The War with the French 7

Ho, wisely estimating that the Japanese were finished, prepared to greet the Allies in the hope that they would recognize him. He hastened to stiffen the Vietminh’s authority for that prospect—and, fortui¬tously, he was helped by a ghastly famine for which the Japanese were almost entirely responsible.
Earlier in the year, as the Allies cut off their sources of raw materials in Southeast Asia, the Japanese had compelled Vietnamese peasants to plant industrial crops like peanuts and jute instead of rice. They also requisitioned rice, storing it for their troops in case of Allied landings. By the summer of 1945, floods aggravated the already serious food shortage as the Red River dikes, neglected by local officials, burst in several spots. In northern Vietnam, poor in the best of circumstances, two million people out of a population of ten million starved to death. Not far from Hanoi, a leathery old peasant by the name of Duong Van Khang recalled to me years afterward that so many of his fellow villagers died that “we didn’t have enough wood for coffins and buried them in bamboo mats.” Conditions were no better in the cities. Dr. Tran Duy Hung, mayor of Hanoi at the time, recollected the scene in an interview decades later:
Peasants came in from the nearby provinces on foot, leaning on each other, carrying their children in baskets. They dug in garbage piles, looking for anything at all, banana skins, orange peels, dis-carded greens. They even ate rats. But they couldn’t get enough to keep alive. They tried to beg, but everyone else was hungry, and they would drop dead in the streets. Every morning, when I opened my door, I found five or six corpses on the step. We organized teams of youths to load the bodies on oxcarts and take them to mass graves outside the city. It was terrifying—and yet it helped our cause because we were able to rally the nation.
Starving peasants in several places attacked French posts and stormed Japanese granaries. With the news of Japan’s surrender in August, the uprisings spread. Vietminh agents moved quickly to take advantage of the turmoil. A villager recounted the events of that period in a district of Thai Binh province, in the Red River delta:
The village marketplace was jammed. A man in brown pants and a cloth shirt climbed onto a chair, and guards armed with machetes, spears and sticks surrounded him. He delivered a speech, saying that the Japanese had capitulated to the Allies, and that the time had come for the Vietminh to seize power. I was just a teenager in ragged clothes, and I asked a schoolmate, “Now that we’ve seized power, who will be the mandarin?” He replied, “Get this. The mandarin is just a peasant—really ordinary.”
The Vietminh leader then marched to the district headquarters; the procession behind him swelled as nearby villagers joined in. The local chief had fled. The Vietminh leader seated himself in the district chief’s chair to dramatize his new authority. The next day, Vietminh agents put a village official on trial before five thousand people assembled on a soccer field.
They read the charges. He had been an accomplice of the Japanese pirates. He had forced the peasants to pull up their rice and plant jute and peanuts, enriching himself even though the people were miserable and dying. He admitted that he had worked for the Jap¬anese but claimed that he was just carrying out orders. But they announced that his crime was very serious because he had opposed the revolution and helped the enemy. So they sentenced him to death and shot him right there. . . . This really fired up the people. They went after the henchmen of the Japanese, dragging them out of their houses, making them lower their heads and beating them. That finished their prestige, and the fervor of the masses kept rising.
On August 16, to keep pace with the momentum, Ho Chi Minh summoned sixty comrades to Tran Tao, a village in Thai Nguyen province, north of Hanoi. The time had come to grab power and greet the Allies on their arrival. Ho formed a National Liberation Com¬mittee, with himself as president, calling it “the equivalent of a pro¬visional government.” Appealing for a general insurrection, he proclaimed in classic revolutionary style, “The oppressed the world over are wresting back their independence. We should not lag behind. Forward! Forward! Under the Vietminh banner, let us valiantly march forward!”
The August Revolution, as the Communists would henceforth dub it, assumed different shapes in different places. Vietminh bands in Saigon clashed with the Cao Dai, the Hoa Hao and an aggressive Trotskyite faction bearing a French name, La Lutte, the Struggle. Vietminh agents elsewhere embraced their opponents, while others murdered rivals such as Ngo Dinh Diem’s older brother, Ngo Dinh Khoi, an influential nationalist in central Vietnam. Some Vietminh guerrillas attacked the Japanese and others made deals for their weapons.
Clad in coarse khaki uniforms or black pajamas, the first Vietminh detachments entered Hanoi on August 16, taking over public buildings as Japanese troops stood by. The emperor’s delegate, a symbol of imperial authority, resigned to a Vietminh-run committee of citizens, which promptly announced its seizure of power from a balcony of the Hanoi opera house, a model of French gingerbread architecture. A week later, racing to keep up with events, the sickly Ho Chi Minh arrived to give his declaration of independence.
Nothing had reinforced the Vietminh cause more than the mercurial Bao Dai’s decision to abdicate. For his gesture conferred the “mandate of heaven” on Ho, giving him the legitimacy that, in Vietnamese eyes, had traditionally resided in the emperor.

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