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The Origins of the War

Danny O'Hara

Most people associate war in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina with the USA, but that was the Second Indochina War. The first was fought between the communist/nationalist guerrillas of the Viet Minh, and the French colonial army. So forget your hamburgers, M16s and Jimi Hendrix - this is that earlier war, with croissants, MAS rifles and Charles Trénet. Always watch your supply lines, and Vive La France !

Pre-WW2 Indochina - The Extraordinary Garden

By the mid nineteenth century, the European maritime powers were busy carving up Asia. Britain, Holland, Portugal and Spain had all grabbed ports, islands and mainland holdings with a fervour similar to feeding sharks. But France, having lost her claim on India at the Battle of Plassey, and with her naval might destroyed in the Napoleonic Wars, lagged seriously behind. 

By the 1850s, the only South-East Asian states not under colonial rule were Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Siam (Thailand). The French had long been expending great effort on missionary activity in Vietnam particularly, and when it was decided to develop an eastern colony this country looked to be a prize for the taking. Using pretexes of defending Indochinese Catholics against native repression, the French gradually seized Saigon and its surrounds (in 1859), Cambodia (which became a "protectorate" in 1863), the rest of Cochinchina (1867), Annam (1883), Tonkin (1883) and Laos (which became a "protectorate" in 1893). The French instituted one of the most severe of colonial regimes, with the peasantry ground into the dirt with draconian taxes (for example, alcohol was heavily taxed but each village was forced to buy a certain quota of government-produced alcohol yearly!). Any sign of rebellion was savagely crushed, and the fearsome Sureté (secret police) was apt to drag off nationalist sympathisers at the slightest provocation. The island of Poulo Condore (Can Dao) became the largest prison in Asia, and later a veritable Viet Minh university! 

Apart from providing French colonists with rich pickings from trade in rubber, rice, tea, coffee and coal, the colonies were also the home of the 5e Régiment Étranger d'Infanterie (5 REI - the 5th Foreign Legion Regiment). This unit was composed entirely of long-service legionnaires with impeccable service records, and was regarded as a posting to paradise for these veterans. Many married local girls, and formed one of the few real links between native Indochinese and French/European populations. 

But while Indochina may have seemed a paradise to the Europeans, it was very much a hell for many of the natives. Driven into debt by taxation, impoverished peasants were forced to pay taxes in kind as slave labour on government works. Some of the native educated class (most of which worked for the French) became active in anti-colonial work, which usually resulted in swift imprisonment or execution, but some of these men did establish some nationalist organisations in the country - particularly the mountainous districts. But many were forced to flee abroad to preach their beliefs and build up support. 

The Japanese Interlude: WW2 in Indochina

With the fall of France in 1940, Indochina was internationally isolated, and largely left to her own devices by the Petain regime. The Japanese, realising the weakness of the French colony, pressurised the administration into granting various concessions (all aimed at aiding the Japanese war effort in China). This involved a steadily increasing Japanese military presence in Indochina, while the French were also fighting native uprisings in the Mekong Delta and a *Thai assault on Cambodia*

Initially, the Japanese kept the French administration in place as a "puppet" regime, and the French Sureté in particular clamped down even harder on any sign of rebellion/dissent in the native population. But eventually, in 1945, the Japanese took total control over Indochina. There was some resistance (particularly from 5 REI), but generally the French and Indochinese troops were quickly overcome and disarmed/interned. When the Chinese invaded Tonkin, and the British took Annam and Cochinchine, the Allies decided to give Indochina back to the French. The main problem was what to do with the various nationalist/communist groups which had fought against the Japanese, and now wanted their independence... 

The Anti-Japanese Guerrillas

The main anti-Japanese organisation was the nationalist/communist group controlled by Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnam Doc-Lap Dong Minh Hoi ("Revolutionary League for the Independence of Vietnam", or Vietminh). This organisation was founded in 1941, but Ho Chi Minh had been active in nationalist and socialist politics well before that. He was the Comintern representative in Vietnam in 1930, and founded the Communist Party of Indochina in 1930. During the 1930s, a strong Nationalist Party had grown up in Vietnam, but with the ruthless crushing of this by the French authorities the way was open for communists such as "Nguyen the Patriot" (later Ho Chi Minh) to take control of the anti-colonial movement. After the defeat of France in 1940, and the obvious control of Indochina by Japan, these nationalists/communists saw that a great opportunity was presenting itself. 

Acting against the Japanese, the Vietminh under Ho received support from the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS - the forerunner of the CIA). In return, they rescued downed Allied aircrew, gave information on Japanese movements and harried the Japanese. When Japan surrendered, and the garrisons in Indochina went into barracks, Ho Chi Minh thought that his moment had come. With an apparently friendly USA, and no real French presence in the area, he assumed that he could set up an independent Vietnam with US support. But he was wrong... 

The Post-War Arrangements

After the Japanese surrender, Indochina was split by the Allies into two zones - north and south of the 16th parallel. The Chinese would occupy the north, and the British would control the south. Both powers were to stabilise their areas and remove the Japanese, preparatory to the French return. In other words, once the Japanese were out of the way it was to be "business as usual" for this French colony. But things did not quite turn out as expected. 

After the Japanese surrender, Ho had moved his troops into Hanoi and set up a provisional government. But with the Chinese invasion this was swept away. In the south, riots had broken out, and in Saigon the British Commander (General Gracey) declared martial law (using liberated French soldiers and rearmed Japanese POWs to supplement his limited forces). The nationalists in the south were quickly dispersed and disarmed by the British and their "allies", but in the north the rebels merely went underground. The Chinese ran Tonkin like bandit chiefs, and were more interested in harvesting opium than disarming/fighting nationalists. The Vietminh bided their time, attempting to negotiate with the Chinese. As it was looking like the French would only regain Annam and Cochinchine (from the British), Ho did not initially consider dealing with the French. But, once he realised that the French wanted to regain the whole country, and that they were the only power able to shift the Chinese, he opened negotiations with his old enemies. After all, he recognised that while a Chinese administration had an almost inexhaustible supply of troops immediately available - France lay on the other side of the world, and should be amenable to negotiations. Thus he signed an agreement with the Chinese and French on 6th March 1946 that Tonkin would become a self-governing nation, but a part of the Indochinese Federation and French Union. The French would have control of foreign policy, and be allowed to station 16,000 troops in Tonkin for up to 6 years, and the Chinese stipulated free elections to form the Tonkinese government (hoping thereby to get some anti-communist nationalists into Ho's parliament). The French also agreed to pull out of Shanghai and other concessions in China. It was a defeat for Ho - a form of self-government, but at such a cost. The elections did return a predominantly Vietminh parliament, and Ho remained a popular figure in Tonkin, but there was still the problem of the French... 

Haiphong and Beyond

While in the north there was a dual-control between the Vietminh and French, in the south the returning colonial power (helped by the British pacification program) had taken back Annam and Cochinchine (though there were many areas of rebellion in the Delta, as ever). In the north the French and Vietminh raced to gain control of cities and towns, and the Viets were disturbed when the French built up their old naval base at Haiphong - it looked like they were prepared to send in more than 16,000 troops. It was during this time that the VM carried out two programs of their own, under the control of the new Interior Minister, Vo Nguyen Giap. Firstly, they organised their troops into three levels; the first were the village militias (usually just a few in each village) who were to provide material and military support to local actions by the regional forces, who were mainly part-time fighters who acted locally but maintained full-time cadres and also acted as support for the regulars or Chuc luc who were based in either the Viet Bac (an area of jungle and mountains north-west of Hanoi) or to the south of the Red River at the junction of Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces. The second measure was to eliminate non-communist nationalist figures in a series of high-profile executions/assassinations. 

While Ho pushed for total independence for Vietnam, the French held that it was a colony. In fact, they regarded the March agreement as merely a method of getting the Chinese out of Tonkin, while keeping the Vietminh quiet as they reasserted their control. Despite fruitless meetings between representatives of the two sides, tension escalated until things came to a head in November 1946. 

A French patrol craft had seized a Chinese junk loaded with weapons, and was returning to Haiphong when she was in turn seized by the VM. Fighting then broke out between the two forces in Haiphong, and a truce was called - during which the French demanded that all VM forces be removed from the city and its environs. They immediately began shelling the city, causing large numbers of casualties to VM and civilians, and a cease-fire was quickly signed. However, Giap then launched a surprise attack on Hanoi in December and called for a popular rising against the French. Ho Chi Minh made a similar broadcast two days later, and fighting erupted throughout Tonkin. The Indochina War had started... 

The Early Days

With only limited forces available in Vietnam, the French were initially hard-pressed by the VM, but as reinforcements for the CEFEO ("Corps Expéditionnaire Français d'Extrême-Orient" - French Far-Eastern Expeditionary Corps) they gained at least a semblance of control over the major cities and towns. Early in 1947, armoured columns opened up the major roads (or "Routes Coloniale" - RCs), and the VM fled back to the Viet Bac and other bases. The French were confident that they had dispersed these hill-bandits for good. But in fact, while the VM would melt away from major French forces and attempt to avoid combat with these, they could close the roads at will, and pick off small units or French civilians by surprise attacks, often at night. Not for the first time, the French underestimated the strength and resolve of their opponents. 

The real problem for the French was that they were a conventional army, trained and equipped to fight a war like WW2. But this was not the case in Indochina. The VM were an evasive foe. They would appear from nowhere and destroy an isolated unit, but could never be brought to battle by forces which might defeat them. There were no obvious bases or other strategic targets, and the French staff planners had nothing to aim at. Also, with significant French and friendly Indochinese populations in the towns and cities, the CEFEO must keep garrisons to prevent VM attacks on these civilians. But this meant that the villages had to be abandoned to the VM. This allowed the VM to move freely at night, and gave them sources of supply. It also meant that if the villagers were friendly to the French, then the VM would exact reprisals eventually. In all, this gave the French at least partial control of the main settlements and RCs by day, but little power in the countryside or by night. 

But, in 1947 when the VM were still weak (there had been only 5,000 of them in 1946 when the French returned), they were repulsed by the CEFEO and fell back into the Viet Bac to a base around the village of Bac Kan. Here was situated the transmitter for the "Voice of Vietnam" radio, and both Ho and Giap were thought to be there. It was an opportunity too good for the French command to miss, and so a three-pronged assault on Bac Kan was ordered, to be called Operation Léa. This would consist of an initial drop by two battalions of paras on the village and bridges/passes in its environs, with two supporting columns advancing to converge on the target area. The first was a column of armour, mechanised and motorised infantry, and artillery, advancing through the mountains along RC4 from Lang Son, while the second was an infantry and artillery force coming by boat along the Clear River. In many ways, this was an Indochina version of "Market Garden", and - like the British at Arnhem - the French paras were rapidly cut off behind enemy lines and forced onto the defensive. This war was not turning out to be so easy for the returning French...

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