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9-08-2015, 22:14

THE PHILIPPINES, MALAYA, INDONESIA AND INDO-CHINA

In 1945 to all appearances the Western nations once more dominated the world, including all of Asia. They had between them at their wartime conference mapped out the global distribution of power. They could display awesome military power on land, on sea and in the air and their technological superiority had been revealed at its most ruthless in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The once invincible Japanese had been humbled and crushed and had become subject to American rule. So in 1945 why should the Europeans not regain their old colonies in Asia? Britain chose not to maintain its imperial role in the Indian subcontinent while resuming its control of Malaya and Hong Kong. The Dutch, with British help, intended to regain the Dutch East Indies, and the French to regain Indo-China. But the peoples of Asia were not simply waiting to welcome back their old masters. Everywhere there were political movements demanding independence and ready to fight for it, generally under leadership inspired by Marxist ideologies. The Europeans would have to use force to regain colonial mastery. In 1945, the Cold War had not yet become the decisive influence on the shaping of Western policies. The Soviet Union was not then the most formidable opponent of British, French and Dutch colonial policies: at most, it gave ideological support to nationalist movements. It was the US that opposed European colonialism. The Second World War shattered the image of Western superiority in Asia. Within one decade from 1945 to 1955, nearly all the Western colonies and territorial empires were transformed. The Philippines gained independence in 1946, India in 1947, Ceylon and Burma the following year; in 1949 the Netherlands relinquished its 300-year rule over the Dutch East Indies; the French were defeated in Indo-China in 1954; and the British granted independence to Malaya in 1957. The most far-reaching transformation occurred on the mainland of eastern Asia, in China. The era of Chinese disintegration came to an end with the communist victory of 1949. During the four decades that followed, China successfully asserted its independence from Western controls. This pattern of enormous change emerged during the first four critical years following the Second World War. The first short phase lasted for just a few weeks, from the collapse of Japanese power until the British and American military commands were able to send troops; the Americans to the Philippines and Korea, the British to Malaya, to ‘French’ Indo- China and to the Dutch East Indies. During the brief interval before the troops arrived, the southeast Asian countries were still subject to the uncertain Japanese military. A variety of indigenous nationalist and socialist factions competed for power. Their goal was independence, but they had to decide what tactics to adopt towards the expected Western military reoccupation. The reoccupation, which opens a new phase, was nowhere seriously resisted at first. The hope that independence would be attained by agreement with the West was not fulfilled except on the Indian continent and later in Malaya. The US had never felt at ease as a colonial power, and Americans had a bad conscience about the forcible suppression of Filipino nationalism at the turn of the century. Strategic considerations had first taken the US navy to the Spanish Philippine Islands in 1898, which, with a naval base in Manila Bay, became America’s most advanced outpost in the Pacific. For more than a century, the US retained a strong presence in the Philippines. For the US the economic benefits of colonial possession were never sufficient, except to specialinterest groups, to dominate relationships. The Philippines, moreover, were too distant and the ‘brown’ Filipino population too numerous – 6 million in 1900, 48 million in 1980 – to consider their absorption in a racially conscious American society. Self-government, and eventually some form of independence, was therefore seen early on as the only solution. As, colonial rulers, the Americans were unique in virtually handing over the administration of the country to its indigenous population. By 1903, Filipinos held half the US colonial appointments; by the close of the 1920s, virtually the whole of the colonial government in the Philippines was in the hands of Filipinos. Forty years of American control and tutelage left an indelible mark on the Philippines. A Filipino political and economic elite had developed, whose fortunes as landowners, merchants, investors and industrialists were closely tied to the US. Trade boomed with the opening of the US market to Philippine exports and with US investment in the islands themselves. From the American point of view during the depression years, economic preferential guarantees to the Philippines were proving disadvantageous. There were demands to restrict Philippine imports to the US. The Philippines, not altogether willingly, were being pushed towards independence in the 1930s. The upper crust of Filipinos, who gained so much from the American connection, remained ambiguous about complete independence and sought a special American–Filipino relationship. Attempts to reconcile Filipino desire for independence and the economic interests of the Philippines and the US eventually led to the promise in 1934 of independence after a twelveyear transitional period. But in 1942 the Japanese invasion brought the possibility of a transfer to a halt. The barbarous occupation strengthened American–Filipino bonds despite a Japanese proclamation of Philippine ‘independence’ and the existence of some Filipino collaborators. When General MacArthur returned, he was hailed with genuine enthusiasm by the great majority of Filipinos who hated the Japanese. The destruction caused by the war was enormous. One million lives were lost, the economy shattered, most of industry destroyed as well as agricultural production reduced to ruin and Manila devastated. American reoccupation did not, however, usher in a tranquil period. The Americans upheld the existing social order of the landowners and the wealthy. The conservative post-1945 regime established in the Philippines clashed with the guerrillas, the Hukbalahap, or Huk for short. The Huk guerrillas had first fought the Japanese as well as their rivals. They retained their arms in 1945 and, to begin with, cooperated with MacArthur. They wished to change Philippine society radically, basing their power on the landless, debt-ridden peasants and urban poor. They were also nationalists who wanted to end the semi-colonial relationship with the US. Their support in the country as a whole was not strong in 1945 and they declared they were ready to participate in elections and in the constitutional process. With their aims of social revolution, however, and their potential to engage in an armed struggle, they were regarded by the conservatives who held power in the government as a deadly danger to stability and order. The Huk’s armed militia thus continued to pose a threat to the prosperous Filipino leadership. As early as 1945, members of the Huk militia were executed by the Filipino government. The Communist Party of the Philippines took part in the 1946 elections, but the six elected deputies were disbarred from the Filipino Congress. In 1946 drastic action was ordered against the Huk rising of peasants, with a military sweep to root out the Huk militia in central Luzon Island. The Huk responded with an all-out armed rebellion in 1948, their supporters nearly 200,000 strong. In 1949 they were joined by the Philippine Communist Party and set up a provisional revolutionary government. The struggle went on for years; by 1954 they were worn down and superior government forces crushed them. The government had also won some of the peasants away from supporting the rebels by offers of land and resettlement in protected villages. In the US, by then, the Huk were identified as forming part of the worldwide communist conspiracy of subversion in Asia, rather than as an extreme socialist–communist Filipino movement resorting to terrorist tactics and deriving their support from the economic condition of landless peasants. Communist international support was negligible. The chief victims of Huk recruitment and terrorism and of government reprisals were the peasants caught in the nutcracker of Huk guerrillas, the landlords and the government. In 1946 the US granted formal independence to the Philippines, but it came with strings attached. The US required that 100 locations should be reserved for US military bases and leased for ninety-nine years, though in 1959 this was reduced to twenty-five. The US constructed two great naval bases, an airbase and a rest camp, which formed a key to US security planning in the Pacific until the 1990s. The US–Philippine defence agreement, their alliances and the presence of the bases with thousands of US personnel were regarded by Filipino nationalists as giving them a semi-colonial status. The US did not hold itself aloof from internal politics either. Special economic rights for American businessmen were also secured, and all these conditions were linked to large-scale US aid and privileged access to the US market. The Philippine government has introduced limited land reforms since 1954 but has rejected socialism. The landlord–tenant relationship was upheld, but the harshness of landlord exploitation was somewhat limited. With American support the Filipino ruling groups retained power. They, in turn, were not anxious to cut the connection with the Americans. The US has suffered from being identified with the wealthy and corrupt ruling circles amid widespread poverty. Despite a large amount of US financial aid intended to restore the war-shattered Philippines and to help the peasants and the urban poor, little reconstruction was undertaken and the majority of the poor did not benefit: the wealthy Filipinos lined their own pockets. The continuation of distress among the peasantry provided the seedbed that nourished the Huk movement. The diversity of American objectives in what had virtually been a colony could not be reconciled satisfactorily: to grant independence, to prevent a communist–socialist alliance from attaining power by the ballot box or arms, to ensure genuine basic economic reforms, to provide for the global security interests of the US in Asia, and to find friendly and reliable partners among the Filipino political leadership. The US, as a result, strengthened the few who exploited the weak and was blamed for their corruption. But US policy was overshadowed, especially after 1950, by one aim: to stem the advance of communism in Asia. This was seen primarily not as an internal Asian problem. The overriding objective was to create a defensive Asian block against the external enemy, the Soviet Union, and its ally, communist China. In pursuit of this aim, the US felt its options were limited to supporting political leaders it would not otherwise have backed. It also led the US, despite its earlier disapproval, into a policy of backing the French, who sought to restore their colonial empire in Indo-China. Of all the attempts by European nations to reclaim their former empires in south-east Asia, it looked as if Britain’s return to the Malayan peninsula and Singapore would be the least troublesome. During the war the most active resistance to the Japanese had been mounted by the Chinese in Malaya, the majority of whom identified themselves with the communist leadership of the Malay Communist Party; the party was, in fact, almost totally composed of Chinese immigrants to Malaya. The Allies had supported them during the war and, afterwards, had recognised their contribution. They alone among the three races in Malaya had actively fought against the Japanese, and for a good reason: the Japanese, during the early years of occupation from 1942 to 1943, oppressed the Chinese more savagely than the other two nationalities living in Malaya, the Indian immigrants and the indigenous Malays. Indeed, many Malays and Indians had collaborated with the Japanese and hoped to gain independence with Japanese consent. The Japanese later became more accommodating towards the anti-communist Chinese of the business community, whose help they needed. They might even have granted independence, at least nominally, had it not been for the sudden end of the war in August 1945. The British returned to Malaya unopposed. The Chinese communists had decided to collaborate with them and to follow the constitutional path to independence. Chinese guerrilla groups came out of the forest where they had carried on the armed struggle and disbanded, hiding their weapons in the jungle as a precaution. The colonial administration hoped to re-establish peace and good order and to prepare for the electoral participation of all three races in Malaya on a basis of equality. These early plans envisaged that the peninsula of Malaya would be unified, the traditional Malay rulers deprived of most of their powers and a more democratic political regime introduced. Singapore, largely Chinese and a British colony, would be developed separately. But the British solution satisfied no one. The leaders of the 3.5 million Malays, most of whom were peasants belonging to the poorest section of society, feared that by conceding equal rights to more than 2 million Chinese and 700,000 Indian immigrants they would lose control of their own country. They therefore opposed the reduction of the powers of the Malay rulers, who at least ensured that Malaya was ruled by Malays. The Chinese also objected. They were against the separation of Singapore from the rest of Malaya, as this would reduce their influence outside Singapore. In the end the British government had to withdraw these proposals. In the meantime, both the Chinese communists and the Malays soon realised that, while the British intended to rule benignly, their timetable for Malayan independence was long term indeed. They had resumed imperial rule in Malaya, not for reasons of false national pride, but because Malayan rubber and Malayan tin were vital export earners for the shaky post-war British economy. When the standard of living of the British people was at stake, the Labour government that came to power in 1945 was as imperialist as the Conservatives. In 1946, among the majority of the Malays, a non-militant party was formed, the United Malay National Organisation, to safeguard the rights of the Malayans and of the Malay rulers. The Chinese communists also became active in politics. They demanded that the British should leave Malaya and tried to make it unprofitable for them to stay, by infiltrating trade unions and calling strikes. When this had no effect they escalated their pressure by mounting terrorist attacks on the British rubber plantations and by murdering planters. Unable to make headway by constitutional means, the Chinese communists in 1948 resorted to an all-out armed struggle from jungle bases. But in Malaya they constituted less than half the population, and in the war – or Emergency, as the British called it – that followed they never enjoyed any support or sympathy from the Malays. With the help of some 100,000 Malay police, 10,000 British and Commonwealth troops, including Gurkhas, the British pursued the Chinese into the jungle. Although the Chinese guerrillas never amounted to more than 6,000, to defeat them was an exceedingly difficult military operation. It involved the resettlement of some half a million Chinese peasants who had been eking out a living in the jungle and upon whom the Chinese guerrillas relied for food supplies. The Chinese kept up resistance for more than a decade, but by 1952 the real threat they posed had been removed. In one significant respect, the communist insurrection simplified matters: those Chinese who did not support the communists now found common ground with the Malays. The future of Singapore remained a thorny problem, but the future of Malaya would now be settled in negotiation with the British; the Malays and anti-communist Chinese wanted neither an economic nor a social revolution, nor indeed an armed struggle for independence. The Malayans, skilfully led by the aristocratic Tunku Abdul Rahman, and the moderate Chinese under Tan Cheng Lock formed an Alliance Party calling for independence. It won overwhelming support in Malaya. The negotiations for independence were long and drawn out, but they reached a successful conclusion in 1957. The Federation of Malaya, independent but a member of the Commonwealth, was created. Singapore was to receive independence separately when it withdrew from the federation in 1965. The end of British rule and the peaceful transfer of power to the elected representatives of Malaya came in 1957. The Chinese communist guerrillas could not now credibly claim that theirs was a struggle for independence from colonial servitude. Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tan Cheng Lock could no longer convincingly be pictured by the communists as mere stooges and puppets of the British. Their tough stand in negotiations and their subsequent success had earned them, in the eyes of the majority of Malayans, a reputation as genuine patriots who had created an independent nation. The British departed voluntarily, with the respect and friendship of the founders of the nation, leaving a Malaya, moreover, from which the menace of communist violence had been virtually eradicated. Britain’s greatest imperial achievement, perhaps, was not the acquisition of its worldwide empire, but the manner in which it gave it up. Its more realistic and far-sighted attitude stood in dark contrast to those of France and the Netherlands. The British, in the end, accommodated themselves to national aspirations in south-east Asia, despite their military superiority. The Dutch, by contrast, were militarily weak, but refused to give way to Indonesian nationalism until forced to yield. Yet it was the Dutch colonisers in the nineteenth century who had made a critical contribution to the emergence of an Indonesian sense of nationalism by bringing together for administrative convenience the cultures and ethnic groups of the many islands of their Dutch East Indies empire. The dominant group, 40 per cent of the whole, are the Javanese people, Muslims whose ruling class could look back on an ancient and splendid culture. Their social structure was subordinated rather than destroyed by the new Dutch masters. The majority of Indonesia’s large population, which had reached 60 million in 1930, lived on the overcrowded island of Java. Living standards were low, despite belated efforts by the Dutch to improve the lot of the ‘natives’, and population increases – as elsewhere in the underdeveloped world – outstripped improvements and depressed living standards even further. Rice production in Java could no longer feed the people adequately, and the price of sugar, the principal export, collapsed in the blizzard of the world economic crisis of the 1930s. The outer islands, much less crowded, provided the important exports of oil and rubber. It was these commodities, essential to any war effort, that decided Japan to launch its ‘southern drive’ of conquest and so brought it into collision with the West. In the Dutch East Indies, the Japanese invaders were generally welcomed as liberators in the spring of 1942, and the Dutch bureaucracy quickly collapsed. The mass of the people now turned against the traditional social structures, with the Javanese aristocracy at their apex, through which the Dutch had ruled the islands and imposed their policies. After years of Dutch repression, the nationalist movement – after a chequered history – surfaced more strongly than ever. Communism had failed to gain a hold, almost entirely due to the fierce repression of the Dutch colonial government of the 1920s, which resorted to internment and to the mass arrest of its leaders. The continuing resentment against the Dutch, however, enabled the two most outstanding nationalist leaders, the economist Mohammed Hatta and the engineer Achmed Sukarno, to rally the various nationalist movements and to win adherents among the educated elites. Their hour seemed to have struck when the Dutch were humiliated and defeated by the invading Japanese army. But for the Indonesians one system of repression was now replaced by another. Although four centuries of European rule had at one stroke been destroyed, the new Asian ‘liberators’ gave no encouragement to social revolution or national experiments, let alone to thoughts of true independence. They left the traditional social structure and simply sought to work through it as the Dutch had done. All the same, there were now new opportunities for the Indonesian national leadership who, the Japanese judged, could serve a useful role in mobilising Indonesians for the Japanese war effort. All that really mattered to the Japanese was to exploit the human and material resources of the islands. They forced the various national factions to patch up their differences and sent the Indonesian national leaders out to penetrate the far-flung regions of the archipelago. Since they did not regard the Dutch as their rightful masters and friends, these leaders had no qualms about collaborating with the Japanese. They also established links with the anti-Japanese underground movement. Their dream was Indonesian independence, and to achieve it the question of whether to work with or against outside powers, be they Dutch or Japanese, was a matter of tactics, not of loyalty to foreign rulers. Thus Sukarno had no hesitation in enjoying good relations with the Japanese military commander of Java, given their mutual interests and the reality of Japan’s supreme power. Later, with the deterioration of their military prospects, the Japanese found it expedient to make concessions to Indonesian national feelings and to promise independence. Except briefly in Java in May 1945, and then only in outward appearance, it was nowhere achieved under Japanese rule, which collapsed too quickly for the changes of policy to take effect. The Dutch and Japanese having been defeated in turn, at last it seemed that Indonesian independence would be achieved peacefully. Sukarno and Hatta nevertheless knew that they faced serious internal and external obstacles. Within the country, although the communists had not been able effectively to reorganise themselves after their suppression by the Dutch, a new, youthful generation of radical leaders working for social revolution had emerged during the Second World War. More seriously still, British and Indian troops under Mountbatten’s supreme command landed in Indonesia in September 1945, not merely to disarm the Japanese but, as it soon turned out, to restore Indonesia to Dutch rule. The Indonesians had, however, made good use of the hiatus between the Japanese surrender and the arrival of Allied troops. In August, that is a month before the British landed, a constitution was agreed and an independent Indonesian republic proclaimed. A sizeable armed militia of Indonesians, largely trained by the Japanese, whose arms they commandeered, controlled Java and were ready to defend the republic. Nevertheless, after the British landings Sukarno decided not to resist by force and allowed the British to occupy Jakarta, the capital. But Sukarno’s and Hatto’s authority was not sufficient to prevent the development of Indonesian resistance and in October 1945, despite their efforts, the armed struggle became fiercer. In November the British general in command of the occupying force was killed by an Indonesian sniper and full-scale fighting broke out, culminating in a battle at Surabaya. No match for the British troops, some 15,000 Indonesians died in that tragic encounter. Bloodshed sanctified Indonesian nationalism, and the battle of Surabaya is celebrated as Heroes Day in Indonesia. Struggling to recover from the effects of the Second World War in Europe, successive Dutch governments tenaciously attempted to resume their colonial rule in south-east Asia. With British help, Dutch troops despatched from Europe were able to establish dominance over the principal cities, but the vast countryside was another matter. The suppression of Indonesian nationalism required far larger resources than the Netherlands could hope to command. Nor was international opinion in the United Nations or in Washington sympathetic to the Dutch. The pragmatic British saw the Dutch struggle as wasteful and ineffective and, after the failure of initial attempts at pacification, concluded that the Dutch should take the same road as the British were travelling in India and Burma. More and more isolated, the Dutch hung on. Indonesia was of immense value with its oil and rubber, but the Dutch found themselves in a no-win position against the fifth most populated nation in the world, the majority of whose citizens wished to get rid of the white colonial rulers. The Indonesians were not strong enough to force the Dutch army out, so Indonesian nationalists were forced into a series of compromises and trials of strength. The British government was glad to take advantage of a truce in November 1946 to withdraw completely and leave the islands to the Indonesians and the Dutch. The Indonesian nationalists, despite making agreements with the Dutch authorities, did all they could to frustrate them. In 1947 the Dutch tried, as before the war, to crush nationalist opposition by a so-called police action. In 1948 they stepped up their military effort and attempted to impose a federal solution which denied Indonesia sovereignty, but the Indonesian political leaders simply would not cooperate with the Dutch. The Netherlands was therefore faced with an unending military commitment in Indonesia which it could not afford. Asian nationalism overcame military and economic superiority by sheer attrition in Indonesia, as later it did elsewhere in southeast Asia. Crucial too were US threats to cut off reconstruction aid if diverted to the war in Indonesia. The Dutch bowed to the inevitable. In December 1949 the Dutch conceded independence to Indonesia and in August the following year 85,000 Dutch troops and the colonial administration withdrew. With them went several thousand Indonesians who preferred to make the Netherlands their home and as a result turned the homogeneous Dutch into a multiracial society. But 1950 did not mark the end of conflict between Indonesia and the Netherlands. The Netherlands held on to Western New Guinea, which the Indonesians claimed, and it still hoped for some constitutional arrangement linking Indonesia and the Netherlands for another decade. A unitary Indonesian republic was not established until 1960, and not until two years later did the Dutch agree to hand over Western New Guinea (or West Irian, as the Indonesians called it). Decolonisation thus proved a painful and long-drawn-out process, damaging both to the Indonesians and to the Dutch. How recently European physical control of colonial empires was abandoned needs to be borne in mind, for the speed with which the bitterness abated between the former colonial subjects and the European nations is one of the most remarkable and surprising aspects of twentieth-century history. The French, as empire builders in south-east Asia, were – like the Americans – late arrivals, conquering Indo-China in the mid-nineteenth century. They superimposed French rule on an ancient Vietnamese culture with a sense of national unity that did not diminish during the century of French occupation. The Vietnamese were brought by the French under one imperial umbrella with the Laotians and Cambodians to form the entity of French Indo-China. As elsewhere in the colonial world the amalgamation of Western ideas and the indigenous culture brought about rapid changes and created divided loyalties. The betteroff, the landlords, the independent farmers and the traders, resisted far-reaching social change and, to this extent, identified themselves with the French administration. French education also nourished an intelligentsia, many of whom were inspired by Marxist ideals and committed themselves to an anti-colonial struggle. The French took their civilising white man’s mission seriously in the south of Vietnam (Cochin China), which they administered directly; central Vietnam was less affected; in the north, around Hanoi, some basic industrial development took place. The French built railways and roads, a university in Hanoi, schools and hospitals; they increased literacy and stamped out widespread diseases; mortality rates fell. There was less racial arrogance than in British colonies, and a greater promotion of education. Contact with France was also encouraged, and a small Vietnamese elite travelled there in the 1930s, including Ho Chiminh. On the debit side, economic development in Indo-China was dictated by the interests of metropolitan France. Industrialisation was slow. Over-population in the two most fertile regions, the Mekong River in the south and the Red River in the north, was a perennial problem. The great majority of the 16 million Vietnamese were poor peasants, hardest hit by the collection of rents and taxes. The depression of the 1930s, which saw steep declines in the price of rice and sugar, most affected those who could least afford it and led to waves of unrest. All peasant and student protest was met by the French with repression. A small Vietnamese Communist Party inspired by the Russian Revolution had been formed in 1929 by Ho Chi-minh. In the social and political conditions of the 1930s its potential following was large, and it adopted the tactics of the popular front, softening its own revolutionary aims in the interests of unity to win the support of the revolutionary but non-Marxist Nationalist Party, which had been suppressed by the French. Vietnamese intellectuals were both attracted and alienated by French culture. Proud of their own civilisation, they discovered the hollowness of French revolutionary egalitarianism, which seemed to apply only to the French and not to colonial natives. Nonetheless, the overwhelming military strength of the French gave their colonial rule an appearance of stability and permanence. It was to prove illusory. France’s claim to superiority in Indo-China was shattered by her defeat in Europe in June 1940. To the north, the Japanese were waging their relentless war against China and espousing a Japanesedominated ‘Greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere’. French weakness in September of that year brought the Japanese into Indo-China, pathway to the Dutch East Indies. The Vichy French authorities collaborated with the Japanese and suppressed nationalist guerrillas with French troops. A serious uprising in southern Vietnam was bloodily defeated and, in the process, the southern Vietnamese communist organisation was decimated. This was to be of crucial importance for the future, since the communists now remained strong only in the north. The anti-Japanese resistance, organised in the north by the Vietnamese nationalist League for the Independence of Vietnam, or Vietminh, was led by the charismatic Ho Chi-minh. Ho Chi-minh became a cult figure in his own lifetime. Before his death in 1969 his photographic image was as widely reproduced as Castro’s, Che Guevara’s and Mao Zedong’s. He lies buried in a glass cage within a mausoleum in Hanoi and hundreds daily pay their respects. Yet before 1945 no one in the outside world had heard of him. As a nationalist and communist conspirator he had used several pseudonyms in his lifetime and had travelled widely, working on boats, though between 1913 and 1917 he had been employed in the kitchen of the London Carlton Hotel. As a Vietnamese nationalist he became well known in socialist circles of Paris, and travelled to China and to Hong Kong, where he founded the Indo-Chinese Communist Party with a number of fellow conspirators in 1929. He visited Moscow in the 1920s and served as a delegate to various conferences, before disappearing from view from 1933 to 1941, when he reappeared in Moscow. He had probably spent the intervening years in Stalin’s Russia. There can be no doubt that Ho Chi-minh had become a dedicated communist, but he was also a dedicated nationalist. Tactically Ho Chi-minh was a chameleon, appearing to espouse many causes and roles. But the core of his beliefs was nationalism – Vietnam as one unified, independent nation – and Marxism. He was a man of intellectual brilliance and a complete personal incorruptibility, modest in his needs, able to relate to the common people, yet utterly ruthless and inflexible in the pursuit of ultimate aims. No price was ultimately too high to create a united communist Vietnam, free from all outside interference. When Vichy French power began to be destroyed in metropolitan France following the Allied invasion in the summer of 1944, Ho Chiminh knew that the time for the power struggle in his country was drawing closer. The Japanese occupiers continued to tolerate the Vichy administration in Vietnam, which had collaborated with them under duress. But on 9 March 1945 the Japanese attempted to strengthen their position by making a bid for popular Vietnamese support. The French administrators were unceremoniously imprisoned and a Vietnamese state independent from France was brought into existence by decree. The Japanese needed a leader to give independence some credibility in the eyes of the people. They turned to Bao Dai, who had been crowned emperor in 1925 at the age of twelve. Although he had been groomed by the French for this role and educated in Paris, Bao Dai was no cypher and in the 1930s had attempted to win genuine independence for Vietnam, but without success. He could serve as a rallying point for unity and independence, so he was a leader of some importance in 1945. Realising this, the Japanese prevailed on him to head an ‘independent’ Vietnam in March 1945. Ho Chi-minh saw that Bao Dai’s royal standing in the eyes of the peasantry made him a potential rival, but decided that it would be best to appear to recruit his authority to the Marxist cause. Bao Dai, with no army to protect him, had little choice after the surrender of the Japanese but to accept what Ho Chi-minh demanded of him. He abdicated, passed the Mandate of Heaven to Ho Chi-minh’s emissaries and was appointed his supreme adviser. August 1945 was a critical time. What authority would replace the Japanese after their surrender on 14 August and before the French could return? Ho Chi-minh played his cards well. The French and Japanese had stockpiled grain; the Vietminh led raids on the granaries to relieve the famine. General Vo Nguyen Giap’s small fighting force, trained by the US to fight the Japanese, was soon in control of Hanoi and Saigon. On 2 September 1945 in Hanoi, in constitutional language borrowed from the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and France’s revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1791, he proclaimed the Independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam with himself as president. He was looking for American support. Roosevelt before his death had been sympathetic to Ho Chiminh’s nationalist cause, and General Joseph Stilwell (commander of US forces in China, Burma and India) had supported his irregular troops. At that time Washington was more concerned with the evils of colonialism in Europe’s former empires than with the global threat of communism. All that would change under Truman’s administration with the onset of the Cold War. It was not the Americans, but the British and French, in a determined effort, who frustrated Ho Chi-minh’s plans for a Marxist unified and independent Vietnam. The country south of the 16th parallel, that is all of southern and much of central Vietnam, fell by earlier Allied agreement into Lord Louis Mountbatten’s sphere of command. What followed is one of the most extraordinary episodes of the post-war period. If the south had been permitted to follow the north and the independence of the whole of Indo-China had been accepted by the British, the trauma of the longest war in Asia, which led to at least 3.4 million deaths and untold misery, might have been avoided. Mountbatten personally sympathised with the Asian peoples’ desire for independence. But General Douglas Gracey, the British commander sent to southern Indo-China, took a different view. He was determined not to treat with local independence leaders in Saigon and to do all he could to restore French rule. There were no French troops at first in Indo-China and Gracey had only a few hundred Indian and British soldiers at his disposal. So he ‘restored order’ with the only available well-disciplined soldiers – the Japanese. Far from disarming them, he arranged for the Japanese divisions, with their own officers but under British command, to fight the local south Vietnamese during the summer and autumn of 1945 in a startling reversal of alliances. The Americans could do nothing. General MacArthur fumed: ‘If there is anything that makes my blood boil it is to see our allies in Indo-China and Java deploying Japanese troops to reconquer the little people we promised to liberate.’ By Christmas 1945, some 50,000 French troops had been brought to Indo-China to take over from the British and Indians, who were able to withdraw. The British motivation is not difficult to understand. In London there was great suspicion of American intentions: if the French were to be deprived of their colonies in the name of liberation, what claims would the British have to the restoration of their colonies in southern Asia, especially Malaya? France, furthermore, was a vital future ally in Europe, the only potentially strong power to defend the continent against a resurgent Germany or a Soviet threat at a time when the Americans were withdrawing. But the French were not likely to act in Europe with Britain if Britain helped to deprive France of Indo-China. Yet these all proved short-term and wrongheaded calculations. For France, its return to Indo-China was to lead to defeat and humiliation; and the Americans, who eventually replaced the French, were ironically to suffer here their only defeat in war and even greater humiliation. The Vietnamese suffered most of all. War did not break out immediately between the French and the Vietminh in the north. By the spring of 1946, the French had taken control of the south and had negotiated the withdrawal of the Chinese from the north. Chiang Kai-shek complied, because he needed his troops in China; Ho Chi-minh, who was not ready at this juncture to start fighting, agreed to allow a small French force to enter the north in return for French recognition of the Vietnamese Republic he had proclaimed. The French further stipulated that the Vietnamese Republic should remain within the French Union. This was a compromise that could never last. The French had excluded the southernmost part of Vietnam from their recognition of independence in the north, which in any case was so circumscribed that it would not have amounted to true independence. Ho Chi-minh travelled to Paris, where negotiations for a firm settlement broke down. He then returned to Hanoi and claimed independence for a united Vietnam. In November 1946 the French opened hostilities, by shelling the northern port of Haiphong and killing 6,000 Vietnamese civilians. In December full-scale fighting broke out. The French sent growing numbers of troops from Europe to reinforce the southern Vietnamese levies. Bao Dai had escaped from Ho Chi-minh’s group and took refuge first in Hong Kong, then on the Côte d’Azur, where he enjoyed a life of luxury. In March 1949 the president of France and Emperor Bao Dai signed a treaty granting Vietnam independence though reserving all eventual rights to the French, but Bao Dai’s government was too obviously subordinated to France to gain respect in the West. Nonetheless, the French appeared to be well in control during the first five years of the conflict. From 1946 to 1950, with Giap building up his hopelessly outnumbered Vietminh in the Red River valley of fertile rice fields in the north, there was relatively little fighting. But the skill, discipline and fighting spirit of his force, which by 1954 had grown to 117,000, proved more than a match for the 100,000 French Foreign Legion soldiers supported by 300,000 Vietnamese. The victory of the Chinese Communists in 1949 transformed Giap’s prospects, as large military supplies including heavy artillery were soon speeding south to support him. Mao’s victory and the outbreak of the Korean War also transformed Washington’s attitude: between 1950 and 1954 the US provided France with about $3 billion to enable it to carry on the war. But, despite their early successes, the French discovered they could not crush the Vietminh. Their own casualties, 90,000 dead and wounded by the close of 1952, were arousing increasing criticism at home. In Vietnam the death of France’s one brilliant tactician, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, left its strategy in the hands of generals who were not the equals of General Giap, with little idea how to combat peasants being politically indoctrinated and militarily trained to fight a revolutionary war. In 1953 Giap lured the French into defending Dien Bien Phu. When his forces eventually outnumbered the French garrison of 13,000 men by almost four to one and his artillery commanded the heights surrounding the French emplacement, Giap destroyed the garrison and took Dien Bien Phu on 7 May 1954. Like the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, this was a great Asian victory over a European-led colonial army, and one that changed history. The communist Vietnamese had won, not only a battle, but the war against the French – yet complete political victory was still denied to them. The news reached the Geneva Conference, which had been in session since 26 April. The US would not fully participate. But Zhou Enlai represented China, a China determined to demonstrate reasonableness in the hope of removing America’s principal European allies, Britain and France, from the Cold War in Asia. Eden presided and to the bitter disappointment of the Vietnamese – both the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam in the south – it suited China to maintain the partition of Vietnam, thus keeping it too weak to resume its traditional hostility to China. With the communists sustained in the north, moreover, the Americans, who had supported the French and the Republic of Vietnam in the south, would be kept at arms length from China’s southern frontier. Elections were planned for the summer of 1956 which were intended to unify the country: Zhou Enlai was shrewd enough to realise that, given the hostility of the two Vietnam regimes towards each other, they would never take place. The French were satisfied at having found a way out of the quagmire. The British could bask in the role of peacemakers on the world stage. But the Americans were hostile, rightly sceptical about communist promises, and warned against a resumption of fighting from the north. But they too had compromised in accepting a frontier drawn, not on the borders of China, but dividing Vietnam at the 17th parallel. Even so it seemed that another Korean situation had been created, with a clearly defined territorial limit on the extent of communist power. That, however, proved an illusion. The two Vietnams were more realistic: the struggle for unity was not over. Both sides would have to prepare for it, Ho Chi-minh in the north, but who in the south? Bao Dai was too weak now that his French protectors had departed. The Americans wanted someone tougher and more single-minded. They backed Ngo Dinh Diem, a nationalist and member of a leading Catholic family, who had already proved his patriotic credentials when opposing French interference in the 1930s. He had travelled, living in France and then ascetically in a Catholic seminary in the US. In 1954 Bao Dai recalled him and made him prime minister. In 1955 he ousted Bao Dai and, in a rigged referendum, established the Vietnam Republic with himself as president. An implacable enemy of communism, autocratic and corrupt, Diem refused to accept the Geneva settlement as final. South Vietnam had not signed anything beyond a ceasefire. Ho Chi-minh too was biding his time before renewing the struggle for the unity of Vietnam under Marxist rule. Peace did not have a chance.

 

 

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