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Vietnam was absorbed into French Indochina in stages between 1858 and 1887. Nationalism grew until World War II provided a break in French control. Early Vietnamese resistance centered on the intellectual Phan Bội Châu. Châu looked to Japan, which had modernized and was one of the few Asian nations to successfully resist European colonization. With Prince Cường Để, Châu started two organizations in Japan, the Duy Tân hội (Modernistic Association) and
Vietnam Cong Hien Hoi.
Due to French pressure, Japan deported Phan Bội Châu to China. Witnessing Sun Yat-sen's 1911 nationalist revolution, Châu was inspired to commence the Viet Nam Quang Phục Hội movement in Guangzhou. From 1914 to 1917, he was imprisoned by Yuan Shikai's counterrevolutionary government. In 1925, he was captured by French agents in Shanghai and spirited to Vietnam. Due to his popularity, Châu was spared from execution and placed under house arrest until his death in 1940.
In September 1940, shortly after Phan Bội Châu's death, Japan launched its invasion of French Indochina, mirroring its ally Germany's conquest of metropolitan France. Keeping the French colonial administration, the Japanese ruled from behind the scenes in a parallel of Vichy France. As far as Vietnamese nationalists were concerned, this was a double-puppet government. Emperor Bảo Đại collaborated with the Japanese, just as he had with the French, ensuring his lifestyle could continue.
From October 1940 to May 1941, during the Franco-Thai War, the Vichy French in Indochina defended their colony in a border conflict in which the forces of Thailand invaded while the Japanese sat on the sidelines. Thai military successes were limited to the Cambodian border area, and in January 1941 Vichy France's modern naval forces soundly defeated the inferior Thai naval forces in the Battle of Ko Chang. The war ended in May, with the French agreeing to minor territorial revisions which restored formerly Thai areas to Thailand.
In 1941, Ho Chi Minh, seeing communist revolution as the path to freedom, returned to Vietnam and formed the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (League for the Independence of Vietnam), better known as the Việt Minh. Ho created the Việt Minh as an umbrella organization for all the nationalist resistance movements, de-emphasizing his communist social revolutionary background.
During the Vietnamese Famine of 1945, Ho Chi Minh blamed ruthless Japanese exploitation and poor weather for up to two million Vietnamese deaths. The Việt Minh arranged a relief effort in the north, winning wide support there as a result.
In March 1945, Japan launched the Second French Indochina Campaign to oust the Vichy French and formally installed Emperor Bảo Đại as head of the nominally independent Empire of Vietnam. The Japanese arrested and imprisoned most of the French officials and military officers remaining in the country.
American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and General Joseph Stilwell privately made it clear that France was not to reacquire French Indochina after the war was over. Roosevelt suggested that Chiang Kai-shek place Indochina under Chinese rule; Chiang Kai-shek supposedly replied: "Under no circumstances!" Following Roosevelt's death in April 1945, U.S. resistance to French rule weakened.
After the surrender of Japan
An armistice was signed between Japan and the United States on August 20, 1945. The Provisional Government of the French Republic wanted to restore its colonial rule in French Indochina as the final step of the Liberation of France.
On August 22, 1945, OSS agents Archimedes Patti and Carleton B. Swift Jr. arrived in Hanoi on a mercy mission to liberate Allied POWs, and were accompanied by French government official Jean Sainteny. The Imperial Japanese Army, being the only force capable of maintaining law and order, remained in power while keeping French colonial troops and Sainteny detained.
Japanese forces allowed the Việt Minh and other nationalist groups to take over public buildings and weapons without resistance, which began the August Revolution. On August 25, Ho Chi Minh was able to persuade Emperor Bảo Đại to abdicate. Bảo Đại was appointed "supreme advisor" to the new Việt Minh-led government in Hanoi.
Japanese troops lay down their arms to British troops in a ceremony in Saigon (1945).
On September 2, aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, CEFEO Expeditionary Corps leader General Leclerc signed the armistice with Japan on behalf of France. The same day, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence from France. Deliberately borrowing from the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed:
We hold the truth that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
After their surrender, the Japanese Army gave weapons to the Việt Minh.Ho Chi Minh and other Việt Minh officers during this period. The Việt Minh had recruited more than 600 Japanese soldiers and given them roles to train or command Vietnamese soldiers.
In order to further help the nationalists, the Japanese kept Vichy French officials and military officers imprisoned for a month after the surrender. OSS officers met repeatedly with
On September 13, 1945, a Franco-British task force landed in Java, main island of the Dutch East Indies (for which independence was being sought by Sukarno), and Saigon, capital of Cochinchina (southern part of French Indochina), both being occupied by the Japanese and ruled by Field Marshal Hisaichi Terauchi, Commander-in-Chief of Japan's Southern Expeditionary Army Group based in Saigon. Allied troops in Saigon were an airborne detachment, two British companies of the Indian 20th Infantry Division and the French 5th Colonial Infantry Regiment, with British General Sir Douglas Gracey as supreme commander. The latter proclaimed martial law on September 21. The following night the Franco-British troops took control of Saigon.
Telegram from Ho Chi Minh to U.S. President Harry S. Truman
requesting support for independence (Hanoi, February 28, 1946)
Almost immediately afterward, as agreed to at the Potsdam Conference (and under Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers' "General Order no. One".), 200,000 troops of the Chinese 1st Army occupied Indochina as far south as the 16th parallel. They had been sent by Chiang Kai-shek under General Lu Han to accept the surrender of Japanese forces occupying that area, then to supervise the disarming and repatriation of the Japanese Army. This effectively ended Ho Chi Minh's nominal government in Hanoi. Initially, the Chinese kept the French Colonial soldiers interned, with the acquiescence of the Americans. The Chinese used the VNQDĐ, the Vietnamese branch of the Chinese Kuomintang, to increase their influence in Indochina and put pressure on their opponents.
On October 9, 1945, General Leclerc arrived in Saigon, accompanied by French Colonel Massu's March Group (Groupement de marche). Leclerc's primary objectives were to restore public order in south Vietnam and to militarize Tonkin (north Vietnam). Secondary objectives were to wait for French backup in view to take back Chinese-occupied Hanoi, then to negotiate with the Việt Minh officials.
Chiang Kai-shek threatened the French with war in response to manoeuvering by the French and Ho Chi Minh against each other, forcing them to come to a peace agreement. In February 1946, he also forced the French to surrender and renounce all of their concessions and ports in China, such as Shanghai, in exchange for withdrawing from northern Indochina and allowing French troops to reoccupy the region starting in March 1946. Following this agreement, VNQDĐ forces became vulnerable due to the withdrawal of Chinese forces and were attacked by Việt Minh and French troops. The Việt Minh massacred thousands of VNQDĐ members and other nationalists in a large-scale purge.