William Duiker describes the August Revolution in Vietnam (1945) as ‘a victory under false pretences’. In my revision for the topic, the exam for which is tomorrow, it stuck me odd that the role of the British Empire is put in a box in the modern age.
There are echoes of the Empire everywhere, whether it is in Britain itself (multiculturalism stemmed from the Empire) , other countries – India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – to name a few. Of course, there are slightly worse areas (in comparison to Britain today) such as some of the South African nations.
The thing is, this isn’t just British history, it’s world history. The British Empire spanned over a third of the globe, and that’s pretty impressive. No other country has managed that feat, let alone a small island just off Europe. The origins of the Empire did not start as a plan for global conquest either, it begun through trade developments. Britain had made that all important transition from a net importer to a net exporter country (if my understanding is correct), meaning that instead of importing raw materials, Britain was exporting materials for profit. In doing so, trading posts across the world traded with London. For all intents and purposes, Britain was the centre of the world.
Another echo of this in the modern-day is how the Western world refers to Iran, Iraq, Japan and China. The Middle East, Far East, these are terms that originated with the British Empire.
So, what has a brief history of the British Empire got to do with Duikers’ quote that the August Revolution was a ‘victory under false pretences’?
Here is the situation. You are the British and have fought the Second World War. The Empire is still at the heart of the people, the soldiers, and the nationalist consciousness has yet to arise. You are fighting alongside British Indian troops. You’ve just arrived in a country that has been invaded by the Japanese, where upon the plan is to de-arm them and restore colonial control to the French. However, you discover that the native people of the country have decided to declare their independence of the French and plan to run the country.
You do this: relate to the French cause, release and re-arm the Japanese, ally with them and help the French restore colonial control, thus beginning the restoration of the French Empire and negating the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. Admiral Gracie is attributed with saying something like ‘We are not here to interfere with local politics.’
Vietnam is a country steeped in modern history, of a modern struggle against colonial rule. The nationalistic consciousness had been strong in Vietnam, it had to be as the Vietnamese had been fighting the threat of Chinese expansion for a thousand years.
Whilst it’s not the only act that led to the Vietnamese Wars, the conflict that would involve the French, the Americans and a Vietnam divided, that first act of returning the colonial French certainly helped begin the conflict that would span 30 years, cost 58,000 US troops, and many more Vietnamese troops and civilians.
America lost the Vietnam War. It’s not surprising when you look at the smaller details, and the world context. More importantly, American action in Vietnam led to the world looking at America in a new light, an imperialistic one. Vietnam is generally considered America’s first imperial adventure. Of course, there are the plethora of conspiracy theories about the whole situation as well, but that is besides the point.