Even decades after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the end of American military engagement in Vietnam, the country still exerts a considerable hold on the American imagination. Readers interested in the historical processes which led up to America’s massive involvement in Vietnam will find David Marr’s Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power extremely rewarding, since it shows how difficult it is to make the right decisions in an incredibly volatile and dangerous situation.
From its overall design, Vietnam 1945 is a fascinating study of a complex, violent struggle for power which provides its readers with incredible access to thoughts and actions of the key players. Moreover, Marr’s third book on Vietnam also illustrates how history is forged at crucial moments in time, when opportunities abound for determined participants to shape the future so it corresponds to their interests, ambitions, and desires.
At the center of the book are the events of August and early September, 1945, which are portrayed as just such a historical moment of opportunity. With the Japanese surrender, old traditions and systems suddenly disappear and everything seems possible for those willing to seize their chances. According to Marr, it is also the moment for which quite a few Vietnamese had been longing since the country had been divided into three French colonies in the late nineteenth century.
For Marr, the year 1945 represents a possible climax for ambitions not squelched when the French took over. These ambitions were described in his two previous books, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925 (1971) and Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945 (1981). Frustratingly, as his rich epilogue points out, the trials and tribulations for the Vietnamese were far from over in 1945. The Western Allies were neither willing to accept Communist rule in Vietnam nor deprive France of her colonies and thus weaken that nation so that it might not be able to withstand the European machinations of Joseph Stalin’s increasingly hostile postwar Russia. As a result, Ho Chi Minh’s dreams of maintaining his presidency over an independent, united, but Communist Vietnam were dashed and failed to materialize again during his lifetime.
After having spent extensive time and effort in archives around the world, Marr has assembled a rich narrative that begins on March 9, 1945, and then takes the reader back to understand the situation fully from a multiplicity of viewpoints. It is Marr’s key goal in Vietnam 1945 to present how “people saw the world in dissimilar ways,” and he succeeds well in proving this point.
March 9, 1945, was the day when Japan finally decided to assume control of Indochina, a French colonial possession of which Vietnam constituted the key part. This date marks the end of one of World War II’s most amazing paradoxes. From the fall of France in June, 1940, until March 9, 1945, the French, under their devoted Governor-General Admiral Jean Decoux, had been able to negotiate a fragile alliance with the Japanese. Because defeated France was collaborating with Japan’s ally Germany, Admiral Decoux granted the Japanese extensive military rights in Vietnam. In exchange, the French colonial administration remained functional and unmolested. This situation continued even after Pearl Harbor in 1941, while Europeans from Allied nations were put into often horrific Japanese internment camps throughout Asia.
In chronicling French-Japanese relations in Vietnam, Marr illustrates how the special interests of each nation led to this uneasy alliance. This alliance began to splinter once France was liberated and General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French came to power in Paris. Faced with Japanese demands to collaborate in their defense of Vietnam against an Anglo-American invasion, Decoux prevaricated, and the Japanese moved against him....
(The entire section is 1600 words.)