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The French War (1945-

1954) Notes

• 1941: Ho Chi Minh returns to Vietnam and organizes the Viet Minh.

• After Japanese troops occupy Vietnam during WWII, the US allies with Ho Chi Minh to
harass Japanese troops. The Japanese were to rule Indochina through French

• 1945: The March Coup: Threatened by a possible American invasion, the Japanese
take out the French government and proclaimed Vietnam an independent state putting
Bao Dai as their puppet ruler.

• The Vietminh controlled a large number of areas in the north (Liberated areas) and
proceeded to bring even more northern Vietnam areas under their control; with the aim
to show France that it was now a done, irreversible deal, so France would back off
Indochina and thus ensure independence for it. He proclaimed an independent Vietnam
by creating The Democratic People’s Republic of Vietnam (DRV).

• However, Ho’s strategy backfires, because the communist forces in the north were
weak, which meant he was forced to stay with the French forces, with the understanding
that they would be withdrawn within 5 years and would be limited.

• British troops arrived in the South under Major General Gracey, which brought a much
larger French force, tilting towards the re-imposition of French domination of Vietnam.

• There was very limited Viet Minh influence in the South; which meant that Ho’s
revolution was largely stillborn. Ho’s weakness in 1946 meant that he accepted the fact
that the French had named the DRV as a free state within the French Union (a French
dependency). After protests, Ho was forced to accept that the status of the DRV would
be decided by referendum and also agree to a ceasefire in the South where Ho’s forces
were involved in combat with the British, Japanese and French troops.

• The military weaknesses of the Vietnamese were apparent, in 1946, when the French
decided to force the Viet Minh out of the city of Hanoi in North Vietnam (thus beginning
the First Indochina War), it ended with a temporary settlement, and the Viet Minh would
be forced into conflict which it was not prepared for since Ho seemed to have pursued a
political over military strategy.

• After the escalated communist rising, US stopped supporting the Viet Minh and gave aid
to France instead.

• Fighting between Ho’s forces and the French continued in this First Indochina
War until 1954, when a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu prompted France to seek a
peace settlement. (Note: No US help was given to the French as it was assumed they
could handle the situation)
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• 1954, The Geneva Accords: declared a cease-fire and divided Vietnam officially
into North Vietnam (under Ho and his Communist forces) and South Vietnam (under Bao
Dai). The dividing line was set at the 17th parallel. The accords also provide for
elections to be held in all of Vietnam in 1946 to reunify the country. The U.S. opposes
the unifying elections, fearing a likely victory by Ho Chi Minh.

What were the consequences of the French return and Ho’s weaknesses? How did this
create an atmosphere for war later in 1946, and how did events shape the thinking of
both parties in the conflict?

• The fact that the French re-imposed their rule, the weakness of Ho and the accompanying
implication of Ho bowing to French demands was a major blow to Ho’s intention for an
independent and united Vietnam.

- Because the French was so militarily strong, Ho opted for a negotiated/political

settlement instead of a military one for his country’s future; he issued an appeal to
the entire people to ‘wage the resistance of war’ after bowing down to the inevitable
conflict with the French. This political strategy was followed by Ho who held out for
concessions (begging the French not to let him go back ‘empty-handed’).

- He spent months in France trying to negotiate with full independence and unity for
Vietnam. Some suggest hat Ho was willing to buy time for Viet Minh to strengthen
themselves militarily t take on the French later on.

• For the French, the agreement made on March 6 that the Democratic People’s Republic
Vietnam would rely on the French and the status of it be decided by a referendum:

- Made them legitimize their presence in Vietnam

- The French broke their pledge with regards to the number of troops in the north,
increasing them and therefore the threat

- Involved themselves in a number of provocative military actions (the naval

bombardment of Haiphong in November 1946, and in December of Hanoi) which
highlighted their preference for a military solution rather than a political one.

- These military acts showed the Viet Minh the confidence amongst military
commanders in Indochina.

• The Viet Minh started to consolidate their position in the government in the north and also
started to devise plans to counter a superior foe; mainly starting to recognize themselves

- The pyramid-like reorganization of armed resistance of village militia units which co-
ordinated their military operations with large provincial units, both made up of
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- Adopted new guerilla approach, borrowed from the Chinese communists, as well as
unconventional warfare.

1. Motives of both sides:

• French motivation: All Frenchmen alike believed that their reputation had been tarnished
and the future of the French Union depended on their ability to hold on to Indochina. Any
sign of weakness made to Vietnamese nationalists could strengthen nationalists elsewhere
and lead to the disintegration of the French empire. French officials did not want any
compromise with the Vietnamese which might weaken the French position and therefore
took it upon themselves to take serious military action such as the naval bombardment of
Haiphong; which signified the descent into a full fledged war between the two sides.

• Viet Minh motivation: reason for political strategy for an independent Vietnam was rooted in
military weaknesses.

2. Nature (type) of the conflict:

• Colonial War: In its initial stage, the French war was a colonial war fought by two sides only,
whose philosophy of warfare would be opposing each other. The Viet Minh used the Guerilla
‘hit and run’ tactics and other unconventional tactics whereas the French used more
conventional tactics. The French were unable to stamp out since they could not distinguish
combatants from non-combatants as Viet Minh guerillas sprang out from nowhere to
ambush them and then disappeared altogether, blending amongst the local population.
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• Civil War: This first phase of colonial struggle cannot be described as a civil war since the
Vietnamese population (communists and non-communists alike) generally seemed to have
been united in a desire to evict French colonialism. Even when the French claimed
independence for Vietnam in 1949, and tried to cause friction within the Vietnamese camp
and also ease the pressure on its military; most Vietnamese saw it for the sham it was and
preferred to fight the colonial enemy.

• Proxy War: After 1949, the US decided to support the French militarily and economically
without directly intervening in the conflict. We have a proxy war emerging already since the
French aided by the Americans, would also be fighting to contain communism in Asia. On
the other hand, the Vietnamese would be aided in their effort by the Chinese with the
knowledge of the Soviets, who after Stalin’s unsuccessfulness in Korea were not keen to
deeply involve themselves.

3. The emergence of the conflict in Vietnam in the context of the Cold War superpower

3.1: US & Vietnam: Background:

• Roosevelt disapproved French rule in Indochina and declared that ‘French Indochina
must not be returned to the French’. US attitude towards the Vietnamese was
conditioned by the hatred to European colonization as well as the common aim of the
US and the Viet Minh to eject Japanese imperialism.

• The Viet Minh were supplied with weapons and communication equipment, and in return
they supplied useful intelligence to the Americans.

• However, with the war nearing its end in 1945; Truman replaced Roosevelt after his
death. More anti-communist, he was becoming increasingly alarmed about Soviet
expansionism in Europe.

• The US policy thus changed overnight, the threat from communism meant that the US
was unprepared to support any nationalist movement that was perceived communist,
such as Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh. Truman allowed US naval vessels to transport French
troops who returned in force to reclaim Indochina as French colony.

• Vietnam was not concerned an issue for the Truman administration as it was
preoccupied by events in Europe. The French it was assumed were more than capable
of handling the situation in Indochina.

3.2: US growing interest in Vietnam:

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• The emergence of Red China (A communist nation that covers a vast territory in Eastern
Asia) as well as the loss of US atomic monopoly which prompted the administration to
take a closer look at Asia.

• Truman’s administration created the document NSC 68 which talked about the US
military commitment in the containment of communism. Accompanying this was another
document, NSC 48/2, which dealt specifically with developments in Asia and which
argued for increased US economic and military aid to US allies in Asia. The author noted
that special attention should be given to events in Vietnam.

• 1950: First direct US aid commitment to the French war effort in Indochina.

• The US was becoming increasingly concerned about events in Vietnam, because by the
time of the French defeat, it was putting in a lot of financial burden towards the war as
well as a number of US military personnel.

3.3: Understanding US behavior:

• The driving force behind US policy in Vietnam was containment. The desire to contain
communism was more proactive in Asia after the events of the Korean War as well as
the emergence of Communist China (which in the eyes of Washington was the driving
force behind communist expansion).

• As illustrated in Korea, containment was refined and broadened to include not only the
defense of the three power centers (Germany/western Europe, Britain and Japan) but
also other peripheral areas being threatened (those areas close to these power centers).

• Therefore intervention in Korea was justified on the idea that its defense was necessary
since if South Korea fell, Japan would be threatened.

• Furthermore, the fall of Vietnam not only threatened Japan, but the whole continent and
the pacific as well as Australia.

• The Domino Theory: the fall of Vietnam would also mean the fall of other Asian
countries. The belief was that the domino theory was being directed by the Chinese who
were acting on behalf of the Soviet Union to take over not only Asia but globally.
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Reasons why the French lost the war:

• Conventional v/s unconventional warfare

• French failed to separate the communists from the non-communists

• Never had enough man-power to overcome the Viet Minh rebellion.

• The French never followed US advice for an enlightened policy towards Vietnam and was
never serious about preparing Vietnam for independence.

• The human cost of the war turned public opinion against the war in France.

• The French never had a team of inspiring commanders.

Reasons why US didn’t intervene:

• Despite the knowledge that the French were losing the war, the US was uncomfortable
with the idea of intervening openly against a subject nation fighting for freedom from
colonial bondage.

- It tried to get the French to prepare a grand independence to all of Indochina and at
the same time hand over power to a non communist alternative government.
However, an alternative government was non existent since both the French and Viet
Minh had wiped out other nationalist groups.

• Eisenhower recognized that there would be little support in Congress and the US public
at large for an active US military commitment in Vietnam given the increasing
unpopularity of the war in Korea, with its high rate of US causalities.

• Eisenhower was also convinced that direct intervention could mean committing the US in
the wrong war at the wrong time which would overstretch US resources.

3.4: Russian role in the conflict:

• Only in 1950 that Soviets developed some interest in Vietnam. They did not want to be
overshadowed by the Chinese in supporting communist revolutions. However, they also
did not want to be directly involved in a confrontation with an ally of the US as that might
push it into conflict in Asia with the Chinese.
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• Soviets, like the Americans were pushed into the Vietnam conflict not on their own
initiative but by third parities both directly and indirectly.

3.5: The role of China in the war up to 1954:

• China, rather than the US was making a greater impact on Vietnam. It provided tons of
military to the Viet Minh; they had unhindered access to Chinese material and diplomatic

• Chinese seeing their own security interests (china borders Vietnam) better safeguarded
by a fraternal communist power rather than a hostile non communist ally.

Effects of the French War:

• In the south, Bao Dai has installed Ngo Dinh Diem as his prime minister. The U.S. now
pins its hopes on anti-Communist Diem for a democratic South Vietnam. With U.S.
assistance, Diem took control of the South Vietnamese government in 1955, declared
the Republic of Vietnam, and promptly canceled the elections that had been scheduled
for 1956.

• After the ‘loss’ of North Vietnam, the Americans decide they should do everything to stop
the other Vietnam ‘domino’ from falling.

• The Americans refused to sign the Geneva conference which they considered had
surrendered North Vietnam to communism. They proceeded to put South Vietnam under
the protection of SEATO and replaced Bao Dai with Diem.

• China’s gain: secured China’s border with Vietnam, later on an increased buffer as a
result of the unification of both North and South Vietnam would improve its security.

• 1962: Diem’s regime was unpopular. U.S. president John F. Kennedy sent American
“military advisors” to Vietnam to help train the South Vietnamese army, the ARVN, but
quickly realized that the Diem regime was unsalvageable.
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• The resistance against Diem’s regime was organized by the Ho Chi Minh–backed National
Liberation Front, which became more commonly known as the Viet Cong.

• 1963: the United States backed a coup that overthrew Diem and installed a new leader. The
new U.S.-backed leaders proved just as corrupt and ineffective.