The First Indochina War: Phase I
This is the fourth article of the Vietnam War series. In Part 3, we learned that the Viet Minh and the French were unable to reach a negotiated peace agreement after the Japanese surrender. This set the stage for the First Indochina War. The First Indochina War started in December 1946 and lasted till August 1954, that is, around 7 years and 7 months. However, in South Vietnam, this conflict started in September 1945. This war was fought between the Viet Minh and the French colonial forces for control over Vietnam. In the west, this war is known as the First Indochina War. However, in Vietnam, it is called the Anti-French War. And in France, this conflict is simply known as the Indochina War.
Prelude to War
The Japanese surrender in the Second World War had created a political vacuum in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh had anticipated the Japanese surrender and had been preparing the Viet Minh cadres to seize power. On 15 August 1945, the day on which the Japanese announced surrender, Ho Chi Minh launched the August Revolution. Ho Chi Minh also convinced the emperor Bao Dai to abdicate the throne in his favor.
By the end of August 1945, Viet Minh had all major cities and most of the rural countryside under their control. However, this control was superficial and quite loose, especially in the southern part of the country where the Viet Minh was not that strong, and a number of politico-religious organizations, nationalists, and Trotskyites formed the political scene. However, the Viet Minh was able to come to an agreement with them and headed a coalition in Saigon.
On 02 September 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent and proclaimed the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). In his speech, Ho Chi Minh used Thomas Jefferson’s famous lines from the United States’ Declaration of Independence. By doing so, Ho Chi Minh tried to impress upon the Americans that his actions should be seen in the light of nationalism and anti-colonialism. Ho Chi Minh knew that it was important for him to get the Americans on his side to outmaneuver the French.
Change in American Foreign Policy
The American policy thinking about the Viet Minh underwent significant changes from 1944 till 1950. From being supportive of the Viet Minh to being neutral, and to outright opposition. This change in policy was brought about by the attitudes of two US Presidents during these six years, but more importantly, because of the changing international political climate caused by the onset of the Cold War era. US President Franklin Roosevelt was an anti-imperialist and was totally opposed to the French reoccupation of Indochina after the end of the Second World War. He wanted an international trusteeship to be established for Vietnam till the time the Vietnamese became capable of self-governance. He was so opposed to the French occupation of Indochina that when the Japanese took over Indochina from the French in the coup of March 1945, he did not try to help the French out. This inaction from Roosevelt had earned him a lot of criticism from Charles de Gaulle.
The US policy towards Vietnam took on a different trajectory after the death of Roosevelt in April 1945. The new President Harry Truman was less concerned with colonial questions and was more concerned with the communist threat. He knew that France was an important ally against the Soviet Union in Western Europe. With the French President de Gaulle clearly in favor of reoccupying all former French colonies, it was difficult for Truman to oppose the French, as otherwise, the French could have fallen into the Soviet orbit to achieve their goal. Therefore, to begin with, the US started to adopt a neutral attitude towards Vietnam. Consequently, when the French started retaking South Vietnam with the help of the British by pushing the Viet Minh out of the cities, the United States remained neutral leaning slightly towards the French.
With time, officials in the US State Department and a number of top French and British diplomats convinced Harry Truman that Ho Chi Minh was a communist agent and the communist threat was very real. The French tried to paint their conflict with the Viet Minh as a fight against communism as opposed to colonialism. As a result, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Deer team that had so closely worked with the Viet Minh and had so vehemently supported the Viet Minh post-August Revolution became the first OSS team to be dismantled. Harry Truman declared that the OSS Deer team had gone off script, acting on their own and that their actions were not coherent with the policy of the US government.
It was in pursuance of this policy of neutrality that Harry Truman did not intercede on behalf of the Viet Minh when Ho Chi Minh desperately pleaded to him for support as the French began to retake Vietnam.
Vietnam after the Second World War
Initially, as the French began to reassert themselves in Vietnam after the Japanese surrender, they had thought that it wouldn’t take them much time to take possession of their former colony. The French did not fully appreciate the hold that the Viet Minh had over the masses and their network of cadres spread throughout the country. The political situation in Vietnam was quite different from what it was during the Second World War. Also, France was no longer as mighty as it had been before the war.
The Viet Minh by mid-1945 had reached every nook and cranny of the country. The People’s Revolutionary Committee was to be found in every village. The Viet Minh had a well-coordinated countrywide network of cadres and it wasn’t going to be an easy task to subdue them. Unlike the French, the Viet Minh enjoyed the support of most Vietnamese. Whatever confidence the French had in their ability to quickly taking over Indochina soon started to dissipate.
Unlike South Vietnam where the French had been actively helped by the British, North Vietnam was a different matter. The Chinese were not willing to simply hand over power to the French. In order to stop the tensions between the Viet Minh and the French from escalating into armed clashes as it had in South Vietnam, the Chinese threatened both with war and pressurized both into reaching some sort of an agreement. As a result, the French agreed to recognize the Viet Minh government and the Viet Minh in turn agreed to the presence of French troops for a couple of years. The French also managed to get favorable terms from the Chinese by giving up some of their claims to some Chinese ports.
The French and the Viet Minh both knew that this was an agreement only in name and was necessitated by Chinese presence and a confrontation between both of them was inevitable unless a negotiated peace agreement was reached. It was for this purpose, that Ho Chi Minh spent a few months in France in 1946 to find a common ground. The French, however, as it turned out, were willing to grant only nominal independence to Vietnam. To make matters worse, the French Governor declared Cochinchina an independent republic between the ongoing peace talks. Also, the French President Charles de Gaulle also reasserted that France should regain all its former colonies.
Given that France was not willing to grant any real independence to Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam. He knew that the war that he had been trying to avoid was now inevitable.
The War Begins
By the end of 1946, all the charges were set in place and it only a matter of setting off the fuse. The incident in Haiphong did just that.
Towards the end of 1946, a customs dispute broke out between the Viet Minh and the French at Haiphong. In the ensuing armed clashes, both sides suffered losses with the Viet Minh losing many more men. The French authorities decided that the city should be taught a lesson for daring to attack the French. As a result, the French naval vessels bombed the city of Haiphong and killed around 6, 000 civilians in one afternoon. They conducted house to house raids and pushed the Viet Minh out of the city. To avenge this, the Viet Minh chief general Vo Nguyen Giap brought a Viet Minh force 30, 000 strong and attacked the French in Haiphong. Due to superior weaponry, the French fought back and inflicted heavy casualties on the Viet Minh forces. This incident is considered as the start of the First Indochina War.
A few days later, the Viet Minh blew up the power plants in Hanoi plunging the entire city into darkness. IN the cover of darkness, they attacked French homes and military installations. The fighting continued for a couple of days and then the French pushed the entire Viet Minh leadership out of Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, and other Viet Minh leaders all went underground and set up bases in remote mountain jungles. These incidents made the Viet Minh rethink their military strategy. They knew that they couldn’t outfight the French in open conventional war. They had to engage the French in guerilla warfare. In this war, the Viet Minh would be everywhere and nowhere.
Viet Minh Strategy
General Giap knew that he had every little resource in terms of combatants and materials at his disposal to fight the French. He tried to make the best use of whatever he had.
- Ideological Support: The Viet Minh had a great ideological advantage compared to the French Far-East Expeditionary Corps (CEFEO). The CEFEO was mainly composed of native Frenchmen, pro-Vietnamese troops from other French colonies such as Tunisia, Senegal, Algeria, etc., and units of the French foreign legions. The morale of these troops was low. They were also not well-led and could not rely heavily on support from France. For post-war France, it was becoming increasingly difficult to hold on to its colonies and especially a colony that was so far away. All the resources that otherwise should have been employed in rebuilding France from the devastation caused by the Second World War were now being used to fight the Viet Minh and sustain its hold on Indochina. This had made the war increasingly unpopular in France. In France, some people referred to it as the “Dirty War.”
- The Terrain: Giap knew that one natural advantage that the Viet Minh had against the French was the difficult terrain. The Viet Minh could use the mountains jungles and the dense rainforests to their advantage to fight an agonizing guerilla war against the French.
- Popular Support: The Viet Minh enjoyed the support of the local populace. The Viet Minh used to receive food supplies from the villagers. The villagers also used to provide cover and information.
As the war progressed, the French increasingly began to find it difficult to finish the Viet Minh. It was becoming impossible for them to identify a Viet Minh from an ordinary peasant. At times, the French would raze entire villagers and kill local peasants for harboring the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh responded in equal measure. They would kill anyone suspected of colluding with the French. The Viet Minh used to say that it was right to kill even innocents than to let a guilty one escape.
With the aim of wiping out the entire Viet Minh leadership, the French launched Operation Lea in late 1947. More than one thousand French paratroopers were dropped and CEFEO forces were deployed near the Viet Minh base at Bac Can. The French wanted to force the Viet Minh to fight an open battle as they knew that they would surely win such a confrontation. In this operation, the Viet Minh lost around 9,000 combatants. However, most of the Viet Minh along with its leadership melted away into the jungles.
Until 1949, the First Indochina War was only a low-level insurgency. Whenever the French tried to engage the Viet Minh in a head-on conflict, the Viet Minh would melt away into the jungles. The Viet Minh confined themselves to ambushing French patrols and attacks on French garrisons. By 1949, the war had reached a stalemate with the French only going on a counteroffensive when they were attacked by the Viet Minh. The road of war did not seem to have an end for either side. They knew they had to get external help to end this stalemate and both parties lobbied hard to get it.
I have chiefly relied on the information from the following two books to write this article. For anyone interesting in getting a deeper and more insightful understanding of the Vietnam War, I would highly recommend these two books.
- The Vietnam War: An Intimate History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns
- Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 by Max Hastings
Vietnam War Explained: Article Series
- Part 1 Geography and Some Basic Questions
- Part 2 Vietnam War Background and End of French Colonial Rule
- Part 3 August Revolution: Viet Minh and the French Return
- Part 4 The First Indochina War: Phase I
- Part 5 The First Indochina War: Phase II
- Part 6 Geneva Conference and increasing US involvement in Vietnam