According to Vietnamese mythology, a Dragon King emerged from the sea off the coast of northern Vietnam approximately 3000 years ago. He arrived in response to the prayers of fisherman and farmers representing some 15 scattered tribes who were confronted by demons, evil spirits and pestilence that threatened their existence.
1627-40: French priest Alexandre de Rhodes works in Vietnam. Quoc-Ngu writing system developed. 1664: French Society of Foreign Missions and French East India Company created. 1802: French troops assist Emperor Gia Long to defeat rival warlords. 1805: Napoleon’s navy defeated at Trafalgar.
1815: Napoleon’s army defeated at Waterloo.
1820-40: Reign of Emperor Minh Mang.
1841-47: Reign of Emperor Thieu-Tri.
1847: French clergyman, Monsignor Lefebvre, arrested by Vietnamese and sentenced to beheading. French warships attack Danang Harbour. 1848-83: Reign of Emperor Tu Duc.
1857: French Foreign Minister, Count Walewski, urges a direct attack on Vietnam, Admirial Gencuilly invades Danang with 14 ships and 2500 troops. 1861: Admiral Charner attacks Saigon.
1862: Treaty of Saigon, Cochinchina ceded to France.
1870-80: French colonialists explore Indochina.
1883: Francois Hammand attacks Hue City and sacks the Royal Palace. Emperor Heip Hoa signs Treaty f Protectorate. Annam and Tonkin ceded to France. Hiep Hoa murdered by his mandarins. 1885: French troops attack Hue. Emperor Ham Nghi flees to the jungle and creates Can Vuong movement. 1887: Indochinese Union created, consisting of Cochin china, Annam, Tonkin and Cambodia. 1893: Laos added to Indochinese Union.
1947: Ham Nghi dies in French gaol.
Emperor Tu Duc (1848-83) like all Vietnamese monarchs before him was considered to be a demigod who represented Heaven and Earth. Venerated by the people as a symbol of wisdom, compassion, charity and understanding. Tu Duc ruled a multilingual, ethnically diverse territory of nearly 385 000 square kilometres, which extended from China’s borders in the north then south along a vast coastal plain fronting the South China Sea. Tu Duc’s government was located at Hue in central Vietnam. Here he presided over a Royal Court composed of dynasty relatives, advisers, scholars, philosophers and military officials. The government’s largest component – its rural base – was controlled exclusively by the farming community. This policy was based on historical precedent and gave rise to the saying ‘the power of the Emperor stops at the bamboo gate’, which meant that the Royal Court did not interfere with the day-to-day life of Vietnam’s 100 000 villages and 300 000 hamlets.
A System of Government during the Nguyen Dynasty
A system of taxation, compulsory labour service on government projects and periodic conscription for military purposes also existed. The Royal Family and select members of the Court were excempt from these obligations. Tu Duc ruled alone and had no precise political portfolio except to be an inspired leader. This would always remain a challenge for Vietnam’s emperors. The reality was that Vietnam before the French was a very poor country. Wealth and power remained exclusively with the Royal Court and the senior mandarins and the subordinates, whereas the rural peasants never escaped from the constant struggle to survive.
Society and Culture
Tu Duc’s empire contained dozens of ethnic groups.
Over 80% were Vietnamese, but others added to a colourful racial mixture. The xa (village) is a Chinese word meaning ‘place of spirit worship’. In Vietnamese culture, the concepts of family, religion, prosperity, life, death and land are essential xa values. In Tu Duc’s Vietnam, villages of 150-300 people were common. Each village was the ancestral home of various families linked through marriages which created a genealogy hundreds of years old.
Vietnamese moral attitudes were influenced by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, the spirituality of the Buddha and the mysticism if Lao Tzu. The Analects, concentrated on 4 basis themes:
- Personal morality and integrity
- Family values
- The obligations of government
A Musical, Poetic and Artistic History
Having no formal schooling, the majority of Vietnamese were unable to express themselves in writing. However, most people understood the basic Chinese characters that represented money, land, rice, taxes and the emperor. Yet, despite these limitations, the Vietnamese developed oral traditions that recorded their emotions, cultural values, religion and, most importantly, the historical development of their country. Over the next 600 years music, drama, storytelling and Vietnamese history became intertwined. Divide and Conquer: the Roles of the Missionaries
In 1858 Vietnam remained one of the last Asian nations that had not fallen victim to European colonialism. This policy, espoused by the British, the Dutch, the French and the Spanish over a 200 year period, was simply the imposition of European military might, language, culture, religion and moral values on less-developed and vulnerable nations whose indigenous people were unable to prevent such as intrusion. Colonialism, also known as imperialism, was essential to 19th century European nations because it expanded their territorial empires, gained them valuable natural resources, and provided an indigenous labour force that could be exploited for economic purposes.
Uninvited and unannounced, Catholic missionaries first set foot on Vietnamese soil in the 16th Century. For the next 300 years successive Vietnamese emperors treated these strangers with a variety of curiosity. As time passed, clergymen were accompanied by French government officials, military experts, astronomers, physicians and merchants anxious to establish a long-term relationship with Vietnam. The Royal Court desired to create trade links with France, but was interceptive towards the Catholic priests whose determined conversion policies represented a direct threat to Vietnamese spiritual beliefs and a violation of the Confucian ethic. Vietnamese emperors maintained this attitude towards the French until 1802, when rival Vietnamese warlords were engaged in civil war. In that year, soon-to-be-emperor, Gia Long, appealed for direct French military intervention. French troops helped defeat the Tay Son revolutionaries. In return, Gia Long allowed the missionaries to continue their spiritual work. His son, Emperor Minh Mang, was less accommodating, especially when it became clear that the priests were urging political and social reform at the village level, which represented sedition. Predictably, Minh Mang reacted with force.
Between 1820 and 1840, clergymen were harassed, arrested and deported. Dozens were beheaded, which created martyrs and fortified the Church’s resolve to ‘convert the Vietnamese pagans.’ Of course, French actions and Vietnamese reactions represented nothing less than a major cultural clash of values. From Ming Mang’s perspective, the priests had become treasonous. The clergy justified its actions by referring to la mission civilisatrice, the Angelo/French belief that stressed European superiority over indigenous people. In Vietnam, the roots of this ‘burden’ can be linked to the activities of Alexandre de Rhodes, a French priest whose reports were welcomed by the French court. Between 1627 and 1640 Rhodes worked in and out of Vietnam.
He claimed to have converted no fewer than 6700 Vietnamese to Catholicism. He was also deported 3 times and threatened with beheading if he returned. True to his spiritual calling however, he did return.
Rhodes also wrote reports that described Vietnam’s economic potential, its untapped natural resources and its large labour force. He described the Vietnamese government as simple, uninspired and primitive, and its army as ineffective. In Vietnam, the Royal Court welcomed its new, yet modest, trade arrangements with France. Navigational equipment, ship-building techniques, maps, charts and military hardware created interest among senior mandarins who had no previous exposure with the west. However, missionaries always presented a problem.
By the mid-19th century, the French Catholic Church claimed to have converted 300,000 Vietnamese. Said converted were led by Vietnamese priests who urged spiritual elitism, loyalty to France and social reforms such as reduced taxation, the elimination of crown land titles and land redistribution.
France’s Quest for an Asian Empire
By the late 1840s Britain had successfully colonised most of Asia. India, Malaya, Singapore, Burma and Hong Kong were now part of a global Britannia or were territories controlled by the Union Jack. The Dutch had an empire in the East Indies; the Spanish remained superior in the Philippines; and Portugal ruled Macao, a territory attached to China’s mainland. France remained a ‘poor man’ in Asia.
It had no footholds in the Far East.
At the same time, Indochina was untouched, rich in resources, fragile and vulnerable.
In 1847 Tu Duc’s father, Emperor Thieu Tri, arrested a senior French priest for treasonous activities. News of his future beheading sparked an immediate French response. On 23 March the ships arrived at Da Nang harbour, in central Vietnam, and presented the Royal Court with 2 ultimatums: the persecution of priests must stop, and, in future, all missionaries must be granted unlimited freedom on Vietnamese soil. Thieu Tri did not respond.
2 weeks later Glory and Victory opened fire and systematically destroyed Vietnamese naval strength at Da Nang. Fishing boats and naval vessels were sunk, barges burned, dockyards laid waste and at least 80 civilians were killed. Pleasant relations between the French and Vietnamese had now ended. Predictably, Tu Duc had followed his father’s policies. Over the next decade French priests were deported, gaoled or beheaded, which infuriated the French. Finally, in July 1857, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Count Walewski, urged a direct attack on the Vietnamese. The government agreed and, one month later, Admiral Rigault de Genouilly returned to Da Nang aboard his flagship, the Victory. But Genouilly was not alone. His fleet included 14 warships armed with over 100 cannons, plus 2500 troops. Within 48 hours Genouilly successfully blasted his way through Da Nang. The harbour lay in ruins. Tu Duc’s citadel, or military garrison, in Da Nang was overrun and occupied.
French Colonialism having a Negative impact on Vietnamese Society. In 1920 the French empire included fifteen colonies representing 10,250,000 square kilometres, or an area 20 times larger than France. More than 56,000,000 indigenous people from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia were controlled by colonialism in a positive way. For them, the French presence created new, previously unknown opportunities for employment and advancement. French colonialists policies had a profound impact on Indochina, especially in Vietnam. The Bank of Indochina, founded in 1875, was granted extensive and exclusive licenses that allowed it to control all economic development. French investors were awarded government contracts to reform Vietnam’s simplistic agricultural system into money-intensive plantations that earned enormous profits. All villages were required to meet specific quotas, a conspt unknown to Vietnam’s rural community. Henceforth, all plantations were assigned yearly target quotas that had to be met. If they were met, French agricultural monopolies purchased all the produce at a price determined by the government, not the farmers, which left the farmers unable to supplement their extremely low wages. If yearly production levels were not met, the farmers paid taxes in compensation. The entire system exploited the traditional Vietnamese farmer, destroyed cultural values and stimulated poverty.
Rice wine was Vietnam’s national beverage.
In 1871 a wine tax was introduced. French Distilleries of Indochina became a colonial monopoly in 1902. It controlled the manufacture, distribution and sale of rice wine throughout Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Local production was now illegal.
To enforce this law, yearly consumption quotas were assigned to villages with more than 100 people. All rice wine had to be purchased from local monopoly outlets. If a village did not comply with its yearly consumption quota, the remaining costs were added on as an extra tax. Salt:
This everyday commodity was essential to the Vietnamese for 2 reasons. - First, salt was consumed by the peasants to avoid heat exhaustion. - Second, salt was an essential ingredient in producing nuoc-mam which was used by the Vietnamese with most meals. In 1897, Governor General Paul Doumer introduced a salt tax, and six years later a government monopoly was created. Henceforth salt could be purchased only from French outlets, at a price ten times greater than production costs. Opium:
The opium poppy is a common botanical species in many areas of Indochina. Local consumption was commonplace and had existed for hundreds of years. A narcotic, opium was primarily used as a painkiller for medicinal purposes, but it was also smoked. In the 19th century, opium outlets were widespread in Britain’s Asian colonies and opium was considered ‘fashionable’ by many members of London’s affluent society. Recognising another economic opportunity, from 1861 the French authorities began to isolate opium farmlands throughout Indochina, and in 1911 a government opium monopoly was established. By 1929 Indochina was producing 80 tonnes of opium yearly.
The Rubber Plantations: (Case Study)
Rubber became an important cash crop at the turn of the 20th century as the motor car craze swept the world. Latex, a white sap that is harvested from rubber trees, was an essential component on the manufacture of automobile tyres. Rubber plantations were very labour intensive, as latex sap had to be collected from small buckets attached to cuts in each tree and most plantations contained over 10,000 trees. Therefore, a huge labour force was required to empty the buckets on a daily basis. In 1913 Vietnam had over 4,000,000 rubber trees which produced 30,000 tonnes of raw latex per annum. The profits were enormous: French planters earned 125 million francs in 1913, and b y1939 Vietnam’s rubber industry was worth over 300 million francs per annum. Between 1913 and 1940, more than 150,000 labourers and coolies worked on the plantations. More than 10,000 died from malaria, malnutrition and exhaustion. In
In 1914 war spread all over Europe.
France was a member of the Triple Entente, a military alliance that included Great Britain and Russia. Their opponents were Germany and Austria-Hungary, proud kingdoms that now desired to extend their domains worldwide. In 1915, Franco-British forces found themselves deadlocked against a determined German army on the Western Front. As French causalities mounted, the need for replacement troops, especially from the French Empire, became a priority.
In 1915 all Indochinese males aged 18-40 were required to serve three years in the French Expeditionary Corps (FEC) and were paid one franc per day. The conscription system assigned manpower quotas to each village. 7 days later recruitment officers arrived and expected all eligible males to be present. Recruitment officers gave all new conscripts a cursory physical examination before they were sent to a regional army depot for further processing. - Those considered ‘fit’ were stained with red vegetable dye on the back of the head. - Men considered ineligible for army duties, yet still capable of physical work, were stained with blue or green dye. This work usually involved railway or road gang work, or they could be sent to a sweat shop. - Yellow dye designated the men unfit for any physical work, usually because they had tuberculosis. The entire system was inhumane and degrading.
Between 1915 and 1918, 29 anti-conscription demonstrations broke out in Saigon and Hanoi. During this period nearly 12,000 men were arrested for avoiding the draft. At least 5,000 were sent Tonkin’s coal mines.
Life in the coal pits was dangerous and potentially deadly.
Men worked 12-hour shifts and remained underground for most of their sentences. Example case study (can use for exam)!!
In August 1917 Vietnamese soldiers at Thai Nguyen army base in Tonkin revolted and demanded the release of all political and anti-draft prisoners. In the riot that ensued, the French base commander was killed. All the soldiers who had participated were eventually caught and executed for ‘treason’.
Nearly 49,000 men from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were conscripted by the FEC and sent to the Western Front. A further 52,000 labourers were transported to France where they worked in war-related industries, ammunition production an uniform and food factories. During 1915-16 most Indochinese troops on the Western Front served as reinforcements or in support units carry ammo, digging graves, driving trucks or repairing machinery. However, German success in 1917, plus diminishing French reserves, forced the French to assign its Indochinese troops to direct combat duties. The largest engagement of Franco-Indochinese units occurred at Chemin les Dames in 1917, when German trenches were successfully occupied after a bitter struggle. French reports later praised the courage of the Vietnamese, but also noted that they were insubordinate, untrustworthy and dispirited. Vietnamese attitudes can be explained quite simply: Asian troops did not believe in the French cause.
Retaliations against the French intensified during 1916.
In that year 118 Vietnamese were found guilty of defiance, striking a French officer or desertion. This trend continued in 1917 and 1918.
In November 1918 the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front. Casualties were enormous on all sides.
Of the nearly 49,000 Indochinese who fought on the Western Front, 11,000 were killed and 15,000 severely wounded, which represents a casualty rate of over 50%. Vietnamese soldiers accounted for over 70% of deaths.
The repatriation and government support of Indochinese veterans was insulting. - Returning soldiers were forced to pay 50% of their ship fares to Saigon. - Thousands of mustard-gas victims came back blind or legless. - Military pensions did exist, but the monies provided were small. - Widows of the dead were given cash payments, a French flag and an offer of employment in the alcohol, salt or opium monopolies. For most Vietnamese, WW1 resulted in humiliation, frustration and anger against the French.
Ho Cho Minh
Ho Chi Minh was born in Nghe An province, Central Vietnam.
During his formative years, Ho witnessed the impact of colonialism on his fellow Vietnamese and developed a dislike for the French. In 1917, Ho witnessed anti-war movements that began dividing French society as WW1 reached its peak. Ho saw parallels in Vietnam: his people, the proletariat rural farmers, could, if well organised, overthrow the French investors and the French government to create a new society run by the working classes. This concept became Ho’s long term goal.
In 1941, Ho Chi Minh formed the Viet Minh, an anti-French resistance movement. The Viet Minh’s role can be seen through its use of military. The Viet Minh had been trying to beat the French through open warfare up until 1947 to gain independence. In 1947, it became apparent that the Viet Minh would never be able to win through this use of conventional warfare as it did not have the assets (mainly weapons) that the French had, so it resorted to a guerrilla tactics. This strategy involved the use of booby-traps, nocturnal operations, terror and harassment.
Japanese aggression in China during 1931, Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and Japan’s occupation of southern China caused great concern among French officials in Saigon. Their fears were realised in September 1939 when German forces invaded Poland, thus sparking WW2. In June 1940 France surrendered and was occupied by Hitler’s army. The French government collapsed and a new pro-Nazi French regime was established at Vichy (France) and remained sponsored by Germany until late in the war. In September 1940 conditions worsened when Japanese forces crossed the Chinese border and entered Vietnam. The Japanese occupation of Indochina (1940-45) was an opportunity that Ho’s ICP had hoped for, because French power in Vietnam was now vulnerable. As the European war intensified, French troops in Vietnam decreased as men and materials were transferred overseas to fight the Germans. Ho decided to Act.
In May 1941, he moved from China, entered Vietnam, and created the League for the Independence of Vietnam, later referred to as the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh was a new revolutionary movement which incorporated members of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). If the Viet Minh hoped to lead the Vietnamese to Independence, they had to act during the Japanese occupation of their country.
Ho was determined to succeed.
He established his headquarters in a remote region of Tonkin called the Viet Bac, an almost impenetrable mountain range surrounded by dense jungles. In May 1941 Ho proclaimed Vietnam’s Army of National Salvation, the military arm of the Viet Minh. Its objective was to gain nationwide popular support via armed propaganda, a policy which reminded the people that independence could be obtained only by active resistance against the Japanese and the French in the immediate future.
Obtaining popular support was never a problem, due to the dedication of the propaganda teams and French collaboration with the Japanese. Between 1941 and 1945 millions of tonnes of rubber, coffee, tea, coal and rice, were shipped from Vietnam to Japan via direct orders from Tokyo. The Japanese army also had a policy of confiscating Vietnamese property on order to supplement its overextended supply lines.
By December 1944 Ho’s army was still relatively small consisting of only 1,500-2,000 barefoot men armed with only pitchfork’s and guns stolen from the French. But the propaganda teams had over 50,000-70,000 supporters due to their methods of blaming the French and Japanese for all the hardships placed on the Vietnamese people during WW2, such as bombings from the Americans and English. On 22 December 1914 the People’s Army was formed from this group of soldiers, village militia and civilians who represented every walk of Vietnamese society.
In March 1945, with the end of WW2 only 6 months away, Japan’s war efforts throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific began to deteriorate as a result of a lack of war materials and decreasing troop strengths. In response, on 9 March the Japanese Occupation Army in Vietnam seized control of the country. - Most of the French units were arrested.
- All war related materials – food, ammunition, vehicles and medical supplies were confiscated by the Japanese. This change suited the Viet Minh as the French no longer represented a problem, at least for the time being.
In June 1945 Ho met representatives of America’s Office of Strategic Services (now known as the CIA). OSS officers, based in China, had heard of Ho’s guerrillas and their distinctly anti-Japanese position. The fact that the Viet Minh was also anti-French, and France was America’s ally, was downplayed, as Japan was the immediate common enemy of both the OSS and the Viet Minh. An arrangement was made that the OSS would train the Viet Minh and provide them with guns and ammunition. In return, the Viet Minh would attempt to locate American pilots shot down over Vietnam and assist the OSS in gathering intelligence about the Japanese army.
As Japan’s war effort further declined, the OSS wrote reports suggesting that the Viet Minh had an army of perhaps 5,000 men and women. While this was true, it represented only the tip of the iceberg. By August 1945 the Viet Minh has a decentralised network of village militia and guerrilla cells whose numbers exceeded 200,000. Revolution and Independence
Note: Ho Chi Minh took advantage of Japan’s surrender by declaring the independence of Vietnam. On 6 August 1945 the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, 3 days later Nagasaki suffered a similar fate. WW2 in the Pacific was now over.
On 13 August, 24 hours before Japan officially surrendered, Ho proclaimed General Order Number One: Armed Insurrection agains the French and Japanese! However, the title of Ho’s ‘general order’ is slightly misleading. The Viet Minh did not rise up against the French and Japanese in a similar fashion to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. No nationwide bloodbath occurred in Vietnam. Instead, Ho’s ‘August Revolution’ was a methodic consolidation of power in areas controlled by the Viet Minh. Ho’s cadres confiscated French property, blocked the retreat routes of Japanese troops, and urged the Vietnamese to promote chaos, confusion and total disobedience against anyone except the Viet Minh. On 14 August the Francophile Emperor Bao Dai accepted the Japanese surrender in Hanoi. 5 days later the People’s Army peacefully entered Hanoi and claimed it for the people of Vietnam. On 25 August a similar event took place in Saigon.
On Bao Dai correctly evaluated these activities as a sign that the traditional Vietnamese monarchy had come to an end. On 30 August Bao Dai received a Viet minh delegation at the Imperial Palace in Hue. The Viet Minh were ask to form a new government, and so, they were given legitimate power throughout Vietnam. Ho Chi minh’s August revolution ended in Hanoi on September 2.
Ho’s new government was immediately beset by 3 major problems. - First, by the end of September French troops, now assisted by the British, came back to Vietnam at full strength. Ho’s army was simply not strong enough to resist them. Therefore an outright conflict had to be avoided. - Second, French officials disputed Ho’s claim to be the leader of a new nation that effectively eliminated French control over Vietnam. Under these circumstances, new dialogue between the French and the Viet Minh was necessary to preserve peace. - Third, Ho had hoped that the US would immediately recognise his new government and nation as an American Ally. Ho wrote 10 letters to President Truman on behalf of the Vietnamese people but he never received a reply. There was one reason for Truman’s lack of interest in Ho: the new leader of Vietnam was a communist and Washington considered this ideology a major threat to world peace, in what soon became known as the cold war. -
The First Indochina War
Searching for Solutions
In August 1945, The Japanese Imperial Army surrendered and forfeited the liberation of territories it had captured between 1931 and 1945. Indochina was on a major focal point on their agenda.
When the Pacific War ended on 14 August, it was agreed that a Chinese army led by General Lu Han would disarm the Japanese in northern Vietnam. Within days, the Japanese army was officially disarmed and detained, awaiting eventual repatriation back to Japan. The issue of French troops was another matter.
Between March and August, hundreds of French troops had been gaoled by the Japanese, but now they were free. Over the next week, civil disorder and violence prevailed as French troops regrouped and rearmed themselves before attacking the Vietnamese.
Ho’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam was barely 6 weeks old and was already facing problems created by the return of the French and a new invader – China. But Vietnam’s greatest dilemma in October 1945 was the famine in Tonkin. As far as Ho was concerned, the French and Chinese could wait. Accordingly, Ho’s armed propaganda teams directed all their efforts towards famine relief, which resulted in the Viet Minh increasing its popular support.
As the famine worsened, Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu arrived in Vietnam with 2 regiments of French troops. The French President Charles de Gaulle had chosen d’Argenlieu carefully: the Admiral was a rigid colonialist with little sympathy for Vietnamese problems. He had 3 goals:
1. To restore the colonial administration in Vietnam.
2. To rebuild Vietnam’s economy to a point where the profits would pay to restore a war-damaged France. 3. To convince Ho Chi Minh that an association with France, not independence from it, was the Viet Minh’s most viable option.
On 6 March 1946 the Franco/Viet Minh Accords (agreements for power) were signed in Hanoi. Ho’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam was recognised as a member of the Indochinese Federation but its boundaries were limited to Tonkin only. As far as the French were concerned, the status of Annum (central Vietnam) and Cochinchina (Southern Vietnam) would be decided by a referendum on a later date. Admiral d’Argenlieu also guaranteed the peaceful departure of the Chinese army from Tonkin, but added that no fewer than 15,000 French troops would be required to accomplish this task. These forced would depart Tonkin within 5 years or less.
Franco/Viet Minh negotiations concerning the status of Annum and Cochinchina continued throughout April, but meaningful agreements were not achieved. French intentions became quite clear on 1 June when d’Argenlieu proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Cochinchina, a new nation run by Vietnamese Francophiles and fully supported by the French government. The message was clear: French colonialism had returned.
Between August and October 1946 dialogues between Ho and the French broke down.
A Colonial Conflict 1947-49
During 1947 the People’s Army was nearly wiped out as it attempted, time after time, to confront the French in direct, open conflict. Clearly, the People’s Army was no match for the large concentrations of French troops which employed conventional military tactics common in WW2. Conventional warfare focused on large infantry formations supported by logistical supply teams and the use of armoured vehicles, trucks and aeroplanes. The Viet Minh did not possess these assets.
Henceforth, it would employ Vietnam’s jungle environment and climate, the support of the people, psychological harassment devices (mines booby traps), plus the stealth and cunning of its troops to defeat the French.
French Expeditionary Corps controlled the cities, but to find the People’s army it was forced to venture into the vast regions of rural Vietnam. Nearly 50% of Vietnam’s topography included impenetrable jungles, swamps, isolated mountain ranges and flooded delta regions. 2 climatic regions existed: the wet and the dry.
Excessive heat and humidity were common facts of life.
In the jungles, triple-canopy rainforests prevailed.
Troops moving under these canopies found themselves surrounded by semi-darkness even in the middle of the day.
The People’s Army vs the Expeditionary Corps: a Comparison Below are profiles of the French Expeditionary Corps and the People’s Army. The People’s Army
Cotton shirt, cotton pants; both dyed in black for concealment at night. Peasant sun hat. No socks. Sandals or thongs made from stolen French tyres. Easy to keep clean. Sandal soles were reversed. Therefore, when footprints were left, a soldier moving north would appear to be moving south. Food
Soldiers foraged from the land.
When on operations, no fires were lit because of security reasons. Equipment
A sling bag or small backpack made from stolen French parachutes. Ground cover sheet.
Fishing line and hooks.
Small packets of spices to improve the flavour of jungle food. All troops carried detonators, trip wires, small mines and a length of rope. Total weight carried: 5kg.
Hand signals and bamboo bird whistles.
Strong in most areas. No language problems.
Guerrilla warfare. Fight at night, sleep by day. High degree of mobility. Use of booby traps. Strong knowledge of terrain. Identification
No badges of rank or military papers were ever carried.
Time and Money
The People’s Army had time on its side.
Money was irrelevant in a war of national liberation.
The People’s Army became components of the population, and vice versa. Ho Chi Minh wrote: “Every day the guerrilla fighter remains uncaptured, he is winning. If regaining our freedom takes twenty years, we will wait.” The French Expeditionary Corps
Olive green uniform similar to WW2.
Bush hat or steel pot helmet.
Heavy leather boots that remained wet most of the time.
Numerous pairs of socks.
Army rations in numerous tins.
5 days of rations weighed 10kg.
Cooking fires were common until they were banned in 1948 due to security risks. River water had to be boiled before consumption.
Unburied food tins created an intelligence asset for the People’s Army. Equipment
Heavy backpack containing extra clothing and food, numerous water bottles, and anti-malaria and water-purification tablets. Grenades and rope.
Rifle and rope.
Rifle and ammunition.
Total weight carried: 25kg.
Units were linked via portable military radios, which created potential risks as alien noises could be heard for long distances in the jungle. Popular Support
Communication with rural folks was nearly impossible because most French troops could not speak Vietnamese. Tactics
Search for the People’s Army by day; establish camps by night. Mobility severely limited due to large back-up systems.
Armoured vehicles and trucks compromised security because they could be seen and heard. Identification
Badges of rank and insignia were gradually phased out due to security reasons, but maps were essential because French troops knew little about local conditions and terrain. Captured maps were an intelligence asset for the People’s Army. Time and Money
Financing the French Expeditionary Corps in Vietnam was expensive. As years passed with indifferent or unsuccessful results, French politicians increasingly questioned the viability of the war. A quick defeat of the People’s Army was expected but never came. Time became essential as military budgets soared.
A Cold War Conflict
Mao Zedong was a communist.
China was communist so it supported Vietnam.
The Cold War was a period of international tensions that began after WW2 and extended into the 1990s. In essence, the Cold War was an ideological clash between the United States, which defended democratic beliefs, and the Soviet Union, which espoused a concept called global communism. By 1949 significant Cold War flashpoints had occurred in Europe: Germany had divided into British, French, American and Russian zones; communist governments – linked with Moscow – appeared in Poland and Czechoslovakia; and within 2 years the city of Berlin would be divided into democratic and communist zones via a wall that remained in place for nearly 50 years. Without question, the Cold War had a very visual presence in Europe. The creation of the People’s Republic of China now moved the Cold War to Asia.
The Soviet Union was the first nation to recognise Ho Chi Minh’s government in 1945; in 1950 Mao Zedong pledged financial and material support to support the People’s Army of Vietnam in its bid to defeat French colonialism. These events caused great concern in Washington and reminded Pentagon strategists of 2 concepts: containment and the ‘domino theory’. According to historian George Kennan in July 1947, the US must prevent or ‘contain’ the spread of global communism, using worldwide alliance networks, financial aid and military force in nations threatened by Moscow. If communism was not contained then vulnerable nations would ‘fall like dominos’. The United States government committed itself to support the French against Ho’s communists.
The injection of Chinese aid gave the People’s Army an unprecedented advantage over the French Expeditionary Corps. Now with patrons in Moscow and Beijing, Ho’s guerrilla fighters were rarely short of food, ammunition and medicine.
In 1949 the First Indochina War was unpopular in France.
An expected quick victory had not materialised, which divided the French homefront and strengthened the cause of anti-war groups in Paris. The government was insecure and coalitions crashed as the nation debated the fear of communist aggression in Europe and its counterpart in Indochina. By then France was an active partner in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and anti-communist military alliance that required the commitment of French troops on a regular basis. Accordingly, in 1949, 10,000 French troops were targeted for NATO duties and rotated out of Vietnam. To compensate for this troop loss, the French reintroduced conscription and created the Vietnamese National Army (VNA).
By 1953 the VNA contained some 200,000 men ‘on paper’, but in reality it was less than half this size dude to desertion. Many soldiers became avoided contact with the People’s Army while on operations. More a liability than an asset, the VNA experienced the same problems and frustrations as those that progressively wore down the FEC.
Ultimately, conventional military strategies and tactics as used by the French were no match against Ho’s small groups of guerrillas and propaganda teams which operated at night and worked with rather than against the people in a common national cause.
Between 1950 and 1953 the US spent $1 billion supporting French war efforts in Vietnam, but no victory came fourth. Senior French commanders arrived and soon departed as their proposed military plans to defeat the People’s Army resulted in stalemate or turned to disaster. The first major warning came in September/October 1950 when the People’s Army annihilated the French on Route 4 in Northern Tonkin. There, 3000 French troops died in a series of ambushes that proved that the People’s Army controlled the countryside.
The war continued. The people’s army remained steadfast and worked with the people. Time was now on its side.
In 1953 General Henri Navarre, the last senior French commander, proposed a new concept: his troops would select specific targets in the countryside where the People’s Army remained unchallenged and deliver decisive blows leading to victory. The target was Dien Bien Phu.
The Siege of Dien Bien Phu
In November 1953 General Navarre was determines to stop the People’s Army access to northern Laos, previously a safe haven and a supply base for many years. In 1949 the French had built an airstrip in the valley, but it was currently unusable. There were 3 objectives:
- Create a secure French outpost.
- Redevelop the airstrip for resupply purposes
- Launch attacks to destroy units of the People’s Army
Victory seemed guaranteed.
Accordingly, on 20 November 1953, 1,800 French troops parachuted into the area. In January the airstrip was operational and hundreds of tonnes of equipment – tanks, vehicles, construction equipment and artillery – arrived on a daily basis. By April 1954, 15,000 French troops resided at Dien Bien Phu.
Seemingly Impregnable, Dien Bien Phu faced serious potential problems. First, right from the arrival of the first parachute troops, the local residents had been aware of the military build-up; any notion of secrecy had been totally compromised. Second, the base’s lifeline was the airstrip. Reserve troops, food, medicine and equipment could only arrive by air. Third, the entire valley was surrounded by limestone cliffs that ranged from 900-1600 metres. If the People’s Army somehow massed artillery on the peaks of the escarpments, the French positions would be totally vulnerable.
General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the People’s Army, was well aware of French intentions at Dien Bien Phu. From the safety of Ho Chi Minh’s headquarters, he debated that Dien Bien Phu was a major source of opium (the People’s Army as well as the French harvested opium on a regular basis. Its sale on the black-market provided enormous profits that were used to purchase war materials.) and in order to outwit the French, Giap needed artillery. He appealed to the Chinese and got what he wanted: 200 howitzers and medium-range field guns.
In early December 1952 Giap mobilised 80,000 regular troops and began moving them towards Dien Bien Phu. Giap’s plan was to place his artillery on the peaks above both sides of the valley. Accordingly, the artillery was disassembled, and piece by piece it was carried to the top of the escarpments, where it was reassembled. On 12 March 1954 all the artillery was in place, now hidden in caves and bunkers which the French troops could not see from the valley below. The 56 day siege began at 5pm on 13 March 1954 when 147 of Giap’s artillery pieces pounded French fortifications for 5 hours. At dawn next day the airstrip was potholed and useless and 500 French troops were dead. They launched successive waves of attacks during daylight hours for the next 3 weeks. Artillery barrages rained on the French every night.
Giap’s plan was simple: “Don’t let the French sleep.”
On 27 March Giap ordered his engineer units to perform 2 tasks: - They were to dig a circle of trenches to surround the entire base. - Next they were to dig second line of trenches targeting the French’s 9 camps. By this time Dien Bien Phu could only be resupplied only by parachute air drops which frequently fell wide of their marks as the pilots struggled to find the base in monsoonal rain. At least 50% of all air drops were captured by Giap’s troops. Causalities mounted. In 3 weeks Giap lost 10,000 men.
The People’s Army launched its final attack on Dien Bien Phu at 5pm on 1 May. For the next 5 days the fighting was horrific; hand-to-hand confrontations were common as the People’s Army left their trenches, now 100 metres away from the French positions, and overran the demoralised garrison. On 6 May the French guns became silent. White flags were flown, and the base surrendered at 5:30pm on 7 May. The causalities were staggering:
- The People’s Army lost 20,000 soldiers, workers and coolies. - 8,000 French troops were slain and 7,000 had been captured or wounded. The First Indochina War had ended.