January 1955


Volume 39, Issue 1

C R Schwenke

A series of victories over the Viel Minh would have restored French 'Face' in Indochina. But those victories never came

In Part 1, the author covered the essential history and background of French colonial expansion in Indochina and revealed how the Japanese occupation during WW II ripened the harvest of a revolt, the seeds of which were sown some 50 years before.

(ProQuest Information and Learning: ... denotes obscured text omitted.)


DURING THE WAR YEARS A POLITICAL "front" had been building covertly in Vietnam, particularly in Tonkin; and among Vietnamese in exile across the border in South China. The leader of this political and military effort was Ho Chi Minh. Born Nguyen Ai Quoc in Annam in 1892, he went to sea on the eve of the First World War. Somewhere during the course of the next five years he acquired the idea of leading a movement for the independence of his native land. Impressed by the doctrines of Woodrow Wilson regarding the self-determination of peoples, he appeared at the Conference of Versailles in 1919 to voice a plea for the independence of Vietnam. Thereafter, he engaged in political activity in France, first with the Socialists, then with the Communist party. In 1923 he went to Moscow and stayed to study revolutionary technique for the ensuing two years. In 1925 he proceeded to Canton, China and served for the next two years as a translator on the staff of Borodin, the Soviet advisor of the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat Sen. After Chiang Kai Shek broke with the Communists in 1927, Ho Chi Minh betook himself again to Russia. During the next 14 years he engaged in Communist activities directed toward obtaining freedom for Vietnam. He did not risk himself in Indochina but operated from vantage points outside such as Thailand and Hong Kong. He appeared in the South China province of Kwangsi in 1941 at a conference of Vietnamese political leaders. There he was instrumental in setting up a united front organization called the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi shortened to Viet Minh) and was named the General Secretary of the organization. Throughout the war years, the Viet Minh devoted itself to organizing resistance within Indochina to both the Japanese and the French. The Viet Minh also organized a military force of about 10,000 Vietnamese in China with the assistance of the Chinese and the American OSS. This force was destined to play a much larger part than the harassment of Japanese forces in Indochina, the mission for which it was initially organized.

The Potsdam Agreement had provided that the British would undertake disarming the Japanese in the southern half of Indochina to the 16th parallel, and that Chinese forces would undertake the same mission in the northern half of the area. However, on 15 August, 1945 there were neither British nor Chinese troops immediately available. Ho Chi Minh saw this interregnum as his golden opportunity and seized upon it accordingly. Some months previously he had established his headquarters at Thai Nguyen. Immediately on the announcement of the Japanese surrender, Ho proceeded posthaste to Hanoi with his Viet Minh Army led, then as now, by Vo Nguyen Giap. Fortunately for the Viet Minh, the Japanese did not resist their assumption of authority. Thus, on 22 August, Ho was able to proclaim the establishment of the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam" and assume power with a provisional government that was supposed to include Cochin China in its scope. Emperor Bao Dai did not resist this turn of events and ceremoniously abdicated on 26 August. He was thereafter appointed a political advisor of the provisional government.

While the Viet Minh sent agents forthwith to Cochin China, they had not had time to consolidate their administration when General Gracey and his British forces appeared on the scene on 12-13 September. General Gracey refused to deal with representatives of the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam" (DVR). Instead, he assisted in the rearming of the Japanese-interned French forces and co-operated in the restoration of French control in his area of occupation, including Cambodia. By the end of January 1946, General Gracey had accomplished his mission of disarming the Japanese and evacuating Allied prisoners. He had exceeded it by assisting in the restoration of French rule. He then withdrew from the scene with the bulk of his forces.

Unhappily for the French, the Chinese in the North were not to prove so cooperative as the British. Following their arrival in mid-September, they cooperated instead with the provisional government already established by the Viet Minh. In an effort to broaden the base of this government they did force it to take in additional Chinese-oriented parties and caused the Indochinese Communist Party to dissolve into a Marxist study group. But the Chinese obstructed French attempts to reinstitute French control. They refused to permit French troops or officials to return to the North until they had concluded a treaty that would settle a number of outstanding issues between China and France and give Chinese goods the right of transit from Haiphong to Yunan. This treaty was signed on 28 February 1946, but still the Chinese proved reluctant to leave. Meanwhile their forces looted widely and promiscuously.

Finding themselves confronted north of the 16th parallel by an established indigenous government possessed of an Army of its own, and a considerable talent for administration, the French officials decided to deal with that government. On 6 March 1946, they signed with Ho Chi Minh an agreement by which France recognized the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as "a free state with its own government, parliament, army and finances, forming part of the Indochinese Federation and the French Union." Whether Cochin China was to become a part of this Vietnam was to be determined by a referendum. The agreement also permitted the return of French troops to the North. These were to be withdrawn in increments until 1952, by which time the only French forces remaining in Vietnam would be those guarding military bases!

Thereafter, French-Viet Minh negotiations took place intermittently at Salat, Indochina and Fontainebleau, France over the next several months. In September, an 11-point "modus vivendi" was reached that defined the status of French citizens and French property, currency, a customs union etc. However, there was bad faith on both sides and this modus vivendi was never put into effect.

The author had occasion to visit Saigon twice during the month of November 1946. A certain unease was manifest, and the American Counsul General confirmed the existence of a state of tension between the French and the Vietnamese. Between these visits, Dr. Thinh, the French-appointed Governor of Cochin China committed suicide, apparently as the result of despair born of frustration. Admiral D'Argenlieu, the High Commissioner, during the course of a call at his Headquarters, attributed the tension to the demands of the Viet Minh for the promised referendum in Indochina. In late November, the French seized the Customs House and certain other areas in Haiphong with armed force, supported by naval gunfire. Three weeks later, on the night of 19 December, the Viet Minh rose in the night against all of the French, civil and military, within their reach in Vietnam. As a result of this night of terror, some 140 French civilians, including women and children, were murdered and 200 others were carried off as hostages of the Viet Minh. As a further result, open warfare was initiated between the French and the Viet Minh that has carried to the recent cease-fire agreed on 20 July 1954.

Ho Chi Minh and his government fled to the hills of North Tonkin and re-established themselves as the governing force over those areas of Tonkin and Annam not under French military control. The troops of Vo Nguyen Giap also were able, in larger measure, to avoid the French counter-action that followed on the Viet Minh attack. However, at that time the Viet Minh Army was not a very effective fighting force. Its arms were a miscellaneous collection of weapons of Japanese, French, Chinese and American origin. It was deficient in automatic weapons, mortars and explosives and had almost no artillery. Now that they were back in the saddle in the major cities of Indochina, the French military were content to pursue the Viet Minh forces to the foothills and there break off pursuit in the expectation that the enemy would disintegrate under the influence of the hardships, disease and shortage of supplies that must be their lot.

But instead of disintegrating, the Viet Minh forces gradually gained in strength, cohesion, discipline and effectiveness under the hardships imposed by their circumstances. In the years 1947 through 1949 they did not receive any appreciable amount of aid from outside sources. They were unable to challenge the French in pitched battle, hence relied on guerrilla warfare to effect attrition on the French forces. Their tactics were not unlike those employed by the American Indian during our own Indian Wars. Small French outposts were often subjected to surprise attacks and occasionally overwhelmed. Forces enroute to the rescue would be ambushed at a critical point in the highway. A home-made land mine exploded under the leading truck of the convoy generally gave the first intimation of the ambush. A French liaison plane overhead would note the ambush and signal for reinforcements. Meanwhile, at the ambushed convoy, the Viet Minh would melt away at the approach of reinforcements. Perhaps by that time they would already have succeeded in killing the personnel of the convoy and looting the trucks. More often, they would be driven off from a rescue convoy by the personnel thus ambushed, but not until appreciable French losses had been sustained.

It was the necessary supply convoys that provided the most fruitful target for Viet Minh ambushes. These ambushes more often resulted in minor victories for the Viet Minh, and also provided a measure of badly needed military supplies. Thus did the war continue through the campaign seasons (the dry months of the northeast monsoon from September to May) of 1947-1950. The Viet Minh were unable to stand against the French anywhere, but were able to harass them with guerrilla warfare everywhere. Without the sympathy and active assistance of the peasants behind the French lines in the Tonkin Delta, the Viet Minh forces could not have long survived. Not only did a large proportion of these peasants provide contributions of rice for the Viet Minh (VM) Army, but they also sheltered the VM guerrillas in their villages when the occasion required and gave continuing information on all French movements. A French patrol could never be sure that the groups of sullen peasants seen wading in the rice paddies, or collected at the market place in the village, were not guerrillas who would collect their hidden arms in the night and attack a selected outpost in accordance with a well-laid plan.

In addition to deriving an advantage from support accorded by the peasants, the VM forces also derived an advantage from their superior ability to utilize the terrain to advantage. Because of their bulky impediments and the general inability of their troops to move long distances on foot in that tropical climate, the French forces were road-bound by day and out-post bound by night. It has been mentioned that in the deltas the terrain is flat and water-logged, with few roads but numerous footpaths. The lightly armed VM forces were able to move freely on the footpaths at any time and along the roads at night.

In recognition of the superior abilities of the VM troops in night operations, the French forces generally stuck close to their garrisoned outposts at night. In view of this fluidity of movement of the VM, it was only on rare occasions that the French were able to fix and destroy any sizable groups of VM soldiers. Nor was this advantage in tactical fluidity of movement of the VM forces confined to the delta areas. In the hills and mountains the situation was much the same. While the French enjoyed a great advantage in the longer moves because of their air transport capability, the VM still had the advantage along the few roads and footpaths between airfields. And the jungle growth that covers all uncultivated terrain provided the VM with excellent protection from French aircraft.

By 1949 the Viet Minh Army had grown from the original 10,000 to 70,000 men. These were organized into units of regimental size and designation, but were normally deployed for operations in units of battalion or company strength. In addition, the Viet Minh had organized provincial militia units of semitrained men and also controlled elements of armed "partisans."

The fact that the Viet Minh carried on their resistance against the French without appreciable outside aid during the years 1947, 1948 and 1949, demonstrated to the peoples of Asia that the Viet Minh movement was truly an indigenous anticolonial movement for the independence of Vietnam. As such, it was deemed to deserve the support of independence-minded people everywhere. Prime Minister Nehru of India, for example, has held throughout to this view. The fact that Ho Chi Minh has a long history of communist activity is often ignored, or attributed to his quest for a means to obtain independence for his country.

It was noted that during the War, the French had an army of about 50,000 men in Indochina, largely native Vietnamese. Additional forces were brought by increments from France after the Japanese surrender until, by mid-19-19, the French Expeditionary Corps totalled 90,000. In addition, the French forces included another 65,000 Indochinese. Also, about 25,000 armed militia (partisans) assisted on the French side. Of the FEC perhaps 50,000 were of French blood, the remainder were Foreign Legion with its predominance of Germans, Moroccans, Senegalese and other units of France's colonial forces. Unlike our forces in Korea, no draftees were included then or since. That is because the French Constitution carries a provision that drafted men shall not be sent into combat outside of Metropolitan France.

In order to reduce the number of small convoys to remote outposts and to reduce the number of soldiers em ployed on the relatively unproductive duty of convoy guards, the Frencli early took up the practice of using transport planes to supply the more distant outposts. By 1949, more than one hundred such outposts were supplied by air transport, mostly in the form of air drops. The aircraft most used for these supply missions were a motley group of junkers trimotored JU-52s derived from Germany at the end of the war in Europe. These aircraft had the advantage of being capable of utilizing airfields too small for the C-47s. About thirty JU-52s plus another 20 C-47s constituted the transport fleet until 1950.

As noted above, the Air Force was also called on to assist in guarding convoys, as well as to perform the more orthodox missions of reconnaissance, ground support and bombing of Viet Minh bases. The Air Force that France could supply for Indochina, as of 1949, had a total personnel strength of perhaps 5,000 men. In addition to the transport aircraft, it operated about 30 Spitfire and Cobra fighters and a number of light observation aircraft. Though small in number of personnel, and sadly deficient in aircraft, that Air Force rendered yeoman service during those years of guerrilla warfare.

In these years the naval forces numbered about 500 officers and 8,000 men. One out-moded cruiser and about 20 sea-going patrol craft of subchaser or similar type constituted the "heavy" elements of the fleet. But it was on the rivers and canals of the two deltas that the navy performed its most important function. There it served to convoy barges or sampans loaded with supplies, or rice and other produce of the countryside on the traditional highways of the lowland areas of Asia. It also, of course, transported military supplies in its own LCUs. In keeping open these arteries of commerce, it was necessary to engage in frequent mine-sweeping operations to neutralize the primitive but annoying mines placed by the Viet Minh. The tortuous, sluggish waterways of the deltas with their overgrown banks lend themselves to ambushes, and such have been frequent from the beginning of hostilities. This, in turn, led the French to place as much armor and as many cal. 30 and cal. 50 machine guns on their convoy-guard craft as these LCMs and LCVPs could well carry.

Another function of the navy has been to conduct amphibious operations in support of the army. During this first period of the war, amphibious operations were confined almost exclusively to the delta areas. A typical operation conducted by a Division Navale d'Assaulte (DINASAU) consisting of one LCI command ship, one LSSL or corresponding gunboat and a number of LCUs and LCMs sufficient to transport the troops and vehicles, for a clearing operation would be assembled and organized. The senior army officer, perhaps a battalion commander, would be in over-all command of the operation. Probably only a few light vehicles would be taken, but a number of "weasels" would be loaded. Arrived at the locale chosen for the sweep, the landing craft would beach against the bank of the canal and disgorge troops and weasels. The force would then fan out and sweep through the prescribed area. Often the Viet Minh would have fled at the approach of the French in such force, hence the troops would find only abandoned campsites, as evidence that the quarry had again eluded their clutches. However, such operations did serve to harass the Viet Minh in their turn. Naturally, in the swamps and rice paddies where such operations took place, the light and broad-tracked "weasel" was a valuable adjunct to the equipment of the force. It could transport men and light supplies to places accessible to no other vehicle and could also cross the intervening streams as they were encountered.

French tribulations during these years are analogous to our own tribulations at the turn of the century in putting down the Philippine Insurrection. In that campaign we were ourselves operating against guerrillas in a country where these guerrillas enjoyed the sympathy and support of the populate. It took us nearly two years of extensive military effort plus, it is said, the disbursement of a goodly quantity of "silver bullets" to bring Aguinaldo to surrender. Weakened post-war France could not then, or since, bring to Indochina the relatively massive forces required to gain a decisive victory. Instead, she held her reinforcements to a minimum that served only to stalemate the growing strength and military aptitude of the Viet Minh.

With the advance in China of the Communists to the border of Indochina in 1949, prospects for the Viet Minh altered materially for the better. Their situation was somewhat akin to that of our own anticolonial Army of the Revolutionary War on the eve of French patricipation in that war. After several years of warfare without outside assistance against a foreign colonial power, years during which our Army had undergone the almost overwhelming hardships of Valley Forge, we at last had an ally who would assist us with supplies, advisors and even men. So did the Viet Minh now make effective contact with an ally.

In this country, it was foreseen that this junction with the Chinese Communists would materially enhance the strength of the Viet Minh and thus pose a greater danger of communist conquest in SE Asia. It was obvious that military and technical aid heretofore channeled to European countries must be extended to include selected countries of the Far East. Accordingly, an economic mission headed by Mr. A. Griffin was dispatched to Southeast Asia in February 1950 and provision was made in the budget for an initial increment of $75 million of aid for the Far East as a whole. In July, a military survey mission headed by our Marine MajGen Erskine and Mr. Melby of the State Department was sent out to make an extensive survey of the requirements for defense of the Philippines, Indochina, Thailand and Malaya. As a result of the findings of these missions, military aid began to flow to Indochina and Thailand before the end of 1950. In the case of Indochina, this aid was to grow from a trickle to a torrent in the course of the next three years! For the fiscal year 1954 the aid program was to reach more than one billion dollars, in military items and financial assistance to France. The amount involved may perhaps best be comprehended by noting that in 1932 the budgets for the US Army (and Air Force) and Navy combined totalled less than a billion dollars! The extent of US concern over the possibilities for expansion of Communism into Southeast Asia is thus apparent. The defense of Indochina has also been deemed to be a defense of Thailand and Malaya. And the Communist infection already manifesting itself in Indonesia might well be encouraged to spread more rapidly by a Communist victory in Indochina. Hence these major expenditures by the US to blunt the Communist advance in a part of the world that was as remote as the moon to most Americans prior to 1950!

Naturally, it required several months for the consequences of the aforementioned junction of the Chinese Communists and the Viet Minh to manifest themselves in a military way. However, it was soon known that the Viet Minh were availing themselves of the sanctuary offered by now - Communist Kwangsi for training and equipping new units and avoiding the malaria, French bombing planes and lesser annoyances of the rainy season in the mountains of Tonkin.

In recognition of the probable increase in effectiveness of the Viet Minh forces, and following General Erskine's survey of the situation, the French decided to abandon their thin string of posts along the Tonkin border from Langson to Laokay. These posts now faced a potentially hostile China. In their rear, they looked on territory that was already in the hands of the enemy. It was recognized that the situation of these posts had now become untenable. The order went out to abandon them. It was during the course of the ensuing withdrawal from Cao Bang that the French forces encountered what was to stand as their major disaster of the war up till the loss of Dien Bien Phu. The Cao Bang garrison, 3,500 strong, was ambushed in a defile and virtually annihilated. In the course of the next few weeks some 700 men of this force succeeded in reaching French bases. The other survivors, if any, fell prisoners of the Viet Minh. Thus it was brought home to the French military in a shocking defeat that the Viet Minh capabilities had increased during the rainy season of 1950 even more than had been anticipated. Fortunately for French morale, it was shortly after this debacle of September 1950 that American military aid began to arrive, carrying with it the promise of more to follow.

A few weeks later, Gen De Lattre de Tassigny was appointed Commander-in-Chief of French Forces in Indochina and concurrently Commissioner General. As in the case of Adm D'Argenlieu, he thus combined in one person the highest civil and military posts in Indochina. There was considerable fanfare in connection with his appointment to the effect that he was to receive reinforcements and thereafter employ a new and winning strategy. He received some nine battalions of reinforcements and set about establishing a Vietnamese National Army. While this Army was to be organized and trained under French supervision and was to serve under French command in combat, it was to owe its primary allegiance to the Government of Vietnam. In the meantime, and pending the organization of an effective indigenous National Army, Gen de Lattre continued to abandon a number of the more distant outposts and draw in their garrisons for the battles he foresaw in the Tonkin Delta.

The appeal held by the Viet Minh for the hearts and minds of the Annamites has made it difficult throughout for the French to organize and train a competent and reliable Vietnamese National Army. It has been difficult for the Vietnam Government to induct recruits for training. Once trained, the French could seldom be sure that the Vietnamese units would not defect to the enemy at the first opportunity. Hence, they were compelled to assign the National Army units to rear areas where they would not be exposed to the temptation or opportunity to defect. Thus the hope of Gen de Tassigny that he would be able to raise and train a National Army that would take its place alongside the French in battle against the Viet Minh was not to be realized.

The campaign season of the winter of 1951 was marked by two major attacks on French posts in the Tonkin Delta. In each case the Viet Minh were reported to have committed some 30,000 men to the attack. And from each attack, they withdrew after two or three days of battle. Apparently the Viet Minh, in their turn, had over-estimated the extent of increase in their own military capabilities, hence attempted the tactics of all-out assault on these occasions. From each attack, they withdrew with heavy losses. By April, the Viet Minh high command had concluded that its forces were not yet capable of successfully meeting the French in open major engagements. The word went out to abandon direct attacks and revert again to guerrilla warfare.

The Viet Minh thereafter employed guerrilla warfare consistently and effectively for the next two years. It was not till the attack on Nasan, a heavily garrisoned French outpost in the hills 120 miles west of Hanoi, in early December 1952 that the Viet Minh again ventured a major attack on a French post. Here also they withdrew from the battle after assaults on two successive nights in which they sustained heavy losses.

From this battle they might have been expected to withdraw to their base areas, when the season became late for campaigning. Instead, several Viet Minh battalions debouched into the Kingdom of Laos. This was the first time Viet Minh forces in strength had penetrated into Laos. It seemed a daring undertaking at the time, since the Viet Minh were now venturing into an alien and inhospitable land. They advanced almost unhindered through the sparsely settled mountains of northern Laos until they seemed within striking distance of Luang Prabang. However, in late May 1953 they turned back again and returned to their native Vietnam.

The chief effect of these penetrations into relatively uninhabited territory was to demonstrate the increasing capability of the Viet Minh to range, in formations of strength up to a division, far from their own territory. A few weeks later, two other Viet Minh battalions penetrated into Cambodia for the first time, with the same effect. These demonstrations of the increasing scope of the Viet Minh area of operations were not lost on the outside world. France, in particular, observed them with apprehension.

As a result of the efforts of France and the US, the strength of the forces on the French side rose to a total of 500,000 men by 1954. Of these, 187,000 were from overseas and 160,000 were Indochinese incorporated in French units. All of these units were well organized and heavily equipped. The remaining forces were Vietnamese National Army and local militia, both less heavily equipped than the French regulars.

Each increase in men and equipment on the French side was apparently matched by a corresponding increase on the Viet Minh side. By 1954, the Viet Minh total forces had grown to 300,000 men, including militia and partisans. Whereas in 1949 they had deployed in units of battalion strength, they now deployed in divisions. Formerly a few 90-mm mortars were the heaviest weapons in the Viet Minh arsenal. Now, they matched the French in 105-mm howitzers at Dien Bien Phu. And notably improved capabilities in mining rivers gave the French Navy cause for increased worry. A corresponding increase in the VM ability to employ demolitions on roads and bridges increased the problems of the French engineers.

During the years of American aid, the growth in numbers of personnel in the air force was not as marked as the growth in its equipment. Its Spitfires and Cobras were replaced by greater numbers of F-8Fs and B-26s were added to give a bombing capability unknown in 1949. The total of combat aircraft, mostly fighters, amounted to about 200 aircraft. At least equally important, the addition of a great number of C-47s and a group of C-119s gave the French the capability of dropping parachutists by battalions and of supplying a 10,000-man garrison solely by air. To keep so many aircraft in flyable condition, it was found necessary in February 1954 for the US to provide nearly 400 technicians to assist in the maintenance of both B-26s and C-119s. It was even necessary for the French to hire civilian transport pilots to fly some of the C-119s.

The French Navy, personnel-wise, was increased about 50 per cent during 1950-54. Loan by the US of the light carrier Bois Belleau enabled the French to maintain one carrier continuously on station in Indochina thereafter. Other lesser vessels and craft, mostly of amphibious types, enabled the Navy to continue and improve the delta operations noted before and also enabled it to engage in amphibious operations at several points along the coast of Annam.

The tabulation that follows sums up the growth in personnel on the two sides during the years of 1950-1952 when both were receiving foreign aid:

Of the above total for the French Union (except Indochina), for 1952: 8,150 officers, 30,730 noncommissioned officers, and 43,000 men were French nationals. The others were Foreign Legion (including a high proportion of Germans), Senegalese, Moroccan and other colonial troops. Of the 82,000 men of French blood, it will be noted that nearly half were officers or noncommissioned officers. This points up the fact that Frenchmen, while constituting only about 20 per cent of the total forces engaged on their side, provided the major portion of the leadership for all elements of the French Union Forces. In consequence, the attrition in officers has been particularly dismaying to the French Government. Officer losses, as of 1 November 1952 were listed as 1,432 killed or missing in action. Enlisted casualties were shown as 26,814 killed or missing in action for the French Union (less Indochina), and total KIA for the Indochinese (90 per cent Vietnamese) were put at 21,260 officers and enlisted.

Specific published costs of the war in millions of dollars are shown below:

As part of their own plan for the campaign season of 1953-1954, the French withdrew their garrison from Lai Chan, capital of the Thai tribes of Northwest Tonkin and concentiated this garrison at the more defensible site of Dien Bien Phu, 180 miles west of Hanoi. Several battalions of reinforcements were also flown in. It was apparently hoped that the Viet Minh could again be drawn into expending their strength in an abortive attack on a strongly defended position, as they had at Xasan in the previous year. When a Viet Minh Division and other elements by-passed Dien Bien Phu in January and February to drive into Laos, it looked as though they were going to ignore the enticing bait of Dien Bien Phu. It later developed that they were making thorough preparations during these weeks for a studied attack on the fortress.

The attack came in mid-March with a strength that shook the defenders and startled the High Command. The fortress, with its 10,000 defenders made up of the crack elements of the Expeditionary Corps, was entirely dependent on air transport for supply and reinforcement. It was thought that the artillery brought in by the French, ranging in size to 155-mm howitzers, would be able to out-range and easily neutralize any weapons the Viet Minh could snake in over rough mountain trails. But when the battle was joined, it was soon discovered that the Viet Minh had supplied themselves with 105-mm howitzers equal in number to those of the French. With these, they were soon able to render the airstrip useless. The VM had also brought up anti-aircraft weapons of 37mm caliber that forced aircraft dropping supplies to remain at such altitudes that their drops were inaccurate. Thus, from the outset, the VM were able to greatly curtail the flow of supplies to the beleaguered garrison and to prevent all evacuation of wounded. As the siege wore on, the accumulation of wounded personnel became a very serious handicap in itself to the effectiveness of the defense. Against Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh brought three infantry and one artillery-engineer divisions, totalling about 35,000 men. Employing mole-like tactics of advancing entrenchments in the night and occasional human-sea assaults, they slowly and methodically "strangled" the defenders. On 7 May, a final all-out assault over-ran the defenses and the Viet Minh had gained their first major victory of the more than seven years of the war. It was to prove the climactic battle of the war!

While Dien Bien Phu was not of great strategic significance as a fortress, the loss of so many of the best troops of the French Command materially weakened the capabilities of that Command. But the most important result of the battle was the psychological effect in Indochina and France. With the Geneva Conference already in session, the demand in France for peace at almost any price became even more deafening.


Throughout the period of warfare outlined before, a series of political developments took place in Indochina. These developments were conditioned by the French objective of devising a formula and system of government for the area of Indochina that would inspire the indigenous populace to embrace the cause of France in the struggle against the Viet Minh and yet retain French control in the area. In Vietnam, following a period of uncertainty amid conflicting proposals, it was decided that a government would be built around the person of the ex-Emperor Bao Dai. This was the same Bao Dai who had inherited the throne of Annam as a youth in 1925, had declared the independence of Vietnam in March 1945 and had ceremoniously abdicated in the following August. He had thereafter sojourned for a time at Hanoi and was now living in Hong Kong. After protracted negotiations, French representatives persuaded him to meet with the French High Commissioner M. Bollaert in June 1948 on board a French cruiser off the coast of Northern Tonkin. A preliminary agreement was signed that provided for the return of Bao Dai to power in a non-hereditary role as "Chief of State" of Vietnam. Nine months later an exchange of letters between President Auriol and Bao Dai set out more definitive arrangements that provided Vietnam would be an independent, self-governing State within the French Union. It was to consist of the Provinces of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China. There were also provisions that gave the French certain controls over foreign affairs, finances, trade and military controls for the defense of the State. Bao Dai assumed office under the terms of these agreements on 14 June 1949. He appointed General Hguyen van Zuan as his Deputy Prime Minister and formed a provisional government. In July, France and the Kingdom of Laos signed a treaty that gave to Laos rights similar to those accorded Vietnam. Another similar treaty was concluded with the Kingdom of Cambodia in the following November. Henceforth, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia became the Associated States of Indochina within the French Union.

Despite numerous agreements and a multitude of official pronouncements emphasizing the independent status of Vietnam since 19-19, tin: extent of that independence remained suspect in the eyes of the populace and also in the eyes of most of the independent nations of Asia. Bao Dai's successive Deputy Prime Ministers and Cabinets, until the recent emergence of Ngo Dinh Diem, were easily identifiable as pro-French by training, affiliations and interests. Hence, the Bao Dai regime was regarded throughout as a puppet regime on which the French pulled the strings. It therefore has not succeeded in inspiring any enthusiasm on the anti-Communist side. The great mass of Vietnamese remain indifferent to the Vietnam that we recognize and are inclined to regard Ho Chi Minh as the outstanding patriot of the land.


At the Four Power Conference held in Berlin in January-February, 1954 it was agreed that a conference would be convened in Geneva on 26 April to negotiate a settlement for Korea and to discuss means for bringing to an end the hostilities in Indochina. It became apparent, shortly after that conference convened, that Indochina was to be the major topic of discussion. With neither side budging from its position on Korea, discussion of the problem of Korea was dropped on 15 June. In the meantime, negotiations on terms for a cease-fire in Indochina continued at high and low levels, with intermittent progress, through the fall of Dien Bien Phu and through the subsequent fall of the Laniel Government in France. When M. Mendes-France accepted the office of Premier on 20 June, he publicly promised that he would arrange a cease-fire in Indochina on honorable terms within one month or he would resign. Perhaps the Communist side had been waiting for Mendes-France to step out onto the stage before engaging in serious negotiation. Thenceforth progress toward an agreement was more rapid. With a probable indirect assist from the Eisenhower-Churchill talks and a trip by Mr. Dulles to Paris in July, Mendes-France's deadline was just met on 20 July by the signing of cease-fire agreements covering Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The agreement pertaining to Vietnam provided:

(a) A demarcation line drawn at approximately the 17th parallel would separate the Viet Minh regroupment zone in the North from that of the French and Vietnamese Armies in the South. Regroupment would be accomplished by phases over a period of 300 days.

(b) No reinforcements of personnel or war material can be introduced by either side.

(c) Free elections will be held by July 1956 to determine the nature of the government that will thereafter govern a unified Vietnam.

(d) No additional foreign military bases may be established.

(e) The implementation of the agreements is to be supervised by an international control commission on which India (Chairman), Poland and Canada are invited to serve.

The agreements covering Laos contained most of the provisions applicable to Vietnam. However, the French may continue to maintain two military bases in Laos garrisoned by 3,500 men and maintain a mission ot 1,500 men for the purpose of training the Laotian Army. In the Northeast corner of the State, two small regvoupment zones have been set aside for the Viet Minh adherents among the Laotians. The intent of the Laos agreements was to effectively neutralize the country save for the excepted French bases and troops.

The agreements for Cambodia seek to neutralize that country also. However, the Cambodian Delegation at Geneva balked at signing an agreement that would prevent their entering a foreign alliance. In the end, they obtained exception to alliances made under the principles of the UN Charter. Cambodia can not grant any military bases to another country unless she is threatened by aggression. Otherwise the agreements on Cambodia are about the same as those for Vietnam.

All of the cease-fire agreements are to terminate when national elections are held in the respective States. Laos and Cambodia are scheduled to hold such elections in 1955. Vietnam is to hold a nation-wide election in July 1956 that is to result in the unification of the State.

These cease-fire argreements have been widely attacked in the American press as a "French surrender," a "Southeast Asian Munich," etc. American official statements merely said that they were terms we could "respect." When one considers that from August 1945 to December 1946 the Viet Minh governed all of Vietnam north of the 16th parallel, the cease-fire agreement for that State is recognizable as a virtual return to the status quo of that period. The elections to be held in 1956 can be considered as carrying through on the referendum promised for Cochin China in the March 1946 agreement!

The fact that the French have advanced the demarcation line from the Kith to the 17th parallel, to include the militarily important base city of Tourane, the historically important city of Hue and the logistically important road from Quang-tri to Savannakhet must be attributed to good bargaining at Geneva. Certainly this advance cannot be attributed to gains on the field of battle!

Whether the cease-fire agreements are actually implemented in full remains to be seen. That will depend on the extent of the good faith observed by both sides and on the efficacy of the International Control Commission. It would seem that the Viel Minh can afford to carry out its side of the bargain in good faith for it is quite possible that the elections to be held in 1956 will result in the unificaiion of Vietnam under the Viel Minh banner.

In conclusion, it seems worthwhile to emphasize the following points and lessons, derived from the events related above.

a. The peoples of Vietnam and Cambodia had a long history of independence behind them when the French first came to their lands. The Vietnamese also had a long history of resistance to incursions from China. In comparison with those centuries of resistance, the relatively short span of time since the French first came in force in 1858 and the shorter span since they consolidated their control of Indochina with the incorporation of the Protectorate of Laos in 1893, have been far too short to overcome the tradition of independence inherent in the Annamites of Vietnam.

b. French military strength, coupled with the "face" derived from that strength was sufficient, prior to 1915, to rather easily suppress the native rebellions that broke out from time to time. However, the harsh measures employed in suppressing those rebellions further alienated the Annamites. In addition, French rule was devoted primarily to furthering the interests of Frenchmen and did little to better the lot of the natives of the land. Thus, a hatred of the French and of their works grew in the breasts of the Annamites that only sought a suitable opportunity to explode into violent resistance to French rule.

c. The Japanese occupation, particularly their cavalier treatment of the French Army and officials when they took direct control in Indochina in March 1945 demonstrated to the populace that their former masters were by no means a superrace and could be made to yield to pressures applied by other orientals if that pressure were great enough. The fact that it was not French but British forces that came to receive the Japanese surrender in the South, and not French but Chinese troops that came to the North for the same purpose, did nothing to revive lost French prestige. Hence a major segment of the population concluded that resistance to the French could succeed, even as resistance to the Chinese had succeeded in centuries past.

d. The French underestimated the extent and strength of the movement for independence in Vietnam, hence committed themselves beyond their military capabilities almost from the beginning. When France's financial strength proved inadequate to even maintain a stalemate with the increasing strength of the Viet Minh, the US stepped in with aid in the form of military equipment and later financial aid. But with the Viet Minh now receiving aid from Communist China, the stalemate continued, with the VM potential increasing more rapidly than the French.

e. France's inability to effectively absorb and utilize additional massive increments of military and financial aid was primarily due to a lack of manpower. Draftees could not be sent to Indochina and the "bottom of the barrel" had about been reached for reinforcements of regulars. The alternative of forming a Vietnamese National Army was not successful because the Vietnamese National Army could not be inspired to engage in more than token combat for the French-sponsored Bao Dai regime.

f. Having effectively reached the "end of her rope" for prosecution of war in Indochina, France had only two alternatives remaining in the winter of 1954. She could seek the help of other nations in carrying forward the war, or she could seek a cease-fire with the Communists. Our newspaper columnists tell us that she did seek intervention by the US with at least naval and air forces and that we had made a conditional promise to so intervene. In the end, Frame chose a cease-fire on honorable terms. How much anguish would have been spared had foresight been equal to hindsight!

In the beginning, the French were content to use their limited road nets to pursue the Viet Minh to the foothills and break contact there