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The Vietnamese August Revolution Reinterpreted

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 March 2011


The August Revolution of 1945 constituted the most important turning-point in recent Vietnamese history.It formally marked the end of French colonialism in Vietnam and the beginning of Vietnamese national independence. It also marked the end of the Confucianist-oriented monarchy and the beginning of a Communist-oriented democratic republic. Much debate has been focused on why the Communist-dominated Viet Minh Front succeeded in seizing political power in August 1945. Anti-Communist detractors have generally attributed the Viet Minh success to an historical accident, i.e., the Viet Minh happened to be on the scene as the Japanese surrendered to the Allies. The Vietnamese Communists themselves have narcisistically attributed their success to skillful leadership in organization and propaganda. Actually the August Revolution must be explained by both the “objective material conditions” of the Vietnamese society of the time and the “subjective” predisposition of the Viet Minh. In March 1945, the Japanese occupation forces had destroyed the French colonial regime in a lightning coup d'etat. The general political confusion following the coup aggravated a severe famine which then ravaged Vietnam. Of several Vietnamese political groups, the Viet Minh emerged as the only one capable of organizing the Vietnamese people through their existing “liberation Committees.” In August 1945, following the Japanese surrender, the Viet Minh quickly seized political power and has retained it since. Thus both historical fortuity and revolutionary leadership accounted for the Viet Minh success.

Copyright © The Association for Asian Studies, Inc. 1971

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1 Tong Khoi-nghia Thang Tam (The August General Insurrection), Vol. XII, in Tai-lieu thamkhao lich-su cach-mang can-dai Viet-nam (Research Materials for the History of the Contemporary Vietnamese Revolution), (Hanoi: Van Su Dia, 1957) hereafter, TKNTT, pp. 1820.Google Scholar

2 Ibid., p. 7.

2a A superscript letter indicates that the name, word, or term can be found listed in the Glossary with the correct diacritical marks.

3 Ibid., p. 28. The “People's National Congress” was convened by Ho Chi Minh to meet at Tan Trao, the “Provisional Capital” of the Liberated Zone, in the mountainous province of Tuyen Quang, North Vietnam. The Congress was supposed to meet, “at the latest,” in the middle of July. Timing now became the most important element. Ho Chi Minh himself was doing his best to bring people to the meeting within the prescribed time. However, because of the difficulties in communications and transportation, only on August 13, 14 did representatives begin to arrive. Firm confirmation of the news of the Japanese formal surrender came on the morning of August 15, and the Congress began the following day without waiting for the latecomers. Present were 60 representatives coming from all three regions of Vietnam, including members of the minority races. Sec TKNTT, pp. 27–28.

4 See Lieu, Tran Huy, Lich Su Tam Muoi Nam Chong Phap (History of the Eighty-Year Opposition to France), (Hanoi: Vien Su hoc 1961) hereafter, 80 Nam, Vol. II, Book II, p. 157.Google Scholar

5 That is to say, the “Provisional Commanding Committee of the Liberated Zone” (Uy Ban Chi Huy Lam Thoi Khu Giai Phong) which had been in existence probably since the establishment of the “Liberated Zone” in June 1945.

8 The date August 19 is now commemorated as the date of the “Success of the Revolution” (Cachmang Thanh-cong). This is the date when Hanoi was taken over. Before Hanoi fell, however, the insurrection was successful at a number of other places, such as Ha-dong, Tuyen-quang, Quang-nam, Bac-giang, and Ha-tinh. The final insurrectional activities took place at Ha-tien and Dong-nai-thuong, in South Vietnam, on August 28. Thus, within a matter of twelve days, formal Viet Minh power was established throughout Vietnam. The exceptions being four northern provinces, three of which—Lang-son, Cao-bang, Hai-ninh,—are adjacent to China, where arriving Kuomintang troops attempted to establish pro-Chinese authorities. In some of these areas, the D.R.V. was unable to establish complete political control until June 1946, after the Chinese had withdrawn.

7 The most complete, though quite ideologically-slanted, account of the August Revolution can be found in Cach Mang Thang Tarn, Tong Khoi-nghia o Ha-noi va cac dia-phuong (The August Revolution, the General Insurrection In Hanoi and Other Localities) (Hanoi: Vien Su Hoc, 1960), 2 volumes. This is a well-researched compilation of accounts accounts of the August Revolution, province by province, throughout Vietnam. The account for each province is put together by individual or collective revolutionary memoirs, plus newspapers accounts and documents, whenever available. For Hanoi, Vol. I, pp. 5–61; for Hue, Vol. II, pp. 62–87; for Saigon, Vol. II, 220–230.

8 See Nguyen Cong Binh, “Ve Moc Khoi-dau va ket-thuc cua cuoc Cach-mang thang Tam,” (On the beginning and end of the August Revolution) in Nghien Cuu Lich Su (Historical Research), hereafter, N.C.L.S., No. 51 (1963), pp. 17–28. Also see Devillers, Philippe, Histoire du Viet Nam (Paris: Seuil, 1952), pp. 140.Google Scholar

9 See N.C.L.S., No. 50 (1963) p. 11 (Editorial statement related to the article on the August Revolution by Le Quoc Su).

10 The late Tran Huy Lieu, one of the D.R.V.'s foremost historians and former head of the Historical Institute, had written numerous articles on the August Revolution in Van Su Dia (Literature, History, and Geography) and N.C.L.S. The best summary of Tran Huy Lieu's views on the August Revolution was published in Nhan Dan (The People) on the occasion of the commemoration of the 15th Anniversary of the August Revolution. See Tran Huy Lieu, “Mot So Y-kien ve Cach-mang Thang Tarn”) (A Number of Ideas on the August Revolution), Nhan Dan (The People), August 8, 1960. Truong Chinh's best-known views on the August Revolution are published in his The August Revolution (Hanoi: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1958). During the campaign to study the examples of the August Revolution in the D.R.V. in 1963, Truong Chinh presented his revised analysis of the August Revolution. See Truong Chinh, “Mot so van-de Cach-mang Thang Tarn Viet-nam” (A Number of Issues on the August Revolution of Vietnam), Hoc Tap (Studies), September 1963, pp. 1–10.

11 Editorial, Hoc Tap (Studies), August 1963.

12 See Devillers, op. cit., Ch. IV, “Le regime Decoux et l'action Japonaise,” especially pp. 81–83, 88–95.

13 At 7:00 p.m. on March 9, Ambassador Matsumoto handed Governor-General Decoux an ultimatum demanding that the French Army be put under Japanese command. The French governor-general was given two hours to reply to the ultimatum. Decoux was given a prepared note of acceptance to be signed and returned no later than 9:00 p.m. Decoux then hurriedly called his military staff to an emergency conference. By 8:45, when they were still drafting a reply, rejecting the ultimatum, Decoux was informed that accesses to Saigon and Cholon had been cut off by Japanese troops. By nine o'clock, the Japanese had already occupied the Governor's Palace and placed Decoux under detention. See Decoux, Jean, A la barre de l' Indochine: Histoire de mon gouvernement generel; 1940–1945 (Paris, 1952), pp. 329330.Google Scholar

14 Devillers, pp. 122–123.

15 See Giau, Tran Van, Giai-cap cong-nhan Vietnam (The Working Class of Vietnam), (Hanoi: Vien Su Hoc, 1963), Vol. III, p. 207.Google Scholar

16 Quoted in Ibid., p. 208.

17 Quoted in Ibid., p. 181.

18 Ngay Nay (Today), March 26, 1945.

19 Tin Moi (New Information), March 24, 1945.

20 Viet-nam Tan-bao (New Tribune of Vietnam), April 1, 1945.

21 I do not know the origins of the phrase banh ve (caricatured cake), or fake. The story of the ca ve (caricatured fish) is better known. The story goes: a poor Vietnamese family had nothing to eat at dinners but rice. Thereupon the father came to a brilliant idea. He sketched the figure of a salty dry fish and hung it on the wall at meal-times. The children were supposed to look at it only a few times during the meal. One day the littlest complained that his older brother had looked at the fish too often. “Don't worry, son,” said the father, “he will be thirsty the whole day.”

22 Quoted in Tran van Giau, III, p. 196.

23 Devillers, pp. 127–129. French civil servants were kept on until at least May 1945.

24 Ambassador Yokoyama told me during an interview in Paris that Prince Cuong De had been brought back to Hong Kong, but he was “already very old and somewhat ill.”

25 Hoang xuan Han, a member of the Tran Trong Kim Cabinet, insisted that Bao Dai did invite Ngo Dinh Diem twice, by letters, via the Japanese. After having waited in vain for Diem's reply on the possibility of his forming a government, Tran Trong Kim was agreed upon as the second best choice. According to Mr. Han, Ambassador Yokoyama told Bao Dai and others that there were no answers from Diem. It seemed that Diem never received the invitation in the first place.

26 Ngay Nay (Today), June 2, 1945.

27 Ibid., May 5, 1945.

28 Tran van Giau, III, p. 204.

29 Ibid., pp. 197–207. Political personages of that period, such as Nguyen Manh Ha, Hoang xuan Han, Ho Ta Khanh, etc. whom I have interviewed offered a similar interpretation concerning the strength and weaknesses of the political organizations during that period.

30 Interview with Nguyen Manh Ha, January 12, 1966.

31 The best example of this phenomenon was the case of the New Vietnam Association (Hoi Tan Viet Nam). This organization was not a political reparty, seeking political offices or power as such. It was more like a grouping of intellectuals in the various professions, governmental circles, etc. who were politically conscious and motivated by a sense of social concern. The New Vietnam Association received legal permission by the Royal Decree of May 26, 1945. Among its members were such well-known lawyers, writers, historians, such as: Vu Dinh Hoe, Dao Duy Anh, Phan Anh, Pham Do Binh, Nguyen Do Cung, Pham Huu Chuong, Do Due-Due, Ngo Thuc Dich, Tran Khanh Giu (Alias Khai Hung), Ngo Tu Ha, Vu van Hien, Phan Huy Quat, Nghiem Xuan Thien, Nghiem Xuan Yem (Thanh Nghi, No. 107, 5 May, 1945) Cited in Xa Hoi Viet Nam Trong Thoi Phap Nhat (The Vietnamese Society During the Franco-Japanese Period) in Cach Mang Can-dai (Contemporary Revolution) series, Vol. IX, Book II, pp. 174–175. The objectives of the Association were generally considered as “leftist,” such as “the demand for an amnesty for all political prisoners, economic and social reparty, forms,” etc. The Association, through its members in the Thanh Nghi (Clear Assessment) editorial board, supported the Tran Trong Kim Cabinet, This Association was considered by the Viet Minh Front as a potentially dangerous rival, for it was able to attract “progressive intellectuals” and “patriotic youths”—taking away possible Viet Minh adherents. “After a month of activities, the leaders of the New Vietnam Association were shown by the Communist Party of the dangerous possibilities of their activities. The New Vietnam Association dissolved itself on July 22, 1945. Its progressive members joined the Viet Minh Front.” Tran van Giau, III, p. 205.

32 Although starvation began in northern Central Vietnam as early as 1943, the most severe period was January until June 1945. See Ibid., III, p. 226.

33 Viet Nam Tan Bao (New Tribune of Vietnam), April 28, 1945.

34 Periodical Thanh Nghi (Clear Assessment), No. 110.

35 The figure of two million Vietnamese dead of starvation was generally accepted in Vietnam. Apparently the source for this figure was newspaper reports at the time. In the absence of any other contradictory figure, I accept the figure for the purpose of our discussion here. See Trung Bac Chu Nhat (Central and Northern Sunday [Magazine]), July 29, 1945, as cited in Tran van Giau, III, p. 222.

36 In Tran van Giau, III, p. 196.

37 For a discussion on the concern and attempts of non-Communist groups to alleviate of the famine problems, see Tran van Giau, Vol. III, pp. 210–228.

38 See Tran Huy Lieu, 80 Nam, Vol. II, Book I, p. 26. Until 1960 the D.R.V. had commemorated the birthday of the I.C.P. on the wrong date, January 6. This error was only rectified at the Third National Party Congress of the Viet Nam Workers' Party in September i960. Henceforth, the I.C.P.'s birthdate was commemorated on February 3.

39 Ibid., pp. 34–35.

40 The I.C.P. was formally disbanded as a result of the decision by the Central Executive Committee on November 11, 1945. Party members were urged to join the Association for the Study of Marxism. (See Sacks, Milton, “Marxism in Vietnam,” in Trager, Frank (ed.), Marxism in Southeast Asia, A study of Four Countries (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1959) p. 158Google Scholar. The Party was reconstituted formally on March 3, 1951 with a new name, the Dang Lao-dong Vietnam (Vietnam Workers' Party). In Vietnamese Communist documents and analysis, there has been no break, in the continuity of the Party's history. For that reason, the birth of the Lao Dong Party took place during the Second Congress of the Party. The First Party Congress took place in March 1935 in Macao.

41 Tran van Giau, I, p. 117.

42 Tran Huy Lieu, 80 Nam, Vol. II, Book I, pp. 66–73.

43 Ibid., pp. 95–96.

44 Ibid., p. 96.

45 Ibid., p. 111.

46 Ibid., pp. 116–119.

47 Ibid., pp. 123–127.

48 Tran van Giau, III, p. 25.

49 Tran Huy Lieu, Vol. II. Book II, pp. 62–63.

50 Tran Huy Lieu, Vol. II, Book II, p. 63.

51 Western writers, including Philippe Devillers (Histoire du Viet Nam, p. 97) and Milton Sacks (“Marxism in Vietnam” in Trager, Marxism in Southeast Asia, p. 146) have generally considered the locale for the Eighth Conference of the I.C.P. Central Committee, at which the Viet Minh was created, to be Tsin Tsi. This is a small village in the border province of Kwangsi (China), adjacent to the Vietnamese frontier city of Cao Bang. This is an erroneous interpretation. Tsin Tsi was for the I.C.P. cadres of the early 1940's a “frontier station” where the cadres could take rest, absorb information on new development in Vietnam and receive final instructions prior to their entry into Vietnam to carry out Party's assignments. There was an important Conference at Tsin Tsi some time early (possibly January) in 1941, at which “the comrades of the Central Committee met … to prepare [the agenda] for the Eighth Plenum.” (Vu Anh, “De Kunming a Pac Bo” in Souvenirs sur Ho Chi Minh (Hanoi, 1965), p. 165). The Eighth Conference itself took place from May 10 to 19, 1941 at the Pac Bo Cave, Cao Bang Province. The Viet Minh Front was formally created on May 19, 1941. See Tran Huy Lieu, 80 Nam, Vol. II, Book II, p. 68; Vo Nguyen Giap, “Ho Chi Minh, Pere de l'armee revolutionaire du Vietnam,” in Souvenirs sur Ho Chi Minh, p. 191; Vietnam Workers' Party, Thirty Years of Struggle of the Party (Official Party History) (Hanoi, 1960), pp. 70–71.

52 See Luan cuong Cach-mang Tu-san Dan-quyen (Theses on the Bourgeois Democratic Revolution), lengthy excerpts in Tran Huy Lieu, 80 Nam, Vol. II, Book I, pp. 28–30.

53 Quoted in Tran van Giau, III, p. 115.

54 Tran Huy Lieu, 80 Nam, Vol. II, Book II, p. 71.

55 Ibid., p. 71.

56 May 19th, the birthdate of the Viet Minh Front, is today commemorated as the official birthday of Ho Chi Minh. The origins of this “birthdate” are complicated. The first time this “birthdate” was commemorated was in 1946, when the Viet Minh Front was doing its best to present an appearance of an “Coalition Government” (Chinhphu Lien-hiep) (Coalition with the V.N.Q.D.D. and the Dong Minh Hoi) and that the D.R.V. Government was not partisan. When triumphant arches went up in cities, parades were organized, an explanation was necessary. The explanation was given; all the activities were to commemorate Ho Chi Minh's “birthday.” Anyone who knows Vietnamese customs, knows that except for those who imitated the European customs, Vietnamese do not normally celebrate birthdays. In the case of Ho Chi Minh, no one is completely sure about his birth year, much less the exact date.

57 Phong trao Chong Phat-xit Chong Chien-tranh (The Movement of Opposition to Fascism and to the War …), Vol. X in Tai-lieu Tham-khao Lich-su Cach-mang Can-dai Vietnam (Research Materials on the History of the Contemporary Vietnamese Revolution), hereafter, Chong Phat-xit. p. 53.

58 Ibid., p. 80.

59 See Pham van Son, Viet-nam Tranh-dau Su (Saigon, 1959), pp. 149–50.

60 Tran van Giau, III, pp. 102–104. Also see Chong Phat-xit, pp. 63–67.

61 Chong Phat-xit, p. 164.

62 Cao-trao Dau-tranh Tien Khoi-nghia (The Crest of the Pre-Insurrectionary Struggle Movement), Vol. XI in Tai-lieu Tham khao Lich-su Cach-mang Can-dai Viet-nam (Research Materials on the History of the Contemporary Vietnamese Revolution), hereafter, Tien Khoi-nghia. See pp. 12–23 for the text of this “Historical Directive.” The Conference took place at Tu-son Canton (Huyen), in the province of Bac Ninh, only 20 km. from Hanoi.

63 Ibid., p. 13.

64 Ibid., p. 14.

65 Ibid., pp. 14–15.

66 Tran van Giau, III, pp. 82–83.

67 The Vietnam Giai-phong quan was formally created on May 15, 1945, two months after the Japanese coup. See Tien Khoi-nghia, p. 61.

68 Tran van Giau, III, p. 235.

69 Ibid., p. 237.

70 Ibid., p. 137.

71 Nuoc Viet nam Moi (The New Vietnam), No. 3, July 11, 1945. Quoted in Tran van Giau, III, pp. 237–238. (Italics original)

72 Tran van Giau, III, pp. 228–238.

73 Truong Chinh, The August Revolution, op. cit., p. 10.

74 Tien Khoi Nghia, p. 99.

75 Following the “Historical Directive,” there should be three different types of committees. In the yet unliberated areas, “Liberation Committees” Revowere to be created, which had a “pre-Governmental Liberanature” (Y-nghia “tien chinh-phu”). These Liberation Committees were to be organized along local lines, i.e., factories, schools, mines, villages, hamlets, streets, barracks, the commercial or public offices, etc. However, in the areas where guerilla warfare had already begun, “People's Revolutionary Committees” and “Workers' Revolutionary Committees” were to be organized. See Tien Khoi Nghia, p. 55.

A further directive, specifically aimed at this problem of administrative organizations, was published by the Viet Minh General Staff (Tong Bo Viet Minh) on April 16, 1945. In the new directive, only two types of revolutionary committees were to be organized. In the liberated areas, People's Revolutionary Committees were to be organized. Liberation Committees are organized in enemy-held territories.

76 TKNTT, p. 18.

77 Ibid., pp. 20–22.

78 Nghi-quyet cua Hoi-nghi Toan-quoc Dang Cong-san Dongduong (Resolutions of the National Conference of the Indochinese Communist Party), (meeting on August 14, 15, 1945), in TKNTT, p. 9.

79 TKNTT, pp. 27–28. Also Tran Huy Lieu, 80 Nam, Vol. II, Book II, 156–158.

80 Tran Huy Lieu, 80 Nam, II, Book II, p. 160.

81 Ibid., pp. 163, see also p. 198 for a list of dates of insurrection in various provinces throughout Vietnam. These dates indicate the timing of the completion of insurrectional process, i.e., when the Liberation Committee received the seals, documents, and offices from the hands of local administrative authorities. For a complete account of the August Revolution province by province, see the two-volume collection of revolutionary memoirs, Cach-mang Thang Tarn (The August Revolution) already cited. See Note 6.

82 Ibid., II, Book II, pp. 210–213.

83 Ibid., p. 213–214.

84 Son, Pham van, Viet-nam Tranh-dau Su (History of the Struggles of Vietnam), (Saigon, 1959), pp. 251252.Google Scholar

85 See Buttinger, Joseph, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967), Vol. II, p. 298Google Scholar. Buttinger stated, “The Japanese, who were indeed the only ones in a position to prevent the Vietminh from taking power, remained ostentatiously neutral. Thus it might be said that they made the victory of the Vietminh feasible.”

86 See McAlister, John T., Viet Nam, The Origins of Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), pp. 190.Google Scholar

87 See Tran Huy Lieu, 80 Nam, II, Book II, p. 127.

88 Tran van Giau, III, p. 277.

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