French colonization of Vietnam began during a period in the mid 1800s under the justification that French Catholic missionaries in Vietnam needed more protection. Seeking a foothold in the region, the French increasingly intervened in affairs pertaining to missionaries and the Nguyen Dynasty.
A series of surprise attacks by French troops in 1859 including the capture of Saigon, resulted in the French acquisitions of Bien Hoa, Gia Djnh and Djnh Tuong. By 1863 the French had expanded its colonial holdings to include Cambodia, Cochinchina, Annam, Tokin, Chau Doc, Vinh Long and Ha Tien. Laos was added in 1893 after the Franco-Siamese War. These territories would be formally established as so-called "French Indochina" in 1887.
The French colonial project in Vietnam moved forward with the most disgusting forms of exploitation and enslavement. Enormous swaths of land were converted into rice and rubber plantations on which millions of Vietnamese people were forced to work. French factories and mines housed the most miserable working conditions. Worker salaries were extremely meager and some were only paid with rice. The "corvee" required other male peasant farmers who did not work on plantations to provide 30 days of unpaid labor building colonial buildings and infrastructure. Corporal punishment was a common practice used by French overseers to inspire workers to work faster.
The most infamous plantations were those owned by the French rubber tire company Michelin Tires. It was reported that within a twenty year period from 1919 to 1938 there was at least 17,000 reported deaths on Michelin plantations in Vietnam, an average of 850 deaths per year. The colonizers also used large amounts of land to grow and export opium. The opium market proved very profitable for French administrators and by the 1930s more than 80 tons of opium was produced by plantations per year. Opium became a tool of sedation used to control the Vietnamese people.
A political climate began brewing in opposition to French colonialism in the early 20th Century. The writings of Vietnamese nationalist such as Phan Chu Trinh and Phan Boi Chau strongly opposed the French colonial regime. Pro nationalist quoc ngu (Vietnamese writings) pamphlets and publications became popular. Many of these publications remained underground as the colonial administration enforced harsher policies prohibiting pro nationalist propaganda. As WWI broke out, there were numerous anti-colonial revolts in Cochinchina, Annam, and Tokin. One of the most important was the Thai Nguyen uprising, in which over 300 Vietnamese soldiers revolted and retook the town of Thai Nguyen for several days until the French authorities recaptured the city.
During the war, many Vietnamese nationalist were members of the French Communist Party including one Nguyen Sinh Cung, who would later be known as Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese Marxist community remained underground until the late 1920s, forging relationships with Chinese and Soviet supporters. By February of 1930 the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) was formed. The ICP was a unification of splintered Communist groups in Tokin, Cochinchina, and Annam, all of which demanded the overthrow of French imperialism. The ICP was the precursor to what would become the Viet Minh.
Japan began it's invasion of Vietnam in 1940 in the midst of WWII. The German military had defeated the French and began the military occupation of the northern France. The French puppet government that was established, which historians often called "Vichy France," was completely beholden to Nazi Germany. Not only were French forces in Indochina severely weakened prior to Japan's invasion, but the Vichy government was forced to cede control of Hanoi and Saigon to Japan in 1941.
Ho Chi Minh returned from exile in China in to Pac Bo in January of 1941. He returned as the Vietnamese people were confronted with two occupiers: Japan and the French colonizers. In conjunction with the ICP, Minh formed the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (Vietnam Independence League) or Viet Minh on May 19, 1941.
Although the Viet Minh was initially formed around Communist politics, it was not an explicitly Communist organization. Instead, it was its nationalist and anti-imperialist leanings that most defined it. Ho Chi Minh himself made an effort to establish the Viet Minh as an organization that was open to all Vietnamese people, regardless of their political beliefs. The Viet Minh called for all of it's people, soldiers, workers, peasants, intellectuals, merchants, youth, to fight against French colonialism and Japanese imperialism.
In 1943, a Viet Minh guerrilla army began to infiltrate Vietnam in order to repel Japanese forces. Viet Minh forces liberated large areas of northern Vietnam from Japanese control. In light of Perl Harbor, The United States took the opportunity to support the Viet Minh in its fighting against the Japanese forces.The Viet Minh also enjoyed the support of the Soviet Union and Chinese Communist groups.
Under Ho Chi Minh, the guerrillas captured Hanoi. By August, 1945, Japan had surrendered to Allied forces. The Viet Minh took the opportunity to seize power and declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi, with Ho Chi Minh as its president.
The French however did not want to let go of Indochina and refused to recognize an independent Vietnam. By September of 1945 the French had already began reestablishing its colonial administration. With the help of British troops, the French took control of several Japanese-held administrative buildings. The United States would refuse to help the Viet Minh struggle against the French, mainly because of the U.S. relationship with France and its disillusionment with Communist influence in the region.
By 1946 French colonial control was restored and the French-Indochina War had began between the Viet Minh guerrillas and the French aided by the British. Many of the Japanese soldiers who were left after Japan's defeat sided with the guerrillas in the fight to liberate Vietnam. The war went on for eight years until the legendary Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, in which the French were finally defeated.
However, the subsequent negotiations at the International Geneva Conference did not eject the French, but instead divided Vietnam in two. Northern Vietnam was to go to the Viet Minh and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. South Vietnam was to go to the puppet Emperor Bao Dai. U.S. backed Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem removed Dai in 1955 and became president of South Vietnam.
All the ingredients were in place for another conflict: The Vietnam War. South Vietnam was essentially made into a Western satellite in an attempt to stop Communist expansion. Once the South Vietnamese government failed to hold elections, Viet Minh guerrillas were activated to liberate the remaining half of the country from Western rule.