When war broke out in Europe, Governor General Georges Catroux, who came to favor a more liberal policy toward nationalism in the French colonies, ordered a general mobilization throughout Indochina and outlawed the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), arresting several thousand suspected communists. The Sixth Plenum of the Party Central Committee, secretly meeting outside Saigon, proclaimed a new anti-imperialist National United Front to struggle for independence.
Following the defeat of France in Europe in June 1940, French Indochina came under pressure from Japan and Thailand. Although France had 50,000 troops in Indochina, 38,000 of these were poorly trained indigenous troops of questionably loyalty. Japan had been at war with China since 1937 and was anxious to secure bases from which to strike the Burma Road and cut off assistance to China's Nationalist government. Tokyo now brought heavy pressure on Catroux to close the Sino-Vietnam border and halt shipment of supplies to China. Catroux tried to stall for time, but he had no bargaining strength and was forced to accede to Japanese demands.
Catroux's protest of Vichy France's armistice with Germany and his independence in dealing with the Japanese led the Vichy government to replace him with Vice Admiral Jean Decoux, French commander of naval forces in the Far East. On 24 September 1940, Decoux was forced to grant Japan three air bases in Tonkin and the right to station 6,000 troops there. Then, in July 1941, similarly pressed by the Japanese, France yielded bases and concessions in southern Indochina. This placed Japanese long-range bombers within striking range of Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies, and the Philippines. These brought economic pressure on Japan by Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States that resulted in the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor. Soon the Japanese had 35,000 men in Indochina, and although Japan left the French administration intact, it was clear to the Vietnamese that Japan was calling the shots. The Japanese occupation dealt an irreparable blow to the French position in Indochina.
Bangkok also sought to take advantage of French weakness to secure several provinces it claimed in Laos and Cambodia. From November 1940 to January 1941, Thailand and France fought a war on land and sea that France largely won. Tokyo, then influential in Bangkok, interceded to impose a settlement. In May 1941, France agreed to turn over to Thailand three Cambodian and two Laotian provinces on the right bank of the Mekong River—some 42,000 square miles of territory. This settlement did not last, however. In September 1945, when the French returned in force to Indochina, they demanded and secured from Thailand the seized provinces, forcing Thailand to recognize the Mekong River as the boundary separating Thailand from Laos and Cambodia.
The French had to address Vietnamese nationalism. In 1940, French authorities crushed abortive rebellions led by local communists in the area bordering China and in Cochin China. Then, in February 1941, Ho Chi Minh, a member of the executive committee of the Communist International (Comintern), returned to northern Vietnam after 13 months' imprisonment in south China, bearing with him financial support from Chinese authorities in return for his pledge to cooperate against the Japanese. Ho now presided over the Eighth Plenum of the ICP at Pac Bo. Here on 19 May, the Communists established another front organization—Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (League for Independence of Vietnam, or Viet Minh)—to fight both the Japanese and French. Although their tactics led Viet Minh leaders to conceal their communist goals and focus on national liberation to secure the widest possible support, the organization was in fact led and dominated by the ICP. Former schoolteacher Vo Nguyen Giap became the Viet Minh's military leader.
The Chinese Nationalist government grudgingly provided limited support for the Viet Minh, as did the United States through the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency). The OSS gave the Viet Minh some light weapons, medical supplies, communications equipment, and training in return for Viet Minh aid in saving downed U.S. pilots and cooperation against the Japanese. By 1945, the Viet Minh had secured control over northern Tonkin.
Until nearly the end of World War II, the French authorities and army still were in place in Indochina; the Japanese were exercising indirect control. That changed in March 1945. The French authorities, anxious to liberate themselves, began active plotting to that end. The Japanese learned of the French plans, and on 9 March 1945, they arrested all the French officials and military personnel they could find. By announcing on 11 March the independence of Vietnam under previously French-controlled Emperor Bao Dai of Annam, Tokyo also exacerbated the postwar situation. This was the situation when Japan surrendered.
Ho Chi Minh then stepped into the vacuum. At the end of the war, starvation gripped much of Vietnam, and as many as 2 million Vietnamese died, chiefly in the north. The Viet Minh made great strides with the people by seizing rice stocks held by the Japanese and distributing them to the people. Then, on 16 August, Ho proclaimed the independence of Vietnam, and three days later the Viet Minh took power in Hanoi, capital of Tonkin. On 2 September, Ho announced establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Decisions taken during the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 had the Nationalist Chinese receiving the Japanese surrender in northern Vietnam and the British doing the same in the south. Ho appealed to the United States and the Soviet Union for assistance, but he received no response and was forced to negotiate first with the Chinese to secure their withdrawal and then with the French. Meanwhile, the British in the south let the French out of prison. A Viet Minh uprising there was soon crushed, and French control was reestablished in the south and then in Laos and Cambodia. The north was another matter, however. On 6 March 1946, French representative Jean Sainteny negotiated the Ho-Sainteny Agreement, in which France recognized Ho's Democratic Republic of Vietnam within the French Union and promise a plebiscite in the south to see whether the south also wanted to join. The agreement also allowed the return of some French troops to the north. The failure of the French to implement the provisions of this agreement led directly to the First Indochina War, which began in November 1946.
Claude R. Sasso and Spencer C. Tucker
Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989.; Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh. New York: Hyperion, 2000.; Duncanson, Dennis J. Government and Revolution in Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.; Patti, Archimedes L. A. Why Viet Nam: Prelude to America's Albatross. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980.; Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.