David Galster’s Bruno’s Bunker series of articles explain the evolution of the struggle in Indochina from a French and Viet-Minh perspective. Find out what happened prior the US involvement in Vietnam and how you can experience it while playing a range of upcoming CS Vietnam scenarios.
Mes compagnons d’armes,
The most daunting French adversary in Indochina was the Viet Minh. But, how did they come into existence? How did the Viet Minh exploit the situation in WWII to gain a foothold? This article will examine these questions, and offer more insight into the Vietnamese Communist revolutionary movement.
The Quia Dao Road Tragedy
Quia Dao was a canyon on the Vietnam-Lao border. A road along the canyon was being built through jungle where few men had ever gone, to connect Laos to Nghe-an Province. French colonial authorities required all men 18 to 50 to do forced labour. Conditions were unbearable: marshy jungle, wild animals, snakes, poison insects, and malodorous air. The labourers were half-starved. They slept on the damp soil in the jungle, and, were mercilessly beaten by the overseers. Many died. And, those who did return, were haggard and starved, suffering from tropical fever or rheumatism.
In young Thanh’s impressionable mind, the days the villagers left for the Quia Dao Road project were associated with funerals. Women wept. The entire village came to see off the departing. Thanh stood on the roadside with the other village boys, and watched the bedraggled procession. Why was life so unjust? Thanh thought. The ten year old boy, Nguyen Tat Thanh, eventually became the leader we now know as Ho Chi Minh. (Ho the Enlightened.)
And since his youth, Ho Chi Minh dreamed of a revolution to overthrow French rule. After getting a French education in Hue, he got a kitchen job on the steamer Admirale de Latouche-Tréville. Spending years abroad in France, he became interested in the Communist party as a means of revolution.
In Paris, he used the pseudonym, Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot,) to write articles advocating Vietnamese Independence. He had an enlightenment after studying Nikolai Lenin’s thesis: National and Colonial Questions. Lenin stated: “The struggle of agricultural toilers against landlord exploitation is the basis upon which you can build an organization of toilers, even in backward countries.” After this, Ho Chi Minh became committed to Communism, as the ideology that could overthrow colonialism.
Indochinese Communist Patry
In 1925, Ho Chi Minh was sent by the Comintern to Canton. Ho managed to convert a small group of émigré intellectuals called Tam Tam Xa (Heart-to-Heart Association) to
revolutionary socialism. This was organized as the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth Association. (Thanh Nien). They published pamphlets and newspapers, including a guidebook of revolutionary theory, and practical techniques called The Road to Revolution. (Duong Kach Menh) Secret “cells” were trained in Canton, and returned to Vietnam to operate.
In 1927, Ho Chi Minh left for Moscow to evade Chiang Kai-shek’s anti-communist purge. With his absence, some movement radicals began to follow the “Communist Party of France,” and a split occurred. During this period, the membership was largely urban intellectuals, rather than the working class and poor peasantry.
The split was between those who emphasized independence from colonialism, and others who sought social revolution. In May 1929, Nguyen Cong Vien chaired a conclave in which the differences reached a climax, and several representatives walked out. And, a third faction led by Phan Bội Châu sought representation.
Finally in February 1930, Ho Chi Minh returned to Hong Kong, where agreement was reached at the Kowloon conference. The new party would be the “Communist Party of Vietnam,” and they agreed to a manifesto. However, the Comintern was critical of this because it was too “nationalistic” and did not include Laos and Cambodia. Finally in October 1930, the organization was renamed the “Indochinese Communist Party.” (ICP)
The 1930s and WWII
In 1932, Ho Chi Minh was arrested in Hong Kong by the British, but later released. He returned to Moscow where he spent several years teaching at the Lenin Institute. He returned to China in 1938 to advise the Chinese Communist Army.
ICP General Secretaries during the 1930s were: Tran Phu, Le Hong Phong, Ha Huy Tap, Nguyen Van Cu, and Truong Chinh. Another notable leader was Nguyen Thi Minh Khai.
In 1941, Ho Chi Minh met Vo Nguyen Giap, who had co-authored a book, The Peasant Question. The 1939 book asserted that communist revolution could be peasant-based as well as proletarian-based.
The Chingsi (China) Conference in May 1941 was when the Viet Minh was formed. Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam to lead the movement. The Japanese occupation of Indochina created an opportunity for the Communists. The so-called “men in black” were a 10000 member guerrilla force operating with the Viet Minh. The conducted many successful military actions against the Vichy French, and Japanese in World War II, supported clandestinely by the United States Office of Strategic Services. (OSS)
Vo Nguyen Giap also returned to Vietnam, in the Tonkin mountains, to organize intelligence work among the Montagnards. Giap spent World War II running a network of agents,with help from a local bandit named Chu Van Tan. The information collected, mostly about the Japanese, went to the Chinese Nationalists in exchange for military and financial assistance.
On December 22, 1944, Giap fielded the first armed propaganda teams, the forerunner of the People’s Army of Vietnam. (PAVN.) By mid-1945, he had 10000 troops.
During these early years, Giap led efforts at organization busting which, with the connivance of the French, emasculated competing non-communist nationalist organizations, and killing hundreds of individuals. One of the liquidation techniques tied victims together in batches, like cordwood, and tossed them into the Red River, causing drowning while floating out to sea. They called this “crab fishing.”
In March 1945, the Viet Minh declared their opposition to the Japanese, and aligned with the Allies. A guerrilla war began to undermine the Japanese rule, which ended in August 1945 anyway. Following the Japanese surrender, Ho Chi Minh asserted his Chairmanship of the Provisional Government (Democratic Republic of Vietnam, DRV,) and made a speech, “The Vietnamese Declaration of Independence.” The text included phrases from the US “Declaration of Independence,” and the 1791 French “Rights of Man and the Citizen.” He convinced Emperor Bao Dai to abdicate, and offered him a position in Hanoi as an advisor. The DRV was not recognized by any country.
After the Viet Minh came to power, they arrested and imprisoned, (many killed,) all non-Communist Viet Minh members, and allies who fought alongside them against the French.They also killed members of rival groups, such as Trotskyists, the Constitutional Party leader, the head of the Party for Independence, and Ngo Dinh Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Khoi. These purges and killings were to monopolize Communist power in Hanoi.
Late 1945 Revolution
After assuming power in Tonkin, the Viet Minh abolished any “undemocratic councils” and announced elections. They abolished the poll tax and outlawed the salt, alcohol, and opium monopolies. Use of opium, prostitution, alcohol, and gambling were forbidden. They confiscated French-owned and un-tilled land, and gave to the peasants for cultivation. Eight-hour workdays were instituted. Public utilities were nationalized.
The Nationalist Chinese occupied Tonkin with about 50000 troops, under General Lu Han. Chinese forces prevented French forces from crossing the 16th parallel into the north. The Chinese were in Tonkin for six months. Viet Minh committees were replaced by Chinese allies, including groups such as VNQDD, Dong Minh Hoi, and the Dai Viet. But, these groups were not supported by the people, and the Chinese did not want to fight the Viet Minh.
Elections and Aftermath in 1946
The situation in North Vietnam became confused. The ICP went into hiding for a period, and Ho Chi Minh agreed to inclusion of the other nationalist groups. In January 1946, Ho Chi Minh won the elections, and Vo Nguyen Giap won in the Nghe An province.
An agreement between the French and Chinese resulted in Chinese withdrawal in March, and French entry into Hanoi. At first the Viet Minh tried to negotiate with the French General Leclerc. But, they could not get what they really wanted, control of the government, and so went underground. General Giap built up the Liberation Army to 60000. The Viet Minh eliminated many political adversaries, and murdered several thousand moderate nationals.
In November 1946, the Viet Minh fired on a French patrol boat in Haiphong. This resulted in a week of fighting. In December, the French demanded the Viet Minh Self Defense Forces disarm. The Tu Ve militia made terrorists attacks in Hanoi, resulting in general fighting. The French declared martial law, and this is considered the beginning of the First Indochina War.
The Viet Minh attacked Hanoi’s municipal power station, and Giap made a radio broadcast, calling for resistance in a war of national liberation. Ho Chi Minh urged sacrifices, and determination to fight to the end. The DRV government fled to the mountains of northern Bac Bo, (Viet Bac region,) while Giap and Ho were already in caves near Hadong, several kilometers north of Hanoi.
The Viet Minh had acquired a variety of military arms, from the Nationalist Chinese, Japanese, and the French. As Japanese military units left, they allowed the Viet Minh to take them. These would have been Arisaka Type 99 7.7mm rifles, Arisaka Type 38 6.5mm Rifles, and Type 99 7.7mm Light Machine Guns. The Japanese also left Russian 7.62 mm rifles. As for light artillery, Japanese weapons included the Year-11 Type 70mm Mortar, Type 89 50mm rifled grenade launchers, and Year-41-Type 75mm Infantry Guns, “Rentaiho.”
To a lesser extent, the Viet Minh obtained American weapons from Nationalist China.These included the M1 Garand rifles, and 0.30 cal Browning machine guns. M1A1 75 mm pack howtizers were also acquired.
From the French, weapons such as MAS 36 7.5mm rifles, Remington rifles, carbines, the MAS 38 7.65mm machine gun were obtained. By the end of 1945, the Viet Minh possessed an estimated 35000 small arms, 1300 machine guns, 200 mortars, and 50 artillery pieces.
The initial strategy was to avoid confrontation with stronger, high-technology French forces. Emphasis was on development of political organizations, and indoctrination of troops. There was no separation between military and political objectives. Political officers taught soldiers the history of people’s struggles against foreign invasions to boost their patriotism. They believed they were fighting for independence and freedom. Prior to any attack, they were very well prepared. Motivated with heroism, and examples of their brave comrades, troops were told that surrender meant torture and brutal death.
Within the military, political commissars were prevalent. A Viet Minh battalion had a political commissar and deputy commissar at the headquarters. Each rifle company also had political commissars and deputies assigned.
In the north Tonkin area, the Viet Minh hid and waited. They developed their organizations, and planned small guerrilla attacks to annoy, and wear down the French.
Although the French had enough forces to control the major cities, they did not have enough to control the countryside. The Viet Minh worked hard to gain the loyalty of the peasants and workers there. The power of local authorities was strengthened for mobilising resistance.
Viet Minh Reaction to Operation Lea
The Viet Minh avoided confrontations with large French forces. And, the French believed that minor assaults to locate the Viet Minh headquarters could not lead to an end of the war. French intelligence identified the headquarters location in Bac Can.
French Operation Lea began on 7 October, when 1100 paratroopers landed at Bac Can. The paratroopers swiftly captured the city, but failed to capture Ho Chi Minh and other Vietnamese leaders. Losing the opportunity to neutralize the Viet Minh headship, French paratroopers found themselves fighting for survival, when Viet Minh counter-attacked, and surrounded them.
The French responded with ten battalions (15000 men,) moving from Lang Son to Cao Bang, and then down through Nguyen Binh to Bac Kan, to cut off enemy supplies from China. The second objective was to surround Vietnamese forces, and destroy them. Delayed by bad roads, mines and ambushes, it took the French column until 13 October to reach the vicinity of Bac Can, where the Viet Minh put up a strong resistance. The French broke through on 16 October, and relieved the paratroops. A riverine force was supposed to assault up the Clear and Gam rivers, but encountered so many delays, they were useless. The French were unable to destroy the Viet Minh forces. Most of the 40000 guerrillas escaped through gaps in the French lines. On 8 November, the operation was called off, the French claiming to have inflicted 9000 casualties.
Essentially, the Viet Minh would attack hit and run, guerrilla style, to inflict casualties on a French column, but would not stand and fight. Instead, after causing some losses, the Viet Minh would disappear into the jungle. This was the the early war strategy employed. The Viet Minh continued to “own” the countryside in the Viet Bac area.
After the 1949 Communist takeover in China, the Viet Minh began attacking French outposts on the Chinese border. Viet Minh fighting techniques were also changing, and starting to use regular organized combat units. By the close of 1949, the French fort at Dong Khe had to be provisioned entirely by air. French Union Forces abandoned a number of strong points, and concentrated on the Hanoi defense perimeter.
When the last French border fort fell in 1950, the Viet Minh had more reliable access to supplies and support from Communist China. The People’s Republic of China became the first nation granting recognition to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (DRV) In a secret visit to Moscow, Ho Chi Minh received a pledge of support from Joseph Stalin. This meant much more Chinese and Soviet weapons for the Viet Minh. (The Chinese also furnished more captured American weapons.)
Viet Minh Combat Divisions
The Viet Minh sent 20000 troops to China to be trained and armed. Total Viet Minh forces reached 160000. General Giap launched an offensive in September 1950, and forced the French to evacuate Cao Bang. The French lost 4,000 men and left behind more than 10000 tons of ammunition.
In 1950 and 1951, the Viet Minh began forming regular infantry divisions. The following six were formed: 304, 308, 312, 316, 320 and 325. This was the beginning of a new phase, in which the Viet Minh could commit to conventional warfare. This was a significant turning point in the First Indochina War.
Ho Chi Minh and General Giap had a methodical and comprehensive plan to build the Viet Minh. Political organization and indoctrination was an essential ingredient. And, they exploited French weakness in WWII, and took advantage of the Chinese Communist take over in 1949. The result was a well organized army of committed soldiers, with leaders running a winning strategy.
I imagine that Bruno believed the French could beat the Viet Minh. But surely, he respected them as an adversary.
“People’s War People’s Army,” Vo Nguyen Giap
General Marcel Bigeard – “Bruno”