The First Indochina War (December 1946 to August 1954) saw the Viet Minh and French colonial forces battle for control of Vietnam. In the West this conflict is called the First Indochina War; in Vietnam it is referred to as the Anti-French War. It unfolded after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, which left Vietnam without a single national government. Ho Chi Minh seized the opportunity to declare Vietnamese independence on September 2nd 1945 – but the arrival of Chinese and British troops, tasked with overseeing the Japanese withdrawal, undermined the Viet Minh and its grip on power. Driven by anti-communist agendas, the Chinese and British allowed the restoration of French colonial rule, rather than leaving Vietnam in the hands of “red bandits”. By late 1946 the French had mobilised 50,000 troops in Vietnam and regained control of Saigon. In November, French naval vessels bombarded the northern port city of Haiphong, killing large numbers of civilians. The Viet Minh retaliated by attacking French positions in Haiphong and Hanoi, though these attacks were repelled by French artillery and naval guns. By mid December the two sides were openly at war.
Aside from Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Minh’s most notable military leader was Vo Nguyen Giap. The beneficiary of a French education, Giap graduated from the University of Hanoi, where he had studied history and politics. A learned and articulate man, Giap spent most of the 1930s teaching history, while contributing to and editing several socialist newspapers. In 1939 Giap was forced to flee Vietnam because of his anti-French political activities. He remained in exile for five years, during which French authorities arrested and executed most of his family. While in exile in China, Giap joined up with Ho Chi Minh and other Viet Minh rebels. After their 1944 return to Vietnam, Giap was tasked with overseeing the Viet Minh’s military forces. His leadership had a profound effect on the outcomes of the First Indochina War and, later, the Vietnam War.
During the First Indochina War, the Viet Minh encountered similar difficulties experienced by other anti-colonial forces. Despite heavily outnumbering French forces the Viet Minh were hindered by severe weapons shortages, particularly a lack of artillery and munitions. Most Viet Minh weapons had been retrieved from the retreating Japanese or seized from captured French. By the end of 1946 Giap’s northern Viet Minh units boasted 60,000 men – but they were armed with only 40,000 rifles. In addition, Viet Minh soldiers were largely untrained and had little understanding of military organisation, discipline or strategy. Giap was not daunted by these shortcomings. A keen student of war and revolution, Giap studied the philosophy and tactics of famous leaders, from Sun Tzu to Napoleon, from George Washington to Leon Trotsky. Giap recognised the need for strategies that made use of Viet Minh strengths and exploited French weaknesses. One invaluable source of ideas was a 1936 pamphlet called Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War, written by Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. Though Mao was writing of the situation in his own country, his pamphlet had lessons for Giap and the Viet Minh:
“The principal characteristics of China’s revolutionary war are: a vast semi-colonial country which is unevenly developed politically and economically… a big and powerful enemy… and a small and weak [revolutionary] army… These characteristics determine the line for guiding China’s revolutionary war as well as many of its strategic and tactical principles. It is clear that we must [recognise] the guerrilla character of our operations; oppose protracted campaigns and a strategy of quick decision… and instead uphold a strategy of protracted war and campaigns of quick decision; oppose fixed battle lines and positional warfare, and favour fluid battle lines and mobile warfare; oppose fighting merely to rout the enemy, and uphold fighting to annihilate the enemy; oppose the strategy of striking with two fists in two directions at the same time, and uphold the strategy of striking with one fist in one direction at one time.”
Giap and Ho Chi Minh adapted Mao’s strategies to the situation in their own country. It was impossible for the Viet Minh to win large scale battles against the French; they could not withstand French artillery or match French air support or supply lines. Instead, the Viet Minh sought to avoid decisive battles and withdraw to the countryside, jungles and mountains. There they established bases in areas too remote for the French to attack. In these bases they planned to train and prepare Viet Minh soldiers for future campaigns. Meanwhile, Viet Minh cadres would move among the peasants, working to build up political support. The backing of the Vietnamese people was important because they could supply food, information and cover for Viet Minh troops (Giap often cited Mao Zedong’s saying: “A guerrilla soldier swims through the people like a fish swims through the sea”). When ready, Viet Minh soldiers would be deployed to launch surprise attacks, ambushes and raids on weaker French positions (while avoiding full scale battles). Their aim was to prolong the war while inflicting casualties on French soldiers and damage to French resources. The intention was to make the war costly and unpopular back in France. Eventually, French forces would be weakened enough for the Viet Minh to engage them in a decisive battle.
French military units that participated in the First Indochina War were called the Corps Expeditionnaire Francais en Extreme-Orient (the ‘French Far-East Expeditionary Corps’, or CEFEO). It was a composite military force containing native Frenchmen, pro-French Vietnamese and troops from other French colonies in Africa, as well as units of the French Foreign Legion. At its peak the CEFEO numbered more than 200,000 men, the majority of them Vietnamese. While the CEFEO was better armed and equipped than the Viet Minh, it still suffered from severe shortages. France was economically devastated by World War II so the French government had to mobilise the CEFEO on a shoestring budget. During the first phase of the war, many CEFEO troops had no uniforms or standard-issue weapons; they had to rely on whatever they could scrounge or capture. The situation did not improve until 1953, when the United States began supplying the CEFEO with military aid.
The first two years of the war (1947-48) was marked by sporadic fighting. The CEFEO was able to quickly capture and control the major cities, while the Viet Minh followed Giap’s strategic plan and withdrew into the mountains. In late 1947 the CEFEO launched Operation Lea, an attempt to destroy the Viet Minh leadership base at Bac Can, north of Hanoi. More than 1,000 French paratroopers were dropped into the area, with orders to flush out the Viet Minh hierarchy. Meanwhile a 15,000-strong CEFEO force was positioned to outflank the retreating Viet Minh and rout them in battle. Despite heavy Viet Minh losses (around 9,000 men) most of their soldiers proved too elusive. “The enemy,” according to one French soldier, “melted into the jungle”.
In early 1949 the French, frustrated by a lack of progress in the war, changed tack. Paris began looking for a political solution rather than a military victory. Hoping to undermine the Viet Minh’s supporter base, France set up an alternative Vietnamese government, more moderate and pro-French than the Viet Minh. Paris began negotiating with figurehead emperor Bao Dai about forming a government. The new regime was to remain part of the French Union but would be self governing – at least in theory. Bao Dai agreed to the plan and the national capital was moved from Hue to Saigon. This was itself a tactical move because Viet Minh support was much weaker in the south, which contained higher numbers of Vietnamese middle class, Francophiles, Catholics, Confucians, Buddhists, political liberals and moderates. While these groups welcomed Vietnamese independence, they harboured fears about communism and refused to support the Viet Minh, viewing them as lower class bandits led by political trouble makers.
Bao Dai’s new government was encouraged to form a new military force, the Vietnamese National Army (VNA). This was done by recruiting new soldiers but also by co-opting the ‘private’ armies run by cultists, warlords and gangsters. VNA officers were given the same command training as French soldiers. Recruits were promised good pay and the opportunity to serve in France (promises that were later broken). By 1952 the VNA had more than 120,000 soldiers and was fighting alongside the CEFEO in many anti-Viet Minh campaigns. The year 1952 also saw some of the most bitter fighting of the war, as the Viet Minh launched a series of advances in the north, to restore their supply lines and expel the French. When these attacks were unsuccessful, Ho Chi Minh and Giap decided to move men and supplies into Laos – Vietnam’s western neighbour and another French colony – to further stretch CEFEO resources. This shift would facilitate the final decisive engagement of the First Indochina War: the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
1. Tension and hostility between the independence-seeking Viet Minh and returning French colonial forces led to the outbreak of the First Indochina War in late 1946.
2. The Viet Minh had superior numbers but lack the weapons, munitions and technology of the French. Led by General Giap, they retreated to remote areas to train, gather support and instigate a protracted war.
3. The continuation of the war and some failed military operations led to France seeking a political solution. Paris sought to undermine the Viet Minh by establishing an independent republic of Vietnam.
4. The figurehead emperor Bao Dai was put in charge of this nominally independent state. He was encouraged to form a national army, which later provided support to the French CEFEO.
5. In 1952-53 the Viet Minh began to move men and supplies into remote areas of French-occupied Laos. This change in tactics led to a decisive military confrontation at Dien Bien Phu.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The First Indochina War”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/first-indochina-war/.
French colonialism in Vietnam lasted more than six decades. By the late 1880s France controlled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which it referred to as Indochine Francais (French Indochina). Indochina became one of France’s most lucrative colonial possessions. It was part of a French empire that spanned northern and western Africa, as well as islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific. To justify their imperialism, the French developed their own principle called the mission civilisatrice (or ‘civilising mission’). It was, in effect, a French form of the English ‘white man’s burden’. French imperialists claimed it was their responsibility to colonise undeveloped regions in Africa and Asia, to introduce modern political ideas, social reforms, industrial methods and new technologies. Without European intervention these places would remain backward, uncivilised and impoverished. The mission civilisatrice was a facade: the real motive for French colonialism was profit and economic exploitation. French imperialism was driven by a demand for resources, raw materials and cheap labour. The development of colonised nations was scarcely considered, except where it happened to benefit French interests.
In general, French colonialism was more haphazard, expedient and brutal than British colonialism. Paris never designed or promoted a coherent colonial policy in Indochina. So long as it remained in French hands and open to French economic interests, the French government was satisfied. The political management of Indochina was left to a series of governors. Paris sent more than 20 governors to Indochina between 1900 and 1945; each had different attitudes and approaches. French colonial governors, officials and bureaucrats had significant autonomy and authority, so often wielded more power than they ought have. This encouraged self interest, corruption, venality and heavy handedness. The Nguyen emperors remained as figureheads but from the late 1800s they exercised little political power. To minimise local resistance, the French employed a ‘divide and rule’ strategy, undermining Vietnamese unity by playing local mandarins, communities and religious groups against each other. The nation was carved into three separate pays (provinces): Tonkin in the north, Annam along the central coast and Cochinchina in the south. Each of these pays was administered separately. There was no national identity or authority. According to one French colonial edict, it was even illegal to use the name ‘Vietnam’.
Profit, not politics, was the driving force behind the French colonisation of Indochina. Colonial officials and French companies transformed Vietnam’s thriving subsistence economy into a proto-capitalist system, based on land ownership, increased production, exports and low wages. Millions of Vietnamese no longer worked to provide for themselves; they now worked for the benefit of French colons. The French seized vast swathes of land and reorganised them into large plantations. Small landholders were given the option of remaining as labourers on these plantations or relocating elsewhere. Where there were labour shortfalls, Viet farmers were recruited en masse from outlying villages. Sometimes they came voluntarily, lured by false promises of high wages; sometimes they were conscripted at the point of a gun. Rice and rubber were the main cash crops of these plantations. The amount of land used for growing rice almost quadrupled in the 20 years after 1880, while Cochinchina (southern Vietnam) had 25 gigantic rubber plantations. By the 1930s Indochina was supplying 60,000 tons of rubber each year, five per cent of all global production. The French also constructed factories and built mines to tap into Vietnam’s deposits of coal, tin and zinc. Most of this material was sold abroad as exports. Most of the profits lined the pockets of French capitalists, investors and officials.
The workers on plantations in French Indochina were known as ‘coolies’ (a derogatory term for Asian labourers). They worked long hours in debilitating conditions, for wages that were pitifully small. Some were paid in rice rather than money. The working day could be as long as 15 hours, without breaks or adequate food and fresh water. French colonial laws prohibited corporal punishment but many officials and overseers used it anyway, beating slow or reluctant workers. Malnutrition, dysentery and malaria were rife on plantations, especially those producing rubber. It was not uncommon for plantations to have several workers die in a single day. Conditions were particularly poor on the plantations owned by French tyre manufacturer Michelin. In the 20 years between the two world wars, one Michelin-owned plantation recorded 17,000 deaths. Vietnamese peasant farmers who remained outside the plantations were subject to the corvee, or unpaid labour. Introduced in 1901, the corvee required male peasants of adult age to complete 30 days of unpaid work on government buildings, roads, dams and other infrastructure.
The French also burdened the Vietnamese with an extensive taxation system. This included income tax on wages, a poll tax on all adult males, stamp duties on a wide range of publications and documents, and imposts on the weighing and measuring of agricultural goods. Even more lucrative were the state monopolies on rice wine and salt – commodities used extensively by locals. Most Vietnamese had previously made their own rice wine and gathered their own salt – but by the start of the 1900s both could only be purchased through French outlets at heavily inflated prices. French officials and colonists also benefited from growing, selling and exporting opium, a narcotic drug extracted from poppies. Land was set aside to grow opium poppies and by the 1930s Vietnam was producing more than 80 tonnes of opium each year. Not only were local sales of opium very profitable, its addictiveness and stupefying effects were a useful form of social control. By 1935 France’s collective sales of rice wine, salt and opium were earning more than 600 million francs per annum, the equivalent of $US5 billion today.
Harnessing and transforming Vietnam’s economy required considerable local support. France never had a large military presence in Indochina (there were only 11,000 French troops there in 1900) nor were there enough Frenchmen to personally manage this transformation. Instead, the French relied on a small number of local officials and bureaucrats. Called nguoi phan quoc (‘traitor’) by other locals, these Vietnamese supported colonial rule by collaborating with the French. They often held positions of authority in local government, businesses or economic institutions, like the Banque de l’Indochine (the French Bank of Indochina). They did this for reasons of self interest or because they held Francophile (pro-French) views. French propagandists held these collaborators up as an example of how the mission civilisatrice was benefiting the Vietnamese people. Some collaborators were given scholarships to study in France; a few even received French citizenship. Perhaps the most famous collaborator was Bao Dai, the last of the Nguyen emperors (reigned 1926-45). Bao Dai was educated at Paris’ Lycee Condorcet and became a lifelong Francophile.
French colonialism did provide some benefits for Vietnamese society, most noticeably improvements in education. French missionaries, officials and their families opened primary schools and provided lessons in both French and Viet languages. The University of Hanoi was opened by colonists in 1902 and became an important national centre of learning. A small quota of Viet students were given scholarships to study in France. These changes, however, were really only significant in the cities; there was little or no attempt to educate the children of peasant farmers. The syllabuses at these schools reinforced colonial control by stressing the supremacy of French values and culture. Colonialism also produced a physical transformation in Vietnamese cities. Traditional local temples, pagodas, monuments and buildings, some of which had stood for a millennium, were declared derelict and destroyed. Buildings of French architecture and style were erected in their place. The Vietnamese names of cities, towns and streets were changed to French names. Significant business, such as banking and mercantile trade, was conducted in French rather than local languages. If not for the climate and people, some parts of Hanoi and Saigon could have been mistaken for parts of Paris, rather than a south-east Asian capital.
1. The French colonisation of Vietnam began in earnest in the 1880s and lasted six decades. The French justified their imperialism with a ‘civilising mission’, a pledge to develop backward nations.
2. In reality, French colonialism was chiefly driven by economic interests. French colonists were interested in acquiring land, exploiting labour, exporting resources and making profit.
3. Vietnamese land was seized by the French and collectivised into large rice and rubber plantations. Local farmers were forced to labour on these plantations in difficult and dangerous conditions.
4. The French also imposed a range of taxes on the local population and implemented monopolies on critical goods, such as opium, salt and alcohol.
5. French colonisers were relatively few in number so were assisted by Francophile collaborators among the Vietnamese people. These collaborators assisted in the administration and exploitation of French Indochina.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “French colonialism in Vietnam”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/french-colonialism-in-vietnam/.