Before | After
Viet Nam Doc lap Dong Minh: its origins and early history
"In face of the new situation, national unity becomes all the more important, we must think of organizing a broad national united front, with appropriate name and form. I think we had better call it Viet Nam Doc lap Dong Minh. But it is too long for a name, so we shall shorten it and call it Viet Minh. People will easily keep it in memory."
~ Ho Chi Minh to Vo Nguyen Giap, sometime in 1941.
As the Pacific War drew to an end, the Vietnamese Communist Party saw the opportunity to end French and Japanese rule over their land once and for all. Aware that a vacuum would be left for them to fill when the World War was over, they shifted their emphasis more drastically than ever before towards nationalism rather than class ideology. For a decade the Communist cause would be known as the Viet Minh (afterwards it would be known more directly as the Viet Cong).
Ho had earlier sent Giap and his companions Pham Van Dong (later Prime Minister of North Vietnam) and Cao Hong Lang to a Chinese Communist Party school in Yan'an in China to study military and revolutionary technique. And indeed, the impact of the Chinese revolutionary experience on the Vietnamese one cannot be over-stated. It is perhaps appropriate that Giap himself had earlier been a student of History and had specialised in studying French wars. He was to become the most able tactician the Vietnamese possessed and the architect of its military policy for three decades.
The Pac Bo plenum & the National Salvation Army
The Viet Bac is a mountainous area in Northern Vietnam with significant anti-colonial history going back as far as 1929. It was fairly safe from the outside and seen as a big threat by the French (who had planned to launch a campaign against it only days after the date the Japanese coup occured). This was to be the place that would see the birth of the National Salvation Army, or Cuu quoc Quan. This first force was formed out of the remnants of the abortive Bac Son uprising, who had fled French oppression following their premature attempt to seize power in their locality. It is at the Pac Bo plenum that is traditionally accepted by Party historians that the guerilla and rural strategy of the Party's military wing was officially adopted. It was by no means a new idea and it had been adopted as early as 1931 by the Soviets of Nghe Tinh, but now it was the guiding principle of the Party. Vietnamese tacticians had for centuries held as their central tenet that a smaller force could defeat a larger one when properly handled, and the hardy people known as the Viets had held off the Chinese in this fashion. The French had been in Vietnam a mere 67 years and were many thousands of miles from home. They too could be thrown off.
Before the Viet Minh per se was set up, the training of 40 guerillas as part of the "National Salvation Army" was completed by Ho, Giap, Dong, and others. Their primary task was the authoring of manuals and training guides on subjects such as propaganda, organisation, training and "struggle". They met together to integrate the various parts of the program under Ho's guidance, and through what Giap describes as a rigorous method of peer review they expanded on it by questioning and counter-questioning one another. Ho consistently stressed the practical side of the training as well as the written work. Each part of the training concluded with a session on how, in concrete terms, the cadre would apply his skills to his particular locality. The forty men concluded the course with "high enthusiasm" and returned to their localities.
A Liberated Viet Bac
With the formation of the Viet Minh, their influence spread. Soon entire villages and cantons in the Viet Bac pledged allegience to the Viet Minh, which was a direct result of its new strategy of appealing to moderates. By subordinating class interests to nationalism even landowners and petty bourgeois were incited to join. The Viet Minh stopped advocating radical redistribution of wealth and instead just spoke out against "running dogs" of the Japanese and French. Whilst the Party leadership was very keen that it should have overall control of the front it tried to hide this from the moderates. Giap reports that the Viet Minh became an alternative government of sorts to some of the peoples of the Viet Bac - "they would come to us for marriage registration, and settling land disputes". The French attempted to set up guard posts in villages to stamp out revolutionary activity, but in many areas Giap says these posts were in fact sympathetic to the revolutionary cause and merely augmented its power. Soon, there was a section of revolutionary troops in Cao Bang province.
It was vital for the Vietnamese resistance to have a secure area from which to launch attacks, a prerequisite which it shared with its Chinese counterpart just a few miles to the North over the Chinese border. This would most easily be achieved in rural areas. The National Salvation Army would be based here. Meanwhile, it was vital for the political influence of the Viet Minh to spread throughout the country as widely as possible. The political domination of the Viet Bac had been achieved wisely. The people of the area were primarily minorities (especially Nungs) traditionally opposed to ethnic Vietnamese, so the Party had from an early stage advocated self-determination for these groups in their vision of a new Vietnam. This elicited significant sympathy from the local population and allowed acceptance of the guerillas. Even in the face of crackdowns by the French, the population in general remained sympathetic. Anti-Terror Volunteer Committees with an armed wing were set up to ambush enemy patrols and secure roads for the revolutionaries. Although Giap does not overstate it, it does seem some natives were willing to turn against the revolutionaries, however, and Giap says the Committees also fought these "reactionaries".
Ho Chi Minh now recognised that the time for primarily political struggle was over. He authorised Giap to form Armed Propaganda Units, a sort of transitional unit which was capable of both political and military tasks. Its first task would be the mobilization of the men and women of the Viet Bac and the spreading of propaganda. In the long-run they would form the backbone of the People's Liberation Army. A new stage in the Vietnamese struggle for independence had begun.
The Viet Minh seek American support
After Pearl Harbour and the consequent entrance of the Americans into the Pacific War, Ho realised that it was vital for him to co-operate with them and be seen as legitimate by them. He could offer them economic concessions when he ruled over the new Vietnam. In the short-term, men of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Vietnam and South China were interested in setting up an information network to report on Japanese troop movements and help rescue downed Allied aviators. After a falling out between the OSS representative in the area (Major Archimedes Patti) and the French intelligence agent (Major Jean Sainteny), Patti reached a historic decision: unable to rely on the French, he would have to rely on the Viet Minh. They carried out very limited joint combat operations against the Japanese under Giap's juristiction (he didn't like working with the "evil American imperialists" much, but he was a realist). These joint teams were called Deer Teams. Together, they liberated Tan Trao, which was to hold the historic conference at which Ho Chi Minh would announce his provisional government.
Although the French would later claim the Americans were working against them, neither Giap nor Patti saw it this way. Giap stressed the Americans were interested only in the anti-Japanese struggle of the Viet Minh, which of course ties in perfectly with American motives at the time. When the Japanese were defeated the U.S. would to an extent lose interest in the Viet Minh's cause, and Ho would feel betrayed. But August awaited first.
Before | After
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.
Maclear, Michael. Vietnam: the Ten Thousand Day War: Thames Methuen, 1981.
Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: Pimlico, 1988.