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: defense
of the homeland, defense of the empire. While the home government
worried about the Nazi menace, Catroux'x anxieties centered 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 life line 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 itsell. 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.
The developments in Europe
provided the Japanese an opportunity in Southeast Asia. Scarcely
had the ink dried on the Franco-German armistice in June 1940
than the Japanese vigorously renewed their demand that France
cease 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 air bases
ir 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
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
defense" of Indochina.
The Japanese now had a free
hand in Indochina. They could station troops wherever they wanted.
They could use 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 French1 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 centerpiece 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 neighbors.
French officials also increased the pay and prestige of native
members of the bureaucracy, especially those residing in villages.
Most important, 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 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 an 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 important, 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 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 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 foil control
of postwar VietNam.
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 been 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 Nationalist had split into two groups,
one based in Cantor the other in Yunnan Province. The Chinese
established the VietNam Liberation League in 1940, as united front
group and, indeed, it included members of the Communist party.
Its leadership, however, w~ firmly in Nationalist hands. The Chinese
Nationalist's 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
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 sell. It lacked the contacts necessary to build
a viable espionage network. Chinese military leaders ir southern
China became convinced by 1943 that then 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 ii 1940, Nguyen Ai Quoc made two fateful decision,'
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.
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 village, district, and provincial
committees stood the central executive committee. The Vietminh
and its 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 anticolonial 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 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 fighter 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. policy makers, already concerned about
postwar plans for Indochina, found themselves tied to Ho Chi Minh's
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 a 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 defense"
of 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 policy makers 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 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, 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
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
In January 1942 Chennault's Flying Tigers flew their first
mission over VietNam, attacking Japanese positions in Hanoi.
The mission had an unusual international flavor: 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 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
under take 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 begining.
... 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
The war on the Asian mainland had been divided into two theaters.
The Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) was formed in 1943 under British
control. The China theater 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 theater 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 a 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
U.S. supports Ho Chi Minh
While the U.S. was using international summit diplomacy to try
to insure 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. policy makers 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 side arms 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 favored by the popular
Americans. They were not entirely wrong. The U.S. clearly favored
their efforts over those of the pro-Japanese and pro-French
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 announce'
his plans for postwar Indochina. He acknowledge' 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 the 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, I became
evident that the Japanese empire w doomed. By late 1944 American
victories in Malay Indonesia, and especially the Philippines
had force 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
Japans strength in VietNam. Field Marshall Terauchi was given
strict orders to hold VietNam at all costs. With the Americans
again entrenched in the Philippine 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 roof tops. Five hundred American fighter-bombers
sank four cargo ships and two oil tankers in Saigon harbor.
Oil storage tanks along the river front 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
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 defense.
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 through out 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 favor oi 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 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 a 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 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
The revaluation engulfed the entire country. There was little
opposition. In the villages, councils of notables were overturned
in favor 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 success. It
had simply done what generations of Vietnamese had wanted to
do 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.
* * *
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.