A Minor Irritant to the French Authorities

Fred Halliday

  • Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power by David Marr
    California, 602 pp, $50.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 520 07833 0

When the Allies gathered at Potsdam in July 1945 to organise the postwar world, it is unlikely that any of those taking part had ever heard of Vietnam. The actual name had been eliminated, the prewar French colonialists having divided the country into three, and on the surface, the postwar arrangements for that part of Indochina were clear: first, Chinese and British troops would enter and then the French colonial rulers would return. As they did. In the three decades after 1945, however, Vietnam became one of the most savagely fought over territories of the past half-century.

The war for Vietnam’s independence from France ended in the 1954 Geneva Accords. Then came the war with the US, which reached its height after the commitment of American ground troops in 1965 and ended in the capture of the South by Communist forces in 1975. Yet this postcolonial history, and the degree of support enjoyed by the Vietnamese Communists, makes little sense unless one knows something about the earlier period, which is the subject of this book.

In August 1945, after the Japanese surrender, Vietnam was in tact a united country, controlled by the Viet Minh – the local Communist movement. It was this which in later years gave the Communists their legitimacy: independence had been proclaimed, the old colonial rulers had been removed and a Vietnamese administration set up throughout the whole country. The subsequent 30 years of war, in which several million Vietnamese died, marked a campaign to return to, to reestablish, the independent state that had briefly existed in 1945.

Marr rescues this key date from the hands of those who have sought to appropriate it: from the opponents of the Vietnamese Communists who have tried to downplay their victory by representing it as a momentary breakdown of order prior to the re-entry of the European colonial power; and from the Communists themselves, who have framed their account in such a way as to legitimate their own claims and subsequent actions. Instead, we have here an account of how a country of 20 million people was, almost overnight, thrown into revolutionary upheaval, without clear direction or control from any quarter, and of how the Communists then canalised that upheaval into support for their new-born state.

When, on 2 September 1945, the Viet Minh leader, Ho Chi Minh, proclaimed independence, he faced two difficulties: first, the Communists did not have the unanimous support of the population; and second, Vietnam was not encouraged or even recognised by any of the major powers, who had their own ideas about the postwar world and how it should be ordered.

One reason for the success of the Communists was the availability of a set of political traditions, and a sense of cultural unity, well suited to the founding of an authoritarian state. Vietnam had been an identifiable linguistic and political entity for over a thousand years, including centuries of rule from the north as the domains of the mandarin emperors expanded. The Vietnamese felt themselves to be separate from both China and the other peoples of South-East Asia, the Khmers in particular. French colonial rule, while it had divided the country, also provided a context in which a modern movement of national self-assertion could emerge. In the decades leading up to World War Two various factions had competed for influence: the established monarchy in Hue, based on an adapted mandarin system, was challenged by nationalist forces, in which the Communists and various left-wing rivals fought for superiority. But though French rule was challenged – by Communist-led peasant risings in 1930 and later by strikes organised by trade unions – on the eve of World War Two it still appeared secure.

The war created a new situation in Indochina: after June 1940, the French administration sided with Vichy, then, once Tokyo had entered the war in 1941, fell under the overall control of the Japanese, who chose to rule the area indirectly through the French, a situation that prevailed right up to March 1945, when, overnight, direct Japanese rule was imposed. As a result, when, in August, Japan surrendered, there was an administrative vacuum. Provision was made for the Allies to garrison the country until the French could return: the Chinese were to come in from the north, up to the 16th Parallel, the British from the south, though not until September. Meanwhile, as Marr writes, ‘quite separate from such higher-level calculations, ordinary villagers were busy discovering the parameters of life without French tax inspectors, post commanders and plantation owners.’

Marr records in detail the shifting policies of the Japanese, French, Chinese, British and Americans as the war progressed. The Americans had begun by opposing any re-establishment of the European colonial empires, Roosevelt believing in particular that the French did not deserve to return to Indochina. The British, however, believed that the colonial powers should ‘stick together’ in Asia. Churchill worked on Roosevelt and by the war’s end Washington was prepared to countenance a continuation of colonial rule. US officials on the ground, in southern China and then in Vietnam itself, did not always see it that way: officers of the OSS, the precursor of the CIA, met up with the Viet Minh and reported back sympathetically. Some of the French officials best acquainted with the real situation in Vietnam were of a similar mind.

What happened day by day was not, as subsequent Communist historiography tried to show, a single, nation-wide rising under the auspices of the movement, although the Communists were strong in many areas and took power in the major cities. In fact, their resources were limited. They had been able to organise uprisings in 1930, and been active in the trade union movement, but their star had subsequently waned, not least as a result of persecution by both French and Japanese. In May 1941, they established the Vietnam Independence League, or Viet Minh, as a front for activity in the new wartime context, yet a year before the August 1945 uprising they were still a small, persecuted group, ‘a minor irritant to the French authorities, and of no consequence whatsoever to the Japanese Army’.

By 1945, the Communist Parry itself, at the core of the Viet Minh, had an estimated five thousand members, a third of whom were still in jail or had recently been released. On the night of 18-19 August, as they prepared to take Hanoi, the Communist leaders had around eight hundred armed followers under their direct control, but only about ninety with guns, the rest being armed with machetes, swords, spears and knives. On the other hand, much that happened was spontaneous and confused. Official buildings were occupied, land was seized, and thousands of revolutionary committees were established – and over these the Party exercised no direct central control. Across the country, the population rose: there were acts of vengeance, random executions, sudden disappearances, as well as a great outburst of radical nationalism.

Eleven days after the Communists took power in Hanoi, the Emperor Bao Dai, who had earlier called on France immediately to recognise Vietnam’s independence, abdicated. The imperial city of Hue was filled with crowds. The modern idioms of hand-clapping and slogan-shouting were accompanied by traditional drumming and the blowing of horns. As the imperial flag flew for the last time, the Communist delegation was received by the Emperor, in embroidered robes, a gold turban and glass-beaded shoes. Seventy years of French rule, and a thousand years of Vietnamese history, seemed to have come to an end.

What was striking was the way the new nationalist and socialist movements inspired by, but hostile to, French rule prevailed over the established imperial and mandarin system. The Vietnamese Communists saw themselves as part of a revolutionary tradition going back to 1917 and 1789. Ho’s Independence Day speech quoted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the US Declaration of Independence. When Tran Van Giau announced at a meeting on 24 August that the insurrection in Saigon had started, he was consciously imitating Lenin’s return to Petrograd in 1917 – and where the Communists did adopt pre-colonial elements in Vietnamese culture it was for their own ends. The goal of establishing a strong central government received confirmation from four sources: ‘ancient Vietnamese centralising monarchs; dominant interpretations of the French Revolution; Sun Yattsen’s three stages of political development; and belief in Leninist “democratic centralism” ’. It was significant that the Viet Minh didn’t choose Hue as their capital but Hanoi, the town designated as a political centre by the French.

On the other hand, Ho insisted that Party propaganda avoid socialist or Communist vocabulary, and use popular Vietnamese images instead. His 1941 ‘Letter from Abroad’ had combined Confucian and Marxist terms, and began, ‘Elder Citizens! Sages and Heroes! Scholars, farmers, workers, merchants, and soldiers!’ before appealing to the ‘more than twenty million descendants of Lac and Hong’ not to remain slaves. Nor were the Viet Minh obsessed with foreign models when it came to the realities of great power politics. Ho had spent time in Moscow in the Thirties and later in China, but he was far enough away to be able to follow policies that differed from those dictated by Moscow. After September 1939 he did not accept the Stalin-Hitler pact, foreseeing that war would break out between Germany and Russia, and that Japan would enter the war on Germany’s side. Where he was wrong was in thinking that, once Japan became involved, in December 1941, the Soviet Union would join the war in the Far East – and sooner rather than later: an error that may have confirmed him in his scepticism towards the USSR. Marr indeed devotes little attention to Russia, for the simple reason that it did not matter. The Viet Minh didn’t have to act on Moscow’s orders and Moscow, for its part, seems to have ignored their seizure of power in 1945. Stalin cared little for the Third World; if he was prepared to hand China back to the Kuomintang, he would have had no problem in agreeing that Vietnam should be returned to the French.

In earlier years Ho had lived under a series of false identities, by Marr’s count more than a hundred, had survived imprisonment in Kuomintang China, and remained in the background of Communist activity. But he always had his goal firmly in view. He also exhibited a fine sense of timing: aware of the failure of premature uprisings in Europe during World War Two, he held back his forces from insurrection against the Japanese and the French. Yet when the moment came he acted with decision: he entered Hanoi in late August – the first time he had ever set foot in the city – and proclaimed independence on 2 September. It was to prove short-lived, however. Though the OSS mission chief Archimedes Patti, who attended the Independence Day ceremony, described Ho in sympathetic terms – ‘Head high, wisps of hair and beard agitated by the slight breeze, and exerting a powerful emotional delivery’ – his reports to Washington, sent via the US military mission in Kunming in China, like those sent by the French observers to Paris, were, apparently, ignored. A French official later wrote that Ho’s declaration was ‘a bastard combination of bookish internationalism and chauvinistic patriotism, a mélange of intellectual Marxism and primitive social demands, corresponding exactly to the aspirations of a section of the backward masses of these Asiatic deltas’. Four days after Ho had declared independence the first British forces – Indian troops with British officers – landed in Saigon. On 9 September the first Chinese forces entered the country from the north. A stand-off ensued. Negotiations between Paris and the Communists continued even after the French returned in March 1946, but no common ground was found, and in December 1946 all-out fighting broke out.

The French held the cities but could not defeat the Communists, who received considerable support from across the frontier once the Kuomintang had been driven out of southern China in 1949. The rest, at an ever higher rate of casualties and civilian suffering, is the story for which Vietnam became known: the escalating war with the French culminating in the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954; the partition of the country in the same year into a Communist North and a Western-backed South; the restarting of guerrilla war by the Communists in the South in 1961, leading in 1965 to the despatch of over half a million US troops; the later negotiated withdrawal, completed in 1973, and the final Communist push for victory two years later.

From the perspective of August 1945, the question was not whether the North had the right to involve itself in the affairs of the South, but whether the Communist Party had the right to be in power in Vietnam at all. At no point from 1945 onwards was the answer to that question unequivocal: the Communists had taken the lead in proclaiming independence, and had a countrywide following. Yet they were only one among several political forces inside Vietnam, and came increasingly to clash with the others; in this sense the Saigon Government expressed nor a particular Southern interest so much as a broader opposition to the Communist claim to monopolise power.

It is impossible to read this story without wondering if things could have been different. Ho had originally tried to negotiate with the French and was at one point interested in de Gaulle’s proposal that Vietnam should have a transitional period still within the French empire before being given independence. Certainly, French policy, and that of the British and others who backed the reimposition of control, was based on the double illusion that Vietnamese nationalism could be crushed or contained, and that the French Indochinese empire could be restored. Had they held onto the whole country in 1945, the Communists would have established an authoritarian, if need be brutal, regime – their record makes that plain – and the many Vietnamese who did not want Communist rule would have fought them. But had it won independence sooner, and at less cost, Vietnam would have been spared much of the warfare of the next 30 years. It is also probable that, given the strength of local nationalism, and the geopolitics of the Communist world in Asia, Vietnam would have become relatively independent, wary of China on its northern frontier and far enough from the USSR to escape its hegemony – a sort of Indochinese Yugoslavia. One may also speculate about what would have happened had Roosevelt’s initial opposition to any restoration of French rule been sustained. The onset of the Cold War in 1947-8 and, even more, the victory of the Chinese Communists in 1949, meant that the US was no longer in favour of Vietnamese independence and that the Viet Minh correspondingly became more dependent on the USSR than it had been hitherto.

It has become common these days to deny either the validity or the reality of popular revolutions; yet the Vietnamese August, like the movements that brought down Communism in 1989, were exactly that – and both were made possible by a dramatic fissure in the system of military and political domination that had previously been in place. It is easy to say that the Vietnamese people were naive or misled about what such actions entailed. But when, after eighty years of colonial rule and six years of war and famine, they asserted their wish to live in an independent, united state, they took what was in some respects the less risky of two paths. The alternative was to let the French return, and then wait to be granted their freedom at some unknown date.