Early phase of the Vietnam War: 1945-1954

The images and text are taken from the documentary “A Television History of the Vietnam War“, Part I. The interviews of original actors on all sides, and the extensive footage of the events, make it an invaluable source for understanding where the second Vietnam War came from. In the text below, I occasionally insert the video time for reference.
The French invaded Indochina in 1860. By 1885 Vietnam has lost its independence.

States tend to divide the world up into territorial units. The French divided Vietnam into three regions: Cochinchina; Annam; and Tonkin

The French attempts to impose a colonial administration were met with substantial resistance. The French military was sent in to impose a repressive order, which they called a “pacification” campaign. (repression=pacification). 12:25

Terror tactics were used to repress and subordinate the local population. The French staged public executions of resistors who were caught. Images of these were put on post cards that soldiers would send home.

Public execution of political dissident by French colonial proxy authorities.

The fate of resistors. Postcard of executed leaders’ heads. The French would send home cards such as these with inscriptions like: Bisous de Saigon! 

Captured dissident activists who resisted French rule.

Rubber plantations and factories were among of the biggest industries in Indochina. The major French business involved here was Michelin.

A Michelin company rubber plant

Ho Chi Minh was born in 1890. His father resigned his administrative post rather than work under french rule. His given name was Nguyễn Sinh Cung (he only took up the name Ho Chi Minh much later, after returning to Vietnam following long travels across the globe). 14:00

Ho left Vietnam and worked on a ship as a cook in the US, Britain, and France. Then he moved to Paris in 1917, under the pseudonym Nguyễn Ái Quốc, which means, Nguyen the patriot.

He tried to lobby for Vietnamese independence at the end of WWI, but was not allowed into the Versailles conference.

In 1920, Ho became closely involved in the French communist party. He went to Moscow for a bit in 1923.

In 1941 he changed his name to Ho Chi Minh, or “he who enlightens.” Ho then returned to Vietnam and established the Vietminh which, unlike other nationalist movements at the time, actively resisted both the French and the Japanese occupying forces.

In 1945 there was a huge famine in Vietnam. Tens of thousands of peasants were forced to travel to the city, esp. Hanoi, to beg for food. 18:00

The French and Japanese were hoarding rice, as part of the war effort, while local Vietnamese peasants starved to death. An estimated one to two million Vietnamese died from starvation and famine-related causes during this period. 18:50.

Starving Vietnamese during the great 1945 famine in North Vietnam:

It is not clearly precisely how many people died during the famine, but we do know that the numbers were massive. The low estimates are above one million, and it may have actually been as high as two million. In a country of ten million people, that means the 10-20% of the population died a slow, terrible death while the French did nothing and the Japanese actively extracted the rice and other food resources to service its war effort.

Ho Chi Minh and the group he organized with, on the other hand, actively fought back the famine by raiding the Japanese graineries, taking back the food and redistributing it among the starving. Hence, the Vietminh were seen as genuinely interested in serving the public good, beginning with the ordinary people.

The Vietminh saw themselves in early 1945 as allies of the American-led allied movement. they believed public declarations by the leading British and American statesmen, such as the Atlantic Charter, which called for democratic self-determination as the primary principle of state government, and promised to deliver this to all people after the end of the war.

The Vietminh were at this point giving intelligence to the Allies regarding Japanese troop strength and movement.

Abbot Low Moffat, a state department official, as well as the OSS (the CIA of the time), were clear on Ho Chi Minh: he is a nationalist before all else.

Abbot Low Moffat:

We knew he was a communist. but we also felt, as they did, as the way anybody who has known [or] met Ho Chi Minh, that I have ever talked with, had the same feeling, he was first a nationalist, and second a communist. That is, he was interested in getting the independence of his people, and then he thought probably the best for them was a communist type of government. But he was a nationalist first and foremost. 20:00.

The US (through its intelligence service the OSS) used the Vietminh by training 200 of them as fighters, to be used on behalf of the allies. This was called the Deer Mission.

OSS trainers went into the northern mountains and trained a crack team of Vietminh:

“Out of about 500 Vietnamese, we selected about 200. We spent the next four weeks training these young men in the art of using automatic weapons, infiltrating, using demolition equipment…. There for the first time, we were able to see what kind of troops the Vietminh were. They were very willing, fine young nationalists… They were willing to risk their lives for their cause, the cause of independence against the French. ” 22:00

Vietminh leader and US OSS trainer, back when the US and the North Vietnamese resistance fighters were allies. Below, we see the US training the Vietminh, who in turn will provide espionage services against the occupying Japanese forces, in alliance with the US:

When the Japanese war effort finally collapsed in august 1945, the Vietminh were eagerly triumphant, and ready to declare Vietnam independent. They marched peacefully into Hanoi to form a government. Ho Chi Minh formed a government in Hanoi, carefully mixing in representatives of multiple nationalist groups, so that the cause would be a representative and unified front, and not narrowly sectarian. In the south, however, his followers began purging rival nationalist groups.

The OSS (US CIA) supported all of this.

Vietnamese Independence

The Vietminh drafted a declaration of independence in Vietnamese that closely modeled the American declaration of independence, citing as a natural right the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (23:40).

The Japanese finally formally surrendered on Sept 2–on the same day, the Vietnamese excitedly proclaimed the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh read out a speech declaring the independence of Vietnam. Over 400,000 Vietnamese people cheered in the central square as Ho Chi Minh read out the Vietnamese declaration of independence.

The Vietminh had assumed they had American support. The Atlantic Charter, signed by Roosevelt and Churchill, had proclaimed that all peoples would be supported in their quest for self-determination after the war.

The first words of Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Vietnamese Independence were:

“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”

Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow­ citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty.

They have enforced inhuman laws; they have set up three distinct political regimes in the North, the Center, and the South of Vietnam in order to wreck our national unity and prevent our people from being united.

They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood. […]

The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated, Emperor Bao Dai has abdicated. Our people have broken the chains which for nearly a century have fettered them […]

For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government, representing the whole Vietnamese people, declare that from now on we break off all relations of a colonial character with France […]

The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.

We are convinced that the Allied nations, which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.

A people who have courageously opposed French domination for more than eight years, a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the Fascists during these last years, such a people must be free and independent.

For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country-and in fact is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.

Ho Chi Minh had radioed OSS headquarters with the following message:

[the Vietminh League] begs US authorities to inform United Nations the following. We were fighting Japs on teh side fo the United Nations. Now Japs surrendered. We beg United Nations to realize their solemn promise that all nationalities will be given democracy and independence. If United Nations forget their solemn promise and don’t grant Indochina full independence, we will keep fighting until we get it.

But president Truman did not share Roosevelt’s strong democratic principles. he was more concerned with keeping the french happy as a major business partner. Plus, there was already on the horizon the Great Imagined Fear of the Russians, and de Gaulle knew how to play his cards just right. De Gaulle, in mid-march 1945, had said in discussion with the Roosevelt administration:

What are you driving at? Do you want us to become, for example, one of the federated states under the Russian aegis? The Russians are advancing apace as you well know. When Germany falls they will be upon us. If the public here comes to realize that you are against us in Indochina there will be terrific disappointment and nobody knows to what that will lead. We do not want to become Communist; we do not want to fall into the Russian orbit, but I hope that you will not push us into it [by, say, letting the Vietnamese have democratic control over their own country].

Truman therefore made no response to Ho Chi Minh’s numerous letters to him.

Abbot Low Moffat:

The European division [of the US state department] felt that to help the french get back on their feet, we [the US] should go along with practically anything they wanted.

After the Japanese surrender, the specifics of the agreement stipulated that the Chinese would disarm the Japanese troops in the north (above the 16th parallel) and oversee the transition, while the British would do so in the south.

The British commander was general Douglas Gracie. his orders were to disarm the Japanese and to maintain law and order. He had the British troops rearm the French colonial authorities, while driving out the Vietminh from the Saigon area. the Vietminh resisted this, but they had few weapons to use.

In the north, Chinese nationalist troops had disarmed the Japanese, and they were staying along and looting the region. Ho Chi Minh was desperate to evict them from Vietnam. He reached an agreement with the French in march 1946, in which the French would be allowed back into Vietnam for a limited time to evict the Chinese troops, and in return, France would recognize the new Vietnamese state.

General de Gaulle with Ho Chi Minh, in march 1946:

Ho Chi Minh travelled to Paris to continue negotiations. But when he arrived, the French cabinet was collapsing. There was no one to negotiate with until the French could establish a stable coalition government.

While Ho Chi Minh is waiting for the coalition government to materialize so that he could start negotiations, the French colonial authority in Vietnam, acting on its own, suddenly declared the south separate from the north. This was a stark violation of the March agreement.

Frustrated, and still awaiting the Paris government to stabilize, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam. There he was greeted by the colonial French residents as a chief of state. The French government was partially Communist at the time, and thus believed strongly in the principle of self-determination.

Upon finally returning to Paris from Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh is greeted as a head of state:

Negotiations then took place at Fontainebleau. but the sticking point is that France wanted to keep South Vietnam, while Ho and the Vietminh held that the south was part of an integrated country, Vietnam. The French refused to budge on this point. (They were very worried afraid that if they granted independence to this former colony, other French colonies, such as Morocco and Algeria, would also claim the right to democratic self-determination.)

The First Vietnamese War

The French had nothing but contempt for Ho Chi Minh’s claim of Vietnamese independence. They told him in plain terms that if he continued to press them, they would simply exterminate the Vietminh organization through military force (31:00).

The negotiations soon fell apart, and the March 1946 agreement was rejected. Fighting broke out between the Vietminh forces and the French colonial forces.

In November 1946, the French shelled Haiphong, the harbor city.

French warships shelling Haiphong in 1946

French officer Henri Martin recalls:

When we visited Haiphong after [the shelling], all the Vietnamese neighborhoods were completely wiped out… almost the entire Vietnamese part of the city had been flattened (32:00).

Devastation in Haiphong from the French bombardment

By the end of 1946, the Vietminh and the Ho Chi Minh government had been forced out of the cities. The first Vietnam war had started, and would kill over one million Vietnamese before it ended.

The French were sure they would score a quick victory. They were using modern weapons, provided for free by the US. They knew they had the Vietminh heavily outgunned, and thought of the matter as a mere policing operation.

French troops fighting against nationalists in Vietnam in late 1946

The Vietminh had widespread support from the peasants, however. The resistors in the South were fighting initially with nothing more than bamboo spears, but the North began producing arms to bring to the resisters in the South. The goal of the resistors in both parts of the country was to drive the French out so they could proclaim independence and form a democratic government.

The French quickly found themselves bogged down in an occupation-war that was impossible to decisively win.

In an attempt to gain the support of the Vietnamese people, the French created a client state, run by Vietnamese puppets. The government was named the State of Vietnam. Its  policies were tightly controlled by the French, with no political autonomy whatsoever (36:00).

A Global Proxy Conflict

In 1950, Mao Tse Tung successfully took over China. Mao’s government supported the principle of self-determination, and officially recognized the Ho Chi Minh government–the first country in the world to do so.

Left isolated by the west, and glad to received help from anyone who would give it for a just cause, Ho Chi Minh was aligning with international Communist forces as a matter of pragmatism as much as anything else.

The US, for example, opposed democratic rule in Vietnam. Washington not only refused to recognize Ho Chi Minh’s government, or to call for the French to respect the principle of self determination, democracy, and civil liberties, but was actually the principal source of funds and military equipment for the french side of the war. Without US support, the French could not have lasted long.

After the Chinese government officially recognized the Vietminh government, the Russian government followed suit. The US, in response, recognized the rival client state, the State of Vietnam in the South, which remained under the strict control of the French. There would be no self-determination allowed for Vietnamese people, according to de Gaulle and Truman. For Truman, business interests with the French were a more important priority than the abstractions of democracy or national self-determination.

In this regard, Truman intoned:

The cause of freedom is being challenged throughout the world today by the forces of imperialistic Communism…

By framing things in terms of an international “Communist” conspiracy, the US was  prioritized an “us v. them” framework (see NSC 68 for reference). The world was perceived in terms of strategic regional hegemonies and blocs of state alliances aimed at controlling the global wealth flows.

In may 1950, the US offered for the first time to publicly give financial support to the French, to the tune of $10 million dollars (or 95 million in 2012 dollars).

Later analysis would show that the US, by publicly offering material support for one side of the conflict, was entrenching there in ways it would prove difficult to withdraw from. Moreover, the US was vocally transforming a local regional war over the Indochinese right to national self-determination into a proxy for a global alignment against China and Russia.

By 1953, the US had given 150 million dollars in cash and supplies to the French for use in the war (or one billion and a half in 2012 dollars), including planes, fuel, ammunition, and napalm.

The situation was now one in which large, relatively wealthy powers were supplying both sides of a local regional conflict.

By the end of 1953, the US was supplying over 80% of the French war effort, and the Russians and Chinese had begun supplying arms for the Vietminh. The war was escalating definitively into an international struggle. With supplies arriving from China, the Vietminh were now able to effectively resist the French military presence. The French were now in the middle of a military disaster. The guerrilla resistance by the Vietminh was by now effective, and the French could not control the territory in the north.

The US was soon paying over a billion dollars a year to support the french war effort (40:00).

Diem Bien Phu

The French controlled the cities, but the Vietminh controlled the countryside.

In November 1953, the French parachuted 12,000 troops into the valley of Diem Bien Phu, where it thought to test a new “search-and-destroy” tactic against the Vietminh. The French set up a major operation there, a base that they were confident was untakeable and would put a huge wrench in the Vietminh machine.

French paratroopers parachuting in:

Preparing the base at Dien Bien Phu:

French state officials visited the base and heralded France’s military accomplishment:

Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh forces saw that the french were inviting a showdown there. so they worked overtime to bring everything they had to the attack. they marched day and night, bringing forward all available weapons, which had to be marched up the mountains in order to participate in the coming battle in the valley.

51,000 Vietminh resistors hiked across the mountains, carrying supplies on their back and their bicycles.

Hauling artillery up the mountain:

Part of the reason both sides saw Dien Bien Phu as a culminating point was the fast-approaching Berlin conference of 1954, where the Indochina crisis was to be a major issue. Both sides were fully aware that international perceptions of the situation would prove critical at the conference.

At Berlin conference, where the fate of the world is being squabbled over by rich white men

For the French, the Battle of Diem Bien Phu turned out to be an utter catastrophe. The French had thought themselves invincible, and vastly underestimated the mobilization effort the Vietminh would make. The French were certain that the Vietminh would not be able to get heavy artillery through the mountains, nor establish effective supply lines, nor even get substantial troops to the region.

But the French were wrong on each count. The first French outpost fell within eight hours of the Vietminh attack. The Vietminh had dug in their artillery so well, and camouflaged it so effectively, that the French planes had a very hard time figuring out where to bomb.

The French side was shocked as the military situation rapidly deteriorated for them.

Colonel Ducoste became withdrawn and stopped talking to anyone. The artillery commander committed suicide on the second night, declaring: “I am completely dishonored.”

The French artillery commander

Colonel Ducoste

The Vietminh took high casualties, losing thousands of soldiers, but by the fourth day they controlled the entire perimeter of the valley.

While the Vietminh could have kept up the relentless “human wave” assault tactics, which were highly successful, they decided the cost of life was too high, and abruptly changed tactics completely, to a dig in and advance slowly tactic. They soon destroyed the French airstrip, and now they dug in solid trenches around the French base, slowly advancing, like a tightening noose.

The French were now dependent on parachute drops for supplies, but Vietminh antiaircraft fire was so intense that they had to fly very high, meaning that some of their drops put the supplies into the hands of the Vietminh resistors instead of the French troops.

The French were really getting stuck by now. The rainy season was beginning, and the rains were making the french dugouts collapse. clean water was getting hard to find, and medical supplies were getting scarce. no planes could land to evacuate wounded soldiers.

Dien Bien Phu fell on may 7 1954. The French were down to a few men and were simply overrun by the Vietminh forces. they had run out of many supplies and weapons, and the attitude of the commanding forces outside of Dien Bien Phu was: “you are paratroopers, you are there to die,” in the words of one of them who was soon taken prisoner. they resisted to the last, and were taken prisoner by the Vietminh forces.

The final French casualty tally was 1500 dead, 4000 wounded, with ten thousand taken prisoner.

The Vietminh dead count was far higher: 8000 dead, with 15,000 wounded.

In June 1954, the French cabinet fell apart, and the new cabinet was led by Pierre Mendes France, a strong critic of the war.

Pierre Mendes France

The peace agreement, signed at Geneva, involved serious concessions by the Vietminh. they were pushing for the entire country to be turned over to the Vietnamese people, and for elections to be held within the year.

Instead, based largely on pressure from China and Russia, who prioritized a west-friendly compromise over anything else (in order to end the war, they hoped, and incentivize the french and the US to leave the region alone), the Vietminh agreed to serious concessions: they would only be given control over the north, and elections would only be held in two years time.

But they accepted these conditions, hoping that world opinion would pressure France into adhering to them and handing the place over in two years’ time.

Hanoi was then handed over to the Vietminh in the fall of 1954.

The US and many in the west expected that the Vietminh would probably come to control Saigon soon as well.

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5 Responses to Early phase of the Vietnam War: 1945-1954

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  4. Many Ghosts says:

    “The US refused the principle of self determination, democracy, and civil liberties…” – what a steaming load of communist propaganda. The Viet Minh were one of many competing factions trying to assert control over Vietnam. As communists, they were supported financially and with weapons from the Soviet Union, and therefore were able to eliminate, mostly through murder, other competing Vietnamese factions. It’s hardly “self-determination” when over a million Vietnamese left Hanoi and headed to Saigon once Ho Chi Minh and his comrades gained power. If anybody was the puppet government, it was the Viet Minh on strings for the Soviets, and the reason why so many Soviet “advisors” were in Hanoi. As far as South Vietnam being a “puppet government”, Diem was named Prime Minister from the Emperor Bao Dai, who was the holder of the legitimate thread of power in Vietnam. Do you really think the 500k+ Vietnamese (of the millions who tried to flee Vietnam) who still fly the yellow flag in Southern California today do so in honor of a fictional, puppet government? You need to think things through a little harder.

    • beautype says:

      Many Ghosts,
      You seem to be suggesting that the US was in favor of democracy in Vietnam. When was that, exactly? When did the US support elections in Vietnam?

      It did not support elections, instead it vigorously opposed them. The US was entirely uninterested in the democratic aspirations of the Vietnamese people. This is why the US supported the reestablishment of the French colonial regime, and when the French effort collapsed, the US entered militarily, killing 3-4 million Vietnamese in the process.

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