At the end of World War II, the Southeast Asian land of Vietnam was a French colony, part of their Indochina Union that included Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. French rule was consolidated by 1883, conducted for the benefit of France with little regard for the local inhabitants. In this environment, nationalistic movements were a regular occurrence, including one in the 1920s led by a man who would later take the name Ho Chi Minh.
Wounded French solider is being treated at Dien Bien Phu, April 1954.
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Background to the French Indochina War 1946-1954
Ho Chi Minh went to the Soviet Union and China for training in the 1920s and 1930s and was one of the organizers of the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930. During WW II he led guerrillas against the Japanese occupation, gaining important experience in such operations. American OSS (Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency) officers attempting to rescue downed American fliers behind Japanese lines encountered Ho Chi Minh. One of the OSS group, Archimedes Patti, had no illusions that Ho was anything but a dedicated Communist, but he also took very seriously the Vietnamese leaderís assertion he would not allow any other power to replace French rule. He desired American support, Ho told Patti, and conveyed a desire for American support in letters and a telegram to President Truman (see below).
As the defeat of Japan loomed, in March 1945, the French attempted to resume their rule in Vietnam. The Japanese declared Vietnam independent and gave power to a puppet emperor Bao Dai. But Ho Chi Minh had already organized a movement for Vietnamese independence, known as the Vietminh (or Viet Minh). They seized Hanoi in the north, replaced Bao Dai, and declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on 2 September 1945, the day the Japanese surrendered in Tokyo. But the British and Chinese were given control of Vietnam by the victorious Allies and in 1946 the British ceded control of the south back to the French, based in Saigon. The Vietminh government under Ho remained in control of only portions of the north, as the French resumed control.
Ho Chi Minh negotiated with the French and reached an agreement under which his independent Vietnam would be recognized, as part of the French union of colonies, but the French would get to keep 25,000 troops in the north until 1951. Ho accepted the terms, but the French backed out. When the French attacked the northern port city of Haiphong in late November 1946 with a heavy bombardment, the French Indochina War commenced.
Summary of the French Indochina War
The French Indochina War, sometimes called the First Indochina War, lasted for nine years. The French Army carried out conventional war with conventional armaments against the Vietminh guerrilla. In many ways this period from 1946 to 1954 was a rehearsal for the American Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s, with the U.S. taking the role of the French, and repeating their errors, while Ho Chi Minh and his military commander Vo Nguyen Giap, played the same roles in both wars and were successful both times.
As with the Americans later, the French had superior firepower and military technology but the Vietminh were fighting on home territory, could dominate the jungles and roads, and had a single-minded purpose shared from the top to the bottom of their society and army. The French commanders, on the other hand, had to contend with Paris politicians tuned to French public opinion. Their inflexible battle plans failed to adequately contend with the fast and furious pace of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) that came into being to fight this war. Fatally, the French never developed the support of the people who found it far easier to trust their relatives from the North than the French who had been their colonial oppressors. Although the French established the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to defend Vietnam in the early 1950s, the French never had deep rooted support among the people.
From 1946 through 1950, the war was primarily fought as a series of guerrilla actions by the NVA who repeatedly absorbed more massive offensives by the French. After the Communist victory in China in 1949, Ho Chi Minh began to receive significantly more support, training and supplies from China along with political recognition as the legitimate government of Vietnam.
By 1950, the Vietminh were able to mount their own offensives using heavy weapons supplied by China, attacking in the Red River Delta and northeastern Tonkin, as well as French fortified areas near the border with China. The NVA opened their offensives with massive, conventional artillery bombardments, followed by human wave attacks that sustained stupendous personnel losses but gained tactical victory. The French lost outposts (some with huge losses such as the evacuation of Cao Bang), but ultimately the Gen. Giap's string of offensives failed and Vietminh losses were so high they had to call off the attacks in 1951.
A French offensive around Hoa Binh in 1951 ended with French withdrawal, after losses of about 900 French and ten times the number of Vietminh. Giap counterattacked French garrisons and drew them into repeated attempts to seize control of the war, all of which failed with high French casualties. In April 1953, the Vietminh upped the ante by invading Laos, further increasing the burdens on the French attempts to defend the region. The French countermoves attempted to draw the Vietminh into conventional battles at strong points, culminating at Dien Bien Phu, a long valley near the Laotian border. Giap destroyed the French at Dien Bien Phu by moving artillery into the surrounding hills, a position the French had discounted as impossible. While the French held out in a battle of attrition until May 1954, they lost over 7,000 soldiers there and had 11,000 taken prisoner, most of those never repatriated.
By then French political will was gone and the war was lost. To formalize the facts on the ground, the Geneva Accords were signed on 20 July 1954, dividing Vietnam into north and south at the 17th parallel and establishing a 6 mile wide DMZ. Ho Chi Minh's Communist government controlled the north, while a U.S. sponsored Bao Dai government ruled in the south. The Geneva Accords called for free elections by July 1956 to determine a democratically elected government for a reunited country of Vietnam.
Role of the United States in Indochina after WW II
Ho Chi Minh telegram to Pres. Truman, 28 February 1946. Click for larger image. Source: National Archives.
A major concern of the United States after the end of WW II was the reconstruction of Europe. Since France was dependant on income from its colonies, the U.S. backed the French as they resumed control in former colonial areas, including Vietnam. After the civil war in China ended with the Communist victory in 1949, President Truman and President Eisenhower after him could ill afford the political damage of another loss to a Communist power in Asia. In practice, the U.S. provided money, weapons and military advisors to the French while rebuffing attempts by Ho Chi Minh to approach the U.S. (See Ho Chi Minh telegram, left). After the military failure of the French in 1954, the U.S. accepted the burden of supporting the Bao Dai regime in newly formed South Vietnam and the French gave up all claim to Vietnam. President Eisenhower wrote to the new Prime Minister of the Bao Dai government, Ngo Dinh Diem, in September 1954, promising U.S. support for a non-Communist Vietnam.
During the nine years of the First Indochina War, the French and their local allies counted 94,000 dead or missing while the north Vietnamese claimed 150,000 dead. Although the U.S. had contributed about $3 billion to assist the French in Indochina as a bulwark against Communist expansion, French colonial rule was at an end. But an even greater loss was built into the unworkable plan of the Geneva Accords that inevitably led to U.S. involvement in the Second Indochina War, the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s.