Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Essential Historical Background

May 13, 2015

By Ed Marek, editor

George Friedman, Jay Ogilvy and David Judson discussed “Forecasting vs. Scenario Planning” recently for Stratfor Global Intelligence.

Jay Ogilvy said,
“A basic premise of scenario thinking is that nature is fundamentally unpredictable.”

George Friedman commented, “
It's not human intentionality that governs, but (rather) the sum total of actions of human beings that lead in certain directions.”

I have organized much of this report chronologically. You will see there are many events occurring involving many people at virtually the same time that cause history to flow as it flows. It is the sum total of actions of human beings that creates history.

We must start by talking about WWII, the Japanese invasions of the Asian and Southeast Asian landmasses, the collapse of French Indochina, and the manner in which the US replaced it.

French Indochina

France took control of all Indochina in steps during the second half of the 19th century. It formed French Indochina in 1887, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It divided administration of Vietnam into three regions: the protectorates of Tonkin and Annam, and the colony of Cochinchina.
  • Tonkin and Annam had considerable self-rule, but were protected by French military forces.
  • Cochinchina was ruled by France, essentially as a part of France. This was because it offered the greatest resources, agricultural and human.

The Vietnamese never liked the arrangement. They always wanted Vietnam to be one. There were numerous rebellions and uprisings but France held on until 1954. Through most of this report, when talking about Indochina, we will be focused on Vietnam and not Laos and Cambodia, except when appropriate to the report.

Japan’s invasion of eastern Asia

We tend to think of WWII with Japan as beginning with its attack on the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 1941. WWII with Japan had much earlier roots.
  • Starting in 1931, the Japanese invaded and took control over Manchuria.
  • In 1937 Japan invaded China and by 1940 controlled most of northeastern China and key coastal areas in southeast China.
  • In September 1940 Japan invaded northern Vietnam, Tonkin, and invaded southern Indochina in July 1941 and occupied it.
  • Japan invaded Malaya and Thailand on December 7, 1941 and occupied Malaya on February 15, 1941. Thailand fell within hours. Thailand signed an alliance with Japan on December 21, 1941. On January 25, 1942 Thailand declared war on the US.
  • Japan invaded the Philippines on December 8, 1941 and occupied it effective April 2, 1942.
  • Japan invaded Indonesia in January 1942 and occupied it all by March 1942.
  • Japan began attacking Burma on December 16, 1941, occupied Rangoon and had essentially taken and occupied most of Burma by May 27, 1942. Japan would knock on India’s door.

As a result, the British and the US joined with the Nationalist Chinese to fight the Japanese in what was known as the China-Burma-India Theater of war, the CBI. The Nationalist Chinese and indigenous forces throughout the region provided ground forces and the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) and British Royal Air Force (RAF) provided air support to those forces, the latter pretty well confined to the region west of Cambodia. The US and Britain did put in limited amounts of ground forces, mostly special forces fighting guerrilla warfare.

Some key figures

China had throughout most of its history been a land of competing warlords. How it came to be what it is today is a life’s study. You will find the history of this entire region from China through Indochina to be complex and difficult for the average person to follow. I will introduce you at a very top level to five huge personalities, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung, of China, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Charles De Gaulle of France, the Free French, and FDR, the US president during most of WWII. You will meet many, many more personalities as we go on, but we’ll start with these.

A group of revolutionaries in 1911 formed what was known as the Republic of China (ROC). In 1925 Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek became the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT) political party, known as the Nationalists. As a result, Chiang set up the ROC (Nationalist) government in Nanking in 1927 and nominally unified China by 1928. From this point through 1949, Chiang and his Nationalist Army fought against the Japanese. At various times, his KMT was allied with the communists and battling against them. For his part, Chiang felt the communists to be a greater threat than the Japanese, but he had no choice but to ally with them to fight the Japanese. He would at the same time fight against them and massacre them. He also allied with the US, the latter providing his ground forces with considerable air power from bases in China, India and Burma.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded in 1921 as a study society, an informal network. Mao Tse-tung took an interest in this as a young man. The CPC would ally with Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT “for the good of the national revolution.” Mao rose through the KMT’s ranks. The CPC gained control of the KMT’s left wing and struggled for power with the right wing. In 1925, when Chiang took control of the KMT, he turned against the communists. The Nationalists slaughtered tens of thousands communists, and by 1927 the country was in a civil war. That same year, the CPC created the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army of China to fight Chiang, also known as the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA). Mao became its commander.

Fighting between the KMT and Red Army proceeded for years, with Mao suffering numerous defeats and political humiliations within the CPC and enjoying a few victories over the KMT by employing guerrilla tactics. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. Mao was elected Chairman of Politburo in 1935, meaning he was the leader of the CPC and Red Army. Japan invaded China in 1937, pushed the ROC government of the KMT to the interior, and massacred Chinese in great numbers. One result was the Red Army grew to over 500,000 troops and nominally allied with the KMT against the Japanese. While Mao’s forces were fighting against the Japanese, there is also evidence Mao was duplicitous. He was not fully dedicated to fighting the Japanese but instead wanted to reduce KMT influence and power.

The US allied with the ROC and provided the Nationalist Army with a significant amount of air power from bases in China, India and Burma. Chiang had to defeat the Japanese, but also knew he would have to defeat the Red Army. Mao knew the Japanese had to be defeated, but planned on ousting Chiang and his KMT from power once the Japanese were defeated. The top and almost exclusive priority for the US was to defeat the Japanese. Toward the end of the war, the US spent some limited effort to bring Chiang and Mao together in some kind of national unity. That effort failed.

Let’s switch over to Vietnam, arguably the most important part of French Indochina.

Most Americans are familiar with the Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh. He was an avid Vietnamese nationalist, born in 1890 in central Vietnam, only nine miles from Vinh, within French Indochina. During the period 1911-1941, roughly 30 years, he spent almost all his time abroad, mainly in France, the USSR and China, with some time in the US and Britain. He was a founding member of the French Communist Party. He was trained in Moscow to promote worldwide revolution. He went to southern China to organize a revolutionary movement among Vietnamese exiles. In 1930 he founded the Indo-China Communist Party (ICP). He spent most of this decade in China and the USSR.

I would like to leave you with two dominant thoughts about Ho.

First, he was an avid nationalist. He wanted Vietnam to be whole and independent, free of foreign powers. Yes, he was a communist, and yes he studied and believed in a great deal of communist political philosophy. But he was a nationalist first. He would tell Americans with whom he worked during WWII that he believed his acceptance of communism should not interfere with mutual US-Vietnamese friendship. You will see the US after WWII did not buy into this perspective.

Second, Ho saw a lot of opportunity in WWII for the Vietnamese to achieve independence:
  • The Japanese invaded China, China was burdened with fighting them, but communism was on the rise --- Mao and the Soviet Union would be potential allies.
  • The Japanese invaded Indochina and easily defeated French forces there --- the French Colonial Forces were vulnerable.
  • The Germans invaded France and easily defeated the French, and caused the French to align with the Germans --- again, the French were vulnerable and weak.
  • The American president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR, was staunchly anti-colonial and fed up with the French --- yet again, the French were vulnerable, and the US was a potential friend.
  • The Americans were the only ones who could take on the Japanese and defeat them. Again, the US was potentially a good ally once the Japanese were defeated and Vietnam moved toward independence.

In 1941, Ho returned to Vietnam, slipping into northern Vietnam to a cave in Pac Bo, only 3 kms from China, to lead an independence movement. He employed the ICP he had founded and formed the Viet Minh to seek independence. The Viet Minh was officially
Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh or League for the Independence of Vietnam. It was a coalition of communist and nationalist groups that opposed the French and Japanese during World War II.

Ho understood that to achieve his political vision of pushing out the French, he first had to contend with the Japanese. And Ho recognized very early on that the only nation in the world that could do that was the US. He further recognized that the US during WWII was allied with a communist nation, the USSR, and therefore the communists, in his mind, and in the minds of many in the US, were not a huge issue for the Americans --- defeating the Japanese was the number one American priority.

Both Chiang Kai-shek and Ho Chi Minh concluded the Americans were desperate for intelligence information on the Japanese. And there would be no one more well suited than the Chinese and Vietnamese to get that for the US.

The US as a matter of policy had little interest in Vietnam. The American interest in China was to maintain free commerce and freedom of the seas. The US decided it best to fight on mainland Asia against the Japanese. First, that would keep the Japanese forces there pinned down so they could not be applied to the Pacific war. Second, the mainland offered a good place from which to attack Japan. But the US had little intelligence about the mainland. Therefore, it needed both China and Vietnam, Chiang and Ho amongst others, to obtain intelligence, especially information good enough for targeting its air forces flying against the Japanese throughout Southeast Asia. Targeting intelligence has to be very specific --- exactly where are the enemy forces and their supplies?

It is important to know that Ho Chi Minh was not the only revolutionary in Vietnam. Politics is never that easy. There were many others.

For example, take the Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng or VNQDD
. It was secretly established in December 1927 in Hanoi as a non-communist revolutionary party. It too wanted to get rid of the French. In 1930 its members participated in a general armed revolt around Hanoi, which was put down by the French. The French executed many of its leaders, which sent shock waves throughout the country. It took several years to regain its strength, and the Chinese Nationalist government provided some support. During the period 1946-1948 Ho Chi Minh’s people conducted a massive purge of tens of thousands of VNQDD members.

Once the Japanese moved into Vietnam in 1940 and 1941, knowing how fast France fell to the Germans, the Vietnamese could see the French were not very powerful and the idea of freedom from the French began to gel. Secret societies popped up all over. There were a number of parties using the name Dai Viet, “Great Vietnam.” They were all over the political spectrum some even colluding with the Japanese --- and the Japanese kept stirring the political pot. Interestingly, in the early 1940s, not many Vietnamese knew of Ho Chi Minh or his communist Viet Minh fighters. One of the more notable factions was the Đại Việt Quốc Dân Đảng (DVQDD), founded by Truong Tu Anh. Ho Chi Minh’s agents assassinated him in the purge that began in 1946.

Let’s briefly move over to Europe.


Germany invaded France in May 1940, rapidly defeated French forces and those British forces that were there. The British evacuated. On June 22, 1940 Premier Philippe Pétain’s cabinet decided in favor of an armistice with Germany. Pétain had been urging some kind of armistice with the Germans all along. French General Charles Huntziger signed it for Pétain. Among other things, the armistice divided France in two. Germany controlled northern and western France as a zone of occupation. Marshal Pétain and the Free French were given the Southern Zone. Beginning in July 1941, the French Vichy government led by Pétain administered most of France even with German occupation. It was known as the Vichy government because its capital was in Vichy. Pétain’s government was a nominal government. That governance which Pétain could direct was authoritarian. It would ultimately collaborate with the Germans, though it worked hard to keep France French. The Germans allowed the Vichy government to maintain a small army in the unoccupied zone, and permitted French forces to maintain control of the French colonial empire overseas. The Germans had their hands full in Europe, and Britain and the USSR were the ultimate prizes.

The Allies invaded western North Africa in 1940. One result was the Germans occupied the so-called “Free Zone,” to wit, Vichy France.

Despite even this, Vichy France maintained various levels of control, mostly administrative control, over all France and Indochina. However, in September 1940 the Japanese invaded Indochina from China and defeated French and French Indochinese colonial forces in Tonkin in a matter of days, and threatened a major amphibious invasion. Vichy France promptly signed an agreement with Japan allowing Japan to station 6,000 troops in Indochina, and no more than 25,000 troops to be stationed or in transit at any given time. The Japanese broke that agreement quickly, and the Japanese landed at Haiphong, and moved forces into Hanoi.

In late July 1941, an estimated 140,000 Japanese troops invaded southern Vietnam. The French agreed to permit the Japanese to build air and naval bases in southern Vietnam. Broadly speaking, the Japanese allowed the Vichy French to administer Vietnam. The Japanese had their eyes on Burma and even India.

All of this was before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 1941. The US was not at war yet with either Germany or Japan and frankly seemed unsure what to do.

When the Germans invaded France, Colonel Charles De Gaulle fought against the them. In June 1940 he became a junior member of the French government. He adamantly opposed any surrender to the Germans, wanting the French government instead to move to North Africa. He rebelled against the French government, went to England where he remained until 1944, and began building the Free French Forces from among those outside France. He urged Frenchmen to work against Marshal Pétain. A court marshal was held in Vichy in August 1940 and sentenced De Gaulle to death for treason. In September 1941 he formed the French National Council and took the presidency of it, in exile. His “Free French” movement gained support rapidly.

It’s worth noting that in June 1940 invading German forces trapped British, Belgian and French forces along the northern coast of France. The British decided to evacuate from the port of Dunkirk. There was heavy fighting. I want to highlight that over 338,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated to England, including more than 100,000 French soldiers from the First French Army. Of those, about 3,000 joined the Free French Army in Britain.

FDR became the American president in 1933, and remained in office until he died in April 1945. He had a keen and personal interest in Indochina. But he was saddled with the Great Economic Depression. He was actively supported the British and following the Japanese attacks against the Hawaiian Islands, the Undeclared war against Japan on December 8, 1941 and against Germany on December 11, 1941. So FDR’s interests in Indochina had to fall down the priority list to the demands of WWII.

Official US policy was to support Free French claims to all France’s “dominions,” to its empire overseas. In part that was because the US was allied with and close to Britain. Each needed the other. Britain had a colonial empire, the British demanded it hold that empire, and therefore favored returning the French colonial possessions to France after the war. This would be a bone of constant tension between FDR and the British leadership, mainly Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Nonetheless, US official and public policy was clear-cut --- the US wanted France independent of Germany and French colonies restored to France. There was no ambiguity about that, except with one man, FDR, despite anything he had signed or said publicly during the war.

FDR had at least two problems with the official policy that bothered him greatly.

First, already planning for victory in 1941, FDR and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a written, joint declaration in August 1941 called the Atlantic Charter. That Charter proclaimed support for national self-determination and independence. It is somewhat amazing that Churchill signed it as Britain managed the British Empire overseas. This idea of self-determination was a bedrock of FDR’s internal thinking. Churchill was under the gun and needed the US to enter the war to save Britain. So it appears he acquiesced at least for the moment. However, in September 1941, Churchill said the right to self-determination applied only to those states under German occupation, and did not apply to the British Empire.

Second, FDR had little use for the French, believing that the Vichy French sold out to the Germans. He saw France as decadent, a nation that was no longer a major power.

FDR adamantly objected to the Japanese takeover of Indochina in 1940. He saw the Vichy French allowing Japanese air and naval bases first in Tonkin in 1940 and then in Cochinchina in 1941 as “devious,” done without any consultation with the Allies. Regardless of US policy, FDR wanted an independent Indochina, first through a trusteeship, then full independence.

On January 24, 1944, he wrote:

“I saw Halifax (British ambassador to the US) last week and told him quite frankly that it was perfectly true that I had, for over a year, expressed the opinion that Indo-China should not go back to France but that it should be administered by an international trusteeship. France has had the country --- thirty million inhabitants, for nearly one hundred years, and the people (of Indochina) are worse off than they were at the beginning.

“As a matter of interest, I am wholeheartedly supported in this view by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and by Marshal Stalin. I see no reason to play in with the British Foreign Office in this matter. The only reason they seem to oppose it is that they fear the effect it would have on their own possessions and those of the Dutch. They have never liked the idea of trusteeship because it is, in some instances, aimed at future independence. This is true in the case of Indo-China.

“Each case must, of course, stand on its own feet, but the case of Indo-China is perfectly clear. France has milked it for one hundred years. The people of Indo-China are entitled to something better than that.”

FDR held to the concept of “trusteeship.” He wanted Indochina taken away from the French and put under an international trusteeship with a view toward enabling the individual countries to achieve independence and self-rule. He would have to back away from this position as the war wound down and, of course he died before the war ended. The reality was that the dictates of the Allied war would drive decision-making --- both Britain and France were central allies and each wanted to maintain their empires, so FDR would have to give way, whether he liked it or not.

When confronted with his position against French rule in Indochina and the fact that it had been US policy that France could retain its dominions, FDR responded that he thought the latter only applied to Africa, not to Indochina. I will tell you here that despite official American foreign policy, FDR never gave up his desire for Indochina to be free. In March 1945, a month before FDR passed away, he told the senior US commander in China and Indochina, General Wedemeyer, that he wanted “to discontinue colonization in the Southeast Asia area (and that he was) determined that there would be no (American) military assistance to the French in Indochina.”

I am stopping the abbreviated background history and broadly described introductions of a few key personalities here. There will be plenty more as we press forward. But this sets the groundwork for how events would develop.

So let’s move on.

Let’s press ahead to Essential Historical Background.