Japanese Coup de Main, March 9, 1945:
In 1940 the Japanese crushed colonial French forces in a series of battles along the Vietnam-China border and took 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.
” 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. 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. Now, in the chaos of events surrounding the coup de main, the Vietminh and their operatives in Tonkin (North Vietnam) organized raiding parties and led them against French and Japanese rice stocks. 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.
Events in North Vietnam (Tonkin):
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 began:
“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…”
Ho was clearly influenced by the political writings and values of the American Founders. Up on the stage during the entire speech, 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.
Bartholomew-Feis, Dixie. The OSS and Ho Chi Minh.
Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh.
Fall, Bernard. Street Without Joy.
LaCouture, Jean. Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography.
Marr, David. Vietnam 1945.
Patti, Archimedes. Why Vietnam?.