Early Nationalist Movements
Vietnamese nationalism against the French appeared in the early twentieth century. At the Versailles Peace Conference, Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese socialist activist living in France at the time, submitted eight demands to the French, which included representation in the French parliament, freedom of speech, and release of political prisoners. Nationalist and communist organizations sprang up when France ignored these demands.
The French installed Bao Dai as the Vietnamese Emperor in 1926 to counter these movements. Many of the new nationalist and Communist movements in Vietnam were urban-based militant insurgencies, and none met with much success. However, the movements did create several enduring organizations, including the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (VNQDD), formed in 1927, and the Indochinese Communist Party (PCI), founded in 1930 by Ho Chi Minh himself.
The August Revolution and DRV
In August 1945, near the end of the war and with Japan's attention completely diverted, the Viet Minh conquered Hanoi in what became known as the August Revolution. Emperor Bao Dai abdicated his throne in late August, and just a week later, on September 2, the Japanese signed a formal surrender to end World War II.
Later in 1945, Ho wrote a number of letters to Harry S Truman, the U.S. president, appealing for official U.S. recognition of the DRV. However, the United States was becoming embroiled in postwar tension with the Soviet Union—tension that would quickly escalate into the Cold War. Wary of Ho's Communist leanings, the United States refused his request, denounced him, and offered to help the French. Within a year, American ships were transporting French troops into Vietnam.
One of the things that made the Vietnam War so morally confusing for Americans was the fact that the Viet Minh were both nationalists and Communist. Americans, brought up extolling the glory of the freedom fighters of the American Revolution, generally viewed nationalism and self- determination as a good thing. In this light, Ho Chi Minh's courageous fight against French imperialism seemed heroic. However, as the United States was a capitalist country that at the time was engaged in a paranoid ideological battle with the Communist USSR, Americans also were concerned with and frightened by Ho's socialist beliefs.
Importance of the Viet Minh
Although a number of Vietnamese groups engaged in several separate nationalist initiatives against the French, only the Viet Minh finally hit on the right formula. The Viet Minh leadership was remarkably experienced, its abilities honed by a lifetime of conflicts opposing France and then reinforced by the struggle against the Japanese in World War II. The fight against Japan also helped the Viet Minh become enormously popular among the Vietnamese people.
The brilliant tactician Ho Chi Minh perfectly surveyed the political situation during World War II, playing upon the United States' anti-Japanese priorities in order to obtain weapons and supplies that would help the Viet Minh establish a northern power base. Thus, the early successes of the Viet Minh were ironically accomplished via U.S. support.
The Geneva Conference
The defeat at Dien Bien Phu humiliated the French and turned the tide of French public opinion against the war. The French government, wanting to end the fighting, organized the Geneva Conference, which lasted until July 1954. At the conference, diplomats from France, Vietnam, the United States, the USSR, Britain, China, Laos, and Cambodia declared a cease-fire and decided to split Vietnam officially at the 17th parallel, into Communist-controlled North Vietnam (under Ho and the Viet Minh) and South Vietnam (under Bao Dai).
The Geneva Accords, as these agreements were called, also required French withdrawal from North Vietnam and Viet Minh withdrawal from South Vietnam. The accords also promised reunification of Vietnam after free elections, which were to be to be held by July 1956. As it turned out, these elections were never held.