by Grace Wong
Vietnam during WWII existed in a curious state. It had been a colony of France since the 1880s, but the Japanese began stationing troops in the territory, then known as Indochina, in 1940. The French – fearing an all-out invasion and takeover of Vietnam and having been weakened at home in Europe by the Nazi occupation – opted for a state of coexistence with the Japanese instead.
It was an interesting situation, as the Japanese propaganda claimed they were liberating their Asian brethren from Western imperialism via Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, creating an "Asia for Asians." However, their collaborator France was a Western imperial power itself. The Imperial Japanese Army tolerated this since they did not have the ability for a full-on invasion at the time, and they reasoned that the French could make most of the actual ruling for them for the moment. Vietnam was mostly used as a supply base for the Japanese in their conquest of the other parts of Asia during the war. This led to a disaster known as the Vietnam Famine.
On the part of the French, they tried hard to maintain that this was not an invasion, that they were still in control, and that the Japanese were cooperating with the French. This resulted in a situation similar to the governance of Vichy France, where French collaborators were working with the Nazi occupiers. In Vietnam, the French also took great pains to ensure that both sides maintained an amicable appearance, especially so that the locals would not try to take advantage of the situation and throw off their imperial rule.
However, in reality, there was much competition between the French and Japanese to enforce their own power within Vietnam, which resulted in negative effects on the local population. For example, they were accused of favoring one side over the other through simple actions like publishing books with "excessive Francophilia" (favoring the French) or attending schools taught in Japanese (favoring the Japanese). These tensions put the Vietnamese in a position where they felt caught in between, and confusion over this dual administration also worsened the effects of a 1945 famine in the north of the country.
On the other hand, a positive side effect of this arrangement was that the French were able to establish communications with the Allies and pass on intelligence about the Japanese. Due to Vietnam's unique role, the United States also took an interest in aiding Vietnam. At first, they supported the French rulers in the hopes that they could defeat Japan. However, after Pearl Harbor and after seeing the French collaborated with the Japanese invaders, the US decided to work directly with the Vietnamese.
The Office of Strategic Services, often known as the OSS and a predecessor to the CIA, sent in agents to work with the Vietnamese resistance. It was at this time that they met a man named Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh Communist guerrilla group, who were then fighting against the Japanese occupiers like much of the rest of Asia. The Americans and Vietnamese established a friendly relationship and trained together for several months until the end of World War 2. During this time, the Viet Minh also spread their influence throughout the country with recruiting and propaganda.
During the war, the Americans had been considering supporting the Vietnamese bid for independence, but the French had many complaints about that, and the Cold War soon became the top priority for the US, so the Americans backed out soon after the end of the war. Of course, they would return in a few years, but for now, the situation in Vietnam created by World War II and the dual Franco-Japanese rule was already creating a stir between the French and Vietnamese, and this would have major impacts later on for the Vietnam War.
Hays, Jeffrey. "Viet Minh and World War II in Vietnam." Facts and Details, 2008, factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Vietnam/sub5_9a/entry-3340.html.
Llewellyn, Jennifer, et al. "The Japanese Occupation of Vietnam." Alpha History, 10 Jan. 2018, alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/japanese-occupation-of-vietnam/.
Namba, Chizuru. "The French Colonization and Japanese Occupation of Indochina during the Second World War: Encounters of the French, Japanese, and Vietnamese." Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, vol. 8, no. 2, 2019, pp. 518–547., doi:10.1353/ach.2019.0019.
Header Image: 1940 Quân Nhật tiến vào Lạng Sơn
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