The Second World War and the Viet Minh

Hồ Chí Minh (fifth from left, standing) with the OSS in 1945.

The Viet Minh led the resistance against the Japanese and the French. During the war, they worked with officers of the OSS who had been sent to Vietnam to help organize guerrilla efforts against the Japanese. The Viet Minh helped rescue American pilots who were shot down over Indochina, and in return received weapons and training. Essentially “a nationalist-front organization” led by the Indochinese Communist Party the Viet Minh attracted Vietnamese patriots “in a common struggle against the Japanese and the French [by] emphasizing … patriotic themes that would appeal to radicals and moderates alike.”

In March 1945, the Japanese overthrew French administrative authorities in Vietnam and imprisoned them and French citizens, and formed a regime headed by the emperor Bai Dai, who had faithfully served the colonial regime. During the period between this takeover and the end of the Second World War in early September 1945, Viet Minh territory “expanded to include six provinces in northern Vietnam. In this ‘liberated zone,’ entirely new local governments were established, self-defense forces recruited, taxes abolished, rents reduced, and, in some places, land that had belonged to French landlords was seized and redistributed.”

By early September 1945, Viet Minh forces had defeated the combined Japanese-French colonialists, and on September 2, before hundreds of thousands of people in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). It became the first former European colony to establish a popular democratic government after the war. At this independence celebration, the opening lines of Ho’s speech were taken from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Americans were the only honored foreign guests, and Major Archimedes Patti of the OSS stood next to General Giap, the commander of the Viet Minh forces. Some Americans who were in Hanoi and Saigon during the war supported the Viet Minh struggle; they “warned of imminent cold war and recommended U.S. withdrawal from the area, [and] also argued against providing assistance to France for the purpose of returning to Vietnam.” The Truman administration ignored their recommendations.

At the end of the Second World War, at this moment of independence, David Marr writes, millions of Vietnamese “knew they were making history, not just witnessing it. Many sensed that their lives were changing irrevocably.…” This historic Vietnamese struggle was to be blocked by U.S. allies Britain and France. In late September 1945, the British rearmed some fourteen hundred French soldiers and civilians who “in the name of restoring law and order,” rampaged through Saigon, “cursing, beating up, detaining, and otherwise offending any native encountered.” Vietnamese then retaliated by killing more than a hundred and fifty French civilians; many were women and children. Later that fall, British, French, and Japanese troops attacked the Viet Minh near Saigon. Let this historical fact sink in: Japanese troops, who a few months earlier were killing and wounding British and U.S. troops, now joined British forces trying to destroy Vietnamese resistance against the returning French colonialists.

In early 1950, the Vietnamese resistance against the French was strengthened when the People’s Republic of China became the first nation to formally recognize the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. China sent American weapons and ammunition it had captured in Korea, and this allowed General Giap to arm new divisions in the fight against the French. Chinese aid later included anti-aircraft units that Giap used in the May 1954 victory over the French at the critical battle of Dien Bien Phu. During this period and into the early years of the American war, the Chinese “exerted considerable influence” over Vietnamese Communists until their own Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Relations worsened considerably after President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, eventually leading to war in 1979 when the Chinese invaded Vietnam. President Jimmy Carter supported this invasion, urged on by his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, David Marr writes, “the most important question” was how much assistance the United States would provide France; this was done “above all by facilitating the arrival of French troops, equipment, and supplies … Most French soldiers were outfitted with U.S. weapons and uniforms, and they roared around in U.S. jeeps, trucks, and armored cars—a startling, depressing sight for Vietnamese who had hoped for American neutrality, if not outright support.” As the Cold War heated up in the late 1940s, the Truman administration increased its economic and military support to the French, becoming more generous after the Chinese Communist Revolution in late 1949, “when Indochina came to be seen as a vital segment of the global anticommunist front line.”

Historian Michael Gillen contends that the United States missed an opportunity when its officials did not listen to OSS agents on the ground in Vietnam, such as Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, who wrote from Saigon in September 1945: “Cochinchina [southern Vietnam] is burning, the French and the British are finished here, and we [the Americans] ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.” Dewey became the first U.S. casualty of the war in Vietnam when he was killed by Viet Minh soldiers at a military checkpoint.

Historians point out that President Franklin Roosevelt was not happy with French colonialism and wished to see it end after the Second World War. Historian Michael H. Hunt argues that Roosevelt’s verbal opposition to French control of Vietnam—something the United States did not oppose during his presidency—was a form of racism that “was common for his generation and that would prove a consistent strand in later U.S. policies.” FDR did not believe that “the peoples of Indochina and other ‘brown people in the East,’ such as the Koreans,” were able “to exercise freedom with wisdom.”

Hunt writes that the August 1945 revolution was “a promising bid for full-fledged independence.” The Viet Minh “commanded the political high ground as the only effective political group … with an untarnished patriotic reputation … and a demonstrated capacity to mobilize rural support. From that position, it had sponsored a government with national pretensions and broad representation.”

Vietnam’s declared independence did not last long, however, as immediately after the Second World War U.S. material support for French colonialism grew dramatically. France desperately needed American troopships and other military equipment to transport its colonial troops to Vietnam. Harold Issacs, a war reporter for Newsweek, was in Saigon as these troops came off American ships: there were “thousands every week, first in French transports and then in a long succession of American ships, flying the American flag and manned by American crews.… They marched past cheering crowds of relieved French civilians and moved out … to restore French order.”

At the time of this image the ship “Red Oak Victory” is the only operational Victory class ship in the world. Used extensively during World War II for transport of various goods it was a faster and longer range successor to the earlier Liberty class, with about the same capacity. The hull was recently refurbished and painted. Image 20 July 2013.

Sailors from the USS Stamford Victory were among the few Americans to see the sight of “fully armed Japanese soldiers, several weeks after [Victory over Japan] Day, being employed by the British in Vietnam.” The crews of this and other U.S. ships witnessed the Vietnamese reaction. One sailor reported that they “all spoke to us of their hatred of the French and their wonder at the Americans [for] bringing the French invaders back.” These members of the National Maritime Union (NMU) protested “the policy of the United States Government in chartering ships, flying the American flag,” to transport French troops “in order to subjugate the native population of Vietnam.” In a stunning shift in history, U.S. vessels brought French troops to Vietnam so they could join recently released Japanese troops to support France’s attempt to crush the Vietnamese independence movement. The sailors’ action was the first organized antiwar protest against Washington’s policy, twenty years before campus protests began in 1965.