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The French in Vietnam

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam that Ho Chi Minh had declared independent on 2 September 1945 encompassed the whole of Vietnam. Ten days later, British troops arrived in Saigon to receive a surrender there from the Japanese. In early October 80,000 French troops arrived at Saigon with orders from the chairman of France's provisional government, Charles de Gaulle, to stay in the southern half of Vietnam. The French tried to be friendly with Ho and win his acceptance of a compromise. In May 1946, France's commissioner in Vietnam, Admiral Thierry d'Angenlieu, proclaimed northern Vietnam for Ho and the Viet Minh and proclaimed south Vietnam as the "Provisional Republic of Cochin China." The Vietnamese felt they were being betrayed, and talks between Ho and the French broke down.

On 1 August 1946, President Truman spoke to the citizens of the United States by radio and announced his support for a free and independent Vietnam. It disturbed some in his administration who viewed the restoration of French rule in Indochina as helpful in gaining support from France's new provisional government against an increasingly belligerent Soviet Union.

Ho Chi Minh and President Bidault

Ho Chi Minh with French leader Georges Bidault in 1946 (A photo from academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu.)

In November, the French tried to seize the custom's office at the port of Haiphong, near Hanoi. In December, French naval units, claiming that they had been attacked, bombarded Haiphong, killing 6,000. Ho warned the French that "for every ten men that you kill, we will kill one of yours. It is you who will have to give up in the end."

Into the late 1940s the French drew militarily from its colonies: soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, sub-Saharan Africa, from the minority of Vietnamese who supported the French, from Vietnam's ethnic minorities and from Laos and Cambodia. The French employed their Foreign Legion – mercenaries of European descent. And the French requested and received US help in funding and equipment, including tanks, the French benefiting from the Cold War. By the end of 1950, the US was paying half of the expense of France's effort in Vietnam. The French did recruit conscripts in France for their war in Vietnam, in order to keep the war from becoming more unpopular at home than it was – a war being called the "dirty war" (la sale guerre) by France's communists and leftist intellectuals, including Jean Paul Sartre.

On 8 March, 1949, France recognized what it called the State of Vietnam as an independent country ruled by Emperor Bao Dai. The "National Army of Vietnam" was created shortly after that, commanded by General Hinh, an admirer of the Emperor. With them were members of Vietnam's Catholic minority. The French had given Vietnamese loyal to their faith preferential treatment in government posts, education, and the church tracts of land, and there were Catholics who chose to support the French against the Viet Minh.

In late 1950, as China was sending troops into North Korea, the Viet Minh destroyed French forts near the border with China. The fighting dragged on for a couple of years, with the French benefiting from air power, the dropping of napalm, air mobility and paratroopers. The Viet Minh had the desire of a broad spectrum of the Vietnamese population willing to fight to rid their country of foreign rule, and with this the French effort in Vietnam was deteriorating.

This, with pressure from Cambodia, led to the French granting full independence to neighboring Cambodia. In March 1953, Cambodia's king, Sihanouk, went to Paris and advised the French that if they did not grant Cambodia full independence that Cambodians would turn to the guerrilla movement that had arisen. Militarily, the French were in so much trouble by July that on July 3 they declared themselves ready to grant full independence to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. King Sihanouk became a hero in the eyes of his fellow Cambodians and returned to Phnom Penh in triumph. Independence became official on November 9, 1953.

Pierre Mendes-France

Pierre Mendès-France, prime minister beginning 18 June, '54.

France had already given semi-autonomy within the French Union, and as for independence for Vietnam, rather than negotiations with the Viet Minh, the French continued to fight to protect what they considered their interests in Vietnam. The focus of the war was in the extreme northwest of Vietnam, in the province of Dien Bien – a breadbasket area for the Vietnamese. At the village of Dien Bien Phu near the border with Laos, the French concentrated their major force, aimed at cutting off Viet Minh supply lines to Laos. The Viet Minh isolated the French force, forcing the French to rely on air drops for supplies. The U.S., meanwhile, had delivered ten more B-26 aircraft and had assigned 200 U.S. aircraft mechanics to maintain the American B-26s and C-47s. It did not save the situation at Dien Bien Phu for the French. The Viet Minh occupied the highlands around Dien Bien Phu and were able to shell the French with accuracy. The Viet Minh had arisen from guerrilla warfare to confronting the French in pitched battle.

Sensing impending disaster, the French requested armed intervention from the U.S. Seventh Fleet. On April 24, 1954, Secretary of State Dulles told President Eisenhower that Paris was begging for air cover from carriers belonging to the U.S. Seventh Fleet. But his help would not be forthcoming. Eisenhower was not happy about France's colonial agenda. And Eisenhower was also upset with the French for having put themselves in the kind of isolated position in Vietnam that common military historians recognize as a blunder. Also it was deemed necessary to get congressional approval for the U.S. to enter the war as the French requested. And in Britain, Churchill's government did not approve. On April 26 the Geneva Conference convened, chaired by Britain and the Soviet Union, for the purpose of settling the conflict in Vietnam.

Geneva Conference, 1954

The Geneva Conference. Enlargement of Geneva Conference, 1954

On May 7, the Viet Minh overran the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu. A French commander radioed French headquarters in Hanoi that they were fighting to the finish. He was answered: "Well understood. You will fight to the end. It is out of the question to run up the white flag after your heroic resistance." (Time Magazine, May 17, 1954.)

During the 55 days of warfare at Dien Bien Phu, the French lost around 3,000 killed and 8,000 wounded. The Viet Minh suffered 8,000 dead and 12,000 wounded.

On May 8, the Viet Minh counted 11,721 prisoners whom they had taken. Of these prisoners, 4,436 were wounded. Able bodied soldiers were force-marched over 250 miles to prison camps, and hundreds died of disease along the way. The Red Cross arrived and evacuated 858 of the prisoners. The surviving prisoners were starved, beaten, and heaped with abuse, and many died. Only 3,290 prisoners were officially repatriated four months later.

In the wake of France's defeat at Dien Bien Phu, France's prime minister, Joseph Laniel, in June, resigned. On June 19 a new government was formed by Mendès-France, who wanted to give priority to economic expansion, considered empire a liability and favored total withdrawal from Indochina. The war in Vietnam was unpopular in France, and when Mendès-France offered Parliament a choice between supporting him at the Geneva negotiations or sending conscripts to Southeast Asia, they voted 471 to 14 to support his ending the war. Opposition to the war's end was led by Roman Catholics concerned about leaving Vietnam's Catholics to communism. And there were those on the political right who were outraged by their country's withdrawal. They heaped verbal abuse on Mendès-France, some calling attention to his being a Jew.

Operation Passage to Freedom

Operation Passage to Freedom

At the Geneva Conference the Viet Minh was reluctant to accept dividing the country between north and south at the 17th parallel., But arguments by China's Zhou En-lai moved them to acceptance. The agreement held that the French were to remain in the southern half temporarily. "Emperor" Bao Dai was to remain as President in the South and Ngo Dien Diem, a Catholic, was to be his prime minister until elections in 1956 that were supposed to re-unite the country. In the interim, French forces were to withdraw from the North and Viet Minh forces from the South. Laos was acknowledged as fully independent. The Viet Minh agreed to recognize the independence of Cambodia and it withdrew its forces from there and from Laos. An International Control Commission was set up to oversee the implementation of the Geneva Accords, consisting of commissioners from India, Canada, and Poland. The Accords were signed on July 21, 1954.

By now there had been the Korean War (1950 to 1953) and hostility to Communism was big in the United States. There was a 300-day period in which people in Vietnam were allowed passage between the southern and northern zones. A move was underway for another political divide – as on the Korean Peninsula and the Indian sub-continent. The Eisenhower administration directed the US Navy to help the French transport Vietnamese civilians and soldiers from the northern zone to the southern zone. The southern zone was described as a part of the "free world" and Catholics in the northern zone were offered an escape from what was described as communist oppression, and according to Wikipedia around 60% of the north's 1 million Catholics obliged. note71


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