Nothing is more precious than freedom

Japan developed into a hegemonic power in this region of the world at the penultimate turn of the century. “The emperor is holy and inviolable,” the Japanese constitution of 1890 said, and he was legitimized as a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu with unlimited power. As sovereign of the country, the emperor (Tenno) led the executive and legislative, but also the army and navy. After two victorious wars against China and Russia in 1894/95 and 1904/05 respectively, Japan had become the undisputed regional power.

In September 1931, the Japanese Kwantung Army, stationed in Manchuria, occupied several major cities in the region that were strategically important as a buffer against the Soviet Union. In July 1937, a staged attack on a Japanese military unit near Beijing escalated the war against China on all fronts.

Under these conditions, Japan experienced phenomenal economic growth between 1930 and 1940. Industrial production increased five-fold, steel production increased from 1.8 to 6.8 million tons per year, and in 1939 alone 5000 new fighter aircraft left the assembly halls. For merchant ships, the tonnage in 1937 was 405,195 tons, more than quadrupilatering compared to 1931. Military spending also grew disproportionately. In 1938, a year after the invasion of China, they accounted for 75.4 percent of Japan’s total budget. Finally, from 1936 to 1941, the number of conscripts doubled, so that on 1 January 1942 six million soldiers were under arms.

Japan’s war economy required securing strategically important raw materials, initially sourced from China and its colony of Korea. The fields in Dutch India (now Indonesia) and Sumatra and Borneo were needed for a regulated oil supply, as the US and Great Britain imposed an oil boycott on Tokyo in 1941. At the same time, France’s colonial administration had left Indochina to the Japanese without resistance. Although French colonial officials remained in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the Japanese military was leading the way.

Thus, the expansion-minded Empire not only controlled an important resource region (rubber, coal, manganese, bauxite, nickel) – Indochina and Thailand became quasi allies to accompany the further military advance of the imperial troops in Southeast Asia. These campaigns were justified by the “greater East Asian common sphere of prosperity”, which the Tenno had unleashed as “light, protector and leader of Asia” in the “fight against white colonialism and imperialism”.

Indochina - France’s outpost in Southeast Asia

When World War II began in Europe in September 1939, the French government had a colony in the heart of continental Southeast Asia, which had existed since 1887 and was about 100,000 square kilometers larger than the “motherland” with a population of nearly 741,000 square kilometers and a population of nearly 24 million inhabitants. In the second half of the 19th century, French troops had conquered Laos and Cambodia against the armed resistance of indigenous liberation fighters, and brought Tonkin (North Vietnam), Annam (Central Vietnam) and Cochinchina (South Vietnam) under their control. The French sumred the area under the name Indochina, placed Cochinchina under colonial administration (based in Saigon) and declared the rest a protectorate, which they controlled with the help of local governors in Hanoi, north Vietnam, as well as traditional feudal lords and mandarins in Laos, Cambodia, and central Vietnam.

“In Indochina there may be monarchs who rule,” said Bao Dai, Annam’s emperor, “but French admirals are in charge.” (Jennings 2001: 7) The 25,000 to 30,000 French settlers, colonial officials, and military personnel in Indochina accounted for less than 0.2 percent of the population of about 24 million. In the French neighborhoods of Saigon and Hanoi, as well as in their mansions on their rice, cotton and rubber plantations, they led a luxurious life and were inspired by the idea of presenting themselves as true guardians of the “Mission Civilisatrice”.

In stark contrast, the local population lived largely in miserable conditions in poverty and dependence. By introducing private ownership and converting agricultural production to exports, the French had undermined the largely communal self-sufficiency in the countryside and forced farmers who had previously worked together to rely on the now forcibly acquired goods of French landowners as day laborers. In addition to rent, the French taxed silver coins, which contributed to the indebtedness and impoverishment of the population. (Marr: 127)

Strikes, uprisings and hunger revolts of the population brutally crushed the French troops with the help of local colonial soldiers (and later with foreign legionnaires). Thousands of opposition activists lost their lives, ended up in French prisons and penal camps, or fell victim to a system of surveillance and repression that was as tight-knit as it was sophisticated. Nevertheless, in the 1930s, anti-colonial organizations found more and more supporters, especially the Communist Party of Indogeta (KPI). In 1931, the head of the French colonial police had to admit (Jennings: 135):

“We don’t have anyone on our side anymore. The mandarins, to whom we have never made sufficient moral and material concessions, serve us only with reservation and cannot make much difference. The bourgeoisie does not believe in communism, but, as in China, sees it as an excellent instrument for defending itself to the outside world. The youth in their entirety opposes us as well as the immense mass of impoverished peasants and workers. The fact is that much more is needed here than just repression.”

The French tried to counter the growing resentment of their rule by initiating conservative and religious honorees into their colonial administration. The People’s Front government under Léon Blum, which ruled France from 1936 to 1938, also had 1,500 political prisoners amnestyed and lifted the ban on the assembly, so that in 1938 25,000 people took to the streets and demonstrated in Hanoi on May 1. (Marr: 129)

With the beginning of the war in Europe, the French drastically intensified their repression in Indochina. Nevertheless, after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, most local opposition groups immediately sided with the Allies. The Communists called for the fight against the German and Japanese fascists. The Chinese minority in the country raised money for the victims of the Japanese war of extermination in the neighboring Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, and many Vietnamese volunteered to help build air raid shelters and other defenses.

Special case Indochina: “Maintaining calm” & parallel rule

The key word for Japanese politics vis-a-vis French Indochina during the Pacific War was “Maintaining Calm.” This meant that Japan allowed the French legislative organizations to continue to exist and that the police, economy, society and education remained under French control. In this way, the conditions before the advancing of the troops of the Imperial Japanese Army into the region should remain in place with the aim of anchoring Japan’s military sovereignty, but at the same time leaving the French Governor-General to regulate internal affairs in French Indochina. The peculiarity of the relations of domination with regard to Vietnam was that until the spring of 1945 two parallel colonial powers exploited the country in concerted action and kept the population in a bid with all the means at their disposal.

It is ironic that after the capitulation of France in the summer of 1940 and the installation of the Nazi-friendly regime in Vichy under the aegis of Marshal Philippe Pétain, the colonial power controlling Indochina had suddenly become an ally of the axis powers Germany and Japan. A unique constellation in the East and Southeast Asian region, where Japanese troops in all other countries had expelled or defeated the other “white” colonial masters – the Dutch in Indonesia, the Americans in the Philippines, and the British in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, and Burma.

The decision to “maintain calm” included the decision that Japan would not simultaneously support the independence movement in Indochina and ensure that the region was not directly involved in the war in China. Such a deal was based on the Matsuoka Henry Agreement signed in Tokyo on August 30, 1940, between the new Japanese Foreign Minister, Matsuoka Yusuke, and the French Ambassador, Arsene Henry, who was accredited in the Japanese capital. Nevertheless, in the course of what the Japanese side called the “peaceful advance” into the northern part of French Indomita, there were considerable frictions between the two sides, which could only be defused after the ultimate threats of the Japanese generality on the ground.

At the time, the Japanese government had threatened to allow its troops to invade Indochina if the French did not immediately stop supplies to the Kuomintang National Chinese Forces (KMT) under the command of Chiang Kai-shek, delivered from the North Vietnamese port of Haiphong to the Chinese province of Yunnan. Tokyo’s negotiator on the matter, Major General Nishihara Issaku, sought to push the commander-in-chief of the French troops in Indochina, General Maurice Martin, for a cap on aid (including military equipment) from Britain, France, the UNITED States, the Soviet Union, and other countries. These goods were transported mainly by three routes: the Burma Road, the so-called “red road” from Ulan Ude near Lake Baikal in the Soviet Union to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, and the most important rail link from Haiphong to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan.

Soon after, the tokyo government demanded that Admiral Jean Decoux, the French Governor-General for Indochina, be able to disembark Japanese troops in Haiphong, station them in Indochina, and move them within the colony at their own discretion in preparation for further conquest campaigns in Southeast Asia. To reinforce this demand, the Japanese captured the French border garrison Lang Son on September 22, 1940 (killing 150 French and Vietnamese) and 6,000 Japanese soldiers invaded Tonkin.

On the same day, Decoux signed the military agreement in Haiphong, which was followed by further agreements. After that, the Japanese military was able to build or use naval and military bases as well as half a dozen airports in Tonkin and Laos. Moreover, Japanese companies were on an equal footing with French firms and exported raw materials (such as rubber and coal) for Japanese arms production, as well as rice and maize for Japanese troops at prices well below world market levels.

Indochina under the Vichy regime: French collaboration …

The French General Staff had hardly any warplanes and warships in Indochina, but more than 90,000 men under arms. (Gerke 1995: 13) Most of them were colonial soldiers, and after the French declaration of war against Nazi Germany, the colonial authorities shipped at least 40,000 Vietnamese soldiers to Europe. (Marr: 141) But they too could not stop the devastating defeat of France against the German Wehrmacht in the early summer of 1940, and after their armistice with Nazi Germany, the vichy collaboration government also took command of Indochina in June 1940. There she found the almost undivided support of the French settlers, who had tens of thousands of portraits of Marshal Philippe Pétain spread and whose fascist program “Work, Family and Fatherland” was to be associated with the teachings of Confucius.

In December 1941, the Vichy authorities published a picture book about Indochina in which local feudal lords such as Bao Dai of Annam, King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia and King Sisavang Vong of Luang Prabang (Laos) appeared next to Marshal Pétain, who attested to them in the foreword (Jennings: 154):

“I know how devoted you are to France. Stay in love with him, but love your own little countries as well, because this will help you to understand France even better and to love even more.”

In Cambodia, the young King Norodom Sihanouk initiated the youth movement Yuvan Kampucherath in 1941 under the guidance of French colonial officials, whose body cult and organizational form openly imitated fascist models from Europe. (Raffin: 124) The youthful marching columns saluted with the fascist salute and the saying “Maréchal, nous voilé” (“Marshal, we follow you”). In Laos and Vietnam, too, the French authorities set up similar youth organizations to use paramilitary drills and flag appeals to bring in “future leaders.”

After the national holiday for Jeanne d’Arc on May 11, 1941, the French Governor-General for Indochina, Admiral Jean Decoux, who had followed the Vichy-critical predecessor, General Georges Catroux, in office from July 1940 to 9 March 1945, proudly announced from Hanoi (Jennings: 218):

“16,000 boys and girls took part in the largest ever march in Indochina, expressing their full confidence in the French Empire. In Phnom Penh, Vientiane and Saigon, ‘historic parades’ with references to French history roamed the streets that day. And in Hué, Vietnam, Emperor Bao Dai took a parade of thousands of children.”

In distant Indochina, meanwhile, Vichy officials also implemented the anti-Semitic laws enacted in the metropolis, unleashing a haton on French and Asian followers of General de Gaulle and sending them to labor camps. In February 1941, commanders of the French navy in Saigon drew up plans to retake the Pacific colony of New Caledonia with an expeditionary corps after it had joined free France under de Gaulle.

After the Vichy government came to power in the colony in 1940, the Nazi regime mainly acquired rubber from Indochina, which was urgently and largely needed for the armaments industry of Nazism. The deliveries were made via Vladivostok and were then transported from there by the Trans-Siberian Railway to Germany, until this transport route could no longer be used after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. After that, the Japanese demanded supplies for their own war production.

In order to maintain its position of power in Indochina, the French collaboration government had to make numerous concessions to Japan from 1940. The Foreign Minister of the Vichy regime, Paul Baudouin, who probably came from the first official use of the term “collaboration” for the “continued cooperation” between Vichy-France and the German Reich, was an enthusiastic supporter of the youth movement of the Vichy regime (Chantiers de la jeunesse fran’aise) and had tried in vain to convince the Nazi government and the UNITED States that it was not in the interest of the White Race. , “To hand Over Indochina Japanese, Chinese or Siamese troops”. (Jennings: 139) Later Baudouin returned to the floors of the Banque de l’Indochine, to whose director he had already become a director in 1930. After the war, in March 1947, he was sentenced to five years in prison as a representative of the collaboration government, but was released in 1948.

At the end of 1940, when troops from the Japanese-allied kingdom of Thailand invaded Indochina and, despite opposition from Cambodian colonial troops under French command, made gains on the west bank of the Mekong, the Japanese troops stationed nearby did not intervene. While the Indochina Communist Party called on the colonial soldiers sent by the French to the front for desertation, Japan forced the Vichy government in January 1941 to largely recognize Thailand’s territorial claims in a “peace treaty.”

French rule in Indochina depended on the goodwill of the Japanese on prosperity and deverbech. The Japanese military police Kempeitai acted in the French colony as untroubled as in the countries occupied by Japan, hunting down opponents there and using the propaganda slogan “Asia to the Asians” to recruit local spies and auxiliary troops.

… and Vietnamese resistance

While religious sects such as Hoa Hao and Cao Dai, especially in the south of Vietnam, as well as various political groups that adhered to the vision of a “Great Vietnam”, were in agreement with the Japanese, the KPI supported the strong willingness of the peasants to fight, especially in the northern part of the country, and their massive resistance against the French. For both sides alike, collaboration with the Japanese was out of the question, especially since Ho Chi Minh and other KPI leaders had seen and dismissed their liberation rhetoric very early on as a “bad joke.”

The Communists called on the insurgents to fight not only against the French fascist collaborators, but also against the Japanese, whose war in neighboring China had already cost millions of lives and whose atrocities committed there had long since spread.

As early as November 1940, the Communists had also initiated an armed uprising against the Vichy collaborators in South Vietnam, in which tens of thousands of peasants, farm workers and deserted colonial soldiers took part. They had raided police posts and other colonial administration facilities, cut off road links, and established revolutionary committees to establish their own administrative structure in “liberated areas.” It was only with massive bombardment and the use of heavy artillery that the French army succeeded in crushing the revolt and leaving all the earth scorched.

With the result that the KPI was much weaker in the south of the country and remained in the long run than in the north, but at the same time with the realization that colonial rule could only be overcome by a carefully prepared armed struggle. The organizational framework for this was to be provided by a broad political alliance in the form of the Viet Nam Coc Lap Dong Minh, the “Vietnamese League for Independence”, or Viet Minh for short. The Communists rejected their demands for class struggle and land reform, declaring overcoming French colonial rule and the expulsion of Japanese troops a primary goal that conservative opponents could also support.

Ho Chi Minh, one of the most important leaders of the Vietnamese Communists, had studied in Paris and had returned to Vietnam for the first time in 1941 after three decades in exile. Attempts to seek support for the Vietnamese resistance against the Japanese and French from the troops operating there under the command of Chiang Kai-shek failed. Chiang Kai-shek had entered into a tactical war alliance with Mao Zedong, but continued to wage a fierce ideological and military struggle against the Communists. However, at the turn of the year 1944/45, when the defeat of Germany and Japan was looming, Ho Chi Minh and his closest party colleagues prepared a nationwide uprising just when “the Allies are in Indochina or the Japanese army must surrender.” (Marr: 145)

After the fall of the Vichy regime in France in mid-1944, the officials and military of the collaboration government remained largely in office in Indochina, but from then on they had to make concessions to the Gaullists, who in turn strongly refused to support the Viet Minh. Similarly, in the end, advances in the acquisition of permanent military aid from US troops present in southern China failed.

The Fall of the Vichy Regime & Japanese Direct Rule

On 9 March 1945, the Japanese wred the ailing French colonial administration out of office and took over power directly in the last remaining European colony in Southeast Asia. Within hours, the Japanese disarmed the French troops, including the colonial soldiers they commanded, and interned almost all French military and civilians in camps. The Japanese hardly encountered resistance from the French. In order to secure sympathies among the Vietnamese, who made up the vast majority of the Indo-Chinese population, Tokyo, as it had done before in the case of the Philippines and Burma, now formally granted Vietnam formal independence with a puppet government and Emperor Bao Dai, who had to cancel the protectorate treaties previously imposed by France.

But the pro-Japanese forces in Indochina remained in the minority. Half of the population suffered from hunger because agricultural production had been primarily adapted to the needs of the Japanese troops during the war, and farmers had to grow jute and oil crops to produce fuel instead of grain. The Viet Minh had indeed asked the farmers in a leaflet: “Do not give them a single kilo of rice, do not give them a single peanut, and do not plant jute for the fascist bandits.” (Marr: 134) But the Japanese military police Kempeitai had moved over the villages and had forcibly forced the peasants to replant their fields. Hardship and misery were rampant, food became increasingly scarce, while inflation rates rose considerably.

A famine of unprecedented proportions was the

Consequence. At the beginning of 1945, hundreds of thousands of people marched through North Vietnam in a desperate search for something edible and crowded into the cities. The Viet Minh urged them to storm the storehouses of the landowners and the government, providing armed escort protection.

“One of the worst consequences of the economic policy, partly forced by the Japanese government and partly deliberately pursued by the French collaborators for the preservation of power, especially in the agricultural sector, was the great famine at the beginning of 1945, which is said to have cost the lives of two million people in total. The provinces of Thai Binh, Nam Dinh, Hung Yen, Bac Ninh, Son Tay and Ha Dong, which are heavily populated by farmers, were particularly affected by this. The famine began at the end of 1944 and reached its peak around the time of the overthrow of the French colonial government in March 1945 or shortly thereafter.” (Gerke: 14)

These already harsh conditions were exacerbated by more intense American bombing and torpedo attacks from the beginning of 1945, which led to the destruction of large stretches of the domestic railway network and the closure of other important transport and communications links. When National Chinese troops in the north and Allied allies in the south invaded Indochina in August 1945 as liberators, local partisans had long since liberated large parts of the country. This was the moment that Ho Chi Minh and his comrades had been waiting for. Supported by tens of thousands of followers, the Viet Minh took the most important government positions in Hanoi on August 19, and Ho Chi Minh sent the radio message in English to the High Command of the U.S. Troops (Marr: 147):

“The Committee for the National Liberation of Viet Minh asks the U.S. authorities to inform the United Nations that we have fought against the Japs and that they have surrendered. We ask the United Nations to keep its solemn promise to grant democracy and independence to all nations. If the United Nations breaks its solemn promise and deny indochina full independence, we will continue to fight until we have achieved it.”

Finally, on September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi and read out the Declaration of Independence to an enthusiastic crowd, which also read:

“For eighty years, the French colonial rulers have robbed our country and enslaved our compatriots under the guise of the motto of ‘freedom, equality and fraternity’. Their actions were in a screaming contradiction to all the principles of humanity and justice. Politically, they have deprived us of all democratic freedoms and imposed barbaric laws on us. They have established three different political orders in central, south and north Vietnam in order to destroy the unity of our fatherland, the unity of our people. They have built more prisons than schools.”

Significant stage victory of the Viet Minh

In Vietnam, the Imperial Japanese Army exercised the real political power since March 1945. She quickly declared the “independence” of the country and appointed Emperor Bao Dai as the head of this vassal state. Until now, the Viet Minh (League for the Struggle for Vietnam’s Independence), formed in May 1941, had only controlled the hard-to-reach jungle region along the Chinese border. However, this changed with the French disempowerment; in rapid succession, it was able to bring half a dozen other provinces under its control. Successful guerrilla activities and the storming of rice camps increasingly demoralized an occupying power that was deeply hated by the vast majority of the Vietnamese population.

It was at the time a congenial political quartet in the form of Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong, Truong Chinh, and Vo Nguyen Giap, who, as leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam, had outstanding organizational and military skills and was always anxious to build the broadest possible united front in the fight against their political opponents. Gabriel Kolko wrote about the four in his brilliant opus “Anatomy of a War” from 1985:

“(…) From that time on, they rose to a collegial, cooperative and creative leadership that, free from the problems of selfishness, provided remarkable continuity over the next four decades. Their harmony was a primal source of a party’s strength and was a major reason why it was not haunted by infighting and leadership struggles, as in the case of other Marxist-Leninist parties.”

Despite the stage victory of the comrades around Ho Chi Minh, three bitter decades were to pass before they were finally able to invade Hanoi victoriously at the end of April 1975 and reunite both parts of the country under the name of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the summer of the following year. A fate that they shared in part with their comrades in Indonesia and Malaya. For there, too, it took until 1949 and until the mid-1950s for the Dutch and The British to be forced to officially end their long-standing colonial rule due to persistent lyrise resistance.

In the case of Vietnam, too, the colonial power France fought stubbornly to restore its political and economic rule. At their initiative, the “State of Vietnam” (later the Republic of Vietnam) was created in the south with the capital Saigon as a counterweight to the DRV. But the shameful defeat of the French troops and the foreign legionnaires supporting them in the valley of Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954 and worldwide protests against the war led to the signing of the Geneva Indochina Agreements on 20-21 July. Although they ended the fighting for the time being, they did not bring the desired independence and unity of Vietnam. They were to seal universal suffrage in 1956. Until then, along the 17th parallel, a military demarcation line – roughly comparable to the demarcation line established in Korea years earlier along the 38th parallel – was drawn, which the country effectively divided.

While Hanoi pushed for the holding of these general elections, as set out in the Geneva Conventions, the Saigon vassal regime flatly rejected them for fear of an overwhelming election victory for Ho Chi Minh. At the beginning of the 1960s, the chance of peaceful unification was wasted and the (internal) Vietnamese conflict was internationalized by the increasing West-East bloc confrontation.

Division and war again

In the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), created at the instigation of France and the United States at the end of October 1955 as a counter-government to the DRV, the United States followed in the footsteps of the Japanese and French colonialists. In Washington, a paranoid anti-communism was rampant, ensnimating political leaders and military strategists alike on the categorical “domino theory.” Thus, it was essential, especially in Vietnam, to demonstrate strength and “responsibility” for its allies there, otherwise the country would be left to “the Communists”. And if Vietnam were to fall, it would trigger a chain reaction and make neighboring countries – comparable to dominoes – become “communist” in rapid succession. Thus, according to the horror scare of the US governments in the 1960s, the Southeast Asia region would have been “lost” once and for all and an expanded sphere of influence of the People’s Republic of China proclaimed by Mao Zedong on October 1, 1949.

The obvious idea that with the founding of the DRV the fanaticism of a struggle for independence and freedom had been set and the Vietnamese population had finally been shown a way out of colonial patronage did not fit into the world view of imperial commission heads. The fatal equating of nationalists with communists, coupled with ignorance and arrogant disregard for Vietnamese history and culture, caused Washington to wage a war – called the “American War” in Vietnam itself – at the height of which (January 31, 1969) 1.1 million Vietnamese soldiers and militiamen, as well as 542,400 GIs, fought against the North Vietnamese People’s Army and South Vietnamese partisan groups.