Forming the DRV Government
Amidst the revolutionary tumult of August 1945, a new Vietnamese government began to take shape. Although the young Việt Minh activists who took custody of public buildings in Hanoi on 19 August had almost no experience at governing, they knew enough to use the Post, Telegraph and Telephone (PTT) system to demand and receive allegiance from most northern province offices, and then to blitz the region with edicts demonstrating their authority. On 24 August, Cứu Quốc (National Salvation), the principal Việt Minh newspaper, announced formation of a national "Provisional People's Government," composed almost entirely of ICP members. Hồ Chí Minh countermanded this decision when he arrived two days later, insisting that five ICP members step aside in favor of five hastily recruited "eminent personalities" (nhân sĩ). This Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam met for the first time on 27 August and decided to fix Sunday, 2 September, as National Independence Day. It also released a statement that first identified the provisional government with the National People's Congress convened earlier by the Việt Minh in the hills north of Hanoi, then took a different tack, emphasizing Hồ's instructions to broaden Cabinet membership beyond the Việt Minh.
September set the tone of DRV administrative action for the next fifteen months. At least forty-one decrees were promulgated during the first three weeks. Martial law was declared over Hanoi on 1 September, then lifted nine days later. Vietnamese citizens were prohibited from enrolling in the French armed forces, selling food to the French military, or otherwise becoming "lackeys" (tay sai) of the French. The police were given twenty-four hours to investigate suspects before turning them over to the courts. However, another decree authorized the police to dispatch persons "dangerous to the DRV" directly to detention camps (trại an trí). Four existing political organizations were pronounced illegal (see chapter 7). Anyone wishing to mount a demonstration had to notify the relevant local people's committee twenty-four hours in advance. The royal mandarinal hierarchies for education, administration, and justice were abolished, while Mr. Vĩnh Thụy (formerly Emperor Bảo Đại) was appointed advisor to the DRV provisional government. The Empire of Vietnam's yellow standard with the red Chinese character ly was abolished, and the Việt Minh's red banner with its yellow star was declared the national flag.
Reflecting the government's parlous finances, another early edict contradicted prior Việt Minh promises of sweeping tax relief by retaining until further notice all colonial-era imposts, with the exception of the especially detested head tax. A national Department of Customs and Indirect Taxes was established; its responsibilities included supervision of continuing salt and opium monopolies, which Hồ Chí Minh and other anticolonialists had been denouncing for decades. Mindful that people might evade existing taxes, the government announced a new Independence Fund to encourage voluntary patriotic contributions (see chapter 6). The government also was authorized to requisition vital materials from private owners, with recompense offered at market prices. Longstanding restrictions on sale and transport of rice were terminated in northern Vietnam, yet the government reserved the right to punish rice "speculators." In a diplomatic nod to the victorious Allies, the government abolished former Governor General Decoux's December 1941 sequestration of American, Dutch, and British properties.
Five decrees in early September promoted national education. Top priority was assigned to achieving literacy within one year among all persons nine years and above. Literacy classes were to be free and compulsory for illiterates; fines would be levied on those who failed to learn to read and write Vietnamese (quốc ngữ). Instruction costs would be borne by province- and commune-level people's committees. Night classes were ordered for farmers and workers. A national Department of Popular Education was created, with responsibilities and funding unspecified.
Procedures to establish a National People's Assembly (Quốc Dân Đại Hội) were decreed on 8 September. All Vietnamese citizens eighteen years or older-men and women alike-would have the right to vote and to stand for election, with the exception of individuals stripped of citizen rights or persons not of sound mind. A committee would formulate regulations for the first national election, to take place within three months. Another committee was to put together a draft constitution to present to the elected legislature of three hundred delegates, which alone had authority to determine the final content of the DRV constitution. Twelve days later the seven-person constitution drafting committee was announced, composed almost entirely of ICP and Việt Minh members. Notably, no decree specified the geographical territory to which the DRV laid claim. Citizens were left to assume that the borders of colonial Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina with China, Laos, and Cambodia now constituted Vietnam's national boundaries. This assumption was strengthened by the mid-October national election decree (discussed below) which specified seventy-one electoral units, all within former Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina.
The format of these early DRV decrees owed a great deal to colonial administrative precedent, although the content was less prolix. Hanoi bureaus also dispatched hundreds of official telegrams (công điện; télégramme officiel) to subordinate units or local people's committees. All outgoing messages were headed with the words "Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Independence, Freedom, Happiness." Local bodies quickly picked up this formula, and soon many citizens followed suit. Each outgoing or incoming message was assigned a number and recorded in a logbook; on 2 September, a line was drawn across the page of each logbook and a new numbering sequence begun, but communication procedures remained unchanged. Old French file folders were turned upside down and given new subject headings. The blank back sides of old colonial documents were used to type out new messages, reports, and memoranda.
The provisional government employed the press to try to convey basic principles, structures, and policies to the public. Selected decrees were dispatched to newspapers for obligatory publication. In early September, Việt Minh papers told citizens to act only on orders from the government. One editorial claimed that "the Vietnamese people (dân tộc) know how to respect discipline, how to obey orders from higher authority". Only two weeks prior the authors of these words had been exhorting everyone to overthrow the existing regime. The new interior minister, Võ Nguyên Giáp, held a press conference to explain how government functions needed to be delineated from Việt Minh activities at all levels. Later, Giáp spent two hours with journalists critiquing the behavior of local people's committees. He urged citizens to forward complaints to a "political inspectorate" being established in his ministry. Giáp also promised to meet regularly with committee chairpersons, open training courses, and promote "New Vietnam Model Communes." It was obvious from his remarks, however, that many local committees were still following their own revolutionary trajectories.
Cứu Quốc launched a vitriolic attack on "some people's committees," accusing members of behaving like feudal-era officials, detaining and terrorizing their fellow citizens without reason, shooting into the air to scare people, and confiscating private property unlawfully. "Revolutionary mandarins" (quan cách mạng) were shouting orders, cursing, forcing defendants to kneel down in front of them. If a particular committee failed to represent the people, then Cứu Quốc averred that "the people could possibly overthrow it." On the other hand,editors cautioned citizens to avoid "divisiveness," first joining together to present their grievances to the committee and, if this didn't work, petitioning higher authority. This policy of "criticizing in order to repair" would strengthen cooperation between the people and the government, the editors concluded hopefully. Readers must have wondered what chance a delegation of villagers would have when presenting their complaints to a band of violent youths. It took months of persistent effort before central government legitimacy could be translated into administrative authority in most provinces of northern and north-central Vietnam. Further south, authority continued to vary dramatically from one locality to another.
Personnel in Transition
Hồ Chí Minh and his lieutenants wanted the former colonial administrative apparatus to continue functioning under their control, subject to whatever modifications they thought necessary. Working hours for government employees were announced as six thirty to eleven in the morning, followed by a midday break from eleven to two, then an afternoon session from two to five. Saturday morning was work time as well, for a total of forty-two working hours per week. Government personnel were encouraged to use their midday breaks to practice marching, to disassemble and assemble firearms, and to listen to lectures on military tactics. The threat of French return in force hung over everyone. Early in September, Võ Nguyên Giáp alerted all DRV administrative echelons that French troops had reentered Indochina at several places and were proceeding "to butcher our people." Localities facing French assault were to react by destroying roads, culverts, and telegraph lines, and by implementing a policy of "empty gardens and vacant houses" (vườn không nhà trống). This ominous term, used previously by Việt Minh groups evading enemy sweeps in the northern hills, would become painfully familiar to all citizens in due course.
Former colonial employees who had taken part in exciting meetings, demonstrations, and group organizing during the heady days of August fully expected to continue such political activities in September. The DRV provisional government, while accepting that all citizens had both a right and a duty to be politically engaged, wanted civil servants to resume their tasks promptly. Nguyễn Xiển, chair of the new Northern Region People's Committee, instructed heads of bureaus and local committees to focus staff attention back on their jobs, to make sure that at least one person remained on duty whenever everyone else was authorized to attend a political event, and to require staff members enrolling in external military or youth training courses to obtain prior permission from superiors. Võ Nguyên Giáp complimented government employees for having formed political organizations, "for example [Việt Minh] national salvation groups," but then ordered them to abandon all decisionmaking roles and limit themselves to offering advice. Younger employees in particular came to regard their day-to-day paper-pushing tasks with quiet frustration, given the continuing revolutionary fervor beyond office windows. Some would soon find ways to transfer to the nascent national army.
Reading through September correspondence files, one often notes civil servants using old categories and trying to conduct business as before, even as new realities pushed in relentlessly. Staff often searched for regulations or precedents to justify specific decisions, only to be left in quandaries about which was onerous colonial residue and which timeless administrative wisdom. Sometimes the safest response was to forward the file to another office for decision. The press routinely chided government employees for attitudes of dependency (ỷ lại). Nguyễn Xiển accused many employees of "retaining an indifferent, risk-averse attitude, demonstrating listlessness and timidity in the face of rapid changes in the government system." He exhorted staff to throw aside such outdated behavior, work faster, and above all be punctual-the latter attribute being a preoccupation of provisional President Hồ Chí Minh. Nguyễn Xiển himself possessed an elitist, hierarchical approach to operations, in which the idea that the government belonged to the people had few if any practical consequences. Hoàng Minh Chính, general secretary of the Democratic Party, criticized the government for being "entirely distant from the populace" after a group of petitioners were refused entry to Xiển's office.
The DRV provisional government had taken possession of individual personnel files from the colonial era, plus a batch of departmental rosters compiled for the Japanese following the 9 March 1945 coup de force. The PTT roster, for example, listed over 2,400 employees headed by forty-one "cadres européens" (who in fact were indigenous), and 124 senior Indochinese staff members. The Public Instruction Directorate roster included 118 indigenous "cadres européens" and 127 senior Indochinese members, mostly tertiary and secondary teachers. Many government employees based in province or district towns had vacated their worksites hastily during the August upheavals; when they returned, it was usually on terms set by local people's committees, at least until contact was reestablished with departmental superiors in Hanoi.
In early October the government allocated fifty-seven departments, bureaus, courts, and agencies of the former Gouvernement général de l'Indochine to the twelve new DRV ministries. The Ministry of Communications and Transport received the most employees, notably those belonging to the PTT and the Indochina Railways Department. The Interior Ministry acquired the sensitive police and political services divisions, minus staff who had departed in July or early August and not returned. As it became obvious that some former Gouvernement général units no longer had a reason to exist, employees were transferred elsewhere, until only a few caretaker staff remained, pending final disposition. All these personnel shifts caused headaches for pay clerks, leading the Finance Ministry to urge that transferred employees continue to be paid temporarily by their prior organizations.
DRV ministerial offices in Hanoi were not large, a reflection of their newness and the government's decision to decentralize some operations to regional and provincial levels. In September-October 1945, only about three hundred staff members were spread across twelve offices. Four ministries possessed 58 percent of total staff reported: Communications and Transport; National Economy; National Education; and Interior. Some ministerial offices quickly proved much more active than others. By mid-November, the Interior Ministry's roster had more than doubled, to sixty-five staff members organized into a directorate (3), secretariat (3), gazetteer office (2), press office (5), legal bureau (13), personnel bureau (10), politics and police bureau (12), and messenger pool (17). The Interior Ministry used the telegraph system five times more than the Information and Propaganda Ministry, fifty-seven times more than the National Economy Ministry, and two thousand times more than the nascent Health Ministry. With few exceptions, neither DRV ministers nor former senior colonial employees had ever witnessed a ministerial system in action.
The next administrative echelon below the DRV provisional government comprised three regional committees-for the south (Bắc Bộ; Tonkin), center (Trung Bộ; Annam), and south (Nam Bộ; Cochinchina). A Provisional Northern Region Revolutionary People's Committee had been announced on 20 August, with the word "Revolutionary" dropped nine days later, and "People's" changed to "Administrative" at the end of 1945. The chairman, Nguyễn Xiển, introduced above, had obtained a graduate mathematics degree in France, taught school in Hanoi together with Võ Nguyên Giáp, helped to edit Tạp chí Khoa Học (Science Magazine), and been employed in the Indochina Bureau of Meteorology until August. Immediately under the committee was the Northern Region Office (Bắc Bộ Phủ), with 146 staff divided into seven departments: secretariat (22), personnel (16), taxation (14), finance (31), information and propaganda (38), administration (18), and economy (7). Eleven bureaus (sở) and services (nha) reported to the committee: public works, land registration, primary schools, health, veterinary, economy, agriculture, water and forests, labor, prisons, and taxation. Bureaus and services possessed offices in most northern provinces, where staff had experienced the upheavals of August firsthand, some being abused as lackeys of the old regime, others allowed to assist local committees on an unpaid basis. In its end-of-year report, the Northern Region Committee was unable to claim many achievements for its subordinate bureaus and services, and advised that staff numbers were being cut back severely. Yet the committee still aimed to retain these multiple hierarchies extending down to province and sometimes district levels.
Establishing the Hanoi-Province Relationship
On 1-2 September 1945, a remarkable meeting of Northern Region officials and representatives from thirteen provincial revolutionary committees took place in Hanoi. Northern Region officials particularly wanted each province (tỉnh), district (huyện), and commune (xã) to designate a single legitimate political body that would bear the standardized name of "people's committee," consist of five to seven members (appointed or elected "depending on conditions"), and be more broadly representative than appeared to be the case with many committees at that moment. Officials also warned that the central government was unable to dispense funds to cover local expenses, hence each province had to use whatever resources they already possessed with extreme care, and mount patriotic fundraising campaigns urgently. After provincial participants were invited to state their own priorities, most did so with alacrity, ranging from Nam Định's concern about losing income from likely termination of the salt monopoly, to Sơn Tây's pressing need for additional youths to guard military equipment obtained from the Japanese. The sober discussion came back repeatedly to questions about which taxes would be abandoned and which retained, how victims of the recent floods could be fed, what sort of criteria should be applied when confiscating or requisitioning property, and how to keep former French enterprises functioning to Vietnamese benefit.
Exactly one month later another such meeting took place, this time with representatives from twenty-one northern provinces and cities attending. On this occasion the Northern Region Office prepared an agenda, and most items listed received due attention. Opening the meeting, Nguyễn Xiển first welcomed the interior minister, Võ Nguyên Giáp, then took the trouble to introduce each province chairman around the table. Giáp proceeded to give everyone a brief national appraisal, commenting that central government contacts with the northern region were "partly firm," but that communication with the south remained slow and erratic. With fighting having broken out in Saigon only one week prior, and anti-French feelings running high in Hanoi, Giáp nonetheless eschewed patriotic hyperbole, instead telling those around the table to "work methodically and resolutely to consolidate national foundations (nền tảng quốc gia), [thus] forming a strong bloc in support of our fellow country people in the south." For Giáp, state building and national defense went hand in hand.
After Nguyễn Xiển's formal report to the meeting, Võ Nguyên Giáp asked each province chairman to summarize achievements so far, especially in regard to establishing effective people's committees at province, district, and commune levels. The responses were frank and to the point, probably because most province chairmen present were ICP members who appreciated that local knowledge carried more weight at this particular encounter than political rhetoric. Only one province people's committee had been elected (in Vĩnh Yên). The others had made efforts to diversify during September, and now mostly claimed united front representation. Some province committees had slightly more Việt Minh than non-Việt Minh members, while for others it was the reverse. Several committee chairmen added that non-Việt Minh members were assigned less sensitive jobs like justice or social welfare. At one point in the discussion, Nguyễn Khang, who had been delegated by the Interior Ministry to inspect certain localities, revealed that it had been necessary to order reorganization of a couple of province committees because they included only town dwellers, no members from surrounding rural districts. Participants in the meeting also distinguished between those province committee members who were government employees receiving a salary, and those who received local food donations and ate collectively. Within two months, inflation had further reduced the purchasing value of government salaries, compelling more collective eating, yet the distinction between government employees and nonemployees persisted.
A number of province chairmen took credit for organizing district people's committees in their jurisdiction, yet the situation remained patchy. In Hà Đông province, Đặng Kim Giang had shifted members of district committees to other districts, while always keeping such outsiders in the minority. Some districts still lacked a committee as of late September, while other existing district committees were being refused recognition by province leaders. Below the district level, canton (tổng) offices were reported by most province chairmen to be out of action; in November, cantons would be abrogated by decree. Very little was reported about commune people's committees. Three provinces stated that about half of their communes possessed committees. Two provinces mentioned receiving requests from villages (thôn) to secede from their commune or to join an adjacent commune, but such initiatives were being discouraged.
In the afternoon of 1 October, eight directors of Northern Region bureaus and services met with the province committee chairmen to explain their operations and make requests. The Public Works Department needed province help in repairing dikes broken in the mid-August flood, and hoped that help would take the form of rice to feed workers. The director also asked that documents removed from local Public Works offices in August be returned. Somewhat reluctantly the director accepted that province committees would decide which local Public Works staff to retain and which to lay off. The director of Water and Forests asked that province committees help to stop rampant burning of forests, and facilitate continued collection of resource taxes. The Economic Services director outlined efforts to foster production and distribution of rice, coal, cooking oil, and textiles. The PTT director pleaded with province chairmen to help crack down on highly disruptive thefts of telegraph and telephone wire, and offered to assign replacements for any local PTT employees considered unacceptable. The Primary Schools director apologized that a new curriculum would not be available soon, but foreshadowed a weekly periodical of value to teachers if provinces could help pay printing and postal costs. Finally, the Popular Education director asked province committees to assist in rural literacy efforts, as the government lacked the means to pay literacy teachers or provide paper and pens to pupils. By this point province chairmen must have wondered how they could support even a fraction of government services previously funded from Hanoi.
The next morning's session began with a lively discussion led by Hoàng Hữu Nam of the Interior Ministry on how to classify and deal with Vietnamese traitors (see chapter 7). This was followed by an agitated exchange with the finance minister, Phạm Văn Đồng, after he specified that the central government intended to allocate its meager funds to the army, leaving provinces to find their own ways to support essential staff and run top priority projects. Đồng reaffirmed that locally based employees of Northern Region bureaus and services would be laid off unless local committees took up responsibility for their pay and food rations. He did not reveal that the Hanoi branch of the Bank of Indochina was honoring DRV Treasury drafts, probably because he doubted this practice would last. BIC payments to Treasury reached twenty-two million piastres before French officials halted payments on 23 October.
On the afternoon of 2 October, four additional government ministers arrived to explain to province chairmen how their portfolios functioned, and to highlight recent decrees, edicts, and public announcements needing the attention of local committees. The minister for information and propaganda, Trần Huy Liệu, sent a letter to alert everyone to training courses then underway for advance propaganda teams. He would be giving course graduates letters of introduction to present to province committees. Liệu cautioned that teams would bring with them predetermined propaganda programs, and were not permitted to go beyond those instructions. Who would feed and house these teams was not explained.
That evening, Võ Nguyên Giáp returned with several of his Interior Ministry associates to lead a discussion on organization of commune-level people's committees, taking as precedent the Việt Bắc liberation zone experience in June-August 1945. A proposal to establish "model villages" (làng kiểu mẫu) was debated, but there is no record of such villages materializing in later months. There was an underlying assumption at the meeting that commune committees ought to be the foundation on which district and province committees were built, yet as we have seen the latter still only had a vague idea of what the former were doing. In reality an administrative gap remained between many commune committees formed in August and higher echelons.
Central and Southern Regional Committees
When Việt Minh activists in Huế announced formation of a revolutionary people's committee on 23 August, it was in the name of Thừa Thiên province, not central Vietnam (Trung Kỳ; Annam). Việt Minh seizure of power in Huế had national importance, as it triggered the abdication of Emperor Bảo Đại, but the regional implications remained unclear. Throughout the central region in August, the revolutionary center of gravity was at the province level, with only limited knowledge of more distant events. ICP members played significant roles in forming province committees, but they did so mostly on their own initiative, without instructions from party leaders. Indeed, throughout the summer of 1945 the party had been unable to reconstitute its Central Region Committee (Xứ Ủy Trung Kỳ), while communications with top echelons in the north remained erratic at best. Not until 31 August were party members from eighteen central provinces able to meet at the office of the former Annam résident supérieur in Huế. They declared a new regional party executive committee, headed by Hoàng Quốc Việt, a northerner, who then immediately departed for Saigon to try to resolve serious differences within the southern branch of the party. In practice, Nguyễn Chí Thanh, newly appointed head of the Trung Bộ Việt Minh Committee, took on regional party leadership as well.
Two days following the party meeting, Trần Hữu Dực, recent leader of the uprising in Quảng Trị province, was selected to chair the new Provisional Central Region Revolutionary People's Committee, based in Huế. The same men who had just dealt with party and Việt Minh matters now discussed the business of government, about which they knew very little. According to Dực, the meeting "went around in circles for a whole session, still feeling at a loss," before it agreed to set a target of one month for organizing a viable administrative structure from region to province, district, and commune. The staff of the former résidence superieure insisted that Dực remain cloistered until tailors could fit him out with a Western suit, tie, hat, and leather shoes to replace the battered shorts, shirt, and sandals he had worn since leaving jail. Dực then addressed senior employees of the former administration and met members of the royal family. Eventually the Central Region Committee was able to convene, with Nguyễn Duy Trinh as deputy chair, Nguyễn Chánh responsible for defense, and ten other members supervising the existing regional bureaus and services which also were meant to report to ministries in Hanoi. In early 1946, the committee was pared down to five members, but with an unwieldy total of twenty-one directors of specialized bureaus reporting to it. Dực managed to travel to all eighteen provinces under his jurisdiction, although after January 1946 it was no longer possible to go further south than Phú Yên, due to French military advances.
Meanwhile, the DRV central government dispatched thousands of national decrees, edicts, instructions, and letters to the Central Region Committee in Huế. One of the first messages from Hanoi instructed each regional committee to prepare a realistic budget, to contact province-level committees urgently, to devote special attention to repairing roads and bridges, and to account to the government for any funds drawn from local Treasury (Kho Bạc) offices. It appears from the files that most correspondence addressed to the regional committee was routed directly to one of the specialized bureaus for action. Outgoing traffic also showed little evidence of regional committee involvement. The Northern Region Committee in Hanoi sometimes dispatched messages directly to province committees in the central region, bypassing the Trung Bộ committee in Huế, a practice not permitted in the north. Clearly the Central Region Committee exercised much less authority over specialized bureaus and province committees than was true of the Northern Region Committee in Hanoi.
Communications specialists in Huế maintained regular contact with all central region provinces until early 1946, when committees from Phú Yên southward had to flee French attack. The telegraph system functioned as far south as Đà Nẵng in April, but soon after that Huế itself became terminus of the telegraph line running through the coastal provinces from Hanoi. Telephone connections were more erratic, although the line between Vinh and Hanoi functioned well. The main Huế radio transmitter was employed to send Morse code traffic to local committees and military units, including some operating behind French lines. A number of provinces kept their own rudimentary internal telegraph and telephone networks operating. The official mail system continued to reach most provinces and districts in central Vietnam, although foot couriers and boats often had to substitute for erratic train or motor transport.
In central Vietnam, the demarcation between DRV civil administration and ICP-Việt Minh operations was often blurred or ignored, whereas in northern Vietnam the distinction was taken seriously throughout 1945-46 and beyond. ICP activists in all regions often showed their dislike and distrust of employees of the former colonial regime, although particularly in the north they might accept grudgingly the need to use some temporarily. Not surprisingly, this reduced the effectiveness of cooperation between employees, and led some to switch their services back to the French when the opportunity presented itself. Even those Trung Bộ ICP members who encouraged old regime personnel to continue working saw nothing counterproductive about Việt Minh committees seizing public property, levying informal taxes, meting out their own punishments, and otherwise duplicating or negating the functions of government. By the summer of 1946 the party seemed to be trying to separate administrative committee and Việt Minh responsibilities. Nguyễn Duy Trinh, deputy chairman of the Trung Bộ Administrative Committee and an ICP member, managed to reduce overlaps at regional level. At the province level and below, however, confusion persisted.
The Southern Region Committee received packets from Hanoi containing the early DRV decrees outlined above and managed to forward copies to some Mekong delta provinces before being forced to flee Saigon in late September 1945 (see chapter 3). The committee subsequently regained two-way shortwave radio contact with Hanoi, while some other southern venues possessed receivers capable of picking up Voice of Vietnam transmissions in Morse code. We know from documents captured by the French army in late 1945 that DRV adherents in southern provinces as distant as Hà Tiên and Rạch Giá were employing government nomenclature identical to that found in central and northern Vietnam. Very soon, however, the Southern Region Committee felt the need to innovate, for example designating three "political inspectors" for eastern, central, and western Nam Bộ. It then sought to delineate responsibilities for "resistance committees" (ủy ban kháng chiến) that had formed separately from local people's committees. This issue arose wherever it became necessary to engage the French in battle. In 1947, based partly on prior Nam Bộ experience, the central DRV government would decree the merger of military and civil bodies into "resistance and administrative committees" (ủy ban kháng chiến hành chính) at province, district, and commune levels.
Phạm Văn Bạch, chairman of the Southern Region Committee, made a frantic attempt to bring together communist, Catholic, Hòa Hảo (Buddhist), and Cao Đài faithful to sustain , armed struggle against French reoccupation of Cochinchina. In early 1946, another well-known lawyer, Phạm Ngọc Thuần, was designated deputy chairman of the Southern Region Committee. Three months prior, the French Sûreté had put Thuần under house arrest, but he soon escaped Saigon by bicycle to join the maquis. Thuần found himself under heavy suspicion until he and a physician friend built a workshop to make grenades and mines to give to local combatants. When offered membership in the ICP, Thuần arranged for his initiation ceremony to take place on Bastille Day 1946. Noted professionals like Bạch and Thuần retained the respect of some former colonial public servants, religious leaders, and businessmen. Bạch was ordered north in February 1946 to represent the south in government deliberations, chaired the Southern Resistance Committee in Phú Yên from late 1946, and did not return to Nam Bộ until 1948.
Other Southern Region Committee members were scattered across the Mekong delta, mostly keeping in touch by courier. On one occasion the committee did manage to convene a meeting of representatives from all provinces of Nam Bộ. Amidst the fighting and moving, however, the committee was in no position to direct the region's administration, which devolved to leaders of the eastern, central, and western subregions (now numbered as khu 7, 8, and 9). Nonetheless, with DRV adherents in the south cut off from the national government in the north for months at a time, the roles of regional committee members remained significant. The committee put its name to public declarations and to correspondence with foreign organizations which in the north were the prerogatives of President Hồ Chí Minh. Finally, the Southern Region Committee offered a visible alternative to the "Cochinchina Republic" being pieced together by the French.
Standardization of Local Government
In November 1945, the DRV provisional government issued a decree on composition of people's councils (hội đồng nhân dân) and administrative committees (ủy ban hành chính) which has continued to shape local government in Vietnam to the present day. A committee headed by Võ Nguyên Giáp had prepared a draft to discuss with province heads, then present to the Cabinet. While affirming the "great success" of the local committees that had sprung up during the August Revolution, conditions were now said to be sufficiently stable and the form of government (chính thể) sufficiently clear that it was time "to organize the people's authority in a unified, rational manner, and to demarcate powers transparently." At the commune and province levels, people's councils selected by popular election would have the authority to issue resolutions, choose the administrative committee at the same level, set a budget, collect fees, own or rent property, and participate in business enterprises of public benefit. Administrative committees would function at commune, district, province, and regional levels, thus eliminating the canton (tổng) and prefectural (phủ) levels of local government that had existed for hundreds of years. Relatives were prohibited from sitting on the same administrative committee, and not all committee members had to be natives of the territory encompassed-both clauses designed to reduce the propensity to form local cliques. The public had the right to attend people's council sessions but not to raise questions from the floor. Administrative committees would normally meet behind closed doors.
Although this November 1945 decree intended that councils and committees serve the interests of inhabitants of the specific territory involved, it simultaneously placed each council and committee under extensive scrutiny from higher echelons, and provided punishments for any body that contradicted government decrees, edicts, or instructions. The outcome of all council and committee elections had to be ratified from above. Budgets had to be approved, as did any proposal to buy or sell property, set new fees, borrow money, let contracts, or initiate lawsuits. If a people's council issued a resolution contrary to higher authority, it would be told to rescind or correct the document. If it refused, the council could be dissolved and new elections ordered. Administrative committees were instructed bluntly to "carry out the orders (mệnh lệnh) of higher echelons." If they did not, the committee could be discharged and offending individuals removed from council membership. The constitutional principle of dual accountability had yet to be formulated, but local committees already faced the problem of how to satisfy both their constituents and the state.
By the end of 1945, thousands of local committees had already conformed to government instructions and changed their name to "administrative committee." From the government's point of view, these committees were still only provisional, pending people's council elections which would lead to selection and ratification of proper administrative committees. As we shall see, some council elections did take place during 1946, at least in northern Vietnam, yet in many cases councils failed to gain control over their administrative committees, whose members had been working together since the August Revolution.
Public Service Cutbacks
Phạm Văn Đồng's early October warning that the central government lacked funds to pay public servants appears not to have been heeded. Some heads of departments and committees probably thought the minister of finance was bluffing. In late October, a number of province committees warned Hanoi that most of their remaining funds would be consumed if they met that month's salary obligations. The government reacted by ordering all public servants employed for thirty years or more, and all those aged fifty-five and older to retire immediately. It also discontinued severance pay for retirees, and froze all personnel promotions until further notice. Shortly thereafter the government encouraged employees to consider applying for six-months leave without pay, with the possibility of extension. Behind this latter initiative lay the expectation that many individuals taking formal leave would continue to work, relying on a combination of family ingenuity and popular donations, until such time as the government's financial situation improved and pay could be resumed.
In following weeks each administrative unit submitted a roster to the Interior Ministry that indicated who wished to take leave without pay, who was retiring outright, and who had moved to another unit. The Northern Region Office managed to reduce its own complement from 155 to 103, although only four were retiring and eleven taking leave without pay (or with half-pay), compared to thirty-one transfers. The sixteen bureaus and services under its supervision had much less success in reducing staff numbers. Among eleven units reporting, with a total complement of 3,875 employees, only 163 individuals were retiring, 37 taking leave without pay (or with half-pay), and 68 transferring elsewhere. Adding thirty dismissals and one death, this still amounted to a meager 2.6 percent reduction in staff. Province-level staff cutbacks were more substantial, yet the number of employees who remained was still well beyond the capacity of province committees to pay them. Provinces told the Interior Ministry that essential employees were threatening to resign, and warned that further reductions could cripple operations entirely. Hundreds of employees sent petitions to Hanoi to complain that inflation was making life extremely difficult for them at current pay levels.
Sometime in December the central government quietly accepted that locally negotiated pay reductions were preferable to large-scale resignations or dismissals. The large amount of work that province offices had put in to make recommendations for keeping or dropping individual employees was largely wasted. Many employees were prepared to stay if adequate food was provided from a combination of state and local sources. As they were for the most part former members of the colonial system, these employees also regarded participation in the DRV administration as offering protection against revolutionary harassment.
At the local level, however, government employment proved no guarantee against harsh treatment. In late December, Trần Văn Của, director of the Northern Region Public Works Department, wrote a caustic letter to superiors on behalf of his exasperated senior engineers: "They are routinely belittled and terrorized. For example, Mr. Trường has been arrested without cause. Mr. Khánh is currently detained without anyone knowing the reason, or who is responsible. At present my ranking employees are all confused and discouraged, and I lack any authority with which to offer them encouragement." Của concluded that most of his engineers nonetheless did want to continue working, despite such local maltreatment and despite considerable material sacrifice. Tax collectors and customs officers often found themselves in similar circumstances (see chapter 6).
Many northern province committees had retained former district mandarins as "advisors" in August, and subsequently employed them as "specialists." When there were calls to dismiss these former district mandarins or force them to retire, a number of province committees raised objections. In early November, the Interior Ministry told lower echelons to select only a few former mandarins to remain on new contracts at lower pay. Better yet, former mandarins could work without any pay, "like many Ministers and other persons helping the Government in its endeavors." A month later the Finance Ministry ordered all former mandarins to sign new contracts that included a 25 percent pay reduction. This met some opposition, not on financial grounds, since inflation was eating relentlessly into everyone's pay packet, but because it meant former mandarins being singled out.
In its end-of-year report, the Northern Region's Office of Personnel admitted that it had barely begun to process employee requests to retire, although it had arranged for five hundred pre-August retirees to continue receiving their pensions. Simultaneously it was trying to identify worthy employees and keep them working at lower pay. Many individuals who had abandoned their provincial posts hastily in August and congregated in Hanoi now wished to resume duties, but the Finance Ministry had yet to reply about funding. The end-of-year report concluded with a blunt assessment: inflation was turning salaried employees into paupers, yet those suddenly instructed to resign were finding themselves even worse off. Meanwhile, presumably on ideological grounds, the wages of working-class state employees had been increased, not reduced. All other government employees had had to accept lower pay or take leave without pay and continue working, perhaps in a different unit. By January 1946, many employees had sent their dependents to ancestral villages to subsist, while they themselves ate together with office mates. This solution to feeding government employees would persist for years to come.
On several occasions the Vietnam General Association of Government Employees tried to intercede with the provisional DRV government about pay and conditions, but its leaders were tainted by prior associations with French and Japanese officials. Newspapers carried scores of letters from continuing or retrenched employees describing their economic plight. Claiming not to be bitter, a fired employee in Huế accepted that he had "done wrong in the past and needed reeducation." He now took part eagerly in political demonstrations and participated in several organizations, but remained unemployed. Another contributor to the same paper argued that professional expertise was less important for government employment than virtue and "loyalty to people's interests." In January 1946, the Interior Ministry felt it necessary to deny rumors that a further round of sackings was imminent. In February, the principal Việt Minh paper foreshadowed election of national office bearers to the alternative General Association of Government Employees for National Salvation. Several months later, two hundred people met in Huế to form the Thừa Thiên Government Employees Association.
Province Committees: The Administrative Linchpin
In precolonial Vietnam, province seats had exuded state gravitas compared to the modest prefect and district offices immediately below them. The colonial authorities reinforced this tradition when they placed a French résident in each province to supervise Vietnamese personnel down to commune level. Most provinces also possessed specialized units that reported to Gouvernement général de l'Indochine offices in Hanoi. The French had also increased the number of provinces to sixty-five compared to the thirty-one delineated by Emperor Minh Mang in 1834. When declaring independence in early September 1945, the DRV provisional government was content to retain colonial-era province names and territorial demarcations. A number of province committees preferred new revolutionary designations, usually the name of a local anticolonial martyr, and they proceeded to employ this identification in messages sent to Hanoi. However, none of those name changes gained central endorsement. Within several months they faded from province-initiated correspondence, although they were often retained in local speeches, banners, and poetry.
We have seen how the Northern Region People's Committee called in province chairmen in early September to discuss vital issues. At that meeting province chairmen were also instructed to submit semimonthly reports to Hanoi. The reports of the next four months proved to be blunt and concise, yet wide-ranging. Province chairmen admitted their inexperience to higher authorities, but often showed discomfort at relying on local functionaries carried over from the colonial regime. They wanted feedback and guidance from above and they expected material support as well. It soon dawned on them, however, that individuals at the "center" (trung ương) possessed no more experience at governing than they did. Some of the hundreds of orders coming down had little or no relevance to their province. Most sobering of all, Hanoi could not provide most of the funding, supplies, and equipment required to fulfill locally the tasks expected.
Obeying classic bureaucratic principles, the Interior Ministry soon promulgated a detailed checklist that each province chairman had to consult when writing his periodic report. This list categorized knowledge in a manner appealing to the center, yet also had the effect of discouraging chairmen from raising unique or unexpected developments. With Hanoi determined to standardize administrative procedures and homogenize terminology, it should not surprise us that province reports soon became more ritualistic in form and cautious in content. Submitting a vague report in time was preferable to sending a precise report late. Tardiness triggered tart reminders, and sometimes provoked a barrage of onerous questions from superiors. Thus, when a Bắc Giang periodic report was late, the Northern Region Committee demanded to know exactly how the 1,780,000$BIC left by the Japanese had been used, what amount of money had been allocated to support National Guard units based in the province, and how "foreign guests" (presumably Chinese army units) were being handled. We do not know how Bắc Giang responded, but reading through other files it is apparent that standardized reporting increasingly obscured the effervescence, heterogeneity, and contingency of revolution in the provinces.
Province chairmen learned how to evade and sometimes ignore stern questioning from above. For example, only twelve out of twenty-seven northern provinces bothered to respond to government requests for a comparison of province office employee numbers before and after the August 1945 Revolution. Perhaps some province chairmen did not wish to be seen as ignoring Hanoi's instructions to cut staff numbers. More generally, local leaders now understood the value of keeping some information to themselves, although this was not without risk.
The DRV government reserved the right to dismiss province committee chairmen, or indeed entire committees. In September, the Hưng Yên province chairman, Học Phi, was accused by unnamed persons of having countenanced "terror" (khủng bố) after taking power the previous month. Hundreds of citizens then proceeded to sign petitions in support of Học Phi, praising his revolutionary initiative, blaming the violence on others, or suggesting that fellow activists slow to move in Hưng Yên in mid-August were jealous of Học Phi's popularity. A Northern Region official who reviewed these petitions in Hanoi acknowledged that Học Phi enjoyed local esteem, yet still recommended that he be stood down as a signal to Hưng Yên inhabitants that "terror and persecutions" would not be allowed to return. This begs the questions of why Học Phi was singled out for removal, when Việt Minh leaders in other provinces were vulnerable to similar charges yet remained in office. It appears that Học Phi led an ICP cell which relied on Democratic Party support when taking power in Hưng Yên and establishing the new province administration. This Democratic Party connection may have been the main reason for Học Phi's removal in late September (see chapter 8). Whatever the cause, Học Phi's dismissal served as warning to other province chairmen about limits on their tenure.
Late 1945 saw several other interventions by Hanoi in provincial leadership. The Northern Region Committee cut the membership of the Thái Bình province committee from fourteen to seven, but this was part of wider efforts to streamline committee functions at all levels. In early November, the head of the Yên Bái branch of the National Treasury accused the Yên Bái province chairman of withdrawing twenty thousand piastres to purchase rafts to rent to the Chinese Army for personal gain. Within days the Interior Ministry had dismissed the entire Yên Bái committee and ordered someone else to form a new committee. This incident probably had more to do with the DRV loss of Yên Bái town to the Vietnam Nationalist Party than to official peculation. Until June 1946, several other province seats along the Red River corridor remained in Nationalist Party hands, with DRV province committees compelled to retreat to the countryside or to adjacent provinces (see chapter 7). In December, the Ninh Bình province chairman was replaced after only two weeks in office, most likely due to late November discussions between senior government representatives and the Catholic Church (see chapter 7).
By early 1946, most province committees in northern and north-central Vietnam were functioning as the vital link between the DRV government and the populace at large. Province committees took responsibility for: recruiting young men to join the National Guard; organizing province-level militia; securing rice to feed both military and civilian personnel; coordinating tax collections; supervising requisitioned properties and facilities; resolving local disputes; detaining enemies of the state; and keeping markets, roads, and waterways open. Hanoi decrees, edicts, and instructions went down to province offices, which then brought them to the attention of district and village committees. More than that, province authorities had an obligation to monitor lower-level performance and enforce compliance on behalf of the central government. It was rare for Hanoi to bypass the province and interact directly with district or village committees. Citizen petitions sent to President Hồ Chí Minh or cabinet ministers in Hanoi would normally be logged in, read by someone, then routed back down to the relevant province committee with instructions to investigate, resolve, and report. In special cases, as we shall see, Hanoi dispatched its own investigator to a locality, deliberately bypassing intervening echelons. The ICP communicated up and down the geographical hierarchy separately from the civil administration. Overall, however, central leaders accepted that it was difficult to penetrate, fathom, and change local realities without province leaders playing a key coordinating role.
On at least two occasions the DRV government canvassed all province committees about a sensitive policy issue. In May 1946, provinces were asked whether Catholic and Buddhist priests and nuns should perform obligatory labor (tạp dịch) and stand guard duty like other citizens. The question had originated with the Quảng Nam province committee in central Vietnam. At least fourteen northern provinces responded with a wide variety of opinions. In September the Interior Ministry exempted priests and nuns from obligatory labor; a month later it excused them from guard duties as well. About this same time province committees were asked a series of questions about village allocations of "public land" (công điền) to serving soldiers and their families. The answers from twenty northern provinces were quite nuanced and diverse, a reflection of different local land customs as well as the policy preferences of respondents. In this case the government does not appear to have followed up with a national decree, probably due to the sheer complexity of current land practices, and uncertainty about what to do in the many villages that no longer possessed public land to distribute. The problem of supporting families of soldiers became more acute after full-scale hostilities commenced in December. Eventually this was one justification for ordering radical land redistributions.
The questions of just who was responsible for what inevitably led to some pulling and tugging between province committees and higher authorities. This was particularly apparent on economic matters. In January 1946, the Haiphong committee asked the government whether or not local merchants should be permitted to export rice and cement. The Economics Ministry reply asserted its prerogative to issue export licenses and levy taxes. The Finance Ministry then heard that Haiphong's committee was blocking exports on the grounds that domestic needs deserved priority. Eventually the Northern Region Committee admitted to Finance that it had issued a secret order to Haiphong forbidding rice exports, but denied there was any restriction on cement exports. Coal from Hòn Gai district became the object of bureaucratic competition, with Hanoi fixing allocations at the beginning of 1946, but Hòn Gai itself more interested in selling output to the highest bidder. In May, the Bắc Bộ Committee (Northern Committee) ordered the Hòn Gai committee to dispatch six thousand tons of coal per month to the main Hanoi electric power plant before selling to anyone else. The salt monopoly occasioned voluminous correspondence and some disputation between Hanoi and province committees, with each echelon aiming to garner the revenue (see chapter 6). Price-setting was another regular source of contestation. In June, for example, Bắc Giang innocently requested a list of official rental charges for rickshaws, bicycles, ox carts, and boats, then offered to set rates locally if no national list existed. This query and others eventually led to an October government edict fixing prices for motor transport (e.g., 2$00BIC per kilometer for trucking one ton), but inviting each province to forward its own proposed rates on rickshaws, bicycles, and ox carts. Boats were left for later consideration. Attempted micromanagement of the economy began long before the ICP gained control of the state.
Noneconomic responsibilities also provoked testy exchanges between Hanoi and province committees. As the rainy season approached in the north, the Northern Region Committee became increasingly concerned that some Red River delta provinces were not devoting sufficient attention to dike repairs. In early May, Nguyễn Xiển, the Northern Region chairman, sent a blistering telegram to the Hải Dương committee: "[Repair of the] Hải Dương dike is slow and poor, because the supervisory committee is inefficient, tardy, and lazy. Mr Nguyễn Xuân Mẫn must take principal responsibility. The chairmen of local administrative committees are also indifferent, especially Vĩnh Bảo [district]. Request province administrative committee resolutely fulfill duty. Northern Office wants to purge ruthlessly incapable elements and punish bad elements." These tough words reflected Hanoi's concern that a dike breach in one province could harm others, but it is doubtful Nguyễn Xiển was in a position to carry out his threat.
During 1946, the DRV government tried to get some province committees to return confiscated properties. One example serves to highlight the difficulties involved. Before the August Revolution, a Mr. Vui of Hòa Bình town had rented a building to the Japanese, then leased it to Chinese troops a few months later. When the Chinese departed, the Hòa Bình province committee took custody and the building became police headquarters. In September 1946, the Northern Committee, after pointing out to Hòa Bình that provinces lacked authority to confiscate property, ordered that Mr. Vui's building be returned to him. Two months later Hòa Bình continued to justify its action, on grounds that the building was not Mr. Vui's personal residence. It is highly unlikely that Mr. Vui received his property back prior to the outbreak of hostilities in December.
Province administrators took delight in catching Hanoi issuing contradictory orders. In June 1946, the Northern Region Office distributed a model identification card to all northern provinces, with instructions to print copies and issue them to local citizens. Many provinces began to comply, but three months later the Interior Ministry distributed a different national identity card model, provoking considerable confusion. In early November, the Northern Committee told provinces to continue using its ID version until printed stocks ran out, thus not wasting money. A host of province queries ensued. Hưng Yên, having printed 235,000 ID cards, now wanted to know exactly how to number and stamp each card, and what fee to charge recipients. Four other provinces quoted chapter and verse from various edicts to demonstrate to Hanoi that conflicting instructions existed about whether to extract payment for ID cards and, if so, how much. War in December halted efforts to distribute citizen cards, leaving people to rely on a variety of letters of introduction and permits signed by local authorities.
Each month province committees appeared to operate with more confidence and purpose. Realizing that district and commune committees might not report embarrassing information, province chairmen traveled from one place to another, asking questions and making on-the-spot decisions. Local Việt Minh groups were often most forthright in pushing for change. However, many citizens chose to send petitions to President Hồ Chí Minh or ministerial offices when they had accusations to make against district and commune committees. In most cases these petitions were routed back to the relevant province committee, which then was expected to get to the bottom of complaints, resolve them, and report back to Hanoi. Often three or four levels of administration exchanged information over several months, with mixed results.
Charges of unfair arrest and torture by local committees continued to be made throughout 1946. Three different petitions accused the "secret investigation section" (ban trinh sát) of Giao Thủy district (Nam Định) of systematic torture. In response, Hanoi authorities merely told the province committee to replace the investigators if the torture charges proved to be true. Chairmen of commune committees were occasionally arrested and taken away by persons who refused to identify themselves.A small but increasing number of petitions accused local officials of embezzlement. Thus, the chairman of the Ý Yên district committee (Nam Định) was alleged to possess seven sets of clothes, four pairs of shoes, a hat, a watch, and a fountain pen, whereas on taking office a year earlier he had owned only one set of clothes. Many if not most accusations against local committees appear not to have been resolved, with case files ending up in "pending" boxes at one administrative level or another.
Disputes between administrative echelons received more sustained attention. Some controversies had their roots in the tumult of August 1945. At that time, for example, revolutionaries in Hiệp Hòa district (Bắc Giang) had seized two boats containing 127 oil drums, managing to hide most of the drums before Japanese troops arrived. Thirty-five drums were turned over to the new district people's committee, but the DRV's Department of Minerals and Industry insisted that all drums be located and surrendered to them. As of August 1946 the thirty-five drums had reached a provincial warehouse, but the remaining drums failed to materialize. Questioned again, the Bắc Giang province committee told Hanoi that it could not fix responsibility for this loss, because in the heady excitement of late 1945 no one had thought about the implications of confiscation, and armed units moved from one place to another constantly. In Hưng Yên province, after a former village head (lý trưởng) accused local revolutionary authorities of extorting 120,000 piastres from him, the Interior Ministry instructed the province committee to investigate the charge and, if true, punish the extortionists. Six months later the Hưng Yên committee chairman replied in an aggrieved tone that the money had been seized legitimately at a district office during the August Revolution and two-thirds allocated to the province's Việt Minh headquarters. The former village head may well have been punished locally for daring to raise the matter.
In Thái Nguyên province in October 1945, the province police arrested two members of a plantation management committee at the request of a district committee chairman. When the case went to court, the proceedings resulted in the district chairman being dismissed from office, yet the two accused remained under detention. The Northern Region Committee told Thái Nguyên to release the two if insufficient evidence existed to convict them. Months later, Thái Nguyên accused the two of crimes amounting to treason, yet still failed to move towards a trial. Five days later, a visiting Northern Region official apparently engineered their release. Almost surely this dispute involved the interests of plantation tenants versus those of nearby villagers who previously had sold land to French plantation owners (sometimes under duress) and now wanted it back. It was possible for a resolute local committee to outmaneuver even a national ministry, as we shall see later.
Petitions and Special Investigators
When revolutionaries took over the imperial delegate's office in Hanoi on 19 August 1945, they found among other things almost one thousand unanswered petitions. A new surge of several thousand petitions arrived in the mail from as far away as the Mekong delta in subsequent weeks. Dispatching petitions to state officials was familiar practice from the colonial era, although never in such quantity. Petitioners probably discussed their problems extensively before deciding to act, then might pay (or obtain a favor from) someone to compose the text in appropriate language and format. While individuals learned the new format quickly, it would take longer to master the new language of citizenship. By mid-September, the vast majority of petitions began with the words "Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Independence, Liberty, Happiness." A few gave their petition a lunar calendar date. Others proudly proclaimed "First Year of the Democratic Republic," in imitation of French Revolutionary custom, but most simply wrote the solar calendar date. Petitions were generally addressed to "Elder Hồ" (Cụ Hồ) or "President Hồ" (Hồ Chủ Tịch), while a minority were addressed to a government office, particularly the Interior Ministry or the Northern Region Office. The petitioner then stated his/her name, explained the problem, and signed at the bottom, usually in roman script (quốc ngữ), but sometimes in Chinese characters.
Each petition that arrived in the daily mail was given a date stamp, recorded in a logbook, and viewed by one or more officials, who often scribbled marginalia and marked specific passages. A routing slip was then typed up, sometimes including specific questions to guide local investigators or reminders about which government decrees were relevant to the case. Most petitions then went to a province committee, with instructions to "investigate and report." The province might pass the petition down to the district committee, send a query to the relevant commune, or dispatch an individual to investigate on the spot. Persons had to be questioned, perhaps a solution worked out, and an answer formulated for transmission to Hanoi. Delay often triggered a reminder from Hanoi, which also reserved the right to send an inspector directly to the scene. The amount of effort involved was extraordinary. However, given the large number of petition routing slips sitting in Hanoi files with no evidence of resolution, one can guess that less than half the cases were ever closed. The system may also have become less effective with time. Especially at the province level, officials must have felt harassed, with papers piling up making complaints that individually did not seem momentous. District officials generally knew more about a case than their province superiors, and commune officials knew the most, yet all were reluctant to commit precise answers to paper. When pressed, they developed the art of explaining local particulars using the generalizing rhetoric of government decrees and edicts.
Early on the DRV provisional government recognized the necessity of occasionally bypassing the administrative hierarchy by sending its own special investigators to get to the bottom of problems revealed by petitions or other sources of information. Already on 3 September 1945, Nguyễn Tuân Nghĩa was given a paper authorizing him to travel anywhere in northern Vietnam "to resolve any and all political questions." Local people's committees were ordered to assist him in every way possible. Nghĩa traveled with an aide, and both carried pistols. In October, the Interior Ministry dispatched a political inspector to correct the "mistaken behavior" of a district people's committee in Phú Thọ province. The papers issued to these early DRV inspectors are reminiscent in plenipotentiary tone to those given to "commissioners of the republic" in the French Revolution, which probably was no accident. In practice, an inspector usually set out with a dispatch case full of petitions and telegrams relating to a variety of cases, which he was supposed to solve before returning to Hanoi, not remaining as an alternative source of authority to the local committees.
In late November, Hồ Chí Minh decreed establishment of a national Special Inspectorate (Ban Thanh Tra Đặc Biệt), with authority to seize evidence and question members of any people's committee or government office, as well as to suspend or incarcerate any official pending court proceedings. A month later the Ministry of Information and Propaganda alerted the public to the Special Inspectorate's existence, and specifically encouraged citizens to address complaints (khiếu nại) to Elder Hồ's office. Bùi Bằng Đoàn, former royal court mandarin, and Cù Huy Cận, Democratic Party leader and DRV minister of agriculture, were appointed to head the Special Inspectorate. Meanwhile, the Northern Region Committee had quietly formed its own Political and Administrative Inspectorate (Ban Thanh Tra Chính Trị và Hành Chính). The Special Inspectorate appeared to limit itself to processing petitions to forward to the Northern Region Committee and to composing instructions on routing slips destined for central Vietnam provinces. By contrast, the Political and Administrative Inspectorate routinely dispatched members to northern provinces to investigate and attempt to resolve cases. Two inspectors, Đào Văn Biểu and Nguyễn Duy Thân, traveled constantly between January and August 1946. Biểu, troubleshooter par excellence, moved from province to province to deal with Vietnamese-Chinese altercations, disputes with Vietnam Nationalist Party branches, election irregularities, local detentions, and disappearances. If Biểu failed to get local cooperation, he sometimes arranged for his superiors to order the responsible province chairman to come immediately to Hanoi for a dressing-down. Police could also be dispatched to continue the investigation
In Hanoi, inspectorate staff built up substantial files on each province administration, subdivided by district. Many an incoming petition received its own folder, into which clerks added copies of routing slips, telegrams, and internal memos. Files were opened on particular long-running disputes, poorly functioning committees, cases of flagrant misuse of power, and tensions between local leaders and specialized bureaus. President Hồ Chí Minh perused some fraction of the thousands of petitions addressed to him; if he commented on a specific case, it immediately received priority attention. For example, a long series of petitions from the family of a sixty-year-old merchant, Đỗ Đình Thiểm, eventually came to the notice of the president, who urged subordinates to get to the bottom of Hải Dương province assertions that Thiểm had escaped jail and disappeared. The Northern Region Inspectorate threatened Hải Dương with unspecified sanctions if it turned out that that information was false.
When a province committee failed to respond to a specific inspectorate query, reminders were sent. If a province response was deemed unsatisfactory, further correspondence ensued. After several months the tone of inspectorate messages became peremptory. In February 1946, the Special Inspectorate sent an urgent and secret (khẩn mật) letter to the Hà Nam province committee, threatening to apply "resolute methods" against it if repeated queries about the killing of the former province mandarin, Đàm Duy Huyến, were not answered satisfactorily within ten days. Perhaps there was an answer, as one month later an unnamed staff member placed a summary note on the file which was headed: "The killing of Đàm Duy Huyến, greedy official who sabotaged the revolutionary movement." In the meantime, however, the Northern Region Committee sent down a blistering criticism of Hà Nam's general behavior, ranking it as "the province with the most citizen complaints of all," and characterizing it as burdened with a committee that failed to do its job properly and a leadership that oppressed its own people. Regarding one specific commune, problems had been brought to the attention of the Hà Nam committee five months prior, yet there was no evidence that anyone had looked into the case, much less taken remedial action.
At province level and below, some committees resented the right of citizens to petition the central government directly. Already in October 1945, the chairman of the Hanoi suburban committee was telling subordinates that petitions ought to go through the committee hierarchy, not around it. Local committees deserved respect because they represented the people and the government. "Only if a committee misuses its power and oppresses the people should people consider complaining to Higher Authority (Thượng Cấp)," the chairman concluded. The Hà Đông committee chairman grumbled that relatives of prisoners were "causing trouble with investigations" because Hà Đông's proximity to Hanoi enabled them to submit petitions quickly. Some provinces organized their own censorship offices and proceeded to tamper with the mail, including outgoing petitions. In Hải Dương, censors tore up three registered letters containing petitions on behalf of one detainee, an action which the province chairman criticized as "anarchistic and antipolitical behavior." Hanoi had already ordered local committees to leave mail surveillance to the PTT.
By March 1946, far too many citizen petitions were coming in for the existing administrative system to handle them. Especially at the province level, committee staff must have felt overwhelmed, with papers piling up on hundreds of complaints, pressure persisting from Hanoi, and district and commune committees unable or unwilling to provide necessary information. In Hanoi, the Northern Region Committee proposed to the government that its inspection capacities be upgraded and renamed the Northern Region Inspectorate. Probably this proposal was approved, as two months later an edict divided the northern region into four zones, each to be given its own special inspectorate. However, the files make no further mention of these zone inspectorates, which suggests they never materialized. In October, the Northen Committee requested that Đào Văn Biểu and Nguyễn Duy Thân be detached from the Northern Region Inspectorate and returned to their former responsibilities, as local administration had improved and hence diminished the need for roving inspectors. It seems more likely that someone had decided to reduce the political profile of the Northern Region Inspectorate in favor of routine processing of case files. One month later, an internal note referred to dissolution of the Northern Region Inspectorate, with some of its tasks taken by new offices for internal deportation, prison inspection, and petitions.
Meanwhile, the national Special Inspectorate had its own problems. From its establishment in January 1946, the Special Inspectorate seems to have subsisted financially on ad hoc transfers from other central government units. In August, the Finance Ministry gave the Interior Ministry 20,000$BIC to establish an inspection service, probably a sign that the autonomy previously enjoyed by the Special Inspectorate was at an end. Petitions continued to arrive addressed to Elder Hồ or President Hồ, and he may have resumed reading some of them following his return from France in late October, but the overall handling of citizen petitions had been demoted to just another administrative function. Cù Huy Cận became a valued DRV bureaucrat, while Bùi Bằng Đoàn was elected chair of the National Assembly's Standing Committee in late 1946.
Although the early September promise of National Assembly elections within three months seemed like a chimera to some observers, the DRV provisional government proceeded resolutely to draft the necessary electoral rules and implementing instructions. In mid-October, the election date of 25 December was announced, then modified to 23 December a few weeks later. Regulations were promulgated concerning voter and candidate eligibility, preparation of voter rolls, issuing of voter identification cards, formation of provincial electoral boards, restrictions on campaigning, ballot counting procedures, rights of complaint, and announcement of results. It was an incredibly ambitious bureaucratic agenda, especially in regard to completing voter rolls and issuing voter cards, tasks which were assigned to village and urban neighborhood committees. Committees too were expected to compile lists of citizens excluded from voting, which included the insane (điên), professional beggars, individuals under permanent institutional care, and criminals not pardoned by the existing government. Assembly candidates did not have to reside in the province where they stood for election; they could compete individually or join with others in an electoral slate. The time and place of each campaign meeting to attract voters had to be given to the local people's committee one day in advance. Meetings could be disbanded if they appeared to jeopardize "independence and public order." Candidate posters, banners, and leaflets had to be checked in advance by local committees.
Each province or city was assigned a specific number of National Assembly seats to be contested in the election, based more or less on population statistics. Nam Định, Thanh Hóa, and Quảng Nam received the largest number of seats (fifteen each), while five provinces were allocated only one seat. The total number of seats came to 329, with thirty of these being reserved for ethnic minority delegates who would come from twenty-seven different provinces. On election day, voters could cast their ballots for as many candidates as there were seats being contested in their province. A candidate had to receive more than 50 percent of votes cast to be elected. If not enough candidates exceeded 50 percent then a second election would be organized in the province affected. In early November the Interior Ministry disseminated further details on how candidate lists and voter rolls should be filled out, the proper design for voter identification cards, and the exact wording for election result forms. The ministry admitted that communication limitations and paper shortages would impede election arrangements, yet could only suggest to province committees that they dispatch teams to each locality to explain the importance of the National Assembly election and proper procedures for implementation.
Newspapers were slow to pick up the national election story, probably mindful that delicate negotiations were underway between Việt Minh, Nationalist Party, and Revolutionary League leaders about not only election modalities, but also the future state system in general (see chapter 7). From early December, however, editorials and articles about an impending election proliferated, nudged on by the Ministry of Propaganda and Việt Minh activists. Banner headlines (sometimes in red ink) were spread across front pages, urging people to vote; electoral procedures were explained in detail. The purpose of the whole exercise, as one paper put it, was to select good representatives who would draft a constitution and elect an executive government. Beyond that, the people of Vietnam would be participating in the widest possible exercise of voting rights, a feat allegedly accomplished by only one other country-the Soviet Union. Another paper warned that people who did not vote were putting themselves "on a par with the insane, beggars, and criminals who have lost this right of citizenship." Then it added darkly, "to vote for an unworthy candidate is to sell one's rights cheaply, to sell liberty and happiness cheaply, to commit a crime against the Fatherland." Two days before the election this Huế paper alerted voters to "evil, spurious (tà ngụy) influences wanting to force their way into the people's heart." These elements had to be struggled against, and only persons of talent and virtue elected. "We only listen to our own kind (ta chỉ nghe ta)," the writer concluded tellingly. How to identify the best candidates remained an issue. More boldly than most, one Hanoi weekly contrasted "revolutionary" and "political" candidates, suggesting that many (but not all) revolutionaries were only good for tearing things down, whereas Vietnam now was entering the phase of building things up. On the other hand, many politicians had reaped personal benefit from the colonial system and taken part in the farcical theatrics of colonial assemblies, which the forthcoming National Assembly definitely had to avoid.
The registration of candidates proceeded slowly in most provinces, with only a handful able to dispatch certified lists to the central government by the third week in December. On 18 December, Hồ Chí Minh decreed postponement of the election from 23 December to 6 January 1946. While this was presented as a concession to the Nationalist Party and Revolutionary League, leading up to the 24 December agreement signed by Hồ Chí Minh, Vũ Hồng Khanh, and Nguyễn Hải Thần (see chapter 7), a delay probably would have been required on administrative grounds alone. As candidate lists came in, worries evaporated (at least in northern and north-central Vietnam) that some provinces would lack sufficient candidates for the number of seats available. Remarkably, Thái Bình had eighty-eight candidates to contest thirteen seats, Kiến An sixty persons for seven seats, and Hanoi city seventy-four persons for six seats.
How candidates were to convey themselves to voters in the short time available remained problematic. The 7 October election decree, described above, required candidates to present their propaganda materials to local people's committees before distribution, and to obtain committee permission before scheduling any public meetings. We don't know how many candidates obeyed these rules, or how rigorously the rules were enforced. In mid-December, one writer criticized candidates for being too slow to convene meetings to present their platforms to voters. He also urged candidates to take questions from the audience, for example on how best to fight the French in the South, how to define "protracted resistance," when the world was going to recognize Vietnam's independence, or how to expand economic output. Later an unnamed candidate in Nam Định province was congratulated for organizing a meeting to talk about the August Revolution, the future constitution, the international situation, and the role of youth and women in building the country.
Such single candidate meetings do not seem to have occurred often, however. It was more common for the people's committee, the local office of the Propaganda Ministry, or the local Việt Minh branch to invite all or some candidates to present their platforms to a public audience. Although chairmen tended to discourage questions from the floor, interjections were common. Candidates sometimes traded accusations. One newspaper chided candidates for putting nasty labels on each other at the drop of a hat, for example calling an opponent "reactionary" or "Fourth [International]," the latter a coy reference to Trotskyism. On the other hand, one candidate became outraged when another candidate simply raised his voice, leading the journalist to question rhetorically whether it had become a crime to speak loudly.
Haiphong city paid attention to the upcoming national election earlier than most places. Already in the third week of November the local Việt Minh daily newspaper, Dân Chủ (Democracy), reprinted the official candidate and voter registration forms for people to fill out and submit. In early December, the Haiphong People's Committee publicized the names of the city's thirteen ward heads (trưởng khu), as well as addresses where citizens could register. Dân Chủ editors placed a notice on their front page: "Whether you are Việt Minh, not Việt Minh, or opposed to the Việt Minh, every citizen go ahead and take part in the National Assembly Election." On 16 December, the people's committee convened a public meeting at the Opera House square, where candidates were given five minutes each to sway the audience. According to Dân Chủ: "One gentleman focused on people's livelihood (Dương Duy Mão), another sided with the poor and with women (Dr. Vịnh), still another wanted to foster a sports movement (Phạm Quang Chất). Pharmacist Vũ Công Thuyết emphasized his ability to make explosives. Some stressed that they belonged to no party." People listened attentively, but did not take a visible or vocal position for or against any particular candidate. The reporter considered this a very positive sign, demonstrating how citizens were preoccupied with national solidarity. Several Haiphong candidates selected their own speaking venues, publicized their intentions, obtained loudspeakers, and spoke to audiences without seeking permission from the authorities.
Two days following the Haiphong Opera House meeting the national election was postponed to 6 January 1946, which led the city people's committee to reopen candidate registrations and accept five more contestants. Ward representatives now were sent to family residences to inscribe the names of voters and issue voter identification cards. On the other hand, voter rolls at work sites and headquarters of organizations were discontinued, perhaps to reduce the danger of duplication. There was considerable organizational confusion, but also growing propaganda momentum. Haiphong voters were urged not to listen to those who urged them to write in President Hồ's name on their ballot, as he was standing for election only in Hanoi. Front-page woodcuts showed a wife waking up her lazy husband to go to vote together, citizens led by a soldier and a minority woman eagerly approaching a ballot box, and a scale balancing ballots and bullets. Most vividly, one cartoon depicted ballots being fed into a cannon to blast French soldiers holding a tricolor, with the following caption: "Ballots are ammunition to wipe out aggressors (giặc)." As election day approached, Haiphong residents were urged to fly the national flag and affix leaflets to the front of their homes stating "6 January 1946. Go to Vote".
Nam Định was slower to focus on the election than Haiphong, but by the third week of December the local office of the Propaganda Ministry and the local Việt Minh branch had taken up the cause energetically. The weekly Việt Minh paper, Nam Tiến (Southern Advance), invited all province candidates to respond to a set of questions, then printed twelve of the answers in abbreviated fashion. Not surprisingly the paper gave editorial preference to Đặng Châu Tuệ, chairman of the Nam Định administrative committee, who had joined the Revolutionary Youth League in the late 1920s and subsequently spent considerable time in colonial jails. Reflecting a central ICP policy decision, Tuệ and other Việt Minh Front members were not identified as such in the election. At least six non-Việt Minh candidates had their edited answers printed. Meanwhile, the Propaganda Ministry office asked the fifteen individuals running for Nam Định city seats to address a public meeting, and all but two accepted. Ms. Nguyễn Khoa Diệu Hồng was invited to go first, but before she could speak several members of the audience asked her why the Việt Minh had yet to dissolve itself, now that a national unity government was being established. She replied that because the Việt Minh's work was far from complete, the issue of dissolution had yet to arise, a response that was said to have received cheers and applause from the audience. The meeting continued for two and a half hours, with all thirteen candidates present apparently able to take the rostrum.
Several newspapers in Hanoi became election vehicles for specific slates or individual candidates, a media practice common during the colonial era. Tương Lai (Future) touted the slate headed by its publisher, Trương Văn Minh, which included one of his feature writers, two journalists from other papers, a high school teacher, an architect, and a landlord. Tương Lai criticized unnamed competitors who aped the self-seeking "Mr. Assembly Man" (Ông Nghị) of colonial times, when they should be putting the needs of the nation ahead of individual or party political interests. "We don't want a new class to materialize," the writer concluded. Another periodical, Bạn Gái (Women's Friend), published a special issue just prior to the election to promote the candidacy of Ms. Đoàn Tâm Đán, with much of the front page taken up by a woodcut of Ms. Đán wearing the traditional northern head scarf. Đồng Minh, the organ of members of the Revolutionary League prepared to work with the existing government, touted four members recently returned from China, describing their past patriotic endeavours in detail but saying nothing about their policy platforms as candidates. They stood for election in four northern provinces, and publicly opposed the deal whereby the League would receive twenty nonelected seats in the National Assembly.
The publishers of the Dân Sinh (People's Livelihood) newspaper compiled a preelection booklet containing the names, occupations, and home addresses of the seventy-four individuals standing for election in Hanoi, as well as self-promotions provided by seventeen of the candidates. The occupations of the Hanoi candidates were as follows: public servants (16), merchants/manufacturers (15), teachers/principals (11), physicians (7), writers/journalists (6), people's committee members (5), DRV ministers (3), landowners (3), engineers (2), and other (6). From the biographical data and brief platforms provided, we catch a glimpse into the multitudinous backgrounds, ideas, and assumptions that characterized Hanoi's political aspirants at the end of 1945. Viet Minh adherents were mixed together with members of the Vietnam Nationalist Party and Vietnam Revolutionary League. Former employees of the French administration offered their expertise to the new independent state. Political statements were deliberately vague and nonconfrontational, reflecting the public push for national unity at this time. Despite Vietnam's grim economic circumstances, some merchants and manufacturers promised to open trade with the United States, end unemployment, apply the latest scientific methods to cultivate rice, and create a national airline. There was no discussion by candidates about how the future National Assembly ought to conduct its business, or what should be the content of the future constitution.
Some provinces ignored provisional President Hồ's 18 December postponement decree and organized voting on 23 December, rather than wait until 6 January. In Kiến An, only three candidates received more than 50 percent of the vote each, necessitating a runoff one month later for the remaining four seats. A number of central and southern provinces also appear to have voted on 23 December.
National Election Day, 6 January 1946, took on the character of a traditional festival in many villages and urban neighborhoods, with drums alerting everyone early, individuals putting on their best clothing, flag-bearing youths marching from one street to another, and people converging on the community hall (đình) or headquarters of the local administrative committee. Contrary to regulations, activists circulated among those waiting to vote, calling out the names of their favored candidates. It is unlikely that voter rolls had been completed in most venues, much less voter cards distributed. Ballots did not have the names of candidates printed on them, so literate voters wrote down their selections, and illiterate voters received assistance from a relative or anyone else available. Việt Minh youths stood by to help, with predictable results. In the contest for the six Hanoi city seats, there was concern that voters might not write in the full name of Hồ Chí Minh, instead complying with traditional name-avoidance customs for Vietnamese monarchs. Young men conducting the election in one Hanoi neighborhood dumped the ballots without bothering to count them, then reported a 99.9 percent vote for Hồ Chí Minh. In Huế, voters were told to write only given names on the ballot, not surnames, and often encouraged to vote for "Yên Phộc," a corruption of "Ông Phiệt," meaning Tôn Quang Phiệt, chairman of the Thừa Thiên province committee. Anything approximating Phiệt's name probably was accepted by ballot scrutineers, as he easily won election.
The scant information obtained about election preparations and voting in faraway southern Vietnam was published eagerly in northern and central region newspapers. Allegedly twenty thousand voter cards had been issued to citizens in Saigon-Cholon, despite French occupation of the city. Later the press reported that forty-two cadres had died in the south while organizing the vote, and that scores of citizens going to the polls in two provinces had been killed or injured by French aircraft assaults. A unit of Vietnamese trying to resist the French advance in Laos found time to cast ballots in Tchépone, each trooper receiving in return a glutinous rice cake and a pack of cigarettes.
Two days after the national election, the Northern Region Committee requested voting statistics from all twenty-eight provinces and cities under its jurisdiction. Specifically it wanted the number of candidates, the number of people who went to the polls, the number of legal ballots cast, the names of successful candidates, and the number of votes received by each. Any formal protests had to go to the relevant provincial election supervisory board, whose decision was final. Available archive files lack any provincial responses, leaving us with a handful of statistics reprinted in newspapers. In Hanoi, 176,765 ballots were cast from among 187,880 registered voters, an impressive 92 percent turnout. Hồ Chí Minh received 98.4 percent of the vote, the highest in the country. Trần Duy Hưng, chairman of the Hanoi city committee, received 73 percent, closely followed by Vũ Đình Hòe (minister of national education) with 72.6 percent, then Nguyễn Văn Luyện (public intellectual) with 61.4 percent, Nguyễ̉n Thị Thục Viên (a girl's school principal) with 55.4 percent, and Hoàng Văn Đức (Democratic Party secretary) with 52.2 percent. Hanoi thus filled all six allocated seats without the need for any runoff election.
In Haiphong, 88 percent of the 543,089 registered voters cast ballots on 6 January, at sixty-nine polling stations around the city. After counting was completed, ballot boxes and certified tallies were delivered to the election board at the Opera House for consolidation. Three candidates easily obtained more than half the votes and were thus declared elected. Trương Trung Phụng, a member of the Revolutionary League who had sided with the DRV government, received 91 percent voter support, probably a reflection of how anxious people were to see an end to party political disputation. Nguyễn Đình Thi, a prominent young Việt Minh writer, garnered 88.1 percent of the vote, while Nguyễn Sơn Hà, a Haiphong industrialist, obtained 69.1 percent. It is very unlikely that all provinces around the country were able to imitate Hanoi and Haiphong in providing the central government with detailed voting statistics. In late January, the Northern Region Committee reminded provinces which had yet to send certified results to do so immediately, as the government wanted National Assembly delegates to arrive in Hanoi by 20 February. We don't know how many provinces had to conduct runoff elections due to an insufficient number of candidates obtaining more than 50 percent of votes. It appears that some of these runoff elections for National Assembly seats were conducted simultaneously with subsequent elections for province people's councils (see below), while some never occurred at all.
In late January, the Sự Thật (Truth) newspaper asserted that 95 percent of Vietnam's eligible citizens had participated in the national election. This figure must have been pulled out of thin air, as no national count of registered voters existed, much less a total vote count. Most localities had not been able to issue voter cards. Already in early December, Hanoi officials had noted that voter registrations were lagging far behind the number of citizens likely to come to polling stations on election day. This, rather a deliberate stuffing of ballot boxes, probably explains why some provinces reported more ballots tallied than the number of voters registered.
French officials were not impressed by the 6 January National Assembly elections. Sûreté agents in Tonkin claimed that Annamites had shown little interest in the proceedings, a reflection of more general political lassitude. A later analysis considered the elections a parody of popular consultation, "neither national nor democratic." Vietnamese sources from the period point to widespread public interest in the elections, and serious attempts by the DRV administration to follow correct electoral procedures. In northern and north-central Vietnam, most results were credible, if not achieved in full compliance with relevant government edicts. In the south, administrative confusion and French counteraction prevented a similar outcome. Predictably, the Propaganda Ministry asserted total, enthusiastic southern participation in the elections. No ministry encouragement was required for the press to take the same line. People wanted to believe in the territorial integrity of Vietnam, and the 6 January 1946 elections were considered proof positive. Philippe Devillers judged the DRV elections no less authentic than contemporary electoral efforts in France by General de Gaulle and Georges Bidault. In the teeth of war, recent famine, and dire poverty, without prior organizing experience, 6 January nonetheless proved to be the fairest election the DRV/SRV has experienced to the present day.
The DRV government regarded election of people's councils (hội đồng nhân dân) at province and commune levels to be another important step in legitimizing the overall political system. Councils were meant to provide local democratic representation, and more particularly, to select the smaller administrative committees. No sooner were the national elections completed on 6 January 1946 than the Interior Ministry instructed all provinces to conduct people's council elections before 15 February. Messages relating to election procedures now increased to at least 25 percent of total Bắc Bộ Phủ outgoing and incoming traffic. While Hanoi authorities propounded a single procedure for implementing province council elections, many province committees preferred to make adjustments of their own. There were province proposals to modify the number of council seats up for election, to restrict individuals from standing for election outside their home district, and to exclude government employees from running for election. The Interior Ministry rejected these proposals and others, yet it seems likely that local disparities persisted. When it became apparent that many provinces were experiencing administrative difficulties, Hanoi extended the province council election deadline to the end of February. Two provinces were ordered to cancel their election results of 14 February and send voters to the polls again on 28 February. The content of these messages, as well as the sheer volume, demonstrate that both central government and province committees took council elections seriously.
One hefty file on the province people's council election in Tuyên Quang, northwest of Hanoi, offers us a unique view of voter rolls, candidate lists, ballot tallies, and election results. Some communes had managed to compile registration lists containing each voter's name and age, and sometimes place of birth, occupation, and literate/illiterate status. In early February 1946, a total of 40,742 Tuyên Quang province voters made their choices from district slates ranging from four to twelve candidates. Voter turnout ranged from 76 percent to 99.5 percent in the countryside, and was 69 percent in Tuyên Quang town. Town officials had managed to mimeograph tally sheets for their neighborhood clerks to fill in, while rural commune clerks had to draw up their own tally sheets from a national model. Town voters had a choice of twelve candidates for three province council seats. Of 5,943 registered voters in town, 4,106 cast votes, but 103 ballots were declared invalid, leaving 4,003 valid ballots. Nguyễn Công Bình easily won a seat with 2,863 votes, but no one else obtained more than 50 percent, forcing a runoff election at which only 2,519 persons bothered to vote. When all candidates scored below 50 percent in this runoff, the two top candidates, with 47.3 percent and 44 percent of the vote, were declared elected per government rules designed to avoid yet another runoff. In Hồng Thái district the top candidate received forty-six more votes than the total number of valid ballots cast, yet no one appears to have pointed out this discrepancy. Nonetheless, the overall impression is one of formalities being observed with remarkable care, and commune clerks laboring long hours to achieve results.
February 1946 came and went, but most provinces had yet to conduct people's council elections. Hanoi had conceded too much in January when it authorized provinces to "reorganize" their administrative committees without waiting for people's councils to elect official committees. The DRV government had far more pressing problems in March, as we shall see, but starting in April it pressured recalcitrant provinces to hold people's councils elections urgently. One by one the provinces of the Red River delta complied, and sent their election results for scrutiny in the capital. When Bắc Ninh reported two candidates with identical vote counts, the Northern Region Committee instructed it to check birth certificates and declare the elder candidate elected, a notable bow to tradition. Someone at the center was cross-checking results carefully, as when Kiến An province was told to exclude one winning candidate because he had already been elected in Bắc Giang. Once Hanoi had approved the outcome of a particular province people's council election, attention shifted to getting the council to elect a new administrative committee. Hanoi also had to scrutinize results of these administrative committee elections, although here approval seemed to be almost automatic. There is ample evidence that the composition of province administrative committees changed little, and that people's councils often failed to exercise the oversight role delineated for them in government decrees.
Elections to the Hanoi and Haiphong people's councils, both originally scheduled for 24 February, were seen by experienced observers as better tests of democratic procedure than either the 6 January 1946 national election or the provincial people's council elections. In Hanoi on 12 February, the deputy chair of the city's administrative committee, Khuất Duy Tiến, called a meeting of more than one hundred candidates, where he encouraged them to organize their own gatherings, print leaflets, paint banners, and circulate through town with loudspeakers mounted on autos. However, Tiến cautioned candidates against "individual" (cá nhân) street demonstrations. Everyone present at the meeting is said to have agreed not to launch personal attacks or to engage in other behavior "damaging to the reputation or rights of fellow candidates." Then Tiến revealed that because the Hanoi Administrative Committee lacked sufficient funds to print two hundred thousand ballots, candidates would need to make financial donations. One wing of the Vietnam Revolutionary League took the Hanoi election seriously, publicizing its slate of three merchants, one industrialist, and one government employee. However, the authorities found it necessary to postpone the Hanoi election to 10 March, then to defer it indefinitely. In Haiphong, representatives of the Việt Minh, Democratic Party, Nationalist Party, and Revolutionary League met on 9 February to discuss the Việt Minh idea of a unity slate containing three candidates from each organization. Five days later, however, the Nationalist Party withdrew its participation in the election and denounced Việt Minh manipulation of the proceedings. On 23 February, the Haiphong Administrative Committee deferred the election to 10 March, then again to 16 March. On 11 March, however, the election was "postponed until new orders." The DRV government offered no explanation for these failures of democratic process, which probably first reflected the capacity of opposition parties and independents to challenge Việt Minh primacy in the cities, then the chaos surrounding the 6 March Preliminary Accord and arrival of French troops (see chapters 3 and 4).
Elections to Hanoi's five ward councils (ủy ban khu phố) in June 1946 incurred no postponements. Candidates hoisted banners and distributed leaflets, but attendance at meetings was sparse and most newspapers ignored the proceedings. On 16 June, markets closed for the morning, flags were displayed, and citizens walked to the same polling stations as for the 6 January election. Because of the high number of candidates, and the requirement that victors receive more than 50 percent of votes cast, three out of five wards needed a follow-up election on 30 June to secure a full council. Noting that many illiterate voters had stayed away from the first election, Việt Minh groups promised them assistance from literate youths on polling day. Some citizens tried unsuccessfully to have a family member serve as substitute voter. At the Opera House on 7 July, acting DRV President Huỳnh Thúc Kháng presided over swearing-in ceremonies for all members of the five Hanoi ward councils.
As of late July, people's councils had still not been elected in six northern provinces. Four province seats had only recently been wrested from the Vietnam Nationalist Party or were still being contested. Hải Ninh had been partly controlled by the Revolutionary League, while Lai Châu had been out of touch with Hanoi for more than a year, and was now occupied by French troops. A month later, three provinces still remained without people's councils: Lào Cai, Hải Ninh, and Lai Châu. Meanwhile, the Haiphong administrative committee formally requested a further delay in organizing its people's council election, and this was approved. In central Vietnam, it seems that some provinces elected people's councils, but details are lacking. In Thừa Thiên province, adjacent to Huế, an election took place in April, and the council subsequently selected Hoàng Anh over Hoàng Phương as chairman, by a vote of sixteen to three.
Commune people's councils, conceived of as the foundational level of democratic government, proved far more difficult to implement than national or provincial councils. Often commune administrative committees were in no hurry to answer to an elected people's council. More fundamentally, modernists saw village and commune Vietnam as infested by parochialism, petty intrigue, vendettas, and perpetual status competition. Factionalism (óc bè phái) was endemic. According to this view, if a commune election was called, candidates would go house-to-house making promises, criticizing their opponents, ignoring the common cause. In this polluted atmosphere, virtuous, well-qualified villagers would not seek office. For these commentators, the more acquainted people were with each other the less able they were to achieve a good electoral result. Nationalist Party writers took this argument a step further, calling for communal administrative committees to be appointed by higher echelons rather than elected by people's councils. This position was vehemently rejected by Việt Minh writers, who however admitted that an extended period of political education was required before local government could function properly. By July 1946, only one northern province (Bắc Giang) had submitted results of commune people's council elections to Hanoi for approval. The Northern Region Committee set a deadline of 15 August to complete the process, yet it must have known this was unrealistic.
In July 1946 the Northern Region Committee proposed to the DRV government that it set a date for election of the three regional administrative committees (north, center, south), as specified in the November 1945 decree. Mindful of their own provisional status after almost one year of labor, members of the northern committee argued that election of "official" (chính thức) regional committees would complete the structure of "people's power" (chính quyền nhân dân) in Vietnam. By their own prior admission, however, people's councils had yet to be elected in many northern communes. More importantly, French control over much of Nam Bộ and French troop advances up the south-central coast made DRV regional elections there quite impractical. Even arranging for each northern province or city people's council to vote on a roster of regional administrative committee candidates was too much to ask in late 1946.
By mid-1946, the DRV civil apparatus was proving its effectiveness north of the sixteenth parallel. Decrees and other instructions composed by central ministries and bureaus made their way to regional, province, district, and commune committees, where they received serious attention if not always compliance. Lower echelons responded to specific queries, sent in periodic reports, and generated their own requests or propositions. Desirous that most former colonial civil servants continue working, but lacking money to pay them, the DRV government encouraged continuing employees to find their own "temporary" means of sustenance, and many did so. As we have seen, the authorities gave considerable attention to organizing national and local elections, not as mere propaganda exercises, but with the serious intent of creating representative government. The next chapter looks at DRV efforts to write a constitution, create a legislative branch of government, and develop education, justice, and communication systems.
Add source code 15W5487 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.
Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more