Vietnam Independence at 75
How independence from France set Vietnam on the path of two war torn decades.
Vietnam. It is a country which has experienced more turbulence than most in the 20th century. In 2020 it is a vibrant and beautiful destination for visitors from all around the world. However, 75 years ago, it set out as an independent country from a European power. On September 2 1945, Vietnam became a stand alone, Communist nation. However, within months, it would be involved in its first of many war torn years.
Ho Chi Minh was the architect behind Vietnam’s road to independence. When France fell to Nazi Germany in 1941, Minh sensed an opportunity to liberate Vietnam. Minh travelled to China, his homeland, for the first time in three decades; with him spending this time in exile in the USA, France and the UK.
During the Second World War, Japan seized control of the country but allowed French officials to remain and govern. By March 1945, Minh was operating in the jungles of the Vietnam/ China border with a few local followers. They were helped by Japan re establishing control in Vietnam and evicting French troops. During the ensuing chaos the Viet Minh, the troops loyal to Ho Chi Minh, moved south and gained control.
The progress of the Viet Minh was noticed by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA. A meeting between an official and Minh in China. In return for intelligence, the harassment of Japanese forces, and to try and rescue American pilots shot down over Viet Minh-controlled territory, the OSS would supply radio and weapons.
In July 1945, several OSS operatives parachuted into North Vietnam. The team found Ho Chi Minh in a very bad way and quickly began treating him for malaria and dysentery. He made a quick recovery and as he looked forward to what would happen after Japan’s defeat, he asked his American guests, “your statesmen make eloquent speeches about . . . self-determination. We are self-determined. Why not help us? Am I any different from . . . your George Washington?”
The question would become more relevant just weeks later. Japan surrendered and the Viet Minh marched into Hanoi unopposed. Minh was welcomed with open arms by an adoring crowd. In the first week of September, he declared Vietnam independent from France.
What followed in the next year shaped the course of Vietnam for the next 30. A speech which Ho Chi Minh gave in the build up to independence referenced Thomas Jefferson’s speech upon the United States’s Independence from Great Britain. He wanted support from America to keep France out of Vietnam.
Franklin D Roosevelt was famously against European colonialism. Minh included the Jefferson quote in his speech in the hopes of securing backing. However, FDR wasn’t alive to read the speech. Henry Truman was President and had opposing views to FDR on European colonialism. Truman wanted to see a strong French government in the wake of the Second World War, and retaining overseas colonies was part of this.
The decision for Truman to deny Ho Chi Minh support was arguably the most significant moment in the lead up to the Vietnam War. It wasn’t the last opportunity to prevent the war, but it was the moment in history where Minh was clearest about what and why he wanted American support.
Vietnam’s struggle for independence ultimately counted for little given the context of the following years. A bitter war against France was followed by a long and bloody conflict with the USA. It would be one of the post WW2 years which would define the future of Vietnam the most.