Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
First Indochina War
|Military history of France|
Military history of Vietnam
|Conflict||First Indochina War|
|Result||• Expulsion of France from Vietnam|
• Provisional division of Vietnam
|French Republic||Viet Minh|
|Killed in action: 52,000|
Total dead: 100,000+
|Killed in action: ?|
Total dead: 300,000+
The First Indochina War (also called the French Indochina War) was fought in Southeast Asia from 1946 through 1954 between the nation of France and the resistance movement led by Ho Chi Minh, called the Viet Minh.
The Viet Minh, seasoned by combat against occupying Japanese soldiers during the Second World War, launched a rebellion against the French authority governing the colony of Indochina. After seven years of bloody conflict, the French made their last stand at Dien Bien Phu, where they were engaged by the forces of General Vo Nguyen Giap. But contemporary military tactics were unable to defeat successive human wave attacks and the subsequent siege of the base; the French were defeated with devastating losses. The war in Indochina was not very popular with the French public, but the political stagnation of the Fourth Republic resulted in ongoing prosecution of the war. The United States supported the war politically and financially.
After the war, the Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954 made a provisional division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with the north (North Vietnam) being given to the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh and the south becoming the Republic of Vietnam under President Ngo Dinh Diem.
A weak state often overshadowed by neighboring China, Vietnam had been absorbed into the colony of French Indochina in 1887. With Western influence and education, Vietnamese nationalism grew until World War II provided a break in French control.
In 1905 the Vietnamese resistance was centered on the intellectual, Phan Boi Chau. Boi Chau looked to Japan which had modernized itself and was alone among Asian nations to resist colonization. With Prince Cuong De , Boi Chau started two organizations in Japan: Duy Tan Hoi and Vietnam Cong Hien Hoi. Due to French pressure, Japan deported Phan Boi Chau to China. Witnessing Sun Yat-Sen's 1911 nationalist revolution, Boi was inspired to create the Vietnam Quang Phuc Hoi movement in Guangzhou. From 1914 to 1917, he was imprisoned by Yuan Shi Kai's counter revolutionary government. In 1925, he was captured by French agents in Shanghai and spirited to Vietnam. Due to his popularity, Boi Chau was spared from execution and placed under house arrest, until his death in 1940.
In 1940 Japan invaded Indochina, coinciding with their ally Germany's invasion of France. Keeping the French colonial administration, the Japanese ruled from behind the scenes in a parallel of Vichy France. As far as the Vietnamese were concerned, this was a double-puppet government. The symbolic Bao Dai Emperor collaborated with the Japanese, just as he had with the French, causing no trouble and ensuring his lifestyle could continue.
Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh
Meanwhile, in 1941 Ho Chi Minh, a trained communist revolutionary, returned to Vietnam and formed the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi or Viet Minh. Ho Chi Minh was a founding member of the French Communist Party in the 1920s in Paris. He spent many years in Moscow and participated in the International Comintern. At the direction of Moscow, he combined the various Vietnamese communist groups into the Indochinese Communist Party in Hong Kong in 1930. Ho Chi Minh created the Viet Minh as an umbrella organization for all the nationalist resistance movements, de-emphasizing his communist social revolution background.
In 1945, due to a combination of Japanese exploitation and poor weather, a famine broke out killing approximately 2 million. The Viet Minh arranged a massive relief effort and won over many people. In North Vietnam, the Japanese surrendered to the Chinese Nationalists. The Viet Minh organized the "August Revolution" uprisings across the country. Ho Chi Minh was able to persuade Emperor Bao Dai to abdicate on August 25, 1945. Bao Dai was appointed "supreme adviser" to the new Viet Minh led government in Hanoi, which asserted independence on September 2.
Northern Vietnam was firmly under the control of Ho Chi Minh. In southern Vietnam, the Japanese surrendered to British forces. This success was short-lived, as the invading Allied powers quickly controlled the cities and reasserted control by a Free French colonial administration.
In 1946 Vietnam gained its first constitution and a new name, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).
The British supported the Free French in fighting the Viet Minh, the armed religious Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, and the Binh Xuyen organized crime group for power. In 1948, seeking a post-colonial solution, the French re-installed Bao Dai as head of state of Vietnam, which now comprised of central and south Vietnam.
After WWII, the United States and the USSR entered into the Cold War where both sides were determined to expand their influence over the globe. The Korean War broke out between the North Koreans supported by China and the USSR, and the ROK supported by the US and allied nations. Initially the conflict was limited to North Korean, ROK, and US military forces. However, when General Douglas MacArthur penetrated deep into North Korea, the Chinese flooded the country with an enormous army. The Korean War would have deep implications for the American involvement in Vietnam.
The USA became strongly opposed to Ho Chi Minh. His government gained recognition from the Soviet Union and China by 1950. In the south of the same year, the government of Bao Dai gained recognition by the United States and the United Kingdom.
French domestic politics
France's post World War II Fourth Republic governments were weak, unstable and ineffectual, with fourteen prime ministers in succession between the creation of the Fourth Republic in 1947 and the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The turnover of governments left France unable to prosecute the war with any consistent policy. France was increasingly unable to afford the conflict in Indochina and, by 1954, the United States was paying 80% of France's costs . Difficulties in the French Colonial Empire, specifically the loss of Indochina and the government's inability to resolve the crisis in Algeria, were major contributing factors to the fall of the Fourth Republic in 1959.
At the beginning of the war, the U.S. was neutral in the conflict, both because of an inherent opposition to imperialism and consequently to helping colonial powers regain empire, and because most of its attention was focused on rebuilding Europe following the devastation of WWII. However, after the infamous X Article was published in 1947, U.S. foreign policy changed dramatically, giving rise to the doctrine of containment. President Harry Truman began covertly authorizing support for the French in their attempt to retake Indochina, giving money and supplies in an effort to suppress the rebellion, and in July 1950 announced publicly that the U.S. was doing so. It was feared in Washington that if Ho were to win the war, with his ties to Soviet leader Josef Stalin, he would establish a Soviet-style government with Moscow ultimately controlling Vietnamese affairs. The perception of a communist dominated Southeast Asia was enough to spur the U.S. to support France, so that the perceived spread of Soviet communism could be contained.
The War By Year
The French had first boasted to Ho Chi Minh that it would only take a standard police action of a few weeks, "to clean you out". The first conflict broke out in Haiphong after the Viet Minh captured a French patrol boat. The French fleet began a naval bombardment that killed 6,000 Vietnamese people in the city and the Viet Minh quickly agreed to a cease-fire. There was no intention among the Communists to give up though, and General Vo Nguyen Giap soon brought up 30,000 men to attack the city. Although the French were badly outnumbered, their better weaponry and naval support allowed them to beat off the Viet Minh attacks. Guerilla warfare ensued with the French in control of the cities and the Viet Minh in control of the countryside. French patrols kept control of the major colonial roads during daylight hours, but at night the Viet Minh took them, often planting booby traps for the French patrols that would be coming the next day.
General Vo Nguyen Giap moved his command to Tran Trao and began to set up what would become known as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" during the American War. The French sent assault teams after his bases, but Giap refused to meet them in a conventional battle. Wherever the French troops went, the Viet Minh disappeared, but as soon as they marched out, the Viet Minh would return. Late in the year the French launched "Operation Lea" to take out the Viet Minh communications center at Bac Kan. They failed to capture Ho Chi Minh as they hoped, and gained nothing of value except to kill 9,000 Viet Minh soldiers.
Worried by the stalemate, France began to look for some way to oppose the Viet Minh politically, with an alternative government in Saigon. They began negotiations with the former Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai to lead an "autonomous" government within the French Union of nations. Two years before, the French had refused Ho's request of this same position, however they were willing to give it to Bao Dai as he had always cooperated with French rule of Vietnam in the past.
France officially recognized the "independence" of the "State of Vietnam" under Bao Dai. However, France still controlled all defense issues and all foreign relations. The Viet Minh quickly denounced this puppet government and stated that they wanted "real independence, not Bao Dai independence". Later on, as a concession to this new government and a way to increase their numbers, France agreed to the formation of the Vietnamese National Army, to be commanded by officers of the French army. Never an effective force, these troops were used mostly to garrison quiet sectors so French forces would be available for combat. Private Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Catholic and the Binh Xuyen gangster armies were used in the same way. The Communists also got help in 49 when Chairman Mao Zedong succeeded in taking control of China and defeating the Kuomintang. The French also recognized the independence of the Kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia.
The United States recognized the Vietnamese state, but many nations, even in the west, viewed it as simply a French puppet regime and would not deal with it at all. The United States began to give military aid to France in form of weaponry and military observers. General Giap began launching attacks on French bases along the Chinese border. China and the Soviet Union recognized Ho Chi Minh as the legitimate ruler of Vietnam and sent him more and more supplies and material aid. The Viet Minh captured a great deal of French supplies, much of the material which came from America, during these raids. 1950 also marked the first time that napalm was ever used in Vietnam.
The military situation began to improve for France when their new commander, General Jean Marie de Lattre de Tassigny built a fortified line from Hanoi to the Gulf of Tonkin, across the Red River delta, to hold the Viet Minh in place and use his troops to smash them against this barricade, which became known as the "De Lattre Line". This leads to a period of success for the French. Every effort by Vo Nguyen Giap to break the line fails and every attack he makes is answered by a French counter-attack that destroys his forces. Viet Minh casualties rose alarmingly during this period, leading some to question the leadership of the Communist government, even within the party. However, any benefit this may have reaped for France was negated by the increasing opposition to the war in France. Although all of their forces in Indochina were volunteers, their officers were being killed faster than they could train new ones. Their only response is to ask for more millions of dollars from America. By the end of the year, French forces have lost 90,000 men.
The Viet Minh launched new attacks when the French were overconfident to further weaken moral. At the end of the year, general de Lattre died suddenly and was replaced by Raul Salan. The Viet Minh cut their supply lines and begin to seriously wear down the resolve of the French forces. There are continued raids, skirmishes and guerilla attacks, but through most of the rest of the year, each side withdrawn to prepare itself for larger operations.
Former General Dwight D. Eisenhower became President of the United States and first advanced the so-called domino theory, warning that if America did not support France in stopping the Communists in Indochina, all of the Eastern, India and Southeastern Asia would fall to the "Communist Bloc". In April, Giap continued to pin down the French with guerilla harassment, also invading Laos. US Vice President Nixon demanded that France should never give up, but had little more than words to offer. The only real change came in May when General Henri Navarre took command in Indochina. He reports to the government "…that there was no possibility of winning the war in Indo-China". Still, he promised offensive action and began planning "Operation Castor" which depended on the establishment of a new air base near the Lao border at Dien Bien Phu. The fight for control of this position would be the longest and hardest battle for the French Far East Expeditionary Corps and would be remembered by the veterans as "57 Days of Hell".
Defeat of the French
- Main article: Battle of Dien Bien Phu
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu occurred in 1954 between Viet Minh forces under Vo Nguyen Giap and French airborne and Foreign Legion forces. The battle was fought near the village of Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam and became the last battle between the French and the Vietnamese in the First Indochina War. The battle took place prior to planned peace talks and were undertaken by the French in an attempt to strenghten their position in negotiations. The battle began on March 13 when the Viet Minh attacked pre-emptively suprising the French with heavy artillery. Their supply lines interrupted, the French position became untenable, particularly when the advent of the monsoon season made dropping supplies and reinforcements by parachute difficult.
With defeat imminent, the French sought to hold on till the opening of the Geneva peace meeting on April 26. The last French offensive took place on May 4, but it was ineffective. The Viet Minh then began to hammer the fort with newly acquired Russian rocket artillery. The final fall took two days, May 6th and 7th, during which the French fought on but were eventually overrun by a huge frontal assault.
At least 2,200 members of the 20,000-strong French forces died during the battle. Of the 100,000 or so Vietnamese involved, there were an estimated 8,000 killed and another 15,000 wounded, almost half of the attacking force.
The prisoners taken at Dien Bien Phu were the greatest number the Viet Minh had ever captured: one-third of the total captured during the entire war.
The victory by the Viet Minh led to the 1954 Geneva accords.
Geneva Conference and Partition
The Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954 recognized the 17th parallel as a "provisional military demarcation line" temporarily dividing the country into two states, Communist North Vietnam and pro-Western South Vietnam.
The Geneva Accords promised elections in 1956 to determine a national government for a united Vietnam. However only France and the North Vietnamese government (DRV) signed the document. The U.S. and the government in Saigon refused to abide by the agreement, believing that the election would result in an easy victory for Ho Chi Minh. Emperor Bao Dai from his home in France appointed Ngo Dinh Diem as Prime Minister of South Vietnam. With American support, in 1955 Diem used a referendum to remove the former Emperor and declare himself as president of the Republic of Vietnam
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