First Indochina War

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First Indochina War
Entrance to the memorial to the war in Frejus, France.
Date 1946–1954
Location Southeast Asia
Result Vietnamese victory
Departure of France from Vietnam
Provisional division of Vietnam
Image:Flag of France.svg France Image:Flag of Vietnam.svg Việt Minh
500,000  ?
94,581 dead
78,127 wounded
40,000 captured
300,000+ dead
500,000+ wounded
100,000 captured
First Indochina War
Lèa – RC4 – Vinh Yen – Mao Khe – Hoa Binh – Lorraine – Dien Bien Phu – Mang Yang Pass

The First Indochina War (also called the French Indochina War, the French War or the Franco-Vietnamese War) was fought in Indochina between 1946 and 1954 between the imperial forces of the French Republic and the Hồ Chí Minh-led Việt Minh (Vietnam Independence League). Most of the major actions took place in the northern third of Vietnam (the area the French referred to as Tonkin) although the conflict engulfed the entire country and also extended into the neighboring Indochinese countries of Laos and Cambodia.

The Việt Minh launched a rebellion against the French authority governing the colonies of French Indochina. The first few years of the war were a low-level rural insurgency against French authority. However, after the Chinese communists reached the Northern border of Vietnam in 1949 the conflict became a conventional war between two armies equipped with modern weapons.

After seven years of bloody conflict, a French force was defeated at Điện Biên Phủ, where they were engaged by the forces of General Võ Nguyên Giáp. The forces the French had available were unable to defeat successive human wave attacks, the use of heavy artillery and trench warfare by the Việt Minh and the subsequent siege of the base; the French were defeated with devastating losses. By 1954, the war in Indochina was unpopular with the French public, but the political stagnation of the Fourth Republic meant that France was unable to extract itself from the conflict. The United States supported the French politically and financially, and, by 1954, was bearing 80% of the cost of the French war effort.

After the war, the Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954 made a provisional division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with the north being given to the Việt Minh as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under Hồ Chí Minh and the south becoming the State of Vietnam under Emperor Bảo Đại. A year later, Bảo Đại would be deposed by his prime minister, Ngô Đình Diệm, creating the Republic of Vietnam. Diem's refusal to enter into negotiations with North Vietnam about the holding of nationwide elections in 1956, as had been stipulated by the Geneva Conference, would eventually lead to war breaking out again in South Vietnam in 1959 - the Second Indochina War.


[edit] Origins

A weak state often ruled by neighboring China, Vietnam had been absorbed into the colony of French Indochina in 1883. 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 Bội Châu. Châu looked to Japan which had modernized itself and was one of the few Asian nations to resist colonization (Siam/Thailand being another). With Prince Cuong De, Châu started two organizations in Japan: Duy Tân Hội (Modernistic Association) and Việt Nam Cộng Hiên Hội. Due to French pressure, Japan deported Phan Bội Châu to China. Witnessing Sun Yat-Sen's 1911 nationalist revolution, Châu was inspired to create the Việt Nam Quang Phục Hội movement in Guangzhou. From 1914 to 1917, he was imprisoned by Yuan Shi Kai's counterrevolutionary government. In 1925, he was captured by French agents in Shanghai and spirited to Vietnam. Due to his popularity, Châu was spared from execution and placed under house arrest, until his death in 1940.

In 1940, shortly after Phan Bội Châu's death, 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 Vietnamese nationalists were concerned, this was a double-puppet government. The symbolic Emperor Bảo Đại collaborated with the Japanese, just as he had with the French, causing no trouble and ensuring his lifestyle could continue.

[edit] Hồ Chí Minh and the Việt Minh

Meanwhile, in 1941, Hồ Chí Minh, a nationalist who saw communist revolution as the path to freedom, returned to Vietnam and formed the Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh Hội (Allied association of independent Vietnam) or Việt Minh. Hồ Chí 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. Hồ Chí Minh created the Việt Minh as an umbrella organization for all the nationalist resistance movements, de-emphasizing his communist social revolutionary background. Late in the war, the Japanese created a nominally independent government of Vietnam under the overall leadership of Bảo Đại. Around the same time, the Japanese arrested and imprisoned most of the French officials and military officers left in the country.

In 1945, due to a combination of Japanese exploitation and poor weather, a famine broke out killing approximately 2 million. The Việt Minh arranged a relief effort and won over some people in the north. When the Japanese surrendered in Vietnam in August 1945, they allowed the Việt Minh and other nationalist groups to take over public buildings without resistance, so as to cause more trouble for the French. This started the August Revolution. In order to further help the nationalists, the Japanese kept French officials and military officers imprisoned for a month after the surrender. Hồ Chí Minh was able to persuade Emperor Bảo Đại to abdicate on August 25, 1945. Bảo Đại was appointed "supreme adviser" to the new Việt Minh led government in Hanoi, which asserted independence on September 2. The Việt Minh were not the only nationalist group active during this period as a variety of groups took over various towns and fought each other.

Almost immediately afterward, the Chinese Government, as agreed to at the Potsdam Conference, occupied Indochina as far south as the 16th parallel in order to supervise the disarming and repatriation of the Japanese Army. This effectively ended Hồ Chí Minh's nominal government in Hanoi. In southern Vietnam, the British, under General Sir Douglas Gracey, landed an army in October 1945.

Telegram from Hồ Chí Minh to U.S. President Truman requesting support for independence, Feb. 1946.

After the French army and other officials were freed from Japanese prisons in Vietnam, they began reasserting their authority over parts of the country. At the same time, the French government began negotiations with both the Việt Minh and the Chinese for a return of the French army to Vietnam north of the 16th parallel. The Việt Minh were willing to accept anything including French rule to end the Chinese occupation. Hồ Chí Minh and others had fears of the Chinese based on China's historic domination and occupation of Vietnam. The French negotiated a deal with the Chinese where pre-war French concessions in Chinese ports such as Shanghai were traded for Chinese assistance in Vietnam. The French landed a military force at Haiphong in early 1946. Negotiations then took place which talked about a future for Vietnam as a state within the French Union. These talks eventually failed and the Việt Minh fled into the countryside to wage guerrilla war.

In 1946, Vietnam gained its first constitution.

The British had supported the French in fighting the Việt Minh, the armed religious Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, and the Binh Xuyen organized crime groups which were all individually seeking power in the country. In 1948, seeking a post-colonial solution, the French re-installed Bảo Ðại as head of state of Vietnam under the French Union.

The Việt Minh were ineffective in the first few years of the war and could do little more than harass the French in remote areas of Indochina. In 1949, the war changed with the triumph of the communists in China on Vietnam's northern border. China was able to give almost unlimited amounts of weapons and supplies to the Việt Minh which transformed itself into a conventional army.

After World War II, the United States and the USSR entered into the Cold War. The Korean War broke out in 1950 between communist North Korea (DPRK) supported by China and the Soviet Union, and South Korea (ROK) supported by the United States and its allies in the United Nations. The Cold War was now turning 'hot' in East Asia, and American government's fears of communist domination of the entire region would have deep implications for the American involvement in Vietnam.

The U.S. became strongly opposed to Hồ Chí Minh, in part, because it was supported and supplied by China. Hồ's government gained recognition from the Soviet Union and China by 1950 in response to Western support for the State of Vietnam that the French had proposed as an associate state within the French Union. In the French-controlled areas of Vietnam, in the same year, the government of Bảo Đại gained recognition by the United States and the United Kingdom.

[edit] Combatants

[edit] 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 Battle of Ðiện Biên Phủ 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 the majority of France's costs(PDF). While the United States was willing to fund the French war as part of its Korean war strategy, the end of the war in Korea made the U.S. less willing to spend the necessary money.

[edit] U.S. involvement

At the beginning of the war, the U.S. was neutral in the conflict, because of opposition to imperialism and consequently to helping colonial powers regain their empires, because the Việt Minh had recently been their allies, and because most of its attention was focused on rebuilding Europe following the devastation of World War II. However, the U.S. government gradually began supporting the French in their war effort, primarily through lend lease, as a means of stabilizing the French Fourth Republic in which the French Communist Party was a significant political force. A dramatic shift occurred in American policy after the victory of the Communist Party of China in the Chinese Civil War. In May 1950, after the capture of Hainan island by Chinese Communist forces, President Harry Truman began covertly authorizing direct financial assistance to the French, and in June 1950, after the outbreak of the Korean War, announced publicly that the U.S. was doing so. It was feared in Washington that if Hồ were to win the war, with his ties to the Soviet Union, he would establish a Soviet-style government with Moscow ultimately controlling Vietnamese affairs. The prospect of a communist dominated Southeast Asia was enough to spur the U.S. to support France, so that the spread of Soviet-allied communism could be contained. During the Korean war, the conflict in Vietnam was also seen as part of a broader proxy war with China and the USSR in Asia.

[edit] The War By Year

[edit] 1946

The first conflict broke out in Haiphong after a conflict of interest in import duty at Haiphong port between Việt Minh government and the French. The French fleet began a naval bombardment that killed a large number of Vietnamese people. The Việt Minh quickly agreed to a cease-fire and left the cities. There was no intention among the Vietnamese to give up though, and General Võ Nguyên Giáp soon brought up 30,000 men to attack the city. Although the French were outnumbered, their better weaponry and naval support made any Việt Minh's attack impossible. In December, hostilities broke out in Hanoi between the Việt Minh and the French and Hồ Chí Minh was forced to evacuate the capital in favor of remote mountain areas. Guerrilla warfare ensued with the French in control of most everything except very remote areas.

[edit] 1947

General Võ Nguyên Giáp moved his command to Tân Trào. The French sent assault teams after his bases, but Giáp refused to meet them in battle. Wherever the French troops went, the Việt Minh disappeared. Late in the year the French launched "Operation Lea" to take out the Việt Minh communications center at Bac Kan. They failed to capture Hồ Chí Minh and his key lieutenants as they had hoped, but they killed 9,000 Việt Minh soldiers during the campaign which was a major defeat for the Việt Minh insurgency.

[edit] 1948

France began to look for some way to oppose the Việt Minh politically, with an alternative government in Saigon. They began negotiations with the former Vietnamese emperor Bảo Ðại to lead an "autonomous" government within the French Union of nations. Two years before, the French had refused Hồ's proposal of a similar status (albeit with some restrictions on French power and the latter's eventual withdrawal from Vietnam), however they were willing to give it to Bảo Ðại as he had always cooperated with French rule of Vietnam in the past and was in no position to seriously negotiate any conditions (Bảo Ðại had no military of his own).

[edit] 1949

France officially recognized the "independence" of the "State of Vietnam" within the French Union under Bảo Ðại. However, France still controlled all defence issues and all foreign relations as Vietnam was only an independent state within the French Union . The Việt Minh quickly denounced the government and stated that they wanted "real independence, not Bảo Ðại 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. These troops were used mostly to garrison quiet sectors so French forces would be available for combat. Private Cao Dai, Hoa Hao and the Binh Xuyen gangster armies were used in the same way. The Vietnamese Communists also got help in 1949 when Chairman Mao Zedong succeeded in taking control of China and defeating the Kuomintang, thus gaining a major ally and supply area just across the border. In the same year, the French also recognized the independence (within the framework of the French Union) of the other two nations in Indochina, the Kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia.

[edit] 1950

The United States recognized the South 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. By then with almost unlimited Chinese military supplies entering Vietnam, General Giáp re-organized his local irregular forces into five full conventional infantry divisions, the 304th, 308th, 312th, 316th and the 320th.

The war intensified starting when Giáp began launching attacks on isolated French bases along the Chinese border. In February 1950, Giáp seized the vulnerable 150-strong French garrison at Lai Khe in Tonkin just south of the border with China. Then on May 25, he attacked the garrison of Cao Bang manned by 4,000 French-controlled Vietnamese troops, but his forces were repulsed. Giáp launched his second offense again against Cao Bang again as well as Dong Khe on September 15. Dong Khe fell on September 18, and Cao Bang finally fell on October 3. Lang Son, with its 4,000-strong French Foreign Legion garrison was attacked immediately after. The retreating French on Route 4 were attacked all the way by ambushing Việt Minh forces, together with the relief force coming from That Khe. The French dropped a paratroop battalion south of Dong Khe to act as a diversion only to see it surrounded and destroyed. On October 17, Lang Son, after a week of attacks, finally fell. By the time the remains of the garrisons reached the safety of the Red River Delta, 4,800 French troops had been killed, captured or missing in action and 2,000 wounded out of a total garrison force of over 10,000. Also lost were 13 artillery pieces, 125 mortars, 450 trucks, 940 machine guns, 1,200 submachine guns and 8,000 rifles destroyed or captured during the fighting.

China and the Soviet Union recognized Hồ Chí Minh as the legitimate ruler of Vietnam and sent him more and more supplies and material aid. 1950 also marked the first time that napalm was ever used in Vietnam (this type of weapon was supplied by the U.S. for the use of the French Air Force at the time).

[edit] 1951

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 Việt Minh in place and use his troops to smash them against this barricade, which became known as the "De Lattre Line". This led to a period of success for the French.

On January 13 1951, Giáp moved the 308th and 312th Divisions, made up of over 20,000 men, to attack Vĩnh Yên, 20 miles northwest of Hanoi which was manned by the 6,000 strong 9th Foreign Legion Brigade. The Việt Minh entered a trap. Caught for the first time in the open, they were mowed down by concentrated French artillery and machine gun fire. By January 16, Giáp was forced to withdraw having lost over 6,000 killed, 8,000 wounded and 500 captured. The Battle of Vĩnh Yên had been a catastrophe.

On March 23, Giáp tried again, launching an attack against Mao Khe, 20 miles north of Haiphong. The 316th Division, composing of 11,000 men, with the partly rebuilt 308th and 312th Divisions in reserve, went forward and were repulsed in bitter hand-to-hand fighting, backed up by French aircraft using napalm and rockets as well as gunfire from navy ships off the coast. Giáp, having lost over 3,000 dead and wounded by March 28 withdrew.

Giáp launched yet another attack on May 29 with the 304th Division at Phu Ly, the 308th Division at Ninh Binh, and the main attack delivered by the 320th Division at Phat Diem south of Hanoi. The attacks faired no better and the three divisions lost heavily. Taking advantage of this, de Lattre mounted his counter offensive against the demoralized Việt Minh, driving them back into the jungle and eliminating the enemy pockets in the Red River Delta by June 18 costing the Việt Minh over 10,000 killed.

Every effort by Võ Nguyên Giáp to break the line failed and every attack he made was answered by a French counter-attack that destroyed his forces. Việt 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 was to ask for more millions of dollars from America.

[edit] 1952

On November 14 1951, the French seized Hòa Binh, 25 miles west of the De Lattre line by a parachute drop and expanded their perimeter. But Việt Minh launched attacks on Hòa Binh forcing the French to withdraw back to their main positions on the De Lattre line by February 22 1952. Each side lost nearly 5,000 men in this campaign and it showed that the war was far from over. At the start of the year, General de Lattre fell ill from cancer and had to return to France for treatment; he died there shortly thereafter and was replaced by General Raoul Salan as the overall commander of French forces in Indochina. Within that year, throughout the war theater, the Việt Minh cut French supply lines and began to seriously wear down the resolve of the French forces. There were continued raids, skirmishes and guerrilla attacks, but through most of the rest of the year each side withdrew to prepare itself for larger operations.

On October 17 1952, Giáp launched attacks against the French garrisons along Nghia Lo, northwest of Hanoi, breaking them off when a French parachute battalion intervened. Giáp by now had control over most of Tonkin beyond the De Lattre line. Raoul Salan, seeing the situation as critical, launched "Operation Lorraine" along the Clear river to force Giáp to relive pressure from the Nghia Lo outposts.

On October 29 1952 in the largest operation in Indochina to date, 30,000 French troops moved out from the De Lattre line to attack the Việt Minh supply dumps at Phú Yên. Salan took Phú Thọ on November 5, and Phú Doan on November 9, by a parachute drop and finally Phú Yên on November 13. Giáp at first did not react to the French offensive. He planned to wait until their supply lines were over extended and then cut them off from the Red River Delta.

Salan, correctly assuming what the Việt Minh were up to and seeing that his troops were walking into their own trap, began a retreat to Hanoi on November 14. On November 17, the Việt Minh launched an ambush at Chan Muong, turning the French retreat into a disorganized rout. About 1,200 French troops were killed, wounded or captured before the rest of the force reached the safety of the De Lattre Line on November 24. Though the operation was partially successful, it proved that although the French could strike out at any target outside the De Lattre line, it also showed that the Việt Minh was rapidly evolving into a well-equipped conventional army and that limited French forces could not stand against them in remote areas when they concentrated their forces.

[edit] 1953

On April 9, Giáp after having failed repeatedly in direct attacks on the French changed strategy and began to pressure the French by invading Laos. 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" saying that the best the French could hope for was a stalemate. Navarre, in response to the Việt Minh attacking Laos concluded that "hedgehog" centers of defense were the best plan. Looking at a map of the area, Navarre chose the small town of Ðiện Biên Phủ, located about 10 miles north of the Lao border and 175 miles west of Hanoi as a target to block the Việt Minh from invading Laos.

Ðiện Biên Phủ had a number of advantages; it was on a Việt Minh supply route into Laos on the Nam Yum River, it had an old Japanese airstrip built in the late 1930s for supply and it was situated in the T'ai hills where the T'ai tribesmen, still loyal to the French, operated. "Operation Castor" was launched on November 20 1953 with 1,800 men of the French 1st and 2nd Airborne Battalions dropping into the valley of Ðiện Biên Phủ and sweeping aside the small, local Việt Minh garrison.

The paratroopers found themselves in control of a heart-shaped valley 12 miles long and eight miles wide surrounded by heavily wooded hills. Encountering little opposition, the French and T'ai units operating from Lai Châu to the north patrolled the hills. The operation seemed a success for the French.

But Giáp, seeing the weakness of the French position, started moving most of his forces from the De Lattre line to Ðiện Biên Phủ. By mid-December, most of the French and T'ai patrols in the hills around the town were wiped out by Việt Minh ambushes.

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".

[edit] 1954: French defeat at Ðiện Biên Phủ

Main article: Battle of Ðiện Biên Phủ

The Battle of Ðiện Biên Phủ occurred in 1954 between Việt Minh forces under Võ Nguyên Giáp and French airborne and Foreign Legion forces. The battle was fought near the village of Ðiện Biên Phủ in northern Vietnam and became the last major battle between the French and the Vietnamese in the First Indochina War. The battle began on March 13 when the Việt Minh attacked preemptively surprising 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 Việt 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.

The prisoners taken at Ðiện Biên Phủ were the greatest number the Việt Minh had ever captured: one-third of the total captured during the entire war.

Shortly after Ðiện Biên Phủ, the Groupe Mobile 100 of the French army were wiped out at the Battle of Mang Yang Pass.

The Việt Minh victory at Ðiện Biên Phủ led to the 1954 Geneva accords.

[edit] Geneva Conference and Partition

Main article: Partition of Vietnam

The Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954 recognized the 17th parallel as a "provisional military demarcation line" temporarily dividing the country into two zones, 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 the United States and the State of Vietnam refused to sign the document. From his home in France Emperor Bảo Ðại appointed Ngô Ðình Diệm as Prime Minister of South Vietnam. With American support, in 1955 Diệm used a referendum to remove the former Emperor and declare himself the president of the Republic of Vietnam.

When the elections were prevented from happening by the Americans and the South, Việt Minh cadres who stayed behind in South Vietnam were activated and started to fight the government. North Vietnam also invaded and occupied portions of Laos to assist in supplying the guerilla fighting National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. The war gradually escalated into the Second Indochinese War, which is also referred to as the Vietnam War or the American War.

[edit] See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:

[edit] External links

de:Indochinakrieg es:Guerra de Indochina fr:Guerre d'Indochine ga:Chéad Cogadh Indeo-sín hi: प्रथम हिन्दचीन युद्ध it:Guerra d'Indocina ja:第一次インドシナ戦争 pl:I wojna indochińska sr:Први индокинески рат sv:Indokinakriget

First Indochina War

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