1945-1957: Vietnam

1945-1957: Vietnam

Howard Zinn's short history of Vietnam from the defeat of Japan in 1945 through the installation of the US puppet government in Saigon to the beginning of the Vietnam War.

In the autumn of 1945 Japan, defeated, was forced to leave Indochina, the former French colony it had occupied at the start of the war. In the meantime, a revolutionary movement had grown there, determined to end colonial control and to achieve a new life for the peasants of Indochina. Led by a Communist named Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionists fought against the Japanese, and when they were gone held a spectacular celebration in Hanoi in late 1945, with a million people in the streets, and issued a Declaration of Independence. It borrowed from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, in the French Revolution, and from the American Declaration of Independence, and began: "All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Just as the Americans in 1776 had listed their grievances against the English King, the Vietnamese listed their complaints against French rule:

They have enforced inhuman laws… They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots, they have drowned uprisings in rivers of blood. They have fettered public opinion… They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials…

They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people, especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty… from the end of last year, to the beginning of this year… more than two million of our fellow-citizens died of starvation…

The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.

The US Defence Department study of the Vietnam War, intended to be "top secret" but released to the public by Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo in the famous Pentagon Papers case, described Ho Chi Minh's work:

"... Ho had built the Viet Minh into the only Vietnam-wide political organisation capable of effective resistance to either the Japanese or the French. He was the only Vietnamese wartime leader with a national following, and he assured himself wider fealty among the Vietnamese people when in August September, 1945, he overthrew the Japanese . . . established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and staged receptions for in-coming allied occupation forces.... For a few weeks in September, 1945, Vietnam was-for the first and only time in its modern history-free of foreign domination, and united from north to south under Ho Chi Minh...."

The Western powers were already at work to change this. England occupied the southern part of Indochina and then turned it back to the French. Nationalist China (this was under Chiang Kai-shek, before the Communist revolution) occupied the northern part of Indochina, and the United States persuaded it to turn that back to the French. As Ho Chi Minh told an American journalist: "We apparently stand quite alone.... We shall have to depend on ourselves."

Between October 1945 and February 1946, Ho Chi Minh wrote eight letters to President Truman, reminding him of the self-determination promises of the Atlantic Charter. One of the letters was sent both to Truman and to the United Nations:

I wish to invite attention of your Excellency for strictly humanitarian reasons to following matter. Two million Vietnamese died of starvation during winter of 1944 and spring 1945 because of starvation policy of French who seized and stored until it rotted all available rice.... Three-fourths of cultivated land was flooded in summer 1945, which was followed by a severe drought; of normal harvest five-sixths was lost.... Many people are starving.... Unless great world powers and international relief organisations bring us immediate assistance we face imminent catastrophe....

Truman never replied.

In October of 1946, the French bombarded Haiphong, a port in northern Vietnam, and there began the eight-year war between the Vietminh independence movement and the French over who would rule Vietnam. After the Communist victory in China in 1949 and the Korean war the following year, the United States began giving large amounts of military aid to the French. By 1954, the United States had given 300,000 small arms and machine guns, enough to equip the entire French army in Indochina, and $1 billion; all together, the US was financing 80% of the French war effort. Why was the United States doing this? To the public, the word was that the United States was helping to stop Communism in Asia, but there was not much public discussion. In the secret memoranda of the National Security Council (which advised the President on foreign policy) there was talk in 1950 of what came to be known as the "domino theory" - that, like a row of dominoes, if one country fell to Communism, the next one would do the same and so on. It was important therefore to keep the first one from falling.

A secret memo of the National Security Council in June 1952 also pointed to the chain of US military bases along the coast of China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea:

Communist control of all of Southeast Asia would render the US position in the Pacific offshore island chain precarious and would seriously jeopardise fundamental US security interests in the Far East.

Southeast Asia, especially Malaya and Indonesia, is the principal world source of natural rubber and tin, and a producer of petroleum and other strategically important commodities...

It was also noted that Japan depended on the rice of Southeast Asia, and Communist victory there would "make it extremely difficult to prevent Japan's eventual accommodation to communism." In 1953, a congressional study mission reported: "The area of Indochina is immensely wealthy in rice, rubber, coal and iron ore. Its position makes it a strategic key to the rest of Southeast Asia." That year, a State Department memorandum said that the French were losing the war in Indochina, had failed "to win a sufficient native support," feared that a negotiated settlement "would mean the eventual loss to Communism not only of Indochina but of the whole of Southeast Asia, and concluded: "If the French actually decided to withdraw, the US would have to consider most seriously whether to take over in this area."

In 1954, the French, having been unable to win Vietnamese popular support, which was overwhelmingly behind Ho Chi Minh and the revolutionary movement, had to withdraw.

An international assemblage at Geneva presided over the peace agreement between the French and the Vietminh. It was agreed that the French would temporarily withdraw into the southern part of Vietnam, that the Vietminh would remain in the north, and that an election would take place in two years in a unified Vietnam to enable the Vietnamese to choose their own government.

The United States moved quickly to prevent the unification and to establish South Vietnam as an American sphere. It set up in Saigon as head of the government a former Vietnamese official named Ngo Dinh Diem, who had recently been living in New Jersey, and encouraged him not to hold the scheduled elections for unification. A memo in early 1954 of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that intelligence estimates showed "a settlement based on free elections would be attended by almost certain loss of the Associated States [Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam-the three parts of Indochina created by the Geneva Conference] to Communist control." Diem again and again blocked the elections requested by the Vietminh, and with American money and arms his government became more and more firmly established. As the Pentagon Papers put it: "South Viet Nam was essentially the creation of the United States."

After the elections were blocked in 1956, a communist insurgency began in 1957, heralding the start of the Vietnam War, which lasted until 1975.

Read our history of the Vietnam War

This article was taken from Howard Zinn’s excellent A People's History of the United States. OCRed by Linda Towlson and lightly edited by libcom - US to UK spelling, additional details, clarifications and links added


Sep 15 2011 04:02

Ken Knabb's site now has a book online about the struggle against the French in Vietnam, with this blurb:

Although the Vietnam War is still well known, few people are aware of the
decades of struggles against the French colonial regime that preceded it,
many of which had no connection with the Stalinists (Ho Chi Minh's
Communist Party). The Stalinists were ultimately victorious, but only after
they systematically destroyed all the other oppositional currents.
IN THE CROSSFIRE is the story of those other movements and revolts,
caught in the crossfire between the French and the Stalinists, told by one
of the few survivors.
The complete book (minus the illustrations) is now online at
Sep 15 2011 09:09

That looks really interesting, cheers.