Formation of the Second Republic of Vietnam



Return of the French

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Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnamese independence and the Democratic Repub- lic of Vietnam at a Hanoi rally on September 2, but already the attention of his  new government was shifting from internal matters to the arrival of Allied  troops, ostensibly to disarm and repatriate the Japanese. At the Potsdam confer- ence in July, Allied leaders divided Indochina at the sixteenth parallel with British  forces responsible for the south and Chinese Nationalist forces responsible for the north. The sixteenth parallel crosses the Vietnamese coast between Da Nang and Hoi An in Quang Nam Province. Chiang Kai-shek took this allied assignment as an opportunity to settle matters with Long Yun, the leader of Yunnan whom he distrusted. He placed Long Yun in command of the Indochinese operation as a way of emptying Yunnan of Long Yun’s troops. Lu Han (1895–1974), a cousin of Long Yun and a general in his  army, was given charge of the Indochina operation, during which Chiang Kai- shek engineered the replacement of Long Yun by Lu Han, an affair that dis- tracted Lu Han from events in Indochina. Accompanying the Chinese forces into  northern Indochina were hundreds of Vietnamese anti-communist nationalists returning from exile, the most prominent of whom were Nguyen Tuong Tam and Vu Hong Khanh of the Nationalist Party and Nguyen Hai Than with an assortment of people gathered in the Revolutionary League. The Chinese understood that they could not push aside the new authorities in Hanoi without provoking a popular reaction that would endanger their mission.  At the same time, they pressured Ho Chi Minh to incorporate into his govern- ment the anti-communist politicians who arrived in Hanoi with them. Within a  few weeks of the September 2 declaration of independence, it became obvious to Ho Chi Minh that he and his communist colleagues would have to broaden their government to include large numbers of people not associated with the Viet Minh front. This was not only because of Chinese pressure to include members of the Nationalist Party and the Revolutionary League, but also because they could not entirely control the overwhelming popular response to the August Revolution. Practical problems of establishing a new system of government required the inclusion of many people outside of their organizational control. The Dai Viet groups, however, were outlawed from the start, ostensibly because of their association with the Japanese. In November, the Indochinese Communist Party officially disbanded and went  underground. Subsequent negotiations produced an arrangement by which sev- enty of the National Assembly seats to be filled in a January 1946 election were  reserved for members of the Nationalist Party (allotted fifty seats) and the Revolutionary League (allotted twenty seats). These allotted seats amounted to about 20 percent of the Assembly. Furthermore, a cabinet was to be formed that included members from both of these non-Viet Minh groups. Ho Chi Minh was to be president of the new coalition government and Nguyen Hai Than was designated as vice president. This government came into existence in early 1946 just as the French, having returned to the south, were preparing to re-enter the north. In August 1945 the Viet Minh organization in Cochinchina was mostly on paper and the Communist Party in Cochinchina was split and surrounded by rivals. The regional leadership committee could not agree on what to do, being divided into factions based in Can Tho and in Saigon, each of which sent representatives to Hanoi seeking approval. The leader of the Saigon faction was Tran Van Giau (1911–2010), a southerner who had followed a typical communist career with sojourns in Paris, in Moscow, and in Indochinese prisons. In addition to arguing with his fellow communists, Tran Van Giau had to negotiate with a constellation of religious, monarchist, and other groups that had been encouraged by the Japanese in the last months of the war.  After disarming the French in March, the Japanese had begun to arm para- military units attached to the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religions. When Japan  surrendered, these groups along with Catholics, Dai Viet activists, Trotskyists, and members of the Red Cross, militia, police, and other groups formed a United National Front. On August 21, two days after the Viet Minh takeover in Hanoi, these groups led a large demonstration in the streets of Saigon. Ngo Dinh Diem was one of the leaders of this front. Two days later, Bao Dai abdicated and announced his support of the Viet Minh government in Hanoi, thereby defeating the hopes of monarchists. More to the point, Tran Van Giau persuaded some leaders of the United National Front that they would be handicapped when seeking international recognition because the Allies would view their organization as tainted by association with Japan. Consequently, many groups chose to join the public demonstration organized by the Viet Minh on August 25 at which Tran Van Giau announced a Southern Provisional Administrative Committee. However, when it became clear that communists dominated this committee the various groups began to go their separate ways. In the spring of 1945, the Vichy sport and youth movement in Cochinchina had been reformed as a paramilitary organization under Japanese auspices. It was called Vanguard Youth and was led by Pham Ngoc Thao (1909–1968), a medical doctor trained in France who had become involved in politics during the Popular Front period. By September 1945, Pham Ngoc Thao was a secret member of the Indochinese Communist Party, and Vanguard Youth accordingly became the most important element in the southern Viet Minh. In the last days of  August it was the Vanguard Youth that brought the revolution to the Cochin- chinese countryside.  In western Cochinchina, however, the Hoa Hao resisted Viet Minh ascend- ancy, leading to episodes of violence, and Huynh Phu So publicly denounced  Tran Van Giau. At Tay Ninh, the Cao Dai leadership split between those willing to cooperate with the Viet Minh and those who were not. Tran Van Giau eliminated many Trotskyists and other miscellaneous enemies of the party, but he could not form a government with broad popular support as the Viet Minh had done in Hanoi and in other cities further north. A Saigon rally that he organized on September 2 to coincide with the proclamation of independence in Hanoi turned into a bloody riot between Vietnamese and French residents of  the city. He subsequently lost control of the Provisional Committee. His superi- ors in Hanoi later dismissed him from political work, considering his leadership  in Saigon to have been heavy-handed and inept, but the situation in Cochinchina was beyond the grasp of any one man or party. The 20th Indian Division, veterans of the Burma campaign, began to arrive in the second week of September. It was commanded by Douglas David Gracey  (1894–1964), a career officer in the Indian army with a reputation for compe- tence. The British recognized French sovereignty in Indochina. They were spread thin in Asia at that time, and Gracey limited his role to enforcing public order and facilitating the arrival of French forces. Under instructions to avoid getting involved in local politics and with inadequate numbers of troops, he occupied Saigon with caution. The tension between the French and Vietnamese populations in the city was explosive. In late September, Gracey prematurely rearmed a French unit that had been interned by the Japanese. The French soldiers took possession of public buildings and expelled the Provisional Committee from the city. They went on to provoke a riot by assaulting Vietnamese civilians and taking many of them prisoner. Gracey sent the French back to their barracks, but within hours the Vietnamese underworld erupted against French civilians, killing around two  hundred of them. To restore order, Gracey resorted to activating rearmed Jap- anese prisoners under his command. These events strengthened the determin- ation of British authorities to turn the Indochina business over to the French as  quickly as possible. French post-war colonial policy vaguely envisioned a French Union in which a five-state Indochinese Federation existed under a French governor general. The states, corresponding to the five parts of French Indochina, would enjoy varying degrees of local autonomy while economic, military, and diplomatic powers remained with the French. Such was the plan announced by the government of Charles de Gaulle in early 1945. This plan may have been plausible if the end of the war had found the French still in power in Indochina, but the events of 1945 rendered this an antiquated dream. French aims required that the Vietnamese acquiesce to the return of French colonial rule. Although this was a vain hope, French policy remained stuck on this point, which meant that the first necessary step for the French was to reconquer the Vietnamese. The men chosen by de Gaulle to do this were closely associated with him during the European war, men he trusted and who were devoted to him. General Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque (1902–1947) had a venerable aristocratic lineage. He commanded the first French units to reach Paris in 1944 and, as commander of French forces in Asia, represented France at the September 2 surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay. He arrived in Saigon in early October with the first large infusion of French troops from Europe. Georges Louis Marie Thierry d’Argenlieu (1889–1964), with a mixed naval and monastic career, had risen to the rank of admiral in de Gaulle’s navy. Appointed as high commissioner with supreme authority for implementing French policy in Indochina, he arrived in Saigon at the end of October. Leclerc and d’Argenlieu single-mindedly pursued a policy of reconquest.  By the end of the year, Leclerc had retaken most cities and towns in Cochin- china and southern Annam and the British were departing. By early 1946 Leclerc was making plans to attack Tonkin, but this would not be possible without some understanding with the Chinese. On February 28, 1946, French diplomats in Chongqing signed an agreement with Chiang Kai-shek by which France  renounced the unequal treaties of the past and China recognized French sover- eignty in Indochina. The next day, Leclerc departed Saigon with a large exped- itionary force aboard a fleet of over thirty ships. Wanting to complete his Tonkin  campaign before the monsoon rains began in May, he planned to arrive at Hai Phong on March 6 when a high tide would allow his heavy ships upriver to the docks. The next high tide would not occur until March 18, which in his calculations would be too late in the season. The Chinese were unwilling to be caught in the middle of a war between the French and the Vietnamese and made it clear that they would not allow the French to land without Vietnamese approval. When French ships appeared at Hai Phong on the morning of March 6, Chinese forces fired on them and were prepared to contest their landing until word arrived that a Franco-Vietnamese agreement was being signed in Hanoi. This agreement postponed war in the north until after the Chinese departed six months later.  Finalized under the pressure of the high tide, the Franco-Vietnamese Agree- ment of March 6 contained provisions repugnant to both sides. Instead of  obtaining French recognition of Vietnamese “independence,” Ho Chi Minh agreed to his government being weakly identified as a “free state” (état libre) within the Indochinese Federation under the French Union. For their part, the French agreed to two provisions they had no intention of honoring. French troops north of the sixteenth parallel were limited to fifteen thousand men for a period of five years, and a referendum was to be held on the issue of unifying the Vietnamese regions. This agreement entangled the French and Vietnamese in joint military operations and fruitless negotiations for several months.

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