The ferocious Japanese conquest of Indochina in 1940 ruined whatever glow of authority still adhered to the French colonial project in Southeast Asia. While they left the French government in tact, Japanese control over the Vietnamese economy scorched the landscape, creating a famine in the north that ended the lives of nearly two million people. Looking forward to the eviction of European power from Asia, Japanese intelligence agents encouraged a variety of religious and political sects — particularly in the southern regions of Indochina — who soon evolved into private militias that roamed outside French control. The French, for their part, countered by establishing youth brigades that were quickly infiltrated by nationalists, whose commitment to aiding their sponsor was dubious at best. And so it happened that both the French and the Japanese unwittingly laid ground for a fragmented but concerted effort to drive them from Vietnam.

More consequentially, the guerilla army organized by Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh prepared for the Leninist rebellion of which they’d separately dreamed for well over a decade. Brought together in southern China in 1940, Giap and Ho spent the next several years evading the French and gathering recruits to the Viet Minh. The nation, they warned in summer 1941 from the border village of Pac Bo, risked “slavery forever” unless the French and Japanese were overthrown.

Rich people, soldiers, workers, peasants, intellectuals, employees, traders, youth, and women who warmly love your country! At present time national liberation is the most important problem. Let us unite together! As one mind and strength we shall overthrow the Japanese and French and their jackals in order to save people from the situation between boiling water and burning heat.

Long story short, the Vichy regime in France collapsed in July 1944; the Japanese, recoiling from their imperial perimeter to defend the mainland, jettisoned Indochina from its orbit in March 1945 — though not before slaughtering and imprisoning the last representatives of French civilian and military control. For every practical purpose, most of northern Vietnam, as well as the central and southern cities of Hue and Saigon, fell under the control of Ho and the Viet Minh. The American OSS, grateful for the aid offered by Ho, offered him six revolvers. Described by one US officer as an “awfully sweet fellow,” Ho Chi Minh would from that point on be known to the OSS as Agent 19.

On September 2, 1945, Agent 19 addressed a gathering of 500,000 in Hanoi. After quoting the American Declaration of Independence, Ho Chi Minh proceeded with a declaration of his own:

The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated, Emperor Bao Dai has abdicated. Our people have broken the chains which for nearly a century have fettered them and have won independence for the Fatherland. Our people at the same time have overthrown the monarchic regime that has reigned supreme for dozens of centuries. In its place has been established the present Democratic Republic.

For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government, representing the whole Vietnamese people, declare that from now on we break off all relations of a colonial character with France; we repeal all the international obligation that France has so far subscribed to on behalf of Vietnam and we abolish all the special rights the French have unlawfully acquired in our Fatherland.

The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.

We are convinced that the Allied nations which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.

A people who have courageously opposed French domination for more than eighty years, a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the Fascists during these last years, such a people must be free and independent.

For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country — and in fact it is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilise all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.

And everyone lived happily ever after.