Vietnam Is Named a State

In a bid to preserve some degree of control over southern Vietnam, the French named Vietnam a state on March 8, 1949, and gave former Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai the position of head of state, hoping in part to slow the momentum that Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh had garnered.

Summary of Event

Almost a century after French colonialism began in Vietnam, the international tide turned against European domination in both Africa and Southeast Asia. Nationalistic movements in Vietnam were energized by the ideological prowess of Marxist-Leninist thinkers from Paris and the brotherhood of communists from China and the Soviet Union, both of which strengthened the movement away from colonialism. In March, 1949, less than four years after the Japanese surrendered to Ho Chi Minh and his followers, the French sought to preserve some semblance of authority in southern Vietnam by naming Vietnam a state. The state was formed under certain conditions: The French retained control of Vietnam’s foreign, defense, and trade policies. In 1945 they also selected Bao Dai, who abdicated rule under pressure from Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist group, the Viet Minh Anticolonial movements;Vietnam
Viet Minh , to serve as head of state of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh remained adamantly opposed to French involvement in Vietnamese affairs. He wanted his people to be free from all outside rule and therefore was determined to break French domination over Vietnam permanently. Indochina
Vietnam, independence of
Elysée Agreements
[kw]Vietnam Is Named a State (Mar. 8, 1949)
[kw]State, Vietnam Is Named a (Mar. 8, 1949)
Vietnam, independence of
Elysée Agreements
[g]Southeast Asia;Mar. 8, 1949: Vietnam Is Named a State[02890]
[g]Vietnam;Mar. 8, 1949: Vietnam Is Named a State[02890]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 8, 1949: Vietnam Is Named a State[02890]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Mar. 8, 1949: Vietnam Is Named a State[02890]
[c]Independence movements;Mar. 8, 1949: Vietnam Is Named a State[02890]
Doumer, Paul
Acheson, Dean
Ho Chi Minh
Bao Dai

Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam comprised Indochina under French rule. Vietnam—an elongated, narrow country that extends in a curving arc along the South China Sea from China to the Gulf of Thailand—contained three distinct regions: North, Central, and South Vietnam. Under French rule, these three areas were formally divided as three distinct states: Tonkin, Tonkin, Vietnam Annam, Annam, Vietnam and Cochin China. Cochinchina, Vietnam

French colonial policy was often brutal toward the Indochinese people. In the early twentieth century, the anguish caused by French governor-general Paul Doumer’s varying policies toward Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China was only heightened by the exorbitant taxes he imposed on the Vietnamese people. These taxes were so high that the Vietnamese were actually paying the French to subjugate them. Moreover, during this time land was taken from Vietnamese peasants and placed in French and Vietnamese landholds, coupled with landholds held by the Roman Catholic Church. Such flawed colonial policies, from irrational tax levels to the confiscation of private lands, fueled the nationalism that ultimately led to the resistance movement headed by Ho Chi Minh.

French rule of Indochina grew more trying for Vietnamese nationalists during World War II, World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Vietnam
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Indochinese campaign after France fell to the Germans in June, 1940. Japan Japanese-Vietnamese relations[Japanese Vietnamese relations] then pressured the French collaborationist Vichy government to grant it base rights in Vietnam and began storing war materials and military personnel in Indochina. A year later, Japan not only was warehousing military persons and goods in Indochina but also had coopted the colony as part of its military complex. Although Indochina remained a de facto colony of France (and therefore its administrative and official business was still French-run and French-controlled), the Vietnamese who sought liberation for their country now faced two foreign entities instead of one, and the strongest of the two had become Japan. Still, France would remain the focus of Vietnamese animus until the summer of 1945.

By early 1945, the Japanese feared a Free French effort to regain control of Vietnam. To stall such an event, the Japanese mounted a coup de main and placed all the Vietnam-based French forces in prisoner-of-war camps. Those who resisted were killed. In this new situation, the Japanese sought to establish a “free” Vietnamese state within their Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere, Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere[Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere] and on March 9, 1945, they installed Bao Dai as emperor of a united Vietnam, ending the conflict.

France’s weakness was dramatically demonstrated through Japanese nationalistic actions, and this strengthened Ho Chi Minh’s resolve to eradicate all foreign rule. Ultimately, rulers given the throne by the Japanese were no better than rulers given the throne by European powers, but Japan was too strong to be attacked by the Vietnamese nationalists in March, 1945, so Ho Chi Minh bode his time.

The last six months of World War II weakened the Japanese greatly. They were militarily emaciated as a result of the United States’ destruction of the Japanese merchant fleet and consequently unable to ship stores by sea. The Japanese soldiers were also physically weakened by their own government’s early 1945 policy of plowing under rice acreage to make room for the planting and cultivation of so-called industrial crops, such as jute, in order to help the war effort. It became evident that the cultivation of such industrial crops actually hurt the war effort, because they could not feed the war fighters. With the Japanese so weakened, Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh were able to occupy Hanoi and environs, filling a temporary vacuum of power until Nationalist Chinese armies arrived from China. Ho Chi Minh offered the Japanese the following terms: They could surrender or be slaughtered. The Japanese knew it was an offer Ho Chi Minh had the power to enforce.

With the Japanese defeated, Bao Dai gave way to the Viet Minh, resigning his office on August 23, 1945. During elaborate ceremonies in Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. There were still French soldiers and citizens in Vietnam, however, and France was not finished vying for control of the country. In 1946, France went to war against Ho Chi Minh in an attempt to defeat and destroy the Viet Minh and restore French colonial control. The First Indochina War, as it is called, lasted until 1954 and demonstrated not only the strength of Vietnamese nationalism but also the ever-growing ties between Ho Chi Minh and communists in both China and the Soviet Union.

With the waning of French public support for the seemingly endless war in Indochina, France sought a solution by resurrecting the recently deposed Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai. While not as articulate or magnetic as Ho Chi Minh, Bao Dai possessed a degree of legitimacy and respect as a result of his royal lineage. In Bao Dai, the French hoped to reestablish a Vietnamese government that would draw support away from Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Bao Dai had the added attraction for France and the West of being noncommunist.

Therefore, through the Elysée Agreements of March 8, 1949, the French named Vietnam a state within the French Union and named Bao Dai as head of state. The French government then ratified the agreements on February 2, 1950. Ultimately, the French believed that Bao Dai could be strong enough to weaken Ho Chi Minh, while remaining weak enough to pose no threats to France’s designs on Vietnam.


Naming Vietnam a state and Bao Dai head of state had significant ramifications, some negative and some positive. The fact that Ho Chi Minh grew more tenacious and France’s hold on Vietnam less certain during the Bao Dai “solution” was clearly bad for the French. On the other hand, the United States’ recognition of the state of Vietnam and the aid that followed was good for the French. In a memorandum dated February 2, 1950, U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson advised President Harry S. Truman that recognition of the newly formed state would further the foreign policy interests of the United States through the establishment and support of a noncommunist country to serve as a buffer between Communist China and its neighbors to the south. The United States recognized the government of Vietnam on February 7, 1950. Indochina
Vietnam, independence of
Elysée Agreements

Further Reading

  • Blum, Robert M. Drawing the Line: The Origin of the American Containment Policy in East Asia. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982. Drawn from official documents and policies during the years leading up to the Vietnam War, this book contains information lacking in other studies covering the same subject but drawn from nongovernment documents.
  • Honey, P. J. Genesis of a Tragedy: The Historical Background to the Vietnam War. London: East Benn, 1968. Provides a brief yet thorough overview of the history of Vietnam. Beginning almost two thousand years before the Vietnam War took place, Honey demonstrates the twists and turns, as well as the riches, of Vietnam and its history.
  • Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. The most widely available English book on Vietnam, offering a solid history through the post-Vietnam War era. Illustrated.
  • Marr, David. Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995. This book is the perfect compliment to Genesis of a Tragedy in that, instead of focusing on two millennia, it focuses on one year. Marr traces the historic events of 1945 and presents them to the reader in such a way that even a Vietnam War novice can see how Ho Chi Minh successfully wrested control from the colonizers.

Ho Chi Minh Organizes the Viet Minh

Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina

Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam

Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam

United States Sprays Agent Orange in Vietnam

Vietnamese Generals Overthrow Diem Regime

United States Enters the Vietnam War

Thieu Is Elected President of South Vietnam

Halberstam Reflects on American Involvement in Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest

United States Invades Cambodia