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Vietnam - to 1955

The French in Indochina

Before 1949

Indo-China, incorporating modern Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, had been ruled by the French since the 1850s. 

In 1940, during World War 11, it was occupied by the Japanese. A resistance movement, called the Viet Minh and  led by Ho Chi Minh, developed against the Japanese occupation. The Viet Minh were supported by the Allies against the Japanese.

At the end of the War, Vietnam was liberated by the Chinese in the north and the British in the south. By the time these forces arrives, the Viet Minh had proclaimed Vietnam's independence. Negotiations then commenced between the Viet Minh and the French who wanted to re-incorporate Indo-China in their Empire. 

Negotiations broke down and late in 1946 and the Viet Minh began armed resistance against the French. The Vietnamese, again led by Ho Chi Minh, who used guerrilla tactics against the conventional tactics of the French. 


In 1949, France granted limited independence to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and appointed the pro-French former Emperor Bao Dai as head of state.


In January 1950, China and the USSR recognised the independence of the Vietnam but under the pro-Communist government of Ho Chi Minh. In February, the USA, Britain and Australia recognised the pro-French government of Vietnam led by Biao Dai.

In September, the Viet Minh, under General Giap, launched an offensive against the French, overwhelming many French positions and killing 6,000 French troops.


During 1951, the Viet Minh make several, mostly unsuccessful, large-scale attacks on French forces


Early in 1952, both sides re-grouped with the Viet Minh receiving arms and training from China while the French receive arms and other supplies from America. The French then tried to draw the Viet Minh into a full-scale battle with 30,000 troops near Nghia Lo. The operation had little success and was abandoned.


A new French Commander-in-Chief, Henri Navarre, is appointed and  reports that there is no possibility of winning the war and support in France for the war declines.

Navarre decides to draw the Viet Minh into a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu, 88 paratroops are sent into to build two airstrips which will be used to supply a large French force.


The Battle of Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu

Early in 1954, the French general Henri Navarre, established a string of fortified bunkers around two airstrips, guarded by tanks and artillery, at Dien Bien Phu. The French believed that the Viet Minh would launch an attack on their position but would find it impregnable because the Viet Minh lacked artillery.

The Viet Minh, under General Giap, however, dug a ring of bunkers around the French position and, over a period of two months, brought in artillery obtained from China and Russia. When they finally attacked, the Viet Minh took only three days to overrun the French outposts and render the airstrips useless, cutting off the French supply line.

A final assault came on May 6 and the French surrendered having lost 6,000 soldiers with another 10,000 taken prisoner

The French quickly decided to pull out of Indo-China and, in July, signed the "Geneva Accord". This "temporarily" divided the country into the North, governed by the pro-Communist Ho Chi Minh, and the South under a nationalist government led by Ngo Dinh Diem, pending an election.

In October, the last French troops left Hanoi. France had lost over 74,000 troops in Vietnam (far more than the number of Americans killed in their Vietnam War).


For 300 days after the Geneva Accord was signed, the borders between North and South Vietnam remained open and some 850,000 refugees, mostly Catholics, fled from  the North to the South.

In 1955, an election was held in South Vietnam and Ngo Dinh Diem, who was a Catholic in a strongly Buddhist country, was elected Premier. Diem had very little support except among the small minority of refugee and South Vietnamese Catholics and the American CIA.

Diem requested US military instructors, refused to proceed with an the all-Vietnam election required by the Geneva Accord and organised a referendum which deposed Emperor Bao Dai.