15 August. Faced with growing disorder across the country, the flight or murder of local mandarins and desertion of Civil Guard troops, an imperial decree establishes a special court to try and punish ‘gangs of traitors’. This action has no effect on the spreading unrest as groups calling themselves Viet Minh begin to seize power in many provincial and district seats. Indochinese Communist Party members are active in some local takeovers, not in others. For months, the ICP Central Committee has been unable to make contact with many of its cells. There are also tensions between recent recruits and ‘old’ ICP members returning from prison. Amid calls for punishment of ‘traitors’, rivalry between different groups sometimes turns deadly (see overleaf). Political assassinations and murder of captured opponents rise, especially in Saigon. Faced with such a dangerous situation, the leaders of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious movements declare a non-aggression pact.
17 August. In a disturbing reminder of events leading up to the mass famine earlier in the year, flood waters breach dikes on the Red River upstream from Hanoi. Within days, 150 breaches are reported around the delta, about one third of Tonkin’s summer rice crop being inundated as a result. Its inability to deal with the situation dispels any remaining credibility that the royal government may have had. The floods also inhibit vehicle movement by both Japanese and Chinese troops, offering a temporary benefit to local insurgents.
17 August. With Japanese permission, the Vietnam General Association of Government Employees convenes a meeting in front of the Hanoi Opera House, attracting at least 20,000 people. Different groups take part and there is some tension when Viet Minh supporters take over the meeting. Afterwards, the crowd marches peacefully through the city centre. The atmosphere is festive, not confrontational, with no attempt to enter government buildings and no threats being directed at Japanese and French nationals encountered along the way.
16 August. Immediately following the all-country conference of the Indochinese Communist Party in Tan Trao, about 60 delegates gather there to establish a provisional government. The congress is under Viet Minh leadership but Viet Minh–ICP linkages are downplayed. Few delegates are aware that Ho Chi Minh, who takes a leading role at the congress, is the legendary Comintern agent and ICP founder, Nguyen Ai Quoc. They elect a Liberation Committee chaired by Ho, endorse the Viet Minh banner as the national flag, and adopt Van Cao’s ‘Advancing Army’ march as the national anthem (the last two decisions subsequently challenged by nationalists). The congress ends quickly so that everyone can return to their localities to take part in the seizure of power.
17 August. With little inkling of the nationalist fervour gripping his country’s lost Asian territories, Charles de Gaulle announces two key appointments for the recovery of Indochina: Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu as high commissioner and General Philippe Leclerc as commander of French armed forces in the Far East. Plans are also afoot to land French agents in the territory. At this stage, however, authority for the reoccupation of Indochina lies with China and Britain, not France. Moreover, fewer than 1,000 French troops are immediately available in Ceylon to be included in the SEAC contingent being sent to Saigon. More troops can soon be sent but there is a serious shortage of transport and equipment available to French forces.
19 August. A Japanese delegation arrives in Manila for a meeting with General Douglas MacArthur and U.S. officials to finalize surrender details. While travelling to and from the airport, the Japanese have to be protected from angry Filipinos threatening to attack them. At the same time, the Philippine Army begins demobilizing. Its units are no longer needed to invade Japan.
20 August. In Thai Nguyen to the north of Hanoi, discussions for a peaceful transfer of authority from Japanese to Viet Minh have been underway for a day. The mood sours abruptly when Vo Nguyen Giap arrives with a Liberation Army unit and demands that the Japanese and a local Civil Guard detachment surrender forthwith. The guardsmen quickly comply but the Japanese refuse. Subsequent Viet Minh attacks are ineffectual. The situation is only defused after news arrives on the 22nd of the dramatic events in Hanoi. Giap then swiftly departs for the city with the bulk of his force.
20 August. Although some Chinese forces are already in northern Laos, it will be several weeks before China’s occupation army actually enters Indochina. The Japanese are supposed to maintain order in Laos until they can formally surrender to incoming Allied forces. The reality is a fragmentation of authority. Meanwhile, Free French forces previously in exile in southern China and northern Burma are already active in the north-west. Some Japanese units hand over arms and other equipment to militia groups dominated by ethnic Vietnamese living in urban centres along the Mekong. Determined to prevent a French return, Lao Issara and Lao-pen-Lao nationalist groups also move to fill the power vacuum. They take control of Savannakhet and Thakhek with the assistance of Viet Kieu Salvation Association forces from both sides of the Mekong. Popular anti-French protests are aired in other areas while British and American personnel in northeastern Thailand are lobbied in support of the Lao nationalist cause.
16 August. Upon hearing of the Japanese surrender, forced labourers in North Borneo begin slowly working their way back home to Java. Elsewhere across the vast extent of Japanese-occupied Asia, tens of thousands of people drafted into supporting Japan’s war effort take their futures into their own hands and slip away from their masters. Many more must await repatriation after Allied troops arrive; they are stranded too far away from home. The fate of the many ‘comfort women’ forced into military brothels is also uncertain.
17 August. General Order No. 1, prescribing when, where and to whom Japanese forces may surrender, is approved by President Truman after having been hastily negotiated between the Allies. The formal surrender of Japan to the Americans takes priority, even though elsewhere this will leave a power vacuum until local surrenders can be accepted.
19 August. Early in the day, tens of thousands of villagers march towards the city to the sound of drums, cymbals and horns. A Viet Minh armed unit moves into the Opera House square to disarm or disperse the few police in the vicinity. The Japanese take no counter-measures. By 11:00 the square and adjacent streets are filled with some 200,000 people. Following a minute of silence for those who have fallen in the independence struggle, brief speeches and mass repetition of patriotic slogans, members of the Hanoi Revolutionary Military Committee give instructions over the microphone for the armed, but hopefully bloodless, seizure of a number of pre-selected installations. Two hundred royal civil guardsmen behind locked gates at the Viceroy’s Palace offer no resistance when youths scale the fence; they dump their rifles and walk away. Tran Tu Binh, the most senior Indochinese Communist Party member present in Hanoi, uses the Viceroy’s switchboard to tell mandarins in the provinces that the Viet Minh has taken over and they must surrender. At the Civil Guard barracks some blocks away, Japanese tanks and troops arrive, negotiations ensue and the Japanese withdraw. Revolutionary change is symbolized that evening by people removing the blackout screens on street lamps, giving a bright glow to the city for the first time in years.