Indochinese revolution

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While there is no single, widely accepted name for the period, the Indochinese revolution (1947-1950) often refers to the bitter fighting which ensued in Vietnam and surrounding countries after France reasserted its colonial authority over Indochina soon after the end of World War II and created a proto-state of Vietnam under a provisional government. The limited authority of that government was unacceptable to a wide range of Communist and non-Communist Vietnamese nationalists, but it took time for an armed resistance to form. This conflict is also sometimes called the First Indochina War.

For more information, see: Vietnam wars.

The Viet Minh, certainly Communist-controlled but, its earlier days, containing other nationalists, eventually formed an armed force that defeated the French and led to the 1954 Geneva accord that partitioned Vietnam into North and South. Vo Nguyen Giap emphasized "not only did we fight in the military field, but in the political, economic, and cultural fields." [1] In other words, they had a much clearer concept of grand strategy than the French, who were more focused on continuation of the status quo than achieving a specific objective.

Admiral Georges d'Argenlieu, the High Commissioner was the senior official, with a military deputy. While the senior French military and civilian leadership made questionable decisions, French as well as Vietnamese soldiers of middle rank and lower were often highly motivated and proficient. Bernard Fall quotes a French lieutenant colonel:

There is a difference between us French and Don Quixote. Don Quixote rode against windmills because he thought they were giants, but we ride against windmills knowing they are windmills but doing it all the same because we think that in this materialistic world, there ought to be someone who rides against windmills.[2]

Vietnamese nationalism has a long history, but it is quite separate from any particular ideology. Fighters against the French, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, wanted to restore the Nguyen Dynasty, to return to their roles as aristocrats or mandarin officials. The nationalist tradition goes back far before the French; the Trung Sisters' revolt against the Chinese, in the first century CE, is still celebrated. Hammer makes the vivid observation that the Sisters have as strong a role in Vietnamese identity as does Joan of Arc in French identity. [3]

U.S. policy, after the end of the Second World War, was in flux until 1949, with some decisions probably driven by the event of the Korean War. Before that time, there were competing opinions of supporting the French and Bao Dai, or of working with Ho Chi Minh.


In many practical respects, the revolution began with the declaration of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1946. This must be taken in context; at least in the eyes of the French, the specific negotiations affected only Tonkin, the northern part of Vietnam, and to some extent the central part of Annam. At first, the French negotiated separately with Cochin China in the South, and, while Cambodia and Laos were parts of French Indochina, they were not essential issues to the Vietnamese nationalists.

Ho's September speech began with

All men are created equal. The Creator has given us certain inalienable rights: the right to Life, the right to be Free, and the right to achieve Happiness...These immortal words are taken from the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a larger sense, this means that: all the peoples of the world are equal; all the people have the right to live, to be happy, to be free. [turning to the Declaration of the French Revolution in 1791, "It also states Men are born, must be free, and have equal rights. These are undeniable truths.[4]

Nevertheless, French forces, assisted by British troops, reasserted control within the month. French solutions still focused around a concept of French Indochina, with multiple states under Bao Dai, former Emperor of Annam, the last of the Nguyen Dynasty and de facto head of Indochinese state during the Second World War. While the Viet Minh had forced his abdication, when it became convenient to have a Head of State, essentially everyone conveniently ignored the abdication.

It was, however, by the end of 1946 before the French Far East Expeditionary Force,[5] with the French acronym CEFEO, established. [6]

A substantial French military force under the command of Gen. Jacques Leclerc arrived in Hanoi on March 18, after the March 6 agreement among Jean Sainteny (Commissioner in Tonkin), Ho Chi Minh, and Vu Hong Khanh of the VNQDD. d'Argenlieu had been on leave, but was amazed "yes, that is the word, my amazement that France had such a fine expeditionary corps in France and yet its leaders preferred to negotiate rather than fight." Indeed, Leclerc, who had a distinguished Second World War combat record, preferred negotiation rather than the bellicose approach of d'Argenlieu, who had no ground combat experience and whose experience of war was at sea during the First World War. Leclerc knew limitations: "At the present time, there is no question of imposing ourselves by force on masses who desire evolution and innovation."

By July, Leclerc transferred to North Africa; he and d'Argenlieu were totally incompatible. He was replaced by General Jean Valluy. When the Viet Minh became active in Haiphong, d'Argenlieu, in Paris at the time, asked his government to authorize Valluy to use full military firepower, and was so authorized.

Valluy ordered that the Viet Minh evacuate Haiphong in two hours. At that point, French ground troops attacked, and there was bombardment by aircraft and naval guns. Even the French agreed there were 6,000 deaths; the Vietnamese claimed 20,000. [7] By December, there was outright war between Viet Minh (under Vo Nguyen Giap and French troops. Moutet and d'Argenlieu rejected further negotiations, and this remained the policy until the French government changed; Paul Ramadier fired d'Argenlieu and replaced him with Emile Bollaert.[8]

Paul Mus, who had grown up in Indochina, became Bollaert's political adviser. He had been Leclerc's political adviser, until he resigned in May 1946 to head the government School of Overseas France in Paris. Mus was not a negotiator, but a messenger to Ho, who carried French proposals, in March, which Mus himself called a "request for guarantees equivalent to surrender". Mus, however, said he had done this to get honest responses from the Viet Minh, and to clarify rumors that Ho was dead. Ho asked Mus if they had traded places, would Mus accept the offer? Mus agreed he would not, and Ho concluded "In the French Union, there is no place for cowards. If I accepted these conditions, I would be one."[9]


In October 1947, the French command launched a large and complex operation called Operation Lea, which was intended to try to devastate the Viet Minh in one major campaign. CEFEO was under budget and time pressures that might soon deprive it of 25,000 or more soldiers, so they had to strike hard while they had the resources.

The attack began with paratroopers jumping on Viet Minh bases in Bac Kan Province and nearby areas. They literally found Ho's mail on his desk, but neither captured nor killed any senior leaders. An armored group had struck out from Cao Bang Province; the Viet Minh took a stand at Phu Hoang Toa, north of Cao Bang, but the French broke through. Yet another riverborne force moved on the Viet Minh from another direction.

Having satisfied themselves that they could not fight the French head-on in conventional battle, they dispersed and successfully evaded, although there were as many as 9,500 Viet Minh casualties — which could include sympathizers and civilians. Ironically, in the separate Operation Lison, a light infantry force of two battalions of T'ai montagnards, cleared their homeland mountains for nearly five years.[10]

By 1947, any serious chance that the French might negotiate a non-military solution with Ho Chi Minh were dead, with the decision to recognize Bao Dai, and the start of serious negotiations among Bao Dai, Gen. Nguyen Van Xan of Cochin China and French High Commissioner Emile Bollaert at Ha Long Bay. While the initial agreement was rejected by Bao Dai's advisors, the direction was irreversible and a firm agreement made in 1948. [11]

To the Chinese consul in Washington, the U.S. Department of State offered to let the Consul in Hanoi be an observer of withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from the Chinese section of Hanoi, but "no circumstances to become involved in any situation in any manner which could be interpreted as an attempt to mediate a political issue." [12] On the same day, the U.S. Consul in Saigon reported that the French minister for colonies, Marius Moutet, had told the Socialist press that France was desirous of settling the conflict and was willing to give autonomy of over internal affairs, but France would continue to control external relations and to protect French economic interests. As the Consul put it, "All this far less than Vietnam has claimed and far short of independence, but many Cochin-Chinese who formerly spoke of union and outright independence now speak of progressive independence."


Bao Dai participated in discussions about a provisional government, in which he might be an acceptable, if not ideal, Head of State. [13] The new Provisional Central Government, established in March with Gen. Xan as chief of government, was viewed critically by nationalists as well as communists. Of the document, Bao Dai said "What they call a Bao Dai solution becomes just a French solution." [14]

Bao Dai, however, did not really support this agreement until June 5, when Bao Dai, Xuan, and Ballaert signed a second agreement at Ha Long Bay. [15] Most prominent nationalists, including Ngo Dinh Diem, refused positions in the government. Many went into voluntary exile. [16]

There was relatively little combat in 1948, generally limited to road ambushes. [17]

The role of Ho's Communism

See also: Ho Chi Minh

A major factor in the global context of negotiations was the overall conflict between Communism and the West, which became the Containment Policy. One of the stumbling blocks, in many negotiations between delegations under Ho and those led by France or the U.S., is the assumption that dealing with Ho was equivalent to dealing with Moscow. In 1948, however, U.S. State Department analysts estimated that the "Vietnamese Communists are not subservient to Moscow," and it had been the "French colonial press that had been strongly anti-American, approximating the official Moscow position."[7]

Ho made it clear that he saw Vietnam as standing alone, with France's goals quite different from the Vietnamese. While his movement had received help from Communist China, Nationalist China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, he felt the greatest spiritual and material help had come to the U.S., and he wanted to remember the U.S. as a friend and ally. [18]

It would be a grievous mistake to regard Ho as a kindly uncle interested only in altruism. Yet the record showed he was quite capable of playing Communist factions against one another, in pursuit of his own agenda.

U.S. policy statement

In an internal review, Charles Reed, head of the Division of Philippine and Southeast Asian Affairs (SEA), felt that the U.S. anti-communist activity should increase. W.W. Butterworth, the director of Far Eastern Affairs (FE), disagreed, saying nationalism should take its course. Reflecting the State view, a policy statement was issued in September 1948, which stated long-term U.S. objectives as:[19]

  1. Creation of an independent, non-Communist state, democratic and friendly to the U.S. but "commensurate with the capabilities of the people involved"
  2. Encourage its association with the West, especially with France
  3. Raise the standard of living to neutralize Communist economic appeals
  4. Block the expansion of China


At the Elysee Palace, Bao Dai and French Head of State Vincent Auriol signed an agreement on March 8, 1949. Under French law, this agreement could not come into force until the Cochin China government reunited with the other parts of Vietnam.[20] By this time, Leon Pignon had replaced Bollaert as High Commissioner, who had resigned in protest over lack of French support of his policy of compromise. The French National Assembly approved legislation to create the needed territorial assembly in Cochin China on May 21, Auriol signed on June 4, and the merger became effective on June 7.[21] The legislation was controversial in France, since many members of the Assembly had interests in Cochin China, but Pignon shepherded it through and it eventually passed with a large margin. [22]

In July, Bao Dai was named to head a provisional government, creating Vietnam from the Indochinese regions of Tonkin (north), Annam (central) and Cochinchina (south). Among the many problems were that the non-Communist groups had too many conflicting ties, such as the VNQDD with the Chinese Kuomintang; the Constitutionalists, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Binh Xuyen with France; the Dai Viet with Japan. Given this factionalism, the Viet Minh, accurately or not, enjoyed support as an uniquely Vietnamese faction.[23]

Ngo Dinh Diem was the leader of the nationalist majority in the National Assembly, committed to neither Bao Dai nor Ho Chi Minh. Diem refused to lead the cabinet, saying, on January 4,

The national aspirations of the Vietnamese people will be satisfied only on the day when our nation obtains the same political status which India and Pakistan enjoy...the best posts [should be] for those who merited most of the country: I speak of the resistance elements.[24]

With Diem's refusal, Bao Dai himself, in July, assumed the role of Prime Minister, heading a cabinet of inexperienced officials. When the French Chief of Staff, Gen. George Revers had said in May and June that Ho had been able to prevent French intervention, it was because he surrounded himself with "men of incomparable worth". Bao Dai had no such group.

In May, the Viet Minh had sent a negotiator, Ho Dac Lien, known as a nationalist, to the Bao Dai government, suggesting that government negotiate as representative of national unity, representing the Viet Minh as well. [25]

By the summer, Ho's faction was becoming more and more Communist-identified, although he said in an August interview that Vietnam was not in the Soviet camp. Nevertheless, more and more of the ostensibly coalition posts were filled by Communists, and in November, the Vietnamese labor groups sent representatives to Communist international labor forums.[26]

U.S. Asian policy review

Immediately after the Elysee Palace signing, France requested U.S. aid to form a Vietamese National Army (VNA), cautioning that the Chinese army was near the border. Dean Acheson, however, had replaced George C. Marshall as Secretary of State, and was not as enthusiastic about supporting the French. In January, before the signing, both Acheson and influential Undersecretary Robert Lovett, had advised that the U.S. should not support an agreement that had no real chance of success, if only a French puppet were created. The U.S. Ambassador to France, however, said Bao Dai was the only alternative in sight, acknowledging he was a "calculated risk." [27]

Also in April, soon after the signing, Charles Reed reported on a meeting with Paul Mus, who told him Bao Dai had no popular support, and that Ho was a nationalist before he was a Communist. Reed was dubious about the latter, but still cautioned the U.S. of putting too much support behind a possible puppet.[28]

The U.S. still was largely reactive to events. In September, Secretary of State Acheson asked Ambassador-at-Large Philip Jessup, who had prepared the Department White Paper on China, [29] with the assistance of Colgate University President Everett Case and Rockefeller Foundation's ex-President Raymond Fosdick, to reevaluate U.S. Asian policy after Mao took control of China. Their recommendations included providing anti-communist support to Indochina, Burma, and Siam (i.e., Thailand), including advisory support as had been done by the MAAG in Greece. Of this, Time magazine observed, "The basic and highly dubious premise behind the tentative program is that Red China will not seriously threaten U.S. interests during this generation," and further criticized the U.S. military opinion that China was not going to be a puppet of the Soviet Union. While there eventually was a Sino-Soviet split, this was not obvious in 1949, so the article does reflect some of the U.S. political appraisal of the day.[30]

Inside the U.S. Department of State, there was dispute on the best moves, with different opinions in the Office of European Affairs and its Western European (WE) branch, and the Far East (FE) office with its Southeast Asian (SEA) division. Two key decisions, to recognize Bao Dai and to support the French, originated in an overall U.S. anti-communist and "Europe First" approach.

In March, the President of the Philippines, as well as the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, suggested the desirability of a NATO-style pact for Asia; Acheson was reluctant. [31] Prior to Jessup's appointment as an adviser, Dean Rusk had recommended Western initiatives for an Asian alliance, but, possibly due to personality and bureaucratic conflicts, Butterworth was opposed.

Fosdick, as Consultant to the Department, believed that Asian nationalism was unstoppable, and the U.S. should go with its drivers. [32] Ogburn, the SEA division chief, cautioned that support of a French colonial army could hurt U.S. anticommunist goals worldwide, and indeed in Europe. Ogburn wrote

"the good offices formula as applied in Indochina would have no efficacy at present in Indochina and that, regardless of the point of departure, any third party intervening between the French and Ho Chi Minh against neither of whom the restraints and compulsions so far effective against both parties in Indonesia are available....Past experience with Ho Chi Minh indicates that he quickly dominates any coalition he enters.[33]

Butterworth, however, disagreed with Ogburn and Fosdick, agreeing that the French/Bao Dai option had a low probability of success. In an exchange of mixed metaphors, Butterworth responded to Fosdick's question "Why, then, do we tie ourselves to the tail of a [French] kite?" with "Because the odds are heavily against a horse entered in a given race, is no reason to withdraw that horse from the race."[34]

An internal State Department paper opposed Marshall Plan-style economic assistance to Southeast Asia. Ogburn (SEA) recommended moderate military aid to Thailand, Burma and Indonesia, but to Indochina only if other Asian nations recognized Bao Dai and France made concessions. Butterworth (FE), Ogburn's superior, was cautious due to the "lessons of China". The British had approached Butterworth about an overall anti-communist strategy in Southeast Asia, about which he cautioned "any concerted effort on the part of the United States and United Kingdom to build a front against Communism could result in whetting of the appetites of the countries of the Far East." He argued for "self-help", assessing a parallel aid request from Thailand as the "missing increment" that would mean the difference between Thai success and failure. Acheson later spoke of the principle of supplying only the "missing component."[35]

Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, however, told the National Security Council, in June, that the military supported aid. Rusk coordinated the varied positions, which were to result in NSC policy paper 48/1, issued on December 23, 1949. [36]


Road ambushes continued, with a particularly large one on September 3. The French conducted several large sweeps, reminiscent of the U.S. "search and destroy" missions of the future, especially in the Mekong and Red River Deltas. Some of the sweeps used 14 to 17 maneuver battalions, which went into the range of corps-sized operations.[37]

This was still a period of organization for the Viet Minh. In August, Giap formed the first divisional-sized force, Regimental Group 308. Also affecting the Viet Minh was the declaration of the People's Republic of China in October, which allowed an increase in weapons shipments. With this increased aid, the Viet Minh formations became stronger. Combat operations using these larger forces, containing larger battalions armed with Chinese heavy weapons, would take place in the next year. By the end of the year, however, the Viet Minh now were equipped with artillery (American-made recoilless rifles and 105mm howitzers).[38]


France, on 29 January 1950, designated Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as autonomous "Associated States" within the French Union. Voting in the lower house of Parliament was (396-193) with 181 of the opposing votes coming from French parliamentarians.[39] This was another example of the strength of the French Communist Party, the power of which motivated the U.S. geopolitical desire to support the Western-oriented parts of the French government. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. recognized them, which allowed direct military and economic assistance. The People's Republic of China responded by recognizing Ho's Democratic Republic of Vietnam, followed by Soviet recognition. Mao's revolutionary theory was praised in the Viet Minh press.


According to Giap, there was, at this time, an active resistance to the French, within the context of a "long revolutionary war" that generally follow three stages: *defensive

  • equilibrium
  • offensive

"From 1950 onwards, campaigns of local counter-offensives and we won the offensive on the northern battlefront."[40]

While the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff supported aid, they were conservative, saying "United States military aid not be granted unconditionally; rather, that it be carefully controlled and that the aid program be integrated with political and economic programs". Nevertheless, they saw little choice, assessing that Bao Dai's government could not survive without the 140,000 French soldiers in the field.

If the United States were now to insist upon independence for Vietnam and a phased French withdrawal from that country, this might improve the political situation. The French could be expected to interpose objections to, and certainly delays in, such a program. Conditions in Indochina, however, are unstable and the situation is apparently deteriorating rapidly so that the urgent need for at least an initial increment of military and economic aid is psychologically overriding.

They recommended an immediate USD $15,000,000 in aid, with additional funding granted in accordance with still-developing United States policy. [41]

Also in April, the Viet Minh and China executed a more formal agreement for assistance to the Viet Minh. Since January, Giap had been organizing three divisions, the 304th, 309th, and 312th. Heavy weapons for these divisions would come from China. Entry-level personnel for these came from a Viet Minh draft conducted in Annam and Tonkin, while training for more experienced troops was done at Chinese camps. [42]

As another example of the pattern of the start of an offensive in late fall or winter, in October 1950, the Viet Minh started a campaign against French forts along the Chinese border. Large Viet Minh forces, in divisional strength, defeated isolated forts one by one, until the main base at Lang Son evacuated prematurely. French losses included 6,000 men and huge quantities of supplies. [43] The attacks on fixed formations were accompanied by ambushes for the expected reinforcements coming by road. On particular, two relief columns, one with 1,500 soldiers and one with 4,500, were blocked on narrow mountain roads beginning on October 3, and, by the time they could link together, they were on foot. While three companies were dropped at That Khe on the 8th, only 300 men from the ground columns had reached That Khe when it was evacuated. Even with escape by other means, there were a total of roughly 600 survivors from the 5,000 men in the ground forces. The Viet Minh had established complete control of the Sino-Vietnamese border.[44]

Increasing U.S. involvement

A January 5, 1950 memorandum from the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs described the U.S. policy assumption that [45] saw Vietnam as an autonomous state within the French Union, with Bao Dai, the former Emperor of Annam, as Head of State; U.S. policy was to strengthen him. The document said that Ho had been getting supplies from the Chinese Communists, but the extent was not known. A January 17 telegram from the Secretary of State said "Ho Chi Minh is not a patriotic nationalist but a Commie Party member with all the sinister implications in the relationship."[46]

U.S. diplomatic traffic in January speaks of unpopularity of Bao Dai, and how he could be strengthened. The designated charge d'affaires of the presumed U.S. mission to Vietnam recommended de jure recognition of Bao Dai, "de facto recognition of Bao Dai, in the popular meaning of the term, would mean that Bao Dai was in control of certain areas, and we recognized him to that extent only. The question would certainly arise, and not only in Communist propaganda, as to whether, in fact, Ho Chi Minh was in control of a larger area and a larger number of souls."[47]

On 27 February the National Security Council issued memorandum 64 which dealt exclusively with United States policy toward Indochina. Its text included:

The neighboring countries of Thailand and Burma

could be expected to fall under Communist domination if Indochina were controlled by a Communist-dominated government. The balance of Southeast Asia would then be in grave hazard. Accordingly, the Departments of State and Defense should prepare as a matter of priority - [a] program of all practicable measures designed to protect U.S. interests in

Indochina. [48]

President Truman, apparently without consulting any Members of Congress, approved the position on 24 April 1950 and the United States was officially committed to the Indochina war. "[49]

Initial elements of a U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group-Indochina (MAAG-I) first landed in Saigon in May, with minimal supply shipments in June. At approximately the same time, Gen. Wei Guo-quing brought a Chinese assistance group to the Viet Minh.

The Korean War began in June. This was an immediate trigger for the U.S. to order military aid to the French, to strengthen as an Indochinese bulwark against Communist expansion. This involved support to the Bao Dai government, which the U.S. recognized early in the year. At this point, there was partial agreement within the State Department that a coalition involving Ho was undesirable, although there were other specialists, as mentioned, who believed Ho would eventually dominate. The regional offices agreed on supporting Bao Dai and the French, while the Bureau of Intelligence and Research felt that Ho was inevitable.[50]

Ho was seen as unattractive, but less so than Bao Dai. Further, French commitments in Indochina interfered with their military role in Europe. Assistant secretary of state Dean Rusk, however, saw Ho as captured by Moscow.[51]


This was a year in which the Viet Minh went through political and military changes, but also faced a revitalized French command. General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, who was much respected for his service during the Second World War. The Viet Minh, however, organized three more divisions early in the year.


Given that the French had fallen back to a line north of Hanoi, the Viet Minh focused on Tonkin and consigned Cochin China to a lower priority. Giap wanted to free the northern areas to allow easy logistics from China, and launched a major offensive, with newly formed units of divisional strength. Their goal was to be in Hanoi by Tet in mid-February.

Giap did not fully appreciate, while he had tactical initiative, that the French had fallen back to a defensible line, behind which they had significant mobility, as opposed to their situation at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. When the Viet Minh tried to use similar tactics in the more open Hanoi area, they took severe casualties from French air and naval firepower at the Battle of Vinh Yen. The trend was no longer one-sided.

They also took severe casualties from French air and naval firepower at Mao Khe, Dong Trieu and the Dong River were repelled between March and June. [52] De Lattre, among other innovations, put every plane that could fly into the air, and the counterattacks included barrels of napalm rolled out of the cargo doors of transport aircraft. A total of approximately 20,000 casualties led to internal political criticism of Giap (see below).

De Lattre built strong defensive lines around Hanoi and Haiphong, upgraded airfields, and made much greater use of U.S.-supplied aircraft. In October, he defeated another thrust at Nghia Lo in the Central Highlands of Annam, and then counterattacked in Operation Lotus, recapturing Hoa Binh. Gen. Boyer Latour, the regional commander in Tonkin, formed Groupes Mobile, or motorized combined arms brigades.[53]

Also in October, de Lattre was diagnosed with a rapidly progressive and inoperable cancer, which quickly drained the strength of the commander of a turnaround. Giap continued steady rebuilding, moving three divisions to threaten Hoa Binh again, and sending reinforcements to local forces.

Viet Minh political and organizational changes

While the Indochinese Communist Party had gone underground, officially dissolved in 1945 to obscure the Viet Minh's communist base, it resurfaced as the Vietnam Workers' Party in February, at a meeting called the Second National Party Congress of the ICP. Ho was elected chairman and Truong Chinh as general secretary. Truong Chinh had been the party ideologist and #2 in status since the return to Vietnam in 1946, although he had not been especially active in the early revolutionary days. The renamed Communists, now called the Viet Nam Workers' Party (Lao Dong) became far more prominent, although the Lien Viet coalition ostensibly remained a broad front.[54]

These defeats of early 1951 caused low morale and desertions. Giap's political opponent in the Viet Minh, Truong Chinh, attempted to have him relieved, and Giap survived with humiliation. Giap had learned a valuable lesson.

The countryside was to encircle the towns, the mountains were to dominate the rice lands of the plains. [55]

He changed to leading the French on futile but costly chases. He encouraged them to defend static positions while he kept mobile, until, in 1954, he could fight a set-piece battle on his terms: Dien Bien Phu.

De Lattre, although inspired in defense, may have become overconfident of his ability to fight the Viet Minh from fixed positions. With an uncomfortable similarity to the Maginot Line, he ordered the construction of a chain of 1200 strongpoints, creating a 235 mile protective arc around the Red River Delta; there was to be an additional double line protecting the final escape route, the port of Haiphong.

In October, Giap struck at Nghia Lo, the T'ai capital in Yen Bai Province. The French garrison, reinforced by three airdropped parachute battalion and close air support, drove off the Viet Minh 312th Division. Also in this month of victory, however, de Lattre, already heartbroken by the combat death of his son in May, was told he was confronted by another enemy that would kill him: inoperable cancer of the hip. [56].

There were other political changes. While the military force continued, informally, to be called Viet Minh, the Viet Minh was formally absorbed into the "National Union of Viet Nam", or Lam Viet.[4]

De Lattre ordered an offensive to take Hoa Binh, with a first phase, Operation Tulipe, on November 10, 1951, with a combined airdrop on Hoa Binh, followed by a linkup with armored forces, with a similarity to Operation Market Garden in the Second World War. As opposed to the MARKET-GARDEN operation against the Rhine bridges, Tulipe was successful. [57] General Raoul Salan had tactical control of the operation. By November 19, the force had taken Hoa Binh.

Giap did not stop his plans for an upcoming attack in the Red River delta, but counterattacked toward Hoa Binh, with the focus on Tu Vu. He took Tu Vu with heavy casualties on both sides.[58] Using it as a base, he began to reduce French pockets along the Black River, leading to Hoa Binh. The French fell back to the river, with uncomfortable similarities to the site-by-site movement against the northern fort line a year before. He also was able to block French river convoys moving to Hoa Binh.[59] De Lattre left for France in December and died within weeks, posthumously promoted to Marshal.


On February 5, Salan decided to make a fighting withdrawal from Hoa Binh, on the grounds that the troops were needed in the defense of the Red River delta; the retreat was over by the 23rd.[60] There are suggestions he considered that a strong Delta defense had the chance of producing another Battle of Vinh Yen, where the French were able to mass air power on attacking troops in the open.

Both Salan and Giap used the rainy season to build their forces, and, in September, Giap maneuvered three divisions into striking range of Nghia Lo.

On October 17, 1952, the Communist forces opened a fall offensive with a three-division attack in the T'ai hill country of the North, centering on Nghia Lo, which anchored the French static defense line in the area. Gen. Gonzales de Linares, who took command in the North when Salan was promoted, decided to pull back, having 6th Colonial Paratroop Battalion, under Marcel Bigeard, jump in as a sacrificial rear guard.[61] There had changes on the French side.

Salan had held Hoa Binh, trying to repeat the Vinh Yen victory with a strongpoint there, but the wiser Communists bypassed it. The French made a fighting retreat in February and March. The paratroops held, taking heavy casualties, especially at Tu-Le Pass. The paratroops, in turn, asked a company of irregulars, at Muong-Chen, to hold while they escaped. 16 out of 84 of that unit survived. [62]

The Viet Minh took Nghia Loa in October and Dien Bien Phu in November; Dien Bien Phu had earlier been abandoned by the French. [63] \ French commanders, seeing northern Laos falling under enemy control, decided to risk a deep thrust into the enemy's rear. Operation Lorraine, as this thrust was called, was planned to have four phases, the first planned to run from October 29 to November 8:

  1. Cross the Red River at Phu Tho
  2. Break out of the bridgehead at Phu Tho, and link up with another group moving north from Viet Tri, on Highway 2. The joined groups would then march to Phu Doan, where Airborne Group 1 would be dropped to meet them. A dissault naval unit would protect their flank and cut off enemy troops trying to escape by water
  3. The three ground units would sweep the Phu Doan area and destroy enemy facilities there.
  4. At this point, the French expected the Viet Minh to pull out of the northern hills to protect their rear. Further French moves would be based both on their success in the Phu Doan area, and the opportunities generated from the operation.

This would be the largest operation ever run by the French, with five groups (i.e., four mobile and one airborne units comparable to modern brigades), 2 infantry battalions, 5 commando units, two naval groups, artillery, engineers and four armored units, with a total of about 30,000 men.[64]

The ground groups found their enemy and took until November 5 to reach the Phu Doan area, When the airborne units dropped over Phu Doan on November 9, they drove out the local forces defending the depots, and the armored units indeed overran supply depots. They found new Soviet-supplied trucks, demonstrating unexpected support from the Soviet Union, which would have had to come through China. From the road junction at Phu Doan, strong patrols struck out in a 15 mile radius, but the Viet Minh were not following the scenario the French expected. Giap fought them with only local forces, but, when Linares ordered the withdrawal on November 13, Giap ambushed the withdrawing forces with two regiments. He continued to infiltrate two divisions through the de Lattre line and into the Red River Delta. Lorraine cost the French 1200 men, did not force Giap into battle on French terms, and, fundamentally, cost the Viet Minh only supplies that could be replaced. The Lorraine forces returned to their bases on November 24. [65]

A deep counterattack, called Operation Lorraine, was prepared, using the largest French force in any one mission, approximately 30,000 men. Airborne and riverine units again surprised the enemy with their speed, as in Operation Lea in 1947.

After another parachute landing and link-up with tanks, in early November, French forces found, at Phu Duan, by no means a major depot new Soviet-built equipment. This included trucks, light through heavy mortars, and up-to-date individual weapons. Colonel Dodelier, commanding the operation, pointed out the strength of this secondary depot even after the Viet Minh had impressed local labor to remove all that cound be removed. He reflected " large the Viet Minh main depots in Ŷen Bay and Thai Nguyên must be. This certainly sheds a new light on the enemy's future offensive intentions."[66]

Also in November, 12 battalions of paratroopers dropped on Na San, while artillery was flown to them. The foce, under COL Jean Gilles, established mutually reinforcing strongpoints. As opposed to what would happen at the major battle at Dien Bien Phu, only the French had artillery and kept their airstrip operational. Three Viet Minh divisions were badly battered in a failed attempt to take it. [67]


In April, having completed their tours of duty, Salan and his key staff officers returned to France.[68] Henri Navarre, a protege of the senior soldier of France, Marshal Alphonse Juin, replaced Salan. He had no Asian experience, and there were questions about his choices of staff and subordinates. [69]


The French established Bao Dai, who had called for, in the absence of a legislature, for major political leaders to join in a "National Congress" in Saigon. He thought it might strengthen his hand when he negotiated with the French. Bernard Fall, who attended, wrote: "That National Congress ... became a monumental free-for-all in which nationalists of all hues and shades concentrated on settling long-standing scores and in outbidding each other in extreme demands on the French and on the Vietnamese Government."[70]


A paratroop attack, Operation Hirondelle, in July 1953, was successful against the Viet Minh depot at Lang Son, perhaps overstating the capabilities of competent paratroopers, especially with the limited available air support.

Giap had refused battle and continued to hold his Black River positions, and it was realized that Operation Lorraine had taken a position that was of no value. Salan ordered the Lorraine troops to begin a retreat, which began successfully but ran into major ambushes on the 17th. On November 23, Giap counterattacked against Na San, taking two outposts, but 308 Division was repulsed at Na San, with heavy losses. [71] By December 1, the French had destroyed Black River bridges and fallen back, with casualties equalling the strength of a battalion, yet not establishing — Na San was not it — the strongpoint against which the Communists would smash themselves, as they did at the Battle of Vinh Yen. They were to try once again to establish such a strongpoint, at Dien Bien Phu.[72].

After the end of the Korean War, the French transferred their force to Indochina, the Bataillion de Corée, which had distinguished itself, to Indochina. On November 15, 1953, an reaction force, Groupe Mobile 100 (GM100), was created, with a core of the Korean veterans. [73]

Navarre, apparently in response to Thai pressure under the Franco-Thai treaty, decided to reoccupy Dien Bien Phu as a step to pacifying the Thai region of Indochina. Paratroopers jumped into Dien Bien Phu on November 20. Navarre also saw it as defending northern Laos, although General Georges Catroux, the head of the subsequent French investigation into the disaster there, said it was quite limited in the area it could dominate.[74] It was harder to understand why the French thought it was a valid strongpoint. Navarre, and Pierre Koenig, a distinguished WWII commander, said that a group of U.S. experts had inspected the location and assured the French that plausible Russian anti-aircraft artillery could not interfere with its resupply by air, and that French artillery could defeat any Communist artillery in the surrounding hills. Catroux's investigation put special blame on the northern theater commander, Rene Cogny, for not seriously testing the optimistic assumptions. [75]

Giap threatened Lai Chau, in Thailand, in December.[76]


The Viet Minh began their attack on Dien Bien Phu on March 12, with a force of 50,000 regular troops, 55,000 support troops, and 100,000 transport workers, versus 15,000 French. They had managed, quite beyond French expectation, to put well-protected artillery and air defenses into the surrounding high ground, making air resupply almost impossible. Brigadier General Christian de Castries, commanding Dien Bien Phu, was a paratroop leader, skilled in the offensive but not an expert in dogged defense. Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7; the Geneva Conference began the next day.

GM 100 had had some success in relieving An Khe in April. On June 24, however, GM100 was ambushed and destroyed, at the Mang Yang Pass on Highway 19.[77]

War's end

Officially, the war ended on July 20. Prisoner exchanges showed an unexpectedly high number of the French captives of the Viet Minh had died in the prison camps, and that there had been, as in the Korean War, systematic pressure for conversion to the Communist cause.

Several groups started the talks:[78]

Barred at first were

  • Viet Minh-led Free Cambodians Khmer Issarak
  • Viet Minh-associated Free Laotian Pathet Lao

The negotiations were complicated by bilateral issues. Dulles said the only way he could meet with the Chinese would be in a car accident. French and Viet Minh delegates would meet but Bao Dai and Viet Minh would not. The U.S. also would not meet with the Viet Minh. Not all Franco-American military information went to the British.

Pham Van Dong's initial proposal was for the French to leave promptly and let the Vietnamese, dominated by the Viet Minh, to work out the country. France and Bao Dai obviously were opposed, but at least France could discuss it with them. Eventually, Pham Van Dong and Tran Van Do were convinced to have private meetings.

Zhou's priorities were blocking U.S. expansion into Vietnam, Vietnamese expansion into Laos and Cambodia, and promote ties to the neutralist bloc. Soon after, Zhou met with Indian prime mininster Jawaharlar Nehru at the Bandung Conference. Zhou told Mendes-France that as opposed to the Viet Minh demand, he supported a cease-fire before negotiations. He also foresaw partition.


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  2. Fall, Bernard B. (1972 (4th edition copyright 1967)), Street without Joy, Shocken, p. 259
  3. Hammer, Ellen J. (1955), The Struggle for Indochina 1940-1955: Vietnam and the French Experience, Stanford University Press, p. 55
  4. 4.0 4.1 Patti, Archimedes L. A. (1980). Why Viet Nam? Prelude to America's Albatross. University of California Press. , pp. 250-253 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Patti" defined multiple times with different content
  5. Note the term, "expeditionary". When U.S. Marine Corps units deployed to Vietnam, the standing term for the large Marine Expeditionary Force, but, due to unpleasant associations with the French, the name Marine Amphibious Force was substituted.
  6. Martin Windrow (2006), The French Indochina War 1946-54, in Wiest, Andrew, Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land: the Vietnam War Revisited, Osprey Publishing, p. 55
  7. 7.0 7.1 Karnow, Stanley (1983), Vietnam, a History, Viking Press, pp. 156-158 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Karnow" defined multiple times with different content
  8. Karnow, pp. 158-159
  9. Hammer, pp. 206-207
  10. Fall, pp. 27-31
  11. Seigen Miyasoto (1981), "The Truman Administration and Indochina: Case Studies in Decision Making", The Japanese Journal of American Studies,pp. 120-121
  12. Charlton Ogburn Jr. (January 3, 1947), French Indochina: the Interest of the United States in Nationalist Opposition to the Restoration of French Rule in Indochina. Memorandum of Conversation, vol. Foreign relations of the United States, 1947. The Far East Volume VI (1947), State 851G.00/1-347
  13. Miyasoto, p. 121
  14. Karnow, p. 175
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  16. Globalsecurity, First Indochina War
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  28. Duiker 1994, p. 70
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  30. ""If I Could Visualize . . ."", Time, October 3, 1949
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  40. Giap, PWPA, p. 101
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  45. United States Department of State, East Asia and the Pacific Volume VI, vol. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, FRUS 1950 Vol. VI, pp. 690-691
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  48. Report by the National Security Council on the Position of the United States with Respect to Indochina, 27 February 1950
  49. Castle, Timothy N. (May 1991), At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: United States Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government 1955-75 (doctoral thesis), Air Force Institute of Technology, Castle 1991, ADA243492 Castle, p. 11
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  78. , Volume 1, Chapter 3, "The Geneva Conference, May-July, 1954", Section 1, pp. 108-146, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 1