The War with the French 6

By the summer of 1944, confident that his forces were strong, Giap proposed a countrywide rebellion. Ho demurred, cautioning that the moment was premature. But he instructed Giap to prepare for the future by forming larger guerrilla detachments termed “armed prop¬aganda brigades.”
Ho was now certain that the United States would win the war and back his cause. Not only did he know that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had denounced colonialism, but the OSS had contacted him for intelligence on Japanese deployments as well as help in finding downed American pilots. Figuring that a display of strength would gain him more followers, he ordered Giap to attack a few isolated French posts located near the Chinese border. He prudently told Giap, “Be sure to succeed.”
Giap assembled a team of thirty-four guerrillas, among them three women. They resembled ordinary peasants with their vintage rifles, conic hats and indigo pajamas. On Christmas Eve, 1944, aided by inside confederates, they overpowered a small French garrison, killing the French lieutenant in command and seizing its arsenal—suffering only one wounded in the clash. Then they marched fifteen miles through the night to raid another French fort, killing two Frenchmen, an officer and a sergeant. The skirmishes have been commemorated since as the birth of the Vietnamese army. Beaming as he related the incidents to me, Giap said, “Recently I read an official French report on the battles, found in the French archives. It stated that our troops were brave and disciplined—and that their leader displayed a mastery of guerrilla tactics. Quel complimentf’
As Ho had hoped, the victory swelled his ranks. Giap’s forces ex¬panded as increasing numbers of Vietnamese joined. They attacked larger French garrisons, and the gold-starred, red Vietminh flag flew over much of the north. In the south, however, the Vietminh was being severely tested.
The Japanese, originally intending to use Vietnam as a springboard to the rest of Southeast Asia, had left the French colonial structure a degree of freedom. Inevitably, though, Japanese agents began to med¬dle. Their intelligence agency, the Kempeitai, put out feelers to na¬tionalists like Ngo Dinh Diem. Japanese operatives sponsored films and newspapers, and they promoted a local youth movement to spread their message in the villages. They also nourished the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao, southern religious sects that would complicate Viet¬namese politics for years to come.
Founded in 1919 by Ngo Van Chieu, a mystic who claimed to commune with a spirit he called Cao Dai, the Cao Dai cult appealed to the Vietnamese taste for the supernatural and eclectically held that the ideal creed ought to combine the best religious and secular beliefs. Its “saints” included Jesus and Buddha, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat-sen, whose effigies graced its main temple, a kind of rococo wax museum located at Tayninh, a town north of Saigon. By 1938, the Cao Dai counted three hundred thousand disciples, a number that quintupled in the years after World War II. Like almost all movements in Vietnam, it became political, turning to the Japanese for protection when the French tried to stifle its activities.
The Hoa Hao, named for a village in the Mekong Delta, emerged in 1939 as a brand of reform Buddhism invented by Huynh Phu So, a faith healer reputedly endowed with prophetic gifts. The simplicity of the sect attracted thousands of poor peasants. It, too, rapidly became a private army that eluded French control, and the Japanese tried to co-opt it as their own instrument.
Worried by this growing Japanese influence, the French encouraged their own youth groups. But the Vietminh quickly infiltrated them and also seeded its cadres in Japanese-sponsored associations. So, with no more than five thousand members in early 1945, the Vietminh had a web of activists all across Vietnam, ready to act as events unfolded.
By the end of 1944, U.S. forces under General Douglas MacArthur had fought their way up through the Pacific and were reconquering the Philippines. Rumors spread that they would debark in Indochina in their first assault against the Asian continent. General de Gaulle, determined to regain Indochina for France, feared that the Americans would favor the Vietnamese nationalists. He parachuted French agents and arms into the area with orders to attack the Japanese as the U.S. troops hit the beaches. Soon Saigon buzzed with talk of the forth¬coming French operation.
The Japanese lost no time in reacting. On the evening of March 9, 1945, after strategically deploying their forces, they instructed the French governor to place his army under their command. When he failed to respond, they struck at French garrisons. In Hanoi, they ceremoniously interned the French soldiers who had surrendered with¬out fighting. But in other places, those who resisted were wiped out to the man. They imprisoned several hundred French civilians, many of whom were tortured to death by the same native jailers employed by the colonial administration to brutalize Vietnamese nationalists. Overnight, French imperial power had crumbled, and the Japanese seemed to be doomed to defeat. Which Vietnamese faction would fill the void?
Bao Dai, the indolent puppet emperor, had been hunting during the Japanese coup. The next day, back in his palace, he was informed by a Japanese envoy that Japan had granted Vietnam its freedom. Fearful of retribution if he refused, he consented to reign under the Japanese, just as he had served the French. He formally renounced France’s “protectorate” over Vietnam and declared its independence within Japan’s Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Japanese had picked Ngo Dinh Diem as Bao Dai’s prime minister but discarded him at the last minute as too truculent. Instead, they designated Tran Trong Kim, a mild and malleable professor. The switch probably saved Diem, whom the United States might not have endorsed later had he been a Japanese collaborator.

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