Part of the French colonial empire, French Indochina consisted of Cochinchine (Cochin China), Tonkin, Annam (which now form Vietnam), Laos and Cambodia.
French Indochina was established in the 19th century, in several stages.
The French first occupied Saigon in 1859, then Cochinchine (Cochin China) and Cambodia.
Next the French extended their control over Hanoi (in Tonkin), Annam and the rest of Tonkin, and founded French Indochina.
Laos was added in 1893, and Siam (now Thailand) ceded further territory to the French in the early 20 th century.
While French rule in Cochinchine (Cochin China) was direct, the French left local leaders in place in other parts of French Indochina: the Annamite emperor in Tonkin and Annam, the king of Cambodia and the king of Luang Prabang (Laos).
True power was held by the French.
From exploration to central direction
Although the first interest in Indochina came from missionaries and explorers (with some involvement of the French navy), the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War saw a resurgence of interest, this time centrally directed.
While many French politicians were more intent upon the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine, the French military looked towards overseas military expansion and French businessmen were attracted by the prospects for trade and raw materials.
On May 15, 1883, the French parliament overwhelmingly voted funds for a full-scale expedition to impose a protectorate on Vietnam.
Jules Delafosse, an ultraconservative French politician, took issue with the term: ‘Let us, gentlemen, call things by their name. It is not a protectorate that you want, but a possession’. (Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History )
The principles of French rule
Brutal suppression of rebellion.
Financial autonomy - no French financial support.
Heavy direct and indirect taxation on the population, some of which financed investment in infrastructure.
Mission civilisatrice (acculturation) and political and economic dominance.
By 1914, Indochina appeared so peaceful that the French left only 2,500 French soldiers there, and sent thousands of Indochinese to work for the French war effort.
After 1918, French rule was challenged by nationalism, democracy and socialism.
As Stanley Karnow puts it, ‘A powerful wave of nationalism rose against acculturation, the political monopoly of the French minority and French dominance of the Bank of Indochina and major industrial concerns.’ (Karnow, Vietnam: A history)
In 1930 young bourgeois Vietnamese led an insurrection in Tonkin, and Nguyen Ai Quoc (later Ho Chi Minh) founded the Indochinese Communist Party in China, near the border with Indochina.
The Second World War
In June 1940, France fell to the Nazis.
On September 22, 1940, following the ratification by the Vichy French regime of the Matsuoka-Henry Pact, Japanese forces occupied northern parts of French Indochina, though French colonial officials remained in post.
By the summer of 1941, Indochinese Communists based in Southern China declared war against both the French and the Japanese.
They formed a new guerrilla army called the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, which received some aid from the Office for Strategic Services (predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency).
As part of the Japanese Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, Indochina was an important source of raw materials.
In the early 1940s there was large-scale famine as Indochinese farmers were forced to grow crops for the Japanese war effort.
In March 1945, following the demise of Vichy the previous year, the Japanese disarmed the French, tightening their control of Indochina.
In August 1945 the Japanese surrendered.
Declaration of Independence
On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi in a declaration consciously modelled after the US Declaration of Independence (1776), and drawing also upon the Declaration of the Rights of Man of the French Revolution (1791)
‘ 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…’
His provisional government went underground when the Chinese nationalists invaded the North and the British invaded the South (pending restoration of Indochina to France).
On March 6, 1946, Ho Chi Minh signed an agreement with the French that Tonkin would become a self-governing nation within the Indochinese Federation and the French Union.
In the South the French re-established control over Annam and Cochinchine (Cochin China).
In November 1946 fighting broke out in Tonkin between the French and the Viet Minh.
Viet Minh soldiers
The French Indochina War
In 1949 a nominally independent provisional government under the former emperor Bao Dai was established in Saigon,
In February 1950 the Bao Dai government was recognised by the Truman administration and began to receive direct economic and military aid from the United States.
Bao Dai’s regime was rejected by the Viet Minh.
In 1951 the Viet Minh created a common front with communist groups in Laos and Cambodia, led by General Vo Nguyen Giap.
The strategy of the Viet Minh during the French Indochina War involved three overlapping stages: 1) the establishment of strong bases among the population (allowing for the training of soldiers and political work among the people). 2) guerrilla warfare and political campaigning. 3) open warfare (For further details see http://members.lycos.co.uk/Indochine/vm/tiger.html#top - a site created by enthusiasts with much fascinating information and the source of some of the images used in this presentation)
Some tactics of the Viet Minh The punji – a trap smeared with excrement to cause infection ‘ Piano keys’ – trenches in the road designed to allow for Viet Minh attack on vehicles Tunnel system allowing Viet Minh soldiers to hide men and/or weapons
The French Indochina War and French Society
During the Fourth Republic (1946-1958), French governments formed, fell and reformed frequently.
The Indochina war was unpopular in France, particularly on the left.
Known as la guerre sale (the dirty war), it was fought by French colonial troops which included troops from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, West Africa, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, French professional troops, and the French foreign legion, all chosen in preference to drafting French soldiers from the population.
The war was also expensive for the French.
By the end, the French war effort in Indochina was extremely dependent upon US aid.
The end of the war
On March 13, 1954, the siege of Dien Bien Phu began.
On May 7, 1954, French troops surrendered at Dien Bien Phu.
The Geneva Accords provided for a temporary partition of Vietnam at the 17 th parallel pending country-wide elections.
The United States did not sign the accords.
An International Control Commission was appointed to monitor the implementation of the accords.
The elections, planned for July 1956, never took place.
The temporary partition lasted for 21 years, until the communist victory unified the country in 1975.
The US Commitment
A growing US commitment to first the French war effort, and, following the French defeat, to an ‘independent’ South Vietnam.
‘ Sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem’ policy between 1955, when Diem became president in a rigged referendum, and 1963, when he was assassinated by his generals.
This policy involved massive economic aid and an increasing US military commitment, first in the shape of military advisers to the South Vietnamese campaign against opposition in the South.
Southern opponents of Diem’s government (known as the National Liberation Front, or Viet Kong) received support from Ho Chi Minh’s government in Hanoi from the late 1950s.
Eisenhower declares the ‘domino theory’
‘ First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs.
Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world.
Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the 'falling domino' principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences…So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world… (Press conference, April 7, 1954)
Johnson and the ‘vital shield’
‘… Most of the non-Communist nations of Asia cannot, by themselves and alone, resist growing might and the grasping ambition of Asian communism.
Our power, therefore, is a very vital shield. If we are driven from the field in Viet-Nam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American protection.
In each land the forces of independence would be considerably weakened and an Asia so threatened by Communist domination would certainly imperil the security of the United States itself.
We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else.
Nor would surrender in Viet-Nam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another country, bringing with it perhaps even larger and crueler conflict, as we have learned from the lessons of history.
Moreover, we are in Viet-Nam to fulfil one of the most solemn pledges of the American nation. Three Presidents - President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, and your present President - over 11 years have committed themselves and have promised to help defend this small and valiant nation…’ (Press conference, July 28, 1965)
Military strategy and tactics
Limited aim – to convince the North and their supporters in the South that their opposition to the Southern government was useless.
Concern that certain measures (such as an invasion of the North) would bring in China.
Search and destroy
Use of US technological superiority
Emphasis on body count – if it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s Viet Cong
Devastation of South Vietnam
The Vietnam War and the public
The next slides contain graphs and tables recording public support for different policy options and for the war as a whole which have been abstracted from William L. Lunch and Peter W. Sperlich, ‘American Public Opinion and the War in Vietnam’, Western Political Quarterly 32:1 (March 1979), 21-44
Philippe Devillers and Jean Lacoutre, End of a war; Indochina, 1954 (1969)
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (1983)
Wallace Terry, Bloods: an oral history of the Vietnam War/by black veterans (1984)
Stein Tønnesson, ‘The Longest Wars: Indochina 1945-1975, Journal of Peace Research , Vol. 22, No. 1 (Mar., 1985), pp. 9-29
George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (1986 – 2 nd ed.)
C. DeBenedetti and C. Chatfield, An American Ordeal: Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (1990)
Walter Capps (ed.), The Vietnam Reader (1990)
Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam War, 1945-1990 (1991)
Tom Wells, The war within: America’s battle over Vietnam (1994)
Kenneth J. Heineman, Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era (1994)
Adam Garfinkle, Telltale hearts: the origins and impact of the Vietnam antiwar movement (1995)
James E. Westheider, Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War (1997)
Peter Lowe (ed.), The Vietnam War (1998)
Harry Maurer, Strange Ground: an oral history of Americans in Vietnam, 1945-1975 (1998)
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, Peace Now! American Society and the Ending of the Vietnam War (1999)
Mark Baker, Nam: the Vietnam war in the words of the men and women who fought there (2001)
Michael S. Foley, Confronting The War Machine: Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War (2003)
Kendrick Oliver, The My Lai massacre in American history and memory (2006)
Mark Atwood Lawrence and Fredrik Logevall (eds.), The First Vietnam War: colonial conflict and cold war crisis (2007)