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Indochina War (1946–1954)

Title: Villagers train for Indochina War
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Fought during 1946–1954 between the French and Vietnamese nationalists, the Indochina War was the first phase of what might be called the Second Thirty Years' War and the longest war of the twentieth century. The French had established themselves in Indochina in the 1840s, and by 1887 they had formed French Indochina, made up of the three divisions of Vietnam (Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China) and the kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos. The cause of the war was the French refusal to recognize that the days of colonialism were over. In the aftermath of World War II, a weakened France was determined to hold on to its richest colony.

In 1941 veteran Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh had formed the Viet Minh to fight the Japanese, then in military occupation of Vietnam, and the French. A fusion of communists and nationalists, the Viet Minh had by 1944 liberated most of the northern provinces of Vietnam. The defeat of Japan in August 1945 created a power vacuum (all French troops were in prison camps) into which Ho moved. At the end of August 1945, Ho established in Hanoi the provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam), and on 2 September 1945 he proclaimed Vietnamese independence.

With no support from either the Soviet Union or the United States, Ho was forced to deal with France. He and French diplomat Jean Sainteny concluded an agreement in March 1946 to allow 15,000 French troops into North Vietnam, with the understanding that 3,000 would leave each year and all would be gone by the end of 1951. In return, France recognized North Vietnam as a free state within the French Union. France also promised to abide by the results of a referendum in Cochin China to determine if it would be reunited with Annam and Tonkin.

The Ho-Sainteny Agreement fell apart with the failure of talks, the Fontainebleau Conference in the summer of 1946, to resolve outstanding substantive issues and with the decision of new French governor-general of Indochina Admiral Georges Thierry d'Argenlieu to proclaim on his own initiative the independence of a republic of Cochin China. Paris officials were not worried. They believed that the Vietnamese nationalists would not go to war against France and that if they did they would be easily crushed. Violence broke out in Hanoi in November 1946, whereupon d'Argenlieu ordered the shelling of the port of Haiphong, and the war was on.

The French motives were primarily political and psychological. Perhaps only with its empire could France be counted as a great power. Colonial advocates also argued that concessions in Indochina would adversely impact other French overseas possessions, especially in North Africa, and that further losses would surely follow.

The North Vietnamese leadership planned for a protracted struggle. Former history teacher Vo Nguyen Giap commanded its military forces, formed in May 1945 into the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Giap modeled his strategy upon that of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. Giap's chief contribution came in his recognition of the political and psychological difficulties for a democracy waging a protracted and inconclusive war. He believed that French public opinion would at some point demand an end to the bloodshed. In the populous rice-producing areas, the Viet Minh would employ guerrilla tactics and ambushes. In the less populated mountain and jungle regions, the Viet Minh would engage in large-scale operations.

For eight years the French fought unsuccessfully to defeat the Viet Minh, with a steady succession of French generals directing operations. One French tactical innovation was the riverine division composed of naval and army forces, the Divisions Navales D'assaut, abbreviated as Dinassaut. By 1950 the French had six permanent Dinassauts in Indochina. The French also developed commando formations, the Groupement des Commandos Mixtes Aéroportés (GCMA, Composite Airborne Commando Groups), later known as the Groupement Mixte d'Intervention (GMI). Essentially guerrilla formations of about 400 men each, these operated behind enemy lines, sometimes in conjunction with friendly Montagnard tribesmen or Vietnamese. By mid-1954 the French had 15,000 men in such formations, but they placed a heavy strain on the badly stretched French airlift capacity.

Sometimes the French cut deeply into Viet Minh–controlled areas, but as soon as the French regrouped to attack elsewhere the Viet Minh reasserted its authority. With their superior firepower the French held the cities and the majority of the towns, while the Viet Minh managed to dominate most of the countryside, more of it as the years went by. French commanders never did have sufficient manpower to carry out effective pacification. The war was increasingly unpopular in France, and no conscripts were ever sent there, although a quarter of all of France's officers and more than 40 percent of its noncommissioned officers were in Indochina.

With Ho and the Viet Minh registering increasing success, Paris tried to appease nationalist sentiment by setting up a pliable indigenous Vietnamese regime as a competitor to the Viet Minh. In the March 1949 Elysée Agreements, Paris worked out an arrangement with former emperor Bao Dai to create the State of Vietnam (SV). Incorporating Cochin China, Annam, and Tonkin, it was to be independent within the French Union. France never did give the SV genuine independence, however. Paris retained actual control of its foreign relations and armed forces. The result was that it was never able to attract meaningful nationalist support. There were in effect but two alternatives: the Viet Minh, now labeled by the French as communists, or the French.

Meanwhile, the military situation continued to deteriorate for the French. PAVN forces achieved their successes with arms inferior in both quantity and quality to those of the French. Disparities in military equipment were offset by the Viet Minh's popular backing.

Until the end of 1949, Washington showed little interest in Indochina, apart from urging Paris to take concrete steps toward granting independence. Washington did not press too much on this issue, however, fearful that it might adversely affect France's attitude toward cooperation in the formation of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Defense Community (EDC). France was then virtually the only armed continental West European power left to stand against the Soviet Union. In effect, Washington supported France's Indochina policy in order to ensure French support in containing the Soviet Union in Europe. The United States underwrote the French military effort in Vietnam indirectly, but leaders in Washington expressed confidence based on assurances from Paris that France was granting Vietnam its independence.

The U.S. policy of indirect aid to the French effort in Indochina changed after October 1949 and the communist victory in China. This and the beginning of the Korean War in June 1950 shifted U.S. interest to the containment of communism in Asia. Zealous anticommunism now drove U.S. policy and prevented Washington from seeing the nationalist roots of the problem. With the communist victory in China, in effect the war was lost for the French. China had a long common frontier with Tonkin, and the Viet Minh could now receive large shipments of modern weapons, including artillery captured by the Chinese communists from the nationalists. In 1950, in a series of costly defeats, the French were forced to abandon a string of fortresses in far northern Tonkin along Route Coloniale 4. In these battles, the Viet Minh captured French arms sufficient to equip an entire division. Then in 1951 Giap launched a series of attacks in the Red River Delta area that turned into hard-fought and costly battles during 1951–1952. In these, Giap tried but failed to capture Hanoi and end the war. But as the French concentrated resources in the north of the country, the Viet Minh registered impressive gains in central and southern Vietnam.

From June 1950 the United States became a major military support for the French in Indochina. This was reinforced by the communist Chinese decision to enter the Korean War. Paris convinced Washington that the war in Indochina was a major element in the worldwide containment of communism. Washington now saw the French effort no longer as a case of colonialism versus nationalism but rather as a free world stand against communist expansionism.

In January 1950 both the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union recognized the North Vietnamese government. The next month, the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the SV. U.S. military aid to the French in Indochina now grew dramatically, from approximately $150 million in 1950 to more than $1 billion in 1954. By 1954, the United States was also paying 80 percent of the cost of the war. The French insisted that all aid to Bao Dai's government be channeled through them, frustrating American hopes of bolstering Bao Dai's independence. Even though a Vietnamese National Army was established in 1951, it remained effectively under French control. Meanwhile, the administrations of both President Harry S. Truman and President Dwight D. Eisenhower assured the American public that actual authority in Vietnam had been transferred to Bao Dai.

By mid-1953, despite substantial aid from the United States, France had lost authority over all but a minor portion of the country. In September, with strong American encouragement, France entered into one final and disastrous effort to achieve a position of strength from which to negotiate with the Viet Minh. Under Lieutenant General Henri Navarre, the new commander in Indochina, France now had 517,000 men, 360,000 of whom were Indochinese.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu from April to May 1954 was the culminating and most dramatic battle of the war. At this remote location in northwestern Tonkin, the French constructed a complex of supporting fortresses, defended by artillery. Navarre's strategy was to entice the Viet Minh to attack this supposedly impregnable position and there destroy them. At best he expected one or two Viet Minh divisions. Giap accepted the challenge but committed four divisions. The French mistakenly assumed that the Viet Minh could not get artillery to this remote location, but eventually the Viet Minh outgunned the French. French air assets also proved insufficient. The surrender of Dien Bien Phu on 7 May enabled the French politicians to shift the blame to the army and withdraw France from the war.

Not coincidental to the battle, a conference had already opened in Geneva to discuss Asian problems. It now took up the issue of Indochina. The 26 April–21 July Geneva Conference provided for independence for Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam. Vietnam was to be temporarily divided at the 17th Parallel, pending national elections in 1956. In the meantime, Viet Minh forces were to withdraw north of that line and French forces south of it.

In the war, the French and their allies sustained 172,708 casualties: 94,581 dead or missing and 78,127 wounded. These break down as 140,992 French Union casualties (75,867 dead or missing and 65,125 wounded) with the allied Indochina states losing 31,716 (18,714 dead or missing and 13,002 wounded). French dead or missing numbered some 20,000; Legionnaires, 11,000; Africans, 15,000; and Indo-Chinese, 46,000. The war took a particularly heavy toll among the officers, 1,900 of whom died. Viet Minh losses were probably three times those of the French and their allies, and perhaps 150,000 Vietnamese civilians also perished. One major issue was that of prisoners, both soldiers and civilians, held by the Viet Minh in barbarous conditions. Only 10,754 of the 36,979 reported missing during the war returned, and some were not released until years afterward.

The Indochina War had been three wars in one. Begun as a conflict between Vietnamese nationalists and France, it became a civil war between Vietnamese, and it was also part of the larger Cold War. As it turned out, in 1954 the civil war and the East-West conflict were only suspended. Ten years later a new war broke out in which the Americans replaced the French.

Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Dalloz, Jacques. The War in Indo-China, 1945–54. Translated by Josephine Bacon. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1990.; Gras, Yves. Histoire de la guerre d'Indochine. Paris: Editions Denoël, 1992.; Spector, Ronald H. United States Army in Vietnam: Advice and Support; The Early Years, 1941–1960. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1985.; Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

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