Ho Chi Minh Organizes the Viet Minh

Ho Chi Minh formed a broadly based nationalist organization known as the Viet Minh to mobilize the Vietnamese people to achieve national independence. As a result of his actions, the growing Vietnamese drive toward independence was organized and channeled by the Communist Party, helping to determine the political organization and struggles of post-independence Vietnam.

Summary of Event

At its plenary meeting in November, 1939, the Indochinese Communist Party Communist Party, Indochinese (ICP) approved a new policy under which Japanese military expansionism and French colonial power in Indochina were identified as equally dangerous to the Vietnamese people. Both Japan and France thus became legitimate targets of Communist Party operations. To gain support for those operations, the ICP leadership approved in principle a policy which, instead of emphasizing divisions within Vietnamese society and seeking the support of disadvantaged and powerless people, emphasized the unity of all Vietnamese people, whatever their class status, in the face of the threat posed by external enemies. Viet Minh
Anticolonial movements;Vietnam
France;colonial empire
[kw]Ho Chi Minh Organizes the Viet Minh (May, 1941)
[kw]Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh Organizes the (May, 1941)
Viet Minh
Anticolonial movements;Vietnam
France;colonial empire
[g]Southeast Asia;May, 1941: Ho Chi Minh Organizes the Viet Minh[00190]
[g]Vietnam;May, 1941: Ho Chi Minh Organizes the Viet Minh[00190]
[c]Government and politics;May, 1941: Ho Chi Minh Organizes the Viet Minh[00190]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;May, 1941: Ho Chi Minh Organizes the Viet Minh[00190]
[c]Independence movements;May, 1941: Ho Chi Minh Organizes the Viet Minh[00190]
Ho Chi Minh
Truong Chinh
Le Hong Phong
Vo Nguyen Giap
Pham Van Dong

This approach, known as the “united front strategy,” had been endorsed by the Communists at various points earlier in the 1930’s. In late 1939, however, adoption of this political strategy took on a new urgency: War had begun in Europe, and Japan’s military expansion into Chinese territory continued apace. In the view of some ICP strategists, changing international circumstances presented an opportunity for the Communist Party to unify the Vietnamese people on the basis of shared nationalist convictions and thereby to assure the Communists of control over the Vietnamese independence movement.

Many sections of the Vietnamese population were receptive to the Communists’ criticism of foreign rule. Despite intermittent attempts by the colonial administration to regulate French industry in Indochina, harsh employment conditions persisted. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese peasants were dragooned Forced labor into work on French rubber, coffee, and tea plantations in southern Vietnam. Brutalities at the hands of both French and Vietnamese overseers, poor food, and minimal medical care led to high death tolls and the need for continuous recruitment and relocation of workers from northern and central Vietnam. At the same time, northerners were pressed into employment in French-owned industrial enterprises.

Vietnamese men were drafted into work in coal and phosphate mines, while women worked in spinning and textile factories. In both cases, pay was pitifully low, hours were long (often up to fifteen hours per day), and working conditions were dangerously unsafe, again resulting in high rates of work-related injuries and deaths. In addition, many former agricultural laborers employed in French businesses during the industrial expansion of the 1920’s were left jobless as global markets contracted in the 1930’s; thousands were left with neither jobs in industry nor lands to till. One of the Communists’ objectives in forming the Viet Minh front in 1941 was to harness for the Communist-led independence movement the general anti-French resentment engendered by such developments.

Among the Communist leaders who recognized the potential utility of this approach was Nguyen That Thanh, who later became known as Ho Chi Minh. He had participated in the founding of the French Communist Party and the Communist Parties of Thailand and Malaya, and he was involved in the reorganization of the ICP itself in 1930. After a period in political eclipse, Ho regained influence within the ICP between 1939 and 1941. His reemergence coincided with the failure of other party leaders to orchestrate anti-French protests in September and October, 1939, and with the crushing of Communist-led insurrections in southern Vietnam in November and December, 1940.

These failures resulted in waves of arrests of Communist activists, including key leaders such as Le Hong Phong, the senior Comintern Comintern representative in Vietnam. More than two thousand party members were arrested in late 1939, and French records show that in only four provinces in southern Vietnam, more than fifty-six hundred arrests were made in late 1940. Many suspects were executed, while others were imprisoned. Some leaders were exiled to Poulo Condore island, southeast of Saigon in the South China Sea, where they are reported to have been treated inhumanely, as was common for political prisoners at the time.

By the middle of 1940, the French colonial administration in Indochina had been placed under the authority of the pro-German French government at Vichy Vichy government;colonial possessions . The Indochina administration entered into a de facto cooperative relationship with the Japanese, who wanted access to Indochina’s airfields and rice supplies. The Communists’ assessment of the twin dangers presented by Japanese militarism and French colonialism thus appeared more valid in early 1941 than it had when it was first stated in November, 1939. In these circumstances, Ho Chi Minh convened the ICP’s Eighth Plenum in northern Vietnam in May, 1941, to launch a program for widening popular participation in the Communist-directed independence movement.

Three fundamental decisions were reached at the May, 1941, party conference. First, a new party leadership was chosen, including Truong Chinh, who was named secretary-general of the ICP. The promotion of Truong Chinh—a student of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, who advocated revolutionary mass action—illustrated a shift in ICP policy toward greater popular participation in the independence struggle. Second, the conference resolved to create a Communist military force. Two key leaders present at the meeting, Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap, are believed to have received some military training from the Chinese Communists and to have been tasked with organizing secret military training courses in Hanoi and in the Tonkin Delta area.

Finally, a new broad-based umbrella organization was created by the ICP in May, 1941. This new institution, which was separate from but dominated by the Communist Party, was known as the Vietnam Independence League, or Viet Minh. It was composed of a number of “national salvation organizations,” distinct political units for specific groups such as peasants, women, youth, students, and Catholics. Each constituent unit made contributions to the Viet Minh’s “self-defense squads,” and each was overseen through a network of Communist Party members. Although ICP leaders created the Viet Minh as a vehicle for unifying the Vietnamese people under Communist Party control, most ordinary people who joined the Viet Minh did so because they supported its goal of achieving Vietnam’s independence from foreign powers.

In the period just after May, 1941, recruitment to the new Viet Minh affiliates was severely inhibited both by French and Japanese security forces active in Indochina and by the emergence of rival Vietnamese political parties, some of which were sponsored by the French or Japanese. Intrigues, arrests, and assassinations became almost commonplace, as different intelligence agencies and political parties competed for political influence over the Vietnamese people. Over time, however, the Viet Minh was able to take advantage of the growing political and economic dissatisfactions that accompanied the tense Franco-Japanese cooperation in Vietnam during World War II.

For example, the new organization provided a mechanism for the mobilization of Vietnamese women Women;in the Viet Minh[Viet Minh] , long excluded from mainstream political activity by both traditional Vietnamese political culture and French colonial rule. The Viet Minh included women as members, established a Women’s Association for National Salvation as an affiliate, encouraged the involvement of female textile workers in the Communists’ industrial strike strategies, and to some extent welcomed women’s participation in armed propaganda and combat units. Some women were active in the latter roles at least as early as July, 1941. The founding of the Viet Minh and its inclusion of Vietnamese women thus marked a significant development in the broadening of popular participation in national resistance politics.

Beginning in 1943, the Viet Minh began to garner adherents in much greater numbers. At another clandestine ICP conference held in February, 1943, the Communist Party leadership approved additional steps to expand the activities and membership of the Viet Minh. Pro-Japanese student unions in Hanoi and pro-French ethnic minority populations in the uplands of central and northern Vietnam were the targets of intense recruitment efforts. Thus, the group not only drew adherents from the general populace but also began to draw its membership from the ranks of its opponents as well, weakening the opposition in the process of increasing its own strength. The Viet Minh slowly became a force to be reckoned with on a national scale.


The Viet Minh’s greatest early successes came in response to the disastrous consequences of an emerging food crisis Famine;Vietnam
Hunger;Vietnamese famine , especially in northern and central Vietnam. French policy required that increasing amounts of rice produced in Vietnam be sold to Japanese forces or stockpiled in government warehouses, rather than allowed onto domestic markets for consumption by Vietnam’s own population. Even as rice shortages worsened in 1944, French policy authorized the conversion of stored rice to fuels for vehicles. The massive food shortages of 1944-1945 are believed to have resulted in more than one million Vietnamese deaths. The Viet Minh responded both with isolated armed raids on rice storehouses and with intensified propaganda that portrayed the famine as the fault of French economic and military policies.

In part because of the success of these efforts, the Viet Minh was able to accelerate recruitment, to build “base areas” in north-central Vietnam, and, in 1944, to create the nucleus of a Communist-directed guerrilla army. By the middle of 1945, the Viet Minh’s military wing numbered around 5,000 active combatants, supported by between 150,000 and 200,000 village defense forces and auxiliary personnel. Following Japan’s surrender to the Allies in August, 1945, Ho Chi Minh activated these forces and the Viet Minh’s urban networks to seize power in many Vietnamese cities. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Like the Viet Minh, the new government was designed and managed by the Indochinese Communist Party to win broad popular support for the pursuit of Vietnamese independence under Communist rule. Viet Minh
Anticolonial movements;Vietnam
France;colonial empire

Further Reading

  • Attfield, Neal. “Revolutionary War: The Viet Minh and the First Indo-Chinese War.” In The Changing Face of War: Learning from History, edited by Allan D. English. Buffalo, N.Y.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998. A study of the organization and tactics of the Viet Minh in their war for independence. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Chen, King C. Vietnam and China, 1938-1954. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. Examines the range of contacts made by Communist and non-Communist Chinese with Vietnamese political and military groups during the early years of the Viet Minh. Most useful for its focus on the movements and activities of key leaders, including Ho Chi Minh.
  • Khanh, Huynh Kim. Vietnamese Communism, 1925-1945. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982. A comprehensive, detailed treatment of the growth of the Vietnamese Communist movement and its links to international communism. Chapter 5 focuses on the Communists’ responses to the German victory over France in 1940 and on the formation of the Viet Minh.
  • Lockhart, Greg. Nation in Arms: The Origins of the People’s Army of Vietnam. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989. Emphasizes the military dimension of the Vietnamese Communist movement. Chapter 3 discusses the early 1940’s, while a helpful appendix discusses the influence of Chinese Communist military thinking upon the Vietnamese.
  • Marr, David G. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. A learned and lively treatment of the origins of modern Vietnamese political culture, this work remains one of the best-documented, most sophisticated scholarly examinations of the conditions that made the emergence of the Viet Minh possible.
  • Smith, Ralph. Viet-Nam and the West. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971. A knowledgeable presentation of the relationship between political culture and modern nationalism in Vietnam. Chapter 7 deals with the revolutionary period and places the founding of the Viet Minh in the context of modern radical politics in Vietnam.

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