FRENCH INDOCHINA WAR (1946-54)

FRENCH INDOCHINA WAR (1946-54)

At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh, as leader of the Viet Minh, declared Vietnam’s independence in a speech that invoked the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. In August 1945, after the Japanese surrendered, the Viet Minh quickly took control of northern Vietnam and captured Saigon, where their hold on power was much more shaky. The French quickly reasserted control over Saigon and by 1946 they had managed to regain control of Vietnam, at least in name. Clashes between the Viet Minh and the French following World War II grew into the French Indochina War (1946–54)—also known as the First Indochina War and the Franco-Viet Minh War, and to the Vietnamese as the War of Resistance.

When the French shelled Haiphong in November 1946, because of an obscure custom dispute, killing of thousands of civilians, the Viet Minh decided enough was enough. With weeks fighting broke out in Hanoi, marking the start of the French Indochina War. Ho Chi Minh and his forces fled to the mountains, where they would remain for the next eight years. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The guerilla war lasted for seven years until 1954 and ended on May 7, 1954, when Vietnamese forces defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, thus ending France’s hundred or so involvement in Vietnam. The 1954 Geneva Conference that followed produced a peace treaty and left Vietnam a divided nation, with Ho Chi Minh's communist government ruling the North from Hanoi and Ngo Dinh Diem's regime, supported by the United States, ruling the South from Saigon (later Ho Chi Minh City).

By some estimates the French lost 55,000 men—nearly as many as the 58,000 Americans lost in the Vietnam War—and the French and the Americans each spent about $2.7 billion on the war, a lot of money in those days. The New York Times reported in 2013: "About 94,000 French troops died in the war to keep Vietnam, and the struggle for independence killed, by conservative estimates, about 300,000 Vietnamese fighters." In the spring of 1956, the last French soldier departed from Vietnam. After that the United States increased its military and economic aid and deployed intelligence operatives to advise the fragile regime in South Vietnam on how to counter a growing Viet Minh insurgency.

Bernard B. Fall was a prominent war correspondent, historian, political scientist, and expert on Indochina during the 1950s and 1960s. Hell in a Very Small Place is Fall’s classic account of the Siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Street Without Joy Book is Fall’s account of the French War in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Politics and Geopolitics Behind the French Indochina War

The Viet Minh formed an alliance with Communist groups in the south after Bao Dai's abdication in August 1945. Ho Chi Minh’s efforts before the war were directed primarily at conciliating both the French themselves and the militantly anti-French members in the leadership of his party, the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). One of Ho Chi Minh’s first moves as leader was to launch an assassination campaign against the non-Communist Vietnamese nationalists in 1946 that throughly destroyed the movement and cemented his legitimacy as the flag bearer of the nationalist cause.

The French were aided by the British, nationalist Chinese, the Americans and even the Japanese as they tried to reclaim their pre-World War II empire and reestablish control of the government of Vietnam by force. As General Phillipe Leclerc put it, "We have come to reclaim our inheritance."

In his book "Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam," Fredrik Logevall wrote that French leader Charles de Gaulle "spoke of the cohesion, the unbreakable bond, between metropolitan France and her overseas territories" while President Franklin Roosevelt hoped II "to promote Indochina’s development toward independence under a degree of international supervision" in the aftermath of World War II. [Source: Gordon Goldstein, Washington Post, September 28, 2012 :::]

Gordon Goldstein wrote in the Washington Post, "History followed a different path. Roosevelt died, succeeded by Harry Truman. U.S. tensions with the Soviet Union mounted, altering the geopolitical equation. And France, an indispensible American ally in Europe, demanded the restoration of its position in Indochina. The United States acquiesced." Truman ignored pleas for help from Ho Chi Minh for help and supported the French. "Ho Chi Minh quoted the United States Declaration of Independence and wrote eight letters to U.S. President Truman, asking him for support. In 1919, he tried unsuccessfully in Paris to hand U.S. President Woodrow Wilson a list of French abuses in Vietnam." :::

The United States recognized the Associated State of Vietnam in early 1950, but this action was counterbalanced a few days later with the recognition of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) by the new People's Republic of China. In March, Ho Chi Minh signed an agreement with Beijing that called for limited assistance to Hanoi. Shortly thereafter, Moscow also formally recognized the DRV, and the Viet Minh became more openly affiliated with the communist camp. Mao Zedong's model of revolution was openly praised in the Vietnamese press; and the ICP, which, on paper, had been temporarily dissolved in 1945 to obscure the Viet Minh's communist roots, surfaced under a new name in 1951 that removed all doubt of its communist nature. More than 200 delegates, representing some 500,000 party members, gathered at the Second National Party Congress of the ICP, held in February 195l in Tuyen Quang Province. Renaming the ICP the Vietnam Workers' Party (VWP, Dang Lao Dong Viet Nam), the delegates elected Ho as party chairman and Truong Chinh as general secretary. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the Eyes of the Vietnamese: the First War of Resistance (1945-1954)

In the eyes of the Vietnamese the war was a war of resistance against French colonialist aggression which broke out on September 25 1945 in Nam Bo, and spread throughout the country after December 19 1946. It marked a decisive stage in an almost century-long struggle to regain the nation's independence and democratize the country. According to the Vietnamese Communist Party: "While armed struggle came ahead of all other concerns, economic reconstruction, educational advancement, and the establishing of new administrative structures remained as the major tasks. While national liberation was the prime objective, the democratic objectives were no less important, all the more so since the struggle was led by a party of the working class and the fact that the worker-peasant alliance constituted the very foundations of the united national front. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

In the summer of 1945, the French government took a series of urgent measures aimed at re-establishing French sovereignty in Indochina following Japan's defeat. On August 16, France dispatched the Mass Unit and the 9th Colonial Infantry Division with General Leelere as commander-in-chief of the Expeditionary Corps and Admiral Thierry d'Argenlieu, a Catholic, as High Commissioner for France in Indochina. ~

On August 23, French troops, among them Cedile, a delegate from the High Commissioner, were parachuted into Nam Bo (southern Vietnam). On August 29, Cedile made contact with members of the Nam Bo Revolutionary Committee and told them France recognized neither Vietnam's Independence nor its unity. The committee told him that independence and unity had already been achieved, and that the Vietnamese people would not recognize any form of colonial administration. On September 2, during a huge demonstration in favor of independence, French colonialists and their agents, hiding in church, opened fire on the crowd, killing and injuring 47 people. ~

On the night of September 22, French troops attacked Saigon. The war for reconquest had begun. The Nam Bo committee immediately called on the people to fight back. The slogan "independence or death" appeared every where. On September 26, president Ho Chi Minh made the following proclamation: "Let the Government and our people throughout the country do all they can for the combatants and people of the south who are valiantly fighting their lives to safeguard the independence of the homeland." ~

Units of the People's Army immediately began the march towards the south. At the end of January 1946, deploying their armored vehicles and navy, the French occupied Nam Bo's main cities and communication routes and those of the southern part of Trung Bo and the Central Highlands. After an unequal fight, the Vietnamese force pulled out of the cities to begin organizing the resistance in rural areas. The main resistance bases were situated in the Plain of Reeds, the Thanh Phu region, Ben Tre Province, the swampy region of U Minh and the western provinces of Nam Bo, Vietnam's central government considered that the main task at that time was to strengthen the resistance in the south as much as possible. ~

This task provoked incidents in Vietnam's capital city. On December17, an attack by French troops on Hang Bun Street killed a hundred people. On December 18, the French Troops occupied the Ministries of Finance and Communications, and increased their provocation in the streets. On December 19, the French command sent an ultimatum to the Vietnamese government demanding the demolition of barricades, the disarming of self-defense forces, and handing over to French troops of the right to keep order in the Vietnamese capital.

On the evening of December 19 1946, President Ho Chi Minh made an appeal to the nation: " Compatriots, we want peace, and we have made concessions. But the more concessions we make, the more the French colonialists use them to encroach upon our rights. They are determined to reconquer our country. No. We would rather sacrifice all than lose our independence and be enslaved. All of you, men and women, young and old, what ever your region, ethnic origin, or political opinion, arise to struggle against French colonialism and save the homeland. Let those who have guns use their guns, those who have swords use their swords, those have neither guns nor swords use hoes, pick-axes, and sticks. Let all arise to oppose colonialism and defend our homeland.... Our people will win". The war of resistance, until then limited to the south, spread across the country. The newly born Democratic Republic of Vietnam was confronted with a decisive challenge, a war against a heavily armed imperialist power far superior in strength in the technical and economic fields.

Early French Victories in the French Indochina in 1946 and 1947

The growing frequency of clashes between French and Vietnamese forces in Haiphong led to a French naval bombardment of that port city in November 1946. Estimates of Vietnamese casualties from the action range from 6,000 to 20,000. This incident and the arrival of 1,000 troops of the French Foreign Legion in central and northern Vietnam in early December convinced the communists, including Ho, that they should prepare for war. [Source: Library of Congress *]

On December 19, the French demanded that the Vietnamese forces in the Hanoi area disarm and transfer responsibility for law and order to French authority. That evening, the Viet Minh responded by attacking the city's electric plant and other French installations around the area. Forewarned, the French seized Gia Lam airfield and took control of the central part of Hanoi, as full-scale war broke out. By late January, the French had retaken most of the provincial capitals in northern and central Vietnam.

Hue fell in early February, after a six-week siege. The French and Vietnamese fought at the Citadel in Hue in 1947, leaving it badly damaged. A guide there told the New York Times: "It's difficult to lay blame about who were the main destroyers. Both sides did not take consideration. We just say it was because of the war, we don't say French or Vietnamese." [Source: Jane Perlez - The New York Times - February 16, 2004]

The Viet Minh, which avoided using its main force units against the French at that time, continued to control most of the countryside, where it concentrated on building up its military strength and setting up guerrilla training programs in liberated areas. Seizing the initiative, however, the French marched north to the Chinese border in the autumn of 1947, inflicting heavy casualties on the Viet Minh and retaking much of the Viet Bac region. *

Meanwhile, in April 1947 the Viet Minh in Cochinchina had destroyed all chance for alliance with the religious sects by executing Huynh Phu So, leader of the Hoa Hao. Both the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai formed alliances soon afterward with the French. The Committee for the South, which had seriously damaged the Communist image in Cochinchina by its hard-line approach, was replaced in 1951 by the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN, Trung Uong Cuc Mien Nam), headed by Le Duan. *

Viet Minh Gather Strength in the French Indochina War

Utilizing guerilla tactics learned in Communist China, supplied with surplus Japanese weapons, and hardened from years of fighting the Japanese, the Viet Minh staged attacks from their bases in the mountains. While the French angered villagers by employing a scorched earth policy and burning villages, the Viet Mihn won hearts and minds by emerging from the jungles at night and teaching children to read with more than a small dose of Communist propaganda thrown in. Ho Chi Minh lived in the jungle with some close aides and advisors during the war.

The political and military situation had begun to improve for the Communists by late 1948. The Viet Minh had increased the number of its troops to more than 250,000 and, through guerrilla activities, the Communists had managed to retake part of the Viet Bac as well as a number of small liberated base areas in the south. ICP political power was also growing, although lack of a land reform program and the continued moderate policy toward the patriotic landed gentry discouraged peasant support for the communists. *

In 1948, the French responded to the growing strength of the Viet Minh by granting nominal independence to all of Vietnam in the guise of "associated statehood" within the French Union. The terms of the agreement made it clear, however, that Vietnam's independence was, in reality, devoid of any practical significance. The new government, established with Bao Dai as chief of state, was viewed critically by nationalists as well as communists. Most prominent nationalists, including Ngo Dinh Diem (president, Republic of Vietnam, South Vietnam, 1955-63), refused positions in the government, and many left the country. *

Children and Viet Minh Fighters During the Frnaco-Viet Minh War

Describing the activities of his aunt and uncle, two Viet Minh revolutionaries, Vu Thuy Hoang wrote in the Washington Post, "Early in 1945, my uncle left home for a secret place where he received military training. His instructor was comrade Van, who later became known by his more famous name, Gen. Vi Nguyen Giap...Uncle Thau and his comrades went to Hanoi to take power following the Japanese surrender to the United States in 1945."

"I still remember the day war broke out in Hanoi on Dec. 19. 1946," Hoang wrote. "Uncle Thau said, 'Tonight, when you hear gunfire, go to the shelter in the garden and stay there until someone arrives to pick you up.' Going home...I found the house empty. Some discarded things lay on the floor. I felt lonely and scared."

"The village was out of the battle area, but the loud sounds of machine guns fired by French troops guarding the Bach Mai airfield just some hundred yards from the village frightened me. I walked, shaken, on the village road in the direction the landlord had told me to find Uncle Thau. Near the intersection, I was terrified when I heard shouts: 'Halt! hand up! Turn around!' I repeated the password Uncle Thau had told me, while tears flowed from eyes."

"Energetic and politically minded, my aunt joined an underground organization against the French in 1939," Hoan wrote. "In 1948, she was arrested, tortured with electric shocks, and beaten so badly her interrogators thought she was dead. "When I gained back consciousness," she later recalled her captors "thought I was Frankenstein." In 1953 Hoang fled to the south and never saw his family again until he returned to his homeland in 1994.

Saigon in the French Indochina War

On January 14, 1951, Peggy Durdin wrote in the New York Times magazine: Saigon "wears a prosperous, bustling facade which serves as a thin disguise for danger and insecurity. French soldiers and sailors sit sipping leisured aperitifs in a sidewalk cafe...In a green park, fat French babies play in the shades of the trees...Vietnamese police comb through a block of straw shacks in the suburb of Giedink looking for Viet Minh terrorists."

"On an informer's tip, plainclothes men of the Vietnamese Surêté unearth a hoard of Vietminh weapons in the stockrooms of a fashionable downtown lacquer and silver shop...A block away half-naked street urchins stand transfixed before a window display of pink-cheeked French dolls...Six Foreign Legionnaires rid down the Street of sailors singing a German song."

French Forces and Tactics in the French Indochina War

Unlike the conventional military strategy followed in northern Vietnam, French forces in Cochinchina undertook a more traditional pacification campaign which demanded more manpower and relied on local auxiliaries to a far greater extent. With a crippling man-power shortage, and rising commitments of both static and mobile forces, they were forced to seek alliances amongst the non-communist groups of Vietnam in addition to the direct recruitment of "partisans". While, to a large extent, the French pinned their hopes on the puppet-Emperor, Bao Dai (whom they expected, somewhat optimistically, to act as a rallying figure for the anti-communist Vietnamese nationalists), the poor results of this policy led them to look elsewhere for allies. [Source: indochine54]

About 70,000 French Legionaries fought in the war. More than 10,000 of them died. Units that were involved in the heaviest fighting were made by more than half German, many of them veterans from World War II. Some were recruited straight from prisoner of war camps. Moroccans, Algerians and Senegalese and some Italians and Spanish also fought for the French. One survivors who fought in jungles and patrolled rice paddies and elephant grass in northern Vietnam later told Reuters that their enemy was elusive. "We only really saw them when they wanted."

Cao Dai Sect Join the French Against the Viet Minh

As the Viet Minh was a relatively minor nationalist group in the south, the French were able to enlist recruits from the famous "Three Sects"—politico-religious bodies with paramilitary wings—as well as the Catholic militias formed in both Cochinchina and northern Annam. However, all four groups were quite adamant to retain their independence and protect their own interests above all which made them uneasy allies at best. [Source: indochine54 ++]

The most powerful sect in southern Vietnam was the very thoroughly organized and centralised Cao Dai cult. Founded in 1926, it claimed more than one and a half million adherents in Cochinchina, mainly in the Mekong Delta, Tay Ninh province, the Cambodian border and Saigon itself. Incorporating elements of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism and Spiritualism, the Cao Dai pantheon includes Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Joan of Arc, Sun Yat Sen, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, Louis Pasteur, Vladimir Lenin and Jean Jaurès among others. Their clergy are modelled on the Roman Catholic hierachy, headed by a "pope" (Giao-Tong) and with a "Holy See" in Tay Ninh. The sect became increasingly nationalistic during the 1930s and organized its own militias until a crackdown in 1938 disbanded its forces and sent Pham Cong Tac, the current "pope" into exile in Madagascar. They were involved in revolts against the French before and during WW2, co-operated with the Japanese and were allies of the Viet Minh early in the conflict. ++

While still largely anti-French, the precarious situation of the Viet Minh in Cochinchina made them side with Emperor Bao Dai, for the time being at least. By the end of World War 2, they were in fact the main nationalist group in Cochinchina. In 1946, their military force numbered some 4,500. The Cao Dai leader Tran Quang Vinh offered to side with the French and an agreement was reached in January 1947 by which they controlled Tay Ninh province. In 1947-48, with French material support, the Cao Dai militia was raised to 3,300 troops organized in 55 "flying brigades", 1,500 men in "self-defense groups" plus another 2,500 "military partisans" in other areas of Cochinchina. These proved quite efficient and between January 1947 and December 1948, the Cao Dai militias had lost 400 killed and 500 wounded while inflicting serious losses on the Viet Minh and capturing 350 weapons. While the "flying brigades" had initially been recruited for use in Tay Ninh province, their effectiveness in pacifiying Viet Minh areas led the French High Command to send half of them throughout Cochinchina. ++

In June 1951, Cao Daist Colonel Trin Minh Te rebelled with 2,000 of his troops when General Minh, chief-of-staff of the Vietnamese army, proposed sending 15,000 Cao Dai troops to Tonkin. As a French staff officer commented : "its dialectics, as specious as those of communism, will always allow [the sect] to perform the most audacious reversals without damage. The Cao Dai have no enemies and no permanent friends, but they have permanent interests which are those of the sect." ++

Hoa Hao Sect s and Warrior Monks Join the French Against the Viet Minh

Careful not to put all its eggs in the same basket and anxious to check the growing influence of the Cao Dai sect, the French decided to support another sect : the Hoa Hao. In 1939, a Buddhist monk (wandering priest/monk) named Huynh Phu So began preaching against the "decadent" Buddhism then prevalent in Vietnam. From the village of Hoa Hao (in Chau Doc Province), his crusade grew rapidly. The Hoa Hao sect is to some degree nationalistic and xenophobic, and is strongest in the south-west of Vietnam, near the Cambodian border, where they live in their own communities. Their Prophet, Huynh Phu So, had apparently suffered a major illness for most of his teenage and early adult years, and was known as the "Mad Monk". The French became concerned at the spread of his religion during the early 1940s, and had him placed under house arrest. in the village of Nhon Nghia (Can Tho Province), then transfered him to Cho-Quan Hospital under "surveillance". The Japanese also do not seem to have known what to do with him - they used the Hoa Hao as auxiliaries, but held Huynh Phu So under arrest at the Kampetai HQ in Saigon. [Source: indochine54 ++]

In 1945 he was active in the formation of the "National United Front" (a nationalist, anti-French body including Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Binh Xuyen and Viet Minh), but the Hoa Hao soon came to blows with the Viet Minh whose encroachment in western Cochinchina was becoming a threat to the sect. However, the sect did not side with the French until Huynh Phu So was ambushed by the Viet Minh at Doc Vang (in the Plain of Reeds) on 16th April 1947, on his way to preach in the western provinces. His followers are still waiting for his return. ++

There were about one million Hoa Hao in 1945, with a militia of some 2,000 men under the military command of Ba Cut (who was captured and publicly guillotined in 1956 by the Diem government of South Vietnam). The Hoa Hao militia may have numbered as many as 15,000 men at points but, after Huynh Phu So's execution the sect rapidly broke down into a myriad of clans headed by local warlords. None of these recognised the authority of the sect's nominal leader, self-proclaimed "General" Tran Van Soai (pictured right, incidentally he is said to have found his képi in the Saigon Municipal theater). As a result, Tran Van Soai power's didn't reach outside of his Caicon fief where his wife led a dai doi of 250 amazons tasked with guarding the sect's coffers. ++

Like the Cao Dai, the sect had its own political party, the Dan Xa, although it was never as powerful as the Viet Nam Phu Quoc Hoi and was soon in conflict with Tran Van Soai over the political leadership of the sect. Again, like its rival, the Hoa Hao were very concerned by the fact that the French were turning more and more provinces to the vietnamese government and "General" Tran Van Soai warned clearly that if the western provinces were turned over, the sect would have no choice but to rebel, either through a massive uprising or through guerrilla warfare. ++

Binh Xuyen Gangsters Join the French Minh Against the Viet Minh

Following the British supported French counter coup in September, 1945 the Viet Minh withdrew from Saigon, leaving Bay Vien as military commander of Saigon-Cholon with a force of a hundred men. Bay Vien promptly formed an alliance with Lai Van Sang's two thousand man student group, the Avant-Garde Youth. Together with a number of Japanese deserters, they engaged the French. By the end of October, they were pushed back to the Rung Sat in a waterborne retrograde action which displayed as a key element the deployment of some 250 stay-behind agents. The Binh Xuyen stay behind agents promptly engaged in a ruthless campaign of terror and extortion. A constant influx of men, money and materiel quickly established the Binh Xuyen as a well-armed, disciplined force of approximately 10,000 men. ++

In 1945, the Binh Xuyen leaders—the most renowned of these were: Duong Van Duong (killed in February 1946), Le Van Vien, Duong Van Ha, Muoi Tri, and Tu Ty—imbued with the extreme patriotism which swept Vietnam after World War II, joined the Viet Minh. One of the Binh Xuyen leaders, Le Van Vien (Bay Vien), was made director of municipal affairs and, in this capacity, raised a considerable sum of money for the military activities of the Viet Minh's Nam Bo (Provisional Executive Committee). Impressed by this demonstration of efficiency, Tran Van Giau, the Viet Minh military commander, presented Vien with a list of persons to assassinate. Vien, shocked by the lengths to which the Communists were willing to go to consolidate their position, refused to carry out the assassinations.4 The Binh Xuyen leaders managed to retain a degree of autonomy vis-a-vis the Nam Bo5 and, when the Committee was forced to leave Saigon-Cholon, the Binh Xuyen retreated to their former operational zone. At this time Vien refused to allow his 1,300 armed men to be incorporated into the Viet Minh forces.

Viet Minh Turn Against the Binh Xuyen and Uses Suicide Squads Against Them

Annoyed by the separatist tendencies of the Binh Xuyen, the Viet Minh, under the new commander Nguyen Binh, sought to eliminate, by means of "suicide squads," members of the group who eluded their control. The conflict between the Viet Minh and Binh Xuyen reached a climax in April 1946 at the time of the creation of the "United National Front," an anti-Communist and anti-French coalition which the Binh Xuyen joined. Nguyen Binh was intent on dissolving this group and reducing the power of Le Van Vien, while the latter remained on his guard against the Viet Minh as well as the French Expeditionary Corps. [Source: Department of the Army, American University, 1965 ***]

Lured by a promise of promotion within the Viet Minh, Le Van Vien, after much hesitation, accepted an invitation from the Nam Bo to go to the Plaine des Joncs for official acceptance of his new position. On May 20, 1946 Vien left Rung Sat (an area west of Baria under Binh Xuyen control), for the Plaine des Joncs. Still suspicious of Viet Minh motives, Vien took with him an escort of 200 loyal armed men.9 Received with great fanfare and demonstrations of friendship, Vien accepted the position of "Khu Truong Khu 7" (Commander of Viet Minh Military Zone 7 east of Saigon) in the presence of Communist officials from Viet Minh Zones 8 and 9 who had convened for the occasion. All went well until Vien learned that some of his troops east of the Soi Rap River had been disarmed on Nguyen Binh's orders. The latter reassured Vien of his intentions, while making certain that Vien would be detained and his escort eliminated. ***

Gangsters Switch Sides and Help the French Against the Viet Minh

A dispute arose between Ba Duong and the Viet Minh in January 1946 and in February 1946 Ba Duong was killed in strafing raid by French aircraft. Sensing a shift in the political tide, Bay Vien siezed the opportunity to consolidate his hold on the Binh Xuyen and achieve dominance. He then began secret negotiations with the French Deuxième Bureau (Military Intelligence) for exclusive rights to territory in Saigon, ultimately leading to an agreement formalized in June 1948. [Source: indochine54 ++]

Vien escaped from the Viet Minh and on June 10 reached Bien Hoa, where he discovered that his fief was occupied by Viet Minh forces and he could not return. Without delay, Vien sent two envoys to French Intelligence with a letter containing two requests: permission to pass through the French-held area to reach the banks of the Soi Rap, and French Army assistance in clearing the Viet Minh out of his domain. In return, he agreed to accept the French conditions to "rally"—e.g., surrender at a price. The first request was granted and the second was to be discussed on Vien's arrival on the scene for the proposed negotiations. After several conferences, Vien agreed to rally to the side of the Bao Dai Government and to recognize the French Union. On June 17, Vien proclaimed himself violently anti-Communist, and a few days later regained control of Cholon as well as his fief. The French had given official recognition to the Binh Xuyen and granted it independent control of the region. A few days later, Tran Van Huu (President under Bao Dai), named Vien Colonel of the Guard of Vietnam, and the Binh Xuyen received the official name of "Binh Xuyen National Armed Forces." The group was marked henceforth by its esprit de corps, demonstrated by its own music and flag (a yellow star on a green ground, bordered in red.) Vien began to enter politics and was soon well known around Saigon. His troops were situated along the roads leading from the capital, where they collected "road safety taxes" on cars and buses and from farmers bringing produce to market. [Source: Department of the Army, American University, 1965]

The French government announced that it "...had decided to confide the police and maintenance of order to the Binh Xuyen troops in a zone where they are used to operating." Thereafter the French turned over Saigon block-by-block and by April 1954, the Binh Xuyen controlled not only the Saigon-Cholon capital region but a sixty-mile strip between Saigon and Vung Tau, exercising full political and economic control. United States observers of the process laconically refer to the Binh Xuyen in this era as a: "...political and racketeering organization which had agreed to carry out police functions in return for a monopoly on gambling, opium traffic and prostitution in the metropolitan areas." +++

For the French, this free hand given to the Binh Xuyen proved to be profitable in more ways than one. As Colonel Lansdale, a US intelligence "observer", remarked : "The French accepted the arrangement because Bay Vien offset the Viet Minh threat to Saigon. By 1954, Vien was operating 'Grand Monde', a gambling slum in Cholon; 'Cloche d'Or', Saigon's pre-eminent gambling establishment; the 'Nouveautés Catinat', Saigon's best department store; a hundred smaller shops; a fleet of river boats; and a brothel, spectacular even by Asian standards, known as the Hall of Mirrors...He ruled Saigon absolutely; even the Viet Minh terrorists were unable to operate there." ++

Thus, the Viet Minh was unable to conduct a single terror bombing in Saigon between 1952 and 1954. What's more, the Binh Xuyen offered a solution to a problem which had recently beset French intelligence. From 1951, under the aegis of the GCMA, French intelligence had tried, very successfully, to establish maquis in the Highlands of Laos and Tonkin. In order to guarantee the loyalty of the Highland populations, the GCMA had to buy their only cash crop : opium. Since the colonial administration had abolished its own Opium Monopoly in 1946, the Binh Xuyen provided an obvious outlet. Furthermore, this also solved most of the clandestine funding problems since both the Deuxième Bureau and the GCMA received a "cut" of the proceeds. The Binh Xuyen controlled Saigon until purged by the Diem government in 1955, when Vien fled to France with many of the Binh Xuyen leadership (and apparently many of the Saigon police files!). At its height, the Binh Xuyen was believed to have around 25,000 armed troops. ++

Catholic Militias in the French Indochina War

Largely due to the activities of the French missionaries from the 17th century onwards, Vietnam has a large Catholic minority of 1,700,000 people (about 6 percent of the population in 1945). These tended to live in their own, separate communities (notably in Phat Diem) and were thought to be more pro-French than many groups in Vietnam. Two of the most notable experiences with catholic militias were those of Bentre province in Cochinchina and the Phat Diem bishoprics of northern Annam.[Source: indochine54 ++]

In Bentre province, where about 400,000 Catholics lived, a Eurasian French army officer, Captain Leroy, organized the first "Catholic brigades" on An Hoa island in 1947 with spectacular results. These "brigades" of 60 men later became the building blocks of the Unités Mobiles de Défense de la Chrétienté (UMDB - Mobile Christian Defense Units) a province-wide regional force supplemented by Bao An (Peace Guardians) local self-defense groups. Given control over all the UMDC in 1949, Leroy was put in command of the whole province the following year when all French forces were withdrawn from the area. Within a year, the whole of Bentre province had been completely pacified ! ++

Yet, the foundations of his success were to cause his downfall for his method was simple : "the Viet Minh promises much and I deliver it". Accordingly, his first step had been to reduce the rates tenant farmers paid to their landlords while taxing the landowners for the upkeep of his militia and the funding of public works such as schools, markets and bridges. Furthermore, local affairs were dealt with by councils which were nominated at first and later elected by the population. Obviously, quite a few feathers were ruffled in Saigon where landowners (both secular and religious) did not appreciate the prospect of winning the war against the Viet Minh by applying its program. By late 1951, his 80 "brigades" of 3240 well-armed, motivated and experienced men and were far more effective than the mere 5840 of the Vietnamese Armed Forces. ++

This arrangement worked until October 1949 when the Viet Minh massed seven battalions of regulars to occupy Phat Diem and Bui Chu. This led Le Huu Tu to ask discreetly for French assistance. In order to protect the bishop's nationalist credentials however, some mock fighting was arranged between the French forces tasked with occupying the bishoprics and the Catholic militias. The area stayed relatively autonomous though as French forces withdrew rapidly and left the bishops in charge of the area's defense after providing weapons for two Autonomous Mobile Groups, nominally part of the Vietnamese Armed Forces but under local control. This allowed the bishops kept all their future options open by recognising the Bao Dai government while ignoring its authority and maintaining political and commercial relations with the Viet Minh. Still, they had, if unwillingly, become allies of the French. Catholic autonomy would last another two years. ++

Viet Minh Prevail As the French Indochina War Wears On

After eight years of fighting the Viet Minh essentially wore out the French in a battle of attrition, which is also how the Viet Cong defeated the Americans in the Vietnam War. As Ho Chi Minh told the French in 1946, "You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours. but at even at hose odds, you will lose and I will win."

In his book "Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam," Fredrik Logevall wrote: "For the Expeditionary Corps, as for the Americans two decades later, it was all intensely frustrating — the enemy’s elusiveness, his capacity for surprise and for striking at any moment. "Time and again French units would move into a target area in force, only to find no one there; the adversary had vanished, as if vaporized."

After eight years of fighting, the Viet Minh controlled much of Vietnam and neighbouring Laos. Despite massive US aid—part of the effort to halt the communist domino effect throughout Asia— and the mobilization of variety of homegrown anticommunist elements, France was unable to make any significant headway against the Viet Minh.

Gordon Goldstein wrote in the Washington Post, "France found itself embroiled in a treacherous war of counterinsurgency against Ho Chi Minh and his followers. The Viet Minh were commanded by Gen.Vo Nguyen Giap, whose record of performance "as a logistician, strategist, and organizer," Logevall correctly states, "ranks him with the finest military leaders of modern history." Giap was an adherent of the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong, whose essays articulated a conceptual model of the elements of guerrilla war, which the Vietnamese general applied brilliantly. Over months and years of fighting, the French were methodically diminished, their superior strength compromised. [Source: Gordon Goldstein, Washington Post, September 28, 2012]

Vo Nyguyen Giap in the French Indochina War

In the eyes of many, Vo Nyguyen Giap, the commander of the Vietnamese forces, was the key to Vietnam’s success in the French Indochina War. Robert Templer wrote in The Guardian, In 1944 Giap "founded the Armed Propaganda Brigade for the Liberation of Vietnam, gathering together 31 men and three women armed with flintlock rifles. By 1954, he had turned this ragtag group into the Vietnamese People's Army that defeated the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The surrender of French forces after a 55-day siege in this valley in north-western Vietnam was the coda for colonialism in Indochina. [Source: Robert Templer, The Guardian, October 4, 2013\*/]

"In 1940 Giap joined Ho Chi Minh in China. They returned to Vietnam a year later and founded the Viet Minh, which briefly took power in the August Revolution of 1945, when the Vietnamese communists filled the vacuum left by the defeated Japanese forces. Giap began talks with the French on independence, but they were determined to return to Vietnam and in December 1946 the Viet Minh began an eight-year war. \*/

"Poorly armed and trained, the Viet Minh made little headway until after 1949, when Mao had taken control in Beijing. China began sending advisers and supplies to help the Vietnamese. For the first time Giap had access to heavy weapons but his first direct confrontation with the French forces was a 1950 battle in the Red River Delta that proved disastrous for the Vietnamese, who lost some 20,000 men. His luck turned in 1954, when General Henri Navarre decided to set up camp in Dien Bien Phu to protect Laos from the guerrillas. The French settled into the broad valley, confident that the surrounding mountains would protect them from the Viet Minh. \*/

They had not accounted for Giap's skill in mobilising forces and keeping them supplied. Tens of thousands of farmers were drafted to carry dismantled artillery and weapons into the hills around Dien Bien Phu. Reinforced bicycles were loaded with hundreds of pounds of supplies and pushed up muddy tracks. Giap would later recall that it would take 21kg of rice for the porters for each kilogram of the staple that arrived to feed soldiers laying siege to the French. Viet Minh artillery rained hell down on the French troops from the surrounding hills. On 7 May the French surrendered. The cost of Giap's victory at Dien Bien Phu had been extremely high. His forces suffered massive casualties, many times the toll inflicted on the French. A horrendous loss of life marked all Giap's victories, but he was coldly unapologetic, saying the number of dead was small compared with the number who died each day of natural causes. \*/

American Aid Saves the French

Bernard B. Fall wrote: The Indochina War had bogged down into a hopeless seesaw. Until Red China's victorious forces arrived on Vietnam's borders in December 1949, there had been at least a small hope that the French-supported Vietnamese nationalist government, headed by ex-emperor Bao Dai, could wean away from the Communist-led Viet Minh the allegiance of much of Vietnam's population. But with the existence of a Red Chinese sanctuary for the Viet Minh forces, that became militarily impossible. By October 1950, 23 regular Viet Minh battalions, equipped with excellent American artillery coming from Chinese Nationalist stocks left on the mainland, smashed the French defense lines along the Chinese border and inflicted on France its biggest colonial defeat since Montcalm died before Quebec in 1759. Within weeks, the French position in northern Vietnam had shrunk to a fortified perimeter around the Red River Delta, a continuous belt of Communist-held territory from the Chinese border to within 100 miles of Saigon. For all practical purposes the Indochina War was lost then and there. [Source: Bernard B. Fall, historynet.com, Vietnam magazine, June 12, 2006]

What changed the aspect of the war for a time was the influx of American aid, which began with the onset of the Korean War. With communism now a menace at both ends of the Far Eastern arc, the Indochina War changed from a colonial war into a crusade — but a crusade without a real cause. Independence, given too grudgingly to the Vietnamese nationalist regime, remained the catchword of the adversary. Militarily, disaster had temporarily been averted. The key Red River Delta was more or less held by the French — at least during the daytime, for at night the enemy was everywhere — and the rice-rich Mekong Delta in South Vietnam, where anti-Communist Buddhist sects were fighting on the French side, was held more solidly by Western forces in 1953-54 than in 1963-64.

In Laos the situation was just as grim then as it is now: The Laotian and French forces held the Mekong valley and the airfields of the Plain of Jars, and the enemy held the rest. Only Cambodia, then as now, was almost at peace: Prince Sihanouk (then king) had received independence from France in 1953 and galvanized his people into fighting against the guerrillas. They were so successful that, at the ensuing Geneva cease-fire conference, Cambodia did not have to surrender a province as a regroupment area for Communist forces.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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