Vietnam's long history of struggle

By Nguyen The Phiet

The author is the Vietnamese consul general in Sydney. This is an edited and abridged version of a talk given to an educational conference of the Australian Democratic Socialist Perspective in January 2005.

I have been asked to present a brief account of our history and of our anti-French and anti-US struggles and the important factors that made our struggles victorious, particularly those factors which I think are still relevant in our efforts for national defence and construction of our socialist homeland.

Vietnam has an age-old history. The ancient Viet, the ancestors of the presentday Vietnamese, and several other ethnic groups settled in Vietnam's territory right from the dawn of humankind. They explored and conquered nature to survive and develop. Over thousands of years of nation building, they had to fight continuously against foreign invaders and foiled invaders' attempts to assimilate this nation.

Vietnam has a history of building and safeguarding the country for thousands of years. This history can be divided into the following periods:

  • The Stone Age, from 400,000 BC to 3000 years BC.
  • The Iron Age, famous for 18 generations of Hung kings ruling the state of Van Lang, which lasted for dozens of centuries
  • The period of Chinese domination, from the year 111 BC to 938 AD, when Ngo Quyen wrested back national independence.
  • The period of forming and building independent centralised feudal dynasties, from 938 to 1884.
  • The period of French domination and the dissolution of centralised feudal power, 1884-1945.
  • The period of independence and the antiFrench resistance war, 1945-1954.
  • The period of anti-US resistance war, the complete liberation of southern Vietnam and unification of the whole country, 1954-1975.
  • The period of national construction and development, economic renovation from 1975 to the present.

According to our legends, the Vietnamese are the children of a fairy and a dragon. One day, the fairy gave birth to 100 eggs and later 100 children. Fifty children went to the sea; the rest went to the mountains, and these children formed into 100 Viet groups.

Legend has it that the first state of the Vietnamese inhabitants was formed in the Bronze Age under the Dong Son culture. The Hung kings ruled this state for tens of centuries.

From the second century BC, in the year 111, our country, at that time called Au Lac, was invaded by Han aggressors. Successively, after that, Vietnam was occupied and ruled by Chinese feudal dynasties until the year 938.

Throughout ten centuries living under Chinese domination, the Vietnamese people frequently rose up in arms against the oppressors. Some insurrections and uprisings were successful, leading to the regaining of national independence, but not for long.

In 40-43 AD, an insurrection led by the two sisters Trung Trac and Trung Nhi in Hanoi against the Han governor, To Dinh, and his troops was successful, but three years later it was suppressed by General Ma Yuan, who led 200,000 Han troops to reinvade the country .

In 248 AD in Thanh Hoa province in the north of Vietnam, an uprising was led by a lady called Trieu Thi Trinh, but the uprising lasted for only a short period and ended in failure.

Up until the year 938, there were numerous insurrections and uprisings against the Chinese invaders, but only in that year did an uprising, led by General Ngo Quyen, bring about success at the battle of Bach Dang, ending more than 1000 years of Chinese domination and ushering in a new era of independence for a Vietnamese state called Dai Viet.

In December 938, General Ngo Quyen ordered his troops to drive irontipped stakes into the riverbed in the Bach Dang estuary (Haiphong port). At high tide, Vietnamese vessels lured the fighting ships of the southern Han invaders into the estuary beyond the stakes, which were still covered by water. At low tide, the Vietnamese fleet launched counterattacks on the Chinese ships, and as a result, the enemy ships were impaled on the barrage of stakes and sank. The southern Han general, Hong Cao, was killed and the southern Han king had to withdraw his invading forces.

From 938 to 1884, Vietnam was ruled by successive feudal Vietnamese dynasties, but we continued to face foreign invasion intermittently.

In 1077, the Ly dynasty faced an invasion by the Song army, and our General Ly Thuong Kiet led an army to defeat 100,000 troops of the Song army at a battle on the Cau River (north of present-day Hanoi).

During the Tran dynasty from 1225 to 1400, Vietnam faced three invasions from the north: one in 1258, another in 1285 and the third in 1288. The third invasion was the greatest battle; under the leadership of General Tran Quoc Tuan, the Vietnamese army crushed 500,000 Mongol-Yuan troops with clever tactics on the Bach Dang River to ensure the nation's independence. Through history textbooks, you might know how strong and cruel the Mongol army was. They conquered Europe, they conquered China, but they were defeated ignominiously when they set foot in Vietnam.

In the year 1406, the Ming dynasty in China sent 800,000 troops to invade Vietnam. They occupied our country until 1428. An insurrection started in 1418, and after ten years of arduous struggle, it ended in victory and the country was liberated.

The last war of independence conducted by a Vietnamese feudal dynasty before Vietnam came under French occupation and domination was in 1788. The Vietnamese troops, led by a general-turned-emperor named Nguyen Quang Trung defeated the 290,000-strong army of the Qing dynasty in a battle in Hanoi, recording a glorious page in the history of the Vietnamese people. After the victory, Emperor Quang Trung managed to normalise relations with the Qing emperor in China. In 1792, Quang Trung sent an envoy to China to request the emperor of China to give him one of his princesses in marriage. The Chinese Qing emperor consented to give the emperor of Vietnam his daughter and also consented to give him Quangxi province as part of the dowry . But the royal marriage did not materialise due to the sudden death of the Vietnamese emperor.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the colonialist forces of the West began to nurture aggressive schemes against Vietnam. In 1858, warships of the French expeditionary corps pounded Dang Nang port, initiating the French colonial invasion of Vietnam. Patriotic resistance was put up against the French colonisers by mandarins of the successive Nguyen dynasties. But after more than twenty years of resistance, the last Nguyen dynasty surrendered to the French and was forced to sign the Paternotre Pact, with which Vietnam became a semi-feudal colony of France.

From 1884, Vietnam came under French occupation and domination. During the domination, the French implemented a policy of absolute autocracy, suppressing the Vietnamese patriotic movements in cold blood.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Western ideas of bourgeois democracy began to be propagated in Vietnam. The reformist policies of the Meiji in Japan (as of 1868), the reformist ideas and the Chinese 1911 revolution led by Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925) had some influence on the Vietnamese revolutionary movements, attracting many Confucian scholars to form some trends intended to wrest independence from the French. The patriotic movements and the uprisings spanned more than seventy years, from 1859 to 1930, but all ended in failure. Historians conclude that the country had sunk in slavery and oppression because resistance had not been guided by a sound and scientific revolutionary line or strategy.

When the revolutionary movements of Vietnam faced a dead end, the coming to the political scene of our great and ingenious leader Nguyen Ai Quoc [Ho Chi Minh] completely changed the situation. After founding the Communist Party of Vietnam (February 3, 1930), Nguyen Ai Quoc led the Vietnamese revolution through hardships and trials and through national uprisings and insurrections to the seizure of power and final success. On September 2, 1945, in Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi, hundreds of thousands of citizens of Hanoi and surrounding areas gathered in a mammoth meeting. President Ho Chi Minh, on behalf of the provisional government, read out the Declaration of Independence, giving birth to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The August Revolution of 1945 succeeded but the country had been seriously devastated by the war, and the economy was poor and backward. Reactionary political forces strongly resisted and undermined the young revolutionary government. We faced not only domestic adversaries but also hostile foreign forces inside the country. In accordance with the decisions of the Potsdam Conference (July 1945), the Allied forces were to enter Vietnam to disarm the Japanese fascist forces. In the north of Vietnam, we faced 200,000 troops of Chiang Kai-shek, in the south more than 100,000 British troops, behind which French troops returned. The British troops, as soon as they set foot in the south, released Japanese and French prisoners. Relying on the British forces, the French provoked hostilities and reoccupied Laos and Cambodia. And on December 19, 1946, our President Ho Chi Minh appealed to the whole country to wage a resistance war against the French aggressors. The anti-French resistance war culminated in the Dien Bien Phu campaign, which the party decided to launch on December 6, 1953. The Dien Bien Phu battle started on March 13,1954, and lasted 54 days, until May 7, 1954. It was under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap.

In the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, our army put out of action 21 battalions of infantry and paratroops and ten companies of puppet troops, in all 16,200 men. The number of officers killed or captured, from second lieutenant to major, totalled 353; that of noncommissioned officers totalled 1396, in all 1749. In all, 62 airplanes were brought down.

The victory of Dien Bien Phu carried great significance for the country and for the colonial peoples throughout the world: It was a great blow to colonialism, pushed it into decline and forced the French to sign the Geneva Accords on Indochina, by which peace was restored across all Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia on the basis of national sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity.

Dien Bien Phu taught us the lesson: "A small, weak nation and a people's army, once determined to stand up, unite and fight for independence and peace, are fully capable of defeating any aggressive force, even the imperialist power, France, aided by the Americans."

Under the Geneva Accords, Vietnam was temporarily divided into two zones with the seventeenth parallel as the demarcation line.

In the south on July 17, 1955, the US ousted the French and replaced puppet Emperor Bao Dai with puppet President Ngo Dinh Diem. From then on, South Vietnam became a colony of US neocolonialism. With full backing of the US, Ngo Dinh Diem concentrated his efforts on destroying and repressing the revolutionary movements of South Vietnam. Diem's army carried out sweep operations to wipe out and crack down on our people who were labelled Communists. On May 6, 1959, he promulgated the socalled Law 10/59, a fascist law to repress patriots, former resistance fighters, fighters for peace and party members. Within four years, nine out of ten party members in the south were killed or jailed. By the end of 1955, 466,000 people had been arrested, 400,000 imprisoned and 68,000 killed.

From then on, in the north we had peace while people in the south were still under the US puppet regime. The party and people were confronted with two tasks: building socialism, and liberating the south and reuniting the country. In the course of the anti-US patriotic war, we defeated various US strategies: special war, local war and then Vietnamisation.

On January 20, 1961, John Kennedy became the president of the US. He put forward a new strategy for the war in Vietnam called "special war". The backbone of this strategy was to disrupt the contacts between the people and the resistance forces. the US hoped to pacify south Vietnam completely within eighteen months. It intended to build 17,000 strategic hamlets in south Vietnam. To counter and destroy this special war, we had to urge our people to rise up and dismantle the hamlets. By late 1960, half of the 2627 strategic hamlets were destroyed. By the late 1964, the special war strategy in South Vietnam was defeated.

Confronted with the complete failure of the special war, the US authorities had to change to a new strategy. They chalked out a new war strategy called "local war". The core of this strategy was the direct participation of half a million US troops fighting along with those of the Saigon puppet regime and a number of US allies. As planned, 540,000 US troops and 72,000 allied troops were gradually brought into south Vietnam, and at the same time, in August, the US started to mount its bombing operations against the north. In 1965, US naval ships also started to attack north Vietnam.

To defeat the local war strategy, our party at the 11th and 12th sessions of the third term concluded that the introduction of US forces into south Vietnam did not change the nature of the war; therefore, the resistance was to continue and develop into a strategic offensive. In December 1967, our party Politbureau passed a resolution on a general offensive and uprising. That began with the Tet Mau Than general offensive and uprising, which evolved in three phases and lasted from January to August 1968. In all the offensives and uprisings, we attacked four out of five cities, 37 out of 42 townships and hundreds of small towns, wiping out 150,000 troops, including 40,000 US troops. With this general offensive and uprising, we defeated the US local war strategy and forced the US to accept negotiation with Vietnam as of May 13, 1968, and cease the bombing of north Vietnam from November 1968. As a result of the local war defeat, President Johnson did not run for a second term as president.

When Richard Nixon became the president of the US in January 1969, he put forward the new war plan called "Vietnamisation". The main content of this strategy was to use Vietnamese to fight Vietnamese, to pacify rural areas and to attack Vietnam from its rear (Cambodia and Laos) in order to disrupt supplies from the north to the south.

In order to defeat the new US strategy, through various party plenums, we set out the task of grabbing opportunities and strengthening military, political and diplomatic offensives so as to persist in waging the resistance war until final victory, to unite and coordinate with fraternal armies and peoples of Laos and Cambodia to foil the Nixon doctrine.

With these guidelines, the southern Vietnam liberation forces in March 1972 launched the spring-summer offensive throughout Vietnam. The offensive was a great success: 300,000 enemy troops were annihilated and disintegrated; 50 per cent of enemy divisions and 65 per cent infantry regiments took heavy losses; 2200 out of 9000 enemy posts were destroyed; four million more people were liberated, bringing the population of liberated zones to 11 million (most of them lived in rural areas).

Having suffered failure on the battlefield, in order to put pressure on our government at the Paris peace talks, the US launched strategic B-52 bombing raids against Hanoi and Haiphong over twelve days and nights from December 18 to 30, 1972, which the world public opinion and we called the Dien Bien Phu of the air. But our armed forces and people resisted valiantly and in the course of these raids, thirty-four B-52 strategic bombers—one-fourth of all US strategic bombers—five F111A, twenty-one F40-E, four A6A, twelve A7, one F105D and one unmanned reconnaissance aircraft were shot down. Many US pilots were killed or captured.

With the resounding Dien Bien Phu of the air victory, the US was forced to stop the bombing of north Vietnam, return to the negotiating table and eventually sign the Paris Agreement on January 27, 1973.

The signing of the Paris Agreement made the US strategy of Vietnamisation of the war a complete failure, compelling the US to recognise the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in accordance with international law and completely pull out its troops from south Vietnam.

Also, with the signing of the Paris Agreement, the Vietnamese party and people had fulfilled half of what our President Ho Chi Minh had told us to implement: that is, to fight to drive the US troops out of Vietnam and to fight to bring down the reactionary puppet regime. Therefore the next stage of our revolution was to fight to liberate completely the south of Vietnam.

In October 1974 and January 1975, at our party Politbureau meetings, we saw that the opportunity had come to liberate our country completely and decided to launch the spring 1975 general offensive from March 10. That offensive lasted until April 30, 1975, the victorious final day of the campaign.

The war ended, but its consequences were quite heavy. the US Air Force had dropped 7,856,000 tons of bombs on Vietnamese soil, equal to 640 atomic bombs like that dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II. the US had sprayed over south Vietnam 451,260 tons of defoliants containing dioxin and 338,000 tons of napalm bombs—ten times more than the quantity used in the Korean War and 2.5 times more than in World War II. Some 3,777,000 land mines were laid, which killed nearly three million people and crippled nearly three million more. Hundreds of thousands of children have been born deformed. The war also left more than three million people jobless, more than one million soldiers and functionaries of the Saigon administration, 270,000 wounded or invalid soldiers of the former regime, 10,000 criminals, 500,000 prostitutes and 200,000 drug addicts.

In the north, all cities and towns were bombed, of which twelve large towns and fiftytwo small towns were completely destroyed; 4000 out of 5788 communes were raided from the air, of which 30 were completely razed. All industrial zones were devastated, many of them completely wiped out. All power plants were seriously damaged. Five million square metres of residential houses were reduced to rubble. All railway lines, all bridges, all sea and river ports and store houses were bombed. One thousand six hundred irrigation works were destroyed, and 40,000 draught animals were killed. Three thousand schools were destroyed; 350 hospitals were bombed, ten razed. US bombs and toxic chemicals destroyed 5 million hectares of forest.

From 1975 to the present has been a period of national reconstruction and development. But during this period, we also had to cope with some difficulties on our southwestern border with Cambodia and with China until the end of the 1980s.