Vietnam War Explained: Part 3

August Revolution: Viet Minh and the French Return

This is the third article in the Vietnam War series. In this article, we are going to look at the events that led to the outbreak of the First Indochina War. 

If you haven’t already gone through the first two articles of this series, I would request you to watch them first. So, let’s begin with Part 3.

In Part 2, we learned that the Japanese being distrustful of the French colonial government’s loyalties, overthrew the French colonial government of Indochina in a coup in March 1945.

After overthrowing the French colonial government of Indochina, the Japanese felt the need to install puppet governments that would have no real power and would side with them during an allied invasion. The Japanese, therefore, divided Indochina into three regions—the Kingdom of Laos, the Kingdom of Cambodia, and the Empire of Vietnam.

In all three regions, the Japanese restored the traditional native rulers, who had been titular figureheads under the French. These traditional rulers, under Japanese pressure, declared independence from France and made their respective regions members of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

An important point here to note is that many traditional rulers were not really anti-French and had in the past sided with the French colonialists to receive their blessings and sustain their rule.

Bao Dai was one such ruler. He was French-educated and had spent many years of his early life in France. Bao Dai, under the French, had been the traditional ruler of the Annam region, which was 2/3rd of Vietnam, for many years. The Japanese, now, installed Bao Dai as the emperor of the newly created Empire of Vietnam.

In Part 2, we learned that the Viet Minh, after its creation in 1941, had been fighting against the Japanese with American support through OSS. But all this was only on a limited scale. The real boost to Viet Minh’s membership and influence was provided by two main factors.

One, the Japanese coup of March 1945 that overthrew the French colonial government removed the most important local check on the growth of Viet Minh. The Japanese did not much concern themselves with the rural areas. With no French or Japanese presence in rural areas, the Viet Minh began to expand and exercise more influence.

And second, since their arrival in Indochina, the Japanese had been ruthlessly plundering the natural resources of Vietnam and redirecting the supply of rice and maize to support their war efforts.

This exploitation by the Japanese combined with bad weather led to a disastrous famine in 1945. It is estimated that approximately 2 million Vietnamese starved to death in this famine.

The complete apathy of the Japanese had greatly angered the Vietnamese. The Viet Minh gave them the opportunity to bring about a change.

To provide relief from the famine, Viet Minh started conducting raids on several Japanese granaries and warehouses to distribute the grains amongst the villagers. They also encouraged people to stop paying taxes.

This tremendously increased Viet Minh’s popularity and their membership started increasing greatly. Even the Vietnamese, who had earlier served in the French army, started joining the Viet Minh.

As the second world war raged on and the allied forces grew stronger in the east, Ho Chi Minh knew that the end was near for the Japanese. Anticipating the Japanese defeat, Ho Chi Minh directed the Viet Minh to start establishing village committees known as the People’s Revolutionary Committees with the purpose of seizing power when the moment was right.

In July 1945, after victory over Nazi Germany and with Japan on its last leg, the allied powers met at Potsdam, Germany to decide the fate of the vanquished.

Potsdam Conference: British Prime Minister Clement Atlee, US President Harry Truman, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin seated together
In this photograph, you can see the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee, the US President Harry Truman, and the Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin seated together.

At Potsdam, it is decided that after Japan’s defeat, the Japanese troops in Indochina, stationed north of 16 degrees North latitude in Vietnam would surrender to the Chinese army under Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese troops stationed south of 16 degrees North latitude in Vietnam would surrender to an allied force under Lord Mountbatten.

The Americans, at this point, make it abundantly clear that they did not want the French to regain control of their former colony.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (center), Chiang-Kai-shek (left), and Winston Churchill (right), Cairo Conference, 1943
Franklin D. Roosevelt (center), Chiang-Kai-shek (left), and Winston Churchill (right), Cairo Conference, 1943

An interesting point here to note is that on an earlier occasion, the then US President Franklin Roosevelt, seen in this photograph sitting with Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek, had asked Chiang Kai-shek if he would like the entire Indochina for himself. To this Chiang Kai-shek had said, “under no circumstances”.

Franklin Roosevelt was an anti-imperialist and was against French rule in Indochina. The Soviet premier, Joseph Stalin, even though part of the allied forces, had not attended the Cairo conference because at that point Japan and Russia had signed a 5-year neutrality pact.

On 6th August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima followed by another atomic bomb on Nagasaki on 09th August. On the same day, that is, on 09th August, USSR scraped the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact, and declared war on Japan and invaded the Japanese possession of Manchuria in northern China. This was the same invasion that Japan had anticipated in 1941 and we had talked about in Part 2.

As a result of these events, Japan surrenders on 15th August and officially signs the instrument of surrender on 02nd September drawing a curtain on the 2nd World War. After Japan’s unconditional surrender, the Japanese troops in Indochina had no reason to stay in Indochina. They now had to wait for the allied forces to disarm them, receive their surrender, and repatriate them to their home country, Japan.

The Japanese surrender creates a political vacuum in Vietnam. Seizing this great opportunity, on 14th August 1945, Ho Chi Minh launches the August Revolution. In rural areas, the People’s Revolutionary Committees seized power. Viet Minh takes control of all major cities including Hanoi and Saigon.

It is interesting to note that the Japanese troops, even though fully armed, do not resist the Viet Minh and allow them to take control. The Japanese troops stationed in the north at this point were supportive of the Viet Minh and did not want the French to reassert their influence after the surrender. With this aim in mind, the Japanese continue to keep the French, who had been in prison since the coup in March 1945 under lock and key. At the same time, the Japanese release some Viet Minh political prisoners who were in prison. This allows Ho Chi Minh to consolidate further.

Ho Chi Minh also convinces the emperor Bao Dai to abdicate the throne in his favor. This abdication of the throne in Ho Chi Minh’s favor by the emperor greatly increases Ho Chi Minh’s stature in the eyes of the Vietnamese.

The Japanese surrender and Bao Dai’s abdication also bring an end to the puppet state of the Empire of Vietnam.

On 02nd September, the day on which Japan sings the instrument of surrender, Ho Chi Minh declares independence and proclaims the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. In his speech, he quotes text from the American declaration of independence. This is seen as an attempt on his part to gain American support.

Vo Nguyen Giap leading the Viet Minh troops into Hanoi
Vo Nguyen Giap leading the Viet Minh troops into Hanoi

In September 1945, as decided at the Potsdam conference, the Chinese troops cross into Vietnam to receive the Japanese surrender in the northern part of the country. While a contingent of British soldiers receive the Japanese surrender in the southern part of the country. The British bring along with them a contingent of French soldiers. All French soldiers in Japanese captivity since the coup in March are also released.

Soon the British start replacing Viet Minh guards and officials at strategic places with their own troops who later are replaced by the French. Unlike the Americans, the British clearly wanted the French to take control of Indochina. Soon the French push Viet Minh out of Saigon. In the north, the French make some concessions to the Chinese by giving up their claims to some Chinese ports and in return are able to get favorable treatment. 

From September 1945 till March 1946, the French continue to regain control of Indochina by pushing the Viet Minh out.

It is important to note that the Viet Minh at this point were severely under-equipped and had no knowledge of fighting a conventional war. What they were good at was guerrilla warfare and with time became exceedingly good at it.

Ho Chi Minh during this time desperately tries to gain American support by writing to President Truman and to reach an agreement with the French. But all these attempts fail.

A telegram from Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman asking for assistance in negotiating with the French; 28 February 1946
A telegram from Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman asking for assistance in negotiating with the French; 28 February 1946

In 1946, Ho Chi Minh spent four months in France discussing the question of Vietnamese independence. He was received warmly but the French had no intention of giving him any concessions. After spending four months in France, Ho Chi Minh realized that the French were not sincere about the talks and were just buying time to consolidate their position in Indochina. Ho Chi Minh left France for Vietnam in December 1946.

When the British, Chinese, and Japanese forces left Indochina, the French quickly gain control of most of Indochina and push the Viet Minh out of the cities. In December 1946, Ho Chi Minh and his government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam go underground and begin an almost 8-year long bloody war against the French to liberate Vietnam. This war is known as the First Indochina War.

From this point onwards, the American involvement in Vietnam increased many folds.

Now, let’s quickly summarize what we covered in this article.

  • In May 1941, Viet Minh is founded by HCM and it receives a lot of help from America’s OSS.
  • Fearing a betrayal from the French colonial government of Indochina, the Japanese overthrow the French in a coup in March 1945. The Japanese set up a puppet “Empire of Vietnam” state after overthrowing the French.
  • In August 1945, Japan surrenders in the SWW creating a political vacuum in Vietnam. HCM launches the August Revolution and seizes control of all major cities.
  • The Japanese troops in North Vietnam surrender to the Chinese and the ones in south Vietnam surrender to British-led allied troops. The British side with the French and help them retake control. Soon the French push Viet Minh out of the cities and take control of most of Indochina.
  • Hostilities between the Viet Minh and the French continue from September 1945 till March 1946. HCM tries to broker peace with the French but the talks fail and result in the beginning of the First Indochina War. 

In the next article, we will look at the events that dragged the United States into Vietnam and how the French suffered a colossal defeat against the Viet Minh in the First Indochina War.

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