First Indochina War

From Academic Kids

Military history of France
Military history of Vietnam
ConflictFirst Indochina War
PlaceSoutheast Asia
Result• Expulsion of France from Vietnam
• Provisional division of Vietnam
French Republic
Flag of France
Viet Minh
Missing image
Flag of the Viet Minh (1945-1955)

500,000+ ?
Killed in action: 52,000
Total dead: 100,000+
Wounded: ?
Killed in action: ?
Total dead: 300,000+
Wounded: ?

The First Indochina War (also called the French Indochina War) was fought in Southeast Asia from 1946 through 1954 between the nation of France and the resistance movement led by Ho Chi Minh, called the Viet Minh.

The Viet Minh, seasoned by combat against occupying Japanese soldiers during the Second World War, launched a rebellion against the French authority governing the colony of Indochina. After seven years of bloody conflict, the French made their last stand at Dien Bien Phu, where they were engaged by the forces of General Vo Nguyen Giap. But contemporary military tactics were unable to defeat successive human wave attacks and the subsequent siege of the base; the French were defeated with devastating losses. The war in Indochina was not very popular with the French public, but the political stagnation of the Fourth Republic (following WW II German occupation) resulted in ongoing prosecution of the war. The United States supported the war politically and financially.

After the war, the Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954 made a provisional division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with the north (North Vietnam) being given to the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh and the south becoming the Republic of Vietnam under President Ngo Dinh Diem.



A weak state often overshadowed by neighboring China, Vietnam had been absorbed into the colony of French Indochina in 1887. 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 Boi Chau. Boi Chau looked to Japan which had modernized itself and was oen of the few Asian nations to resist colonization (Siam/Thailand being another). With Prince Cuong De, Boi Chau started two organizations in Japan: Duy Tan Hoi and Vietnam Cong Hien Hoi. Due to French pressure, Japan deported Phan Boi Chau to China. Witnessing Sun Yat-Sen's 1911 nationalist revolution, Boi was inspired to create the Vietnam Quang Phuc Hoi movement in Guangzhou. From 1914 to 1917, he was imprisoned by Yuan Shi Kai's counter revolutionary government. In 1925, he was captured by French agents in Shanghai and spirited to Vietnam. Due to his popularity, Boi Chau was spared from execution and placed under house arrest, until his death in 1940.

In 1940 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 the Vietnamese were concerned, this was a double-puppet government. The symbolic Bao Dai Emperor collaborated with the Japanese, just as he had with the French, causing no trouble and ensuring his lifestyle could continue.

Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh

Meanwhile, in 1941 Ho Chi Minh, a trained communist revolutionary, returned to Vietnam and formed the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi or Viet Minh. Ho Chi 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. Ho Chi Minh created the Viet Minh as an umbrella organization for all the nationalist resistance movements, de-emphasizing his communist social revolution background.

In 1945, due to a combination of Japanese exploitation and poor weather, a famine broke out killing approximately 2 million. The Viet Minh arranged a massive relief effort and won over many people. In North Vietnam, the Japanese surrendered to the Chinese Nationalists. The Viet Minh organized the "August Revolution" uprisings across the country. 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 Viet Minh led government in Hanoi, which asserted independence on September 2.

Missing image
Telegram from Ho Chi Minh to U.S. President Truman requesting support against the invading French, Feb. 1946.

Northern Vietnam was firmly under the control of Ho Chi Minh. In southern Vietnam, the Japanese surrendered to British forces. This success was short-lived, as the invading Allied powers quickly controlled the cities and reasserted control by a Free French colonial administration.

In 1946 Vietnam gained its first constitution and a new name, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).

The British supported the Free French in fighting the Viet Minh, the armed religious Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, and the Binh Xuyen organized crime group for power. In 1948, seeking a post-colonial solution, the French re-installed Bao Dai as head of state of Vietnam, which now comprised of central and south Vietnam.

After WWII, the United States and the USSR entered into the Cold War where both sides were determined to expand their influence over the globe. The Korean War broke out between the North Koreans supported by China and the USSR, and the ROK supported by the US and allied nations. Initially the conflict was limited to North Korean, ROK, and US military forces. However, when General Douglas MacArthur penetrated deep into North Korea, the Chinese flooded the country with an enormous army. The Korean War would have deep implications for the American involvement in Vietnam.

The USA became strongly opposed to Ho Chi Minh. His government gained recognition from the Soviet Union and China by 1950. In the south of the same year, the government of Bao Dai gained recognition by the United States and the United Kingdom.


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 fall of Dien Bien Phu 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 80% of France's costs [1] ( Difficulties in the French colonial empire, specifically the loss of Indochina and the government's inability to resolve the crisis in Algeria, were major contributing factors to the fall of the Fourth Republic in 1959.

U.S. involvement

At the beginning of the war, the U.S. was neutral in the conflict, both because of an inherent opposition to imperialism and consequently to helping colonial powers regain empire, and because most of its attention was focused on rebuilding Europe following the devastation of WWII. However, after the infamous X Article was published in 1947, U.S. foreign policy changed dramatically, giving rise to the doctrine of containment. President Harry Truman began covertly authorizing support for the French in their attempt to retake Indochina, giving money and supplies in an effort to suppress the rebellion, and in July 1950 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 Soviet leader Josef Stalin, he would establish a Soviet-style government with Moscow ultimately controlling Vietnamese affairs. The perception of a communist dominated Southeast Asia was enough to spur the U.S. to support France, so that the perceived spread of Soviet communism could be contained.

The War By Year


The French had first boasted to Ho Chi Minh that it would only take a standard police action of a few weeks, "to clean you out". The first conflict broke out in Haiphong after the Viet Minh captured a French patrol boat. The French fleet began a naval bombardment that killed 6,000 Vietnamese people in the city and the Viet Minh quickly agreed to a cease-fire. There was no intention among the Communists to give up though, and General Vo Nguyen Giap soon brought up 30,000 men to attack the city. Although the French were badly outnumbered, their better weaponry and naval support allowed them to beat off the Viet Minh attacks. Guerilla warfare ensued with the French in control of the cities and the Viet Minh in control of the countryside. French patrols kept control of the major colonial roads during daylight hours, but at night the Viet Minh took them, often planting booby traps for the French patrols that would be coming the next day.


General Vo Nguyen Giap moved his command to Tran Trao and began to set up what would become known as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" during the Vietnam War. The French sent assault teams after his bases, but Giap refused to meet them in a conventional battle. Wherever the French troops went, the Viet Minh disappeared, but as soon as they marched out, the Viet Minh would return. Late in the year the French launched "Operation Lea" to take out the Viet Minh communications center at Bac Kan. They failed to capture Ho Chi Minh as they hoped, and gained nothing of value except to kill 9,000 Viet Minh soldiers.


Worried by the stalemate, France began to look for some way to oppose the Viet Minh politically, with an alternative government in Saigon. They began negotiations with the former Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai to lead an "autonomous" government within the French Union of nations. Two years before, the French had refused Ho's request of this same position, however they were willing to give it to Bao Dai as he had always cooperated with French rule of Vietnam in the past.


France officially recognized the "independence" of the "State of Vietnam" under Bao Dai. However, France still controlled all defense issues and all foreign relations. The Viet Minh quickly denounced this puppet government and stated that they wanted "real independence, not Bao Dai 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. Never an effective force, these troops were used mostly to garrison quiet sectors so French forces would be available for combat. Private Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Catholic and the Binh Xuyen gangster armies were used in the same way. The Communists also got help in 1949 when Chairman Mao Zedong succeeded in taking control of China and defeating the Kuomintang. The French also recognized the independence of the Kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia.


The United States recognized the 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, General Giap organized his local battalions into five full infantry divisions, the 304th, 308th, 312th, 316th and the 320th.

The war intensifed starting when Giap began launching attacks on French bases along the Chinese border. In February 1950, Giap seized the vulnerable 150-strong French garrison at Lao Khe in Tokin just south of the border with China. Then on May 25, he attacked the garrison of Cao Bang maned by 4,000 loyal Vietnamese troops, but his forces were repulsed. Giap launched his second offence 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 Viet 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 Ho Chi 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.


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, making up of over 20,000 men, to attack Vinh Yen, 20 miles northwest of Hanoi which was maned 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.

On March 23, Giap 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. 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 faired no better and the three divisions lost heavily. Taking advantage of this, de Lattre mounted his counter offensive against the demoralized Viet 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.

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. Their only response is to ask for more millions of dollars from America. By the end of the year, French forces have lost 90,000 men.


The Viet Minh launched new attacks when the French were overconfident to further weaken moral. On November 14, 1951, the French seized Hoa Binh, 25 miles west of the De Latter line by a parachute drop and expanded their perimeter. But Viet Minh launched attacks on Hoa Binh forcing the French to withdraw back to their main positions on the De Latter 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 died suddenly from cancer and was replaced by Raul Salan. The Viet Minh cut their supply lines and begin to seriously wear down the resolve of the French forces. There were continued raids, skirmishes and guerilla attacks, but through most of the rest of the year, each side withdrawn to prepare itself for larger operations.

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

On October 29, 1952 in the largest operation in Indo-China to date, 30,000 French troops moved out from the De Lattre line to attack the Viet Minh supply dumps at Phu Yen. Salan took Phu Tho on November 5, and Phu Doan on November 9, by a parachute drop and finally Phu Yen on November 13. Giap at first did not react to the French offensive. He planed to wait until their supply lines were over extended and then cut them off from the Red River Delta.

Salan, correctly assuming what the Viet 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 Viet 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 they could not hold it in face of Viet Minh attacks.


Former General Dwight D. Eisenhower became President of the United States and first advanced the so-called domino theory, warning that if America did not support France in stopping the Communists in Indochina, all of the Eastern, India and Southeastern Asia would fall to the "Communist Bloc".

On April 9, Giap continued to pin down the French with guerilla harassment, and by invading Laos to bring support for the communist Pathet Lao. US Vice President Nixon demanded that France should never give up, but had little more than words to offer. 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". Still, he promised offensive action. Navarre, concluded that "hedgehog" centers for countering the Viet Minh invasion of Laos were necessary. Looking at a map of the area, Navarre chose the small town of Dien Bien Phu, located about 10 miles north of the Laotian border and 175 miles west of Hanoi as a target to bring the Viet Minh to battle to inflict a crushing defeat on them.

Dien Bien Phu had a number of advantages; it was on a Viet Minh supply route into Laos on the Nam Yum river, it had an old French airstrip built in the late 1930's 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 Dien Bien Phu and sweeping aside the small, local Viet 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 Chau to the north patrolled the hills. The operation seemed a success.

But Giap, correctly interpreting the French move and strategy, started moving his forces from the De Lattre line to Dien Bien Phu. By mid-December, most of the French and T'ai patrols in the hills around the town were wiped out by Viet 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".

1954: Defeat of the French

Main article: Battle of Dien Bien Phu
Missing image
Treating a wounded French soldier at Dien Bien Phu, April 1954.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu occurred in 1954 between Viet Minh forces under Vo Nguyen Giap and French airborne and Foreign Legion forces. The battle was fought near the village of Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam and became the last battle between the French and the Vietnamese in the First Indochina War. The battle took place prior to planned peace talks and were undertaken by the French in an attempt to strenghten their position in negotiations. The battle began on March 13 when the Viet Minh attacked pre-emptively suprising 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 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, almost half of the attacking force.

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.

The victory by the Viet Minh led to the 1954 Geneva accords.

Geneva Conference and Partition

The Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954 recognized the 17th parallel as a "provisional military demarcation line" temporarily dividing the country into two states, 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 only France and the North Vietnamese government (DRV) signed the document. The U.S. and the government in Saigon refused to abide by the agreement, believing that the election would result in an easy victory for Ho Chi Minh. Emperor Bao Dai from his home in France appointed Ngo Dinh Diem as Prime Minister of South Vietnam. With American support, in 1955 Diem used a referendum to remove the former Emperor and declare himself as president of the Republic of Vietnam.

Thus the competition for the whole of Vietnam began; Diem's military was unable to prevail in the civil war which escalated, as a result of international intervention, into the Vietnam War.

See also

External links

Template:Commons de:Indochinakrieg fr:Guerre d'Indochine ga:Chad Cogadh Indeo-sn ja:第一次インドシナ戦争 pl:I wojna indochińska


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