Before | After
August Approaches: Vietnamese Communism during the Second World War
As Hitler stirred in Europe, he sent tremors around the World. In French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) the French colonial government had two demands: firstly, that Indochinese natives mobilize for the defence of the French homeland, and secondly that they mobilize for the possible defence of their own homeland against Japanese aggression. As it became increasingly clear that Japan had designs on South China and possibly Indochina, fear spread. Taxes were increased and military schools expanded to meet the needs of Indochina, but the French government's priorities ultimately lay in the defence of their homeland.
With the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the Indochinese Communist Party was faced with a tough choice. Whilst the moderates in the Vietnamese nationalist movement leaped to the support of France in facing the Russo-German axis, the Communists could not turn against the Soviet Union. And so, in the face of massive government crackdowns, the ICP opposed the French government. From the start this fledgling party had done as its master the Comintern willed. With general mobilization declared in Indochina the Party had to flee the cities and set up shop in rural areas, which was where they would repeatedly launch their assaults against the governments of Hanoi and later Saigon. The Party having been declared illegal, 2,000 members were arrested and the General-Secretary himself died in prison in 1940.
The Sixth Plenum and revolt
The alliance between Communism and fascism had massive implications for the ICP: no longer did their priority lay in solidarity against fascism (as it had done since the Comintern willed it so in 1936), but now they could focus on the task for which they had originally formed, the liberation of their country. Gone for now was the broad united front, now the Party was interested only in the alliance of the most anti-imperialist, extremely nationalist parts of the Vietnamese dissident movement. And yet class interests still had to be subordinated to maintain the movement's full strength: a nationalist but bourgeious (or "reactionary") element would be accepted as part of the broad united front, and only after the overthrow of the colonial government would class interests be doggedly pursued.
But again, outside influence would shape events in Indochina. The colonial administration was shipping war-related goods to China to aid the resistance of Chiang Kai-shek, which was starting to irk the Japanese, who were having trouble subduing him. Chiang Kai-shek, incidently, though anti-Japanese, was no friend of the ICP or the CCP: it was the opinion of Ho Chi Minh, which he communicated to Vo Nguyen Giap (later the foremost General of the Vietnamese Communist movement), that his troops "were reactionary in nature," and that they "sought all means to destroy the Communists." Seen by the ICP as double-dealers "capable of no good", they were backed by the Western Allied powers, who were of course despised for their imperialism and capitalism.
Increasingly annoyed with the shipment of war goods into China, the Japanese demanded of the French Governor-General that he close the main railroad involved. Although the Governor had no wish to comply he was eventually forced to through threats, for which the French government back home dismissed him. In September, the Vichy government made a deal with the Japanese that in return for recognition of Vietnam's territorial integrity, the Japanese could station occupation troops in Tonkin (North Vietnam) and be allowed transit rights throughout all of Indochina. As if to reinforce the point, as negotiations drew to a close the Japanese struck across the border in Bac Son province. Although Hanoi quickly protested and the Japanese withdrew a vacuum was created which allowed local party apparatus to organize an uprising. It was put down within a month and the central Party leadership was of the opinion that it had been begun at times when conditions were not right. The Bac Son region was particularly volatile and trouble there was a foreword to trouble elsewhere.
In Cochin China (South Vietnam), the Party apparatus was strong enough to take advantage of France's European defeat in 1940. Elsewhere the Party was reeling from the brutal suppression it had been subjected to, but in Cochin China it was strong and able to take advantage of peasant discontent. But the revolutionary situation was not deemed to be ready to bear fruit in the rest of the country, so it was left to Cochin China to rise on its own (the Party held a meeting at which it decided it would be fruitful for areas to rise individually). Assaults were launched on towns in the Delta and along the Plain of Reeds, and there was even an uprising in Saigon. But the French authorities responded brutally and the Party was nearly wiped out in Cochin China for some time. Although the defeat of the French in Europe made some Vietnamese begin to ask questions about assumed French invulnerability, the situation was not yet ripe for full revolt.
The Cochin China rising taught the Party that localized revolts, unless when success was guaranteed, could be a drain on resources and lead to a wasteful destruction of apparatus. Ho Chi Minh was becoming increasingly aware that the revolutionary situation in Vietnam was becoming more favourable, and he called a plenum in the Viet Bac region of North Vietnam to decide on a new, all-encompassing strategy for the general uprising. It was at this historic conference that the League for the Independence of Vietnam, or Viet Minh (later Viet Cong) were formed, of whom more is written in their node. The Party was now starting to build up the military strength which would serve it well for decades to come, and they set about building up military apparatus in the Viet Bac (which is a mountainous region in North Vietnam, safer than most places from attack) and preparing for the correct national and international situation to attack.
The Japanese coup
As the war drew to a close the revolutionary situation ripened in Vietnam. A famine in 1944-45 left an estimated 2 million dead and led to great peasant discontent (as we shall see when we treat of the August Revolution, famine was the issue which allowed the Party to motivate the masses greatly). And in 1945, the Japanese - knowing the French would turn on them soon as they were losing the Pacific War - staged a coup de force and imprisoned French authorities. French colonialism in Vietnam was now dead - and, for the Vietnamese people, this came at the right time. The famine which had wracked Vietnam was a result of grain seizures by the colonial government so that this food could be burned as fuel in Japanese munition factories1. The French regime lost the Confucian Heavenly Mandate2 as the yellow-skinned Japanese overthrew them, and they were thouroughly discredited in the eyes of the population. Although the Japanese control might look just as formidable a problem, as early as 1944 the Party was aware that Japanese defeat was inevitable. They planned the general insurrection for "the last stage of the world war, when England, America and China come to seize Indochina".
Japanese power was currently strong but not absolute. When they were defeated a political vacuum would be left, and in the Leninist sense the country would finally be ready in both national and international terms for a revolution. Ho Chi Minh worked hard to keep the Party and its forces credible in the eyes of the Allies and the people, even courting the United States of America, his future enemy. All the while the Party began to prepare for the expected arrival of Allied troops. The August Revolution was near and Vietnam would never be the same again. But before analysing the revolution we should take a look at the People's Liberation Army and its origins, as it would become the fighting force that staved off both the French and the Americans in the decades to come.
Before | After
1. In a sad display of corruption, the grain seizures were carried out by Vietnamese canton (a canton is a small administrative division, like an English hundred) chiefs working for the French. This did not please the general population one bit, and Ho Chi Minh would incite the population to turn against these "jackals" of the foreigners.
2. In traditional Confucianism, if a ruler failed to protect the country against an invader, then the legitimacy of that ruler died and could never be restored - they believed the will of Heaven ('God', we would say) was against this ruler. His lack of virtues had led Heaven to remove him.
Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam 2nd. ed.: Westview Press, 1996.
Giap, General Vo Nguyen. The Military Art of People's War: Selected writings of General Vo Nguyen Giap: Monthly Review Press, 1970.
Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: Pimlico, 1988.