The Vietnamese famine of 1945 (Vietnamese: Nạn đói Ất Dậu – famine of the Yiyou Year) was a famine that occurred in northern Vietnam in French Indochina during World War II from October 1944 to late 1945, which at the time was under Japanese occupation from 1940 with Vichy France as a puppet government. Between 400,000 and 2 million people are estimated to have starved to death during this time. The demographics vary from French estimates of 600,000-700,000 dead, to official Vietnamese numbers of 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 victims.
According to a 2018 study, the primary cause of the famine were typhoons that reduced the availability of food, Japan's occupation, American attacks on the Vietnamese transport system, and French colonial administration hindered an effective famine alleviation response.
The famine had many causes. The direct cause was the effects of World War II on French Indochina. The involvement of France and Japan in Vietnam caused detrimental effects to the economic activities of the Vietnamese. In 1944, after US bombing cut off supplies of coal from the north to Saigon, the French and Japanese used rice and maize as fuel for power stations. According to diplomat Bui Minh Dung, "the Japanese occupation of Vietnam was the direct cause, in the final analysis, of several other factors, in turn affecting the famine, but their military efforts together with their economic policy for the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere per se seem to have systematically played a role considerably greater than any other factors in the Vietnamese starvation."
The mismanagement of the French administration in Vietnam was the indirect cause. The French reformed the economy to serve the administration and to meet the needs of war because they had been being invaded themselves. Natural causes included natural disasters such as droughts and floods, which destroyed northern crops.
The crop failures of 1943–45 were compounded by lack of dike maintenance following US bombing of the north and the catastrophic rainfall of August-September 1944, causing flooding and loss of rice plants.
After the Great Depression in the 1930s, France returned to its policy of economic protectorate and monopolized the exploitation of natural resources of French Indochina. The people in French Indochina had to increase the economic value of the area by growing cash crops in place of lower-value agricultural produce, but only the French, a small minority of Vietnamese and Hoa and some people in the cities benefited.
A similar poor harvest as in the famine had happened in 1937, but the administration had managed to counter it by prepared food reserves and a series of public works projects for poor farmers, akin to the American New Deal.
When the war started, France was weakened. In East Asia, Japan began to expand and viewed French Indochina as a bridge into Southeast Asia and a means to isolate and further weaken the Nationalist government of China. In mid-1940, Metropolitan France was occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan increased pressure on France and entered French Indochina that September. Vietnam was pulled into a wartime economy, with France and Japan competing in administration. Japanese troops forced farmers to grow jute, instead of rice, thus depriving them of needed food, but France had already started the same policy to a smaller degree. The land set aside for growing staple crops such as maize and potatoes was decreased to make land for growing cotton, jute, and other industrial plants. Because of the decreased land available for growing, harvests of staple crops decreased considerably. Crops were also exported to Japan.
The militaries of both France and Japan forcibly seized food from farmers to feed their troops. By 1941, there were 140,000 Japanese troops in French Indochina in addition to the Vichy French forces. During the occupation the Allies made frequent air strikes against roads, warehouse and transportation facilities, which made the transport of rice from the south to the north extremely difficult. In the meantime, the puppet Vichy French civilian administration was dysfunctional and unable to distribute remaining food stocks to areas where needed. In March 1945, the Japanese ousted the Vichy administration and replaced it with the Japanese-sponsored Empire of Vietnam, headed by Trần Trọng Kim. While this new government increased efforts to alleviate the famine, the inadequate food supply and the hoarding of food by the Imperial Japanese Army made their efforts futile.
In northern Vietnam, a drought and pests caused the winter-spring harvest of 1944 to decrease by 20%. Then, a flood during the harvest season caused the crisis to occur, which led to famine in 1945.
The exact number of deaths caused by the 1944–1945 famine is unknown and is a matter of controversy. Various sources estimate between 400,000 and 2 million people starved in northern Vietnam during this time. In May 1945, the envoy at Hanoi asked the northern provinces to report their casualties. Twenty provinces reported that a total of 380,000 people starved to death and 20,000 more died because of disease. In October, a report from a French military official estimated half a million deaths. Governor General Jean Decoux wrote in his memoirs A la barre de l'Indochine that about 1 million northerners had starved to death. Modern Vietnamese historians estimate between 1 and 2 million deaths. Ho Chi Minh, in his Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945, used a figure of 2 million.
In March 1945 the Viet Minh (a communist-controlled common front fighting for the independence of Vietnam) urged the population to ransack rice warehouses and to refuse to pay their taxes. Between 75 and 100 warehouses were consequently raided. The rebellion against both the effects of the famine and the authorities that were seen as responsible for it bolstered the Viet Minh's popularity helped it recruit many members at the time.
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