Indochina War (1946-54)

From New World Encyclopedia

A French Foreign Legion unit patrols in a communist controlled area.

The First Indochina War (also known as the French Indochina War, the Franco-Vietnamese War, the Franco-Vietminh War, the Indochina War and the Dirty War in France and in contemporary Vietnam, as the French War) was fought in French Indochina from December 19, 1946 until August 1, 1954, between the French Union's French Far East Expeditionary Corps, led by France and supported by Bao Dai's Vietnamese National Army against the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Ho Chi Minh saw the war as an independence struggle against colonialism, and expected the free world to support him. Instead, support came from Communist China. Most of the fighting took place in Tonkin, in Northern Vietnam, although the conflict engulfed the entire country and also extended into the neighboring French Indochina protectorates of Laos and Cambodia. The Viet Minh launched a rebellion against the French authority governing the colonies of French Indochina. The first few years of the war involved 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 supplied by the two superpowers.

French Union forces included colonial troops from the whole former empire (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, African, Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities) and professional troops (European of the French Foreign Legion). The use of metropolitan recruits was forbidden by the governments to prevent the war from becoming even more unpopular at home. It was called the "dirty war" (la sale guerre) by the French communists and leftist intellectuals (including Sartre) during the Henri Martin affair in 1950 because it aimed to perpetuate French imperialism. While the strategy of pushing the Viet Minh to attack a well defended base in a remote part of the country at the end of their logistical trail (a strategy that worked well at the Battle of Na San) was sound, the lack of building materials (especially concrete), tanks (because of lack of road access), and air cover precluded an effective defense. The French were defeated with significant losses among their most mobile troops.[1]

After the war, the Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954, made a provisional division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with control of the north given to the Viet Minh as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under Ho Chi 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 holding 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.



Vietnam, absorbed into French Indochina in stages between 1858 and 1883, with Western influence and education, nationalism grew until World War II provided a break in French control.

In 1905, Vietnamese resistance centered on the intellectual Phan Boi Chau. Chau looked to Japan, which had modernized and was one of the few Asian nations to resist colonization, (Thailand being another). With Prince Cuong De, Châu started two organizations in Japan, the Duy Tân Hội (Modernistic Association) and Vietnam Cong Hien Hoi. Due to French pressure, Japan deported Phan Bội Châu to China. Witnessing Sun Yat-Sen's 1911 nationalist revolution, Chau was inspired to commence 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. Emperor Bảo Đại collaborated with the Japanese, just as he had with the French, ensuring his lifestyle could continue.

1945 events

Due to a combination of Japanese exploitation and poor weather, a famine broke out killing approximately 2 million. The Viet 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 Viet Minh and other nationalist groups to take over public buildings without resistance and started the August Revolution. In order to further help the nationalists, the Japanese kept Vichy French officials and military officers imprisoned for a month after the surrender.

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 Vietminh led government in Hanoi, which asserted independence on September 2. Deliberately borrowing from the declaration of independence, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed on September 2nd: "We hold the truth that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."[2]

With the fall of the short lived Japanese colony of the Empire of Vietnam, the Provisional Government of the French Republic wanted to restore its colonial rule in French Indochina as the final step of the Liberation of France. An armistice was signed between Japan and the United States on August 20. France signed the armistice with Japan onboard the USS Missouri on behalf of CEFEO Expeditionary Corps header General Leclerc, on September 2.

On September 13, a Franco-British Task Force landed in Java, capital of Sukarno's Dutch Indonesia, and Saigon, capital of Cochinchina (southern part of French Indochina) both being occupied by the Japanese and ruled by Field Marshal Hisaichi Terauchi, Commander-in-Chief of Japan's Southern Expeditionary Army Group based in Saigon. Ally troops in Saigon were an airborne detachment, two British companies of the 20th Hindi Division and the French 5th Colonial Infantry Regiment, with British General Sir Douglas Gracey as supreme commander. The latter proclaimed Martial Law on September 21. The following night the Franco-British troops took control of Saigon.

Almost immediately afterward, the Chinese Government, as agreed to at the Potsdam Conference, occupied French Indochina as far south as the 16th parallel in order to supervise the disarming and repatriation of the Japanese Army. This effectively ended Ho Chi Minh's nominal government in Hanoi.

General Leclerc arrived in Saigon in October 9, with him was French Colonel Massu's March Group (Groupement de marche). Leclerc's primary objectives were to restore public order in south Vietnam and to militarize Tonkin (north Vietnam). Secondary objectives were to wait for French backup in view to take back Chinese occupied Hanoi, then to negotiate with the Viet Minh officials.


The Indochinese conflict broke out in Haiphong after a conflict of interest in import duty at Haiphong port between Viet Minh government and the French. On November 23, the French fleet began a naval bombardment of the city that killed over 6,000 Vietnamese civilians in an afternoon according to one source. The Viet Minh quickly agreed to a cease-fire and left the cities. There was no intention among the Vietnamese to give up though, and General Vo Nguyen Giap 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 Viet Minh and the French and Ho Chi Minh was forced to evacuate the capital in favor of remote mountain areas. Guerrilla warfare ensued with the French in control of almost everything except very remote areas.


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.


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, the State of Vietnam. 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, but soon he would have one).


France officially recognized the "independence" of the State of Vietnam within the French Union under Bảo Ðại. However, France still controlled all defense 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 Vietnamese officers. 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.


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 the 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 began to intensify when Giáp went on the offensive, attacking 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 Aeronovale at the time).


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 led to a period of success for the French.

On January 13, 1951, Giap moved the 308th and 312th Divisions, made up of over 20,000 men, to attack Vinh Yen, 20 miles northwest of Hanoi which was manned by the 6,000 strong 9th Foreign Legion Brigade. The Viet 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, Giap 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, Giap tried again, launching an attack against Mao Khe, 20 miles north of Haiphong. The 316th Division, composed 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. Giap, having lost over 3,000 dead and wounded by March 28, withdrew.

Giap 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 fared 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 Viet Minh over 10,000 killed. On July 31, French General Chanson was assassinated during a kamikaze attentat at Sadec that was blamed on the Viet Minh, and it was argued that Cao Dai nationalist Trinh Minh The could have been involved in its planning.

Every effort by Vo Nguyen Giap to break the line failed and every attack he made was answered by a French counter-attack that destroyed 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.


French foreign airborne 1st BEP firing with a FM 24/29 during an ambush (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. In January, 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 relieve pressure from the Nghia Lo outposts.

On October 29, 1952, in the largest operation in Indochina to date, 30,000 French Union soldiers moved out from the De Lattre line to attack the Viet Minh supply dumps at Phu Yen. Salan took Phu Tho on 5 November, and Phu Doan on 9 November by a parachute drop, and finally Phu Yen on November 13. Giap 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 guessed what the Viet Minh were up to and cancelled the operation on 14 November, beginning to withdraw to the de Lattre line. The only major fighting during the operation came during the withdrawal, when the Viet Minh ambushed the French column at Chan Muong on November 17. The road was cleared after a bayonet charge by the Indochinese March Battalion and the withdrawal could continue.

Though the operation was partially successful, it proved that although the French could strike out at any target outside the De Lattre line, it failed to divert the Viet Minh offensive or serious damage its logistical network.


A Bearcat of the Aéronavale drops napalm on Viet Minh Division 320th's artillery during Operation Mouette. (11.1953)

. 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 Navarre replaced General Salan as supreme commander 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 local Việt Minh garrison.

The paratroopers managed 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 was a tactical success for the French.

However 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."


Franco-Vietnamese medicals treating a wounded Viet Minh POW at Hung Yen (1954).

By 1954, despite official propaganda presenting the war as a "crusade against communism," the war in Indochina was still growing unpopular with the French public. The political stagnation of the Fourth Republic meant that France was unable to extract itself from the conflict. The United States initially sought to remain neutral, viewing the conflict as chiefly a decolonization war.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu occurred in 1954 between Viet Minh forces under Vo Nguyen Giap supported by China and the Soviet Union and the French Union's French Far East Expeditionary Corps supported by Indochinese allies and the United States. The battle was fought near the village of Dien Bien Phu 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 Viet Minh then began to hammer the outpost with newly supplied Katyusha rockets. The final fall took two days, May 6 and 7, during which the French fought on but were eventually overrun by a huge frontal assault. General Cogny based in Hanoi ordered General de Castries, who was commanding the outpost to cease fire at 5:30PM and to destroy all material (weapons, transmissions, and so on) to deny their use to the enemy. A formal order was given to not use the white flag so that it would not be considered to be a surrender but a ceasefire.

Much of the fighting ended on May 7, however a ceasefire was not respected on Isabelle, the isolated southern position, and the battle lasted until May 8, 1:00 a.m. 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 Dien Bien Phu were the greatest number the Viet Minh had ever captured: one-third of the total captured during the entire war. One month after Dien Bien Phu, the composite Groupe Mobile 100 (GM100) of the French Union forces evacuated the An Khe outpost and was ambushed by a larger Viet Minh force at the Battle of Mang Yang Pass from June 24 to July 17.

The Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu led to the 1954 Geneva accords on July 21.

In August began Operation Passage to Freedom consisting of the evacuation of catholic and loyalist Vietnamese civilians from communist North Vietnamese prosecution.

Geneva Conference and Partition

Negotiations between France and the Viet-minh started in Geneva in April 1954 at the Geneva Conference. During this time the French Union and the Viet Minh were fighting the most epic battle of the war at Dien Bien Phu. In France, Pierre Mendès France, opponent of the war since 1950, had been invested on June 17, 1954, on a promise to put an end to the war, reaching a ceasefire in four months.[3]

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.

Students demonstration in Saigon, July 1964, observing the tenth anniversary of the July 1954 Geneva Agreements.

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 Indochina War, more commonly known as the Vietnam War in the West and the American War in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh

Nguyen Ai Quoc and the French Communist Party

Interestingly, the U.S. Communist Party was outlawed in 1954, the very same year Wallace Buford and James McGovern Jr. became the first American casualties in Vietnam. Their C-119 transport aircraft was shot down by Viet Minh artillery while on mission to drop supplies to the garrison of Dien Bien Phu. The war ended that year, but its sequel started in French Algeria, where the French Communist Party played an even stronger role by supplying the National Liberation Front (FLN) rebels with intelligence documents and financial aids. They were called "the suitcase carriers" (les porteurs de valises).

Ho Chi Minh and China and the Soviet Union

In 1923, Ho Chi Minh moved to Guangzhou, China. From 1925-26 he organized the "Youth Education Classes" and occasionally gave lectures at the Whampoa Military Academy on the revolutionary movement in Indochina. He stayed there in Hong Kong as a representative of the Communist International.

In June 1931, he was arrested and incarcerated by British police until his release in 1933. He then made his way back to the Soviet Union, where he spent several years recovering from tuberculosis.

In 1938, he returned to China and served as an adviser with the Chinese Communist armed forces.

Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh

Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh (1942).

In 1941, Ho Chi 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), also called the Việt Minh. 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 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.

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 Viet Minh and the Chinese for a return of the French army to Vietnam north of the 16th parallel. The Viet Minh were willing to accept French rule to end Chinese occupation. Ho Chi 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 cooperation in Vietnam. The French landed a military force at Haiphong in early 1946. Negotiations then took place about the 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.

Telegram from Hồ Chí Minh to U.S. President Harry S. Truman requesting support for independence (Hanoi, Feb.28 1946).

The British had supported the French in fighting the Viet 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 Viet 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 the government of Hồ Chí Minh, in part, because it was supported and supplied by China. Hồ's government gained recognition from China and the Soviet Union by January 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.

French domestic situation

Unstable politics

The 1946 Constitution creating the Fourth Republic (1946-1958) made France a Parliamentary republic. Because of the political context, it could find stability only by an alliance between the three dominant parties: The Christian Democratic Popular Republican Movement (MRP), the French Communist Party (PCF) (founded by Ho Chi Minh himself) and the socialist French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO). Known as tripartisme, this alliance lasted from 1947 until the May 1947 crisis, with the expulsion from Paul Ramadier's SFIO government of the PCF ministers, marking the official start of the Cold War in France. However, this had the effect of weakening the regime, with the two most important movements of this period, Communism and Gaullism, in opposition.

Unlikely alliances had to be made between left and right-wing parties in order to have a government invested by the National Assembly, resulting in strong parliamentary unstability. Hence, France had fourteen prime ministers in succession between the creation of the Fourth Republic in 1947 and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The turnover of governments (there were 17 different governments during the war) left France unable to prosecute the war with any consistent policy according to veteran General René de Biré (Lieutenant at Dien Bien Phu).

France was increasingly unable to afford the costly conflict of Indochina and, by 1954, the United States was paying 80 percent of France's war effort which was $3,000,000 per day in 1952.

Anti-war protests and sabotage operations

A strong anti-war movement existed in France coming mostly from the then powerful French Communist Party (outpowering the socialists) and its young militant associations, major trade unions like the General Confederation of Labour as well as leftist intellectuals. The first occurrence was probably at the National Assembly on March 21, 1947, when the communists deputees refused to vote the military credits for Indochina.

The following year a pacifist event was organized by soviet organizations with the French communist atomic physicist Frederic Joliot-Curie as president. It was the World Peace Council's predecessor known as the "1st Worldwide Congress of Peace Partisans" (1er Congrès Mondial des Partisans de la Paix) which took place from March 25 to March 28, 1948, in Paris. Later in April 28, 1950, Joliot-Curie would be dismissed from the military and civilian Atomic Energy Commission.

Young communist militants (UJRF) were also involved in sabotage actions like the famous Henri Martin Affair and the case of Raymonde Dien who was jailed one year for having blocked an ammunition train, with the help of other militants, in order to prevent the supply of French forces in Indochina in February 1950. Similar actions against trains occurred in Roanne, Charleville, Marseille, Paris. Even ammunition sabotage by PCF agents have been reported, such as grenades exploding in the hands of legionaries. These actions became so important by 1950 that the French Assembly voted a law against sabotage from March 2 to 8. At this session tension was so high between politicians that fighting ensued in the assembly following communist deputees speeches against the Indochinese policy. This month saw the French navy mariner and communist militant Henri Martin arrested by the military police and jailed for five years for sabotage and propaganda operations in Toulon's arsenal.

On May 5 the communist Ministers were dismissed from the government, marking the end of the Tripartism. A few months later on November 11, 1950, the French Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez went to Moscow.

Scandals and affairs

Some military officers involved in the Revers Report scandal (Rapport Revers) like General Salan were very pessimistic about the way the war was managed. Actually multiple political-military scandals happened during the war starting with the Generals' Affair (Affaire des Généraux) from September 1949 to November 1950.

As a result General Revers was dismissed in December 1949 and socialist Defense Ministry Jules Moch (SFIO) was brought on court by the National Assembly in November 28, 1950. Emerging medias played their role, and this scandal started the commercial success of the first French news magazine L'Express created in 1953.[4]

The third scandal was a financial-political scandal, concerning military corruption, money and arms trading involving both the French Union army and the Viet Minh, known as the Piastres Affair.

Cold War propaganda

In the French news the Indochina War was presented as a direct continuation of the Korean War where France had fought as a UN French battalion then incorporated in a U.S. unit, which was later involved in the terrible Battle of Mang Yang Pass of June and July 1954.

In an interview taped in May 2004, General Bigeard (6th BPC) argues that "one of the deepest mistakes done by the French during the war was the propaganda telling you are fighting for Freedom, you are fighting against Communism," hence the sacrifice of volunteers during the climactic battle of Dien Bien Phu. In the latest days of the siege, 652 non-paratrooper soldiers from all army corps from cavalry to infantry to artillery dropped for the first and last time of their life to support their comrades. The Cold War excuse was later used by General Challe through his famous, "Do you want Mers-el-Kebir & Algiers to become soviet bases as soon as tomorrow?" during the Generals' putsch (Algerian War) of 1961, with limited effect though.

The same propaganda existed in the United States with local newsreels using French news footages, probably supplied by the army's cinematographic service. Happening right in the Red Scare years, propaganda was necessary both to justify financial aid and at the same time to promote the American effort in the ongoing Korea War.

War crimes & reeducation camps

  • Viet Minh artillery assaults on sanitory aerial convoys and medical centers at Dien Bien Phu.
  • The Boudarel Affair. Georges Boudarel was a French communist militant who used brainswashing and tortures against French Union POWs in Viet Minh reeducation camps. The French national association of POWs brought Boudarel to court for a War Crime charge. Most of the French Union prisoners died in the Viet Minh camps, many POWs from the Vietnamese National Army are missing.
  • Passage to Freedom was a Franco-American operation to evacuate refugees. Loyal Indochinese evacuated to metropolitan France were kept in camps.
  • In 1957, the French Chief of Staff with Raoul Salan would use the POWs experience with the Viet Minh reeducation camps to create two "Instruction Center for Pacification and Counter-Insurgency" (Centre d'Instruction à la Pacification et à la Contre-Guérilla also known as CIPCG) and train thousands of officers during the Algerian War.

Other countries' involvement

By 1946, France headed the French Union. As successive governments had forbidden the sending of metropolitan troops, the French Far East Expeditionary Corps (CEFEO) was created in March 1945. The Union gathered combatants from almost all French territories made of colonies, protectorates and associated states (Madagascar, Senegal, Tunisia, and so on) to fight in French Indochina, which was then occupied by the Japanese.

About 325,000 of the 500,000 French troops were Indochinese, almost all of whom were used in conventional units.

French West Africa

The A.O.F. (Afrique Occidentale Française) was a federation of African colonies. Senegalese and other African troops were sent to fight in Indochina. Some African alumni were trained in the Infantry Instruction Center no.2 (Centre d'Instruction de l'Infanterie no.2) located in southern Vietnam. Senegalese of the Colonial Artillery fought at the siege of Dien Bien Phu.

French Algeria

As a French colony (later a full province), French Algeria sent local troops to Indochina including several RTA (Régiment de Tirailleurs Algériens) light infantry battalions.


Morocco was a French protectorate and sent troops to support the French effort in Indochina. Moroccan troops were part of light infantry RTMs (Régiment de Tirailleurs Marocains) for "Moroccan Sharpshooters Regiment."


As a French protectorate, Bizerte, Tunisia, was a major French base. Tunisian troops, mostly RTT (Régiment de Tirailleurs Tunisiens), were sent to Indochina.


Part of French Indochina, then part of the French Union and later an associated state, Laos fought the communists along with French forces.


The French Indochina state of Cambodia played a significant role during the Indochina War through its infantrymen and paratroopers.

Vietnamese ethnic minorities

While Bao Dai's State of Vietnam (formerly Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchine) had the Vietnamese National Army supporting the French forces, some minorities were trained and organized as regular battalions (mostly infantry tirailleurs) that fought with French forces against the Viet Minh.

The Tai Battalion 2 (BT2, 2e Bataillon Thai) is famous for its desertion during the siege of Dien Bien Phu. Propaganda leaflets written in Tai and French sent by the Viet Minh were found in the deserted positions and trenches. Such deserters were called the Nam Yum rats by Bigeard during the siege, as they hid close to the Nam Yum river during the day and searched at night for supply drops.

Another allied minority was the Muong people (Mường). The 1st Muong Battalion (1er Bataillon Muong) was awarded the Croix de Guerre des TOE after the victorious battle of Vinh Yen in 1951.[5]

In the 1950s, the French established secret commando groups based on loyal montagnard ethnic minorities referred as "partisans" or "maquisards," called the Groupement de Commandos Mixtes Aéroportés (Composite Airborne Commando Group or GCMA), later renamed Groupement Mixte d'Intervention (GMI, or Mixed Intervention Group), directed by the SDECE counter-intelligence service. The SDECE's "Service Action" GCMA used both commando and guerrilla techniques and operated in intelligence and secret missions from 1950 to 1955.

In 1951, Adjutant-Chief Vandenberghe from the 6th Colonial Infantry Regiment (6e RIC) created the "Commando Vanden" (aka "Black Tigers," aka "North Vietnam Commando #24") based in Nam Dinh. Recruits were volunteers from the Thổ people, Nung people and Mèo people. This commando unit wore Viet Minh black uniforms to confuse the enemy and used techniques of the experienced Bo doi (Bộ đội, regular army) and Du Kich (guerrilla unit). Viet Minh prisoners were recruited in POW camps. The commando was awarded the Croix de Guerre des TOE with palm in July 1951, however Vandenberghe was betrayed by a Vet Minh recruit, commander Nguien Tinh Khoi (308th Division's 56th Regiment), who assassinated him (and his Vietnamese fiancee) with external help on the night of January 5, 1952.

Coolies and POWs known as PIM (Prisonniers Internés Militaires which is basically the same as POW) were civilians used by the army as logistical support personnel. During the battle of Dien Bien Phu, coolies were in charge of burying the corpses - the first days only, after they were abandoned hence a terrible smell according to veterans—and they had the dangerous job of gathering supply packets delivered in drop zones while the Viet Minh artillery was firing hard to destroy the crates. The Viet Minh also used thousands of coolies to carry the Chu-Luc (regional units) supplies and ammunition during assaults.

The PIM were civilian males old enough to join Bao Dai's army. They were captured in enemy controlled villages, and those who refused to join the State of Vietnam's army were considered prisoners or used as coolies to support a given regiment.

United States

Mutual Defense Assistance Act (1950-1954)

Anti-communist Vietnamese refugees moving from a French LSM landing ship to the USS Montague during operation Passage to Freedom in 1954.

At the beginning of the war, the U.S. was neutral in the conflict because of opposition to imperialism and consequently to help colonial empires regain their power and influence, because the Viet Minh had recently been their allies, and because most of its attention was focused on Europe where Winston Churchill argued an iron curtain had fallen. This was the beginning of the Cold War.

Then the U.S. government gradually began supporting the French in their war effort, primarily through Mutual Defense Assistance Act, as a means of stabilizing the French Fourth Republic in which the French Communist Party—created by Ho Chi Minh himself—was a significant political force. A dramatic shift occurred in American policy after the victory of Mao Zedong's Communist Party of China in the Chinese Civil War.

By 1949, however, the United States became concerned about the spread of communism in Asia, particularly following the end of the Chinese Civil War, and began to strongly support the French as the two countries were bound by the Cold War Mutual Defense Programme. After the Moch-Marshall meeting of September 23 1950, in Washington, the United States started to support the French Union effort politically, logistically and financially. Officially, U.S. involvement did not include use of armed force. However, recently it has been discovered that undercover (CAT), or non-U.S. Air Force, pilots flew to support the French during Operation Castor in November 1953. Two U.S. pilots were killed in action during the siege of Dien Bien Phu the following year. These facts were declassified and made public more than 50 years after the events, in 2005 during the Legion of Honor award ceremony by the French ambassador in Washington.

In May 1950, after the capture of Hainan island by Chinese Communist forces, U.S. President Harry S. Truman began covertly authorizing direct financial assistance to the French, and in June 27, 1950, after the outbreak of the Korean War, 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 the Soviet Union, he would establish a puppet state with Moscow with the Soviets 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.

On June 30, 1950, the first U.S. supplies for Indochina were delivered. In September, Truman sent the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to Indochina to assist the French.

Later, in 1954, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower explained the escalation risk with the Domino theory. 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.

U.S. Navy assistance (1951-1954)

Bois Belleau (aka USS Belleau Wood) transferred to France in 1953.

The USS Windham Bay delivered the Grumman F8F Bearcat to Saigon in January 26, 1951.

On March 2, the U.S. Navy transferred the USS Agenor to the French navy in Indochina per the MAAG-led MAP. Renamed RFS Vulcain (A-656), she was used in Operation Hirondelle in 1953.

The USS Sitkoh Bay carrier delivered Grumman F8F Bearcat aircraft to Saigon on March 26, 1951.

During September 1953, the USS Belleau Wood—renamed Bois Belleau—was lent to France and sent to French Indochina to replace the Arromanches. She was used to support delta defenders in the Halong bay in May 1954. In August, she joined the Franco-American evacuation operation Passage to Freedom.

The same month the United States delivered additional aircraft using the USS Windham Bay carrier. She would return to Saigon in 1955.

On April 18, 1954, during the siege of Dien Bien Phu, the USS Saipan delivered 25 Korean War AU-1 Corsair aircraft to be used by the French Aeronavale to support the bessieged garrison.

U.S. Air Force assistance (1952-1954)

A 1952 F4U-7 Corsair of the 14.F flotilla who fought at Dien Bien Phu.

A total of 94 F4U-7s were built for the Aeronavale in 1952, with the last of the batch, the final Corsair built, rolled out in December 1952. The F4U-7s were actually purchased by the U.S. Navy and passed on to the Aeronavale through the U.S. Military Assistance Program (MAP).

They were supplemented by 25 ex-USMC AU-1s (previously used in the Korean War) and moved from Yokosuka, Japan to Tourane Air Base (Danang), Vietnam in April 1954.

U.S. Air Force assistance followed in November 1953 when the French commander in Indochina, General Navarre, asked General McCarty, commander of the Combat Cargo Division, for 12 Fairchild C-119 for Operation Castor at Dien Bien Phu.

On March 3, 1954, twelve C-119s of the 483rd Troop Carrier Wing ("Packet Rats") based at Ashiya, Japan, were painted with France's insignia and loaned to France with 24 CIA pilots for short term use. Maintenance was carried out by the U.S. Air Force and airlift operations were commanded by McCarty.

Central Intelligence Agency covert operations (1954)

France-marked USAF C-119 flown by CIA pilots over Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Two CIA pilots (CAT) were killed in action during the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Twenty four CIA pilots supplied the French Union garrison by airlifting paratroopers, ammunition, artillery pieces, tons of barbed wire, medics and other military material. With the reducing DZ areas, night operations and anti-aircraft artillery assaults, many of the "packets" fell into Viet Minh hands.

The 37 CIA pilots completed 682 airdrops under anti-aircraft fire between March 13 and May 6. The ceasefire began the following day at 5:00 PM under Hanoi-based General Cogny's orders.

On February 25, 2005, the French ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, awarded the seven remaining CIA pilots with the Legion of Honor.

Operation Passage to Freedom (1954)

In August 1954, in support to the French navy and the merchant navy, the U.S. Navy launched Operation Passage to Freedom and sent hundreds of ships, including USS Montague, in order to evacuate 293,000 non-communist—especially catholic—Vietnamese refugees prosecuted by the communist Viet Minh in North Vietnam following the July 20, 1954 armistice and partition of Vietnam.[6] The last French Union troops left Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1956.


China supplied the Viet Minh with hundreds of soviet-built GAZ-51 ("Molotova") trucks in the 1950s.

In the early 1950s, southern China was used as a sanctuary by Viet Minh guerrillas. Several hit and run ambushes were successfully operated against French Union convoys along the neighboring Route Coloniale 4 (RC 4) which was a major supply way in Tonkin (northern Vietnam). One of the most famous attack of this kind was the battle of Cao Bang.

China supplied the Viet Minh guerrillas with food (thousands of tons of rice), money, medics, arms (Sung Khong Zat cannons), ammunitions (SKZ rockets), artillery (24 guns were used at Dien Bien Phu) and other military equipment including a large part of material captured from Chiang Kai-shek's National Revolutionary Army during the Chinese Civil War. Evidences of the Chinese secret aid were found in caves during Operation Hirondelle in July 1953.

2,000 Chinese and Soviet Union military advisors trained the Viet Minh guerrilla to turn it into a full range army. On top of this China sent two artillery battalions at the siege of Dien Bien Phu on May 6th 1954. One operated SKZ (Sung Khong Zat) 75 mm recoilless cannons while the other used 12 x 6 Katyusha rockets.

China and the Soviet Union were the first nations to recognize North Vietnam.

Soviet Union

The USSR was the other ally of the Viet Minh supplying GAZ trucks, truck engines, fuel, tires, arms (thousands of Skoda light machine guns), all kind of ammunitions, anti-aircraft guns (4 x 37 mm type) and cigarettes. During Operation Hirondelle, the French Union paratroopers captured and destroyed tons of Soviet supply in the Ky Lua area.

According to General Giap, the Viet Minh used 400 GAZ-51 soviet-built trucks at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Using highly effective camouflage, the French Union reconnaissance planes were not able to notice them. On May 6, 1954, during the siege, Stalin's organs were successfully used against the outpost.

Together with China, the Soviet Union sent 2,000 military advisors to train the Viet Minh guerrilla and turn it into a fully organized army. The Soviet Union was with China the first nations to recognize Ho Chi Minh's North Vietnam.

Popular culture

Although a kind of taboo in France, "the dirty war" has been featured in various films, books and songs. Since its declasification in the 2000s television documentaries have been released using new perspectives about the U.S. covert involvement and open critics about the French propaganda used during wartime.

The war depicted by the communist propaganda

Famous Communist propagandist Roman Karmen was in charge of the media exploitation of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. In his documentary Vietnam (Вьетнам, 1955) he staged the famous scene with the raising of the Viet Minh flag over de Castries' bunker which is similar to the one he staged over the Nazi Reichstag roof during World War II (Берлин, 1945) and the "S" shaped POW column marching after the battle, where he used the same optical technique he experimented before when he staged the German prisoners after the Siege of Leningrad (Ленинград в борьбе, 1942) and the Battle of Moscow (Разгром немецких войск под Москвой, 1942).

Censorship and influence over Hollywood productions

The first movie about the war Shock Patrol (Patrouille de Choc) also known as Patrol Without Hope (Patrouille Sans Espoir) by Claude Bernard-Aubert came out in 1956. The French censorship has cut some violent scenes and made the director change the end of his movie which was seen as "too much pessimistic."

The second film, The 317th Platoon (La 317ème Section), was released in 1964, it was directed by Indochina War (and siege of Dien Bien Phu) veteran Pierre Schoendoerffer. Schoendoerffer has since become a mediatic specialist about the Indochina War and has focused his production on realistic war movies. He was cameraman for the army ("Cinematographic Service of the Armies," SCA) during his duty time, moreover as he had covered the Vietnam War he released the The Anderson Platoon, which won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature.

The popular Hollywood Vietnam war movies Apocalypse Now Redux, and most obviously Platoon, are inspired by Schoendoerffer's work on the First Indochina War. An interesting detail about Apocalypse Now is all its First Indochina War related scenes (including the line "the White leaves but the Yellow stays," which is borrowed from the The 317th Platoon) and explicit references were removed from the edited version that was premiered in Cannes, France in 1979.


  1. Schoeonbrun, 192.
  2. Karnow, 146.
  3. French National Assembly, June 17, 1954 discourse of Mendès-France.
  4. Denis Jeambar & Roland Mihail, "Nous voulions un journal pour dire ce que nous pensions." Retrieved December 12, 2007.
  5. French Defense Minisrty archives, Notice de la Photo. Retrieved December 12, 2007.
  6. Department of Defense, U.S. Defense service. Retrieved December 12, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin, 1997. ISBN 978-0140265477.
  • Schoenbrun, David. America Inside Out: Home and Abroad from Roosevelt to Regan. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984. ISBN 0-070-554773-0.
  • Summers, J. R., G. Harry. Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. ISBN 0-395-72223-3.
  • Wiest, Andrew. The Vietnam War, 1956-1975. London: Osprey, 2002. ISBN 9781841764191.
  • Wiest, Andrew (ed.). Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-1-84693-020-6.
  • Windrow, Martin. The French Indochina War 1946-1954 (Men-At-Arms, 322). London: Osprey Publishing, 1998. ISBN 1-85532-789-9.

External links

All links retrieved March 2, 2018.


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