For the peoples living in Vietnam, the war was something all too familiar. For centuries they fought, apart from their many civil wars, also against the Chinese, the French and the Japanese. In 1941, after 30 years of exile, Nguyen Ai Quoc, a portrait painter also known as Ho Shi Minh, returned to Vietnam and started to organize the Viet Minh (Vietnam Independence League). After the Japanese invasion of Vietnam, the Viet Minh worked in conjunction with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of today's CIA, to harass the Japanese troops and rescue downed airman. At that time the Japanese were present in Vietnam, but per an agreement with the Vichy France the French colonial administration was left intact.
At the beginning of 1945, while the defeat of the Japanese was already apparent, Vietnam was struck by a famine, resulting in the death of approximately 2 million people out of Vietnam's 10 million population. This catastrophe led to political tensions and unrest directed against the Japanese and the French administrations remaining. Viet Minh capitalized on these events. In March 1945 the Japanese ousted the French administration and installed a puppet government with the emperor Bao Dai as the prime minister, who declared the independence of Vietnam, although the Japanese influence in the region was still strong.
After the defeat of nazi Germany the allies discussed Vietnam as a minor item on the agenda. To disarm the Japanese, an administrative border along the 16th parallel was set up. North of this line, Chinese Nationalists (Chang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang) were to move in an disarm the Japanese, while the British were to do the same in the south. The conference granted the French request for return of all pre-war colonies - Vietnam was going to become a French colony following the removal of Japanese.
In August 1945 Japan capitulated unconditionally, Vietnam's puppet emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated, and Ho Shi Minh's guerillas occupied Hanoi and proclaimed provisional government. On the day Japan signed the surrender agreement, September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam by quoting from the text of the American Declaration of Independence which had been supplied to him by the OSS: "We hold the truth that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (...) This immortal statement is extracted from the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. These are undeniable truths.". Ho Shi Minh declared himself president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and pursued American recognition, but was repeatedly ignored by President Harry Truman.
In September 1945 the British forces arrived in Saigon, at the same time 150 000 Chinese Nationalist soldiers, mainly poor peasants arrived in Hanoi, looting as they moved on. At the time the British armed 1400 French soldiers released from Japanese internment camps, who together with the remaining Japanese took power from the Viet Minh in an armed coup, killing civilians, including children, aided by French civilians, whose number in Saigon was estimated at 20 000. Viet Minh organized a general strike in Saigon, shutting down commerce, electricity and water supplies. In Cholon, the Chinatown of Saigon, members of Binh Xuyen, criminal organization allied with Viet Minh killed 150 French and Eurasian civilians, including children.
At September 26 the first american death in Vietnam occurred, none other than OSS's Lt.Col. Peter Dewey was killed by Viet Minh guerillas, whom he supported for years in their fight against the Japanese, and who now mistook him for a French officer. Dewey was against the colonial domination of France in Vietnam, and also against military presence of the USA in South-East Asia.
In October 35 000 French soldiers under the command of World War II hero, general Jacques Philippe Leclerc arrived in South Vietnam to restore French rule. Although Viet Minh immediately begun a guerrilla campaign to harass them, the French succeeded in taking over Saigon.