Vietnam: From 1945 until the Geneva Agreements (1945-1954)

Justin Corfield. The History of Vietnam. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

On August 25, 1944, American soldiers in Western Europe reached Paris, and on the next day the leader of the Free French, Charles de Gaulle, walked triumphantly into Notre Dame Cathedral where a thanksgiving service was held for the Liberation of the French capital. The situation was viewed nervously by the French in Indochina who had collaborated with the Japanese for nearly four years. The Japanese were even more nervous, worried whether or not the French in Vietnam would change their attitude toward them. In September and October the Japanese in the Pacific faced military reverses at Palau and in the Philippine Sea, and there were countless rumors in Saigon and Hanoi that the Allies might land in Vietnam to try to gain a foothold on the Asian continent. This last possibility also worried de Gaulle who felt that the Americans would favor the Vietnamese nationalists. He dispatched more agents to Indochina with orders to attack the Japanese as soon as the Americans landed.

The Japanese in Vietnam acted cautiously. They knew that many of the French were armed and that arresting and interning all the French would tie down a large number of their own soldiers. They were also probably motivated by worries that without the French planters, the rubber and other crops might no longer be generated in such large amounts, as had happened in British Malaya. Their commanders were also worried that without the French, the Vietnamese nationalists, especially the Communists, might become stronger.

It was not until March 9, 1945, that the Japanese decided to strike. On the afternoon of that day they moved into place expecting the French to resist, especially in Tonkin. The Japanese worries were well founded. In Cochinchina and Cambodia, the Japanese rounded up all the French without much trouble. There was some fighting in Hue, where some of the French were captured by the Japanese at a cinema where they were watching a Tarzan movie. Those in one of the barracks were involved in a minor firefight with the Japanese and were forced to surrender the next day when they ran out of ammunition. In Hanoi, at 7:55 p.m., the French General Mordant heard about the trouble and organized a hurried resistance. The next morning Mordant finally surrendered along with many of his men. The French garrison in Haiphong also capitulated, but the French at Lang Son held out until March 13, when they, too, surrendered. The Japanese had suffered significant losses there and executed the most senior French officer in revenge. During all of this fighting, some 5,700 French colonial soldiers, nearly half being Europeans, managed to escape into southern China. Within a few days, the Japanese had interned 15,000 members of the Indochina armed forces, 80 percent of them European. About 2,100 European officers and men were killed in the takeover or disappeared soon afterwards, and hundreds of Japanese were also killed. Many lower level French civil servants and functionaries, however, were not interned; engineers, harbor pilots, doctors, and teachers were not easy to replace.

In Hue the private secretary to Emperor Bao Dai was informed that the Japanese had removed the French colonialists but would not be interfering with the court. Bao Dai himself was out hunting, and one cannot help but be reminded that Louis XVI was also hunting when the mob stormed the Bastille in 1789. When he was told of the Japanese move, Bao Dai was nervous. He knew the power of the Allies and that the Japanese seemed to be losing the war. He also knew, however, that the Japanese would deal harshly with him and his court if he refused to do what they wanted. He would also have known that Prince Cuong De, a pretender to the throne, had been living in Tokyo for some time, and that he might be deposed. On March 11, Bao Dai’s decree abrogating the 1884 protectorate treaty with France was read to a hastily convened meeting of his ministers, along with a proclamation of independence. It was determined that March 14 was the most auspicious day to make this announcement. Tran Trong Kim, an historian and Confucian scholar, became prime minister of the newly independent Kingdom of Vietnam.

This turn of events had surprised Ho Chi Minh. He was in China at the time and he hastened back to Vietnam. Before leaving Kunming, Ho had written his American friends a note that “the French imperialist wolf was finally devoured by the Japanese fascist hyena.” The note, which is now held in the U.S. National Archives, included a request for the Americans to consider landing in Vietnam. In Ho’s absence, in April, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam ordered the creation of the Vietnam Liberation Army in preparation for a general insurgency at some later date. In May, Ho was back in Vietnam and mobilizing his forces. He was eager not to strike out too quickly. His men were no match for the Japanese in the same way that the resistance in France had been no match for the Germans. All knew, however, that an American landing on the beaches would change the military situation dramatically. Charles de Gaulle then issued his plan for the Indochinese Federation whereby the states of Indochina would come together in a federal union in which foreign policy and defense would still be controlled by France.

The Vietnamese Communists were holding a party conference when, on August 14, Japan surrendered. This had come after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and although the surrender had been expected and planned for over many months, the suddenness of it still came as a surprise. On August 19, there was a general uprising in Hanoi, and four days later the Communists seized control of Hue. An attempt to take over Saigon on August 25 was a little patchy, as other Vietnamese nationalists challenged the Communists there. These events are what became known as the August Revolution.

To act constitutionally, it was necessary for Bao Dai to abdicate, which he did on August 30. During the previous five months his government had floundered badly. They tried to move independently of the Japanese but could never shake off the public image of being a “puppet” government. A massive famine that struck in the poorest regions of Annam had only made matters worse, exacerbated by the Japanese constantly requisitioning supplies for their army. When members of the Viet Minh had approached him on August 25, the emperor had willingly handed over power to them and offered to live as a simple citizen. Traveling to Hanoi, he accepted a position as the supreme political adviser to the new provisional republic.

In July 1945, the Allied powers had met in Potsdam with the defeat of Japan imminent. The French, British, and Americans realized that the Communists might be able to seize power in Vietnam, so to preempt this move, they planned to send in two occupation forces. The Nationalist Chinese would take control of northern Vietnam and Laos, and the British would maintain order in the south and Cambodia. On September 6, a British advance party arrived in Saigon. Three days later, Chinese soldiers started arriving in Hanoi. Four days later British soldiers disembarked in Saigon.

Preempting the British move, on September 2, 1945, a massive crowd had gathered in Hanoi to hear Ho Chi Minh proclaim Vietnam’s independence. It was the Feast of Vietnamese Martyrs, a day observed by more than a million Roman Catholics in North Vietnam, and more in the rest of the country. Read in front of tens of thousands of cheering people, from the balcony of the French Opera House, Ho Chi Minh’s proclamation was modeled on the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal. The Creator has given us certain inviolable Rights; the right to Life, the right to be Free, and the right to achieve Happiness.” The few Americans who were there, such as Archimedes Patti, were placed prominently in the crowd—Patti had turned down a request to appear with Ho—and when a U.S. reconnaissance flight went over the crowd, the people of Hanoi saw it as a “fly-past” by their American supporters.

The new government quickly produced a small aluminum coin, which was joined in 1946 by additional coins showing crude portraits of Ho Chi Minh. The first banknotes were also produced in 1946 showing a youthful Ho Chi Minh. They also overprinted vast stocks of stamps of French Indochina, which were quickly sold in large numbers to U.S. collectors and others to raise funds for the new government.

Although the British, French, and Chinese had all been on the same side during the war, as had the Vietnamese nationalists, attitudes over what to do in Vietnam varied considerably. The British, as a major imperial power, were keen to help the French restore their colonial regime. Many of the Chinese Nationalists, however, were anticolonial after the experiences of the European powers in China, and they were also disinterested in Vietnam. The Chinese soldiers knew that a civil war was brewing in their own country, and that they were needed for the war there. Anxious to avoid fighting, the Chinese had tolerated Ho Chi Minh even though he was a communist, but they did allow the French to move back to Hanoi and a few other cities in the north. In the south, however, the British were determined to help the French restore their colonial rule.

Charles de Gaulle had tried to forestall the quagmire that was being created in Vietnam. As early as August 22, 1945, a French agent, Pierre Messmer (later to become prime minister of France), had parachuted into northern Vietnam but had been unable to make contact with other French agents there. Jean Cédile, in southern Vietnam, was more successful, although he was initially captured by the pro-Japanese militia. The French were adamant that their government of Indochina would be restored. They were helped by the British who were under the command of Major-General Douglas Gracey. In Saigon non-Communist nationalists and Trotskyites, as well as members of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, also started organizing.

On September 17, the Communists called for a general strike in Saigon and the British declared martial law four days later. On the next day after a meeting between Gracey and Cèdile, the British armed 1,400 French soldiers and civilians to help with law enforcement. Released from the internment centers where they had been held by the Japanese, they went around Saigon exacting revenge on their Vietnamese jailers, people who had taken over their houses and businesses while they had been interned, and anybody else who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The general strike began on September 24, 1945, with the European population of Saigon cowering. They had good reason to be afraid. That morning the Viet Minh and the Binh Xuyen gangsters—an uneasy coalition at the best of times—managed to get into Cité Hérault, a European residential suburb. There they massacred 150 French and Eurasian men, women, and children. The British were horrified and immediately agreed with French plans to send a large force of French soldiers to try to restore order. The British had decided that if they withdrew quickly, this would be bad for relations with France; but if they stayed they might have to endure substantial casualties, as was to happen at Surabaya in Java where the British lost many men in their efforts to support the Dutch return to their former colony. Gracey’s plan was to get the French troops to Saigon as quickly as possible and then withdraw. Some writers, such as the influential journalist Stanley Karnow, date the Vietnam War from the fighting on September 24, 1945. Certainly the first American casualty was not long in coming. With a large French force on the way, an American officer, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Dewey, son of a Republican Congressman, decided to leave Saigon. On September 26, he drove with a colleague to the Saigon airport. Finding that their plane had been delayed, the two drove back to Saigon and on their return they ran into a Communist roadblock. The Vietnamese opened fire with a machine gun and Dewey was killed instantly, as his friend escaped. Dewey’s body was never found despite a search organized later the same day. He was the first American serviceman killed in Vietnam.

Large numbers of French soldiers arrived in Saigon during October 1945, and on October 16, the Viet Minh were forced to retreat from the city. At this juncture, with the possibility of losing control of the country they had taken over in August, the Communists decided to “reinvent” themselves. On November 11, the Indochina Communist Party was dissolved and its members became participants in an Association for Marxist Studies. In Hanoi Ho Chi Minh joined together with some remnants of the VNQDD and other nationalist groups to form a broader coalition against the French. This latter group came together on January 1, 1946, as the provisional coalition government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Five days later some areas in the north elected a National Assembly in line with the new DRV Constitution. The Chinese Nationalist commander, Lu Han, was happy at the inclusion of the VNQDD, whom his government had long supported. His army, however, was far from popular in northern Vietnam where the soldiers, mainly drawn from poor peasants, pillaged many villages. By November there was a largely Communist government in de facto control of the north, albeit with a large Chinese Nationalist presence, and a restored French colonial regime was operating in the south.

On February 28, the Chinese finally agreed to leave Vietnam. In fact even without French pressure, they would have left anyway, as they were needed for the Chinese Civil War. On March 6, 1946, Ho Chi Minh signed an agreement with a French representative Jean Sainteny by which the DRV might become a “free state” within the French Union, with free elections in Cochinchina to see whether it wanted to join the DRV. There were further disagreements, however, and the Dalat Conference was held from April 18 to May 11 to try to resolve the impasse between the DRV and the French colonial authorities. Although the Communist commander Giap was present, as was the DRV’s non-Communist foreign minister Nguyen Tuong Tam, no agreement was reached.

The French had been trying to work out a constitutional approach that would outmaneuver the Communists. Their idea was to rework de Gaulle’s concept of an Indochinese Federation. By dividing Indochina into its five constituent parts—Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchina, Cambodia, and Laos—decisions would be made by a consensus or a majority. This constitutional setup made no attempt to resolve the unequal population in the five areas. With the Cambodian and Laotian governments, who controlled the smallest populations, openly pro-French, and Tonkin and Annam being largely in Communist hands, Cochinchina would cast the deciding vote. Thus on June 1, 1946, the Autonomous Republic of Cochinchina was formed by pro-French politicians in Saigon with the backing of the French army. It was the brainchild—if that word could be used—of Georges-Thierry d’Argenlieu, the former French high commissioner to Indochina, and an implacable anticommunist and believer in France’s greatness. The aim was to undercut the Nationalist appeal of the DRV by making the Republic of Cochinchina its equal, constitutionally at any rate, and also preventing the French government in Paris from negotiating away the rights of the people of Cochinchina without their consent.

The French government was furious and refused to recognize the new entity. Instead Ho Chi Minh traveled to Paris to negotiate with the French government directly, but the government collapsed and its successor was even more right wing. Led by Georges Bidault, it refused to give any ground. Furthermore Ho Chi Minh, after having been left waiting in Biarritz, on the southwest Atlantic coast, then saw the conference moved to the old palace at Fontainebleau outside Paris, where it would receive less attention from possible demonstrators. Ho Chi Minh finally signed the Fontainebleau agreement with the minister of overseas France, which allowed for eventual French recognition of the DRV. In return, the French would be allowed to keep their soldiers in Vietnam but would progressively withdraw them over the next five years. For Cochinchina, the matter was left unresolved. It was at that meeting that Ho Chi Minh told the French minister that if war broke out, “You can kill ten of my men for every one of yours I kill, but even at these odds, you will lose, and 1 will win.” Ho Chi Minh returned to Hanoi where, confident that he had emerged triumphant, he purged his government of any non-Communists. In France he had also discovered that he could not rely on getting the support of French Communists, many of whom were passionately nationalist and supportive of the French colonial empire.

D’Argenlieu had not been idle during Ho’s absence. He had managed to get some of the DRV representatives to meet him at Dalat where he hoped to drive a wedge between Ho Chi Minh and the moderates in his government. Dr. Nguyen Van Thinh, who had been chosen as president of the provisional government of Cochinchina, however, was so traumatized by the political machinations that he committed suicide in November.

The French generals in Indochina suspected that the Paris politicians would try to leave Vietnam, and on November 20–23, in what became known as the Haiphong incident, the French bombarded parts of Haiphong causing massive Vietnamese casualties. There had been tension in Haiphong for some weeks before the incident, with Ho Chi Minh announcing that he would be opening a customs house in the city, in line with the Ho-Sainteny Agreement of March 1946. The matter of who collected customs dues had not been resolved by the Fontainebleau agreement. On the morning of November 20, a French patrol boat had tried to stop a Chinese junk smuggling contraband, and the Viet Minh moved in on the French, opening fire briefly and then arresting the three French customs officials. The dispute quickly escalated, with the Viet Minh and their supporters throwing up barricades in the city. In response the French sent their tanks into the streets. D’Argenlieu decided to make an example of the Communists and ordered the Viet Minh forces to withdraw. He also obtained permission to use artillery if the Viet Minh did not budge. On the morning of November 23, d’Argenlieu ordered a massive bombardment of the Haiphong port area from artillery, planes, and a French cruiser in the harbor. The Viet Minh returned fire but were helpless against the French barrage. At the time, the Viet Minh claimed that 20,000 people had been killed, while the French estimated the number at 6,000. In 1981, one of the Communist leaders told an American reporter, Stanley Karnow, that the number of deaths was more like 500 to 1,000. Whatever the exact number of casualties, however, the destruction of the port area was horrendous. Anti-French riots started soon afterward, but the French quickly put these down. On December 19, 1946, the Viet Minh attacked French bases in North Vietnam, marking the beginning of the First Indochina War.

Although there was a ceasefire on Christmas Day 1946, the fighting was bitter. Indeed when it began Ho Chi Minh barely escaped from the house in which he was staying in Hanoi. A small group of Viet Minh held up the French while the rest withdrew from the city. The war began with the French in control of all the cities of Vietnam, including Hanoi and Haiphong in the north, Hue in central Vietnam, and Saigon in the south. They also controlled much of the countryside of the south, and many of the rubber plantations along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border. By contrast the Communists were in control of the large rural areas in north and central Vietnam, the border region with China and the southernmost part of Vietnam—the swamp land around the Mekong Delta. This last area was going to become a major problem not just for the French, but for the Americans later on.

Throughout 1947, the French, armed with British and American war surplus from World War 11, and with a massively enlarged French Foreign Legion fought and captured much territory from the Viet Minh. The French, however, were in favor of the “Bao Dai” solution by which they hoped to create an independent South Vietnam to combat the view that the Indochina War was colonial in nature. In the first Ha Long Bay “agreement” in December 1946, and the second “agreement” in July 1947, Bao Dai believed that what the French were offering was inadequate. Both times he was tricked into accepting the agreements on a French cruiser in Ha Long Bay, off the coast of Vietnam. He was living in Hong Kong at the time, but both sides realized that for an agreement to be made, it had to be done in Vietnam, or at any rate in Vietnamese waters. Finally, in March 1949, the French president, Vincent Auriol, signed the Elysée Accords with a newly created Associated State of Vietnam (often known as the State of Vietnam) and also the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Kingdom of Laos. All achieved “demi-independence,” with France retaining control over foreign relations and defense. In Cambodia, this immediately undercut the Communist forces, but in Vietnam the reception was more mixed.

On June 13, 1949, Bao Dai became head of state of the Associated State of Vietnam, which was officially proclaimed on July 1 and was immediately recognized by France. The Americans and the British, however, held back recognition until February 1950. Whatever constitutional headway this created, the Associated State of Vietnam and the French army started to suffer major reverses on the battlefield. On September 21, 1949, the Chinese Communists won the Chinese Civil War, and on January 18, 1950, they formally recognized the DRV, offering it large supplies of weapons and logistical help. The Soviet Union formally recognized the DRV exactly a week later. It was probably these moves that forced British and American recognition of the Associated State of Vietnam.

The French now faced a military situation whereby the Vietnamese Communists could bring (and indeed did bring) large quantities of arms across the Vietnamese-Chinese border. As a result the French had to try to bolster their forces in this region. In February 1950, France officially requested U.S. aid to continue the war. This request was approved by U.S. President Harry S Truman on May 1, and $15 million was given to France. With the outbreak of the Korean War in June, it was not long before the U.S. government increased its aid to the French. The United States saw itself in a war against communism, and Ho Chi Minh, undoubtedly a communist, was portrayed by the French in as bad a light as they could.

In late 1950, the Viet Minh succeeded in destroying many of the French positions along the Vietnamese-Chinese border, but their attempt to incite an uprising in the Red River Delta in the following year failed. It seemed as though the French were unable to defeat the Viet Minh, but the Viet Minh did not have the power to launch an attack on many of the French positions. The French, trying to rally their flagging morale, appointed Jean de Lattre de Tassigny as their new commander-in-chief. He did inspire confidence for a while; he certainly was given more U.S. military aid. Bao Dai’s government, however, lacked much credibility with many Vietnamese. Bao Dai’s first prime minister, Nguyen Van Xuan, was a graduate of the French Ecole Polytechnique, and had spent most of his life in France. A French citizen, he is said to have spoken Vietnamese only falteringly. Few Saigon politicians trusted him. His son, Nguyen Van Hinh, was later made commander of Bao Dai’s army, but he, too, was a French citizen who carried no Nationalist credentials. Xuan’s successor was Nguyen Phan Long, a moderate reformist, but he lasted only two months before being replaced by Tran Van Huu, a wealthy landowner who held the post for two before he was also sacked. Both Long and Huu had tried to negotiate directly with the Americans and eliminate the French altogether. Both might have managed to increase the popularity of the Bao Dai government had they been allowed to continue their reforms. Huu’s successor, Nguyen Van Tam, had a reputation as a French “puppet,” but, to his credit, did try to promote land reform. He was voted out of office in January 1953. During this political infighting, General de Lattre managed to defeat two Viet Minh attacks, one in the Red River Delta and the other in Haiphong. De Lattre, however, lost his only son Bernard in an engagement that followed, and the general himself retired to France, succumbing to cancer a few months later.

By now many French people had become disenchanted by the war. De Lattre de Tassigny was replaced by Raoul Salan who adopted a cautious military policy, unlike his later actions in Algeria, after which he helped found the anti-Gaullist Secret Army Organisation (OAS) made famous in Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal (1971). In May 1953, under pressure from the Americans to launch a major blow against the Viet Minh, Salan was replaced by General Henri Navarre.

Navarre drew up his plan to win the war. Known as the Navarre Plan, it involved launching attacks on all the Viet Minh in central and southern Vietnam, and then, without any worry about being attacked there, have the French to concentrate their forces in the north. In a major military offensive in the spring or summer of 1954, he wanted to engage the Viet Minh in battle and destroy them. It was an ambitious plan but had support from the new Eisenhower administration in Washington, D.C. The U.S. government stepped up its aid and waited for the plan to bear fruit.

With the French finally going on the offensive, the Americans, and to a lesser extent the French, were having increasing doubts about the suitability of Bao Dai as a leader they should be backing. He was no longer the handsome playboy of the 1930s, but cut a rather plump figure, and the press was highlighting aspects of his corrupt lifestyle. He was not really interested in politics and preferred hunting and the nightlife. For the former, he wrote an introduction to Just Elephants, a book by a former hunting colleague, William Baze, which was published in London in 1955. In it he invited hunters to pursue the “noble sport” in Indochina. He certainly was a well-known figure in nightclubs in Hong Kong and Paris, as well as casinos in Cannes. He was paid a massive allowance by the French and used this to live relatively modestly within the country—his main luxuy was maintaining four aircraft—and stash most of the rest in Swiss and French banks. He knew that he was living on borrowed time and was preparing himself for many years in exile. In Saigon the Binh Xuyen, formerly a gang of river pirates, were in charge of the city’s police whom they used to curtail the activities of their rivals rather than stopping street crime. Drug taking and smuggling, prostitution, and gambling were rife; and it seemed as though the authorities were either unable to do anything about it, or, as most alleged, were actively involved in the illegal activities.

Compared with this corruption, Ho Chi Minh portrayed himself as incorruptible and living the life of an aesthete. He was certainly the latter and was popular with the peasants for his simple and uncondescending manner. Many politically conscious Vietnamese in Hanoi, Hue, and Saigon, however, questioned his political operations. When Ho Chi Minh was in a bad diplomatic or military position, he was all too ready to seem to compromise and introduce noncommunists into his government. This had happened several times already. As soon as he was in the diplomatic or military ascendancy, however, he was only too quick to purge them. Some, such as a former provincial governor, Ngo Dinh Khoi, along with his family, had been murdered in 1945. Many others had been assassinated by Viet Minh agents who roamed the lawless streets of Saigon picking off many of their opponents. A number of prominent Trotskyites had also been killed by the Viet Minh in Saigon in 1945.

The strength of Ho’s government lay in the loyalty of several men who would stay with him throughout the wars in Vietnam. Pham Van Dong was from a mandarin family from central Vietnam and attended the National Academy in Hue, moving to China where he became active with the Communists there and joined the Revolutionary Youth League in Canton. He then trained at the elite Whampoa Military Academy before returning to Vietnam where he became involved in anti-French activities, leading to his arrest and imprisonment from 1931 to 1936. He then worked with Ho Chi Minh, based in southern China, and was regarded as a loyal and moderate supporter of Ho, accompanying him to Paris in 1946. In 1941, he had been a founding member of the Viet Minh. The other two men who formed the Communist Party leadership with Ho Chi Minh were Le Duan and Truong Chinh. In addition, while Saigon politicians had to put up with dissenters and demonstrators, often with not very good grace, Ho Chi Minh’s position in charge of the Vietnamese Communist movement was unassailable.

The French soldiers were also criticized by the world’s press. The top echelon included highly trained and disciplined regular soldiers, officers who graduated from St. Cyrienne, and quite a number who could speak Vietnamese fluently. Bob Denard, later famous as a mercenary leader in Africa, served in the French Navy in the Mekong Delta. The French Foreign Legion, the toughest and roughest soldiers in the French army, were some of its most effective in battle. Evidence gradually began to emerge, however, that many had been recruited after World War II from the ranks of the disbanded German army, with the possibility that some could have been S.S. war criminals. Books such as George Elford’s Devil’s Guard (1971) portrayed this idea to the public. By contrast, contemporary books such as Ensio Tiira’s Raft of Despair(1954) paint a different picture of fairly simple men who were drawn into the hardship of the Foreign Legion and who, in the case of Tiira, almost died in their bid to escape. There was also a handful of British soldiers who served in the Foreign Legion. Henry Ainley; Colin John; and Adrian Liddell Hart, a former political journalist and son of the British writer Sir Basil Liddell Hart, all served in the Foreign Legion in Vietnam, and all three subsequently wrote their memoirs.

There were also many African soldiers from France’s colonial empire who served in Vietnam including Jean-Bedel Bokassa, later emperor of the Central African Empire; Christophe Soglo, later president of Dahomey; Saye Zerbo, later president of Upper Volta; and Mohammed Oufkir, later Moroccan defense minister, executed in 1972 after a failed assassination attempt on King Hassan II of Morocco. While he was in Vietnam, Bokassa, later to rise to infamy for his lavish lifestyle in his impoverished country, fathered a Vietnamese child. In 1970, when Bokassa was at the height of his power, the girl, Martine, and her mother contacted him and he acknowledged his paternity, bringing both of them to Bangui.

The French, their Foreign Legion, and the Africans, however, constituted a minority of the soldiers the French were able to field. Most of their army was made up of Vietnamese—the Army of the State of Vietnam. These were Vietnamese who were trained by the French as an anticommunist corps to fight against the Viet Minh. Most of their officers were drawn from elite families.

Many of the rank and file were from peasant backgrounds. Although they formed a large, well-disciplined, and reliable force, the French command did not trust them and was worried that they might have split loyalties in battle, leaving most of them in garrison duties. Gradually as French losses mounted, they increased the number of Vietnamese soldiers. They called this process jaunissement (yellowing) in the same way that Richard Nixon in 1969 would refer to it as “Vietnamization.” Against these soldiers, the Viet Minh was drawn from peasant farmers many of whom had family traditions of fighting the French and other foreign powers. They knew the terrain, many operating in and around their native villages, worked for little or no pay, and survived with little materiel.

As Navarre’s plan started to bear fruit, the Viet Minh tried different tactics. While the French were anxious to pin them down, the Viet Minh decided to spread the area of conflict. The easiest way this could be done was to send soldiers into Laos and draw the French away. Because the Laotian government was a staunch ally of the French, the French authorities would feel that they had to protect them. In 1953, Viet Minh soldiers passed through a village called Muong Thanh, in the valley of Dien Bien Phu, and entered Laos. On November 20, the French, determined to prevent this from happening again, sent in soldiers to hold Dien Bien Phu. Worried about an attack, they expanded the fortifications they built, and gradually the French came up with a new plan.

This new strategy, “Operation Castor,” involved constructing a massive base at Dien Bien Phu, which would then act as a magnet, forcing the Viet Minh to attack it. They would make Dien Bien Phu an irresistible target for the Communists and this would allow the French to use their firepower and aircraft. As the place was so remote, the French gambled that the Viet Minh would never be able to bring enough soldiers to the battle. Even if they did outnumber the French, the French and their Vietnamese allied soldiers would be in concrete bunkers defended with the best artillery in the world, and the Viet Minh would, so the French thought, be unable to bring large guns themselves. It was an offer that the Viet Minh commander, General Giap, was not going to refuse. He also decided to gamble on being able to defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu.

In early 1954, the Great Powers met in Berlin, Germany, and decided to hold a conference in Geneva to try to resolve the Korean War and the Indochina War. The French, the British, the Americans, the Soviet Union, and the Communist Chinese would all be represented. Both the French and the Viet Minh realized that the outcome of this peace conference might be decided at Dien Bien Phu and prepared accordingly.

General Vo Nguyen Giap was born into a peasant family but had managed to get a scholarship to attend the National Academy at Hue. At school during the 1920s, he had become interested in nationalist politics and was expelled from the school for taking part in demonstrations after the death of Phan Chu Trinh in 1926. He joined the Indochina Communist Party in 1930 and was imprisoned for two years, after which he studied law at the University of Hanoi. During World War 11 he emerged as the military commander of the Vietnamese Communists and became defense minister of the DRV. His wife had died in a French prison, after being arrested for pro-Communist activities. Hailed as one of the greatest generals in the twentieth century, in an interview in the 1980s he said “there is only one rule in war, and that is, you must win.” At Dien Bien Phu he was to risk his entire army for an opportunity to defeat the French and end the Indochina War.

France was in a dangerous state of political flux. The French had suffered about 100,000 casualties, dead, wounded, missing, and captured. Opposition to the war was mounting. There were even a small number of Frenchmen who served with the Viet Minh, known as Les Blancs Viet Minh, nine being killed in combat. And the Viet Minh also had some supporters in France, although these were still a heavily marginalized minority. On the extreme left was a lawyer who was just about to become a member of the Paris Bar. Secretary of the International Union of Students Jacques Verges had managed to recruit several leftwing Cambodians to the communist cause, and would himself become famous many years later as the defense lawyer for Carlos “the Jackal” and numerous other infamous clients. His father was French from Réunion, and his mother was Vietnamese. When he was defending the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie many years later, he shouted at a witness “my mother didn’t have to wear a yellow star—she was yellow from her head to her toes.” It was a bitter exchange emanating from a man who suffered racist taunts during the Indochina War that were to haunt him for years to come.

Many French people had begun to have misgivings about the war in 1952. Problems were brewing in Madagascar, Morocco, and Algeria. Some, including a number of French army officers, thought it impossible to wage effective wars in Indochina and in Algeria. With northern Algeria being a part of France, not a colony, and 900,000 Europeans living there, they were more anxious to hold onto North Africa than to Vietnam. Socialist Pierre Mendès-France, a maverick, criticized the escalating cost of the war, which he saw as eating into the money France could otherwise have spent at home and in defense in Europe. Even some Americans saw France’s commitment to Indochina as seriously challenging her ability to be a dependable member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

French nationalists saw these factors as ploys to divert the attention of the French people from events in Indochina. They argued that France had a commitment to protect the non-Communist Indochinese from the Viet Minh. Laos and Cambodia had gained their independence on October 23, 1953, and November 9, 1953, respectively, and the governments of both countries supported the French and did not want the French to withdraw. The Vietnamese elite and many of the middle class in Saigon were terrified of a Communist victory, although large numbers were disparaging about Bao Dai. And then there were the French commercial interests.

Jean-Robert-Maurice Bonnin de la Bonninière, Comte de Beaumont, from a family ennobled during the reign of King Charles X, France’s most reactionary king, ran the Sennah Rubber Company Ltd and the Compagnie du Cambodge, which controlled many of the rubber estates in southern Vietnam and Cambodia. A multimillionaire, he had worked as a journalist in Saigon and had been elected to the Assembly of the French Union for Cochinchina, a provision of the Elysée Accords. A member of the board of directors of many banks, and a keen hunter of big game, strictly speaking he was one of the elected representatives of southern Vietnam. When Cambodia had gained her independence, the new government there had undertaken to respect all French private and government property in the country. He wanted the same outcome, with suitable guarantees, for Vietnam; but he knew that Ho Chi Minh would not be interested in such undertakings, much less carry any of them out. Beaumont was prominent in the lobbying against a French withdrawal and had powerful business and social friends on whom he could call. After the French withdrew, he concentrated his interests in Cambodia and was a member and then honorary member of the International Olympic Committee from 1951 until his death in 2002 at the age of 98.

Thus there was much at stake when the Viet Minh met the French at Dien Bien Phu. General Navarre chose as his commander Colonel Christian Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries, age 52, a lifetime soldier whose ancestors had fought since the Crusades and some of whom had served with Lafayette in the American Revolution. He was in the French international riding championship team from 1927 until 1939, holding two world championships (the high jump in 1933 and the broad jump two years later), and a daredevil pilot, with a string of girlfriends—and many brushes with outraged husbands—and a longer list of gambling debts. He was a tough commander, however, who had fought in Indochina since 1945, and Navarre knew he would do his best. His deputy was Colonel Charles Piroth, a one-armed artillery commander, who realized that the battle would probably be won or lost by the artillery.

The strategy adopted by the French was to entice the Viet Minh into attacking them at Dien Bien Phu. This would give the French the advantage of their concrete defenses in the center of the valley around the now-deserted village of Muong Thanh. They regarded their fortifications as impregnable. To help, they had also constructed three artillery bases on nearby hills. Gabrielle was located far to the north, with Huguette and Anne-Marie just north of the main base. Béatrice stood astride the main road to the northeast, with Françoise, Claudine, Marcelle, and Elaine to the south. Dominique and Elaine guarded the east. Isabelle was far to the south protecting an auxiliary airstrip. These were allegedly named after girlfriends of de Castries and would, according to French plans, draw away the Viet Minh.

General Giap spent months studying the dispositions at Dien Bien Phu and decided that if he was to take the fort, he would have to attack Gabrielle and Béatrice first. These were to the north of Dien Bien Phu. Isabelle was too far south to have to worry about, and also, he thought, too far away to give artillery support to the other French bases. The Viet Minh moved into position over a three-month period. The French had 13,000 men; Giap soon had 50,000 at his disposal, and another 20,000 securing his supply lines. During the three months of preparation, large numbers of Viet Minh and local villagers, some willing, others forced, built roads for the Communists to bring their weapons to the battle zone. Large artillery pieces were literally hauled up the side of mountains, and when all was in position, Giap gave the order to attack.

The Viet Minh attack started on the afternoon of March 13, 1954. He brought his guns to bear on Béatrice, which fell quickly. This allowed Giap to bring his own artillery within range of the main base, and he then turned to Isabelle. There the Foreign Legionnaires were bombarded and at 8 p.m. it was clear that ammunition was running low. The men were then instructed to use as little ammunition as possible until 9:30 p.m. At that time those still capable of the final effort fixed bayonets and shouted “Vive la Légion,” charged at the Viet Minh machine gun positions, and were wiped out to a man. On March 14, Piroth, the deputy commander of the French garrison, shot himself. Much of his artillery had been destroyed and he said before he died that he was dishonored.

Although the Viet Minh were able to make rapid advances, they were not as fast as Giap had hoped. A direct Viet Minh “human wave” attack on the central French positions was repulsed. Giap then changed his entire plan, drawing back his artillery and getting his soldiers to dig trenches, and then surround Dien Bien Phu, laying siege to it and gradually building more trenches to narrow the “noose.”

The Viet Minh artillery then started bombarding the French bases again, and French planes bringing supplies had to fly so high to avoid antiaircraft fire that some of the materiel they were dropping by parachute started landing in Viet Minh hands. On March 20, news of the possible fall of Dien Bien Phu reached the U.S. capitol. There U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was shocked and heard plans drawn up by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Arthur Radford that he could use planes to bomb the Viet Minh bases. The raid would involve using between 60 and 98 B-29 heavy bombers, with an escort of 450 fighter aircraft in case the Chinese decided to intercept. There was even mention of using battlefield nuclear bombs to totally destroy the Communist bases, as well as sending in paratroopers elsewhere in Vietnam and mining Haiphong harbor for good measure. On March 25, the National Security Council approved the Radford Plan, and on April 7, at a news conference when discussing Dien Bien Phu, President Eisenhower used the analogy “You have a row of dominoes set up, and you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.” This later became developed into the “Domino Theory” that came to dominate U.S. policy thinking during the Cold War.

Although the U.S. government supported the Radford Plan, Eisenhower was not keen on escalating the conflict or using nuclear weapons without consulting the British. On April 24, Radford and Dulles met Anthony Eden, the British foreign minister, in Paris. They said that Eisenhower would be asking Congress for a joint resolution to approve U.S. air strikes, with no mention of nuclear escalation. Eden told them that he was against escalating the war, but promised to relay their request to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill had worked with Eisenhower in the last years of World War 11, and the two respected each other’s judgment. Churchill was unimpressed by the Radford Plan and claimed that the U.S. idea would involve misleading Congress. He refused British support for a U.S. nuclear strike, which might have been the only way of saving the day for the French.

On April 26, 1954, the Far Eastern Conference began in Geneva, with discussion of Korea. It was scheduled to start discussions on Vietnam on May 8, and on the days leading up to this, the Viet Minh redoubled their efforts to try to take the French base. Finally on May 7, the Viet Minh managed to capture General de Castries’s headquarters at Dien Bien Phu, and the French surrendered. It was a humiliating defeat for the French, with 15,000 French and colonial soldiers killed or taken prisoner, even though the Viet Minh lost 25,000 men and women.

When the Far Eastern Conference in Geneva turned to discuss Indochina on May 8, John Foster Dulles paid tribute to the French at Dien Bien Phu stating that they had lost “after a heroic defense.” For the U.S. delegation the conference had not gone well. It was the first time that the People’s Republic of China had representation at any conference involving the Great Powers; their enemies, the Republic of China (Taiwan), held the United Nations seat until October 1971. Dulles refused to shake hands with the Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai and left Geneva after a week.

With neither side able to agree about what to do in Vietnam, the Chinese took over the negotiations. They and the Soviet delegation were worried that if the conference was not able to resolve anything, the war might intensify, and the United States might want to become involved; and this might lead to a Communist defeat. Also, they feared that the French might pull out of the talks and try to take the military offensive. Pressure mounted when, on June 17, Pierre Mendès-France, the new prime minister of France, declared that he would resign if he could not obtain a ceasefire in Indochina by July 20. It was clear that the only way to get a ceasefire would be a partition of Vietnam. As the deadline approached, two major issues were outstanding: the exact boundary between the DRV and the State of Vietnam, and the length of time before a referendum would be held to decide Vietnam’s future. In Korea, the 1945 partition along the 38th parallel had proven unworkable, and in Vietnam it was finally decided to partition the country along the Ben Hai River, although most commentators wrote that the partition was along the 17th parallel.

As to the referendum on the possible unification of Vietnam, the Communists had wanted it to be held within six months. This would give them an advantage, as Ho Chi Minh was far more popular than Bao Dai, and six months would not allow enough time for a new non-Communist leader to emerge to establish himself. Even Eisenhower admitted in his memoirs that an open election in Vietnam would lead to a Communist victory. As a result, the anti-Communists—the delegations of the State of Vietnam and the United States—wanted an election in five years. The eventual compromise, on the night of July 20–21—Mendès-France’s deadline—was for a referendum to be held in two years. The delegations of the State of Vietnam and the United States both accepted the delineation of the border but refused to agree to the deadline for the referendum, with neither signing the agreement.

Thus the First Indochina War ended with the Communists having won on the battlefield, but managing to get control of less than half the country. The French had to evacuate Hanoi, along with their other bases and settlements in the north, but the anti-Communists kept control of Hue, with the Communists having to pull out their supporters in the pro-Communist areas of central Vietnam. It was agreed that people who wished to move from one area had six months to do so. An International Control Commission consisting of Canadians, Indians, and Poles would monitor the Geneva Agreement.