Viet Minh

viet minh
Viet Minh and US soldiers during World War II.

The Viet Minh was one of several Vietnamese groups to struggle against foreign rule. In time it evolved into a significant political movement and a military force strong enough to defeat the French. The Viet Minh was formed in the 1940s as a nationalist group seeking Vietnamese independence. As in other Asian countries, Vietnamese nationalism was largely a product of the early 20th century. The writings of nationalists like Phan Chu Trinh (1872-1926) and Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940) condemned French colonialism and demanded a struggle to remove it. These writers assured the Vietnamese people that they had the capacity to govern themselves. In a rural society with no experience of democracy or representation, this was not an easy task. The Vietnamese, raised on a Confucian diet of obedience, were accustomed to simply accepting their lot and not questioning the political order. It was one thing to form a small nationalist group like the Viet Minh. It was another altogether to transform it into a popular movement.

Many Vietnamese nationalists used European political ideas and methods to argue their case. They formed ‘secret societies’ and discussion groups, obtained Asian and Western political texts, then translated, studied and debated them. They studied the situation in other Asian countries, particularly China, and forged links with nationalist groups there. Two critical European events – World War I and the Russian Revolution – shaped the nationalist movement in Vietnam. During World War I around 100,000 Vietnamese were shipped to France, either as industrial labourers or to fight on the Western Front. It was in France that many Vietnamese were first exposed to the society which had enslaved them. But France was not just an imperial power – it was also a fertile home for left wing political ideas. Many Vietnamese mixed with French trade unionists and political radicals, who spoke of Marxism, socialism and revolution. Marxist theory had much to offer the Vietnamese: promises of racial equality, an end to colonialism and better lives for workers and peasants. Some Vietnamese became active in the French Communist Party, founded in 1920. Others turned to Marxism later, disenchanted with the Versailles Treaty that handed their country back to France. The best known of these nationalists was Nguyen Sinh Cung – later known as Ho Chi Minh – who petitioned the Paris peace conference for Vietnamese independence, only to be ignored.

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Ho Chi Minh, photographed in the mid 1920s

Through the early 1920s there were no significant communist organisations in Vietnam. Vietnamese interests were instead represented by expatriates in the French Communist Party, led by Ho Chi Minh. Many travelled to Moscow to receive training and participate in the Comintern. The Soviet Union shipped dozens of Vietnamese radicals to Moscow to study at the ‘Oriental University’, a training ground for communist activists. In 1925 Ho Chi Minh and other communists in Russia published Le Proces de la Colonisation Francais, or ‘French colonialism on trial’, a condemnation of French brutality and exploitation in Indochina. In this pamphlet Ho expressed the view that his countrymen lacked political consciousness, so were a long way from organising a popular national movement. Because of Vietnam’s political immaturity, Ho decided to work with the communist insurgency in China, which by 1927 was engaged in a struggle for power there.

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An artist’s depiction of the founding of the ICP in 1930

Vietnamese Marxist groups began to take shape in the late 1920s. The largest left wing group was the Revolutionary Youth League; it had 1,000 members and supporters, one quarter of whom had received training in either Moscow or China. Other left wing groups included the Cao Vong Thanh Nien Dang (or ‘Hope of Youth’ party, formed 1927) and the New Vietnam Revolutionary Party (formed 1925). These groups were disciplined and well managed but too small to have any significant impact. In Moscow, developments in Vietnam were being watched by the Communist International (or Comintern), a committee for guiding and supporting communist groups around the world. The Comintern was frustrated that Vietnam’s emerging communist movement was so fragmented. It began to exert pressure on Ho Chi Minh and other influential figures, urging the unification of these different groups. This unification was accomplished in February 1930 with the foundation of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). After its formation it adopted a simple ten-point plan:

“1. The overthrow of French imperialism, Vietnamese feudalism and the reactionary bourgeoisie;
2. To make Indochina completely independent;
3. To establish a government of workers, soldiers and peasants;
4. To confiscate banks and other enterprises belonging to the imperialists and put them under the control of the government;
5. To confiscate all the plantations and property belonging to the imperialists and the Vietnamese reactionary bourgeoisie and distribute them to the poor peasants;
6. To implement an eight-hour working day;
7. To abolish the forced buying of government bonds, the poll-tax and all unjust taxes hitting the poor;
8. To bring democratic freedoms to the masses;
9. To dispense education to all the people;
10. To recognise and achieve equality between men and women.”

Difficult economic conditions in Vietnam enabled the ICP to grow rapidly. In 1930-31 French Indochina suffered a collapse in export demand caused by the Great Depression and a famine caused by natural disasters and crop failures. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese became jobless and forced to wander the country looking for work and food. The French colonial regime offered no respite, maintaining taxes at high levels. The ICP immediately tapped into rural discontent. By late 1931 the Party had around 1,500 cadres (professional members) and the support of more than 100,000 peasants. ICP cadres incited several peasant uprisings against French colonial targets or wealthy landlords. Louis Roubaud, a Frenchman who observed these uprisings, observed their leadership: “the revolutionary movement of Vietnam has a head and a body”. There were brutal reprisals by the French military but the ICP survived and continued to grow. It was particularly strong in the provinces around Saigon, which was also the location of the ICP’s main headquarters.

“Ho associated his Viet Minh movement with the worldwide movement against fascism… The Viet Minh were active in helping the peasantry as they suffered under two levels of oppression during the war… They seized rice stockpiled for the Japanese and gave it to the peasants.”
Bruce O. Solheim, historian

In January 1941 Ho Chi Minh returned from exile in China. Ho took up residence in a cave in Pac Bo and began preparations for the ICP’s eighth party congress. He called for a “revolutionary force” that went beyond political and social organisation, announcing the formation of the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (the Vietnam Independence League, or Viet Minh for short). Ho went to great lengths to make the Viet Minh an inclusive confederation, open to any political group or organisation, communist or otherwise. Its foundation charter was more nationalist than communist, calling for “soldiers, workers, peasants, intellectuals, civil servants, merchants, young men and women” to overthrow the “French jackals” and “Japanese fascists”. The Viet Minh’s first chairman, Ho Ngoc Lam, was a non-communist. In reality, the Viet Minh was steered by the leadership of the ICP, though this was done in the background. In late 1941 Ho told his comrades in the newly formed Viet Minh that the time had come for removing foreign aggressors; the time for resolving their political differences would come later.

viet minh

1. The Viet Minh was one of several Vietnamese nationalist groups took shape in the early 1900s. These groups drew on Western political ideas and methods to push for Vietnamese independence.
2. Both World War I and the Russian Revolution shaped the development of communism in Vietnam, by exposing thousands of Vietnamese expatriates to European political ideas like Marxism.
3. Many Vietnamese communists were trained in the Soviet Union and worked with the growing communist movement in China. They formed several small but well run communist groups in the 1920s.
4. In 1930 several of these groups merged to form the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). This party flourished during a period of economic suffering, obtaining significant support and organising peasant uprisings.
5. In 1941 the ICP formed a coalition of nationalist groups to resist French and Japanese imperialism. The Viet Minh, as it was known, contained many non-communists, though it was largely steered by the ICP.

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J. Llewellyn et al, “Viet Minh”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],