Formation of the Second Republic of Vietnam

01

Dec
2021

The August Revolution

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For Vietnamese in Tonkin and northern Annam, the winter of 1944–1945 was a time of famine with around one million people dying of starvation. The 1944 spring rice crop had been reduced by drought and insect infestation and the autumn crop had been reduced by a typhoon; however, by themselves these events would not have caused this famine. Another factor was a long-term trend of population growth and decline of rice production in northern Vietnamese provinces that made them dependent upon rice from Cochinchina. This was exacerbated during the war by the Japanese demand that land be shifted from rice to strategic commodities such as jute, hemp, ramie, cotton, peanuts, and castor oil seed; this mainly affected Tonkin where these items were best cultivated due to soil and climate. But even under these conditions a famine would not have occurred without more immediate factors related to the final year of the war.  After the Allied liberation of France and the fall of the Vichy French govern- ment in the summer of 1944, the French military command in Indochina  expanded its clandestine contact with Free French forces and made plans for the anticipated defeat of Japan. The arrival of American forces in the Philippines raised the possibility that the Americans might land in Indochina, although it was becoming obvious to all that the main line of American attack was directly toward the Japanese islands. In the autumn of 1944, American bombers began to hit Vietnamese ports and railroads and the US navy began to sink coastal  shipping. Consequently, the amount of rice that could be shipped from Cochin- china to the north in 1944 was much less than usual.  But even the American disruption of the transportation system would not have produced such a devastating famine if not for the policies of the two armies in Indochina. The final phase of the war turned nervous allies into potential enemies. Most of the transportation system was reserved for military purposes and both the French and the Japanese stockpiled large amounts of rice that would normally have been available for the civilian market. Furthermore, because of the looming military and political uncertainties, the wartime economy was collapsing with large-scale inflation, speculation, and hoarding. In the midst of the famine, the tensions between the French and Japanese were released in early March 1945 when the Japanese disarmed and interned the French. Although this is what the French had most feared, they had done little to prepare for it and it was a relatively quick and non-violent event. In just a few hours, the French colonial regime was brought to an end by a dying imperial power whose own life was draining away. General Tsuchihashi Yuitsu (1891– 1975) planned and executed this action. He had served as a military attaché at the Japanese embassy in Paris in the late 1930s and had held various Southeast Asian commands during the war before being assigned to Indochina in 1944. He became the de facto governor general of Indochina and assigned senior Japanese diplomats to replace the ranking French administrators in Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin. At the same time, he proclaimed Vietnam to be independent and  formed a royal government at Hue to which he could pass governing responsi- bilities as the war ended.  Some Vietnamese, especially among the Cao Dai, expected Tsuchihashi to replace Bao Dai with Cuong De, who was residing in Tokyo, but wartime conditions made travel for such an important person too risky, and, in any case,  Tsuchihashi wanted to minimize disruption as the Japanese position was becom- ing more fragile. Pham Quynh was discarded as Bao Dai’s prime minister, both  because of his Francophile disposition and because Bao Dai did not like him. Ngo Dinh Diem was widely regarded as the strongest candidate to replace Pham Quynh, but his strong anti-French attitude had inhibited his relationship with Bao Dai, and Tsuchihashi turned to Tran Trong Kim. After seeking protection with the Japanese in 1943, Tran Trong Kim had spent a year in Singapore and then was transferred to Bangkok. He was now brought to Hue and installed as head of a quasi-independent royal government. It took until early May for Tran Trong Kim to form his cabinet of ministers and to begin to provide leadership to the protectorate government in Tonkin and Annam. His government did not extend its authority over Cochinchina or major cities, although the Japanese finally approved of it doing so at the very end of the war. With its passive reliance on the Japanese, it was a factor in the evolving situation more by what it did not do than by anything it did do. It did not inhibit the activities of nationalist organizations, which began to operate with a freedom that had never existed before. Although it did not exercise the substance of independence, Tran Trong Kim’s government nevertheless accelerated the mood of independence by releasing political prisoners and replacing the institutional symbols and vocabulary of the colonial regime with Vietnamese versions, giving the country the name of Viet Nam, replacing the terms Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina with Bac Bo,  Trung Bo, and Nam Bo (northern division, central division, and southern div- ision), issuing a national flag and a national anthem, organizing national holi- days to celebrate famous events and heroic people in Vietnamese history. Most of  all, the charismatic Minister of Youth, Phan Anh (1912–1990), contributed to politicizing young people and preparing them to participate in revolutionary action. Originally from Ha Tinh, Phan Anh studied law in France and spent the war years in Hue writing for a youth publication. During his brief time as Minister of Youth, he traveled extensively, speaking to gatherings of youth and exciting them with patriotic fervor. On the other hand, in the final weeks before the Japanese surrender, Tran Trong Kim was immobilized by a cabinet crisis. For the most part, the protectorate administration facilitated rather than obstructed the draining away of its authority at war’s end. Meanwhile, the Indochinese Communist Party was quick to take advantage of the Japanese takeover in early March. By this time, the Americans had begun to bomb railroads and harbors in Indochina to impede Japanese transport and communications; some American planes were shot down, and Ho Chi Minh established contact with US officers in Kunming by way of returning surviving pilots who had come under the control of his people. It was a propitious time because the French internment had erased the Allied intelligence network in Indochina, and Ho Chi Minh was in a position to offer an alternative. American intelligence officers sent him back with a radioman and within weeks were parachuting supplies, equipment, and weapons trainers.  In the summer of 1945, Ho Chi Minh and his associates established a head- quarters at Tan Trao, in Son Duong district of Tuyen Quang Province, less than  two hundred kilometers northwest of Hanoi. Around seventy people from northern Indochina were summoned as delegates to a series of conferences held at Tan Trao in mid August, then urgently sent back to their localities as news of the unexpectedly sudden Japanese surrender spread through the Vietnamese population. During the five months between the internment of the French and the Japanese  surrender, the Indochinese Communist Party was not the only political organiza- tion to anticipate an opportunity. In late March 1945, the Dai Viet National  Alliance that had been formed in 1944 reorganized for military action. Despite the Dai Viet affinity for the Japanese, the Japanese were preoccupied with their sinking fortunes and gave the Dai Viet little encouragement. Dai Viet activists nevertheless became discernible factors in certain localities of lowland Tonkin. Nguyen Tuong Tam briefly attempted to mobilize these Dai Viet elements until he decided that Japan was a dead end and, in the summer of 1945, returned to Guangxi where he again became active in the Nationalist Party. From its base in Yunnan, the Nationalist Party established a strong presence down the Red River toward Hanoi. Groups associated with the Revolutionary League in Guangxi  became active in Quang Ninh Province along the coast and its hinterland adja- cent to the Chinese border.  What distinguished the Indochinese Communist Party and the organizations it had gathered in the Viet Minh front from its rivals were the breadth and depth of its influence both regionally and socially, although in most cases this influence was diffuse and more of a potential capable of being awakened by circumstances than a structure for conveying instructions and directing responses. At the time of the Japanese surrender, the Indochinese Communist Party was but one element in a revolutionary situation far beyond its capacity to control. It gained power in Hanoi and elsewhere through the accumulation of initiatives by many groups,  few of which were under its direct supervision but most of which were suscep- tible to its leadership.  Upon news of Tokyo’s surrender, Japanese forces quickly withdrew from exposed outposts, concentrated near ports from where they expected to be repatriated, and assumed an attitude of armed passivity, minimizing contact with local administrators. The royal government at Hue was inert. The communist leaders prepared to move out of their mountain bases toward Hanoi. Meanwhile, in villages, towns, and cities across the country, activists banded together to absorb or overwhelm existing authorities in a burst of exhilaration at the absence of foreign rulers. Already in the weeks before the Japanese surrender there were violent episodes between Viet Minh activists and rival groups such as the Nationalist Party and the Dai Viet, particularly in provinces with easy access to the Chinese border where the leaders of these groups were located. The Japanese surrender did not create a vacuum. It simply removed the external restraints on a Vietnamese political process that had been developing for a long time in underground organizations and in the minds of people. Four days after the Japanese surrender, Viet Minh activists, mainly members of the Democratic Party, seized control of Hanoi and delivered it into the hands of their leaders, who arrived from the mountains a few days later. Vietnamese historians call this the August Revolution. An initial phase of chaotic, exuberant, often spontaneous and relatively non-violent seizing of power by local groups was soon followed by a second phase in which the communist leadership in Hanoi extended its authority throughout Tonkin and down the coast of Annam. In some areas rival groups retained control, such as the Nationalist Party upriver from Hanoi where they benefited from easy access to their base in Kunming and the protection of incoming Chinese troops from Yunnan. In other areas, particularly the further south one went, where the Viet Minh organization was progressively weaker, uprisings turned violent, as in Quang Ngai, or resulted in confrontation between rival groups claiming to be Viet Minh, as in Binh Dinh and Phu Yen. Agents of the new authorities in Hanoi were sent to sort out local issues and to eliminate people regarded as threats to the regime. Thousands were assassinated, including prominent Francophiles such as Bui Quang Chieu and Pham Quynh. The revolution had come to Quang Ngai early and violently with the arrival of local communists released from prison in the central highlands after the French internment. By the time of the Japanese surrender, radical groups claiming affiliation with the Viet Minh were already in the process of spreading class struggle in rural areas. The provincial governor happened to be Ngo Dinh Diem’s eldest brother Ngo Dinh Khoi, who had been appointed by Tran Trong Kim. In the high tide of the August Revolution, he was put to death, and his son with him. Quang Ngai was also the final resting place of Ta Thu Thau, who was seized and killed as he was making his way from Tonkin to Saigon.

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