The Heritage of Vietnamese Nationalism 8

The emperors had forbidden rice exports so that surpluses could feed deficit areas or be stored for bad years. To the French, however, rice was a lucrative commodity, and by the eve of World War II they had made Indochina the world’s largest rice exporter after Burma and Thailand. But the commercial success paradoxically impoverished the peasantry. By expanding cultivated acreage to stimulate production, the French spurred land grabbing by French speculators and prominent Vietnamese families at the expense of the peasants. During the 1930s, an estimated 70 percent of Vietnam’s peasants either were tenants or farmed uneconomically small plots. The pressures of population growth aggravated their plight. Landless peasants suited Doumer; they could be employed in mines or on rubber plantations, or to build roads and railways.
As in colonial areas everywhere, profits in Vietnam depended on mobilizing cheap labor for mining, rubber, construction and other industries. Most of the companies, connected through interlocking directorates, were also linked to the Bank of Indochina, a financial colossus owned jointly by a consortium of Paris banks and the French government. French officials and private businessmen in Vietnam therefore cooperated closely, leaving no recourse for the Vietnamese to protest legally against exploitation. By no coincidence, one of the most sensational events of the 1920s was the murder by Vietnamese nationalists of Rene Bazin, a Frenchman who recruited workers through native agents in a manner reminiscent of the abduction of black slaves by African tribal chieftains.
Conditions in some sectors were appalling. Rubber, the second largest Vietnamese export after rice, was produced by virtually in¬dentured workers so blighted by malaria, dysentery and malnutrition that at one Michelin company plantation, twelve thousand out of forty-five thousand died between 1917 and 1944. The Hongay coal mines, whose output soared from a half million tons in 1913 to nearly two million tons in 1927, were situated in a self-contained enclave belonging to a syndicate, the Societe Frangaise des Charbonnages du Ton¬kin, which, as an American journalist reported at the time, owned “everything from the bowels of the earth to the slightest sprig of grass that may force its way through the coal dust.”
Doumer, who established the economic pattern that guided Indo¬china until the French departed in 1954, also built obsessively—opera houses, roads, railways and the extraordinary bridge across the Red River at Hanoi that bore his name until the Communists took over. But above all, he fulfilled his purpose: he put Indochina in the black, integrating it into the French economic order as an exclusive source of raw materials and a protected market for France’s merchandise. And, by relieving French taxpayers of the financial burden, he also reduced anticolonialism in France to a sentiment expressed by only a handful of eccentric intellectuals.
Later elected president of France—and assassinated while in office in 1932—Doumer was followed in Vietnam by liberals who recog¬nized the need for political reform but scored little progress. Even the prestigious Albert Sarraut, who periodically showed an understanding of Vietnamese aspirations, could not buck the powerful French busi¬ness interests that plundered Indochina. These primitive French cap¬italists drove Vietnamese nationalists to extremes. Vietnamese moderates were outpaced by the Communists, who became the most tenacious foes of colonialism. Ho Chi Minh personified the phenom¬enon. He might have been, like Gandhi, an apostle of passive resist¬ance. But French intransigence steered him toward violence.
Ho, originally named Nguyen Sinh Cung, was born in 1890 in a village of Nghe An province in central Vietnam, where shimmering green rice fields stretch from the sea to a hazy horizon of blue moun¬tains. His father, Nguyen Sinh Sac, a concubine’s son relegated to menial farm work, had risen to the rank of mandarin through assid¬uous study. But he quit the imperial court in Hue and, abandoning his wife and three children, roamed the country for the rest of his life as an itinerant teacher and medicine man. Ho inherited his father’s wanderlust on a grander scale; he traveled the world in solitude for decades, never married and rarely contacted his kin. The fate of Viet¬nam was his obsession, as he revealed in 1950 when, failing to attend his older brother’s funeral, he telegraphed relatives to beg forgiveness for having “sacrificed family feelings to state affairs.”
Vietnam still churned in dissidence during his youth. In 1907, the French removed the emperor, Thanh Thai, whose sexual fancies they had tolerated as long as he fulfilled his puppet role, and exiled him to the Indian Ocean island of Reunion—just as they would exile his uncooperative son, Duy Tan, a decade later. Tax revolts tore through central Vietnam in 1908, and Vietnamese auxiliaries in the French army mutinied unsuccessfully in Hanoi. Guerrillas continued to operate from mountain lairs, and nationalists like Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh spread their gospel. In Hue, young Ho was clashing pri¬vately with the French in the person of his schoolteacher, a veteran of the Foreign Legion who was avenging his past mistreatment at the hands of native partisans by tyrannizing his Vietnamese pupils.
Ho Chi Minh started his real education at nineteen, when he went south, where he taught for a few months at a village school. At the time he called himself Van Ba—ba being the Vietnamese term for “third child.” Early in 1911, in Saigon, he signed on as a stoker and galley boy aboard a French freighter, the Amiral Latouche Treville, bound for Europe. Thirty years were to pass before he saw Vietnam again.
The ship crossed the Indian Ocean, sailed through the Suez Canal and entered the Mediterranean, and Ho soaked up the sights at the ports along the way. After disembarking in Marseilles in September, he applied to the ministry of colonies for admittance to a government school that trained bureaucrats for France’s overseas possessions. “I am eager to learn and hope to serve France among my compatriots,” he wrote. The French police, who kept dossiers on foreigners—as they still do—described him in a slightly literary tone: “General ap¬pearance somewhat arched and awkward, his mouth constantly half¬open in a rather ingenuous smile.”

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