Q. Why did the French loose the war in Vietnam? In April of 1956 the last remaining French troops would leave Vietnam. After over 200 years of influence and rule, the French at last realized that the occupation and control of Vietnam was an unreachable goal. In consideration of the many blunders (both militarily and political), and the outright ignorance of the French high command, any efforts to stabilize Vietnamese nationalism and to maintain french rule over Vietnam were thwarted. Thus the French were defeated by an inferior force, and the question of how such an anomaly could occur lies within the 200 years of rule, and the many mistakes made through out way. To completely understand how France could be defeated by a simple army of Vietnamese peasants, one must first acknowledge a brief history of the Franco-Vietnamese relationship.
French Jesuits first arrived in Vietnam in 1634, in hopes of bringing over "souls" to the catholic church. The majority of Vietnamese are Buddhist, and many locals opposed the presence of the French. By the mid 1700's France would sign a treaty with the Vietnamese gaining protection for the Jesuits in return for French assistance in helping the Vietnamese fight their Chinese invaders. With the rest of Europe carving up the world in the mid 1800's, France now looked to Vietnam as an extension of its Empire. A successful invasion of Vietnam in 1859 gave the french control over Saigon.
The invasion was in response to the murder of French Catholics, and looked to be for a time a just cause. However it was just a cover story for the French to settle in and eventually rape Vietnam of it's raw materials and its culture. Thus from 1861 to the birth of Ho Chi Minh in 1890, French troops would conquer most of what is modern day Vietnam to their own discretion. The discretion of the French must be noted as racially bias. The term "white man's burden," best describes the presence of the French in Vietnam from the period of 1890-1939.
Essentially the french believed everything about them was superior to the Vietnamese. Culture, language, religion, and race. This would not settle to well with many Vietnamese, however things would turn worse for the French with the outbreak of WWII. I would like to argue that the true beginning of the end of French rule over Vietnam begins with the Second World War.
Many Vietnamese nationalist uprisings were put down with success by the French. When Nazi Germany invaded and conquered France in 1940, the puppet Vichy French government was established. The vichy French government signed a peace treaty with the Japanese later that year in 1940, giving Japan control over Vietnam. Japan had been fighting an aggressive land war against the Chinese. Japan was looking to exercise its own ambitions of an empire as they tried to conquer all of South East Asia. Vietnam was a strategic part in Japan's ambitions to open up a new southern front against the Chinese.
The Vietnamese who were not pleased about their previous Chinese and French invaders, were not in any way gracious with the arrival of Japanese soldiers. Thus nationalist like Ho Chi Minh now found a new enemy in the Japanese. This is an important turning point in Vietnamese history. Now that Vietnamese nationalists are resisting Japanese occupation, a relationship with the United States begins. By 1945 the Japanese had ousted the Vichy government, and now maintained complete control over Vietnam by instituting a puppet Empower, Bao Dai. American support is established and Ho Chi Minh is sent weapons and material to fight of the Japanese.
In August of 1945, Viet Minh forces, led by Ho, overthrow the Japanese and establish a pro communist government in Hanoi. At last it seems that the Vietnamese have won their independence. However with the end of the Second World War, the Cold War would begin, and Ho would find himself along with the rest of Vietnam once again in an occupied country. After establishing a government in Hanoi in 1945, Ho looked to president harry S. Truman for recognition.
Truman never responded. In result of the Potsdam conference, the Japanese terms of surrender split Vietnam in two along the 16 th parallel. China would take control over the North, and the British would maintain control over the South. British forces then released both French and Japanese prisoners, re-arm both, and begin to restore order and gain control. In the North Ho is under attack from Chinese forces, and is ill prepared to maintain control.
A treaty with France is signed allowing French troops in to the north to restore order and to once again rid Vietnam of Chinese troops. However this was a doubled edged sword for the Vietnamese, on one hand the Chinese would leave, but on the other once again France would gain complete control over Vietnam. With complete control once again in late 1945, it was clear that the French wanted to get rid of Ho and the Viet Minh assuring that there would be no more question to their authority. Thus France's ambition to flush out the Viet Minh, would spark the first Indochinese War in 1946. After French troops massacred Viet Minh forces in Haiphong in November of 1946, the remaining Viet Minh forces led by Ho moved in to the mountains around Tran Trao to begin their resistance against the French. Ho Chi Minh remained as the moral leader for the Viet Minh, however the military leader was General Giap.
Giap 's plan of guerilla warfare against the french was complex and risky. Giap planned three phases of resistance in order to flush out the French. Knowing full well that Viet Minh forces were far inferior to that of French forces, Giap's three phases gave him the availability to bring the war to the French, instead of the French massacring the Viet Minh in a open field battle. The first phase of fighting, is small Viet.
Minh units setting up ambushes and initializing small skirmishes with the French, nothing major. The second phase involves bigger units actually attacking small outposts and strategic military targets in quick and violent raids. The third phase of fighting is the formation of battalions with the smaller units banding together now taking on full French forces in a fixed battle. Giap new that the phases of fighting would do two things. One keep French forces on edge, and to keep the big superior enemy force moving around setting up small holes and pockets of refinance for guerilla forces.
Also Giap realized that the phases would also give important strategic experience to the Viet Minh troops. The troops would learn the strengths and weaknesses of their enemy in the initial two phases, thus when phase three was implemented, Viet. Minh forces would know to well the characteristics of their enemy, while the enemy would be dealing with a force that is unpredictable and shockingly larger than they had expected. France would find themselves in the middle of a war that they felt they could easily dominate. However French forces were unable to choose the time and place for their battles.
It would be a constant cat and mouse game for the French. To make matters worse, in 1949 Mao Zedong took power in China establishing a pro communist government. Mao would now support Ho Chi Minh and his communist guerillas, sending aid, arms, and material to help fight the French. In may of 1950, the united States begins to send aid to the french, in the hopes that they will repel the communist forces. Giap, now with the support of Chinese aid, announces that the first phase is over, and Viet. Minh forces begin to attack the French more consistently.
The French were ill prepared to fight a guerilla war against the Viet Minh. Up until the war, Nationalist uprisings were easily won simply because the uprising had no real backing, as in the case of a major power like China sending economic and military aid. The French were also not trained to fight a war in the jungle. Their training was primally for a major European style fight, with tanks, airplanes, mobility, and overall power. The Viet Minh had no tanks, no airplanes, and their artillery existed of short range mortar fire that was easily maneuverable around a battle field. Thus the French would find themselves cognately searching for the enemy, while their enemy sat and waited for the appropriate time to strike.
The French knew that they could not achieve a victory if the war continued in this fashion. The french wanted to pit their forces in a fixed battle against the Viet Minh. France was completely assured that if Viet Minh forces came face to face with French forces in a fixed battle, victory would be accomplished. From September of 1950 to early 1954, Giap would play the game of hide and seek with French forces. The Viet Minh, now in phase two, would attack outpost after outpost, then disappear in to the jungle away from the pursuing French forces. At times the Viet Minh were successful at holding some of the forts they had occupied, but would either leave hastily or be forced out by the oncoming French forces from the ground and air.
By the end 1953 the French were planning to set the Viet Min up in to fighting a fixed battle. The French garrison at Dien Bien Phu would be the ideal place for French forces to dig in and fight. Initially French paratroopers landed at Dien Ben Phu and begin setting up for a marked battle that they hoped would bring a quick end to the resistance of Viet Minh forces. When the fighting began, nearly 13, 000 french soldiers held the area around Dien ben Phu. Giap realized what the french were attempting to do, and at this point it was clear that phase three would now go into affect. Close to 50, 000 regular Viet.
Minh army, and another 200, 000 workers, along with a number of Chinese advisors settled in around the French. The battle of Dien Bein Phu began in early 1954. The French forces were quickly surrender and overwhelmed by the huge Viet. Minh forces surrounding them.
Sedge tactics were used by the Viet Minh to over throw the base, however the two airfield built by the french gave support from the skies and an endless supply line to help fight off the Viet Minh. However by April it was clear that the French forces were losing the battle, and it was now it was clear that the French were putting their last remaining efforts in to Dien Ben Phu. It was an all or nothing situation. The French high command had hoped that Giap would throw his army in to the will of the occupying French forces and in the end be forced to retreat and regroup with a battered down weak force. However this was not the case and by May 7 th the remaining French forces at Dien ben Phu will surrender. Peace talks between the French and Viet Minh open up in May of 1954.
The agreement at Geneva would once again split Vietnam in to two. The North would be a pro Communist government at Hanoi led by Ho Chi Minh, and the South a pro democratic government backed by the United States out of Saigon. By 1956 the last remaining French forces would leave Vietnam, and a new struggle would begin in the South. The beginning of the American War in Vietnam was just around the corner. The Viet Minh had defeated a major European power, however it would be another 20 years before the reunification was complete.