The First Step on Vietnam’s Long Walk to Freedom

Seventy-five years ago today, Vietnam launched a bid for national freedom with its Declaration of Independence. The French colonial regime answered with brutal repression, kick-starting thirty years of destructive conflict.

Soldiers assembled on September 2, 1945, at Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi for the Independence Day pageant. Photo: Ho Chi Minh Museum

On September 2, 1945, the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed in Hanoi. It was a sign that the world emerging from the Second World War would be very different from that which had existed previously.

Instead of acceding to the desire for national freedom, the French government tried to restore its colonial regime. That refusal to grant self-determination to the people of Indochina set the scene for thirty years of immensely destructive conflict, during which the United States picked up the baton from France in the name of anti-communism.

The scars of that long struggle, both physical and psychological, are still very much in evidence today. It could all have been avoided if the authorities in Paris had responded to Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence in the spirit of democracy and not colonial domination.

Colonial Indochina

France had colonized Indochina — Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia — from the 1880s. France’s prime minister at the time was Jules Ferry, a racist who argued that “superior races” had a duty to civilize “inferior” races. Today, Ferry is best remembered for having established secular education, independent of the church, in France. A state-controlled education system, inculcating the values of patriotism and militarism, was part of the colonialist package.

France’s colonial possessions grew rapidly. By 1919, it was the second-biggest empire on Earth, with nearly one-tenth of the world’s land area and 5 percent of its population. It was second in size (and brutality) only to the British.

In 1931, the French authorities put on a colonial exhibition in Paris, which was visited by 8 million people. Colonial minister Paul Reynaud described colonization as “the greatest fact of History” and boasted that “our grip on the world is tightening every day.” (By the time Reynaud died in 1966, the French empire had disintegrated to nothing.)

The French justification for colonialism rested upon the so-called civilizing mission — the claim that it was bringing civilization to allegedly “backward” countries. French leaders often gave this argument a left-wing twist, suggesting that the values of the French Revolution of 1789 were being exported to the world. For the inhabitants of a colony like Indochina, however, there was very little liberty or equality — and even less fraternity.

A Barbarizing Mission

In 1931, a French journalist, Andrée Viollis, joined an official ministerial visit to Indochina. This gave her access to official circles, but she also used the opportunity to meet political prisoners. The result was a book, SOS Indochina (1935), which gave a devastating account of the reality of life in France’s colony.

Instead of the much-vaunted “civilizing mission,” Viollis found exploitation and acute poverty. In one district, there was just one doctor for 160,000 indigenous inhabitants. The colonial regime met resistance with savage repression and the frequent use of torture.

Viollis had previously visited British-ruled India. She had believed that France “used more humane and intelligent methods of colonization than England.” As she noted, however, “a few days in Indochina would be enough to brutally destroy this illusion.” She told the horrific story of one prisoner who “bit off his tongue so as not to talk.”

Viollis also met French settlers who recognized that French rule was doomed. As one civil servant told her: “In fifteen years perhaps, we French of Indochina won’t be here anymore, and it will be our fault!”

Liberation or Restoration?

The German occupation of France in 1940 made things even worse for Indochina. Supporters of the pro-German marshal Philippe Pétain took over the country. In the last year of the war, there was a catastrophic famine: estimates of deaths range from 500,000 to 2 million.

In 1941, the leaders of Britain and the United States adopted the Atlantic Charter, which recognized that all peoples had a right to self-determination (although the British leader Winston Churchill tried to assert that it did not apply to the British Empire). The Allied powers claimed to be fighting the Nazis in the name of basic freedoms and rights. However, the populations of the colonial world had never enjoyed those rights in the first place.

This was the background to the Declaration of Independence in 1945. Ho Chi Minh, a long-standing fighter against imperialism and founder of the Indochinese Communist Party, had formed the Viet Minh, a national independence coalition, in 1941. His declaration echoed the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776:

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

The message was simple, and its logic would spread through Asia and Africa in the coming years — if it’s good enough for the Americans, it’s good enough for us Vietnamese.

But it was a message that European colonialism was not ready to hear. France was still reconstructing its armed forces after the Occupation, so British troops — sent by the newly elected Labour government — took over the country and ensured that independence would be stillborn. When the Labour MP Tom Driberg, who was visiting Indochina, tried to mediate, his letter was delayed by General Douglas Gracey, commander in chief of Allied Land Forces.

Ho Chi Minh and “La Lutte”

The Declaration of Independence responded to deep aspirations in the people of Indochina, who had no desire to return to the oppression and misery of the 1930s. In one area, miners elected workers’ councils to control the whole district.

In Saigon, the demand arose for a more radical reconstruction of society, encouraged by the Trotskyist La Lutte (“The Struggle”) organization, which had enjoyed significant support in the 1930s. The revolutionary Ngo Van described how “numerous people’s committees . . . arose spontaneously, as organizations of local management.”

This did not fit with the perspectives of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. As World War II came to an end, Stalin had agreed to carve up the globe between the Soviet Union and the Western powers. He was determined that his followers should not upset the new balance of power.

For his part, Ho Chi Minh did not want to see a movement for the self-emancipation of workers and peasants escalating beyond his control. He depended on the Soviet leadership for political guidance and believed in the possibility of cooperation with his old comrades from the French Communist Party, who were now part of the government in Paris. In contrast, the Vietnamese Trotskyists believed that if anything were to be achieved in this situation, the Indochinese workers would have to rely on their own strength.

La Lutte and its supporters were brutally suppressed by both colonial forces and the Viet Minh. Viet Minh forces killed Tạ Thu Thâu, a long-standing leader who had been imprisoned by the French and elected as a city councillor in the 1930s.

When Ho Chi Minh came to Paris for talks in 1946, he invited Daniel Guérin, an established anti-colonial activist, to lunch at a hotel. Challenged about the fate of Tạ Thu Thâu, Ho replied: “All those who do not follow the line which I have laid down will be broken.”

Clinging on to Empire

The brief bid for Indochinese independence failed. Had it succeeded, it would have made not one but two wars unnecessary. The long fight for freedom, which left at least 3 million dead, could have been avoided.

But those who ruled France were determined to retain their empire. The head of the provisional government that emerged from the Liberation was Charles de Gaulle, a right-wing military man who had encouraged resistance to the Nazi occupation from London. But most of the right-wing forces inside France had been discredited by their support for the Nazis, so the parties in De Gaulle’s government were predominantly of the Left: Communists (PCF), Socialists (SFIO), and Christian Democrats.

For De Gaulle, there was no doubt that France would continue in its imperial role. In a broadcast, he declared that France was taking back its “place in the world.” Already in the summer of 1945, France had clashed with Britain about control of Syria.

From De Gaulle, that was to be expected. More disappointing was the response of the Left, which was very slow to address the question of colonialism. Le Monde, a newly founded daily paper, generally expressed a progressive, left-of-center point of view. But in September 1945, it noted with pleasure the prospect that “the French flag will again be flying in the Indochinese sky.”

The Communist Party, formed in 1920 under the influence of the Russian Revolution, had originally been committed to supporting liberation movements in the colonies. But as the party came more and more to reflect the interests of Soviet foreign policy, its commitment to anti-colonialism declined.

The Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance of 1935 had meant that French — and Indochinese — Communists abandoned their opposition to French national defense policy, to the dismay of many Vietnamese socialists. The PCF dropped its demand for colonial independence: party leader Maurice Thorez used the specious argument that “the right to divorce did not mean the obligation to divorce.” The implication was apparently that France’s relationship to its colonies constituted a happy marriage. The people of Indochina might not have agreed.

Oradour in Algeria

Under PCF leadership, the Resistance had presented itself as a movement for national independence, often using crudely anti-German slogans rather than anti-Nazi ones. It did not raise the question of France’s role as a colonial power, and a new generation introduced into activism had not been confronted with the colonial question. The SFIO, apart from its far-left fringe, had always been weaker on colonial questions.

Things changed from the very first day of the postwar period. On May 8, 1945, a victory celebration was held in Sétif in northern Algeria. Police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration of Algerian nationalists. This provoked a spontaneous revolt in which around one hundred European settlers were killed, victims of the accumulated anger of the indigenous population.

The French government ordered massive retaliation, with bombing, shelling, and death squads. At least fifteen thousand Muslims died, probably many more. Yet the PCF and SFIO remained part of the cabinet in Paris and condoned the repression.

The only opposition in France came from the far-left fringe. An independent left-wing paper called Ohé Partisans denounced the massacre as “Oradour-sur-Glane in Algeria,” comparing it to the Nazi slaughter of more than six hundred people in the French town of that name. Parallels drawn between the Nazi occupation of France and French rule in its colonies were to become increasingly frequent in the coming years.

So long as the PCF and SFIO remained in government, they made no attempt to challenge France’s colonial rule. As a result, the first expressions of support for Indochinese independence came from unaligned individuals. In November 1945, the Catholic philosopher Joseph Rovan, who had been imprisoned in Dachau for Resistance activity, denounced “the inhumane positions of colonialism.”

Commenting on the claim by French general Philippe Leclerc that the Viet Minh were “bandits and extremists,” Rovan recalled “the time when French Resisters too were described as terrorists and common‑law criminals recruited in the underworld.” Jean-Paul Sartre’s new journal, Les Temps modernes, called for the withdrawal of French troops and published several pieces opposing the war, although without explicitly supporting independence.

“Dying for the Rubber Planters”

Henri Martin, a young Communist who had been active in the Resistance, stayed in the armed forces after Liberation to go to Indochina, believing that he was continuing the struggle against the remnants of fascism. By May 1946, he was writing to his parents with the following message:

In Indochina, the French army is behaving as the Germans did in France. I am completely disgusted to see that. Why do our planes machine-gun (every day) defenceless fishermen? Why do our soldiers pillage, burn and kill? In order to bring civilization?

The French determination to cling on to empire and the Indochinese demand for freedom could not coexist. In November 1946, a French ship bombarded Haiphong, killing six thousand people and starting a full-scale war. But the PCF and the SFIO remained in government; in March 1947, PCF ministers voted for war credits, while other Communist deputies merely abstained.

The only opposition came from the youth section of the SFIO (soon to be dissolved), which organized a campaign of leaflets, flyposting, and meetings, leading to a militant demonstration. One leaflet read:

People think they’re dying for their homeland, but they’re dying for the rubber planters . . . not a halfpenny, not a man for Indochina.

In 1947, following a strike at the Renault car plant, the PCF found itself turfed out of the government. As the Cold War intensified, the French Communists now mounted vigorous opposition to the war. There were strikes by dockers and violent demonstrations in which PCF supporters attacked and damaged munitions destined for Indochina. After Henri Martin was jailed for distributing anti-war material in the armed forces, a huge campaign began in his support, backed by intellectuals like Sartre and Pablo Picasso.

For seven years, France fought to hang on to Indochina. Although the French government did not use conscripts, some of the regular troops came to recognize the nature of the war they were fighting. At the Liberation, Albert Clavier, hoping to see something of the world, had enrolled in the Colonial Artillery — even though, as he later recalled, he “didn’t know much about what the colonies were.” He found out when he befriended an Indochinese family and observed French atrocities. Eventually he crossed over to the Viet Minh.

The independence movement employed Clavier on propaganda work, addressing French troops with a loudspeaker, urging them to lay down their arms, and drawing parallels between the Vietnamese struggle and the French Resistance. He shared the living standards of his Vietnamese hosts, subsisting on two bowls of rice a day.

A Savage War, Then Peace

The results of France’s stubborn determination to hang on to its empire could also be seen in Madagascar. In 1947, a nationalist uprising spread rapidly, engaging up to a million peasants, who were soon joined by railway workers. French forces resorted to mass executions, the burning of entire villages, and torture, and they had put down the uprising by December 1948.

But just twelve years later, Madagascar won its independence. France’s defense of its empire had been savage yet futile. There was little criticism of its colonial wars from the non-Communist left, apart from individuals like the novelist Albert Camus.

The futile and murderous war in Indochina lasted until 1954. Following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Indochina was partitioned; Laos and Cambodia had already become independent in 1953. A Communist state was established in North Vietnam, with a pro-American regime in South Vietnam.

Promised elections never took place. Misguided by their own Cold War ideology, the United States failed to recognize the popular support for national independence and sent increasing numbers of troops to back up a puppet regime in South Vietnam. Only in 1975 did Vietnam get the independence it could, and should, have had thirty years earlier.

It did not develop into the socialist society some had hoped for. However, it seems to have handled the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months rather better than its former imperial mentors in France, the United States, or Britain.

Imperial Legacies

The French had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Shortly after the liquidation of the Indochinese war, a rebellion broke out in Algeria. A government headed by SFIO leader Guy Mollet escalated military repression. François Mitterrand (later a Socialist president) was responsible for the execution of rebel prisoners.

The PCF ran a lukewarm campaign for “peace” instead of calling for Algerian independence, and they failed to back revolts by conscripts refusing to go to Algeria. Only in 1962 did De Gaulle, who had returned to power after a political crisis, look reality in the face and negotiate Algerian independence. By then, most of the French empire had been liquidated.

President Emmanuel Macron has recognized that France’s colonial history in Algeria involved “crimes against humanity.” But the statue of Jules Ferry still stands in the Tuileries Garden in Paris, near the Louvre Museum. Perhaps it is time for it to fall.