Indochina At War

01

Dec
2021

Indochina At War

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The Japanese arrive As the Sino-Japanese War raged just over the northern border and as war in Europe shifted from threat to reality, a fresh upsurge of religious excitement spread in western Cochinchina. In July of 1939, in a village near the Seven Mountains near the Khmer border, a sickly but charismatic young man named Huynh Phu So (1919–1947) claimed to be a Buddha and attracted large numbers of followers. By the summer of 1940, the resulting uproar prompted the French to take him into custody. After nearly a year of confinement in a Cholon psychiatric hospital, he was allowed to return to the countryside under house arrest. In 1942, the Japanese, who had meanwhile entered southern Indochina,  gained possession of him and thereafter cultivated his following as a pro- Japanese force. This movement came to be known by the name of Huynh Phu  So’s home village, Hoa Hao. The Hoa Hao religion arose from the millenarian traditions of western Cochinchina, but instead of being an ephemeral movement as previous millenarian episodes had been, it gained coherence in the peculiar conditions of the Franco-Japanese wartime relationship. The French Popular Front faded away during the course of 1938 and was replaced by a more conservative government that began to prepare for war. In August 1939, General George Catroux (1877–1969), the commander of French military forces in Indochina, replaced Brévié as governor general. Catroux had served in Indochina prior to the First World War and more recently had held  colonial commands in Morocco, Algeria, and Syria. Within weeks of his appoint- ment, the Indochina Communist Party was deprived of its legal status. Catroux  focused on military preparations and enforced strict internal security, arresting many communists and other anti-colonial activists and confiscating their property. With the German conquest of France and the formation of the collaborationist French government at Vichy in June of 1940, Indochina was at a crossroads. The French fascists of Vichy were allied through Germany with Japan, and Japan lost no time in demanding access to Tonkin to ensure an end to supplies reaching their Chinese enemies via the port of Hai Phong and the railway line to Yunnan. It was quickly apparent that the continued existence of the French regime in Indochina required either effective anti-Japanese assistance or cooperation with the Japanese under the Vichy banner. The British in Singapore were already stretched to near breaking point and the Americans in Manila were not yet ready to shake off their isolationism. In July, as Japanese pressure on Indochina grew, Catroux was replaced by Admiral Jean Decoux (1884–1963), commander of the French navy  in Asia. Decoux adhered to Vichy, thereby maximizing the possibility of preserv- ing French rule in Indochina, albeit in alliance with Japan. Catroux departed to  join the Free French forces being formed in opposition to Vichy by Charles de Gaulle, of whom Catroux was a close personal acquaintance. Vichy diplomats in Tokyo reached an accord at the end of August 1940 by which Japan recognized French sovereignty in Indochina. In return, France recognized Japanese supremacy in eastern Asia and agreed to provide Japan with military access to Tonkin. Negotiating the details of this accord then commenced in Indochina between Japanese military authorities and Decoux’s administration. In late September, an arrangement was reached allowing Japanese use of several airfields, the port of Hai Phong, the railroad lines connecting Hai Phong with Guangxi and Yunnan, as well as the right to station up to six thousand troops north of the Red River. As the Franco-Japanese agreement was being finalized, impatient Japanese army officers on the Sino-Vietnamese border and aboard troop transports off the Tonkin coast, having grown accustomed to driving expansionary policies in China by presenting Tokyo with faits accomplis, launched operations without authorization. Japanese units briefly seized Lang Son, on the northern border, and Do Son, on the coast near Hai Phong. Senior officers quickly re-established the chain of command and restored Lang Son and Do Son to the French, but the Lang Son episode was not a purely Franco-Japanese affair. Several hundred Vietnamese in China had been mobilized the previous year by Cuong De and accompanied the Japanese into Lang Son as an auxiliary force.  They were joined by hundreds of local soldiers and civilians, including commun- ists released from the Lang Son jail. When the Japanese withdrew back into  China, this ad hoc anti-colonial accumulation of people, a mixture of Vietnamese and ethnic minorities of the border region, unsuccessfully resisted the return of French authority. Some of the survivors, led by local members of the Indochina Communist Party, went into the mountains west of Lang Son and for a few weeks contested French authority in the rugged Bac Son region where De Tham had maintained his lair in the 1890s and 1900s. This became known as the Bac Son Uprising. Eventually, a small guerrilla base under communist leadership was established there that survived to the end of the Japanese war. The Vichy submission to Japanese demands in Tonkin emboldened Siam, renamed Thailand in 1939, to demand that the French relinquish northern and western Cambodian provinces and Laotian provinces west of the Mekong. The leader of Thailand was Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram (1897–1964), commonly known as Phibun, a Thai nationalist with fascist tendencies who dominated Thai politics from the 1930s into the 1950s. Phibun was shifting  Thai foreign policy away from its deference to the British toward an accommo- dation with Japan and saw an opportunity to reclaim territories from the  French. Against the threat of Thai invasion, Decoux shifted his military forces into the south. The Indochinese Communist Party had a strong organization in parts of Cochinchina, particularly in the My Tho area. It had also infiltrated Vietnamese  army units. Hoping to benefit from the Franco-Thai confrontation, the commun- ists planned an uprising. Learning of this, the French disarmed and confined  Vietnamese soldiers to their barracks and within a month overcame civilian insurrectionists with overwhelming force, killing and arresting thousands of people, including virtually the entire southern leadership of the Indochinese Communist Party. Among those arrested was the former reformist Buddhist monk, now communist, Vien Chieu. The debacle of this so-called Nam Ky Uprising dealt the Stalinist party in Cochinchina a severe blow from which its efforts to recover were slow and difficult. Meanwhile, in early 1941, Japan stepped into the Franco-Thai confrontation and forced the French to give up the territories coveted by Phibun. The Moscow–Tokyo “nonaggression pact” signed in April 1941 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 removed Tokyo’s concerns about Russian policy in Asia and encouraged Japanese ambitions to expand into the southern seas. As a first step, in July 1941, Japan forced Vichy to accept the integration of Indochina into the Japanese military system with the right to station planes, ships, and tens of thousands of troops throughout Indochina. This brought Singapore within range of Japanese bombers and provided a strategic commissary, communication, and transshipment base for operations against Burma, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), and the Philippines. The United States, unwilling to let pass this threat to all of southeastern Asia, was aroused into action. When Japan refused American demands to withdraw from Indochina, Japanese assets in the US were frozen and the US imposed a de  facto embargo on the export of oil and other strategic goods to Japan. Subse- quent Japanese–American negotiations simply led to a hardening of positions on  both sides. With limited oil reserves, Japan urgently aimed to acquire the oilfields in the Dutch East Indies and prepared to attack the American, British, and Dutch possessions in Asia and the Pacific Ocean. The new phase of war that broke out in December 1941 brought Indochina into the center of Japanese military activity. Decoux was soon forced to grant Japan access to the entire communication and transportation infrastructure of Indochina, to place the economic resources of Indochina at the disposal of Japan, and to allow the Japanese to monitor his administration. The Japanese were occupied with battlefields stretching from the Burmese–Indian border through Southeast Asia to the islands of the Pacific. The convenience of retaining the French to administer the strategic Indochinese transport and supply center overrode Japanese propaganda about Asia for the Asians. For their part, the French entertained the hope that the tide of war would eventually turn against the Japanese, at which time they would still be in possession of Indochina. During the next three years, Decoux, cut off from Europe and forced to serve an alien imperial power, endeavored to rally the Vietnamese to his regime with a combination of Vichy fascism and Confucian paternalism that emphasized hard work, obedience to superiors, and concern for the welfare of subordinates. Vietnamese civil servants, upon whom the French were now increasingly reliant, were granted improvements in salary and promotion policies. Relatively liberal labor laws were enforced. Particular efforts were made to win the attention of youth by a major expansion of educational facilities and a lively program of sports and scouting. At the same time, French security agents were busy with a clandestine struggle to thwart Japanese cultivation of anti-French Vietnamese nationalists. Cao Dai leaders were not shy about expressing their loyalty to Cuong De and his Japanese patrons. In 1941, the French deported Cao Dai leaders to the Comoros Islands and occupied the Cao Dai headquarters in Tay Ninh. This did not prevent remaining Cao Dai leaders from working closely with the  Japanese, providing thousands of workers for Japanese installations and organ- izing paramilitary units with Japanese protection. In 1942, Japanese agents  succeeded in plucking Huynh Phu So from French custody and thereafter used him to spread their influence and to organize paramilitary units among his followers in western Cochinchina. Many educated Vietnamese drawn toward political activism were energized by the Japanese counterweight to the French regime and the prospect of eventual  Japanese action against the French. A number of loosely connected semi- clandestine groups with this inclination had begun to develop in Tonkin during  the Popular Front period. They aimed to draw upon a sense of connection to a more glorious Vietnamese past than could be expressed by the names Dai Nam (Great South) and Viet Nam (Viet South) that had come into usage during the Nguyen dynasty, a dynasty that had failed to protect the country’s independence. Instead, they identified with the name Dai Viet (Great Viet), which had been the official name of the kingdom from the tenth through the eighteenth centuries. Four such groups emerged during the late 1930s. They were to some extent influenced by the writings of Nietzsche and the muscular nationalism of the Young Turks and of the fascism then rising in Europe and Japan. They rejected both the ineffectual idealism of parliamentary democracy and the dialectical  materialism of the communists. An early group espoused a principle of “mutual- ity” (ho tuong) in human relations as the basis for a theory of “between idealism  and materialism” (duy tam trung vat). Called the Dai Viet National Socialist Party (Dai Viet Quoc Xa Dang), it was strong among urban intellectuals in Hanoi and Hai Phong. Another group was established by Truong Tu Anh (1914–1946), who came from Phu Yen to Hanoi in 1934 to study law and subsequently developed a philosophy of “the people’s livelihood” (chu nghia dan toc sinh ton) that focused upon the economic welfare of the common people; this group was named the Dai Viet Nationalist Party (Dai Viet Quoc Dan Dang) and was strong in Bac Giang, between Hanoi and the Guangxi border. Two other groups emerged from people associated with the Self-Strengthening Literary Group (Tu Luc Van Doan). One was called the Dai Viet Humanist Party (Dai Viet Duy Dan Dang) and eventually became strong in the Ninh Binh area south of Hanoi. The other was the Dai Viet True People (Dai Viet Dan Chinh) of Nguyen Tuong Tam, the leading figure of the Self-Strengthening Literary Group, which published a Hanoi newspaper and endeavored to publicize the shared ideas of Dai Viet activists. In 1939–1940, some Dai Viet people went to China to join the military unit being formed by the Japanese under the auspices of Cuong De and participated in the Lang Son affair of September 1940. In 1942 and 1943, the French attempted to suppress Dai Viet activities and made many arrests. Although he was not directly involved with Dai Viet groups, Tran Trong Kim, the education expert, historian, and propagandist of Confucianism, was acquainted with some of their members, which prompted him to seek Japanese protection during a wave of French arrests in late 1943. In 1944, after the fall of Vichy France, the four Dai Viet groups in Tonkin joined in the Dai Viet National Alliance (Dai Viet Quoc Gia Lien Minh). Although to some extent intellectually compatible with Vichy philosophy, Dai Viet people were uncompromisingly opposed to French colonialism. In Annam, Ngo Dinh Diem organized the Dai Viet Restoration Association (Dai Viet Phuc Hung Hoi) in 1942 and, with his four brothers, formed youth groups to mobilize both Catholic and non-Catholic nationalists. His eldest brother, Ngo Dinh Khoi, was a prominent Hue official. Ngo Dinh Khoi’s son served on the staff of the ranking Japanese official in Hue. Ngo Dinh Khoi opposed Pham Quynh, the prime minister, for being too pro-French and was consequently dismissed from office. When the French moved to suppress the Restoration Association in the summer of 1944, Ngo Dinh Diem obtained Japanese protection to evade arrest. The Dai Viet groups gained traction from the Japanese propaganda of Asia for the Asians. They searched the history of their own country for an Asian answer to the impasse of Western values that were discredited by colonial capitalism on the one hand and by the materialism of communist internationalism on the other hand. This was a purely Vietnamese response to the country’s predicament in the twentieth century and continued to be an influential intellectual trend for another generation.

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