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New International, Summer 1955


Frances Wright

Books in Review

An Important Book


From New International, Vol. XXI No. 3, Fall 1955, pp. 199–203.
Marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Struggle for Indochina
by Ellen J. Hammer
Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif., 1954, $5.00, 342 pp.
Published under the auspices of the Institute of Pacific Relations
Maps and Bibliography

Indochina – the tip of Southeastern Asia divided among the three small nations of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam – was once a land of ancient cultures, imperious kingdoms and proud peoples. Historically the Vietnamese were the most dynamic, among the three peoples, in their insistence upon their independence and unity. “We have fought a thousand years,” ran the Vietnamese boast, “and we will fight a thousand more if need be.”

Today Vietnam is split again; north of the 17th parallel the Viet Minh-dominated government erects a wall of apparent order and stability, behind it one feels the tense silence of the Stalinist-ruled. South of the line nothing can screen the chaotic reality – a weak government, dependent upon the approval of the Western powers, threatened by rebellious native bands in crisis built on crisis – a situation rubbed raw by ceaseless friction between Vietnamese, between Vietnamese and French, between French and Americans. The Asian revolt against the domination of the white man has nowhere else been so tragically extended, in a bitter struggle caught and accentuated by the tensions of the cold war.

Vietnam has earned plenty of news space in the last five years, its position as a battleground in the U.S.-Stalinist conflict has been the subject of hundreds of anxious dispatches and editorials, but behind the recurring explosive headlines the history of Vietnam and its people has remained a vague outline. Ellen Hammer’s book is an admirable attempt to fill in that outline with content and meaning. Her account is mainly narrative, with political emphasis, rather than analytical, her writing is rarely dramatic, yet the story emerging from her pages builds up a clear – and always sympathetic – picture of the Vietnamese people. Broadly speaking, Hammer develops three main themes: she describes carefully the semi-feudalistic, integrated Vietnamese society before the arrival of the French; then the ruinous effects of French colonial policy and the rebellious reactions of the Vietnamese; and finally, the aftermath, the groping attempts and abortive experiments to find some new synthesis, to build a new national unity.

Hammer devotes a long chapter to the background of Vietnamese society, from its origins in Southeastern China in the 1st century A.D. to a hard-won unification of the regions of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China into the Vietnamese Empire in the 1700s. For ten centuries the Vietnamese were dominated by the Chinese, a memory which still lingers in suspicion of their massive northern neighbor. Chinese influence was evident in their culture; the basic unit of society was the village, in which the lives of the people were regulated by long custom and cooperative traditions, while the whole political structure was cemented by the central authority of the emperor. Security, stability, the theory, at least, of equal opportunity, a rooted, static, ingrowing system – these were the chief characteristics.

In the 1860s this backward and potentially rich Indochinese area provided an irresistible lure for the European imperialists. The French moved in for plunder; by 1867 Cochin China, the southern section, had been subdued and absorbed as a colony, and protectorate status was subsequently assigned to Annam and Tonkin, where native resistance was bitter and prolonged. The tiny kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia were taken as protectorates too, although with a distinct difference – the rulers there were relieved to have French protection against Vietnamese aggression.

Hammer declares that French colonial motives and practices were far worse than the British or Dutch, a statement which says a great deal. The French took over Vietnam, owning mines, plantations, industries, completely controlling the administration; contrary to usual colonial custom, the most minor jobs in governmental fields were filled by Frenchmen, a detail presently pertinent in the sad lack of experienced administrators among Vietnam’s educated elite. By the turn of the century Indochina had become a fabulous possession – one of the world’s chief sources of rice and rubber and tin. A bottomless well of raw materials for France and a market for French goods, it was more than a colony – it was an empire in itself. Underneath the wealth were the restless Vietnamese, rated as second-class citizens – frustrated ex-mandarins, intellectuals and young nationalists increasingly absorbed with Western revolutionary ideas, and the uprooted peasant, struggling to hang on to his tiny plot of land, burdened with an always growing load of debt.

In the 1920’s the years of oppression paid off in an upsurge of nationalist activity. Millions of Vietnamese joined movements aimed at freeing their country from the French, some wanting to fight for independence immediately, others willing to work for reform under colonial administration. The French handled all political opposition with indiscriminate suppression. Determined nationalists, thus threatened with police reprisal, were forced into clandestine, revolutionary groups. Dozens of such vague alliances were formed, among them the Trotskyist party in the South, but the only group with Western mechanics of action – and corresponding success – to develop in Vietnam was the Communist Party, which grew out of the “Revolutionary Youth Association” founded by Ho Chi Minh.

Nineteen thirty was a year of terror – and a memorable date that might be used as a marker for Vietnam’s revolution. At Yen Bay, in Tonkin, a group of non-communist revolutionaries made a vain and bloody strike at the French garrison; in retaliation the French police ranged the countryside, rounding up and executing the members. Scarcely had the Yen Bay incident been suppressed when the communists launched an offensive, leading the peasants in a series of mass demonstrations. They organized illegal unions and led strikes in the cities; on the land their encouragement of attacks against the big landlords and attempts to break up large estates produced full- scale peasant revolts. The French answer was brutally effective. Foreign Legion troops were brought in to choke off the rebellion; thousands were killed, thousands more were sentenced en masse and sent to prisons or concentration camps. All the nationalist groups suffered heavily under the round-up, including the Communists, but if the French colonials relaxed, more than willing to forget the “Red Terror,” Ho Chi Minh’s party did not. Under the orders and direction of the Comintern the Vietnamese CP built again, honeycombing the country with a series of secret cells.

By 1939 the French had more to worry them than stubborn Vietnamese agitators. The growing threat of Japanese aggression had already cast a shadow across Indochina in an order to halt the selling of supplies across the border to Chiang Kai-shek’s reeling armies. The surrender in Paris to the Germans exposed France’s appalling weakness, and the Japanese moved in with an ultimatum to the colonial officials, demanding that Japanese troops be allowed to occupy Indochinese airfields, railroads and military installations “until China was subdued.” The French tried desperately to save their colonial outpost, appealing even to their German conqueror, hoping that Hitler’s racial views would persuade him to help keep the white man dominant in Asia. In the end, the French were permitted to run the administration of Indochina, since the Japanese had neither the time nor the desire to do it, and Japanese took over the strategic points, cutting China off from aid, and building for future expansion into Malaya and Burma. The Vichy regime made a memorable excuse for this deal, explaining that the Japanese were needed in Indochina to protect French interests from the British and the De Gaullists.

Nationalist groups in all three of Vietnam’s regions reacted to signs of French weakness with isolated, sporadic uprisings. Once more, the police, with Foreign Legion help, were able to put them down. But during the war years the French were forced to meet the competition of Japanese appeals to nationalism, the slogan of “Asia for the Asians,” and even more serious, Japanese encouragement of political opposition. Very cautiously colonial officials allowed youth groups to form, some technical training was given, even a vestige of authority – well controlled – was granted to the Vietnamese elite.

In the North Ho Chi Minh broadened his party into a wide nationalist movement; virtually undisputed in Tonkin, the Viet Minh became the main force behind the will for independence from both French and Japanese occupation. In the South the situation was considerably more complex and confusing. The Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao, militant, quasi-religious movements, prospered under Japanese protection, gaining thousands of new converts. Trotskyists, whom Hammer covers very briefly, worked among the peasants, although the effectiveness of the movement was hampered almost from its beginnings by a faction willing to cooperate with the Stalinists. Various groups of intellectuals and writers, youth organizations and peasants’ parties worked with and were shielded by the Japanese.

With the approaching defeat of the Axis Powers in 1945, French colonials discovered that they were, after all, De Gaullists. The High Command conceived a plan to take over Indochina, drive out the Japanese themselves, and present a fait accompli, a recovered French possession, to the victorious Allied nations. But in March of ’45 the Japanese put an end to French delusions, and with a series of quick strikes took over complete administration of Vietnam. In the summer, just before the end of the war, the three regions of Vietnam were unified under a pro-Japanese, puppet government headed by the Emperor, Bao Dai. The men in the government were all anti-French nationalists, none of them, however, had had previous administrative experience or any sort of revolutionary background. The Japanese had broken the French colonial hold, they had given impetus and hope to the idea of nationalism; the problem now was to find able officials among the politically sterile, upper-class Vietnamese.

With the declaration of the truce, the contending forces started to move. In Tonkin the Viet Minh walked into power accompanied by wild enthusiasm from the people. All over the North peoples’ committees sprang up, to take control of villages and towns, with amazing order and self-confidence. The Japanese made no attempt to govern, French troops and officials were interned or helpless, yet there was definite sign of the firm hand of a central government, calling itself the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh, who had become an almost mystical symbol of independence for the people, took over the presidency and formed a coalition government of radical young reformers. With its power uncontested in the north the Viet Minh tried to extend its hegemony to the Southern nationalist groups. The tremendous popular prestige of the government persuaded most of the groups to join with the Viet Minh, opposition came only from the hard core of Trotskyists, suspicious from bitter experience of any coalition with the Stalinists. But the Trotskyists were ruthlessly silenced and a politically consolidated “Committee for the South” occupied the former government buildings and palatial offices of French colonial officialdom in Saigon.

Meanwhile the victorious Allied Powers were unimpressed by Vietnamese surface unity. Under the terms of the Potsdam agreement Britain was to effect the surrender of Japanese troops in Southern Vietnam, and China had agreed to accept the surrender in the North. Chinese troops, for the most part, tolerated, even protected, the Viet Minh in Tonkin; with their bitter memories the Chinese had no desire to help reestablish the French Empire. And in Tonkin, too, a small group of U.S. Intelligence agents who had worked with and supplied the Viet Minh underground during the war lent their unofficial support. But in the South, the British Command used supposedly demobilized Japanese troops to maintain order among the Vietnamese until French forces could sail into Saigon, and the British government pressured the United States into an official statement that recognized Southeastern Asia as a French sphere of interest. Russia throughout was apparently indifferent to troubles in Indochina.

In September 1945, the French arrived in force under General Leclerc. The Committee for the South was driven out in a vicious and bloody attack on Vietnamese civilians, and Leclerc began “mopping up” in Cochin China, a task he estimated would take two or three months. Ho Chi Minh’s Republic stood alone in Tonkin; the Chinese had pulled out, the U.S. had issued its declaration of solid neutrality, and Stalin refused to recognize the new state.

With independence slipping from their fingers, the Vietnamese looked to Paris, hoping for negotiation with the postwar, leftist French cabinet. France actually signed a treaty, in March 1946, recognizing Vietnam as an independent part of the French Union, with its own government and army, financial and diplomatic control, and promising French evacuation within five years. Tacked on to the end of the treaty was a proviso permitting French troops back in Tonkin, to “protect nationals and their property.”

According to Dr. Hammer, it is hard to believe that the French intended to keep these promises; the colonials never agreed to the terms and they were never applied in Cochin China. Throughout a series of conferences the French hedged on the thorny question of the place of Cochin in a Vietnamese union; their action, finally invalidated the whole treaty. Cochin China was set up as an autonomous republic – under French authority.

After this initial double-cross the Vietnamese found many times that the French word could not be trusted. The Haiphong massacres, which touched off full-scale war in 1946, displayed the explosive tension on both sides. Yet for three years more Ho Chi Minh tried to negotiate with the French, pleading for peace and honorable recognition for his government; each time he met a stone wall of refusal. The record shows, Hammer claims, that the Northern government had no outside aid until 1950, after the end of the Chinese civil war. The Viet Minh then, and only then, announced its allegiance to the Stalinist camp. The French seized this golden opportunity for a declaration of the purity of their motives – they had all along been fighting a “war against Communism,” a statement that immediately perked up interest in the United States.

Dr. Hammer hits these facts hard; this was, she says, the turning of Vietnam’s revolution, from this point the Vietnamese lost any possible chance of directing their national movement. Even more tragic, Ho Chi Minh’s action was unnecessary; the dual pressure of world disapproval and financial strain would have forced France to give up the “dirty war,” as the Parisians termed it. Ostentatiously taking the Communist side in the world ideological conflict meant simply that the French had the backing of the U.S. in strengthening their grip on Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh and his northern colleagues were to blame, Hammer concludes, for this irrevocable decision that perverted the revolution.

The only trouble with this brief thesis is its irrelevancy. By Hammer’s own account, the Stalinists had dominated the Republican government from its beginnings, and Ho Chi Minh’s long and close affiliation with the Far Eastern branch of the Comintern had been absolutely established. Hammer had already written, too, that North Vietnam was feeling the strain of the war, that relief had to be found from the French blockade and resulting famine, relief that obviously would not come from the West. It hardly seems surprising that the Viet Minh turned to the Russian and Chinese Stalinists; the shifting of Stalin’s erratic Asian policy, at the end of the Chinese war, only presented the first opportunity. And any search for the basic responsibility in the Viet Minh’s Stalinist slant would have to go farther back than 1950, back rather to Hammer’s description of a half century of colonial rule systematically designed to eradicate any expression of native democratic development.

Back on firmer ground, Hammer relates the degeneration in South Vietnam that led directly to the disaster at Dien Bien Phu and the divisive Geneva truce agreements. The French puppet governments under Bao Dai never had a trace of popular support, never in fact extended control outside the large French cities. A succession of feeble administrations rose and fell in Saigon, some remarkable mostly for the amount of corruption involved, all of them isolated from the people. Besides the hostility of the predominantly Viet Minh countryside, five autonomous sects, states within the state with their own governments and armies, threatened the central capitol. And in spite of increasing U.S. pressure behind military operations, the war against the Viet Minh bogged down; Vietnamese soldiers and civilians alike viewed the whole effort with weary indifference, they saw little sense – or hope – in fighting for Western nations and Western concepts.

Hammer has no practical answers for the future of Vietnam, the few conclusions that she does venture are superficial and rather meaningless. She says, for example, “For Vietnam the only alternative to chaos is a position in Southeast Asia, not as a satellite of China ... nor as a proving ground for any new form of Western Colonialism, but as a fully independent nation endowed with democratic institutions.” Independence and democracy, it goes almost without saying, are the absolute crucial necessities for a healthy Vietnam, but of the question of how the Vietnamese are to break loose from their opposing masters and establish a neutral and independent position, comparable perhaps to Burma or Ceylon or Indonesia, Dr. Hammer – like most Western analysts – has nothing explicit to say. The obvious dilemma is that Vietnam, caught in the grip of the power struggle, has never had the choice of a middle way; somehow, Hammer seems to feel, the Vietnamese must find that way by themselves.

Still, Struggle for Indochina is an important book, important for the insights it gives of the once dynamic Vietnamese, and for its powerful indictment of Western colonialism. Hammer’s invaluable service has been in tracing the continuity of Vietnam’s revolt, from the earliest drive for freedom against overwhelming Chinese domination to fierce nationalist rebellion against French total tyranny, in a pattern that shows a recurring spark of energy breaking through long periods of stagnation – a pattern of hope in spite of apparent hopelessness.

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