With the end of World War II and the surrender of Japanese forces across Asia, the time seemed ripe for the men of the Vietnamese Communist Party to cash in the cheque history surely owed them. The vacuum of power in Vietnam beckoned to them and the promise of a new dawn in this new World seemed strong to many. The revolutionary armed forces were on the rise in the Viet Bac and Party agitators were prepared all over the country. The History of the Communist Party of Vietnam, on their website (see sources), says that liberated zones had been set up "in most provinces of the North and Central Vietnam and in some provinces of the South," and goes on to say -
"The liberation areas served as a great stimulus for creating an upsurge of national salvation. In these areas, the people exercised their full right of mastery in every field. The people's right to mastery was more and more enhanced and step by step realized in numerous localities while the antiJapanese upsurge for national salvation was, expanding all over the country, the fascists' and their henchmen's rule was increasingly paralysed and partial insurrections and guerilla warfare were spreading widely. Before the revolution won victory throughout the country in numerous mountain, rural and plain regions, there had existed a state of dual power: the Japanese fascists' and their henchmen's rule on the one hand, and on the other the people's administration performed in varied forms and to differing degrees."
Whilst over-zealous as always, the words certainly rang true in Tonkin (the Northern part of colonial Vietnam, which contained the city Hanoi). It was here that the revolutionary ebb was strongest, but we should also take note that sufficient Party apparatus existed throughout the whole country to carry it through.
In March, the Party Standing Committee met to discuss how to respond to the coup de force of the Japanese occupation forces in Vietnam1, which had removed the French colonial authorities. They had concluded that their country's opportune moment for revolution was nigh, and indeed since 1944 members of the Viet Minh Front had been training villagers as shock troops to seize government installations and engage in other revolutionary tasks (such as inciting the urban population to revolt). Rumours of the surrender of Japanese forces had been circulating in Hanoi since August 11th after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9th2. On the morning of the 17th, Ho Chi Minh, in the Viet Bac near the Chinese border, stood in front of the Viet Minh League's new flag (a gold star on a red background) and read an appeal to the people of Vietnam -
"The decisive hour in the destiny of our people has struck. Let us stand up with all our strength to liberate ourselves!
Many oppressed peoples the World over are vying with one another in the march to win back their independence. We cannot allow ourselves to lag behind.
Forward! Forward! Under the banner of the Vietminh Front, move forward courageously!"
The appeal was couched in terms of nationalism and not Communism, which was of course an important strategy for winning wide-based support for a revolution. It was nigh impossible to get the bourgeois and propertied classes to agree to a revolution based on the socialisation of all wealth (from which they stood to lose most), whereas they could be prevented from becoming reactionary by keeping the focus on Vietnamese nationalism and independence (something the country was sorely in need of). Thus the Viet Minh front had been crafted to appeal to all patriotic elements. The Chinese Communist Party had found to its cost that "straddling" the agrarian question could be difficult - peasants would feel aliened if landlords were accomodated and landlords were terrified of a peasant revolution which would expropriate their property and possibly their lives3.
The Party was able to overcome this problem thanks to a famine which had killed one million Vietnamese in 1945 before August. With everyone short of food and the Japanese demonstrably to blame, the "agrarian question" became another component of nationalism. The Japanese had been removing food to use as fuel in munitions factories and were levying high taxes in the countryside. By organising protests against these practices, as well as military conscription, the Party could unite all the rural classes against the occupying forces. Truong Chinh, General Secretary of the Party, would later say that Communist agitations outside granaries (were they encouraged people to seize food for local consumption) were instrumental in kicking the revolution off in the North.
In many areas of rural Tonkin the local Viet Minh forces jumped the gun, rising as early as August 14th. In other places the rural population appears to have risen spontaneously (Party historians strenuously assert this was the case). The March directive of the Party's Standing Committee had stressed the importance of starting the revolt at the right time when the vacuum of power existed, and different units of the Party sensed this moment in their locale at different times. When they had taken power in their locale they would establish "People's Liberation Committees", punish land owners and began to implement the agrarian reform program (a redistribution of wealth) which was in effect in the liberated zones. Soon most district and provincial capitals north of Hanoi were captured, but in Hanoi the Japanese were present in force.
The Viet Minh reckoned they had about 100,000 sympathisers within the city of 200,000 people, and there were many more in the agricultural and industrial suburbs. "National Salvation Associations" (cuu quoc hoi) and terrorist shock troops trained to assassinate pro-Japanese leaders were prepared. On August 17th revolutionary forces seized the Hanoi suburbs, taking official seals of authority into their hands. Meanwhile, in central Hanoi a meeting was taking place at the Municipal Theatre, supposedly of groups and parties loyal to the provisional government of Tran Trong Kim (the Japanese government, which favoured Vietnam's old Emperor Bao Dai to take the reins of power). The Viet Minh hijacked the meeting - as agitators chanted slogans demanding national independence revolutionary forces scaled to the second floor of the Theatre and placed the Viet Minh flag in place of the Imperial one. Incited by speeches given by Nguyen Khang, the crowd of 20,000 branched out into several columns and marched to the Palace of the Imperial Delegate and the Governor-General's Palace. Hanoi seemed riped for revolution.
The night of the 18th was dedicated to smuggling weapons into the city and positioning pro-Party forces in position to lead assaults during the general insurrection, which was to take place on the 19th. Propaganda leaflets were distributed to Japanese forces asking them not to intervene, and Japanese occupation leaders reached an agreement not to do so. When the general insurrection began on the 19th, no resistance was offered by the provisional government or the Japanese forces, and the take-over of Hanoi was bloodless. By nightfall the whole city was in the hand of the revolutionary forces, and a message was issued to units elsewhere saying "If possible, act as in Hanoi. But where the Japanese resist, attack resolutely. It is necessary at all costs to seize power." In Annam the revolution took a little longer to take hold (they didn't have the advantage of a liberated zone to attack from), and the Imperial capital of Hué seemed like it might be a tough nut to crack. As the seat of power of the puppet Vietnamese régime, Hué was a city of petty administrators and government officials. As these elements were by their nature reactionary, revolutionary agitation centered on the rural suburbs, where Party sympathies were stronger. Bao Dai abdicated on August 21st and peasant militia units (organised by poet and Viet Minh operative To Huu) poured into the city on August 22nd, achieving another relatively bloodless takeover.
In South Vietnam, or Cochin China as it was known, the Viet Minh had the least amount of popular support. Their apparatus had been dismantled by the authorities following the 1940 uprising, and other non-Communist nationalist parties were in ascendence. The old French colonial administration had even managed to keep cultivated contacts with moderate bourgeois elements in the urban centers of the Mekong delta. Party doctrine in this area hence favoured a Bolshevik-style seizure of power by a small and well-disciplined minority4. The urban proletariat in Saigon had been enrolling in a clandestine labour movement which was a front for the Viet Minh, and this had roughly 3,000 members. Peasants infiltrated into the city so they could help spur on revolutionary fervour. Saigon was in the power of a National United Front composed of non-Communist nationalist elements which had taken power bloodlessly on August 16th. On August 22nd the leader of the Party in Cochin China, Tran Van Giau, met with the National United Front and persuaded them that they would never be seen as legitimate by the Allied powers because of their former ties to the Japanese regime5. Reluctantly the Front disbanded and was replaced by a Party committee headed by Giau. On the night of the 25th, assault teams seized key government installations and the peasants agitated among the townspeople. There was sporadic violence and lynching, but mainly the revolution in Saigon proceded smoothly. It was all over by the 26th.
Ho Chi Minh travelled from Tan Trao in the liberated zone to Hanoi, arriving in the suburbs on August 25th. He spent what he would later describe as some of the happiest days of his life working on Vietnam's Declaration of Independence (full text in its node), which he read to the people on the city on September 2nd. According to Vo Nguyen Giap, upon finishing he asked his people if they had understood, and "one million voices cried out in unison their ringing affirmation."
What debts do the revolutionary art owe the August Revolution? Vo Nguyen Giap would claim in 1964 that "the victorious uprising chiefly relied on the political violence of the masses supported by armed violence." This sort of "armed demonstration" that Truong Chinh said was a unique aspect of the August Revolution in his Primer for Revolt did indeed allow a seizure of power in local areas and the mobilization of large crowds in Saigon, Hanoi and Hué. But the August Revolution's success was primarily practical rather than theoretical, and relied on the unique conditions of the colonial, semi-feudal country. The Marxist-Leninist line of the Party was not comprehended by most Vietnamese and when the celebrations kicked off in Hanoi they were mostly celebrating the defeat of the Japanese, not the triumph of Marxism and the end of the immiseriation of the proletariat. Frederick Engels said that "all revolution is a form of violence" and the violence of the Party was primarily political, filling the power vacuum left by the Japanese. Knowing when to strike at the right moment was crucial for the Party and it was arguably this that led it to victory. The August Revolution was demonstrably a huge success, and whilst we shouldn't forget the fortuitous circumstances which led to its victory, nor should we disparage the skill of the Party in taking advantage of these circumstances.
As noted above, the famine issue allowed the Viet Minh to encourage all patriotic groups to be in favour of the Revolution. Ho Chi Minh was doubtlessly aware of the need to show a moderate rural program and thankfully there were no legal institutions (like a Parliament, or the Russian Duma) which would require the Party to show its true colours on such issues. It couldn't keep this pretense up for ever, but the idea had always been for a broad democratic revolution followed by a seizure of power by the Party. As the Party lacked significant military resources of its own this was the only conceivable way to go about the Revolution. Ho Chi Minh wisely advised against a seizure of power by the Party even after the Revolution was largely over in August.
The final issue we should consider is whether the middle class actively supported the Revolution, whether they were essentially reactionary, or whether they were neutral. They certainly didn't manage to impede it in any significant way, but Democratic associations set up with the aid of the Viet Minh for the bourgeois and intelligentsia had remained largely empty. The major population centers were always seized with the aid of peasant agitators. With the most to lose in a Revolution, it seems likely that the middle-class stood largely on the sidelines during August. They subscribed to the position of moderation and nationalism which the Viet Minh front projected, but were probably wary of what might follow. This led them to accept the happenings and not try to impede them, but they would probably a little bit wary of what might follow and hence didn't participate.
The August Revolution was a massive success. The revolutionary forces had swept to power from the South China Sea to the Gulf of Siam in very little time, skillfully combining political and military violence. But for the Vietnamese, the ten thousand day war hadn't even started yet.
Before | After
2. Stupendously, the Vietnamese Communist Party's website history attributes Japan's surrender to defeat by the Soviet Union, not mentioning the atomic bombs! According to their version, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan ("after defeating the German fascists") on August 8th, and "within a few days" had forced Japan to capitulate. As Henry Kissinger remarked on another group of Communists (the leaders of the Soviet Union): "Their capacity to lie on matters of common knowledge is stupendous."
Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh: a Life: New York, 2000.
Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam: Westview Press, 1981.
is an analytical essay I wrote on the war that followed this event, but I shall be extending this nodeseries to cover the narrative in more detail.