Rice output in Tonkin had been falling for decades, but its population was growing. As early as the 1920s, Tonkin was teetering on the precipice of food insecurity, consuming around eighty percent of the food grown in its region, whereas Cochinchina consistently maintained a surplus. The poor in Tonkin often only ate a single meal per day and were only sufficiently fed for about four months out of the year, typically after harvests. The specter of famine always loomed—in 1937, it was narrowly avoided only by rice imports from Cochinchina’s surplus. Sugata Bose pinpoints 1943 as the year when starvation deaths began en masse in Tonkin, but the worst phase lasted from May 1944 until March 1945. The years 1941-44 saw the conversion of an unspecified quantity of Tonkin rice land to industrial crops such as jute and castor oil seed. Natural crises added another layer of hardship—drought and insects decreased the spring 1944 rice harvest by nineteen percent compared to the spring 1943 crop, and on top of it all, a string of typhoons ruined the rice crop that would have been harvested in the autumn of 1944. Tonkin farmers were forced to sell much of what little viable rice was left over to the colonial government, leaving them with nothing to feed themselves or their families. By December 1944, many peasants in Tonkin and northern Annam were forced to subsist on anything that was available: rice husks, banana tree roots, clover, and tree bark. Most Tonkin peasants had typically relied on purchasing imported clothing, as Vietnam produced very little of its own textiles, but Japan had sent almost none after the onset of World War II. Combined with the particularly cold winter that year, a large number of rural Tonkinites tried to escape to larger towns and cities where there might have been more available resources, but many died on the journey.
Starving Vietnamese children. Wikipedia
The number of casualties from the famine came to a zenith during the spring of 1945 that preceded the June rice harvest. Amid this, on March 9 the French colonial government encountered a coup de force by the Japanese, who feared a French colonial uprising against them as their power in the war waned. French general Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free France movement against the Nazi government in World War II, had hoped against, but still anticipated, a challenge to the Indochina colonial administration. However, de Gaulle wound up attempting to employ the coup to gain political power, as this Franco-Japanese tension proved that the Nazi-collaborating Vichy France state had truly fallen, shielding French resistance fighters from residual Allied criticisms. On March 24, de Gaulle issued a declaration of condemnation about the coup, attempting to assure the people of Indochina that France was fighting for them—that they stood in solidarity. However, on the other side, Imperial Japan had quickly announced their seizure of power, and the Vietnamese were reveling in France’s public humiliation. Japan promised to support Vietnamese moves towards autonomy, and even actively encouraged Vietnamese emperor Bảo Đại to declare independence, but left the details of what ‘independence’ entailed vague.
Although the worst waves of the famine were subsiding by August 1945, when the Viet Minh took over and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the north’s food supply was once again threatened by natural disaster. Several breaks in the Red River’s dikes flooded more than 300,000 hectares of rice fields, resulting in a loss of about one-third of the crop that would have been harvested in November. A large-scale emergency response began quickly, as the nascent government of the establishing Democratic Republic of Vietnam faced an early leadership test in their ability to rehabilitate the dike system and stymie the numbers of starvation casualties. A successful campaign to grow corn, yams, and beans to mitigate the effects of the lost rice reflected positively on their ability to govern but could not fully compensate for the region’s losses. Additional measures were taken to transport some of the south’s rice surplus to the suffering north. Revolutionary committees developed militaristic defense plots to protect ships carrying rice northward, but they were met with bureaucratic obstacles, largely caused by French officials refusing to aid or defer to Vietnamese jurisdiction. Although relief efforts continued, confidential Democratic Republic of Vietnam records recorded at least 11,458 deaths from starvation as a result of the August floods.
Vietnamese villagers attacking a rice warehouse built by Japanese forces, 1945. Wikipedia
It was not until June 1946 that the threat of mass famine began to dissipate, aided by good weather and a plentiful summer harvest. Finally, in November 1946, the north enjoyed a bountiful rice crop and the danger of mass famine had all but vanished. Opinions about the primary cause of the famine vary among historians, however, it is universally agreed that a triumvirate of consequences from French colonization, Japanese imperialism, and natural disaster combined to make the famine the catastrophe that it was. The next chapter will examine the different influences and their impact on the famine, as well as the legacy that the famine left on Vietnam and its people and how it is studied and remembered today.
Rice and Revolution The Great Famine of Vietnam during World War II, 1944-1945
The Second World War is often associated with vast military casualties, but most do not associate how the war shifted the flow of goods and resources necessary for life, killing millions through malnutrition, starvation, and related disease. Among the famines of the Second World War, the Great Famine of Vietnam (1944-1945) remains little known outside of Vietnam, especially compared to its contemporaries in Bengal, Henan, and the Soviet Union. Though natural disasters catalyzed the famine, the scope of the famine was exacerbated by the brutal French extraction of resources in northern Vietnam, on the command of the Japanese military.
However, the famine's seeds were sown long before the disaster, with the arrival of the French in the Mekong Delta and their subsequent colonization of Dai Viet. Over half a century of repeated economic exploitation from French colonialism led to the poverty of farmers in the already overpopulated Red River Delta. This inspired years of physical and then intellectual resistance against the French colonial government, eventually leading to the rise of communism in French Indochina and the rise of Ho Chi Minh. When the Second World War broke, and France fell to the Germans in 1940, the new Vichy government took control of French Indochina. They signed "Rice Accords" with Imperial Japan, promising up to a million tons of rice and hundreds of thousands of tons of other non-staple crops every year. This led to five years of intense, severe hardship for the peasants of Vietnam, and all it took were natural disasters in 1944 and 1945 for famine to break out. Meanwhile, the Viet Minh, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, slowly expanded their network of cadres across Vietnam during the war years and gained support from numerous Vietnamese peasants eager to end their suffering. The relationship between the Viet Minh, the Japanese, and the Vichy French came to a head among the famine years, exploding in 1945-- the year of two coups.
"Rice and Revolution: The Great Famine of Vietnam, 1944-1945" chronicles the famine, placing it in its greater historical context of colonialism and the Second World War. Through analyzing the English language literature on the subject and utilizing primary sources, it aims to elucidate and evaluate this tragic event.