In August 1883, taking advantage of the confusion following Tu Due’s death, a French fleet appeared at the mouth of the Perfume river, not far from Hue. Francois Harmand, a “native affairs” official aboard one of the vessels, threatened the Vietnamese with the “worst evils” unless they surrendered within forty-eight hours. “Imagine all that is terrible and it will still be less than reality,” he said. “The word ‘Vietnam’ will be erased from history.”
Before the Vietnamese could respond, the French warships opened fire, inflicting such heavy casualties that a chief mandarin emerged personally under a flag of truce to negotiate. Harmand, conducted to the court at Hue, dictated the French terms. He compelled Hiep Hoa to sign a treaty granting France a “protectorate” over all Vietnam with the exception of Cochinchina, already a French colony. Henceforth, the French would install officials and garrisons to exercise jurisdiction over the Vietnamese authorities, including the emperor. They would regulate Vietnam’s commerce, collect its customs duties, assure its defense and manage its foreign relations. In short, as Delafosse had predicted, Vietnam had become an outright French possession. Also, as Harmand had declared in his ultimatum, the name “Vietnam” ceased to exist—at least in French and other Western documents. Divided administratively, the country now comprised three zones— Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina—and its people were referred to as Annamites, a term many themselves soon adopted. But the French conquest, though completed on paper, was not finished in fact. Pro¬testing against the imposed pact, China sent troops into Tonkin, partly to aid its Vietnamese proteges but also to annex a portion of the area. Soon France and China were at war in Vietnam.
By the end of 1883, the French had more than twenty thousand men in Tonkin, with Admiral Amédée Anatole Prosper Courbet in charge and three generals each commanding a contingent. Their of¬fensive prefigured the French campaign against the Vietminh two generations later. Spreading north from Hanoi, one column marched up the Red River valley to rout the Chinese at Sontay, while another captured Thai Nguyen and a third took Tuyen Quang, clearing the Black River region. They gave no quarter. One of the French generals, refusing to regard his Chinese and Vietnamese foes as regulars, be¬headed all his prisoners as “rebels.”
The fighting dragged on for more than a year, even stretching beyond Vietnam. In early 1885, after a fragile accord between France and China collapsed, a French naval squadron under Admiral Courbet bombarded the Chinese coastal city of Fuzhou and then attacked Kee- lung, a port on the island of Taiwan. The Chinese, their own regime foundering, sued for peace. But other events retarded an agreement.
The French had inched north through a fantastic landscape of sharp limestone hills to occupy Langson, a town strategically situated near the border of China. On March 28, 1885, the Chinese wounded the French general in command while he was out on a reconnaissance mission. A Colonel Herbinger, drunk at the time, thought in his stupor that the enemy had launched a massive attack. He ordered the French force to abandon the town, leave its equipment behind and flee to the mountains. News of the devastating “defeat” shook Paris.
Facing parliament two days later, Prime Minister Ferry called for the sum of two hundred million more francs to support tne military effort in Indochina. But the mood of the legislature had changed since his success at raising funds two years earlier. The struggle now seemed to offer no end. Clemenceau, more eloquent than ever, accused Ferry of “high treason” for bogging France down in Vietnam; his address foreshadowed speeches that French politicians were to hear, under similar circumstances, sixty years later. His words strangely resembled a private warning that deputy Secretary of State George Ball would send to Lyndon Johnson in 1965: “When our soldiers are again threat¬ened, as they are today, we will be asked for more money and more men. We will not be able to refuse. And millions upon millions, fresh troops on top of fresh troops will lead to our exhaustion. Gentlemen, we must block this route.”
Stirred by Clemenceau’s criticism, parliament rejected Ferry’s re¬quest and ousted his cabinet—leaving him with the nickname Ferry- the-Tonkinese. By coincidence, the Chinese agreed to recognize France’s protectorate over Vietnam in order to preserve their own territory, then being sliced up by the European powers. China’s sub¬mission revived the imperialist momentum in Paris, and the French forces in Vietnam again intensified their conquest. An incident that occurred at Hue during the summer of 1885 exemplified their renewed ferocity.
Ton That Thuyet, a nationalistic adviser to the thirteen-year-old emperor, Ham Nghi, had objected to French activities in Tonkin, contending that they violated Vietnam’s treaty with France. Apprised of the complaint, Foreign Minister Charles de Freycinet, a determined imperialist, decided to “punish” Thuyet. He instructed General Rous¬sel de Courcy, now the French commander in Tonkin, to stage a “military demonstration” unless the dissident mandarin resigned. Roussel thereupon encircled the palace at Hue with a thousand troops and demanded an audience with the boy ruler. Thuyet recklessly or¬dered an attack against the French, who replied with an orgy of killing and looting that surpassed the notorious sack of the Summer Palace in Beijing by British soldiers under Lord Elgin twenty-five years be¬fore. Over three days, according to a French account, French troops burned the Vietnamese imperial library, with its ancient scrolls and manuscripts, and they stripped the palace of gold and silver ornaments, precious stones, carpets, silk curtains, statuary and even mosquito nets, cuspidors and toothpicks, the total valued at some twenty-four million francs.
Ham Nghi, accompanied by Thuyet, fled from his capital to the highlands of Laos, and the French supplanted him with a more docile prince, Dong Khanh. Escaping with the imperial seal as well as the deposed emperor himself, Thuyet organized an opposition movement based on Ham Nghi’s legitimacy. The former ruler, betrayed by Hmong mountaineers, was captured and exiled, but the Vietnamese resistance continued past the end of the century, plaguing the French nearly everywhere. “We have no friends,” noted a ranking French colonial official at the time. “Not even the courtiers surrounding the emperor, our creature, favor us.”
The French tightened their hold, assigning civilian agents and sol¬diers everywhere. In 1887, they created the Indochinese Union, com¬posed of Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin and Cambodia, adding Laos to the cohesive administrative structure six years later. Even so, there remained the prolonged task of “pacification”—a term that would be applied to similar French and American endeavors decades afterward.
That effort would be accomplished by “acts ofincredible brutality,” as a French civilian governor of the period, Jean-Marie Antoine de Lanessan, recalled. But the French colonial experience would also open Vietnam to Western ideas that, along with the violence and repression and humiliation, rekindled Vietnamese nationalism.