Vietnam National University HCMC
Course: Vietnamese History and Culture
The First Indochina War
Lecturer: Vo Van Sen
Student: Trần Minh Tú – BAFNIU13194
Vietnam has a long history which was full of wars and blood of Vietnamese people for
one general purpose, independence. The First Indochina War was the beginning of
“The resistance of 30 years” of Vietnam to completely gain freedom. The victory of
Dien Bien Phu battle, the last battle in the First Indochina War, was one of the most
memorable event because it put an end on eighty-year domination of French colonial.
In this report, based on many books, resources and websites, the reasons, the
happening and the result of the First Indochina War is mentionedfor us to have a
clearly view of what happening at that time and how Vietnam, which was a small
country can defeat a powerful French colonial.
THE FIRST INDOCHINA WAR
Background Information on Indochina
French Indochina was the part of the French colonial empire in Indochina in Southeast
French Indochina was formed in October 1887 from territories Annam, Tonkin,
Cochinchina (who together form modern day Vietnam) and the Kingdom of
Cambodia. Laos was added after the Franco-Siamese War of 1893.
The capital of French Indochina was the city of Hanoi, they spoke French and their
form of government was a Federation, this represented the firm grip that France had
over Indochina, an influence that was not always appreciated by the natives of
Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and similar countries.
French Indochina (also known as the French Indochina War, the The Anti-French
War, the Franco-Vietnamese War, the Franco-Vietminh War, the Indochina War and
the Dirty War in France and in contemporary Vietnam, as the French War)
The First Indochina war was a war fought in French Indochina that the French
occupied from 1887-1954.
Who were the combatants?
The French Union that contained-France, the State of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia
(with the United States provide a little support) Commanded by the following leaders
(a brief description of each is given):
Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque (1945-1946) was the Free France general during
World War II; he became Marshal of France, in 1952. As new commander of the Far
East French Forces, Leclerc's forces set forth in October 1945 in French Indochina,
first cracking a Viet Minh blockade around Saigon, then driving through the Mekong
delta and up into the highlands. Admiral d'Argenlieu criticized Leclerc saying. "I am
amazed - yes, that is the word, amazed - that France's fine expeditionary corps in
Indochina is commanded by officers who would rather negotiate than fight". General
Leclerc, returned to Paris from Vietnam, now warned, "Anti-communism will be a
useless tool unless the problem of nationalism is resolved." But his wisdom was
ignored. Jean-Étienne Valluy then replaced him.
Jean-Étienne Valluy (1946-1948) attempted to wipe out the Viet Minh in one stroke,
but failed. "If those gooks want a fight, they'll get it," said Valluy as he landed in
Haiphong on December 17, his temper boiling over the slaughter of three French
soldiers by Viet Minh militia in Hanoi that day. The French surrounded the Viet Minh
base, Viet Bac in 1947 by securing its only two roads and dropping paratroopers. They
almost captured Ho Chi Minh, who slipped into a camouflaged hole at the last minute.
But General Valluy, whose experience until then had been in Europe, quickly sized up
his efforts as possible. With a total of some fifteen thousand men, he was trying to
defeat sixty thousand enemy troops over nearly eighty thousand square miles of almost
impenetrable forest. Unlike his 19th-century predecessors, he was up against not small
insurgent bands but a disciplined army. He could only withdraw to a thin string of
forts along Route 4, a twisting road running through ravines and over high passes
between the towns of Lang Son and Cao Bang. Chronically exposed to Viet Minh
ambushes, French soldiers dubbed it the Rue sans Joie, or Street without Joy.
Roger Blaizot (1948-1949) General Officer Commanding 1st Motorized Colonial
Division, General Officer Commanding 9th Colonial DivisionFrench Liaison Officer
to Supreme Allied Commander South-east Asia- 1945,General Officer Commanding
Forces FrancaisesExtrême Orient. He fought in a couple of battles but they resulted in
a French Union defeat. He was replaced by Carpentier in 1949.
Marcel-Maurice Carpentier (1949-1950) was a French military officer who served
in World War II and First Indochina War. In 1949 he was appointed commander-inchief of French Union forces in Indochina, but in 1950 De Lattre replaced him.
Jean de Lattre de Tassigny (1950-1951) commanded French troops in Indochina
during the First Indochina War. He won three major victories at Vinh Yen, Mao khé
and Yen Cu Ha and defended successfully the north of the country against the Viet
Minh but his only son, Bernard de Lattre de Tassigny, was killed in action during the
war In 1951, illness forced de Lattre de Tassigny to return to Paris where he later died
of cancer; he was posthumously made Maréchal de France. After his return to France,
his successors Salan and Navarre were far from having an equal success in Indochina.
Raoul Salan (1952-1953) Salan became the commander-in-chief in Indochina.
Although he was probably the most experienced officer in Indochina, the new
government led up by René Mayer wanted a new policy in Indochina and replaced him
in January 1953 with Henri Navarre, who was previously in charge in the intelligence
service, not on field operations.
Henri Navarre (1953-1954) In May of 1953, Navarre replaced Raoul Salan as
commander of French forces in Indochina, in the midst of a war with the Viet Minh
that was going badly for the French. Navarre was charged to bring the war to an
honorable end. He quickly switched the French strategy from defensive to offensive
operations. Navarre created mobile strike forces and sent a large number of troops to
Dien BienPhu, where they would sit on an important Viet Minh transport route and
also perhaps draw the Viet Minh into a pitched battle in which the French forces
would presumably have complete air and artillery superiority. However, the French
underestimated the capacity of the Viet Minh, who managed to place the French
position under heavy artillery fire and eventually achieved a decisive victory that more
or less ended the First Indochina War.
Vietnamese National Army
Nguyen Van Hinh (1950-1954) Nguyen Van Hinh was appointed the Vietnamese
National Army Chief of State by Emperor Bao Dai. On November 8, 1954, after the
First Indochina War he left South Vietnam in exile for France.
Ho Chi Minh After the August Revolution (1945) organized by the Viet Minh, Ho
became Chairman of the Provisional Government (Premier of the Democratic
Republic of Vietnam) and issued a declaration of independence that borrowed much
from the French and American declarations. Though he convinced Emperor Bao Dai
to abdicate his government was not recognized by any country. He repeatedly
petitioned American President Harry Truman for support for Vietnamese
independence, but Truman never responded. In 1945, in a power struggle, the Viet
Minh killed members of rival groups, such as the leader of the Constitutional Party, the
head of the Party for Independence, and Ngo Dinh Diem's brother, Ngo DinhKhoi.
Purges and killings of Trotskyists, the rival anti-Stalinist communists, have also been
documented. In 1946, when Ho traveled outside of the country, his subordinates
imprisoned 25,000 non-communist nationalists and forced 6,000 others to flee.
Hundreds of political opponents were also killed in July that same year. All rival
political parties were banned and local governments purged to minimize opposition
Vo Nguyen Giap. Principal battles: Lang Son (1950); HoaBinh (1951-1952); Dien
Bien Phu (1954)
Vo Nguyen Giap (1911-2013)
How and why did it occur?
The First Indochina War was one of a series of many wars and conflicts in Vietnamese
history. The nation of Vietnam has been oppressed many times throughout history and
the Vietnamese have always opposed this. If you look at the past record of Vietnam,
this war was a natural reaction to the oppressive French forces, and the introduction of
Ho Chi Minh's communist principles would have further flamed the fire of
independence, this would have resulted in the many conflicts that followed.
The build up to the First Indochina War is not a very smooth ride. The lead up
involves many other countries aiding and opposing Vietnam along the way. These
countries include Japan, Britain, China and the United States. The United States
supported the French, as they were afraid of a communist outbreak in South-East Asia.
So the U.S chose the French. China and Russia who were communist helped the Viet
Minh as they were also communist and they disliked the U.S. French President De
Gaulle quotes that if France loses Indochina that France may not be well respected and
powerful which implied war.
A brief summary of the key figures and events that led up to the war are given below,
note that political unrest elsewhere on the globe would have influenced many of these
events (these include the Cold War, unrest in many Asian and African countries and a
dogmatic western culture).
2 September 1945:Ho Chi Minh issues his Declaration of Independence from the
French. Ho Chi Minh then declares himself president of the Democratic Republic of
Vietnam and pursues American recognition but is repeatedly ignored by President
2 September 1945:On the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japanese
representatives sign the Instrument of Surrender proclaiming their unconditional
surrender, formally ending World War II.
13 September 1945:British forces arrive in Saigon to disarm the Japanese in South
22 September 1945:In South Vietnam, 1400 French soldiers released by the British
from former Japanese internment camps enter Saigon and go on a deadly rampage,
attacking Viet Minh and killing innocent civilians including children, aided by French
civilians who joined the rampage.
24 September 1945:Viet Minh successfully organize a general strike shutting down
all commerce along with electricity and water supplies. In a suburb of Saigon,
members of BinhXuyen (a Vietnamese criminal organization), retaliate by massacring
150 French and Eurasian civilians, including children.
26 September 1945:The first American death in Vietnam occurs, during the unrest in
Saigon an OSS officer named Lt. Col. A. Peter Dewey is killed by Viet Minh
guerrillas who mistook him for a French officer. Before his death, Dewey had filed a
report on the deepening crisis in Vietnam, stating his opinion that the U.S. "ought to
October 1945:35,000 French soldiers under the command of World War II General
Jacques Philippe Leclerc arrive in South Vietnam to restore French rule. Viet Minh
immediately begin a guerrilla campaign to harass them. The French then succeed in
November 1945:Ho Chi Minh attempts a compromise with the French by dissolving
the Indochinese Communist Party.
February 1946:In a separate agreement with France, Chiang Kai-shek agrees to
withdraw Chinese troops from Vietnam and allow the French to return in exchange for
French concessions in Shanghai and other Chinese ports.
6 March 1946:Ho Chi Minh signs the Primary Agreement with France which allowed
French forces back into Vietnam to replace Nationalist Chinese forces, in exchange for
French recognition of his Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a free state within the
Indochinese Federation and French Union. Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh welcome
the French, saying, "I love France and French soldiers. You are welcome. You are
March 1946:Nationalist Chinese troops depart Hanoi and Vietnam.
March-July 1946:Armed and backed up by the French, the Viet Minh set about
executing leaders and members of nationalist Vietnamese groups. Ho Chi Minh’s
lieutenant Le Duan said, "to wipe out the reactionaries" Known as the "Great Purge",
the goal was to eliminate everyone thought dangerous to the Vietnamese Communist
Party, and tens of thousands of nationalists, Catholics and others were massacred from
May 1946:Ho Chi Minh spends four months in France attempting to negotiate full
independence and unity for Vietnam, but fails to obtain any guarantee from the
June 1946:In a major affront to Ho Chi Minh, the French high commissioner for
Indochina proclaims a separatist French-controlled government for South Vietnam
(Republic of Chochin China).
July 1946:With French armored personnel carriers cordoning off the areas, the Viet
Minh storm the headquarters of remaining nationalist groups, arresting most remaining
opposition leaders who were later executed.
27 August 1946:French President De Gaulle declares, "France is a great power.
Without the overseas territories which she would be in danger of no longer being one".
French policy was now clear.
23 November 1946:The French bombard HaiPhong and occupy it, killing 6,000
Vietnamese civilians. Ho appeals to the US for the last time. “To support
independence". The American’s were split. They either had to support the Viet Minh’s
push for independence or support the French so there would be no communist
outbreaks in Southeast Asia.
November-December 1946:After a series of violent clashes with Viet Minh, French
forces bombard Haiphong harbor and occupy Hanoi, forcing Viet Minh forces to
retreat into the jungle.
Where were the significant turning points in the war?
There were 14 major battles or operations during the conflict. Most have being won by
the French, but the Viet Minh ended up winning the war. How is that so? This is
because the battle of Dien Bien Phu was a key strategic victory that paved the way for
the Vietnamese victory and the surrender of 20,000 French troops. On top of that, the
commander of the Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh, did not command one single battle they
were all commanded by Vo Nguyen Giap and why did not the American’s participate
with force like they did in the Second Indochina War otherwise known as the Vietnam
War, after all they were worried about communism and supported the French at the
FRENCH TAKE ADVANTAGE 1946-1950
January1947 General Giap's Viet Minh forces join Ho at Tan Trao. From the northern
border jungles of Lang Son and westward to Truong Son (later to be known as the Ho
Chi Minh Trail) the Viet Minh charter bases and hideouts. 15,000 French troops hunt
Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh leaders with no success. French begin punitive raids
on villages supporting the Viet Minh. General Giap adopts a policy of avoiding all-out
confrontation and conforms with Mao Tse-tung's key principal on warfare, "always
maintain the initiative".
4 February1947 French opinion poll shows 36% favored force, 42% favored
negotiations, 8% thought France should leave Indo-China altogether. 14% had no
7 October-22 December1947 French Operation Lea, a series of attacks on Viet Minh
guerrilla positions in North Vietnam near the Chinese border, results in over 9,000
Viet Minh causalities, although most of the 40,000 strong Viet Minh force slips away
through gaps in the French lines.
July1949 The French establish the (South) Vietnamese National Army.
January1950 China begins sending military advisors and modern hardware to the Viet
Minh. With supplies assured, General Giap declares that the guerrilla phase is now
over and the counter-offensive had begun. General Giap transforms his guerrilla
fighters into conventional army units including five light infantry divisions and one
February1950 The United States and Britain recognize Bao Dai's French-controlled
South Vietnam government. France requests US military aid.
STALEMATE-US SUPPORT FRENCH 1950-1952
February1950 Viet Minh begin an offensive against French outposts in North
Vietnam near the Chinese border.
8 May 1950 US announce military and economic aid to the pro- French regimes of
Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. US aid was to jump from an initial $10 million to
exceeding $1,000 million by 1954, 78% of the French war bill, even though all
concerned conceded that the war could not be won.
26 July1950 United States military involvement in Vietnam begins as President Harry
Truman authorizes $15 million in military aid to the French. American military
advisors will accompany the flow of U.S. tanks, planes, artillery and other supplies to
Vietnam. Over the next four years, the U.S. will spend $3 Billion on the French war
and by 1954 will provide 80 percent of all war supplies used by the French.
16 September1950 General Giap begins his main attack against French outposts near
the Chinese border. As the outposts fall, the French lose 6,000 men and large stores of
military equipment to the Viet Minh.
27 September1950 The U.S. establishes a Military Assistance Advisory Group
(MAAG) in Saigon to aid the French Army.
September-October 1950 General Giap launches his first major counter offensive
against the French and overwhelms French forts in the far north. French losses in this
period were 6,000 troops killed or captured. Equipment losses included more than 900
machine guns, 125 mortars, 13 heavy guns, 1,200 automatic rifles, 8,000 rifles and 450
December1950 French General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny is appointed High
commissioner and Commander in Chief of Indochina. The French forces adopt a more
offensive role with more use of air support.
13 January1951 20,000 Viet Minh under Gen. Giap begin a series of attacks on
fortified French positions in the Red River Delta. The open areas of the Delta, in
contrast to the jungle, allow French troops under the new command of Gen. Jean de
Lattre to strike back with devastating results from the 'De Lattre Line' which encircles
the region. 6,000 Viet Minh die while assaulting the town of Vinh Yen near Hanoi in
the first attack, causing Giap to withdraw.
14-15 January1951 Two Viet Minh divisions attack a French force of 8,000 troops at
Vinh Yen, 56 kilometers North West of Hanoi. Air support plays a major role. The
Viet Minh under Giap retreat suffering heavy losses (Estimated 6,000 to 9,000 killed,
7,000 to 8,000 wounded with 600 captured).
French napalm exploding outside the 'De Lattre Line.'
23-28 March1951 In the second attack, Giap targets the Mao Khe outpost near
Haiphong. But Giap withdraws after being pounded by French naval gunfire and air
strikes. 3,000 Viet Minh are killed.
29 May- 18 June1951 Giap makes yet another attempt to break through the De Lattre
Line, this time in the Day River area southeast of Hanoi. French reinforcements,
combined with air strikes and armed boat attacks result in another defeat for Giap with
10,000 killed and wounded. Giap's leadership is questioned by the Viet Minh
leadership. A scapegoat in the form of Nguyen Binh is found and Giap and Ho
continue to lead the Viet Minh. Giap restructures his command and tightens control
over various functions. Among the French casualities is Bernard de Lattre, the only
son of General De Lattre.
November1951 US Senator John Fitzgerald. Kennedy visits Vietnam and declares, "in
Indo-China we have allied ourselves to the desperate effort of the French regime to
hang on to the remnants of an empire".
16 November1951 French forces link up at HoaBinh, a Viet Minh staging area 80
kilometers West of Hanoi. Gen. De Lattre attempts to seize the momentum and lure
Giap into a major battle but overextends his forces by setting up additional posts. Giap
takes advantage and inflicts heavy casualties. Giap then withdraws and allows the
French to retake their positions.
20 November1951 Stricken by cancer, ailing Gen. De Lattre is replaced by Gen.
Raoul Salan. De Lattre returns home and dies in Paris two months later, just after
being raised to the rank of Marshal.
9 December1951 Giap begins a careful counter-offensive by attacking the French
outpost at Tu Vu on the Black River. Giap now avoids conventional warfare and
instead wages hit and run attacks followed by a retreat into the dense jungles. His goal
is to cut French supply lines.
31 December1951 By year end 1951, French casualties in Vietnam surpass 90,000.
January1952 General de Lattre de Tassigny dies of cancer and is succeeded by
General Raoul Salan. Salan orders the withdrawal of French forces from posts along
the Black River between HoaBinh and Viet Tri and finally Viet Binh.
22-26 February1952 The French withdraw from HoaBinh back to the De Lattre Line
aided by a 30,000 round artillery barrage. Giap's forces continually ambush French
forces during the retreat and destroy many elements of the French rearguard.
Casualties for each side surpassed 5,000 during the Black River skirmishes.
VIET MINH TAKE ADVANTAGE 1952-1954
October1952 Giap's take the offensive and orders his troops to the delta area between
the Black and Red Rivers, withdraws, then attacks Nghia Lo.
11 October1952 Giap now attempts to draw the French out from the De Lattre Line
by attacking along the Fan Si Pan mountain range between the Red and Black Rivers.
18 October1952 Giap's forces attack Nghia Lo several times and overrun the French
position, followed by nearby posts. The Viet Minh then advance westward for a month
and are forced to halt after over-extending their supply line.
29 October1952 The French counter Giap's move by launching Operation Lorraine
targeting major Viet Minh supply bases around Nghia Lo in the Viet Bac region. The
operation involves nearly 30,000 troops and aims at drawing the Viet Minh into a fullscale battle. Giap outsmarts the French by ignoring their maneuvers and stays in
position along the Black River.
14-17 November1952 The French cancel Operation Loraine and withdraw back
toward the De Lattre Line but must first fight off a Viet Minh ambush at Chan Muong.
20 January1953 Dwight D. Eisenhower, formerly Allied commander in Europe
during World War II, is inaugurated as the 34th U.S. President.
April1953 Communist forces mass to invade Laos. Giap deploys his divisions with
little encounter. Giap realizing that he cannot sustain his primitive supply line
withdraws but the Viet Minh now have freedom of movement through a large part of
northern Laos and could dominate the territory west of the Black River. Giap keeps the
French forces tied down.
April1953 US Vice President Nixon arrives in Hanoi and tells the French, "It is
impossible to lay down arms until victory is won".
May 1953 French General Henri Navarre appointed as Commander in Chief and is
sent by Premier Rene Mayer with orders to return in a month and report. He reports
".... that there was no possibility of winning the war in Indo-China".
THE ENDGAME - DIEN BIEN PHU 1954
20 November1953 The French under new commander Gen. Henri Navarre begin
Operation Castor, construction of a series of entrenched outposts protecting a small air
base in the isolated jungle valley at Dien Bien Phu in northwest Vietnam. The French
hope to draw the Viet Minh into a pitched battle. 800 French paratroopers parachute
into Dien Bien Phu and begin preparations for a fortified camp, building two airstrips
to link the base with Hanoi.
Location of Dien Bien Phu.
January1954 Operation "Atlante" begins. It is designed to clear the coastal areas of
Viet Minh, but ends in March without achieving the objective.
March1954 The Dien Bien Phu garrison now includes a dozen battalions, two groups
of 75mm guns, 28 105mm howitzers, four 155mm howitzers, mortars, and 10 light
tanks. Six Grunman fighters armed with napalm are on alert on the airfield. Three
main bastions form the defense of the larger airstrip, while the main stronghold
includes the village itself. Four smaller outposts formed the outer defense.
13 March1954 50,000 Viet Minh under Gen. Giap begin their assault against the
fortified hills protecting the DienBien Phu air base. They outnumber the French by
30 March–1 May 1954 The siege at Dien Bien Phu occurs as nearly 10,000 French
soldiers are trapped by 45,000 Viet Minh. French troops soon run out of fresh water
and medical supplies. The French urgently appeal to Washington for help. The U.S.
Joint Chiefs of Staff now consider three possible military options: sending American
combat troops to the rescue; a massive conventional air strike by B-29 bombers; the
use of tactical atomic weapons. President Eisenhower dismisses the conventional air
raid and the nuclear option after getting a strong negative response to such actions
from America's chief ally, Britain. Eisenhower also decides against sending U.S.
ground troops to rescue the French, citing the likelihood of high casualty rates in the
jungles around Dien Bien Phu. No action is taken.
7 May1954Dien Bien Phu falls. At 5:30 p.m., 10,000 French soldiers surrender at
Dien Bien Phu, depriving France of any bargaining power at Geneva. By now, an
estimated 8,000 Viet Minh and 1,500 French have died.
7 May-late July 1954 French survivors are marched for up to 60 days to prison camps
804 k's away. Nearly half die during the march or in captivity.
THE GENEVA CONFERENCE
The Geneva Conference lasted from May 8 – July 21, 1954. It was a conference
between many countries that agreed to end hostilities and restore peace in French
Indochina and Vietnam. It produced a set of treaties known as the Geneva Accords,
signed on behalf of France by Pierre Mendès-France and of the Democratic Republic
of Vietnam by Pham Van Dong.
How does it affect modern day Vietnam and France?
Indochina and especially Vietnam still has many lasting French buildings and the like.
The third largest religion in Vietnam is Roman Catholic, due to the coming of
Christianity in Vietnam. Vietnam has the fourth-largest Roman Catholic population in
Throughout the French occupation of Indochina, French culture has deeply influenced
the lives of the Vietnamese. An example of this are Vietnamese bakeries. The
Vietnamese learned to bake breads and pastries, etc. from the French. In Western
Countries it is rumored to be that Vietnamese bakeries have the best produce money
can buy. Of course there are still traditional bakeries in Vietnam. Vietnam remains to
have its former colonizers traditions while still holding their own.
Jack Johnston. (2008). First Indochina War. Available
J. Llewellyn et al. (2010).The First Indochina War, Alpha History.Available
Moise, Edwin E.. The First Indochina War. The Vietnam Wars. 1998. 22 May 2008.
War Crimes Limited (UK). Vietnam: First Indochina War 1946-1954. 22 May 2008.