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Vietnam - WWII and Japanese Occupation

The signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Agression pact in August 1939, caused France immediately to ban the French Communist Party and, soon afterwards, to declare illegal all Vietnamese political parties including the Indochina Communist Party [ICP]. The colonial authorities began a crack down on communists, arresting an estimated 2,000 and closing down all communist and radical journals. The party consequently was forced to shift its activities to the countryside, where French control was weaker--a move that was to benefit the communists in the long run. In November the ICP Central Committee held its Sixth Plenum with the goal of mapping out a new united front strategy, the chief task of which was national liberation. According to the new strategy, support would now be welcomed from the middle class and even the landlord class, although the foundation of the party continued to be the proletarian-peasant alliance.

With the outbreak of World War II, France was compelled to withdraw her best troops from Indochina in order to use them in the European theater. The result was that Indochina — particularly after France’s defeat in June 1940 — was left wide open to ever increasing Japanese pressures. As France collapsed, it was not as a casual onlooker that Japan viewed the debacle. Japan saw (with the clarity of insight of an Al Capone) that French Indo-China would need “protection” if it were to remain secure against the designs of unprincipled foreign powers who might seek to take advantage of France’s plight.

Zealously intent on her professed role of protector of the weak, she brushed aside the feebly conventional protests of the Vichy-appointed Governor General (Vice-Admiral Jean DeCoux) and began pouring in “protection” in the form of Japanese troops—to the eventual total of seventy thousand. Japan demanded that the French colonial government close the Hanoi-Kunming railway to shipments of war-related goods to China. The Japanese, in particular, sought to obtain control of the Haiphong—Yunnan railroad in order to attack Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s main supply bases around Kunming. Indeed the armistice with Germany had hardly been signed before a Japanese military mission under General Nishihara appeared in Hanoi.

In an agreement with the Vichy government in France in August 1940, Japan formally recognized French sovereignty in Indochina in return for access to military facilities, transit rights, and the right to station occupation troops in Tonkin. On 30 August 1940, Japan began to occupy a transit base at Haipbong and all major airfields of Tonkin. On 22 September 1940, however, Japanese troops invaded from China, seizing the Vietnamese border towns of Dong Dang and Lang Son. As the French retreated southward, the Japanese encouraged Vietnamese troops to support the invasion. The communists in the Bac Son district border area moved to take advantage of the situation, organizing self-defense units and establishing a revolutionary administration. The French protested to the Japanese, however, and a cease-fire was arranged whereby the French forces returned to their posts and promptly put down all insurrection. Most of the communist forces in Tonkin were able to retreat to the mountains. In similar short-lived uprisings that took place in the Plain of Reeds area of Cochinchina, however, the communist rebel forces had nowhere to retreat and most were destroyed by the French.

On 29 July 1941, Japan, further occupied naval and air bases at Saigon and Tourane, and shortly after Pearl Harbor, Indochina was in fact as much a Japanese-occupied territoryas any of the other southeast Asian countries which were overrun by the Japanese forces. The only difference being that the French still maintained their internal administration and lightly-armed military forces. It is estimated that the total French military forces available in Indochina did not exceed 15,000 men.

Even during the Japanese occupation of Viet Nam during World War II, both the Nationalists and Communists focused on building their own separate underground intelligence and guerrilla networks. The Vietminh, which was short for Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or Vietnamese League for Independence, was founded in May 1941. It was technically an umbrella organization under which nationalist, socialist, peasant, student, and other organizations combined to fi ght the Japanese, who had taken control of the country from its colonial overlords, the French. In reality, the Vietminh were led by a small handful of Communists, two of whom would fi gure prominently in America’s war in Vietnam. The first was Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the principal founders of the Vietminh and leader of its tiny military force. The other was Ho Chi Minh.

While in China early in World War II, Ho was imprisoned by the Kuomintang for his affiliation with the Communists. In 1943 the Nationalists released Ho to return to Vietnam with the expectation that he would foment trouble against the Japanese and send intelligence reports from Vietnam. Ho's return to Vietnam, under Chinese auspices, bore a remarkable similarity to Lenin's sealed-train ride under German auspices to Russia during the Great War. The Americans liked Ho and the Vietminh and were impressed by their enthusiasm and ability to learn quickly. They knew Ho was a Communist, but this was not an issue at the time because the United States was allied with the Communist Soviet Union in the war against Germany. If one could accept Joseph Stalin as an ally, then Ho was not a problem.

The Americans also knew that Ho was first and foremost a nationalist, dedicated to freeing his country from all foreign control. During the war, that meant fighting the Japanese; after the war, it would be the French if they chose to try to reassert colonial control over Vietnam. Ho’s anti-Japanese resistance fighters helped to rescue downed American pilots and furnished information on Japanese forces in Indochina. On 10 August 1944 the Viet Minh (Viet Nam Independence League) called on the Vietnamese people to take up arms and contribute money to buy weapons to fight against Japanese occupation. Ho and Giap were simultaneously fighting the Japanese, while slowly extending Vietminh political control over much of northern Vietnam. Though he did make trouble for the Japanese, Ho's primary purpose was to organize the Vietminh to seize power in Vietnam after the departure of the Japanese, an aim he successfully achieved.

Backed (and confronted) by Japanese "protection", the Vichy-appointed Governor General Vice-Admiral Jean DeCoux maintained for four and a half years an outward semblance of French sovereignty; presenting to the world the seeming anomaly of a colony surviving the downfall of its mother country. By early March 1945, however, the disastrous course of the war made it necessary for Japan to revise her plans. The new government in France had been singularly unappreciative of the trouble Japan had gone to in providing protection for Indo-China; and the presence of the existing French Indo-Chinese Army under General Alessandri (15,000 French & 35,000 natives) might prove more than embarrassing to the Japanese in the event of an Allied landing. In view of this situation Japan decided to ring down the curtain on Act I of the Indo-China farce and shift the props in preparation for the next scene—in which (coached by her far-seeing empire-builders) she would play her best loved role, “The Emancipator.”

With the war situation turning to the advantage of the Allies, the Japanese decided to eliminate the slight threat to their communications lines which the small colonial army represented, and on 9 March 1945, Japanese troops and secret police wiped out all French resistance. Only a few units succeeded in escaping the Japanese and succeeded in fighting their way through the jungle into Free China. Among these units was a task force of a few thousand men under the command of Generals Sabatier and Alessandri. At the same time, all French administrators and civil servants, as well as most of the white or Eurasian civilian population, were imprisoned in various internment camps. Some of these internment camps achieved a notoriety in the Far East comparable to that of Dachau and Buchenwald in Europe. In less than two months all resistance had ended, except for the desultory efforts by remnants under General Alessandri, and a military regime was established, with the Japanese Ambassador and six Consuls General serving as “advisors” to the Japanese Army.

While the Japanese eliminated the French, the various nationalist and Communist groups began to reorganize themselves in order to take over as rapidly as possible whatever regions the Japanese did not occupy. Soon, such groups controlled seven provinces in Upper Tonkin as well as large tracts of land in Annam. The elimination of the French brought about a complete breakdown of Allied intelligence which, hitherto had mainly relied upon its French contacts and this factor favored the activities of these groups. The new situation resulted in contacts between the gurerrillas and OSS as well as Chinese Nationalist intelligence groups. Many new weapons (bazookas, submachine guns) as well as radio sets and instructors were parachuted to them so that certain of the guerrilla units soon gained an appreciable amount of combat strength and efficiency. No distinction was made as to whether the groups in question were subordinated to a recognized liberation movement or whether they pursued aims of their own or of a particular political party. As it happens, it was the Communist groups under their Moscow-trained leader Ho Chi Minh which possessed not only the necessary strength but also the adequate purposeful leadership necessary to exploit the existing situation to the fullest.

Eager to play to an appreciative audience (before the Allies might arrive) her role espousing the cause of freedom, Japan by mid-March 1945 had set upon gilded if unstable thrones the Kings of Cambodia, Luang Prabang (Laos) and the Emperor of Annam, and in her solicitude for these heretofore-oppressed peoples, offered counsel and guidance to the carefully selected government Cabinets. Japan’s actors however, proved more eager than artful, and their performance was disturbed by increasingly rude heckling of the Etsumei (Annamese Independence League). This anti-French organization (ignored by the Japanese in forming the Annamese Cabinet) had waited long years for independence and was to be neither deceived nor appeased now by the Japanese counterfeit. (Apparently deluded themselves, the Japanese reported aggrievedly to Tokyo that “the Anmanese have gone so far as to question Japan’s real motives.”)

The Annamese Emperor, Bao Dai (who, the Japanese learned to their dismay, was “not nearly as weak-minded as the French had said”) recognized the importance of political harmony, and proceeded to reorganize his Cabinet to include some members of the Etsumei. The latter, however, were not to be thus easily stilled, and in addition to demands for lower taxes, release of Japanese Army rice for civilian consumption, etc., began clamoring for extension of Annamese sovereignty to the long-claimed States of Tonkin and Cochin-China. By July (1945) popular support for this last issue had become so strong that the Cabinet threatened to resign, being dissuaded only by a Japanese promise to “restore” the desired areas to Annam by September 1945.

A further cause of Etsumei dissatisfaction and no little suspicion, was the return from Tokyo (after many years of exile for anti-French activities) of pro-Japanese Prince Cuong De. It was feared that the Japanese (in an effort to rectify their mistake in crowning Bao Dai), intended to install Cuong De as Emperor. The Japanese Army, ever disdainful of the Japanese Foreign Office and uninterested in these endless political artifices, saw in the Etsumei’s defiant attitude an affront to its dignity, and began making large-scale arrests. The Etsumei thereupon adopted a more aggressive attitude and, after a series of minor incidents, seized arms and ammunition from Emperor Bao Dai’s native Security Units (who had been armed by the Japanese). Thus equipped, the Etsumei on 24 July made what appears to have been a fairly large-scale surprise attack on Japanese troops in Tonkin, with resultant casualties to both sides. Before the Japanese Army could carry out extensive punitive measures against the Etsumei, rumors of Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam Ultimatum began to spread amongst the Army officials.

On 6 August 1945 the first atom bomb gave the signal of the beginning of the end of Japan’s military might. On the following day, Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas became the “Vietnam Liberation Army,” a shadow government, called the "Vietnam People’s Liberation Committee" was set up during the following days. On 15 August 1945 Japan accepted the Allies' terms of unconditional surrender, ending World War II. That same day, the National Insurrection Committee called on all Vietnamese people to rise up against Japanese occupation. Vietnamese revolutionary forces rise up against Japanese occupation in World War II and seize power in the provincial capitals of Bac Giang, Hai Duong, Ha Tinh, Quang Nam, and My Tho provinces. From August 14 to 18, the general insurrection, later known as the August Revolution, spread to rural areas in the north, most of Central Viet Nam and parts of the south, to be crowned with complete victory on 19 August 1945.

By 20 August 1945, the Vietminh solidly held the whole north of Vietnam (as the three coastal territories of Indochina colleively was now called) while the Japanese quietly abandoned their puppets to shift for themselves. On 25 August 1945 Bao Dai abdicated; his Cabinet resigned and the Etsumei established the “Provisional Government of the Viet Nam Republic” headed by President Ho Chi Minh.” After Bao Dai’s abdication he became an advisor to the Provisional Government, living in Hanoi under the assumed name of Prince Eisui.

On 25 August, a "Provisional Executive Committee for South Vietnam,” including seven Communists among its nine members, took control of Saigon. Within a fortnight after Hiroshima, the red flag of the Vietminh flewover all of Vietnam. In the wake of the Japanese surrender, Ho Chi Minh took advantage of the facility vacuum and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. On Sept 2nd, 1945, President Ho Chi Minh read the Independence Manifesto declaring the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam at Ba Dinh Square. The election held under Vietminh auspices during January 1946 brought an overwhelming victory to the Vietminh.

US Army officers stood at Ho’s side in August 1945 as he basked in the short-lived satisfaction of declaring Vietnam’s independence. American support for Ho was illusionary. President Franklin Roosevelt had opposed returning Vietnam to French colonial rule, but he did not necessarily support independence for Vietnam; he had suggested a United Nations protectorate, or even temporary control by China. When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, so did any resolve by the US government to prevent a French return to Vietnam. His successor, Harry Truman, was more concerned with stability in a postwar Europe than with dismantling French colonial rule in Indochina.

The victorious allied forces determined that the Nationalist Chinese would occupy North Vietnam and the British the south. The frequently witnessed Chinese-Vietnamese drama -- in which China seeks to control Vietnam while the Vietnamese maneuver to rid themselves of that control -- was re-enacted in 1945-1946. In accordance with an Allied agreement made at Potsdam, Chinese Nationalist forces entered Tongkin, in North Vietnam, after the Japanese defeat, supposedly to disarm the Japanese in the territory southto the 16th parallel. The Nationalists sent a force of some 180,000 men under General Lu Han, their wives and children, a band of porters, and few supplies. They selected the best living quarters, lived off the land, looted, and blackmarketed. They liquidated locally at a handsome profit the weapons, ammunition, and equipment seized from the surrendered Japanese. Purchase of some of these stocks by the Vietminh helped arm them for future hostilities.

Ho Chi Minh, who had created the Vietminh guerrilla force to combat the Japanese, correctly perceived that a Chinese presence in Vietnam’s heartland posed a significant threat. Though the Japanese invasion had ended practically a century of oppressive colonial rule by France, he had no hesitation in making a take care of the hated French to take over North Vietnam for yet another 5 years. When challenged to justify such seemingly perverse behavior, he famously replied “Higher to smell French shit for the subsequent five years than eat Chinese shit for the remainder of my life”.

The French, too, had an obvious interest in Chinese withdrawal from Vietnam. The latter therefore were in a position to extract important concessions from the French. In exchange for their departure by March 31, 1946, the Chinese gained the French renunciation of extraterritorial rights and concessions in China. Although his analysis of the comparative strengths of the French and Chinese was precise, he misjudged the timing. The French predictably reneged on the deal and, with British assist, attempted to re-colonies Vietnam. It took an additional nine years of bitter preventing till the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu finally drove the colonialists out of the country.

Chinese Communist support for the Vietminh against the French between 1946 and 1954, though estimated at less than 20 percent of Vietminh supplies (and perhaps one-ninth of the amount contributed by the United States to the French war effort), contributed significantly to the Vietminh success. Whether Chinese assistance, tangible or intangible, was indispensable to the Vietminh victory is impossible to judge.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:20:13 ZULU