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

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

by David G. Marr


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520274150
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/15/2013
Series: From Indochina to Vietnam: Revolution and War in a Global Perspective Series , #6
Pages: 748
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.30(h) x 2.00(d)

About the Author

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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State, War, and Revolution (1945â?"1946)

By David G. Marr


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95497-7


Forming the DRV Government

Amidst the revolutionary tumult of August 1945, a new Vietnamese government began to take shape. Although the young Vidt Minh activists who took custody of public buildings in Hanoi on 19 August had almost no experience at governing, they knew enough to use the Post, Telegraph and Telephone (PTT) system to demand and receive allegiance from most northern province offices, and then to blitz the region with edicts demonstrating their authority. On 24 August, Cúu Quóc (National Salvation), the principal Vidt Minh newspaper, announced formation of a national "Provisional People's Government," composed almost entirely of ICP members. Hò Chí Minh countermanded this decision when he arrived two days later, insisting that five ICP members step aside in favor of five hastily recruited "eminent personalities" (nhàn si). This Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam met for the first time on 27 August and decided to fix Sunday, 2 September, as National Independence Day. It also released a statement that first identified the provisional government with the National People's Congress convened earlier by the Vidt Minh in the hills north of Hanoi, then took a different tack, emphasizing Hò's instructions to broaden Cabinet membership beyond the Viet Minh.


September set the tone of DRV administrative action for the next fifteen months. At least forty-one decrees were promulgated during the first three weeks. Martial law was declared over Hanoi on 1 September, then lift ed nine days later. Vietnamese citizens were prohibited from enrolling in the French armed forces, selling food to the French military, or otherwise becoming "lackeys" (tay sai) of the French. The police were given twenty-four hours to investigate suspects before turning them over to the courts. However, another decree authorized the police to dispatch persons "dangerous to the DRV" directly to detention camps (trai an tri). Four existing political organizations were pronounced illegal (see chapter 7). Anyone wishing to mount a demonstration had to notify the relevant local people's committee twenty-four hours in advance. The royal mandarinal hierarchies for education, administration, and justice were abolished, while Mr. Vinh Thuy (formerly Emperor Bäo Dai) was appointed advisor to the DRV provisional government. The Empire of Vietnam's yellow standard with the red Chínese character ly was abolished, and the Viet Minh's red banner with its yellow star was declared the national flag.

Reflecting the government's parlous finances, another early edict contradicted prior Viet Minh promises of sweeping tax relief by retaining until further notice all colonial-era imposts, with the exception of the especially detested head tax. A national Department of Customs and Indirect Taxes was established; its responsibilities included supervision of continuing salt and opium monopolies, which Hò Chí Minh and other anticolonialists had been denouncing for de cades. Mindful that people might evade existing taxes, the government announced a new Independence Fund to encourage voluntary patriotic contributions (see chapter 6). The government also was authorized to requisition vital materials from private owners, with recompense offered at market prices. Longstanding restrictions on sale and transport of rice were terminated in northern Vietnam, yet the government reserved the right to punish rice "speculators." In a diplomatic nod to the victorious Allies, the government abolished former Governor General Decoux's December 1941 sequestration of American, Dutch, and British properties.

Five decrees in early September promoted national education. Top priority was assigned to achieving literacy within one year among all persons nine years and above. Literacy classes were to be free and compulsory for illiterates; fines would be levied on those who failed to learn to read and write Viet nam ese (quóc ngu). Instruction costs would be borne by province-and commune-level people's committees. Night classes were ordered for farmers and workers. A national Department of Popular Education was created, with responsibilities and funding unspecified.

Procedures to establish a National People's Assembly (Quóc Dan Dai Höi) were decreed on 8 September. All Vietnamese citizens eighteen years or older—men and women alike—would have the right to vote and to stand for election, with the exception of individuals stripped of citizen rights or persons not of sound mind. A committee would formulate regulations for the first national election, to take place within three months. Another committee was to put together a draft constitution to present to the elected legislature of three hundred delegates, which alone had authority to determine the final content of the DRV constitution. Twelve days later the seven-person constitution drafting committee was announced, composed almost entirely of ICP and Viet Minh members. Notably, no decree specified the geographical territory to which the DRV laid claim. Citizens were left to assume that the borders of colonial Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina with China, Laos, and Cambodia now constituted Vietnam's national boundaries. This assumption was strengthened by the mid-October national election decree (discussed below) which specified seventy-one electoral units, all within former Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina.

The format of these early DRV decrees owed a great deal to colonial administrative precedent, although the content was less prolix. Hanoi bureaus also dispatched hundreds of official telegrams (cong dien; télégramme officiel) to subordinate units or local people's committees. All outgoing messages were headed with the words "Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Independence, Freedom, Happiness." Local bodies quickly picked up this formula, and soon many citizens followed suit. Each outgoing or incoming message was assigned a number and recorded in a logbook; on 2 September, a line was drawn across the page of each logbook and a new numbering sequence begun, but communication procedures remained unchanged. Old French file folders were turned upside down and given new subject headings. The blank back sides of old colonial documents were used to type out new messages, reports, and memoranda.

The provisional government employed the press to try to convey basic principles, structures, and policies to the public. Selected decrees were dispatched to newspapers for obligatory publication. In early September, Viet Minh papers told citizens to act only on orders from the government. One editorial claimed that "the Vietnamese people (dan toc) know how to respect discipline, how to obey orders from higher authority". Only two weeks prior the authors of these words had been exhorting everyone to overthrow the existing regime. The new interior minister, Võ Nguyen Giáp, held a press conference to explain how government functions needed to be delineated from Viet Minh activities at all levels. Later, Giáp spent two hours with journalists critiquing the behavior of local people's committees. He urged citizens to forward complaints to a "political inspectorate" being established in his ministry. Giáp also promised to meet regularly with committee chairpersons, open training courses, and promote "New Vietnam Model Communes." It was obvious from his remarks, however, that many local committees were still following their own revolutionary trajectories.

Cúu Quóc launched a vitriolic attack on "some people's committees," accusing members of behaving like feudal-era officials, detaining and terrorizing their fellow citizens without reason, shooting into the air to scare people, and confiscating private property unlawfully. "Revolutionary mandarins" (quan cách mang) were shouting orders, cursing, forcing defendants to kneel down in front of them. If a par tic u lar committee failed to represent the people, then Cúu Quóc averred that "the people could possibly overthrow it." On the other hand, editors cautioned citizens to avoid "divisiveness," first joining together to present their grievances to the committee and, if this didn't work, petitioning higher authority. This policy of "criticizing in order to repair" would strengthen cooperation between the people and the government, the editors concluded hopefully. Readers must have wondered what chance a delegation of villagers would have when presenting their complaints to a band of violent youths. It took months of per sis tent effort before central government legitimacy could be translated into administrative authority in most provinces of northern and north-central Vietnam. Further south, authority continued to vary dramatically from one locality to another.


Ho Chí Minh and his lieutenants wanted the former colonial administrative apparatus to continue functioning under their control, subject to what ever modifications they thought necessary. Working hours for government employees were announced as six thirty to eleven in the morning, followed by a midday break from eleven to two, then an afternoon session from two to five. Saturday morning was work time as well, for a total of forty-two working hours per week. Government personnel were encouraged to use their midday breaks to practice marching, to disassemble and assemble firearms, and to listen to lectures on military tactics. The threat of French return in force hung over everyone. Early in September, Võ Nguyen Giáp alerted all DRV administrative echelons that French troops had reentered Indochina at several places and were proceeding "to butcher our people." Localities facing French assault were to react by destroying roads, culverts, and telegraph lines, and by implementing a policy of "empty gardens and vacant houses" (vu'ò'n không nhà trong). This ominous term, used previously by Viet Minh groups evading enemy sweeps in the northern hills, would become painfully familiar to all citizens in due course.

Former colonial employees who had taken part in exciting meetings, demonstrations, and group organizing during the heady days of August fully expected to continue such political activities in September. The DRV provisional government, while accepting that all citizens had both a right and a duty to be politically engaged, wanted civil servants to resume their tasks promptly. Nguyen Xien, chair of the new Northern Region People's Committee, instructed heads of bureaus and local committees to focus staff attention back on their jobs, to make sure that at least one person remained on duty whenever everyone else was authorized to attend a political event, and to require staff members enrolling in external military or youth training courses to obtain prior permission from superiors. Võ Nguyen Giáp complimented government employees for having formed political organizations, "for example [Viet Minh] national salvation groups," but then ordered them to abandon all decisionmaking roles and limit themselves to offering advice. Younger employees in particular came to regard their day-to-day paper-pushing tasks with quiet frustration, given the continuing revolutionary fervor beyond office windows. Some would soon find ways to transfer to the nascent national army.

Reading through September correspondence files, one oft en notes civil servants using old categories and trying to conduct business as before, even as new realities pushed in relentlessly. Staff oft en searched for regulations or precedents to justify specific decisions, only to be left in quandaries about which was onerous colonial residue and which timeless administrative wisdom. Sometimes the safest response was to forward the file to another office for decision. The press routinely chided government employees for attitudes of dependency (y lai). Nguyen Xien accused many employees of "retaining an indifferent, risk-averse attitude, demonstrating listlessness and timidity in the face of rapid changes in the government system." He exhorted staff to throw aside such outdated behavior, work faster, and above all be punctual—the latter attribute being a preoccupation of provisional President Ho Chí Minh. Nguyen Xien himself possessed an elitist, hierarchical approach to operations, in which the idea that the government belonged to the people had few if any practical consequences. Hoàng Minh Chính, general secretary of the Democratic Party, criticized the government for being "entirely distant from the populace" after a group of petitioners were refused entry to Xien's office.

The DRV provisional government had taken possession of individual personnel files from the colonial era, plus a batch of departmental rosters compiled for the Japanese following the 9 March 1945 coup de force. The PTT roster, for example, listed over 2,400 employees headed by forty-one "cadres européens" (who in fact were indigenous), and 124 senior Indochinese staff members. The Public Instruction Directorate roster included 118 indigenous "cadres européens" and 127 senior Indochinese members, mostly tertiary and secondary teachers. Many government employees based in province or district towns had vacated their worksites hastily during the August upheavals; when they returned, it was usually on terms set by local people's committees, at least until contact was reestablished with departmental superiors in Hanoi.

In early October the government allocated fifty-seven departments, bureaus, courts, and agencies of the former Gouvernement général de l'Indochine to the twelve new DRV ministries. The Ministry of Communications and Transport received the most employees, notably those belonging to the PTT and the Indochina Railways Department. The Interior Ministry acquired the sensitive police and political services divisions, minus staff who had departed in July or early August and not returned. As it became obvious that some former Gouvernement general units no longer had a reason to exist, employees were transferred elsewhere, until only a few caretaker staff remained, pending final disposition. All these personnel shift s caused headaches for pay clerks, leading the Finance Ministry to urge that transferred employees continue to be paid temporarily by their prior organizations.

DRV ministerial offices in Hanoi were not large, a reflection of their newness and the government's decision to decentralize some operations to regional and provincial levels. In September–October 1945, only about three hundred staff members were spread across twelve offices. Four ministries possessed 58 percent of total staff reported: Communications and Transport; National Economy; National Education; and Interior. Some ministerial offices quickly proved much more active than others. By mid-November, the Interior Ministry's roster had more than doubled, to sixty-five staff members organized into a directorate (3), secretariat (3), gazetteer office (2), press office (5), legal bureau (13), personnel bureau (10), politics and police bureau (12), and messenger pool (17). The Interior Ministry used the telegraph system five times more than the Information and Propaganda Ministry, fifty-seven times more than the National Economy Ministry, and two thousand times more than the nascent Health Ministry. With few exceptions, neither DRV ministers nor former senior colonial employees had ever witnessed a ministerial system in action.


The next administrative echelon below the DRV provisional government comprised three regional committees—for the north (Bac Bo; Tonkin), center (Trung Bo; Annam), and south (Nam Bo; Cochinchina). A Provisional Northern Region Revolutionary People's Committee had been announced on 20 August, with the word "Revolutionary" dropped nine days later, and "People's" changed to "Administrative" at the end of 1945. The chairman, Nguyen Xien, introduced above, had obtained a graduate mathematics degree in France, taught school in Hanoi together with Võ Nguyen Giáp, helped to edit Tap chí Khoa Hoc (Science Magazine), and been employed in the Indochina Bureau of Meteorology until August. Immediately under the committee was the Northern Region Office (Bac Bo Phu), with 146 staff divided into seven departments: secretariat (22), personnel (16), taxation (14), finance (31), information and propaganda (38), administration (18), and economy (7). Eleven bureaus (so) and ser vices (nha) reported to the committee: public works, land registration, primary schools, health, veterinary, economy, agriculture, water and forests, labor, prisons, and taxation. Bureaus and ser vices possessed offices in most northern provinces, where staff had experienced the upheavals of August firsthand, some being abused as lackeys of the old regime, others allowed to assist local committees on an unpaid basis. In its end-of-year report, the Northern Region Committee was unable to claim many achievements for its subordinate bureaus and ser vices, and advised that staff numbers were being cut back severely. Yet the committee still aimed to retain these multiple hierarchies extending down to province and sometimes district levels.


Excerpted from Vietnam by David G. Marr. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Forming the DRV Government
2. The Government at Work
3. Defense
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




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