Historical Dictionary



The creation and operation of empires have always depended upon the support of the conquered local elites and populations. The expansion of Japanese and German empires across much of Europe and Asia during World War II infused the word “collaboration” with highly charged political, cultural, and social meanings that legitimated acts of violence at the end of the war against those who had worked with the foreign occupiers. It also allowed the postwar leaders distributing justice to set the agenda for the future and legitimate their own new nation-states. For Europeans, the names of Hacha, Pavelic, Quisling, and Pétain are well known. China has its Wang Jingwei, Puyi and, for the Chinese communists, there is Chiang Kai-shek.

The Indochina War has its own set of “collaborators”, referred to as giac/bandits, bu nhin/puppets or nguy/quislings. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam held in particular contempt the persons of Bao Dai and Ngo Dinh Diem for collaborating with the “foreign invaders”, the French and the American “colonialists” and “imperialists”, respectively. Meanwhile, the Associated State of Vietnam followed by the State and Republic of Vietnam stigmatized the communist leadership led by Ho Chi Minh for selling out the nation to Chinese and Soviet communists.

“Collaboration” is of course a complex historical phenomenon. Domination elicits a series of shifting strategies of association, accommodation, and resistance. The superiority of the occupier’s power over the occupied or the probability or improbability of outside intervention determine levels and types of collaboration. Ideology can drive collaboration. This was true in many parts of German-occupied Europe during World War II. Elites in the Hitler’s Europe often saw new possibilities, even revolutionary ones, in working with the occupiers. As Jan T. Gross defines it, collaboration is “occupier-driven” but it implicates the history of both the occupied and the occupiers: “Collaboration – its logic, its appeal or self-justification, its social base – emerges in each country precisely at the intersection between the occupier’s intent and the occupied’s perception about the range of options at their disposal”. This could mean cooperating with the occupier in order to survive difficult indeed life-threatening situations in high-politics and everyday life. And the level of cooperation could change in one direction or another in terms of a decline or an increase in the occupier’s strength. The collapse of an ancien régime or the rise of a new one, even a foreign-backed one, could also provide opportunities for those opposed to the old order or seeking to push revolutionary change.

Collaboration had been a vital part of European colonial expansion. In Indochina, the French even developed a specific policy of collaboration. This emerged in the wake of World War I when Albert Sarraut, then Governor General of Indochina and leading Republican colonial thinker of the time, announced to Vietnamese elites in Hanoi a new policy of Franco-Vietnamese collaboration – la politique de collaboration franco-annamite. As Agathe Larcher has shown, this new colonial strategy initiated in 1919 was designed to legitimate colonial rule, to associate moderate, pro-French Vietnamese elites with the French and to head off emerging nationalist, communist, and foreign threats to French rule over Indochina. During World War I, the famous anti-colonialist Phan Boi Chau and even the Vietnamese King, Duy Tan, tried to foment a revolt against the French. Sarraut promised reforms, a political charter, and even evoked independence to win over Vietnamese essential to running the colonial state. The French would be liberal with those who worked with them to build Indochina; but they would brook no opposition to the colonial right to rule. Sarraut was behind the creation of the redoubtable Sûrete.

While this politique de collaboration turned out to be a failure by 1930, as colonial reformism foundered and a new round of nationalist revolts shook Indochina, it was not without its successes. In the early 1920s, Phan Boi Chau rallied to the “Franco-Vietnamese policy of collaboration”, worried by the rise of Japan after the Great War and convinced that the French were sincere in their efforts to reform. Other nationalists saw colonial occupation as an opportunity to push through radical measures that would have been impossible under the old order. Phan Chu Trinh, not unlike some Koreans working under the Japanese, joined the French convinced that they were the best allies for promoting a socio-cultural revolution in Vietnam and sidelining the monarchy in favor of some sort of colonial democracy. Both Phans were ultimately disappointed, but neither knew the outcome of the colonial story at the time.

World War II also generated a new series of collaborative relationships. Staring in 1940, the Japanese occupation of Indochina gave rise to a particularly complex situation and set of power dynamics. Whereas the Japanese overthrew Western colonial regimes across Southeast Asia, incorporating them into their own Asian empire, the fall of France in June 1940 and Pétain’s decision in October 1940 to pursue a policy of collaboration with Nazi Germany prevented the Japanese from overthrowing the French in Indochina. As a result, until early 1945 two colonial empires ruled Indochina, a French one located within a wider Japanese one. Both the Japanese and the French competed for the hearts and minds of their Vietnamese subjects. Both sides pitched the advantages of their colonial project. But neither could go too far in this strange colonial condominium. The Japanese needed the French and the French needed to work with the Japanese to hold on to Indochina.

Things changed as Japanese fortunes worsened in the war and the Allied liberation of France in 1944 brought a new French government to power under the leadership of General Charles de Gaulle. On 9 March 1945, convinced that the French in Indochina were shifting their loyalties to the Allies, the Japanese overthrew the rudderless post Vichy authorities and in so doing brought down the Indochinese colonial house with it. While Decoux saw himself as a hero for having successfully preserved Indochina as long as possible, de Gaulle viewed him as a “collaborator” to be purged. And many a Gaullist official arriving in Indochina in mid-1945 viewed much of the former Vichy colonial authorities as well as European settler community with suspicion if not outright disdain. De Gaulle himself designated a new admiral to lead Indochina, Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu, with strict orders to rebuild a French colonial state in the form of an Indochinese Federation. Meanwhile, leaders of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao had relied on the Japanese during the war to push their projects forward. Several Vietnamese nationalists saw revolution in fascist ideas promoted by the Germans and their Japanese allies.

However, the collapse of the French and Japanese colonial hold on Indochina changed power relationships profoundly in mid-1945. Taking advantage of this, the Viet Minh took power in August 1945 and created a new nation-state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Within no time, two new nation-states born out of World War II, one French led by Charles de Gaulle, the other Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh, began competiting for the loyalties and cooperation of the Vietnamese people. Viet Minh authorities immediately went to work arresting Vietnamese who had collaborated with the Japanese and the French (and, in their view, risked doing so again). Two of Sarraut’s colonial partners, Pham Quynh and Bui Quang Chieu, were executed. However, in an extraordinary move, the Emperor Bao Dai broke with the policy of Franco-Vietnamese collaboration, abdicated, and angered the French by joining the DRV as “supreme advisor”. Added to this were non-communist nationalist parties led by the Vietnamese Nationalist Party and the Dai Viet, each of which urged Vietnamese not to collaborate with the French “colonialists” or the Viet Minh “communists”. Loyalty thus became an extremely complex and contested notion at the time. The DRV made it clear via its security services that it would deal harshly with those who collaborated with the French and posed a national security threat to the new nation-state. The criminalization of collaboration was reinforced in law and through propaganda drives.

In the south, power relations changed again on 23 September 1945, when the French, now backed by the British, drove the Viet Minh out of Saigon and, with the arrival of the Expeditionary Corps a few weeks later, began to reoccupy Indochina below the 16th parallel. This “second” French occupation changed the dynamics of collaboration yet again, leading a handful of southern elites such as Nguyen Van Thinh and Le Van Hoach to join the French in restoring order and creating the Provisional Government of the Republic of Cochinchina. The DRV’s military commander in the south, Nguyen Binh, issued death warrants against such “collaborators” and “traitors”.

Vietnamese elites opposed to colonialism and communism found themselves in a particularly difficult situation. Their fierce anti-colonialism had alienated them from the French as possible collaborators, while their anti-communism had led them into opposition or civil war with the Viet Minh/ICP. By the late 1940s, many of these non-communist nationalists in the VNQDD and Dai Viet parties chose to support the French counter-revolutionary state led by Bao Dai, backed increasingly from 1950 by the United States, as the lesser of two evils. Anticommunist Vietnamese elites also saw in the Bao Dai solution and the Cold War the chance to force the French hand and to oppose the rise of what appeared to be a communist-driven DRV. The latter did its best to counter Franco-Associated State of Vietnam moves, alternating between persuasion and violence all the while casting itself as the true nationalist state and portraying those working with the French and Americans as “quislings”, “puppets”, and “bandits”. Some, including Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to collaborate with either side, preferring to pursue a policy of attentisme.

This wide range of strategies reflected not only the number of options available, but it also points up the degree to which the Indochina War gave rise to new power centers and changing power relations. The internationalization of the war, symbolized by the support provided by the Americans and the Chinese from 1950 to each of the main belligerents also generated new relationships and shifted old ones. However, none of these groups ever imposed or enjoyed unwavering loyalty during nine years of war. Control over territories and their populations shifted from one group to another. From 1947, the DRV only controlled remotes parts of Vietnam. The French security and military forces held the deltas, the cities, and the bulk of the population. This led to particularly complex strategies of association for hundreds of thousands of civilians living in these areas as they tried to conduct their everyday lives without getting caught in the crossfire of competing sovereignties and demands on their loyalty, labor, assets, and sons and daughters. Things became even more complex in 1949, when the Associated State of Vietnam came to life, backed with its own security services, army, and propaganda machines.

The internationalization of the war and the need to mobilize civilians and troops for major battles saw the communist leadership impose national service and a series of revolutionary methods designed to more effectively control the population – emulation campaigns, rectification, education, and policing. Many embraced this revolution let loose in wartime. Land reform certainly won the cooperation of thousands of peasants. However, the communization of the state and the society led many others to flee DRV zones, and not just “the rich”.