Radicalization of the Viet Minh

01

Dec
2021

Radicalization of the Viet Minh

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Nguyen Binh, the Viet Minh leader in Cochinchina, continued a guerrilla war against the French and against the groups supporting Bao Dai until his death in 1951. He was able to establish bases in less-populated areas where the Hoa Hao or Cao Dai were not strong: in the Ca Mau region of the extreme south and in the swampy Dong Thap Muoi region west of Saigon along the Cambodian border. The other main center of Viet Minh strength outside of northern Vietnam was in Quang Ngai, where the communist leadership had been relatively radical since 1945. In 1946 a Viet Minh military academy was established in Quang Ngai under the leadership of Nguyen Son (1908–1956) and several Japanese officers who chose to remain in Indochina to fight the French. Nguyen Son, originally from a Hanoi suburb, had joined the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s and by the 1940s had risen to the top level of leadership among Chinese communists. He returned to Vietnam in 1945, bringing with him ideas about self-criticism and individual rectification for nurturing the new socialist personality. He was in Quang Ngai for only about a year, but his influence strengthened the Communist Party in Quang Ngai and made this province the revolutionary vanguard of the central coast. In late 1947 and early 1948, a series of events led to the realignment of Vietnamese communist policies away from the national front concept and toward the international communist movement and revolutionary class struggle. At a plenum of the Vietnamese communist leadership in January 1948, three new aspects of thought and policy were addressed: the Zhdanov Doctrine, land reform, and party membership. In September 1947, one of Stalin’s confidants, Andrei Zhdanov (1896–1948), founded what came to be called the Cominform (Information Bureau of the Communist and Workers’ Parties) as a new Cold War version of the Comintern, which had been disbanded during the Second World War. Zhdanov announced what became known as the Zhdanov Doctrine asserting that the world was divided into two antagonistic camps: the imperialist forces led by the United States and the socialist democratic forces led by the Soviet Union. Although his ideas were formulated primarily in the realm of culture, their political implications were obvious: there could be no compromise  with class enemies of the revolution. The Vietnamese plenum cited and acknow- ledged the Zhdanov Doctrine.  By the end of 1947, the Chinese communists were gaining victories in Man- churia and turning the civil war in their favor. At that time, the Chinese were  implementing a radical program of homicidal land reform in parts of northern and northeastern China, and Mao Zedong made announcements emphasizing the importance of land reform in the struggle against anti-revolutionary enemies. Although the Vietnamese communists were not yet in a position to initiate such an ambitious land policy, their plenum in early 1948 nevertheless took an important step in that direction by calling for the confiscation of the land and property of “traitors.” Although in Viet Minh terminology “traitors” were those who served the French, in communist terms they were class enemies of the revolution. In 1948 the two definitions of “traitors” began to be conflated by Vietnamese communist officials, hardening the boundary between the party and the front. Increasingly from this time, those who had joined the Viet Minh out of patriotism rather than commitment to communist revolution were marginalized. This was a serious problem for the Vietnamese communists, because in 1945 and 1946 it had been necessary to allot several government ministries to non-communists, in particular those dealing with education, trade, agriculture, irrigation, and justice. After the Viet Minh government was driven into the mountains in 1947, the usefulness of non-communist urban intellectuals and  French-trained professionals in these ministries declined. Yet, in the adminis- tration of justice, lawyers and judges continued to advocate an independent  judiciary to the chagrin of communist leaders, and the court system threatened to thwart policies advocated by the party. In the rush of patriotic enthusiasm that accompanied the August Revolution and the outbreak of war, party ranks had more than tripled with thousands of people whose commitment to communism was lukewarm or non-existent. After the party had been ostensibly abolished in November 1945, it continued to exist as a structure of command and status within the Viet Minh front. By late 1947, when there was no longer any discernible benefit in displaying a moderate visage to the French, the party began to change course. The plenum of early 1948 decided to restrict new members to people from  correct class backgrounds, such as soldiers, workers, peasants, and ethnic minor- ities. Furthermore, new members would be required to undergo a period of  training and indoctrination. The idea was to build up a new core of obedient and ideologically reliable party members who would eventually overwhelm those who had rallied to the Viet Minh in 1945, 1946, and 1947 for mainly patriotic reasons. This arousal of struggle within the party was gradual until 1950 when  the arrival of Chinese communists on the border enabled the Vietnamese com- munists to take a more peremptory attitude toward non-party colleagues in the  Viet Minh. Until then, the communists sought to retain the loyalty of people who were susceptible to the Bao Dai appeal. Beginning in 1948, Vietnamese communists aligned their party rhetoric with  the Cold War terminology of international communism, making social revolu- tion the foundation of national liberation and espousing the Marxist-Leninist  “new democracy” being hailed in China and Eastern Europe. The decline of the left in France dispelled the mirage of a potential ally there, and the Bao Dai phenomenon sharpened the need to combat Vietnamese enemies as well as the French. However, as long as the Vietnamese communists remained isolated from potential allies, they could not afford to frighten away their non-communist followers.  In February 1948, Viet Minh representatives attended two meetings in Cal- cutta: the Second Congress of the Communist Party of India, which announced a  new emphasis on class struggle, and the Conference of Youth and Students of Southeast Asia Fighting for Freedom and Independence, which was organized by groups associated with Soviet propaganda operations. Shortly after these meet- ings, there was an upsurge of communist activity in Burma, Malaya, and Indo- nesia. For the Vietnamese communists, the Calcutta meetings and their sequels  added plausibility to the prospect of being part of an international movement. But it was the communist victory in the Chinese civil war that fundamentally altered the situation. Chinese communist army units began to accumulate on the Sino-Vietnamese border in late 1949, and in December Ho Chi Minh set out for Beijing. In January both Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union announced diplomatic recognition of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. From Beijing, Ho Chi Minh continued on to Moscow to meet with Stalin. Stalin released some limited military equipment for transport to Vietnam, but the main burden for assisting the Vietnamese was assigned to the Chinese. By April 1950 a Chinese Military Advisory Group (CMAG) had been formed and Vietnamese military units were soon being trained in Yunnan and Guangxi as Chinese supplies and advisors began to arrive in Vietnam. During the spring and summer of 1950, the Viet Minh proclaimed a general mobilization and conducted a series of activities to promote the recruitment of people into their ranks. By the end of the summer around twenty thousand troops had been trained and equipped in China. In September and October, a system of French forts and installations along the Sino-Vietnamese border were overrun, expelling the French from the uplands. This was followed by a series of major attacks into the Red River lowlands that continued for most of 1951. The military situation rapidly shifted against the French with the rise of the People’s Republic of China. The political situation also changed rapidly once the lifeline to foreign allies was established. In February and March 1951, the Second Congress of the Indochinese Communist Party was held in Tuyen Quang Province with around two hundred delegates (the first party congress had been held in 1935 in Macau).  This congress created separate parties for Cambodia and Laos under the super- vision of the Vietnamese party, which was renamed the Vietnamese Labor Party  to indicate a new emphasis on class struggle in line with Chinese communist doctrine, which was strongly supported by Truong Chinh, the party secretary general. At the same time, the Viet Minh front had become so closely associated with its communist leadership that it no longer served as a “front organization,” so it, along with the Vietnamese Labor Party, was merged into the Lien Viet front that had been organized in 1946 to bring various groups into alliance with the Viet Minh. However, this effort to withdraw the Viet Minh behind an ostensibly more inclusive Lien Viet front did not have its desired effect. The movement of people from upland resistance bases to French-controlled areas, especially educated  professionals and people from inconveniently non-revolutionary class back- grounds, previously a small but growing number, now became a significant shift  of population. Most of these people dropped out of politics, being unwilling to follow either the communists or the French. They added to the ranks of those waiting for national independence without either communism or colonialism, those who were called attentistes, “those who wait,” in French and trum chan, “those who cover their heads with a blanket,” in Vietnamese.  The most respected leader of these people was Ngo Dinh Diem, an uncom- promising nationalist and anti-communist. He had repeatedly warned Bao Dai  against making a settlement with the French that compromised true independ- ence. He believed that the Elysée Agreement was a sham and refused to be  associated with it. In August 1950, when he heard rumors that the Viet Minh had issued instructions for his assassination, he left the country and by the end of the year was living in the United States.

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