The white terror
"It is the primary right of men to kill and die for the land they live in."
- Sir Winston Churchill
Following the failure of the Nghe Tinh rising, the French authorities conducted a crackdown on the Indochinese Communist Party. According to Communist historians, 51,000 militants were arrested or put before the firing squad - the Saigon court tried 120 prisoners, and had 8 put to death. Even agents abroad were not safe, and Ho Chi Minh himself was seized from his apartment in Hong Kong. Party historians refer to this period as the "white terror."
The French jails were, however, hotbeds of Bolshevism. Men in prison distributed political tracts printed on toilet paper, and those that entered the jails with no knowledge of Bolshevism would surely exit it with a great knowledge, and of course a renewed hatred for their French captors. Party leaders expressed a concern that Vietnamese may have been converted to French agents while in prison, nevertheless the prisons provided a ready source of new recruits for the movement. Says the official party history of this period -
"The revolutionary movement fizzled out but the people's confidence in the future of the revolution was, in no way, affected. The superb examples of revolutionary heroism undauntedness at the imperialists' courts, in their security service and detention centres, of the comradely affection and care and of the unity and struggle in prison cells... displayed by the communists; gave rise to our people's profound confidence; in and admiration for the vanguard of the revolution."1
While this quote can most certainly be said to describe the attitude of Vietnamese Communists and revolutionaries, we should be cautious to accept the Party's assertion that the Vietnamese people were fully motivated towards the revolution at this stage. While dissatisfaction with the regime was no-doubt well-established, the apathy of the typical Asian peasant was always an issue the Party had to work to overcome. Many revolutionaries, however, climbed the guillotine to a happy martyr's death.
The trial of Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh was a prisoner in the British colony of Hong Kong, where he had been arrested with a young woman who identified herself as Ly Sam. The authorities had little interest in her, but the French were keen for Ho to be deported to Indochina where he would face serious charges. Throughout his trial, Ho was assisted by a young Hong Kong solicitor named Frank Loseby. To this day Communist sources maintain that secret underground networks put the two in touch, but Ho said in his own memoirs (well, one of them, anyway), that they met through a mutual friend.
There was a strong case for sending Ho to face charges in Indochina - the French ambassador to England was quick to point out that Ho was charged with being the liaison with all the South-East Asian Communist Parties, including that of Malaya, a British colony. He was charged with being instrumental in the recent revolts in Annam, and British officials were reminded of the brutality he apparently orchestrated there. It seemed Ho's number was up, and he certainly came closer to death or life imprisonment than official party sources would have us believe2.
Ho and Loseby had to fight hard to get a public trial, and the Supreme Court of Hong Kong ruled that he was to be deported. However, Loseby had anticipated this and appealed to the Privy Council in London, who agreed to hear the case towards the end of 1931. A measure of Ho's cunning is the letters he sent to a disgraced revolutionary colleague during this period, who he surely must have known was a French intelligence agent. He lamented his innocence and asked for assistance, and also complained of a growing illness that would doubtless kill him if he remained in prison much longer. Ho's case never actually reached open court: an agreement was reached between his representative and London before it came to this, and Ho was to be permitted to leave Hong Kong under his own steam. The sudden turnaround has led some to speculate that Ho was released after agreeing to become a British intelligence agent. However, there is also evidence that the appeals of British civil rights organizations raised fears among the Hong Kong authorities that they would come out of the affair with tarnished reputations.
After being returned to the colony several times by customs officers, Ho was eventually given clandestine transport to China by British authorities, now desperate to have rid of him. He travelled to Moscow and enrolled in the Comintern's Lenin Universty. This was one of the most prolific period of Ho's life, writing-wise, and he worked at a Research Institute in Moscow. He wrote constantly to the ICP Party Committee in Indochina, encouraging them and offering words of wisdom.
The influence of the Comintern during this period
The next generation of ICP leadership was schooled in Moscow. French agents had however penetrated deep into the Party hierarchy, and there was a high attrition rate as graduates of schooling in Moscow attempted to travel back to Vietnam and enter the service of their people. They gradually filtered through, however, and the influence of Stalin and the Comintern during this period should not be under-estimated.
In what some would say was an ironic testament to the inefficiency of a centralized, Communist government, the Comintern's policies did not always match the reality of distant Asia. It believed that revolution should be based on the proletarian class alone, and that the rural peasants were not of sufficient "quality" to be included in the Party's leadership. Ho, on the other hand, had always believed that power lay in the countryside - and he was to be proved right when the war began, and for the 10,000 days of the conflict foreign aggressors were never truely safe in the countryside.
It is interesting to observe the situation in China at this time - Mao had been practicing the heretical doctrine of mobilizing the rural masses with success, yet was punished by the Comintern for his creativity. The ICP seemed to view its sister party in China as pretentious and self-absorbed, and paid little attention to its experiments. All its doctrinal ears were tuned to Moscow, and Ho Chi Minh was criticized for his ideas - he was apparently under surveillence by Stalin because of his subversive ideas.
As war approaches
In 1933, the World political scene changed. Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, and the Soviet Union began to see Nazism as a real, permanent threat. The fight against fascism was now paramount to Communist parties everywhere - even in Asia, with the Japanese fascist polishing his arms not far away. This more than an understanding of the situation in colonial countries led the Comintern to begin to encourage its children to ally with the urban middle classes and in general any nationalist element which might be mobilized against the fascist. The Seven Congress of the Comintern announced that the immedate objective of the World's peoples was to fight the fascist agressor, not build socialism.
There is much debate about whether the ICP were in themselves Communists or nationalists at heart. The truth is that there were elements of both within the Party, and now with the tacit approval of the Comintern to ally with bourgeois elements within the population, they were quick to cover up the more radical Communist elements within. Now was the time to move into the political mainstream in Vietnam and establish themselves in the hearts of the population. In this they succeeded. What they failed in, however, was to build a broad united front allying all elements of the Vietnamese nationalist movement. Trotskyites didn't want to ally with the rich urban middle-class, the the latter was suspicious of Communist motives. The Trotskyites especially took glee in criticizing the party when it supported the French government on the importance of defending the French homeland over the colonies. The Vietnamese nationalist movement had sadly not grown out of its earlier argumentative tendencies.
The Party was in the open, however. The formation of the Indochinese Democratic Front gave the Party a slightly more human face in the eyes of the people of the country. As the French administration geared up for the war it knew was coming, they started to ease off oppression in the colonies. The IDF could operate legally or semi-legally and began to publish its newspapers more widely. The French estimated that in 1939 the Party had 2,000 members and over 40,000 followers. Most of these came from the urban proletariat, who now recognized that the Party was fighting for their economic interests. Similarly with the farmers of Cochin China, were economic conditions were fast approaching famine. Indeed, famine would prove to be the crucial issue which the Party was able to leverage for winning popular support at the time of the August Revolution.
However, before then, there would be another foreign nation occupying Vietnam and a fair degree of doctrinal change.
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