Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power

Book Cover

Book Title

Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power. Berkley: University of California Press, 1995


Marr, David G.


Marr claims that this is the first book to explore a selected episode in Vietnamese history in such depth. It approaches 9 March, 1945—the day Imperial Japan overthrew the colonial French government of Jean Decoux—from various perspectives: French, Japanese, American, British, Chinese, and of course, Vietnamese. Vietnam was of increasing concern to colonial powers who were looking either to expand or preserve their empires. At the same time that Marr presents Vietnam a national entity in its own right, with considerable agency over its future, he also presents it as caught in the middle of perilous tussles between other empires, namely the French and Japanese. It is also significant to scholars interested in colonial history because it was a testing ground for the volatile colonial world in the aftermath of World War II; the French presence in Indochina was a quintessential example of an empire crumbling in a new world order. Vietnam, sitting at the heart of an intricate web of colonial ambitions, thus provides insights not only into such rivalry, but also into revolution and the eventual establishment of an independent state.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Marr makes it clear that his focus is on the events of 1945, although he allows himself leeway to jump backward as far as 1940 to provide necessary context, and forward to 1946 to illustrate the lasting consequences of colonial and Vietnamese attitudes and decisions. The book is divided into five main thematic sections. The first focuses on the relationship between the Japanese and French from 1940 to 1945, where Marr argues that they struggled through an uneasy marriage of convenience that eventually fell apart. The second considers the changes in the attitudes of the Vietnamese, torn between French influence and Japanese assertions of Asian racial superiority. The third zooms in on the ICP, which garnered its legitimacy not from Communism but from its active anti-French operations. The fourth examines Allied polices of July 1945: it treated Vietnam as a test case of possible approaches toward colonial territories. The last section discusses the events of August and September 1945, with the Chinese in Hanoi and the Allies in Saigon. The book ends by describing the creation of the Vietnamese state.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Crucially, Marr argues that the unfolding of events in the 1940-1945 period were seldom the product of careful planning and manipulation, even if such efforts were painstakingly made, by the French in particular. Rather, many key happenings were the result of spontaneous, unpredictable forces. For instance, the August insurrection was not restricted to Hanoi—it was the product of highly volatile social revolutionary behavior in the vast rural areas over which neither the French nor the Viet Minh had any control. The party with the willingness and ability to respond quickly a sudden shift in circumstances inevitably had a significant advantage over the rest. According to Marr, the Viet Minh were more flexible in their approach, while the French were less willing to deviate from their playbook, a mentality which ultimately cost them dearly in the long run.

As much as European colonial—or in the Americans’ case, supposedly non-colonial—interests are essential to understanding Vietnam in 1945, Marr also points out that Vietnam was not just a passive victim trapped between the crossing of many larger swords. The Vietnamese were actively fighting for independence and self-assertion, and the period in question was ripe for revolution: war, Marr claims, uproots the social and political relationships otherwise taken for granted, and makes them easier to challenge and replace. Vietnam is thus a case study of a people shedding their colonial chains, a “prime example of radical upheaval in a colonial setting”. Yet, Vietnam was by no means a homogeneous anti-colonial force. For one, there was an uncomfortable tension between the center and the periphery, as evidenced by the inability of the Hanoi to put rural territories on a leash. For another, Vietnam found itself tugged between different parties vying for power: Haiphong, for instance, was torn between Viet Minh and Chinese loyalties. 

Annotated by Jennifer Yip