World War II – Occupation and Liberation
One of the first acts of the new French government that succeeded the fallen Popular Front coalition in August 1938 was to appoint General Georges Catroux governor-general of Indochina. The appointment of Catroux, the first military governor-general since civilian rule began in 1879, reflected the single greatest concern of the new government: defence of the homeland, defence of the empire. While the home government worried about the Nazi menace, Catroux’x anxieties centred on the Japanese, who had invaded China in July 1937 and were still fighting there. The capture of Canton in 1938 and the island of Hainan early the next year had brought Japan to Vietnam’s doorstep, but no closer to gaining a Chinese surrender. The Japanese were convinced that their difficulties in subduing the Chinese were caused by the supplies transported to the Chinese government over the railroads and highways of Tonkin.
When France entered World War II against Japan’s ally: Nazi Germany, in September 1939, the Japanese began a propaganda and diplomatic campaign against this French lifeline to the Chinese government. But as long as the French government stood, the Japanese were unwilling to risk in a war in Indochina what they might quickly gain if France were defeated by Germany. They bided their time.
In the spring of 1940 Nazi tanks rolled virtually unchallenged through western Europe, culminating in the capitulation of the French in June. The Nazis chose to occupy only the northern part of France and turned over the rest of the country to a puppet regime known as the Vichy government. Nominally the Vichy government remained in control of France’s colonial possessions; the Germans were unwilling to devote resources to the direct administration of territory vastly larger than France itself. To Britain, France’s former ally, and to a watchful America, this arrangement was the best that could be hoped for. At least France’s possessions had not fallen into enemy hands.
Japan Turns the Screw
The developments in Europe provided the Japanese with an opportunity in Southeast Asia. Scarcely had the ink dried on the Franco-German armistice in June 1940 then the Japanese vigorously renewed their demand that France ceases supplying the Chinese via Tonkin. While this ultimatum was being delivered to French officials in Hanoi, a Japanese diplomatic mission went to Berlin to gain German support for their move. The Germans stalled, the Vichy government stalled, but Catroux, in Hanoi, had to decide. Notified that he would receive no military aid from England or the United States, he capitulated, promising to cut the supply lines between Vietnam and China. The Japanese had won the first round.
In Vichy, Catroux’s decision was attacked. Vichy military leaders realized that he had no alternative but to give in. But they were angered that he had first approached the British, a move that subverted Vichy France’s cultivation of ties with Germany in Europe. Catroux was dismissed and replaced with the commander-in-chief of the French naval forces in Asia, Admiral Jean Decoux.
But the Japanese had only begun. In August they sent a second ultimatum demanding permission both to transport their own troops across Tonkin to China and to occupy French airfields. Admiral Decoux seemed to accept the new demands, but the Japanese quickly complained that he was not cooperating. Japan renewed its ultimatum in September Vichy France looked in vain to Germany to restrain its ally. The Nazis were concerned that a “yellow race might gain control of Indochina but were unwilling to endanger their alliance with Japan. Just as Decoux again capitulated, the Japanese struck, their troops pouring south across the Chinese border into Tonkin. Within three days French resistance was crushed. The French had learned their lesson-the~ could not defeat the Japanese in Indochina. Japan exacted permission to establish three airbases in Tonkin and to garrison Japanese troops on Vietnamese soil.
In the winter of 1940, the Japanese tried a different tack. They encouraged Thailand to invade French Indochina’s western flank, Cambodia. The Thai government sought to recover territory that it had lost to France in Cambodia and Laos in the early twentieth century. France could ill afford an extended war with Thailand and in March 1941 agreed to a Thai proposal that the Japanese arbitrate the dispute. Thailand received most of the contested territory but was forced to protect the rights of French citizens in the area. For itself, Japan secured a guarantee that ii would receive 80 percent of Indochina’s rice exports. The real winner, of course, was Japan. It could boast of being not only a “peacemaker” in Asia but also a protector of Asian nations fighting European domination.
Japan solidified control of Vietnam in July 1941. A month earlier Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. Berlin, urgently in need of Japan’s aid in this enormous undertaking, hoped that its ally would at-tack Russia’s Asian coast. To encourage the Japanese to declare war against the Soviet Union, the Nazis forced the puppet Vichy government to sign an accord for the “common defence” of Indochina.
Japan enters Saigon in July of 1941.
The Japanese now had a free hand in Indochina. They could station troops wherever they wanted. They could use the army and naval bases for their own military purposes. The Japanese could now even install their own police force. Vichy signed separate economic agreements that guaranteed to Japan virtually all of Vietnam’s rice, rubber, and mineral exports. In payment, the French received restricted Japanese yen, which could be spent only in Japan itself. The agreements did confirm France’s sovereignty in Indochina. But the French would share their sovereignty with the Japanese. Although French Indochina was not technically occupied by Japan, the two countries settled down to an uneasy joint control.
For Vietnamese Nationalists this joint control was an economic nightmare. The country’s wealth, long exploited by the French, was now bled dry by the Japanese in order to finance their all-out imperial military effort. But politically it provided an opportunity undreamed of five years earlier. The French and Japanese began to compete for the affection of the Vietnamese.
The “Policy of Regard”
The French left in control of most of the administration of the country instituted a new program, known as the “policy of regard.” Itself a biting critique of earlier French practices1 the new policy had as its centrepiece a prohibition of brutality against native Vietnamese. But the French went much further. Through propaganda, they reminded the Vietnamese of their own history, especially their long struggle against domination by Asian neighbours. French officials also increased the pay and prestige of native members of the bureaucracy, especially those residing in villages.
Most importantly, they began a wholesale European-style organization of the masses, in particular, the Vietnamese Youth Movement. It soon boasted more than 1 million members and represented a major break with the Vietnamese tradition that respected old age, not youth. Through the movement, an entire generation of Vietnamese gained a distinct sense of themselves. Nationalists, led by Communist agitation, soon dominated the youth movement. Most important of all, the youth members received an extensive paramilitary education, including training in the use of modern firearms. Unwittingly, the French were training a revolutionary army.
Still, eighty years of misrule proved to be too much to overcome. Despite their efforts, the French won few adherents to a continuation of their rule. Perhaps their most serious mistake was the importation of the Vichy legal system, a system that the new French government had itself borrowed from Nazi Germany.
Japan’s Vietnamese Friends
Japan’s limited presence in Vietnam inhibited its ability to compete with the French. The major arm of Japanese efforts was the Kampeitai, the Japanese secret police. Ostensibly brought to Vietnam to seek out agents of the Chinese, their real purpose was to support potential pro-Japanese nationalists and protect them from the French.
In 1941 the Japanese possessed no clear view of a future Indochina. Expecting to win the war, they certainly had no intention of permitting the French to remain after a Japanese victory. Nor was a truly independent Vietnam a part of their postwar planning. Vietnamese Nationalists who had hoped for early independence under Japanese protection were, like their counterparts elsewhere in Southeast Asia, bitterly disappointed. The Japanese were content to let France continue the financial burden of administering the colony.
But some Nationalists were willing to wait and place their future in Japanese hands. Prince Cuong De had lived for most of the 1930s in Japanese exile, hailing that country’s military advances. Many of his supporters from the Phan Boi Chan era worked with the Japanese in the hopes that the royal pretender would ultimately win the throne. More importantly, the Vietnamese religious sects, Cao Dai and the newer Hoa Hao proved to be willing collaborators.
The Hoa Hao sect had been founded by Huynh Phu So, whom the French called the “mad monk.” He was born in 1919 to a leading family in the village of Hoa Hao. A sickly youth, he had resisted all medical treatment until entering a monastery in 1939. There he received a “miraculous cure” and proceeded to found a new Buddhist sect. His oratorical skills, spiced with violent anti-French diatribes, soon won him a following of peasants numbering tens of thousands. In 1940 the French arrested him and placed him in a psychiatric hospital. when instead of responding to the treatment he converted his doctor, his fame and reputation spread.
The French then decided to exile him to remote northern Laos, but the Japanese secret police stepped in. Calling him a spy for China, they placed him under “house arrest” in Saigon, where he was able to receive his followers and direct the Hoa Hao movement. French protests to end the sham arrest were ignored. His followers grew to more than forty thousand, forming an army of potential use to the Japanese empire.
Japanese policy was to encourage groups like the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao that adhered to their “Asia for Asians” line, a propaganda policy calling for the elimination of western ideas and influence in Asia. The problem with this strategy was that the Japanese did not know what to do with their allies. They were unwilling to champion a popular uprising since they did not want to see a total breakdown of French rule. Instead, they merely collected potential allies. Naturally, their support gradually dwindled.
In 1943 and 1944 the Japanese government itself became alarmed at the extent of Kampeitai’s support for Vietnamese independence groups. Kampeitai activity was sharply curtailed, leaving the French free to crack down on the pro-Japanese groups. But was already too late. Increasingly anti-French, the’ Cao Dai and Hoa Hao were now too strong to eliminated by the colonial regime. With their strong roots in the peasantry, they emerged as the only groups capable of vying with the Communists to foil control of postwar Vietnam.
Vietnam and China – The Circle Dance Continues
While anti-French forces committed to traditional Asian philosophies were protected by Japan, pro-French forces in Vietnam prospered under the reformed colonial system. But Communists and other radically anti-French nationalist groups suffered under the repressive Vichy legal code. After 1940 they relied even more on their traditional sanctuary-southern China. The Vietnamese Nationalists had already found a home in China after their devastating defeat in 1930. Now, with Chinese Nationalists-the Kuomintang-and Communists agreeing to a truce in their civil war in order to fight the Japanese invasion, even Vietnamese Communists could operate freely in southern China.
With Japan established in Vietnam after the “agreements” of 1941, the Chinese government sought to create a united front among the Vietnamese anticolonialists in China. it hoped to convert this political force into an espionage network capable of providing accurate intelligence on Japanese troop movements. A truly effective Vietnamese national front, thought the Chinese leaders, might even be able to engage in guerrilla-style harassment of Japanese forces and supply lines in Vietnam.
The first step of the Chinese was to unite the Vietnamese Nationalists. In their China exile, the Nationalists had split into two groups, one based in Cantor the other in Yunnan Province. The Chinese established the Vietnam Liberation League in 1940, as a united front group and, indeed, it included members of the Communist party. Its leadership, however, w~ firmly in Nationalist hands. The Chinese Nationalists never felt completely comfortable with their own alliance with Chinese Communists, were anxious to support their ideological kin in Vietnam. Supported will Kuomintang funds, the league secured military training for over five hundred of its members.
The Nationalist-led Vietnam Liberation League, however, greatly disappointed its Chinese sponsor. Since 1930 the Nationalists had been little more than a minor emigre’ party with no real roots in Vietnam it sells. It lacked the contacts necessary to build a viable espionage network. Chinese military leaders in southern China became convinced by 1943 that they were simply throwing their money away. Almost ~ desperation they turned to the Communists.
By then, the Communist party had recovered from its defeats of 1940. After the remnants of the Communist party had regrouped in southern China in 1940, Nguyen Ai Quoc made two fateful decisions, concerning the future of the party. First, he realized that workers and peasants were not the only ones in. Interested in ending French rule. The weakness of France in protecting Vietnam against the Japanese had persuaded many from the middle class, including some landlords, to support the independence movement. Second, unlike the Nationalist leaders, Nguyen Ai Quoc refused to convert his party into ‘anmigre’ group based in China. Rather, he was convinced of the necessity of finding a secure base on Vietnamese soil itself. In late 1940 and early 1941 members of the party infiltrated Cao Bang Province along the Chinese border. Establishing ties with the mountain peoples of the area, the party made the village of Pac Bo their base of activities in Vietnam.
The Birth of the Vietminh
On May 10, 1941, the Vietnamese Communists daringly assembled on Vietnamese soil in the village of Pac Bo for their eighth party conference. For the first time since the founding of the party in February 1930, the plenum was chaired by Nguyen Ai Quoc. This meeting approved and implemented the new strategy developed by Nguyen, constructing a new party platform that eliminated the emphasis on workers’ organizations. Instead, the party’s goal would now be to organize all Vietnamese “whether workers, peasants, rich peasants, landlords, or native bourgeoisie, to work for the seizure of independence.” Accordingly, the party dropped its plans to redistribute the lands of all landlords and instead promised that only the lands of the French and their collaborators would be confiscated.
To organize all anticolonial forces a new organization was formed: the Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh (Vietnam Independence League). The league would become known to the world as the Vietminh. Within the Vietminh, various subgroups called National Salvation Associations were formed. The new associations included such traditional groups as students, peasants, workers, and women, and for the first time, a National Salvation Association of landlords and an association of intellectuals. Each association was to be developed at the village level, headed by democratically elected committees.
At the top of a pyramid including the village, district, and provincial committees stood the central executive committee. The Vietminh and it’s National Salvation Associations were, of course, led by Communists, but adherence to party doctrine was not necessary for membership or participation. Ultimately the Vietminh attracted a substantial number of Vietnamese unwilling to declare themselves Communists but wishing to participate in what rapidly became the most effective anti-colonial movement.
The second part of Nguyen’s strategy called for the development of guerrilla bases on Vietnamese soil. Copying the example of Mao Tse Tung, Nguyen hoped to establish a base in a remote area of the country from which the Communists could spread their influence and which would also serve as a sample of “liberated” Vietnam. The province of Cae Bang had already been selected as a primary site The party’s goal was to control the villages in Cae Bang, replacing the colonial rule with their own. Paying close attention to the needs of the minorities, the Vietminh were enormously successful. By the end of 1941, they had organized one-third of the villages in Cao Bang. A training base for guerrillas was established, furnishing the party forty prepared fighters every ten days.
The Emergence of Ho Chi Minh
In accordance with this new party platform, in 194 the Vietminh eagerly joined the Vietnam Liberation League organized by Chinese Nationalists. However, the views and strategies Of the league’s varied members soon diverged. Nationalist leaders complained that the Communists were attempting to dominate the league and pointed to the “Moscow-training” of Ngu yen Ai Quoc. In early 1942 Chinese military leaders heeding the pleas of Vietnamese Nationalists, drove the Vietminh underground and arrested Nguyen A Quoc. It was the last the world was to hear from Ngu yen the Patriot. His foresight, however, saved the bulk of his party from arrest; they were able to find refuge in the new Vietminh base in Cao Bang Province.
Nguyen Ai Quoc could view the situation only from his Chinese jail. But within a year he became aware of the ineffectiveness of the Vietnamese Nationalists espionage efforts and the increasing Chinese displeasure with the Vietnam Liberation League. Arranging a meeting with the Chinese general, Chanc Fa-K’uei, Nguyen Ai Quoc offered the services of his party to organize a new intelligence and guerrilla network against the Japanese. Chang Fa-K’uei accepted and arranged for his release from prison Upon learning of Nguyen’s Communist background he became fearful lest his superiors criticize his decision. He suggested that Nguyen Ai Quoc change his name. In early 1943 a new man emerged to lead Vietnamese forces in China: Ho Chi Minh.
When the Chinese selected the Vietminh to lead the Vietnamese against Japan in 1943, the league automatically received the support of the U.S. mission in China, which bankrolled virtually the entire Chinese war effort. U.S. policymakers, already concerned about postwar plans for Indochina, found themselves tied to Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh.
America Becomes Involved
After the fall of France in 1940 American diplomats faced an extremely thorny problem. They had no fondness for the pro-Nazi Vichy government in France but did not want to do anything that would weaken France’s hold on its colonies and pave the way for German occupation. The U.S. thus recognized Vichy diplomatically and encouraged the government in its attempts to resist Japanese demands. U.S. officials were angered at the “joint defence” of the Indochina agreement signed by Vichy and Japan in July 1941.
In many ways, this agreement marked the point of no return in relations between Japan and the United States. On the eve of World War II, the United States depended upon Indochina for 50 percent of its raw rubber. Japanese control of the area thus deprived the U.S. of its major source of this strategic resource. The U.S., acting in concert with Britain and Holland, retaliated by cutting off Japan’s oil supplies. In negotiations that took place in the fall of 1941 with Japan, the United States made several demands, including the evacuation of Vietnam by Japanese forces. The Japanese response to the American proposals was the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The entry of the U.S. into the war did not solve any of these problems; on the contrary, they became more complicated. In addition to the diplomatic dilemma, American policymakers now had to face questions of military strategy. The Japanese intended to use Vietnam as a staging ground for an assault on Dutch Indonesia. As Japanese carriers steamed away from the wreckage at Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes bombed the Dutch colony. Southeast Asia quickly became a prime source of raw materials for the Japanese war machine: rubber from Malaya, rice and rubber from Vietnam, oil from Indonesia. Increasingly, the Japanese made use of Vietnamese ports, especially Saigon, Haiphong, and Cam Ram Bay, as depots for these supplies on their long trek back to the Japanese islands.
Cutting the supply lines from Southeast Asia to Japan and preventing Japan from using Vietnam as a base for its continued operations in China became one of the major objectives of General Claire L Chennault’s American Volunteer Group (AVG), better known as the Flying Tigers. The Flying Tigers, a collection of volunteers operating under the command of the Chinese Nationalist Army, were reorganized in July 1942 into the China Air Task Force part of the U.S. Army Air Force. One of the stated objectives of the task force was to “damage serious Japanese establishments and concentrations in Indochina, Formosa, Thailand, Burma, North China.”
A Chinese sentry watches over the famous P-40s of U.S. Brigadier General Clair L. Chennault’s Flying Tigers. From bases in China the Flying Tigers, all of them volunteers, flew bombing missions against bases in Vietnam and China before the U.S. entered World War II.
In January 1942 Chennault’s Flying Tigers flew their first mission over Vietnam, attacking Japanese positions in Hanoi. The mission had an unusual international flavour: Chinese pilots flew old Russian-made bombers and were escorted by the American Flying Tigers in their P-40s. On May 12, 1942, Chennault’s group suffered the first American death in Vietnam. A former Navy pilot, John T. Donovan, was shot down by a Japanese antiaircraft fire. Donovan had been piloting his old P-40, used as a fighter-bomber, in a strafing and bombing mission over Hanoi.
The bombing of targets in Vietnam was a minor part of Chennault’s strategy. Above all, he was hampered by the absence of airfields within easy striking distance of Vietnam. His planes could reach only a.’ far as Haiphong. In 1943 Chinese forces, with Amen can assistance, managed to retake some airfields from the Japanese in southeastern China. But a year later in Japan’s last successful offensive in China, the bases were lost. Not until 1945, after America recaptured the Philippines, were the Allies able to undertake effective bombing missions against the Japanese supply lines and ports in Indochina.
Roosevelt Insists on Vietnamese Independence
In Washington, these military considerations mixed with and sometimes intensified, the diplomatic problems. American diplomats still wanted to support Vichy France’s claims of sovereignty over the French colonies in order to forestall any move by the Germans to face the headstrong leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle, their new ally. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other administration figures assumed contradictory postures on the Indochina question. On the one hand, the U.S. announced its firm opposition to a restoration of European empires in Asia, thus drawing the wrath of Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill. Roosevelt and Churchill worked out a tacit agreement that the U.S. would not force England to relinquish its empire, especially India. But FDR was more direct when he spoke about Indochina. In January 1944 he wrote to Secretary of State Hull that “‘France has had the country … for nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning. France has milked it for one hundred years. The people of Indochina are entitled to something better than that.”
In public, however, Roosevelt was forced to pacify the French. He did not want to give Vichy France a major propaganda opportunity: to argue that only Vichy could maintain France’s glory and that an Allied victory would result in the dismemberment of the French empire. De Gaulle was well aware of the tensions in U.S. policy but had no means of gaining the sort of commitment from Washington that Churchill had received. Neither of the eastern Allies, Russia or China, would side with de Gaulle since their leaders, Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek, shared Roosevelt’s views. De Gaulle turned to his fellow imperialist, Winston Churchill, for aid. The result was one of the most serious disputes in the Grand Alliance.
The war on the Asian mainland had been divided into two theatres. The Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) was formed in 1943 under British control. The China theatre had been established in 1942, under Chinese command, acting in consultation with the U.S. China mission headed after 1944 by General Albert C. Wedemeyer. Indochina had been placed in the China theatre in 1942, but when the British established SEAC, they argued that Indochina should be shifted to its jurisdiction. U.S. intelligence reported that the British planned to refuse cooperation with any native organizations in Vietnam and to aid only the French. It was clear that Britain wanted wartime control of Indochina in order to restore the colony to France at the conclusion of hostilities.
Roosevelt was not deceived. He ordered that under no circumstances should any aid be accorded French forces Indochina consulted about the area’s postwar future. The dispute between the U.S. and Britain over command jurisdiction in Indochina was not fully resolved until the Potsdam Conference in 1945, but an interim agreement worked out whereby the action in Indochina after first clearing its plans with the China command. At Potsdam, Britain’s claims were partially conceded. To supervise the approaching Japanese surrender, Indochina was to be divided at the sixteenth parallel, British forces stationed south of the line and the Chinese occupying the northern portion.
While Roosevelt was doing his best to prevent the return of the French to Vietnam, he was also developing alternative plans for Indochina. One of his first proposals was to place Vietnam under Chinese control. Chiang Kai-shek had not been known for his restraint during the course of wartime diplomacy, but in this instance, he struck a rare note of realism. when asked if he wanted to govern Indochina, he replied, ‘Under no circumstances.” He then added, “‘They are not Chinese. They would not assimilate into the Chinese people.” Two thousand years of Vietnamese history had taught him a lesson that the French were soon to learn at a heavy cost.
Following Chiang’s refusal, Roosevelt toyed with the idea of an international trusteeship to administer Vietnam until the Allies deemed it ready for sell-government. This trusteeship, which Roosevelt later included in his proposals for the United Nations, would include both Vietnamese and French, but also Chinese, Russians, and Americans. At the Teheran Conference of the Allied leaders in November 1943 Roosevelt, Chiang, and Stalin affirmed the plan. Only Churchill opposed the idea, fearing that a chain reaction of independence movements might reach India.
U.S. Supports Ho Chi Minh
While the U.S. was using international summit diplomacy to try to ensure postwar independence for Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh were happy to receive the support of the U.S. mission in China1 especially from the forerunner of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). when U.S. policymakers finally decided after World War II that Ho Chi Minh was an enemy, the extent of OSS assistance became a matter of controversy. OSS officials, perhaps fearful of accusations that they had aided Communists, insisted that only a few sidearms had been given. They also disputed how much help the Vietminh had given in lighting the Japanese. The Chinese, however, appeared to be satisfied with the performance of their new allies, the Vietminh. Chinese complaints concerning the lack of intelligence information from Vietnam ended in 1944.
The Vietminh made skillful propaganda use of their new connection. Tales of Vietminh guerillas meeting with American OSS officials circulated throughout northern Vietnam. The Vietminh portrayed themselves as the chosen resistance group favoured by the popular Americans. They were not entirely wrong. The U.S. clearly favoured their efforts over those of the pro-Japanese and pro-French groups.
Use of their new American “friends” was only one aspect of the Vietminh effort to secure undisputed leadership of the Vietnamese independence movement as the war neared its conclusion. In December 1943, speaking from Algeria, de Gaulle announces his plans for postwar Indochina. He acknowledges the necessity for thorough reform and an entirely new relationship between France and Vietnam but specially ruled out an independent Vietnam. The Vietminh strongly attacked de Gaulle. Although they were willing to compromise their Marxist ideology for the sake of independence, they would make no compromise on independence itself. Exactly one yeo later, in the mountains of northern VietNam, they officially formed the military wing of the Vietminh, the Vietnam Liberation Army.
America Strikes in Asia
As Asia headed into its last year of World War II, it became evident that the Japanese empire w doomed. By late 1944 American victories in Malay Indonesia, and especially the Philippines had forced the Japanese into a steady withdrawal. In November the headquarters of the Japanese Southern Army moved from Manila to Saigon. In January 1945 retreating troops were used to reinforce Japan’s strength in Vietnam. Field Marshall Terauchi was given strict orders to hold Vietnam at all costs. With the Americans again entrenched in the Philippines Japan feared an imminent invasion of Indochina.
The United States did all it could to encourage Japan’s fears. Vietnam was now within easy reach of American fighter-bombers flying from Vice Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey’s Third Fleet and later B-24s and B-25s taking off from Clark Field in the Philippines. On January 12 Halsey struck at Saigon as thousands of French and Vietnamese watched, hundreds from the city’s rooftops. Five hundred American fighter-bombers sank four cargo ships and two oil tankers in Saigon harbour. Oil storage tanks along the riverfront exploded. Towering columns of black smoke reached a mile into the sky. In all, fourteen enemy warships and thirty-three merchant ships were destroyed, the largest number sunk by the U.S. Navy in any one day in the entire war.
The real purpose of these and other raids was to destroy Japanese shipping lanes. But the Americans knew that the sustained bombing would also encourage Japanese fears of invasion. On March 10, B-25s sank a tanker in Da Nang Harbor; on April 28, B-24s claimed four large merchant vessels in the Saigon River. By April few enemy convoys could expect any protective air cover. With the sea lanes closed, Japan began to rely upon Vietnamese railroads, transporting their supplies into southern China and then over water to Japan. On May 7 and 8, this last link was broken. Fourteen B-25s and forty-eight Liberators knocked out a string of bridges from Saigon to Binh Dinh Province and damaged several rail yards.
The End of French rule
The importance of these developments was not lost on the French population remaining in Indochina. Many of them had openly supported the Vichy government in collaborating with the Japanese. But the attractiveness of cooperation with the Axis powers decreased as they recognized the opportunity to fight for the liberation of Indochina under the French flag. The Japanese, too, were aware of this change in attitude. With its troop strength reinforced in January, Japan decided to tighten its belt in preparation for a final defence.
On March 9, 1945, Japan ended nearly one hundred years of French rule in Indochina: Shortly before midnight on March 9 Japanese soldiers entered the governor general’s palace and arrested Admiral Decoux. Simultaneous attacks secured all the major administrative buildings, public utilities, and radio stations for the Japanese. French troops throughout the country were caught off guard. whole regiments surrendered without a shot, though many others fought bravely even when encircled and out-numbered. Thousands of French were taken prisoner. A few hundred escaped to the mountains. There they were surprised to find a well-coordinated network of guerrillas, experienced in helping Allied soldiers, especially downed pilots, escape from the Japanese. The French had met the Vietminh. True to their promise to aid any Frenchman willing to fight Japanese aggression, the Vietminh cared for many Frenchmen, helping them escape into China.
Meanwhile, playing the role of liberators, the Japanese attempted to secure their hold in Vietnam with the establishment of an “independent” government On March 9 Emperor Bao Dai had been in Quang Tn Province, entertaining French officials at a hunting party. Upon his return to Hue, he was informed by a Japanese commander that his country was free and asked to assume his full responsibilities as emperor. Bao Dai convened his cabinet and on March 11 accepted the Japanese offer to head a new government. Despite his long-standing friendship wi~ the Japanese, Prince Cuong De waited in vain for hi~ call to the throne. The Japanese were more interested in maintaining continuity in the Vietnamese government than in rewarding a loyal ally.
Members of Bao Dai’s cabinet soon had second thoughts about the new arrangement. Two ministers including a royal prince who later joined the Vietminh persuaded their colleagues to resign in favour of a more broadly based government. Bao Dai was forced to form a new cabinet. His choice for prime minister was Ngo Dinh Diem, but the Japanese vetoed that appointment. A new government of middle-class intellectuals was formed. They quickly realized that Japan’s defeat was imminent and that they, in the process, would be discredited. This chilling reality paralyzed the government, and it accomplished almost nothing of substance. Japan exercised real control over the country.
The Vietminh Prepare to Strike
With the French defeated, the Vietminh moved to consolidate their position. The Vietminh forces in the North had already been augmented in 1944 when the British Royal Air Force parachuted into guerrilla-held territory many Vietnamese Communist who had been interned on the French island of Madagascar. In April 1945 the Vietminh began to plan for national liberation, placing the Vietnam Liberation Army under the command of Vo Nguyen Giap. By this time the Vietminh had expanded their “liberated zone” beyond Cao Bang Province to include seven provinces in the North.
In the aftermath of the Japanese coup, Vietminh’s contact with American intelligence officials also intensified. The Americans had relied on pro-Allied French officials for information concerning Japanese movements in the country, but with the French defeated they turned to the Vietminh as the best source of intelligence. Meanwhile, the British, with French support, had established their own commando operations in Vietnam’s northern mountains. After March 9 these commandos were joined by many French soldiers fleeing the Japanese coup.
Relations between the two groups of guerrillas were not smooth. The Vietminh believed that the French were more interested in reestablishing their rule in Vietnam than in defeating the Japanese. The Americans believed the Vietminh. American commandos routinely joined with the Vietminh, not the Anglo-French guerrilla forces. By the end of the war not only were OSS teams cooperating with the Vietminh, they were joined as well by Air-Ground-Air-Service teams (AGAS) aiding downed pilots, by units of the Joint Army-Navy Intelligence Service (JAN S), and by a team of officers under Colonel Steven L. Nordlinger, charged with the repatriation of American prisoners of war.
Independence for Vietnam
The final capitulation of the Japanese empire in August 1945 eliminated the last force between the Vietminh and independence. Japanese troops still occupied Indochina. But in what was perhaps a final attempt in defeat to keep “Asia for Asians” they surrendered to the Vietminh, rather than to Allied forces. No doubt a vast quantity of weapons fell into Vietminh hands as a result of the Japanese method of surrender. Later the French argued that the Vietminh had thereby received overt Japanese assistance. The charge was groundless; the Vietminh had consistently fought Japanese aggression and fought it more effectively than the French themselves.
The revaluation engulfed the entire country. There was little opposition. In the villages, councils of notables were overturned in favour of “peoples committees.” The ranks of the Vietminh National Salvation Associations swelled. Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon were soon governed by Vietminh committees. The French were gone, the Japanese had surrendered but m Vietnam, a country deemed “incapable of self-government,” order prevailed, not anarchy. There was no secret to the Vietminh’s success. It had simply done what generations of Vietnamese had wanted to do to proclaim Vietnam’s independence.
The author of Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence was none other than Ho Chi Minh. As early as May 1945 Ho had sought out a young American Lieutenant who had parachuted into the northern Vietnamese mountains with the OSS. “He kept asking me if I could remember the language of our declaration,” the lieutenant later recalled. “I was a normal American, I couldn’t.” Eventually, he realized that Ho knew more about the American proclamation of freedom than he did himself. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh addressed a crowd assembled in Hanoi, and indeed, the entire world, with these words:
We hold truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This immortal statement is extracted from the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. Understood in the broader sense, this means: All have the right to live to be happy and free.
These are undeniable truths.
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We, the members of the Provisional Government representing the entire people of Vietnam, declare that we shall from now on have no connections with imperialist France; we consider null and void all the treaties France has signed concerning Vietnam, and we hereby cancel all the privileges that the French arrogated to themselves on our territory.
After eighty years of French rule, Vietnam was again independent and again united. That unity, more than just political, expressed the deepest wishes of the Vietnamese people. The Vietminh had taken control of the country virtually without opposition; a Vietminh army of only two thousand men had been sufficient to secure the city of Hanoi for the new government. Within days, Emperor Bao Dai abdicated, promising to support the new government as a private citizen.
This peace in Vietnam was to be short-lived. Already the French were regrouping, waiting to reenter the country on the heels of the British occupation force in southern Vietnam. There would be a year of negotiations with Vietnam, an attempt to create a new relationship between Vietnam and France. But the die was already cast. France, now under the political leadership of Charles de Gaulle, was simply unwilling to give away the ‘jewel” of its empire. The revolution of August 1945 was to usher in not a new era of peace for the Vietnamese but the bloodiest and most destructive thirty years in its history.