The Anti-Colonial Cold War

Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle did not end after Ho Chi Minh declared independence in 1945. During the historical period of the Cold War, the French government was determined to restore their rule over Vietnam to continue to exploit the country. Because Vietnam fought the French on the ground but received foreign aid from other communist nations, the Vietnamese people saw their struggle primarily as a nationalist, anti-colonial struggle and part of the larger Cold War. Within the borders of Vietnam, it was a nationalist movement against France.

The Vietnam Declaration of Independence “hoped to persuade U.S. leaders to embrace the newly proclaimed Vietnamese state” because they used America’s Declaration of Independence as a template.[1] Not only did Vietnam try to persuade the United States they were capable of self-rule, but also the French by using principals the citizens of each respective country held dear. Ho Chi Minh listed French violations against the Vietnamese people in his Declaration of Independence. For example, “In the fields of economics, they have fleeced us to the backbone, impoverished our people, and devastated our land.”[2] Because the Vietnamese people no longer tolerated French control, it motivated their fight against their previous colonial master who exploited them.

The direct impact of the war was between the colonialists and colonizers. In the beginning, France was “vastly superior in arms and mobility.”[3] They had control over numerous cities, however, the Vietnamese also asserted their authority. Originally, Ho Chi Minh “tried to flatter the French into peaceful decolonization” and negotiate sovereignty rather than embark on a war.[4] This direct communication between former colonist and empire is an example of Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle. These agreements “accomplished nothing” and the Vietnamese army prepared for action.[5] For instance, Vietnam “garnered broad support in the countryside, where the brutality of French military operations deepened old anti-colonial anger.”[6] The Vietnamese people’s nationalistic pride instigated their use of guerrilla warfare tactics to drive out the French. Additionally, the Viet Minh influence deepened in many villages to muster up supplies and motivate activists to spread their ideologies to support the anti-colonial Vietnamese war effort.[7]

In regard to Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence, the U.S. ultimately “ignored the appeal.”[8] Although America supported self-determination and independence movements they were hypocritical in thinking the “Vietnamese and other nonwhite peoples around the world lacked the ability to govern themselves.”[9] Therefore the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) leaders turned elsewhere to play on the tensions of the Cold War. While Vietnam’s declaration does not mention the association with communism as the way forward, the country drew on communist ideology once the Indochina war reached a stalemate. Before one can understand Vietnam’s struggle in this context, one must understand the background of the Cold War.

The cold war was a rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union in conflict over the spread of communism. The French empire tried to internationalize the Indochina war because of their lack of resources as “France could keep fighting, the government concluded, only if it obtained help from abroad.”[10] France did not convince their allies the war was a conflict of colonialism versus nationalism, rather a motion to stop the spread of communism. This ideology aligned with America’s containment policy and belief in the domino theory, which contributed to their reasoning behind providing aid to France. When the two combatants sought foreign aid, it marked the Indochina war as part of the Cold War in a larger context.

The involved nations who were proponents of communism nations expanded the Indochina war within the Cold War context. Although the ordinary Vietnamese citizen did not understand why they fought Americans, the Viet Minh leaders understood their role in the broader context of the Cold War. France primarily viewed the Indochina war “as a campaign to preserve colonial prerogatives,” but they manipulated America into viewing the conflict in relation to the Cold War.[11] Alden Pyle’s romantic love for Phuong from The Quiet American symbolically illustrates the United States’ involvement. His desire to physically move Phuong to live with him in America is a metaphor for removing the Vietnamese people from communist rule.[12] In conjunction with France, Vietnam also “appealed anew for foreign assistance.”[13] This marked the beginning of their participation in the Cold War on a broader scale. For instance, the Soviet Union concluded by aiding Vietnam their intervention in the war would “serve their most urgent geostrategic priorities.”[14] In addition, China wished to “consolidate communist rule” by assisting Vietnam.[15] Vietnam realized “their nation’s fate was determined by others,” so they “learned to exploit international tensions to advance their cause.”[16] This raises questions as to whether Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist or communist. He advocated for self-government from French, yet held onto communist beliefs. In the context of the Cold War, the Vietnamese leaders used nationalism tactics as a way to advance the ideology of communism.

The Siege of Dien Bien Phu was both an anti-colonial struggle and part of the Cold War context. In terms of a nationalist struggle, the Vietnamese people engaged French forces directly in a major battle. Of course the success of Vietnam’s “massive assault against the [French] base”[17] would not have been possible without the aid of “Soviet-made artillery and other equipment.”[18] This Siege is an example of the blend between nationalist struggle within the Cold War context as Vietnam received communist foreign aid, but the weapons utilized was a direct attack against their previous colonial masters.

Because of the success of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam became closer to unification. The allies of Vietnam and France viewed their involvement as a proxy war. However, the Vietnamese people perceived their struggle primarily as both a nationalist, anti-colonial struggle and part of the larger Cold War. This is due to the casualties being of both colonists and colonial masters and foreign aid they received from communist countries, which marked their participation in the Cold War.


[1] Mark Atwood Lawrence, “Chapter 2: Colonialism and Cold War,” in The Vietnam War – A Concise International History, (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 27.

[2] Walter D. Ward and Denis Gainty, Sources of World Societies: Volume 2: Since 1450 (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012), 378.

[3] Lawrence, 33.

[4] Norman G. Owen, The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia: A New History. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 344.

[5] Lawrence, 32.

[6] Ibid., 33.

[7] Ibid., 34.

[8] Ibid., 27.

[9] Ibid., 30.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Ibid., 41.

[12] The Quiet American, directed by Phillip Noyce (2002; Burbank, CA: Miramax Home Entertainment, 2003), DVD.

[13] Lawrence, 35.

[14] Ibid., 36.

[15] Ibid., 38.

[16] Ibid., 28.

[17] Ibid., 44.

[18] Ibid., 45.

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