Vietnam War Explained: Part 5

The First Indochina War: Phase II

Stalemate Ends

By 1949, the First Indochina War had reached a stalemate. France looked towards the United States for support. However, the United States wasn’t yet willing to lend France a helping hand in its struggle against the Viet Minh. While the United States was agreeable to the idea of a French-ruled Indochina, as opposed to a communist takeover, they were equally frustrated with the out-of-date French colonial outlook.

Colonialism to Anti-Communism: The Bao Dai Solution

In its defense, and to get the United States on board, France continued to paint its struggle against the Viet Minh as anti-communist. France argued that Ho Chi Minh was a communist agent and was only pretending to be a nationalist. To dilute some of its colonial credentials and to give the Vietnamese people a political alternative to Ho Chi Minh, France decided to bring back Bao Dai. Bao Dai had served as the titular head of the Annam region of Vietnam for a number of years under the French and then later as the Head of State of the Empire of Vietnam under the Japanese during the Second World War.

The State of Vietnam is Born

France now made Bao Dai the titular head of the newly constituted “State of Vietnam,” which laid claim to the whole of Vietnam, but practically only controlled the southern part of the country. The State of Vietnam was given the status of an associated state within the French Union. Laos and Cambodia were also made associated states within the French Union with their own titular heads. By doing all this, France hoped to get rid of the taint of imperialism.

France ceded some meaningless powers to Bao Dai and continued to wage the war against the communists in his name. It wasn’t very difficult for people to see through this smokescreen, especially Washington. Bao Dai himself said that the so-called “Bao Dai Solution” of the French was nothing more than a “French Solution.”

Policy of Containment

The Policy of Containment followed by successive US administrations in the second half of the 20th century had its origins in the February 1946 secret telegram sent by the US diplomat George Kennan. Kennan, who at that point was stationed in Moscow, had informed his superiors in Washington that the Soviet threat was very real and called for “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansion tendencies.”

Up till 1949, the policy of containment was only applied to Europe. Two events in the later part of 1949 changed that.

First, in August 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, thus ending the US monopoly on the world’s most lethal weapon. And second, the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, which had been at war with the communist forces under Mao Zedong for a long time suffered a series of defeats and were pushed out of mainland China to Taiwan; the world’s most populous country was now in communist hands.

These two events, in a such a short period of time, brought long-lasting changes in the US treat perception towards the Soviet Union and China.

An important point to note here is that at that time the policymakers in the West subscribed to the idea of “Monolithic Communism.” It was believed that all the communist countries of the world worked in synergy and were led by the Soviet Union, or simply that the other communist countries were just agents of Moscow and acted at their behest. Therefore, any act of aggression by any communist government in any part of the world was construed as Soviet aggression. This myth was only busted after the Soviet-Sino split.  

Enter the Dragon

One of the first acts of Mao Zedong after coming to power was to recognize Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government. This gave the Viet Minh a shot in the arm. Ho Chi Minh lost no time in asking Mao for military aid to defeat the French: and it was granted. The Chinese recognition was followed by the Soviet recognition of DRV. With Chinese and Soviet help, General Giap’s troops were now being transformed into a modern conventional army. The First Indochina War that had reached a stalemate by 1949 was now tipping in Viet Minh’s favor unless of course, a counterforce was applied to keep the French on their feet and prevent a communist takeover of Indochina. This counterforce was provided by the United States.

United States: No Longer Neutral

The United States could no longer sit on the sidelines if it wished to contain communist expansion and had to enter the arena whether it liked it or not. In response to China and the Soviet Union’s recognition of the DRV, the United States recognized the French-backed government of Bai Dai in February 1950. 

The Cold War confrontations in Asia came to a boil when communist North Korea invaded US-backed South Korea, resulting in the Korea War. This act of aggression gave further impetus to the belief that both China and the Soviet Union were bent on expanding their sphere of influence further by dominating Asia. This the United States could not allow to happen if it wished to maintain its pre-eminence in world politics.

France continued to promote the conflict in Indochina as part of global resistance against communism by linking the conflict in Indochina with that in Korea. Therefore, starting in 1950, the Truman administration started providing military aid to the French to resist the Viet Minh. The Truman administration had linked the United States’ security with France’s success in Indochina.

United States Picks up the Tab

France, which was still reeling from the devastations of the Second World War, didn’t have the resources to sustain a colony so far off, let alone fight an enemy who was willing to absorb a great amount of punishment to achieve victory. Financially, the war was becoming unsustainable for the French. The United States had to support France in Indochina both financially and militarily.  

By the end of 1950, the United States had already sanctioned US$ 100 million to France as military aid. And by the end of the First Indochina War, the American taxpayers were financing 80% of France’s war effort in Indochina. The United States also sent military advisors to oversee the use of this aid. But the American aid didn’t do much in improving France’s chances of winning the war.

By 1953, the First Indochina War had been going badly for the French. In the seven years of fighting, they had lost almost around 100, 000 troops. The war had also become quite unpopular back home; it was now being called the “Dirty War.” Reports of French brutality had appalled the French population, especially the widespread use of napalm. Napalm had first been used by the French in Indochina, much before the Americans during the Vietnam War. The French were unable to decide whether to quit Indochina altogether or to continue fighting the Viet Minh.

Henry Navarre becomes the Commander-in-Chief

Henri Navarre, the last French Far East Expedition commander, on the cover of the Time Magazine
Henri Navarre, the last French Far East Expedition commander, on the cover of the Time Magazine

Six French commanders had come and gone from 1946 till 1953. All of them had tried and failed to deliver victory. In May 1953, Henry Navarre was appointed the commander-in-chief of the French forces in Indochina. Upon arriving in Indochina, he was appalled to see that France had no long-term strategy in place to fight the Viet Minh. Things were being done on a day-to-day basis and the French forces only engaged with the Viet Minh when they were attacked.

In the latter half of 1953, there came a breakthrough. Both French and the Viet Minh agreed to bring an end to the First Indochina War through negotiations. It was decided that in April 1954, a conference in Geneve would be arranged to solve some of the outstanding issues in Korea and Indochina. This brought in an element of urgency. The French forces and the Viet Minh, in order to be able to drive a hard bargain, tried to gain as much ground as possible, militarily. 

Dien Bien Phu: The Last Nail in the French Coffin

To draw the Viet Minh out of the jungles into a major set-piece battle, Henry Navarre decided to set up a fortified base in a remote valley in the north-western part of Vietnam called Dien Bien Phu.

Navarre believed that if the Viet Minh could be drawn out of the jungles into a direct confrontation, the French would easily route the enemy and inflict heavy casualties. However, one fatal mistake that he made was to disregard the strategic disadvantages and challenges that the base at Dien Boen Phu would offer. He was quite confident of the permanent airlink with Hanoi that the base would have to call on-air support and that the Viet Minh had almost no anti-aircraft capability or heavy artillery. This was to prove to be a big mistake, as unbeknownst to the French, the Chinese had started supplying the Viet Minh with heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns.

Great Logistical Feat

General Giap understood the strategic and psychological importance of Dien Bien Phu, both from a military standpoint and from the perspective of the upcoming peace conference. Accordingly, he committed most of his troops in the north to besieging Dien Bien Phu.

To carry the heavy artillery procured from the Chinese, Giap had to pull off one of the greatest logistical feats in military history. To carry these heavy weapons, piece by piece, through one of the densest rain forests in the world was no mean feat. But through the sheer determination of the Viet Minh cadres and the peasant porters, they were able to achieve it.

General Giap ordered his men to dig deep trenches and camouflaged the weapons so well that neither the French artillery nor French air support was able to spot them. In March 1954, the Viet Minh artillery began to pound the French base. With the Viet Minh artillery constantly targeting the French aircraft, the supplies from Hanoi that the base so much depended on were also deprived. Any attempts made by the French to venture out of the base and try to break the siege proved futile.

France seeks American Intervention

The French desperately appealed to the Americans to intervene and conduct a night-time bombing of surrounding hills. The then US President Dwight D Eisenhower was willing to help on two conditions:

  1. That he gets a go-ahead from the US Congress
  2. That Britain too agrees to lend support
Viet Minh troops waving Vietnamese flag after victory
Viet Minh troops waving Vietnamese flag after victory

Both the conditions were not met. The US Congress refused to sanction any direct assault against the Viet Minh, especially after having just finished fighting a war in Korea. Winston Churchill and his foreign secretary too refused to back the Americans. In the end, the US President did send secret planes that were flown by American civilian volunteers to drop supplies at the base to aid the French. Two Americans died when their planes were hit by Viet Minh anti-aircraft guns.

Finally, on 07 May 1954, after 55 days of siege, with no relief in sight, the French base at Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh. This was a great victory that the Viet Minh had achieved. This battle brought an end to the First Indochina War and French colonial rule over Indochina.

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