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Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese Communism
As important as the Nazi occupation of France and the Vichy regime’s subsequent dealings with the Japanese imperial army were in undermining French power in Indo-China, the Vietnamese nationalist movement still had needed a leader. In Ho Chi Minh they had an extraordinary one. Ho was, hands down, by far the most important figure in twentieth-century Vietnamese history. Born Nguyen Van Coong in Kim-Lien, in the Nam-Dam section of Nghe-An province, on the 19th of May, 1890, he was an example of the new generation of Vietnamese. The son of a mandarin, he was educated in French-run schools, and was swept up in the 1920’s by the early stirrings of Vietnamese nationalism, like so many of his class and background. Ho formed the first socialist revolutionary organisation for Vietnamese nationalists, the Thanh-Nien (Revolutionary Youth Movement), in exile at Canton in 1925. Initially, it was a failure, riven by infighting and prone to the sort of bad behaviour that alienated potential supporters, and it remained so through several further incarnations. Finally, in 1941, the sectarian infighting of Vietnamese nationalism was quelled with the formation of the Vietminh as a broad-based anti-colonial front, with the Communists leading an alliance of other nationalist groups.
Ho’s leadership role in Vietnam’s liberation struggle was guided by both his life experiences and his personality. Erudite, well-travelled, and versed in three distinct but complementary philosophical traditions (Confucianism, Marxism, and Western), he was the ideological force behind Vietnamese communism. As a person, the example of his life was an inspiration to many. Since his youth he had been ceaselessly dedicated to clandestine political activities, organising for socialist and Vietnamese nationalist causes. He had also spent long stretches of time in prison as a result of his activities, which only increased the respect that he was given. His faultless dedication to the twin causes of Marxist revolution and the liberation of the Vietnamese people was combined with a genuinely ascetic lifestyle. Of course, the myth of Ho was heavily stage-managed, but it was real enough that, allied with his natural charisma and deep learning, he emerged as a massively influential and successful figure in Vietnamese life.
Like Mao, he believed that, in the absence of an urban proletariat of any size and importance, it was necessary to organize the rural masses for revolutionary action. Gradually, as the war progressed, from their base in the mountainous west they grew in strength both politically and militarily. By the time that the Japanese decided they’d had enough of their arrangement with the French, disposing of the colonial authorities and arresting Decoux in March 1945, the Vietminh had become a formidable political force, with agents throughout the country, especially in the north. Their work in alleviating the effects of the famine had gained them much support among the mass of the Vietnamese peasantry by early 1945. They were ready for the next step.
The Revolutionary War, 1946-1954
As the war turned against the Japanese in Asia and they were forced to flee their conquests, including Indo-China, the Vietminh took advantage of the confusion and swept into Hanoi, where they declared the foundation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on the 2nd of September, 1945. The next day, Chinese troops from General Chang’s Kuomintang Army, entered Hanoi to assist in the demobilization of Japanese military forces north of the 17th parallel. Ten days later British forces arrived in Saigon to fulfil the same role in the south of the country. They were followed by French military forces, part of the Liberation government’s effort to re-establish French colonial control as a means of reviving French national esteem. There was also a powerful economic motive for this, as Indo-China had accounted for 70% of French imperial trade prior to the war. The French quickly spread through southern Vietnam, re-establishing military and political control. With the Viet Minh in control of the north of the country, the result was a stalemate. The best chance of a diplomatic breakthrough appeared to have arrived with General De Gaulle’s resignation on New Year’s Eve, 1945, which ushered in a new leftwing “tripartite” government in France, who were more willing to find a compromise with Ho. The negotiations, which began in February 1946, reached informal agreements on proposals including the recognition of the DRV as the government north of the 17th parallel, the withdrawal of all French troops by 1952, and the right of the south to choose its own political destiny. Both regions were to be incorporated into the newly-created French Union, a decentralised umbrella grouping for French colonial states.
This seeming-breakthrough was then sabotaged when, acting against orders from Paris, the High Commissioner D’Argenlieu declared Cochin-China a republic on the 31st of May, 1946. Within months the leftwing government in Paris had collapsed to be replaced by a centre-right coalition and relations rapidly soured between the French and the Vietnamese Communists. Matters were brought to a head in December 1946 when General Giap’s Viet Minh forces attacked the French garrison in Hanoi, the precursor to a retreat by the revolutionary government and armed forces to the mountainous highlands of the northwest from where they had made their base during World War Two. This was the beginning of the guerrilla war which would continue for the next eight years. Tactically, it was a war of attrition to sap French political and military morale. Like all insurgencies, there were few major battles in this campaign, but the effect of constant small-scale guerrilla strikes against French forces had the effect of sapping French morale and driving opinion in France itself towards the conclusion that the situation in Indo-China was an intractable morass.
It was not until May 1954 that there was a genuinely decisive battle. The heavily fortified French base at Dien Bien Phu, a crucial crossroads in northern Vietnam between China, Laos, and Hanoi, had been the centre-point of the Navarre Plan, named after the general who designed it, which had been intended to draw Viet Minh forces out of hiding and into battle. This it succeeded in doing, but the French forces were unprepared for the scale of the assault and were forced to surrender after several days of fierce fighting. News of General Giap's seizure of Dien Bien Phu arrived in Europe at the same time as delegates from both sides were preparing to meet in Geneva to forge a peace plan. It was a stunning defeat for the French, crystallising the feeling among politicians and civilians alike that it was a war that could not be won, a war that would continue to drain resources. The Geneva Agreement in July 1954, which concluded the war, was an official recognition of the situation as it stood, with Vietnam partitioned at the 17th parallel. Ho accepted this, as he believed it would be a quick process of overrunning Bao Dai’s puppet state and reunifying Vietnam. He was, of course, wrong, as he had underestimated America’s commitment to containing Communism’s spread in Asia.
In conclusion, France’s Indo-Chinese colony was doomed from the moment Paris was overrun by Nazi Germany. The colonial system had been creaking for years, run down by corruption and mismanagement and beset by an increasingly vocal nationalist opposition, but the events of the Second World War accelerated the process and gave it a certain inevitability. The capitulation to Japanese interests, and the terrible famine that resulted from it, allowed the Viet Minh to gain massive political support while it was also relatively free to build its military strength, with the Japanese generally disinterested in the political situation in Indo-China. As a result, the events of 1946-1954 are almost superfluous to the analysis, as they merely confirmed the pattern of change that had been forming for several decades previously. The one question that looms over any look at the last days of l’indochine francaise is whether the brutal war could have been avoided, as it was to have terrible consequences for both nations in the aftermath of the Geneva Agreement of 1954. For the Vietnamese, the increasing involvement of the United States in the last years of the colonial administration would mean another two decades of violence, an involvement that would have been by no means certain if Ho had managed to win a military victory early in the war. For the French, defeat in Indo-China would mean redoubled efforts to maintain control over Algeria when that rebellion broke out several years later, leading to an even more brutal and bloody war, and, ultimately, an even greater humbling for France.