fire agreements also referred to "general elections" that would "bring about the unification" of the two zones of Vietnam. The agreement was not accepted by the Bao Dai government, which agreed, however, to respect the cease-fire.

Following the partition of Vietnam under the terms of the Geneva agreements, there was considerable confusion in the south. Although Bao Dai had appointed a well-known nationalist figure, Ngo Dinh Diem, as prime minister, Diem initially had to administer a country plagued by a ruined economy and by a political life fragmented by rivalries of religious sects and political factions. He also had the problem of coping with 850,000 refugees from the north. The communist leaders in Hanoi expected the Diem government to collapse and come under their control. Nevertheless, during his early years in office, Diem was able to consolidate his political position, eliminating the private armies of the religious sects and, with substantial U.S. military and economic aid, build a national army and administration and make significant progress toward reconstructing the economy.

Meanwhile, the communist leaders consolidated their power in North Vietnam and instituted a harsh "agrarian reform" program. In the late 1950s, they reactivated the network of communists who had stayed in the south (the Viet Cong) with hidden stocks of arms, reinfiltrated trained guerrillas who had been regrouped in the north after 1954, and began a campaign of terror against officials and villagers who refused to support the communist cause. The communists also exploited grievances created by mistakes of the Diem government as well as age-old shortcomings of Vietnamese society, such as poverty and land shortages.

By 1963, the North Vietnamese communists had made significant progress in building an apparatus in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, in 1964 Hanoi decided that the Viet Cong (VC) cadres and their supporters were not sufficient to take advantage of the political confusion following the overthrow of Diem in November 1963. Hanoi ordered regular troops of the North Vietnamese army (People's Army of Vietnam--PAVN) into South Vietnam, first as "fillers" in VC units, then in regular formations. The first regimental units were dispatched in the fall of 1964. By 1968, PAVN forces were bearing the brunt of combat on the communist side.

U.S. Assistance

In December 1961, President Diem requested assistance from the United States. President Kennedy sent U.S. military advisers to South Vietnam to help the government deal with aggression from the North. In March 1965, President Johnson sent Marine units to the Danang area to defend U.S. installations. In July 1965, he decided to commit up to 125,000 U.S. combat troops to Vietnam. By the spring of 1969, the United States had reached its greatest troop strength--543,000--in Vietnam.

The U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, which began in March 1965, was partially halted in 1968. U.S. and North Vietnamese negotiators met in Paris on May 15, 1968, to discuss terms for a complete halt and to arrange for a conference of all "interested parties" in the Vietnam war, including the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (GVN) and the National Liberation Front. President Johnson ordered all bombing of the North stopped effective November 1, 1968, and the four parties met for their first plenary session on January 25, 1969.

The Paris meetings, which began with so much hope, moved slowly. Beginning in June 1969, the United States began a troop withdrawal program concurrent with the assumption by GVN armed forces of a larger role in the defense of their country. While the United States withdrew from ground combat by 1971, it still provided air and sea support to the South Vietnamese until the signing of the cease-fire agreements. The peace agreement was concluded on January 27, 1973.

After the 1973 Peace Agreement

While Hanoi continued to proclaim its support of the peace agreement, it illegally sent thousands of tons of materiel into South Vietnam, including sophisticated offensive weaponry new to the South. Tens of thousands of PAVN troops infiltrated South Vietnam to join the 160,000 there at the time of the cease-fire. Numerous attacks were carried out against installations, lines of communication, economic facilities, and, occasionally, population centers.

At the beginning of 1975, the North Vietnamese began a major offensive in the South that succeeded in breaking through the central highlands defenses. After taking over provincial capitals in that area, a combination of forces from the demilitarized zone area and the highlands routed South Vietnamese defenders. Pressures from the highlands and from the Cambodian border region led to a general GVN military collapse, which in turn resulted in the fall of Saigon itself by the end of April. Faced with the threat of a takeover by a communist regime, tens of thousands of Vietnamese fled the country.


For the first few months after the war, separate governments were maintained in the northern and southern parts of the country. However, in mid-November 1975, the decision to reunify the country was announced, despite the vast social and economic differences remaining between the two sections. Elections were held in April 1976 for the National Assembly, which was convened the following June. The assembly ratified the reunification of the country and on July 2 renamed it the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). It also appointed a committee to draft a new constitution for the entire country. The party Central Committee approved the constitution in September 1980. New National Assembly elections were held in April 1981.

The fourth congress of the Vietnam Worker's Party, held December 4-20, 1976, selected a new party leadership and established major national policies. It reelected Secretary General Le Duan who, in effect, had led the party since Ho Chi Minh's death in 1969. In addition, the fourth party congress voted to enlarge the Politburo and the full Central Committee by about 60%. While many of the new members were young and had technical and administrative expertise, top positions went to established leaders from the north, assuring connection with the past. Similarly, the fifth party Congress (1982) maintained continuity by reconfirming the top leadership, despite its age, while expanding the Central Committee to bring in new members who were younger and had more economic experience.

In 1986, the death of Secretary General Le Duan, as well as alarm over the economy's downward spiral, set the stage for the watershed sixth party congress (December 1986). Spearheaded by Nguyen Van Linh, who was named the new party leader, the congress endorsed the need for sweeping economic reform and "renovation" of the party, as well as a policy of "openness" patterned, to a degree, on the policies being promoted in the USSR. While reaffirming Vietnam's alliance with the Soviet Union, the congress softened Hanoi's anti-Beijing posture and called for more attention to developing relations with noncommunist nations. The balance of power in the leadership shifted to the "reformers," with the remaining "conservatives" arguing for a slower pace. Economic reforms were deepened in 1989 and a stabilization campaign to control rampant inflation was implemented.

As communism came under attack in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and China in the late 1980s, Vietnam tightened domestic political controls, cracking down on political dissidents before the seventh party congress in June, 1991. The congress itself introduced significant leadership changes while avoiding specifics on the details of economic reform or swinging power significantly to the side of either advocates of economic and political liberalization or to orthodox communists. However, given a certain amount of stress over the collapse of Vietnam's communist allies, senior figures in the security apparatus gained representation. Seven members of the 12 man ruling Politburo, including Secretary General Nguyen Van Linh, were dropped from their posts. (Linh was replaced by Do Muoi, the Prime Minister, whose old position was given to Vo Van Kiet, a liberal southerner.) Limited political reform appeared on the agenda but did not threaten the political primacy of the Communist Party in Vietnamese society. However, plans for internal democratization of the Party were agreed upon. On economic issues, the congress was vague instead focusing on questions of party ideology in the face of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. The removal of Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, who had opposed closer ties with China, signaled Vietnam's willingness to improve relations with its northern neighbor.

A new constitution was approved in April 1992, reaffirming the role of the Communist Party as the leading force of state and society but also promulgating government reorganization and increased economic freedom. At the midterm Party conference in January, 1994, four new members were appointed to the Politburo, tipping the balance of political power toward those who favored more rapid and thoroughgoing economic reform. In late 1997, a new President, Prime Minister and party General Secretary were named. There were changes in the Politburo as well. While the leadership says it is committed to reform, the pace of that reform continues to be debated. In the 1990s, though Vietnam remains a one-party state, adherence to ideological orthodoxy has become less important than economic development as a national priority.

source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1999

  • Brief History

  • Main Country Page

  • Vital Statistics

  • Embassy Info

  • home vital stats history listings embassy listings guide books faq

    home history stats embassies