In only a fortnight in August 1945 the Viet Minh had propelled themselves to power in Vietnam. But the struggle was far from over, and their victory - skilled though it was - could easily be reversed. Having moved into the vacuum of power caused by the surrender of Japanese occupation forces at the end of the Pacific War, they now had to close the doors behind them to retain it. Soon, the country would dissolve into the first of its internecine wars.
Domestic difficulties and solutions
The new Vietnamese government faced many problems, and it had limited authority with which to tackle them. The main problem was probably the famine which had helped propel them to power, and which it seemed was far from over - the harvest of August 1945 had too been poor, and a flood in Tonkin had forced the peasants to abandon 400,000 hectares of farmland. Experts in the government predicted food would run out before February, and as there were still organisations in the country which might agitate against the Viet Minh using this as an issue, it was a big problem. Urban employment was also high, meaning there were a mass of disaffected people in the power centers.
In solving these domestic problems, the Viet Minh would have to walk a tightrope. The Communists were only in power as part of a broad coalition of nationalist parties, and it could not afford to allow the advent of its Marxist agenda yet. This would only disaffect the merchant and bourgeois elements and thus weaken the power of the Front. Ho Chi Minh had always made it clear in his writings and actions that after the success of the general insurrection, the Revolution would enter the so-called "bourgeois democratic" stage of the Leninist process. This is characterised by democratisation and moderate reform in the socio-economic sphere - never enough to destroy the broad united front. The enemy that was always indicated by the Party in this process was foreign imperialism, and that was the overt target of its activities. On September 3, 1945, the Government Council met and agreed on some goals -
- Fight the famine. The manufacture of noodles was forbidden, as was the distillation of rice alcohol. Agricultural tax was abolished (the Japanese had been comandeering food to burn as fuel) and a bureau was set up to give farmers access to easy credit.
- Fight illiteracy. Ninety per cent of the Vietnamese population was illiterate, whereas before the French colonial period Vietnam had enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in Asia. By 1946, the government would claim to have taught two million people to read and write through its schools and co-operation programs.
- Hold general elections. The first part of the Leninist revolutionary process involved the convening of a Constituent Assembly with broad national elections and plebiscite, which was scheduled for two months from the meeting.
- Minor land reform. Communal land was to be distributed among all peasant aged over eighteen (male and female), long-standing debts were to be abolished and rents were ordered to be reduced by twenty-five per cent. This was intended to be a precursor to violent "reform" later. The land of French colonialists and Vietnamese collaborators was to be seized straight away.
The moderate program fell short of the desires of some Party agitators, especially in the poorer regions. They tried to instigate the anti-feudal Marxist agenda from the start, and in November the government had to issue decrees admonishing them and telling them to bide their time whilst the government was in the "national democratic" stage. The government put out circulars promising that private property rights would be respected. Other economic measures they took were the destruction of the monopolies that the French government had held on opium and salt (although the consumption of the former was prohibited). Government officials were told to fast on every tenth day and distribute the food saved to the poor - Ho Chi Minh himself led this measure by example.
China, France & a missed opportunity for the United States
As well as these domestic issues, the biggest problem faced by the Government - in fact the very threat to its existence - were foreign nations. 180,000 Chinese Kuomintang troops were arriving to occupy the country, and it was feared that the French would want to re-claim their former colony. Although in the view of Vo Nguyen Giap the Chinese troops were a rather ragtag bunch and many Vietnamese observers described their diseased and vagrant-like appearance, they represented a significant force which it seemed would be able to influence events in China's favour. China had promised the Allies that it would not annex Vietnam, but it seemed to want to establish a sphere of influence. And sure enough, in the wake of the troops, came the nationalist opponents of the Viet Minh - the VNQDD and Dong Minh Hoi. They had developed friendly relations with the Chinese to their benefit - and, if they came to power, to the benefit of the Chinese. The VNQDD set itself up in headquarters in Hanoi, declared the building an "autonomous zone" and began to broadcast propaganda via a newspaper and loudspeaker. They denounced the "Red Terror" of the Communists.
Against the Chinese and the fear of renewed French colonialism, Ho Chi Minh clearly saw the United States of America as a possibly ally. He was ambivalent towards the U.S.A - whilst it was a bastion of freedom and had being most vocal in calling for European nations to abandon their colonies, it was also the most poignant example of global capitalism, and hence an enemy of the World revolution. Nevertheless, Ho provied willing to concilliate - he spoke to Major Archimedes Patti, the first American soldier assigned to Vietnam. Patti worked for the Office of Strategic Services (some parts of which eventually became the Central Intelligence Agency), and he had been originally sent to Vietnam to harass the Japanese in their final days. Patti was sympathetic with Ho Chi Minh, saying he did not seem like a "flaming radical", but a sober man who wished to gain American help for a free Vietnam. This was not at all contradictory to Patti's goals, nor the policies of Franklin D. Roosvelt. An internal memo in the Department of State in 1943 from Roosevelt said "France has had the country, thirty million inhabitants, for nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning." Patti says Roosevelt also said, also in 1943 -
"Don't think for a moment that Americans would be dying in the Pacific tonight if it hadn't been for the short-sighted greed of the French and the British and the Dutch. Shall we allow them to do it all, all over again?"
Roosvelt reportedly favoured an international trusteeship, administered by the United Nations. But in April of 1945, before the August Revolution or the end of the Pacific War, Roosevelt died. It seems that even before his death he had run into serious opposition from Winston Churchill on the issue of Europe's former colonies, and had either given up or decided to privately bide his time. The next President, Harry S. Truman, was essentially told "Ain't gonna happen" by Charles de Gaulle, and the Department of State circulated a statement essentially stating they would not oppose French colonial aims in Vietnam. This was the first tragedy. Washington, it seemed, was not willing to fracture relations in the West with the onset of the Cold War. But similarly, Moscow was not yet willing to provide aid to the Vietnamese Communists and hence provoke the West (they were also rather interested in the situation in France, where the French Communist Party seemed on the brink of power). Vietnam found itself alone in a hostile World.
Negotiations with the French
The Vietnamese now had to try and placate the French for as long as possible whilst simultaneously preparing for a war that looked inevitable. The Chinese troops were carrying out the disarming of the Japanese forces with alarming lethargy, and Ho concluded an agreement to allow the Chinese in the North to be replaced by 15,000 French troops. Naturally he encountered fierce resistance within the Party for this, and he reportedly rounded on one such opponent and burst out -
"You fool! Don't you realize what it means if the Chinese stay? Don't you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came they stayed one thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying out. Nothing will be able to withstand world pressure for independence."
As well as these French in the North, it is necessary to understand the situation in the South. In Cochin China, where Communist power had always being weakest, guerilla war had already begun. French troops had been released from the jails the Japanese occupation forces had put them in, and they became a target for provocation by Party hardliners - as well as causing some of their own. On September 2, when Vietnamese gathered in Saigon to hear Vietnam's Declaration of Independence, a riot broke out, and four Frenchmen were killed (the French press called it "black Sunday"). As British occupation forces (mainly Gurkhas) were arriving, this did not bode well for the ability of the Vietnamese police to maintain law and order. The leader of the coalition in Cochin China, Tran Van Giau, was accused of being a "lackey" of the French when he urged restraint, and was replaced by a radical nationalist. Vietnamese provocation continued. On the night of September 22, French forces took control of all key installations in Saigon. The 20,000 French residents awoke the next day and engaged in street violence against any Vietnamese they encountered. Thousands were assaulted - men, women, and children. On September 24, around one hundred and fifty Vietnamese ran rampant through the French residential district, killing several hundred residents.
Negotiations had failed in Cochin China for the same reason they could not succeed elsewhere - the French were unwilling to grant Vietnam independence, and the Vietnamese were unwilling not to have it. The situation was particularly pronounced in Cochin China because both sides refused even to engage in discussion without its respective pre-condition being met. The South was now plunged into war as yet more French troops arrived, and in the chaos the first American soldier to die in Vietnam - Colonel Dewey - was killed, probably under the mistaken impression that he was a Frenchmen (the French authorities refused to let him fly the Stars and Stripes from his automobile).
We need not concern ourself with the intricacies of the negotiations in the North. Needless to say, they were fruitless, and radicals on the French and Vietnamese side wanted to escalate the conflict. Ho Chi Minh constantly advised caution, but he could not get his way forever - he managed to keep violence down when French troops landed in Hanoi and Haiphong, but it was in the latter that a particularly bloody act would kick the war off. Violence was escalating slowly and the French in Saigon became convinced that only a hard line policy could keep the Vietnamese in line. The Vietnamese strategy in the South had being particularly ugly anyway, and they were engaged in a scorched earth policy (nha khong dong vang, literally "dead city"). On November 23 of 1946, following a major clash between French and Vietnamese forces, the French bombarded Haiphong from air and sea, killing hundreds of civilians.
In December of 1946, aware that no satisfactory peace was any longer possible, the Party appraised its situation. It now had 30,000 troops ready for battle, and it decided to use the element of surprise - it attempted to seize all key installations in Hanoi and drive the French out. But there had been a double agent in their midst, the attempt failed - they succeeded in destroying the power station, and were eventually forced to flee into the countryside. Soon Ho and the Party leadership would be back in the Viet Bac, there to wage eight years of war against the French.
Before | After
Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh: a Life: New York, 2000.
Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam: Westview Press, 1981.
Maclear, Michael. Vietnam: the Ten Thousand Day War: Thames Methuen, 1981.
This all started a long time ago....
The Prehistory of the Vietnamese Communist Party
The Soviets of Nghe Tinh
The Resurgence of the Indochinese Communist Party
August approaches: Vietnamese Communism During the Second World War
The August Revolution