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The Japanese Occupation of Vietnam
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In Vietnam the French administration sided with the fascist Petain regime rather than electing to join the Free French resistance. At the same time they asked for U.S. aid in resisting Japanese demands. The United States refusing aid, on September 22, 1940, “an agreement was signed at Hanoi which gave the Japanese the right to establish air bases in Indochina and to land enough troops to garrison them The Japanese moved so fast to implement the agreement that they clashed with the French troops the very next day. The fascist French government at Vichy ordered the resistance ended and the Japanese were allowed to send in their troops without trouble.” [Powers p 487]
The Japanese made a treaty with Thailand signed December 27, 1940. A border skirmish between the French and Thailand allowed the Japanese to step in and mediate. In the agreement of March 11, 1941, the French ceded portions of Laos and Cambodia to Thailand. They also gave Japan veto power over their foreign relations. [Powers 488] In effect Japan had applied the same techniques the Europeans had used against Asians to gain control of the French occupiers of Indo-China, including Vietnam.
Franklin D. Roosevelt violated traditional American practices by running for and being elected to a third term of office in November, 1940. His administration was already determined to go to war with the Japanese. Until the official declarations of war Vietnam was a bargaining chip for the Japanese. Their basic offer was to abandon Vietnam if the U.S. would end its economic embargo and recognize the pro-Japanese regimes (Manchukuo, or Manchuria, and the nationalist Chinese government in Nanking led by Wang Jingwei) in China. In particular on August 8, 1941 Japan offered to join other powers in making Indo-China a “neutral” zone if the U.S. ended its embargo and military maneuvers in Asia and encouraged Chiang Kai-shek to negotiate a peace with the Japanese in China. [Powers 491]
After Roosevelt spurned peace offers and issued a war ultimatum, the Japanese launched a full scale war in Asia, usually marked by the battle of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese prepared for a long-term occupation of Vietnam.
In 1941 Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam from decades of exile abroad. Meeting with Communists and other nationalists, they formed the Vietminh (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or Vietnam Independence League). They continued to fight the combined (or feuding) Japanese and French forces just as they had fought the French before them. Though you would think they would have learned from their experience with President Wilson’s phony promotion of “national self-determination,” apparently the Vietminh put some hope in the Atlantic Charter, which promised self-government to nations. [Karnow 136]
President Roosevelt was rhetorically ambivalent about Vietnam and Indochina. In 1942 he promised Charles de Gaulle that all of France’s colonies would be restored once Germany was defeated. At the same time he told Americans in private that he was opposed to French imperialism and that Indochina should be put under international trusteeship, which probably just meant he wanted U.S. commercial control of former French colonies. He even tried to get Indochina made part of China, but even Chiang Kai-shek did not believe that would work out given the long history of Vietnamese resistance to being incorporated under the Chinese empire. [Karnow 136-137]