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.

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