Vietnam Notebook: World War II Years (1940-1945)

Hồ Chí Minh (right) with Vo Nguyen Giap (left)...

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1940, World War II comes to Vietnam:

France had been humiliated by the Germans in the Battle of France in May-June 1940. In June, the government of Marshall Henri-Phillipe Pétain signed a surrender agreement with the Germans. Pétain then went about setting up his puppet government in its new capital of Vichy. Next, foreigners, left-wing activists, jews and supporters of Charles de Gaulle were hunted down and jailed, or worse. Marshall Pétain then proceeded to rule nominally at home and in the colonies at the behest of his German, and later, Japanese, masters.

One of Pétain’s first acts was to appoint a new governor general for the French colony in Vietnam– Admiral Jean Decoux, former Commander-in-Chief of France’s Far Eastern Fleet and, like Pétain, a devout fascist. Decoux was an insider, he was very supportive of the Vichy leadership’s actions, including the decree changing the national slogan Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) to Travail, Famille, Patrie (Work, Family, Nation).

Jean Decoux’s first assignment was to rattle his saber at the japanese. That turned out to be a mistake. Ever since its invasion of Manchuria in 1931 Japan had waged a vicious war of subjugation against the Chinese people. To accomplish it Japan was obliged to encroach increasingly on French sovereignty in Vietnam. In the eyes of the newly installed Vichy leadership the former French colonial administrator, Georges Catroux, had already given too much ground to the power hungry Japanese. It was Decoux’s job to turn the tide.

For their part, the Japanese had a long-standing grudge against the French for allowing military supplies into Haiphong Harbor bound for Chinese troops. Now the mighty French had been over-run and subjugated by the Germans, and the Japanese were intent on capitalizing. They gave Decoux his audience, they listened to his condescending language and tough talk, and then they turned on him. The Japanese demanded control of the ports of Haiphong and Saigon, the right of passage on French railways, and control of key French airfields. They made their requirements painfully clear to Decoux.

When a prompt settlement was not forthcoming they attacked in September 1940. A short yet bloody series of battles was fought in the areas north of Hanoi along the Chinese-Vietnamese border between Japanese and French colonial troops. Interestingly, the initial Japanese invasion spawned a guerrilla uprising among Tho tribesmen near Lang Son directed against the French. Some of the guerrilla bands were led by communists, harassing French troops as they retreated.  In addition, accompanying the Japanese were partisans of Prince Cuong De who had been living in exile in Japan. The French collapsed and quickly came to terms with the Japanese. With that settled, the Japanese abruptly turned on the their former guerrilla allies and assisted in suppressing the uprising.

The Japanese had made their point. But they didn’t want the burden of running the country– after all, they were actively involved in multiple wars of expansion– they had neither the administrative or military manpower to spare. As long as China’s southern borders remained closed to aid they were happy. So, the Japanese just left the prostrate French administrative bureaucracy in place, including the dreaded Sûreté. The French would govern but they would still report to the Japanese.

One dirty trick that was repeated throughout the war was the issuing of orders to peasants to plant less rice. The Japanese needed jute for course fabric; they needed corn to distill into alcohol; they needed rubber for tires and gaskets. The French did as they were told and rice production declined drastically.  The consequences were terrible. There were several famines during the course of the occupation, the worst of which, ironically, was to be a prominent factor in the downfall of the Japanese in the waning days of the war in 1945.

The collapse of the French, first against the Germans and then the Japanese, led to a wave of enthusiasm among the Vietnamese communists.  Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) wrote from Kunming in China that the humiliation of French arms had produced widespread rejoicing in Vietnam. He posited that the moment might be right to plan for a serious armed struggle. Ho wrote to the Chinese Communist Party leaders asking  for Chinese assistance. And so it came to pass that Communist cells in Vietnam began planning for a mass uprising which would happen in the fall.

Nam Ky Uprising:

The idea was for an armed communist assault that would trigger mass desertions and mutiny among Vietnamese colonial troops, leading to a national uprising. If this sounds familiar, it should, the Viets would try this tactic many times over, most famously in 1968 in the Tet Offensive, and again in 1972 in the Easter Offensive, each time with less than favorable results. Nam Ky would be no different. Why? Because the French Sûreté had learned of the plans.

On the 30th of July, 1940, in a raid on ICP Central Headquarters in Saigon, the French police arrested Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, a long time revolutionary and reputed wife of Ho Chi Minh. Documents in her possession gave the French their first detailed evidence of the planned uprising. They were to put their advance warning to good use. After studying the information gained from the seized documents, the French were ready for the Nam Ky Uprising. The ICP’s plans were dashed on the shoals of Sûreté ruthlessness and efficiency.  The wave of arrests and executions that followed destroyed the Communist infrastructure in Vietnam for years.

The party’s center of gravity moved back over the border into China. Ho Chi Minh and his fellow expatriate party members began anew the rigorous task of rebuilding the organization. Success would require Ho to rebuild the party apparatus, replenish membership, forge new contacts, and plan the path toward a new, more vigorous, Vietnamese liberation movement.

World War II – 1941-1945:

The Communist Party of Vietnam chose Cao Bang province as its primary base. The remote region featured a jagged, jungle dominated terrain that offered great protection. Pac Bo, located 35 miles north of Cao Bang, was the command center for the revolutionary movement between 1941 and 1945. In February 1941, Ho Chi Minh and a band of supporters reportedly re-entered Vietnam from China and set up headquarters in a cave near Pac Bo. Ho had left his beloved country as a young man nearly thirty years before and now he was returning at the helm of what would become the Vietnamese nation’s liberating army– some of those with him would go on to lead troops in battle, others would help form the black-clad guerrilla units that grew to 10,000 strong and became part of the Vietminh juggernaut. Ho immediately began developing the party line and expanding his influence. He recruited tribal minorities and bandits into the ranks. This was the beginning of a new popular front movement.

The Thai-French War, 9 January-11 March 1941:

The Thais had also suffered territorial losses to the French, most recently in 1907. They paid close attention to events in their neighborhood and saw their opening with the dispute between the French and Japanese in Vietnam. They promptly sided with the Japanese. They appealed to the Japanese for support regarding Thai territory claims. And, for reasons unknown, the Japanese consented to help. In fact, the Japanese went so far as to encourage the Thais to recover their territorial losses by force of arms.

In January of 1941, the Thais attacked, retaking large chunks of land in northwest Cambodia and extreme northwestern Laos. A brigade-strength French counterattack was repelled. It was a great land victory for the Thai forces. Unfortunately, events played out differently for them at sea. The French light cruiser Suffren engaged the Thai Navy in the Gulf of Siam and proceeded to sink most of the fleet. At that point the Japanese stepped in and dictated a peace settlement. To their horror the French were forced to relinquish all of the territory the Thais had seized in Cambodia and Laos. Some of this land is in dispute to this day, sometimes violently.

The Fluid Political Situation:

In June 1941 German forces invaded the Soviet Union, thus negating the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and widening the war. This had the effect of focusing Soviet attention exclusively on the defense of the motherland. For Asia the fallout was indirect, basically, Vietnamese communists would henceforth be on their own. For the time being they could no longer look to the Comintern for support or guidance.

Ho moved to consolidate his hold on power at this time.  In May, he convened a Plenum of the Central Committee of the ICP. The meeting, which is treated with reverence in Vietnamese national lore, was held in the cave at Pac Bo. Under Ho’s tutelage, the Plenum adopted the “Vietminh Policy,” ratifying the re-activation of the Vietminh.  This was an important moment of fusion– Ho and his communist comrades had successfully integrated the ICP into a united front with Vietnamese nationalist parties for the purpose of fighting for national self-determination. Ho spent the next several years faithfully building-up his popular front movement– always with an eye toward furthering his own position of power when things were all said and done.

More: A Mission of Vengeance: Vichy French in Indochina in WWII

In the meantime, by fall 1944, the Germans were in full retreat, DeGaulle was back in Paris, and the Americans had gained the upper hand in the Pacific. The U.S. had been sending periodic bomb runs against Japanese bases in Vietnam throughout the war, but now they stepped up the pressure. It had the unintended consequence of causing severe disruptions in the Vietnamese economy. How? Vietnam’s salvation in tough times, especially during famines, had always been bolstered by the practice of stockpiling surplus rice. In desperate times the ability to transfer surplus rice from the South to the North had always provided protection against mass starvation. But the US had mounted raids from carrier aircraft up and down the Vietnamese coast. The US Navy patrolled coastal shipping lanes and destroyed the rail lines. The trade routes were suddenly closed off. To make matters worse, there had been a miserable harvest in northern Vietnam; flooding washed out many of the dams and dikes that were essential to the paddy crop. And, as mentioned earlier, the Japanese, working through the French authorities, continued the ill-conceived policy of forcing farmers to plant crops that were useful for their war economy instead of rice. Tragically, even though things weren’t so bad in the South, the surplus rice from the Mekong Delta still couldn’t get north, leading to  widespread starvation. Ho Chi Minh was later to tell OSS Major Archimedes Patti that a million Vietnamese died of starvation during the autumn and winter of 1944-45. Other eyewitness accounts detail peasants eating roots and bark and bodies littering city streets and the countryside.

Japanese Coup de Main, March 9, 1945:

To recap: in 1940 the Japanese crushed colonial French forces in a series of battles along the Vietnam-China border and took de facto control of the country. From 1940 through 1944, Vietnam was administered by French colonial officials at the behest of their Japanese superiors. Then, in the summer of 1944 Charles de Gaulle was returned to power by the Allies. The Germans and Japanese were clearly on the run.

The governor general for the French colony in Vietnam, Admiral Jean Decoux, a hold-over from the Vichy regime, pleaded with de Gaulle officials that he be allowed to continue his policy of placating the Japanese. Decoux hoped the Japanese would eventually withdraw from Vietnam as their fortunes continued to decline. He did not want to provoke them. Instead, the fascist admiral was stripped of his powers as governor general. To add insult to injury he was ordered to maintain his post– but only as a figurehead with orders to deceive the Japanese. Real power thereafter rested with General Eugene Mordant, who became the de Gaulle government’s delegate in Vietnam and the head of all resistance and underground activities. The French army and a civilian underground then began a concerted effort to rescue American fliers shot down over Vietnam. Toward that end, a signal (spy) network emerged that in time began to supply high-grade information to U.S. and French intelligence groups. The French underground in Indochina went on to rescue quite a few downed pilots from Japanese clutches.

Not surprisingly, the Japanese were not pleased with this development. The final straw came for them when six U.S. navy aviators were shot down in January 1945 over Saigon during a raid against Japanese targets nearby. All six fliers were picked up by French military authorities and housed in the central French prison of Saigon for safe keeping. Despite enormous pressure from the Japanese to surrender the men, the French refused. When French army intelligence learned that the Japanese were preparing to storm the prison to take the men by force, the men were smuggled out of the prison and hidden.

As Decoux had feared, his refusal to surrender the fliers was one of the reasons used by the Japanese military command to overthrow his government in Indochina. In addition, the Japanese Kempatai had allegedly uncovered a plot against them attributed to Mordant. The Japanese could no longer trust Decoux to control his subordinates. Despite desperate last-minute negotiating by Admiral Decoux the Japanese moved against the French army and administration, taking both by surprise. The French Army in Vietnam was easily destroyed; its soldiers were executed or imprisoned and tortured. Mordant and Decoux were imprisoned as well.

Code-named MEI GO, or Operation Moonlight. the Japanese coup de main was launched on March 9, 1945, a pivotal date in Vietnamese history. Historian Bernard Fall describes the events:

” All that remained in the memory of Allied statesmen was that the French had signed an agreement with the Japanese and thus had “collaborated.” Was there a ban on helping the French recapture their colony in Vietnam? Fall continues: “Secretary of State Cordell Hull noted in his memoirs, the President (FDR) instructed him on October 13, 1944, that “nothing” was to be done “in regard to resistance groups or in any other way in relation to Indochina.”

“Thus, when the Japanese, in a surprise attack on March 9, 1945, destroyed and captured whatever French troops and administrators remained in Indochina, this order apparently was executed to the letter, in spite of the desperate please for help by the succumbing French Garrisons. In the words of General Claire L. Chennault, of the 14th Air Force: “orders arrived from Theater headquarters stating that no arms and ammunition would be provided to the French troops under any circumstances.” (Note: evidence emerged later that Chennault disobeyed orders and did provide some assistance to the French unfortunates).

” Northern garrisons, which had hidden some of their heavy weapons in secret caches and were on a permanent alert status, fought to the death; At Lang Son, the Japanese in a blind rage beheaded French General Lemonnier. A small body of troops under General Alessandri fought its way out to Yunnan, only to be interned by the Chinese Nationalists as if they were unfriendly aliens instead of allies.”

“On March 11, 1945, the Japanese forced the Emperor of Annam to proclaim the end of the French protectorate and the “independence” of his country under Japanese “protection.” The Spell of French overlordship in Indochina was broken forever.” — Bernard Fall: Street Without Joy

The emperor the Japanese installed in power to carry out the aforementioned edict was none other than Bao Dai. Brought out of exile by the Japanese for the occasion, Bao Dai, who was supposed to be a puppet, ruled under Japanese auspices. The government was staffed primarily with Vietnamese and Chinese bureaucrats but the key positions of power were of course held by Japanese. For example, a Japanese general appointed himself governor general; the French police were replaced by the Kempetai– the Japanese dismissed all European policemen and replaced them with trusted locals or with their own troops. An interesting aside– Bao Dai offered the premiership to future South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem twice and was twice refused.

Bao Dai’s record would be at best mixed over the years to come, but at this particular juncture he pulled a diplomatic coup of his own. He proclaimed himself emperor of all Vietnam. For the Japanese, Tonkin and Annam were not at issue, Bao Dai could have them, but the Japanese argued that rubber and rice rich Cochinchina should remain separate and in their hands. Bao Dai stood his ground, arguing that Cochinchina should be part of a unified Vietnam. It was in their own interests to prop up their new vassal in the eyes of his people and so the Japanese obliged. After all they reasoned, surely Bao Dai knew who was really in charge. At that point Vietnam became, for the first time since Tu Duc ceded the Mekong Delta provinces to the French in 1862, a unified country.

In the midst of these events a terrible famine had been raging since the fall of 1944. Now, in the chaos of events surrounding the coup de main, the Vietminh and their operatives organized raiding parties and led them against French and Japanese rice stocks throughout the country. The rulers had been stockpiling rice it seems while the peasants starved to death in the streets. The tables were turned and the peasants seized larges caches of rice. The Vietminh were seen as a revolutionary force for good by the people. They would maintain that aura for decades to come, but it may have begun here.

Ho Chi Minh and The OSS:

The appearance of the OSS:

By Late 1944 the United States’ principal intelligence organization in the China-Burma-India theater was the the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), brain-child of legendary intelligence officer William J. Donovan. The primary base was located in Kunming, a forward operating HQ in southern China. The agents stationed there were to assist in rescuing downed Allied pilots and develop intelligence on the Japanese in northern Indochina as part of operation CARBONADO, a plan to invade the Japanese islands that never went off.  The OSS section was under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Helliwell.

Remember, de Gaulle had been re-installed in power in Paris and had called for the French underground in Indochina to assist in rescuing downed Allied pilots. A solid spy network had been constructed in Vietnam that was actively transmitting good intelligence on the Japanese. As time passed the OSS gained increasing access to the output of the underground. Pilots were rescued. Then suddenly in March 1945 the flow of information ceased without warning. The Japanese had launched their coupe de main in Vietnam.

Grasping for a new strategy, Helliwell turned to Major Archimedes Patti. The American Major was a veteran intelligence officer who had fought along side the French Resistance behind enemy lines in France. It didn’t take him long to discover that the only group left in northern Vietnam with a well organized covert network was the Vietminh! He initiated a meeting with Ho Chi Minh in Kunming and agreed in principle to support the Vietminh with a Special Operations Team in return for intelligence.  The result was the Deer Team, composed  of a dozen elite OSS operatives under the leadership of  Major Allison B. Thomas. Deer parachuted into the Viet Bac in Northern Vietnam on 16 July, 1945 and began training Ho’s cadres.

On of the more interesting, dare I say ironic, results of Deer Team’s visit to Ho Chi Minh’s rough camp was the life-saving treatment that one of the group’s members, Pfc. Paul Hoagland, an American medic, gave to “Uncle Ho.” His skin yellowed, his complexion haggard, the seemingly old man had difficulty rising from his bed to greet his visitors. Maj. Thomas assigned Hoagland to care for the Viet Minh leader. The army medic would later say that he made a good guess and decided Ho’s symptoms of high fever and diarrhea might be a combination of malaria, maybe some dengue fever, and, of course, dysentery. The fifty-five year old Ho was in pretty bad shape when Hoagland arrived to treat him. But, thanks primarily to the drugs and quinine that Hoagland carried in his bag, Ho returned to health with amazing quickness.

The Deer Team was not the only American outfit operating in northern Vietnam in the summer of 1945. They were preceded by an Air Ground Aid Service (AGAS) team deployed to set up escape and evasion networks for downed American flyers. They were part of a long-term intelligence operation known as Gordon-Bernard-Tan (GBT), begun earlier in the war in the Pacific with the aid of some Texaco employees. (Note: months earlier, in February 1945, Ho Chi Minh had traveled to Kunming, specifically to further contact with the Americans at GBT. Ho walked a distance of well over 100 miles, all while avoiding Japanese patrols. Many first hand accounts of Ho in these days emphasize his ephemeral nature. Clearly he had to have been a fascinating character to these men steeped in spy-craft.)

Then, in August 1945, the history of the world was altered abruptly. The first atomic bomb hit Hiroshima on 6 August. The second hit Nagasaki on the 9th. The Japanese informally announced their willingness to sue for peace the next day. On the 15th, Emperor Hirohito made his announcement to the Japanese people, ordering them to stand down. With that a power vacuum was created in Vietnam. Within a month Ho Chi Minh would seize power in Hanoi and declare independence for all of Vietnam. In the south, events in Saigon played out differently with the net result being a French comeback. The events of these crucial days set the French and the Vietminh on the collision course that ended in war. In order to better understand these two threads it is necessary to look at the next series of events in the north and south separately and in some detail:

Tonkin (North Vietnam):

Ho Chi Minh and his men reacted quickly to the opening presented by the sudden collapse of the Japanese in Asia. Ho called for the convening of a Vietminh congress in the days following the atomic attacks and the Japanese surrender. Ho and his vanguard of cadres were ardent Vietnamese nationalists, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that they were also communists. The rank and file Vietminh were different however. In fact, Ho and the communists weren’t firmly in control of all elements of the Vietminh at this early stage, particularly in the south.

Yet, it required unity, organization, and cooperation to quickly pull together a force strong enough to march on Hanoi. Was the Vietminh sufficiently constituted to rise to the occasion? Ho pulled it off magnificently, with high levels of tactical coordination. He did so by masterfully executing the popular front strategy. By directing the focus of the disparate factions on a common goal, Ho was able to rally the insurrection around the ideal of Vietnamese nationalism. It worked. Then, in time, Ho and his Communists slowly gained complete control of the Vietminh– primarily through bloodshed and intimidation.

The Communist Party Congress met on 13 August at Ho’s headquarters at Tan Trao, in the jungle north of the Red River Delta.  It issued General Order Number 1, proclaiming the surrender of the “Japanese fascists;” a call for a general insurrection was made; and a forthcoming Vietminh Congress was announced. Ho then convened the Vietminh Congress three days later, on August 16, the day after the Japanese had formally announced their intent to surrender.  In popular front fashion the congress was open to all denominations: Catholics, Communists, Nationalists and VNQDD veterans to name a few.

The crafty political veteran had cleverly planned his grand strategy.  In meetings with Archimedes Patti back in Kunming the previous autumn, Ho had managed to talk Patti out of a small number of Colt .45 semi-automatic pistols. To what end?  It was well known among the Vietnamese that Ho was working with the Americans. The Colt .45 automatic was a symbol of US military might; possibly the best military hand gun in the world at the time.  The guns were a powerful visual symbol of Ho’s pull with the U.S.

But the guns were not the only card Uncle Ho had up his sleeve. In the days following the Japanese coup de main in March, one of Ho’s rewards for rescuing downed pilots and providing intelligence was the granting of his request to meet General Claire Chennault. Chennault was the charismatic leader of the Flying Tigers. He had attained legendary status among the Vietnamese for his daring exploits over in Asia in WWII. The plotting Ho had a plan, he asked the famous, apparently vain, General for an autographed picture. The flattered Chennault quickly consented. Now, months later, at a key foundational moment in the Party’s history, Ho made sure the picture was prominently displayed at the Vietminh Congress along with the guns, housed in their distinctive holsters embossed with the familiar “U.S.” logo. This brilliant ploy served to heighten the impression that the U.S. was behind Ho’s bid for leadership and Vietnamese independence.

At the Vietminh Congress the goal of seizing power in Hanoi was approved. To that end Vo Nguyen Giap was dispatched, along with his Armed Propaganda Team, for Hanoi. This rag tag bunch of insurgents were the seed from which the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) would grow. But that was in the future, in 1945 they were still green. Major Thomas ordered his Deer Team to accompany Giap and his men, they actually engaged in combat with the Japanese along the way. He did so in direct violation of OSS orders not to engage. The march took more than a week. Giap’s arrival in Hanoi accompanied by Thomas and the Deer Team once again reinforced the popular impression that the U.S. was assisting the Vietminh.

On August 17 the communists invaded a rally in Hanoi organized by supporters of Bao Dai. There were over 25,000 people at the rally. The Communist agitators rushed the stage, grabbed the microphone, and ran the government sympathizers off the stage.  The crowd was there looking for any kind of leadership available in a time of crisis, so the gathering quickly became a Vietminh rally. Vietminh speakers were energized by events and quickly called for independence from the defeated Japanese. In reality, the Japanese were still in control of the city, but, curiously did nothing to interfere.

At this moment, while General Giap and Major Thomas were leading their men through jungle and fighting on the road to Hanoi, the first Americans arrived in Hanoi. Major Archimedes Patti landed with a combined OSS /AGAS team at Gia Lam airport on August 22nd. The OSS agent was accompanied by a team of five Frenchmen under Major Jean Sainteny, head of French intelligence in Kunming. Patti immediately moved to recognize the Vietminh as the de facto government with Ho Chi Minh as it’s head. That did not sit well with the French interlopers. And soon after, the French officers were identified as enemies by the Vietminh. Sainteny and his men were promptly tracked down put under house arrest by the Vietminh. When the French Major appealed to Patti for help he was largely rebuffed by the emboldened American agent. For their part, the Vietminh jailers insisted they were confining the French for their own safety, to protect them from the murderous sentiments of their former subordinates. If the French were upset at this treatment, they would soon be infuriated when Patti refused to force the Japanese to release the 4,500 French POWs captured in the March coup de main.

Amid the chaos of events there was a fair amount of blood being spilled, much of it was coming from former supporters of the French. Vietminh cadres likely ordered executions, others were spontaneous, either way it was a bad time to be known as a colonial collaborator. One of those who perished violently was Ngo Dinh Khoi. Khoi had served as a governor in the French administration of Vietnam. He was buried alive by the Communists, along with his son, for refusing to join the Vietminh. Khoi was the brother of Ngo Dinh Diem, future president of South Vietnam.

Ho issued an ultimatum to Bao Dai to abdicate. The playboy emperor meekly complied on August 23rd, the day after Patti’s arrival in Hanoi. To reinforce the change in the eyes of the people Bao Dai officially transferred his imperial seal and other trappings of rule to Ho Chi Minh. In return for his cooperation, Ho awarded Bao Dai, now “Citizen Vinh Thuy”, the title of Supreme Counselor.  It was ceremonial position that carried no weight.

September 2, 1945, while MacArthur was accepting Japan’s formal surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Ho, who had entered Hanoi inauspiciously earlier in the week, proclaimed Vietnamese independence in front of tens of thousands at the Ba Dình flower garden (now the Ba Dình Square). Ho’s proclamation:

“To the compatriots of the entire country,

All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of the French Revolution made in 1791 also states: All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.
Those are undeniable truths.
Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.
In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty.
They have enforced inhuman laws; they have set up three distinct political regimes in the North, the Center, and the South of Viet-Nam in order to wreck our national unity and prevent our people from being united.
They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slaughtered our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in bloodbaths.
They have fettered public opinion; they have practiced obscurantism against our people.
To weaken our race they have forced us to use opium and alcohol.
In the field of economics, they have fleeced us to the backbone, impoverished our people and devastated our land.
They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials. They have monopolized the issuing of bank notes and the export trade.
They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people, especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty.
They have hampered the prospering of our national bourgeoisie; they have mercilessly exploited our workers.
In the autumn of 1940, when the Japanese fascists violated Indochina’s territory to establish new bases in their fight against the Allies, the French imperialists went down on their bended knees and handed over our country to them. Thus, from that date, our people were subjected to the double yoke of the French and the Japanese. Their sufferings and miseries increased. The result was that, from the end of last year to the beginning of this year, from Quảng Trị Province to the North of Viet-Nam, more than two million of our fellow citizens died from starvation.
On March 9 [1945], the French troops were disarmed by the Japanese. The French colonialists either fled or surrendered, showing that not only were they incapable of “protecting” us, but that, in the span of five years, they had twice sold our country to the Japanese.
On several occasions before March 9, the Việt Minh League urged the French to ally themselves with it against the Japanese. Instead of agreeing to this proposal, the French colonialists so intensified their terrorist activities against the Việt Minh members that before fleeing they massacred a great number of our political prisoners detained at Yên Bái and Cao Bằng.
Notwithstanding all this, our fellow citizens have always manifested toward the French a tolerant and humane attitude. Even after the Japanese Putsch of March, 1945, the Việt Minh League helped many Frenchmen to cross the frontier, rescued some of them from Japanese jails, and protected French lives and property.
From the autumn of 1940, our country had in fact ceased to be a French colony and had become a Japanese possession. After the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, our whole people rose to regain our national sovereignty and to found the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam.
The truth is that we have wrested our independence from the Japanese and not from the French.
The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated, Emperor Bảo Đại has abdicated. Our people have broken the chains which for nearly a century have fettered them and have won independence for the Fatherland. Our people at the same time have overthrown the monarchic regime that has reigned supreme for dozens of centuries. In its place has been established the present Democratic Republic.
For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government, representing the whole Vietnamese people, declare that from now on we break off all relations of a colonial character with France; we repeal all the international obligation that France has so far subscribed to on behalf of Viet-Nam, and we abolish all the special rights the French have unlawfully acquired in our Fatherland.
The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer the country.
We are convinced that the Allied nations, which at Teharan and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Viet-Nam.
A people who have courageously opposed French domination for more than eighty years, a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the fascists during these last years, such a people must be free and independent!
For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam, solemnly declare to the world that:
Viet-Nam has the right to be a free and independent country—and in fact it is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.” — Ho Chi Minh – Hanoi, September 2, 1945

Up on the stage, clear for all to see, OSS Major Archimedes Patti  stood behind Ho. There are photos of Patti saluting the Vietnamese flag as the band played the Vietnamese and US national anthems. Then, coincidently, a clearly marked U.S. plane flew over the square during the ceremony. Was it by accident or design? It remains a mystery. Either way, it was apparent to everyone in the square that day that Ho Chi Minh had powerful backers and was clearly the political and spiritual leader of the revolution. Whatever opposition he may have had in the north was soon to wither on the vine. Patti argues in his memoirs that had we recognized Ho’s government and forced the French to do the same, a democratic Vietnam would have emerged from the chaos following World War II. It is arguable, we shall never know.

It is now accepted that the Japanese Army supported the Vietminh in the critical days surrounding the Japanese surrender and that Japanese aid was essential to Vietminh success.  In those hectic days, the Japanese Army provided the Vietminh with a military advisory group of some 1,500 men. There are claims of a visible  Japanese military presence in the Vietminh ranks. We do know that when Giap’s armed propaganda team set out for Hanoi they were armed with French rifles and light machine guns.  There was only one source from which the Vietminh could have obtained French weapons: the Japanese!

Ho may have seized the moment and declared independence for his people but his position was anything but firm. Case in point, the victorious Allies had given China’s leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, the job of accepting the Japanese surrender in Tonkin by the Allies. China would then supervise the withdrawal of the Japanese from North Vietnam and assume a custodial role in the country until such time as a political settlement was enacted. Chiang then turned to a southern General, Lu Han, the warlord of Yunan, to carry out the evacuation in the north of Vietnam.  Lu Han’s troops began to arrive in Hanoi in mid-September, having marched all the way down the Red River from the Chinese border, diverting en route to harvest the opium crop in Laos. They pillaged and ravaged as they went. The terrified Vietnamese, traditionally foes of the Chinese, bristled under the strain of the swarming soldiers, severe hatred for their northern enemies was easily rekindled. Lu Han and his officers enriched themselves by currency manipulation, using an artificial exchange rate to devalue the piastre, the French colonial currency, lining their pockets and destroying what little economy was left in Tonkin.

This was a dangerous development for Ho Chi Minh. Ho was mostly  in control politically, but the only recognition he had from anybody was de facto acceptance by Patti and his OSS charges. Even that changed at the end of September when Patti was replaced as the senior US officer in Hanoi by Colonel Stephen Nordlinger, a World War I veteran with pro-French leanings. Meanwhile, the French appointed as High Commissioner for Indochina Admiral Georges d’Agenlieu, a former Catholic monk with the charm of a bulldog, who played hard-ball when it came to protecting what he perceived as France’s sacred imperial interests.  Ho’s dilemma: d’Argenlieu’s intransigence was a symptom of the growing threat of a French return; But maybe worse, Ho had to sit by and watch the Chinese Nationalists picking his country clean.

Events now began to get away from Ho Chi Minh. Decisions were being made in world capitols thousands of miles away that were to directly affect the future of his nascent movement. The French, coveting a return to power in their former colony, made a deal with the Chinese. They would return all of their territorial concessions in Chinese cities, many having been held by France since the mid-nineteenth century.The French also guaranteed that the port of Haiphong and the railroad from it leading north to China would remain open to Chinese goods. In return, the Chinese would pull out of North Vietnam and turn it over to the French. To make matters worse, Truman had assumed power in America and he had changed State Department policy regarding Vietnam. The French, it had been decided, were to be a crucial bulwark against the spread of communism in post-war Europe. The price– we help them get their colony back. Events were conspiring against the Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh’s rise and the political victories for Vietnamese self determination were suddenly in danger.

On 6 March 1946, under intense international pressure, Ho Chi Minh signed an agreement with Jean Sainteny, by now liberated from Vietminh custody, agreeing to recognize Cochinchina as a separate political entity, distinct from Annam and Tonkin; to a reinvigorated French role there; to the presence in Tonkin of a French expeditionary force of 25,000 men for five years. In return, the French agreed “in principle” to Vietnamese independence and to recognize Ho’s government as legitimate. As it turned out, the French did not hold up their end of the bargain.

Ho was terrified that he had signed his own death warrant. When his party colleagues questioned him he is alleged to have said: “the last time the Chinese came they stayed a thousand years.  The French are foreigners.  They are weak.  Colonialism is dying.  The white man is finished in Asia.  But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go.  As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”

During the second half of March, French troops began entering Tonkin through the port of Haiphong, relieving the Chinese occupation forces.

South Vietnam (Cochinchina):

In Cochinchina, when the news of the Japanese surrender reached Saigon, an anti-French united front that included communists, Trotskyites, Nationalists, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, among others, formed in the vacuum. Saigon was hit by a wave of spontaneous popular demonstrations, remembered today as the August Revolution. A leading force at the time driving events on the street was the Binh Xuyen.

In the wake of the August Revolution. French agent, Colonel Jean Cédile, parachuted into the Vietnamese countryside near Tay Ninh on August 24. He and his men were promptly rounded up and jailed by the Japanese. Next, an advance guard of OSS Detachment 404 under First Lieutenant Emile Conasse parachuted into Saigon on September 1, 1945 and quickly established contact with the Japanese and the Vietminh. But it was the British who primarily determined events in the South.

As part of the negotiated surrender ending the Pacific War the British drew the assignment of accepting the Japanese surrender in Cochinchina. Up north the Chinese Nationalists got the job, in the south, the British, more specifically the 20th Indian Division under Major General Douglas Gracey, were to evacuate the Japanese. Gracey, was a decorated soldier, a veteran of the British Raj. On 2 September, the same day that Ho proclaimed independence in the north, there was a riot in Saigon in which several French civilians were killed by armed Vietnamese. The riot was contained with the assistance of unarmed British and Australian POWs released by the Japanese at the insistence of Gracey’s officers. On 6 September the first of Gracey’s troops began to trickle into Saigon after flying in to Tan Son Nhut airfield. The weather was bad for the next few days so Gracey’s force was built up only gradually. Unlike up north, the Vietminh were relatively weaker in the Cochinchina. Nevertheless they had a will to power in those days of chaos after the Japanese collapse and made a attempt to take power through quick strikes and violence. In fact, Vietminh operatives led the anti-French front in seizing certain key government buildings in Saigon. It would take a siege of sorts but Gracey ultimately regained control of the institutions of governance and capital in Saigon. His approach and orientation stand in sharp contrast to Patti’s in Hanoi.

In the north the communists were solidly in control of the Vietminh. Not so in the south. Yes, they persuaded the Cao Dai to join with them in driving out the French. And yes, they also persuaded the Binh Xuyen to join them, going so far as to give the Binh Xuyen godfather, Bay Vien, command of a Vietminh commando unit in the Saigon area. That they were in the business of making deals with bandits and criminal syndicates speaks volumes for the relative weakness of the southern Communists. Before long, the Communists faced bigger problems, starting with the Hoa Hao. The Hoa Hao realized that the Vietminh were, in fact, communist and as such were opposed to religion, so they broke pretty quickly from the short-lived alliance. It took the Cao Dai longer to come to the same awareness; they continued to fight against the French alongside the Vietminh until June of 1946.

The Hoa Hao defection erupted into full-blown violence. An intense competition for control of the countryside south and west of Saigon had emerged.  It came to a head on September 8, 1945 in a massacre at Can Tho south of Saigon. Some 15,000 Hoa Hao, armed with knives, bamboo spears, pitchforks and rice flails took on a well-armed Vietminh garrison.  Several thousand Hoa Hao were killed including the brother of Huynh Phu So, the “Mad Monk.”

Back to Saigon. Gracey ordered his forces to systematically disarm the Vietminh police and take control of the Post and Telegraph office and other key government buildings. Gracey may have had some sympathy for the Vietnamese, for example, in a memo to Lord Mountbatten’s Southeast Asia Command in Ceylon, he thought the French should promise the Vietnamese “progressive sovereignty,” leading to self-rule within two to three years. But that the “Annamites,” as he called them, should reciprocate by respecting French authority for the time being. His were the typical paternalistic sentiments displayed by colonialists throughout history. One can’t lose sight of the fact that there were several uprisings taking place in the Asian neighborhood in the wake of the Atomic Bombs. The natives were restless in Burma, Indochina, and Thailand to name a few. The British could ill afford to ignore the possibility of a contagion spilling into India, the crown jewel of the empire, or what was left of it. The British felt they had a natural interest in helping the French regain their colony in Vietnam, thereby setting an example for any upstart insurgents in India. That instinct most likely outweighed any urge Gracey may have had to do the right thing for the Vietnamese.

Gracey also feared anarchy in the streets of Saigon. So he entered into an initial arrangement with the French. In the early morning hours of September 23rd, the French staged a coup d’etat, spearheaded by armed French civilians and Foreign Legionnaires freed from Japanese captivity by the British.  Colonel Cédile became the de facto governor of Cochinchina, though his rule for the moment didn’t extend beyond Saigon. The Vietminh retaliated by attacking the French and British on the night of September 24, 1945. The Vietnamese point to this moment as the beginning of their struggle for independence. A Vietnamese mob broke into the Cité Herault residential section of Saigon, massacred some 150 French, many women and children. They also abducted many more who were tortured, mutilated and killed. The Vietminh tried to blame the Binh Xuyen for the atrocity, but the Binh Xuyen were profiteers, not likely to act merely for revenge. It remains controversial.

Not one to be pushed around, and no longer feeling sympathy for murderers, Gracey used whatever means necessary to put down the Vietnamese uprising. Unbelievably, he re-activated the disarmed Japanese troops to help preserve order! Ammunition and arms were passed around and the Japanese moved on to the streets of Saigon. They served alongside the British until they were finally disarmed a second time and sent home in December.

At the end of September, the first substantial body of French troops arrived by sea, the Second Armored Division, named for the division that had liberated Paris just over a year earlier. The division commander was General Jacques Leclerc, a professional soldier who had led the division in the liberation of Paris and was the most respected French military leader not named de Gaulle. Leclerc arrived at Tan Son Nhut on October 5 as Acting Commander-in-Chief of French Forces in the Far East. In January, 1946, Leclerc, now with some 35,000 men, broke the Vietminh blockade of Saigon and by February 1946 had overrun most of Cochinchina.

A side note: on the 28th of September, Major Peter A. Dewey, commander of OSS Detachment 404 and close relative of the Republican Governor of New York, Thomas Dewey, who would run for the presidency against Harry Truman in 1948, was shot and killed in an ambush, apparently by Vietminh who didn’t realize he was American. He had been forbidden to fly the American flag on his jeep by Gracey, who considered the OSS and Americans in general as meddlers.  Dewey blundered into the ambush in an unmarked car and was shot dead. He was the first American casualty of the Vietnam war.

Sources:

Bartholomew-Feis, Dixie. The OSS and Ho Chi Minh.

Buttinger, Joseph. Vietnam – A Political History.

Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh.

Duiker, William J. Sacred War.

Fall, Bernard. Street Without Joy

Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam: A History.

LaCouture, Jean. Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography.

MacDonald, Peter. Giap.

Marr, David. Vietnam: Tradition on Trial.

Marr, David. Vietnam 1945.

Patti, Archimedes. Why Vietnam?.

Scholl Latoure, Peter. Death in the Rice Fields.

2 responses to “Vietnam Notebook: World War II Years (1940-1945)

  1. Peter L. Gordon

    My father was Laurie Gordon ( L.L.Gordon), he was a Canadian and the founder of the GBT Group. It was made up of L.L.Gordon, Frank Tan, Harry Bernard. Fenn was never a part of this group although my father did work in part with him feeding some data his group uncovered. He did not get on well with him after the war because he thought Fenn was too concerned with his own image(imaginings). My father spent nearly four years behind enemy lines gathering information for the allies assisted by the two brave men Frank Tan and Harry Bernard. The British awarded dad the D.S.O. and the US the Medal of Freedom. In our family album we have hundreds of black and white pictures taken during those difficult days on the Chinese Indo China border. My father very seldom spoke of those days but in his unpublished book “Friends for Life,” he pays tribute to the men who did the real fighting and who took the real risks. These were the runners who carried the messages and the radio operators who got the intelligence out.
    A personal note and a vent: Frank Tan was like a second father to my brother and myself. In 1948 we visited N.Y.C. where Frank(Frankie) Tan was living and working. When he came to visit us at the Croydon Hotel he was refused entrance through the front door and told to take the service entrance and to use the service elevator to our floor. This because he was Chinese. Chinese American I might add. A citizen of the US from the age of four who risked his life behind enemy lines for nearly four years.

  2. The article suggests that Ho Ch Minh was active in Indochina during most of WWII. Sophie Quinn-Judge’s excellent “Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years” suggests he was not. He he may have slipped in to Pac Bo in 1941 for a single day, but he spent almost all of WWII in China, part of it in a Chinese jail. He did not return until 1944. Also, the article confuses the 2nd Armored Division Task Force, which was drawn from that division and placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Massu, with a division sized unit. It was not. It counted a few battalions. Leclerc had already been named Commander of the Far Eastern Expeditionary Corps. On a minor note, the article mentions ‘Foreign Legionnaires’ and civilians released from confinement in Saigon as contributing to the unrest. This comes from on-site sources, likely English speaking, though later repeated by Fall, unable to distinguish Legionnaires from Colonial troops. The only Foreign Legion unit in Indochina during WWII was the 5th REI, based in Viet Tri, Tong, and Tien Kieng, and small detachments in Langson and Hanoi on 9 March 1945. They were the nucleus of the French forces that made their way to China. The chances of any number of them being held in Saigon in 1945 is nil. Those sources likely took French prisoners from the 11th Colonial Infantry Regiment (a mixed Regiment) for Legionnaires. The 11th R.I.C. had two battalions in Saigon on 9 March, and the remainder in nearby Thu Dau Mot. (Les Linh Tap, Maurice Rives and Eric Deroo, Annex VII, pp. 134-5). As a footnote, by 1945 a fair percentage of troops serving in the 5th REI were Indochinese. No European replacements had been sent to Indochina since 1939. Discounting a few French SOE teams from Force 136, Leclerc’s tiny contingent was the first. Also, Henry-Jean- Loustau’s account in ‘Les Deux Bataillons’ makes clear the Japanese did more than just police Saigon after their release from confinement. They guarded French resupply convoys to places as distant as Ban Me Thuot.

    Otherwise, an excellent article, particularly regarding the Cite Herault massacre and Ho Chi Minh’s manipulation of the Americans and Non-Communist nationalists. I would have like to see the names of the assassinated high ranking VNQDD members included. And also, perhaps, credit to Nguyen Binh for the American air crewman that HCM presented to the Americans in China.

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