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Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945–1946)

Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945–1946)

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Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945–1946)

1,334 pagine
21 ore
Apr 15, 2013


Amidst the revolutionary euphoria of August 1945, most Vietnamese believed that colonialism and war were being left behind in favor of independence and modernization. The late-September British-French coup de force in Saigon cast a pall over such assumptions. Ho Chi Minh tried to negotiate a mutually advantageous relationship with France, but meanwhile told his lieutenants to plan for a war in which the nascent state might have to survive without allies. In this landmark study, David Marr evokes the uncertainty and contingency as well as coherence and momentum of fast-paced events. Mining recently accessible sources in Aix-en-Provence and Hanoi, Marr explains what became the largest, most intense mobilization of human resources ever seen in Vietnam.
Apr 15, 2013

Informazioni sull'autore

David Marr is Emeritus Professor of History at Australian National University and the author of Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925 (1971), Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945 (1981), and Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power (1995), all published with University of California Press.

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Vietnam - David G. Marr



The Philip E. Lilienthal imprint honors special books in commemoration of a man whose work at University of California Press from 1954 to 1979 was marked by dedication to young authors and to high standards in the field of Asian Studies. Friends, family, authors, and foundations have together endowed the Lilienthal Fund, which enables UC Press to publish under this imprint selected books in a way that reflects the taste and judgment of a great and beloved editor.


From Indochina to Vietnam: Revolution and War in a Global Perspective

Edited by Fredrik Logevall and Christopher E. Goscha

Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam, by Mark Atwood Lawrence

Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858–1954, by Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery

Vietnam 1946: How the War Began, by Stein Tønnesson

Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina, by Eric T. Jennings

Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation, by Charles Keith

Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945–1946), by David G. Marr


State, War, and Revolution


David G. Marr


BerkeleyLos AngelesLondon

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© 2013 by The Regents of the University of California

Ch 3 is reprinted by permission of the publisher from Creating Defense Capacity in Vietnam, 1945–1947 in THE FIRST VIETNAM WAR: COLONIAL CONFLICT AND COLD WAR CRISIS, edited by Mark Atwood Lawrence and Fredrik Logevall, pp. 74–101, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2007 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Marr, David G.

Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945–1946) / David G. Marr.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-520-27415-0 (cloth : alk. paper)

eISBN 9780520954977

1. Vietnam (Democratic Republic)—History. 2. Indochinese War, 1946–1954. I. Title.

DS560.6.M37 2013



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List of Illustrations




1.Forming the DRV Government

2.The Government at Work


4.Peace or War?

5.Seeking Foreign Friends

6.Material Dreams and Realities

7.Dealing with Domestic Opposition

8.The Indochinese Communist Party and the Việt Minh

9.Mass Mobilization







1.Northern Vietnam

2.Central and southern Vietnam


1.First DRV cabinet, September 1945

2.Hanoi electees to the National Assembly meet the public

3.Hồ Chí Minh presenting new Cabinet to National Assembly, 2 March 1946

4.Hồ Chí Minh standing outside Northern Region Office

5.1946 postage stamps

6.Allied flags festoon Saigon’s former Hôtel de Ville

7.Poorly armed patriots face British-Indian-French force in the south

8.Southern Advance volunteers at Tuy Hòa station, October 1945

9.Southern militia group

10.Franco-Vietnamese military parade, 22 March 1946

11.Refilling cartridges

12.Võ Nguyên Gíap in the Việt Bắc

13.French residents of Hanoi welcome Leclerc convoy, 18 March 1946

14.Dalat Conference

15.Young Vietnam offers 6 March 1946 Preliminary Accord to France, in exchange for something more lasting

16.Hồ Chí Minh and Marius Moutet shaking hands after signing modus vivendi, with Lord Buddha as witness

17.International situation

18.General Lu Han in Hanoi, 14 March 1946

19.Vietnamese-Chinese Amity poster

20.Colonel Nordlinger attending an antifamine rally with Nguyễn Văn Tố, Vĩnh Thụy/Bảo Đại, Hồ Chí Minh, and Ngô Tử Hạ

21.The Nationalist Party mocks Hồ Chí Minh seeking rice donations, accompanied by Vĩnh Thụy/Bảo Đại and Ngô Tử Hạ

22.One-hundred đồng DRV finance note

23.Việt Minh Resistance Work as seen by the Nationalist Party.

24.Rome and Vietnam are juxtaposed geographically, Vatican and DRV standards fly side by side, and readers are told to love both God and the Fatherland

25.Trường Chinh, ICP general secretary

26.Trần Huy Liệu

27.Revolution: First Destroy . . . In Order to Build

28.A Việt Minh youth group sings patriotic songs to warm up a Hanoi mass meeting, 14 March 1946

29.Female section of 14 March 1946 mass meeting

30.A French soldier offers money for information


David G. Marr’s scholarship on modern Vietnam needs no introduction. In a series of path-breaking studies published by the University of California Press, Marr has provided definitive accounts of Vietnamese anticolonialism, socio-cultural change, and revolution. Now, in Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945–46), Marr draws on a wide array of Vietnamese-language memoirs, newspapers, and government archives captured by the French to provide the first full-length study of the emergence and formation of the postcolonial state of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Through a series of thematic chapters, Marr shows in masterful detail how a state emerged in Vietnamese hands, one capable of mobilizing people and allocating resources as well as preparing an army for war with a French government determined to reestablish colonial sovereignty, first in the south, then in the north.

Whereas many scholars have focused on the invisible hand of the Vietnamese communists operating from on high, Marr takes us down below to follow intermediary civil servants, hardly any of them communists, as they did their best to keep the DRV functioning. The communist leadership, including Ho Chi Minh, receive careful attention as well, but Marr shows that the communists were much weaker at the time than they and their detractors would like to admit later. In addition, Marr provides important insights into the conceptualization of Vietnam’s first constitution and the difficult yet fascinating debates that went into it and the creation of the country’s first National Assembly in 1946. Of equal importance is the attention he pays to policing and to the economy, neither of which has received sustained treatment in the existing historiography.

In Marr’s hands, contingency and incoherence become as important to understanding this fledgling state’s early evolution as the revolution from which it was born and the war that the French hoped would allow them to shut it down. Those readers interested in modern Vietnam in general and the DRV in particular will be richly rewarded, as will those working on the wars for Vietnam, postcolonial state formation, and decolonization. It is an honor and a pleasure to be able to introduce this volume to our readers and to count it among the titles in our series.

Christopher E. Goscha, Université du Québec à Montréal

Fredrik Logevall, Cornell University


I began my encounter with Vietnam in the 1960s, wondering why so many people talked with such excitement about where they were and what they were doing in 1945–46. Vietnamese materials about that era proved very hard to find, however. There was almost nothing in Saigon libraries or bookshops. I located a left-wing book store in Hong Kong that sold subscriptions to Hanoi periodicals, notably Nghiên Cứu Lịch Sử (Historical Research). One day in 1964 two FBI agents came to our Berkeley graduate student apartment to ask why I was receiving enemy propaganda in the mail. The following year, while researching student political agitation in Saigon, I was given a stack of confiscated Hanoi publications by Colonel Phạm Ngọc Liễu, chief of the Republic of Vietnam’s National Police. These whetted my appetite, but were hardly the makings of a PhD project.

My 1968 dissertation and first book focused on the minority of Vietnamese who contested French occupation and colonization during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.¹ They left a legacy of failures tinged with heroism, as well as a blunt challenge to the new generation of French-educated youth to learn from their mistakes. My second book pursued the intelligentsia of this generation as it debated issues of ethics and politics, language and literacy, the status of women, lessons from the past, harmony and struggle, knowledge power, and political praxis.² These lively exchanges took place amidst rapid socioeconomic change, repeated changes in French colonial policy, and finally the turmoil of World War II. Not solely intellectuals, but other Vietnamese as well became convinced that life was not preordained, liberation and modernity were open to all peoples of the world, and one could join with others to force change.

My third book tried to bring alive the events and explain the significance of what Vietnamese still call the August Revolution of 1945.³ First I canvassed the previous five years, when Vichy French, Japanese, Chinese, Americans, British, Free French, Vietnamese communists, and Vietnamese nationalists all tried to control or influence events in Indochina. On 9 March 1945, the Japanese Army overturned the French colonial administration, which meant that France was removed from the contest for a vital six months. Vietnamese quickly discovered they could publish, organize, and demonstrate in favor of national independence, so long as they did not hinder Japanese defense preparations. The anti-Japanese Vietnam Independence League (Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh), or Việt Minh, continued to extol Allied victories and denounce the dwarf bandits (giặc lùn), but mostly avoided confrontation in favor of popular proselytizing and preparations for eventual revolt. In some localities peasants raided rice granaries, seized landlords’ properties, incarcerated village headmen, and caused district mandarins to flee for their lives.

News of Tokyo’s capitulation to the Allies on 15 August spread quickly across Vietnam, triggering scores of exuberant demonstrations, seizures of government offices, burning of documents, and formation of revolutionary committees. Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) members took control in Hanoi, Huế, Saigon, and some provincial towns in the name of the Việt Minh, while elsewhere bands of young men and women accomplished much the same thing of their own volition. It was a moment when everything seemed possible, when people felt they were making history, not just witnessing it. Some Japanese commanders made available to local Vietnamese groups stocks of arms and ammunition they had seized from the French. Việt Minh cadres, having identified themselves with the Allies, now enjoyed a major propaganda advantage over groups that previously had cooperated with the Japanese. As a result, most youth groups were soon waving Việt Minh flags and repeating available Việt Minh slogans, even though they had no contact with higher Việt Minh echelons and no familiarity with the overall Việt Minh platform.

Vietnam 1945 ends on 2 September, when big crowds gathered in Hanoi and Saigon to celebrate Vietnamese national independence. In Hanoi, Hồ Chí Minh, provisional president of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), read a short independence declaration designed for international as well as domestic consumption. Loudspeakers ensured that the audience not only heard what Hồ and others had to say, but responded loudly and eagerly on numerous occasions. After Hồ brought the meeting to a close, Việt Minh contingents marched downtown, disbanded, and joined in the general merriment until the hour of curfew. In Saigon, however, members of the Southern Provisional Administrative Committee had just finished addressing the crowd when shots rang out on the periphery, people stampeded, and mobs proceeded to hunt down French civilians, killing several, beating up others, and terrorizing the rest. These two denouements, one orderly, the other anarchic, showed how the popular upheavals of August could propel Vietnam in starkly different directions. People sensed that their lives had changed irrevocably, yet no one could predict what the next week might bring, much less subsequent months and years.

This book focuses on events of the next sixteen months, when Vietnam’s future course was largely determined. Between September 1945 and December 1946, the DRV state began to function, a national army was created, the Japanese, British, Americans and Chinese faded from the Indochina power equation, and France and the DRV maneuvered vigorously to gain advantage. A second famine was mostly averted, French properties were appropriated, and informal fundraising campaigns were used alongside formal tax levies. The ICP gradually extended its control over local Việt Minh groups, then pressured other parties to either accept ICP hegemony or be treated as traitors. Millions of men, women, and children joined local associations for the defense and development of the nation. Hồ Chí Minh spent the summer of 1946 in Paris trying to negotiate a settlement, but tensions increased at home. This culminated in French seizure of Haiphong in November, and DRV attacks in Hanoi and elsewhere on 19 December. The First Indochina War would last another seven and a half years.

The DRV survived and eventually prevailed largely due to the unprecedented participation of ordinary citizens, most of whom never fired a shot in anger. Why and how people took part are questions I approach from multiple angles. Clearly individuals had other aspirations besides defeating the enemy. The DRV state took on many functions that had no direct bearing on the armed struggle, although it usually justified these expansions in resistance terms. The ICP also used the war to justify its grabs for power. Amidst all these attempts to control affairs, war and revolution produced a host of unintended consequences that Vietnamese had to live with for decades thereafter.

Often I have asked myself the same question that Thomas Carlyle did when he embarked on his history of the French Revolution: What was it like to be there? Lacking Carlyle’s dramatic flair, I cannot evoke a Vietnamese Mirabeau or Robespierre. Well-known personages like Hồ Chí Minh, Võ Nguyên Giáp, and Trường Chinh do tread the stage here, yet I’m equally interested in the teenage Việt Minh activist, the aggrieved village petitioner, the provincial committee chairman, the former colonial fonctionnaire, the eager journalist, and the high school pupil heading south to fight the French, armed only with a machete.

Archival dossiers, newspapers, and books generated in 1945–46 have motivated me for years to get up each morning, tackle inconsistent evidence, find patterns but also contradictions, and then try to craft an historical narrative of human beings responding to and making events at this particular place and time. Most exhilarating has been the gouvernement de fait (GF) collection at the Archives national d’outre-mer (ANOM) in Aix-en-Provence, seventy-eight cartons of DRV documents captured by the French Army in Hanoi in late 1946.⁴ It is one measure of the high-level confusion bedeviling the DRV on 19 December 1946 that government clerks were still at their desks in Hanoi only two hours before Vietnamese attacks began; they then failed to destroy thousands of dossiers lodged in the basement of the Northern Region Office (Bắc Bộ Phủ) before leaving.

If it had been feasible to write this book twenty years ago, Vietnam watchers would quickly have recognized the political rhetoric, the policy assumptions, and attitudes of people carried over from the late 1940s. Now a lot has changed. Amidst today’s mobile phones, vibrant markets, foreign investors, Nike shoe factories, and nouveau riche families, stories of war and revolution may seem embarrassingly antiquated. For young Vietnamese it is still necessary to learn enough about the anti-French resistance to pass school examinations, but beyond that the period appears distant and inconsequential. For many young scholars of Vietnam in the West there seems to be an assumption that amidst all the Communist Party propaganda nothing of continuing significance can be found out about the DRV, the Việt Minh, or the resistance. Yet many of the state institutions created in the late 1940s remain intact in Vietnam today, as do popular beliefs in modernity, efficiencies of scale, and centralization of power. Just below the surface, fears of foreign intervention or manipulation persist as well. The party continues to justify its dictatorship by reference to alleged achievements in the August 1945 Revolution and anti-French resistance. Critics of the party sometimes harken back to the relatively open press of 1945–46, the January 1946 national elections, the Democratic Party, and the November 1946 constitution, yet they lack detailed knowledge of events.

My debts to friends, colleagues, archivists, librarians, research assistants, and students in regard to this book extend back almost half a century, starting in 1965 with staff at the Institute of Ancient History in Saigon who let me photograph a 1945 newspaper. From 1969, I had help and guidance in Paris from Georges Boudarel, Pierre Brocheux, Daniel Hémery, and Christian Rageau. From 1974, members of the Institute of History in Hanoi shared publications, ideas, and personal contacts—above all Dương Trung Quốc, more recently a vigorous member of Vietnam’s National Assembly. In 1983, I made my first of seven trips to the archives in Aix-en-Provence, where François Bordes, Lucette Vachier, and Sylvie Clair gave me unparalleled access and encouragement. During the 1990s, Phan Huy Lê, head of the Vietnam Studies Center at Hanoi National University, introduced me to his history colleagues and sponsored my entry to the Vietnam National Archives, Center No. 3. Phạm Thế Khang, director of Vietnam’s National Library, facilitated my multiple sojourns among 1945–1946 periodicals and resistance-era monographs.

Many colleagues have graciously loaned or given me publications, forwarded documents, and provided valuable source leads, including Đào Hùng, Phan Huy Lê, Phạm Khiêm Ích, the late Đặng Phong, Andrew Hardy, Christopher Goscha, Stein Tønnesson, Đinh Xuân Lâm, Nguyễn Văn Kự, Ben Kerkvliet, Hùynh Kim Khánh, Christophe Dutrône, Howard Daniel III, John Kleinen, Tony Reid, Phạm Mai Hùng, Rob Hurle, François Guillemot, Paul Sager, Michael Di Gregorio, and Martin Grossheim. On each visit to Hanoi I walked up Tin Street, climbed three flights of stairs, and was invited by Trần Tấn Cảnh, owner of the Hiệu Sách Cũ bookshop, to drink strong tea, chat, and peruse stacks of publications.

Jennifer Brewster, Đỗ Quý Tấn, Nguyễn Thanh, Nguyễn Thị Hương Giang, Đỗ Thiện, Nguyễn Điền, and Nguyễn Thị Hồng Hạnh gave excellent support as research assistants in Canberra, Paris, and Hanoi. Their notes will fuel writing projects beyond this book.

William Turley and Stein Tønnesson read each chapter draft as it appeared, reacting promptly and constructively. Bùi Đình Thanh gave me verbal observations on chapters each time we met in Hanoi. Portions of the manuscript were read by Ben Kerkvliet, Mark Selden, Marilyn Larew, Nile Thompson, and John Spragens Jr. David Elliott and Christopher Goscha provided valuable comments after reviewing the manuscript for the University of California Press.

Hoàng Oanh Collins took each of my chapter penscripts and with professional flair turned them into sterling typescripts. She handled subsequent drafts with equal precision. Without her experience with Vietnamese fonts it would have been impossible to employ full diacritics in the text and endnotes of this book.

During 2005–8 I received a grant from the Australian Research Council; I am thankful to our division administrator, Dorothy MacIntosh, for taking care of its procedural intricacies on my behalf. Karina Pelling, of Cartographic & GIS Services, Australia National University, created the two vital maps that follow this preface, using data collected by me over the decades. At the University of California Press, Niels Hooper, Kim Hogeland, and Mari Coates piloted the book through its many requisite stages. I especially appreciated the professional care and friendly disposition of my assigned copyeditor, Caroline Knapp.

Chapter 3, Defense, is a revised and expanded version of my contribution to Mark Atwood Lawrence and Fredrik Logevall, editors, The First Vietnam War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). Part of Chapter 6, Material Dreams and Realities, appeared originally in Christopher E. Goscha and Benoît De Tréglode, editors, Naissance d’un État-Parti: Le Viêt Nam depuis 1945 (Paris: Les Indes Savantes, 2004). Both are used by permission.

A few words about terminology. To make the text more friendly to nonspecialists, I employ English translations of Vietnamese organizational names, administrative titles, and the like, while providing the original Vietnamese in parentheses on first mention. One exception is Việt Minh, introduced above. Although formally an organization established in 1941 by the ICP, the term Việt Minh came to be used spontaneously by hundreds if not thousands of local revolutionary, anticolonial groups in late 1945. To complicate matters, the ICP, following its self-dissolution in November, employed Việt Minh as a cover name to signify patriotic commitment above and beyond party affiliation. The Việt Minh General Headquarters (Tổng Bộ Việt Minh) issued public statements as if it was in charge, but actually left the job of gaining control over local Việt Minh groups to the underground ICP. Among the public at large, Việt Minh gradually became conflated with the DRV state. The French called their opponents "les Vietminh," never the DRV or National Guard. I try to alert readers to which meaning of Việt Minh I am referring.

I have chosen not to homogenize regional designations, since the way in which these geographical terms were employed tells us something about the times and the people involved. Readers thus need to know from the outset that: Tonkin = Bắc Bộ = northern Vietnam; Annam = Trung Bộ = central Vietnam; and Cochinchina = Nam Bộ = southern Vietnam. When it comes to provincial identifications, we are fortunate that after four decades of renaming provinces and creating new ones, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1989–96 decided to return mostly to the provincial names and borders of 1945. Most Vietnamese place names come in two separated syllables, for example, Lạng Sơn, Nam Định, Đà Nẵng, Nha Trang, and Cần Thơ. However, I conflate syllables in the following place names: Vietnam, Hanoi, Haiphong, Saigon, and Dalat.

Some Vietnamese personalities in this era employed a variety of aliases. I have used the name by which an individual was best known in the late 1940s, be it his or her given name, pen name, code name, or revolutionary pseudonym.⁵ I introduce each individual by full name, then follow Vietnamese practice by referring to a person’s given name rather than surname. Thus, within a given paragraph Huỳnh Thúc Kháng is identified subsequently as Kháng. One exception is Hồ Chí Minh, who is always Hồ and never Minh. Individuals with no middle name, for example Phan Anh or Trường Chinh, are allowed to keep their full names.

Throughout this period, the Bank of Indochina (BIC) piastre continued to dominate Vietnamese as well as French financial calculations and transactions. One piastre (1$00BIC) was valued at seventeen francs in late 1945. One franc was worth less than one cent American, and the franc declined further for years thereafter. When the DRV began to issue its own money in 1946 it hoped one đồng would be exchanged for one piastre, but that proved a chimera. Many DRV documents use đồng to mean the BIC piastre without spelling this out, which creates a monetary minefield for unwary researchers. With this awareness, I reserve đồng for the few values that are explicitly in DRV currency

As I strove to impart structure to this book, I was reminded of a particular type of bark cloth I came upon in Đắk Tô (Kontum province) in 1962, with rough strips that were dark and light, wide and thin. My nine chapters here constitute the warp, while the ideas, beliefs, and behavior of Vietnamese during these sixteen months make up the weft. Terms like independence, nation, the people, struggle, revolution, reactionary, and resistance appear in different circumstances. Some preoccupations vanish or go underground, perhaps to emerge a decade or five decades later.

When the Vietnam History Association organized a seminar in Hanoi in 1995 to discuss my Vietnam 1945 book, the passage to which a number of participants took exception was the assertion that the only truth in history is that there are no historical truths, only an infinite number of experiences. By contrast, only one person criticized me for underrating the role of the ICP in events, while several others chose to recount personal experiences in 1945 that supported my argument, without saying so explicitly. Today, younger generations in Vietnam seem less wedded to historical truths, more willing to question dogma. I look forward to lively discussions.

Map 1. Northern Vietnam.

Map 2. Central and southern Vietnam.


This book is about the birth of the Vietnamese nation amidst war and revolution. The story bears comparison with the American Revolution (or War of Independence), although I don’t pursue that line of inquiry here. Proclaimed in Hanoi in early September 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) rapidly gained popular support. However, the provisional government had to deal immediately with centrifugal revolutionary impulses, the arrival of Chinese Nationalist troops in the north, and British-French units driving DRV adherents out of Saigon. No foreign government recognized the DRV’s existence. Food deficits threatened a repeat of the terrible famine of early 1945. The army was miniscule. Some citizens remained more focused on settling old scores and seizing property than becoming part of a national movement. Yet the DRV not only survived these challenges but proceeded to mobilize millions of citizens to defend the country against French reconquest.

In 1945, Vietnam possessed about twenty million inhabitants, at least 90 percent of whom lived in the countryside. Vietnam’s long north-south configuration and mountainous backbone created substantial problems of communication and political integration. Earlier, France had chosen to establish the three distinct administrations of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina, which it then combined with Cambodia and Laos to form the Indochina Federation. Vietnamese patriots vehemently rejected those demarcations, arguing that 80 percent of the population of Vietnam (Tonkin-Annam-Cochinchina) spoke the same language, and independent Vietnamese monarchies had for centuries ruled territories that crossed the later French borders. They also pointed proudly to recent enhancements in Vietnamese political and social consciousness, culminating in the upheavals of summer 1945.

France in 1945 refused to concede the existence of a Vietnamese identity, much less acknowledge a state of Vietnam. Across the French political spectrum there was agreement that French sovereignty over Indochina had to be reasserted, if necessary by force. With few exceptions, French analysts viewed August 1945 as the work of disgruntled intellectuals, former political prisoners, and social outcasts. For six months no French government statement contained the terms Vietnam or Vietnamese. The unrecognized DRV was labeled the Annamite government, while DRV adherents were Annamite rebels. In March 1946, France did recognize the Republic of Vietnam as a free state within the Indochina Federation and French Union, yet it proved impossible in subsequent months for leaders of France and the DRV to agree on what this formula meant in practice.

With the advent of full-scale hostilities at the end of 1946, French authorities concentrated on neutralizing armed rebellion against their constituted authority. French forces had complete control of the air and almost complete control of the sea. President Hồ Chí Minh declared nationwide resistance against French reactionary colonialists, until such time as Vietnam was completely independent and reunified. Hồ did not exclude the possibility of a favorable change in government in Paris, but meanwhile it was 20 million [Vietnamese] against 100,000 colonialists, with the former bound to win.¹ The equation was not nearly that clear cut, as Hồ surely realized. And no one imagined that thirty years of sacrifice, death, and destruction lay ahead.


On news of Japan’s surrender in mid-August 1945, millions of Vietnamese joined in a grand festival of revolution. Popular exuberance and patriotic euphoria swept the countryside as well as cities and towns. Farmers who had never ventured beyond the nearest marketplace now leaped at the opportunity to march on their province seat and beyond. With French colonial rule eliminated earlier by the Japanese, the Vietnamese monarchy ended, and an independent Vietnam declared, people wanted to make their own break with the past too. Liberation meant freeing the country, but it also meant trashing symbols of the evil past, seizing property from alleged traitors, humiliating village notables, and punishing gamblers, opium dealers, and prostitutes. It justified sons and daughters in leaving home to join new organizations, despite opposition from parents and clan elders. In some localities revolution also involved violent contests for power, kidnappings, and revenge killings. Everywhere it was young people who took the initiative, speaking directly, ignoring taboos, refusing to worry about personal safety, exuding confidence. Alongside the iconoclasm and bravado there was a longing to identify with something certain, to find new order within oneself and throughout the universe. Youthful heroics and the wish for order came together in the rush to join militia (tự vệ) units, where inventiveness and bravery counted for more than social origin, schooling, or wealth.²

Revolution (cách mạng) had been debated vigorously in Vietnam since the 1911 Chinese Revolution. Broadly speaking, two ideas took shape among the intelligentsia: First, we must be masters in our own house of Vietnam; and second, our house is in desperate need of improvement, if not demolition and rebuilding. In 1929–30 and again in 1940, communist and nationalist revolutionaries tried separately to overthrow the French colonial regime, with disastrous results both times. Meanwhile, proponents of wholesale modernization who had put their hopes in Franco-Vietnamese cooperation became increasingly pessimistic. By 1940, advocates of an antifeudal revolution accepted the necessity of national independence. During the Pacific War, Japan tantalized Vietnamese anticolonialists with talk of independence, only to stand aside when the French cracked down on nascent opposition. As Japan’s military fortunes waned, people paid more attention to propaganda from pro-Allied organizations. The Vietnam Nationalist Party (Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng) preached political independence, yet had almost nothing to say about socioeconomic or cultural transformations. The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) also put independence first, via the pronouncements of its front group, the Vietnam Independence League (Việt Minh). However, Việt Minh advocacy of a national liberation revolution was understood by Vietnamese intellectuals versed in Marxist dialectics to mean the first step on the road to socialist revolution. Although Việt Minh statements downgraded class struggle and deferred redistribution of land to poor peasants, they promised to achieve other antifeudal goals under the rubric of new democracy (tân dân chủ).

August 1945 saw a spontaneous welling up of social revolutionary sentiments and behavior in Vietnam, whatever the intentions of leaders of the political insurrection. In some rural localities, tax records were burned, landlords thrown out of their homes, employees of the former colonial regime beaten up and incarcerated, and alleged counterrevolutionaries killed. In the cities some French civilians were molested and their houses pillaged under the placid gaze of Japanese soldiers. Restraints on non-state violence which had already frayed during earlier months now stretched to the breaking point. At mass meetings around the country, speakers celebrated revolutionary justice and equality, the abolition of colonial taxes, confiscation of French properties, and the end of exploitation of man by man. For many participants, such meetings were ecstatic, life-changing experiences. Subsequent demonstrations could turn ugly. News of mob violence spread widely, striking fear among people who had yet to witness any such behavior. Some instigators of August takeovers tried to reason with rampaging youths, especially by arguing that any internal Vietnamese chaos would be exploited by foreign powers. ICP newspapers accused anarchists and enemy agents of fomenting divisions and disorder. Nonetheless, the revolutionary crowd remained a vital political weapon for Việt Minh organizers. The art was to focus mass energy on objectives identified by government or Việt Minh leaders. Later, participants recalled nostalgically the passion, idealism, and high expectations of the early revolution, often in implicit contrast to the frustrations and disappointments that followed. Some individuals came to realize they had played their revolutionary roles by chance, not by choice or design.

Vietnamese revolutionaries believed they were driving events forward collectively, yet sometimes had to acknowledge that events were driving them. There was a sense of revolutionary destiny, but in reality no guiding hand. People often placed their hopes in Hồ Chí Minh, yet he understood he could not determine the future. Hồ wanted to avoid being painted into a policy corner, meanwhile developing options and choosing favorable moments to act in the quest for independence and modernity. I hope to convey the uncertainty and contingency, as well as the coherency and momentum, of revolutionary events in 1945–46.

State Formation

When Hồ Chí Minh asserted to the Hanoi crowd on 2 September 1945 that Vietnam has become a free and independent country, he was making a profession of faith rather than a statement of fact. Hồ insisted that France had lost any claim to be protector of Indochina’s inhabitants by its record of eighty years of crass exploitation, plus proceeding to sell the territory twice to Japan. Nonetheless, appreciating that a new state required not only commitment from citizens but confirmation by other states of its right to exist, Hồ called upon the Allied powers to recognize the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the spirit of the 1943 Teheran and May 1945 San Francisco conferences. Soon afterward, when French troops arrived with British forces in Saigon, and the United States and China moved to recognize French sovereignty over Indochina, Hồ understood that the DRV state would have to survive under constant threat of attack and dismemberment. He hoped for the best, a mutually advantageous Franco-Vietnamese treaty, but instructed his lieutenants to plan for the worst—a war in which the DRV would have to survive without allies.

At the same Independence Day meeting in Hanoi on 2 September, Võ Nguyên Giáp, the new interior minister, foreshadowed democratic elections to a national assembly, which would then devise a constitution and provide a legal government. The army would be developed, the economy rebuilt, and education given higher priority. Giáp warned that such goals required loans, subscriptions, and income taxes, a prospect offensive to many revolutionaries. More openly than Hồ, Giáp appealed to the United States and China for support, but then emphasized that if no help was forthcoming the Vietnamese nation, united, would have to go it alone. Under such circumstances, Giáp warned ominously, division, doubt, and apathy are all a betrayal of the country. Nguyễn Lương Bằng, representing the Việt Minh General Headquarters, spoke briefly on the need for unity and struggle. Paraphrasing Lenin (without attribution), Bằng asserted that retaining power was more difficult than gaining it in the first place. Taking a more intractable position than either Hồ or Giáp, Bằng insisted that it would be necessary to fight the French, and that Vietnam "should not rely (ỷ lại) on anyone else."³

The kind of state aspired to by educated Vietnamese possessed a defined territory, hard borders, a centralized hierarchy of power, a common identity and culture, and, above all, undivided sovereignty. This state model was communicated to regional and province revolutionary committees in a blitz of provisional DRV government decrees issued during the first three weeks of September. However, no decree announced the territorial and maritime boundaries of Vietnam. Only a mid-October national election decree that listed participating provinces and cities offered official guidance. No DRV claims were made on neighboring territories, nor was there any mention of possible claims by neighbors on Vietnamese territory.

All outgoing official correspondence began with the new letterhead: Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Independence, Freedom, Happiness. Within weeks, almost all incoming messages contained that identical heading, and within a few months citizen petitions and even private letters followed suit. The government ordered all Vietnamese employees of the former colonial state to remain in position, and most complied. Members of the former Civil Guard were encouraged to join the new national army as individuals, not units. ICP members took custody of the Sûreté (police) headquarters in Hanoi, but found that most Vietnamese staff had vanished. The new Ministry of Information and Propaganda ordered all newspaper and book publishers to continue submitting copy to former colonial censors. Post, Telegraph and Telephone (PTT) personnel stayed on the job, enabling the new state authorities to communicate with most localities above the sixteenth parallel. Radio Hanoi provided a separate channel for transmitting edicts and other official messages, as well as broadcasting regular news bulletins. The wiring of the colonial state had largely survived, to be used by new masters.

The DRV’s strong preference for centralized government was the result of ten centuries of monarchical rule, eighty years of French statism, and twenty years of intellectual fascination with the Soviet Union, Italy, and Germany. Montesquieu’s arguments in favor of separating executive, legislative, and judicial powers had been canvassed earlier by Vietnamese literati, then largely ignored by the new intelligentsia. Historians knew that monarchs had been compelled to make significant concessions to Vietnam’s tortuous geography, ethnic differences, and locally powerful clans, yet such complications were regarded by modernists as feudal remnants to be stamped out by the independent nation-state. As we shall see, the central DRV authorities did achieve impressive policy momentum in late 1945. Three regional committees also functioned, although the southern committee was forced to flee Saigon for the countryside in late September. Province committees became the linchpin of the DRV administrative hierarchy. The National Assembly elections promised by Võ Nguyên Giáp duly took place in early January 1946, contributing to state legitimacy. However, elections to provincial and commune people’s councils took longer, and the councils often failed to exercise authority over administrative committees as intended. On the military front, a high command and general staff headquarters was established in Hanoi, soon to be followed by specialized communications, intelligence, medical, and officer-training units. Military logistics remained chaotic, with regular army units often obliged to rely on province committees and Việt Minh groups for food, shelter, and clothing

Proud of having a central Vietnamese government—and anxious not to be accused of obstructionism or worse—local committees tried to understand and apply most of the edicts coming from Hanoi. This became apparent in early September after Hanoi angrily ordered all committees to stop illegal assaults and confiscations, and the number of such incidents dropped off significantly. A month later, facing the threat of another major famine, the DRV issued production and distribution instructions to committees, also reprinted in Việt Minh newspapers. Although food riots seemed imminent at one point, and starvation was not prevented entirely, the terrible mass deaths that had taken place one year earlier were not repeated. By May 1946, most local committees could report a bountiful rice crop about to be harvested. On other policy fronts however, district, commune, or village committees sometimes managed to ignore, evade, or selectively apply orders from the center. Punishments were often meted out locally without reference to central laws or judicial oversight.

During 1945–46, ideas about the nation which had excited the Vietnamese intelligentsia during the 1920s and 1930s spread among the public at large. Most important was patriotism, which meant loving one’s land and people as a whole, as opposed to traditional fidelity to king and parents. A true patriot was willing to risk his life and personal happiness for the nation (quốc gia; nước), a concept which incorporated both the people (quốc dân) and the state (chính quyền; nhà nước). More emotionally, the nation became the Fatherland (Tổ Quốc). Mystical notions like unity of hearts (đồng tâm) and great unity (đại đồng) were also freely invoked. For several years people enjoyed calling each other comrade (đồng chí), a usage reminiscent of citoyen in 1789 France and tovarich in 1917 Russia. Finally, there was the term dân tộc, a neologism meant to conjure up a centuries-old Vietnamese peoplehood which was ethnic and cultural-linguistic in content. Simultaneously, dân tộc was placed in front of the names of dozens of ethnic groups (Nùng, Thái, Mường, Rhadé, etc.) who were expected to become (minority) members of the nation of Vietnam.

The legal concept of sovereignty, so important to the Westphalian state system long dominant in Europe, was unknown to most Vietnamese. Several lawyers trained in France took responsibility for explaining to the public what sovereignty meant, and how the DRV must gain international recognition of Vietnam’s unity and territorial integrity. When French and Vietnamese representatives sat down to explore parameters for a peaceful resolution of their differences, it became painfully clear that both sides would need to accept something less than full sovereignty. Given sufficient time, a formula might have been found, but meanwhile the question of Cochinchina (Nam Bộ) ate like a cancer into relations between the DRV and France. For Vietnamese patriots, French aggression in Cochinchina in September 1945 and the subsequent refusal by Paris to acknowledge that Nam Bộ was an integral part of Vietnam made them suspicious of the entire negotiating process. From there it was only a short step to regarding negotiations as a mere tactical expedient, a means to gain time in which to improve the DRV’s fighting capabilities.

Members of the ICP had played key roles in the August 1945 insurrection, and the ICP’s Standing Bureau worked hard to translate that influence into real political power. Indeed, the Communist Party’s goal was to control the entire Vietnamese nation, both people and state. Following Soviet precedent, the party would become the font of all power, authority, and legitimacy. These ambitions were no secret to politically alert Vietnamese, and they continued to be espoused by some party members in print after Hồ Chí Minh instructed the ICP to declare its dissolution in November. The Vietnam Nationalist Party roundly condemned the ICP’s Leninist dictatorial ambitions, yet it too displayed similar proclivities if not abilities. Noncommunists, who made up the vast majority of DRV civil officials and military officers in 1946, tended to admire the discipline and self-sacrifice of their ICP peers while discounting their expertise and ideology. ICP members working inside specific civil or military bodies often identified with the needs of that institution rather than paying close attention to party pronouncements. The ICP’s greatest advantage was that members in different localities could communicate and plan secretly with each other without being accused of disloyalty or treason—a privilege that no other political party could exercise by late 1946 without risking arrest.

The committee hierarchy which emerged in late 1945 came to define the DRV state, and remains in operation today. Tensions between the center and localities persisted, sometimes to the system’s advantage. Local committees gave the state a depth and resilience that no amount of top-level edicts could provide. On the other hand, without instructions from above, committees might well have marched in quite different directions, cancelled each other out, or even fought each other. Local-level vitality imposed certain de facto limitations on central power, much to the irritation of many central leaders. When full-scale hostilities with France exploded in late 1946, it was the local committees that saved the DRV from extinction. The Center (Trung ương) was unable to communicate with most localities throughout 1947, yet more than a year of prior experience gave members of province, district, and communal committees the confidence to continue basic state operations. By 1948 the hierarchy was largely restored, although contact with the south (Nam Bộ) remained episodic. The DRV regular army went through a similar process, mostly disaggregating to the local level in 1947, recombining to battalion and occasional regimental size in 1948, establishing one infantry division in late 1949, and forming artillery, engineering, and other specialized units with Chinese assistance in 1950.


Amidst the revolutionary euphoria of August 1945, Vietnamese assumed they were leaving war behind, and certainly did not anticipate that they were about to face a new war. The fighting in Saigon in late September sent angry shockwaves throughout the country. Suddenly the eager rhetoric about defending Vietnamese independence took on dire implications. Several thousand young men promptly headed south with no idea of what combat entailed, only to be shot down or compelled to flee in disarray. In the Mekong delta, other resistance groups had to abandon one town after another to advancing French forces. In late January 1946, the French encircled more than a thousand armed Vietnamese ten kilometers west of Nha Trang, then bombarded them with naval guns. Survivors fled into the forest. At this point the French decided to halt their ground offensive in favor of negotiating with Chinese Nationalist authorities for a return to the north (Tonkin) via the port of Haiphong. Amidst all these debacles for the DRV, the northern press insisted on claiming a succession of Vietnamese victories, although any reader with access to a map could judge otherwise. After the 6 March Franco-Vietnamese Preliminary Accord reduced the chances of early French attack above the sixteenth parallel, Nam Bộ became the symbol of nationwide resistance to French attempts to recolonize Vietnam. When southern DRV adherents gradually worked out tactics capable of sustaining rural and jungle resistance despite French assaults, this gave the government in Hanoi confidence that forced evacuation from the capital could be weathered, and the fight carried on from the hills and countryside if required.

The reality of war in the south and threat of war in the north changed the nature of the Vietnamese revolution and the DRV state. Aspirations to transform society, end exploitation, develop the economy, and create a new culture had to defer to protection of the new political order against enemies both foreign and domestic. The antifeudal agenda was never abandoned publicly, and some modernizing components were subsumed within the anticolonial agenda, notably literacy and public hygiene, but in practice the vision of Vietnam catching up with advanced societies had to be deferred indefinitely. War and revolution fed upon each other, heightening suspicions, escalating fears, making life (and death) quite unpredictable. The dichotomies of we/they, friend/enemy, and patriot/traitor dominated public discourse. Vietnam had no one in the world to call on for help. France appeared to be pursuing the traditional strategy of divide-and-rule, first establishing the Republic of Cochinchina, then announcing several autonomous countries in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. The number of Vietnamese serving in French forces increased each year. Eventually, France reached agreement with former emperor Bảo Đại on formation of the Associated State of Vietnam as competition to the DRV. Civil war now intersected with the war between the DRV and France. In early 1950, the Cold War was added to this equation, as China and the Soviet Union recognized the DRV, and the United States and Great Britain recognized the Associated State of Vietnam. The DRV now had friends, at a price yet to be determined.

War made harsh demands on Vietnam’s economy. During the Pacific War, Indochina had already taken on many characteristics of a war economy, including regulatory edicts, rationing, scarcities, and a black market. Inured to the state exercising minute economic controls, many Vietnamese were not surprised when the fledgling DRV government announced similar regulations for distribution of rice and other essential commodities. However, when the government decided to continue most former colonial taxes, this met with widespread complaints and noncompliance. A patchwork regime emerged, with provinces trying to collect some taxes but not others, depending on local circumstances.

The alternative was for the government to ask people for voluntary contributions. National defense proved the most convincing rationale, as youth teams moved from house to house seeking donations of rice or money, assuring citizens that contributions would go to purchasing firearms and feeding combatants. The government launched two national fundraising campaigns to protect Vietnam’s independence and to support the Nam Bộ resistance. Local committees sometimes retained a portion of the proceeds for their own purposes. With one committee or another approaching citizens every few weeks to ask that they demonstrate their patriotism in cash or kind, people gradually became less forthcoming. Receipt slips were displayed to prove prior donations. In April 1946, the government declared a defense contribution, to be collected from every citizen between eighteen and sixty-five years of age. One key objective was to remove the need for regular army units to obtain food directly from local citizens, a practice which had raised the traditional spectre of soldiers living off the land. By one means or another, civilian committees took responsibility for feeding the military.

With chances of a Franco-Vietnamese diplomatic settlement sliding away in late 1946, DRV and Việt Minh leaders tried to condition the populace to protracted conflict. Every citizen had wartime responsibilities, and the total contribution would be greater than the sum of its parts. While few overt comparisons were made in print, it seems clear that Vietnamese writers drew inspiration from the French Revolution, a story familiar to all former high school students. Colonial textbooks had focused on the storming of the Bastille and later Napoleonic glories, but Vietnamese intellectuals readily found alternative accounts that stressed class conflict, the contributions of Robespierre, or the role of the levée en masse in the birth of modern warfare. The term people’s war had been invented by Clausewitz during the Napoleonic wars, but most Vietnamese saw it first in articles about Chinese Red Army operations during the anti-Japanese resistance. In 1946, a cascade of books and articles appeared in Vietnam celebrating the Soviet people’s victory over German invaders, which writers used to bolster confidence in the anti-French resistance.

Mass Mobilization

Revolution, state formation, and war intersected to produce the largest, most intense mobilization of human resources ever seen in Vietnam. Ordinary Vietnamese worked harder and longer, turned over a higher proportion of their produce, transported more supplies to designated points, and joined in more political campaigns than anyone could have imagined before. Most citizens also denied information or succor to the enemy. Young men strove to shoot a rifle, absorb basic tactics, and test their mettle in battle. Young women sought military training as well, only to find themselves assigned jobs as cooks, nurses, clerks, runners, or spies. In Vietnam’s thousands of villages, meanwhile, men, women and children participated in a range of new groups, each meant to appeal to a particular constituency, heighten patriotic commitment, and provide practical support to the resistance.

Today, so far away from these events, it is hard to convey the idealism, romanticism and sheer energy of the Vietnamese generation of 1945 as it confronted the future. One point of entry is the vibrant press of September 1945 to December 1946. As mentioned earlier, scores of new newspapers appeared across the country during this time, generally instigated by intellectuals in their early thirties who had come to prominence during the heady Popular Front era of the late 1930s. Most reporters were in their twenties, and the reading audience included literate teenagers. While almost every paper declared support for the DRV, not all were affiliated with Việt Minh groups, and those identifying themselves as Việt Minh showed significant editorial variations. During these sixteen months about eight hundred books and booklets were published as well, exhibiting a wider range of content than the newspapers. Publications often were passed from one reader to another or placed on a shelf for group members to peruse. More importantly, public speakers, roving propaganda teams, and convenors of small group discussions routinely relied on the press for their verbal ammunition. With up to 90 percent of the populace still unable to read, mass mobilization could only be advanced by myriad oral encounters.

While the press of the late 1940s and surviving archival materials can tell us a great deal about what the literate minority was thinking, how do we understand the attitudes of the farmers, artisans, laborers, and traders who made up the vast majority of Vietnam’s population? Something can be learned from thousands of citizen petitions, many dictated by illiterates to local scribes, and forwarded to President Hồ Chí Minh or DRV ministries. For the most part, however, we must depend on what journalists and government personnel wrote about the people, whether collectively or more usefully in their descriptions of encounters with specific individuals or small groups. Even my most skeptical reading of available evidence leads me to conclude that most Vietnamese believed in national independence and wanted to contribute in some way to making that independence a reality. Voluntarist engagement was highest during the August 1945 insurrection and following months, when people not only went to a host of meetings and donated to the cause, but joined associations that required focused effort. Taking part in those groups brought a sense of pride, honor, and solidarity. Even individuals who felt foreboding or revulsion towards the revolution proceeded to enroll in national salvation associations out of self-protection or hopes that the nation would shift course.

For some people the idealism and enthusiasm of August 1945 persisted for years, for others it faded during 1946. Individual emotional investment in the nation soon ranged from continuing passionate commitment to watery fidelity. Spontaneous voluntarism gave way to peer pressure, obedience to instructions, and conditioning to the new revolutionary order. Enjoyment of the moment of liberation was replaced by concentration on what needed to be done. Given the continuing revolutionary context, citizens had to prove their patriotic credentials again and again, whatever their private thoughts. To drop out of the independence struggle meant ostracism, harassment, and eventually punishment. Subsequently there was the option of moving to a French-controlled town, yet even there underground Việt Minh members would come routinely to collect donations and warn against collaboration with the enemy. Those who ignored such warnings knew that their families in the countryside might face trouble.

State building did not slow as voluntarism withered. Local committees expanded their ambit of responsibilities, nudging citizens to help the army and police, the local militia, hungry compatriots, literacy teachers, and propaganda teams. Each material contribution was small—characteristically, enough rice to fill an empty condensed milk can—yet the cumulative drain was large for families enduring economic disruption and then wartime stringencies. Villagers also billeted soldiers, sewed uniforms, stood guard, carried supplies, dug up roads to inhibit enemy movement, and reported any suspicious behavior to the authorities. In the new revolutionary state, citizens were exhorted to advance beyond mere compliance and periodic voting to active cooperation with committees, the military, and the police. To meet wartime demands, local Việt Minh and government operations were subsequently combined to form resistance-administration committees (ủy ban kháng chiến hành chính).

The Indochinese Communist Party

Vietnamese communists continue to insist that their party led the revolution from 1930, planned and implemented the entire August 1945 insurrection, directed the DRV state from its inception, and masterminded the anti-French resistance. Available evidence does not support such assertions. In the summer of 1945, ICP leaders did indeed have a plan for insurrection and were making preparations, yet when the opportune moment came in mid-August the party lacked the capacity to engineer widespread takeovers. Instead, unaffiliated youths took the initiative on their own, often shouting Việt Minh slogans and waving the Việt Minh flag, but otherwise acting according to local circumstances. The ICP, with only five thousand members, many of whom had yet to make contact, had no hope of controlling the DRV state. Instead, the party’s small party Standing Bureau, headed by Trường Chinh, concentrated first on placing senior communists in the central government, taking over the Hanoi police bureau, upgrading the Cứu Quốc (National Salvation) newspaper as the central organ of the Việt Minh, and liaising with ICP members in provincial people’s committees. The Standing Bureau also moved to resolve internal disputes within some party branches, and began the difficult task of converting hundreds of self-styled Việt Minh groups into organizations willing to accept central ICP authority.

In November 1945, the Standing Bureau suddenly announced the self-dissolution of the ICP, to destroy all misunderstandings, foreign and domestic that might hinder the liberation of Vietnam. Hồ Chí Minh had insisted on this statement, designed to respond to Vietnam Nationalist Party charges that the DRV was a front for communists, and to reduce the chances of Nationalist Chinese usurpation. The party continued to function as before, except that its name was removed from the list of Việt Minh adherents and members were instructed to conduct party business secretly. This had the effect of reinforcing colonial-era clandestine behavior and making the party unaccountable to the government for its actions. In the name of the Association to Research Marxism in Indochina, Trường Chinh used the Sự Thật (Truth) weekly to communicate the party line openly, although it appears that copies failed to circulate beyond towns or very far down the coast. On hearing of the self-dissolution, many party members in central and southern Vietnam were left confused and demoralized for months.

In late May 1946, Việt Minh newspapers carried a statement by a list of public intellectuals declaring their intention to form a new Vietnam National Alliance (Hội Liên Hiệp Quốc Dân Việt Nam), to embrace each and every patriotic organization in the country. In reality, the ICP was putting all non-Việt Minh organizations on notice that they must join what became known as the Liên Việt or be labeled antipatriotic, even treasonous. The Vietnam Nationalist Party was the principal target, and soon its leaders had to decide whether to flee towards China, risk elimination, or submit to ICP direction camouflaged as Liên Việt participation. Political dissent now equaled disloyalty to the nation—except when ICP leaders themselves published criticisms of DRV policies. When Hồ Chí Minh called repeatedly for unity, great unity, he had some ICP members in mind as well as more obvious sources of discord. By late 1946, the ICP had overcome most of its own internal divisions and brought the bulk of local Việt Minh branches under its control. However, ICP authority within the state apparatus was still quite limited.

It is questionable whether Hồ Chí Minh wanted the ICP to extend its power over every aspect of Vietnamese life in the manner of Stalin’s Communist Party of the Soviet Union. However, Hồ’s capacity to control the ICP was limited by the fact that he had been out of the country when men like Trường Chinh were consolidating their leadership. As we shall see, Hồ did impose his will during the volatile days of March 1946, to the point of negating opposition from some ICP leaders. But no sooner had Hồ departed for France on 31 May than the party began taking actions that impinged on DRV government operations and had the effect of narrowing policy options. When Hồ finally returned on 20 October, he had barely been briefed on intervening events and taken part in the second session of the National Assembly when the French Army attacked DRV units in Haiphong on 20 November. During the tense days of mid-December, when decisions about going to war or not were being debated vigorously, it remains unclear whether Hồ had the last say.

During 1945–46 individual ICP members participated in local committees and militia groups, but because communication with the Standing Bureau in Hanoi was so infrequent they relied more on instructions via civil or military channels. Party members high in civil and military hierarchies rarely took part in Standing Bureau activities. Importantly, there was no ICP central committee. Towards the end of 1946, the Standing Bureau did insinuate itself into the state decisionmaking process. After both the DRV central government and the ICP Standing Bureau took refuge in the hills north of Hanoi, Hồ Chí Minh seems deliberately to have conducted government affairs without routinely consulting the Standing Bureau.

Hồ Chí Minh as National Icon

So desperate was the popular need in 1945 for a Vietnamese national leader that a number of individuals other than Hồ Chí Minh could have filled that role. Hồ was almost completely unknown when he stepped up to the microphone in Ba Đình square on 2 September. Word had swept through Hanoi that an elderly patriot headed the new government. Some said he had roamed the world in search of enlightenment and ways to expel the French colonialists. Hồ chose to present himself to the people in a faded Sun Yat-sen jacket, deliberately eschewing either the traditional Vietnamese black tunic and turban or a Western suit and tie. His accent revealed that he was from Nghệ An province in Trung Bộ. The text of the

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