Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Viet Minh forces defended the independence of Vietnam against French forces that were seen as a vestige of colonial influence.

Summary of Event

In September of 1945, while the eyes of the world were focused on the Japanese surrender in the Pacific following World War II, Vietnamese nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam. After nearly one hundred years of oppressive French domination, Ho believed that the United States would enforce the ideals articulated in the Atlantic Charter of 1941: Atlantic Charter (1941) the return of self-government to nations that had been forcibly denied this right. Ho and other Vietnamese nationalists did not realize that Vietnam had been used as a bargaining chip by the United States in several wartime political maneuvers. In 1942, President Roosevelt had guaranteed the Free French that they would be able to retain all of their overseas possessions, including Vietnam. This promise had been offered as an inducement to encourage greater efforts by the French military forces. In 1943, Roosevelt had countered this promise and proposed a trusteeship for postwar Indochina, claiming that the French had mismanaged the people and resources of the area. Still later in the war, in 1945, Roosevelt tried to bargain with the leader of the Nationalist Chinese, Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Kai-shek by offering him control of Vietnam and any other countries in Indochina. The Chinese turned down the offer because of the difficulty of trying to govern a nation that would not conform to Chinese rule. First Indochina War (1946-1954) Indochina [kw]Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina (Nov., 1946-July, 1954) [kw]Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina, Nationalist (Nov., 1946-July, 1954) [kw]French Control of Indochina, Nationalist Vietnamese Fight (Nov., 1946-July, 1954) [kw]Indochina, Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of (Nov., 1946-July, 1954) First Indochina War (1946-1954) Indochina [g]Southeast Asia;Nov., 1946-July, 1954: Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina[01850] [g]Vietnam;Nov., 1946-July, 1954: Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina[01850] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Nov., 1946-July, 1954: Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina[01850] [c]Independence movements;Nov., 1946-July, 1954: Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina[01850] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov., 1946-July, 1954: Nationalist Vietnamese Fight French Control of Indochina[01850] Ho Chi Minh Vo Nguyen Giap Sainteny, Jean Thierry d’Argenlieu, Georges Navarre, Henri

In 1945, therefore, the fate of Vietnam was still undecided. During the war, Vietnam had been occupied by the Japanese with French approval. France’s credibility concerning Japan Japan;in Vietnam[Vietnam] was called into question as a result of this, and at the Potsdam Conference (1945) Potsdam Conference (1945) the decision was made to allow neutral allied nations to oversee Japanese disarmament in Vietnam. The British were to supervise in the south and the Chinese Chinese-Vietnamese relations[Chinese Vietnamese relations] were in charge of northern disarmament. The French high commissioner (governor) for Indochina, Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu, was to coordinate between the areas. The new Republic of Vietnam had no military institutions to protect its claim of independence and no political organization that represented the nation as a whole. In 1945, the new republic was led by communist-styled cadres known as Viet Minh. Viet Minh These cadres were organized politically by Ho Chi Minh and militarily by Vo Nguyen Giap, Ho’s trusted assistant.

Within days of the landing of the British forces, conflict broke out between the Viet Minh and the French and British. The British officer in charge, General Sir Douglas David Gracey, ordered to remain neutral, was unquestionably in favor of French rule in the area. A product of the British colonial system, Gracey did not believe that the Vietnamese were capable of self-government, nor that they should ever be allowed to threaten the control of their masters. As soon as rioting broke out in Saigon, he released French legionnaires from their Japanese prisons and armed them with British weapons. Fearing the return of French rule, the Viet Minh continued rioting and increased attacks against French units as well as against the British. In Saigon, the fighting was fierce at times and atrocities against civilians were committed by both sides. The British, fearing increased involvement, turned over their weapons and supplies to the French and left the country.

In the north, Vietnamese-Chinese relations went somewhat more smoothly. General Lu Han’s Lu Han troops were not of the caliber of the British units. The soldiers were starving, ill-equipped, and often tubercular, more interested in ransacking the towns and countryside of Vietnam for food, clothing, and medicine than in French-Vietnamese politics. Ho feared the incursion of Chinese troops more than he feared the French and British, as China had been attempting to overrun Vietnam for one thousand years. He feared that the Potsdam Agreement had given China political gains in Southeast Asia that it had been unable to attain militarily. Because of this fear, Ho made no effort to prevent French attempts to negotiate a deal with China to override the Potsdam design and give France the control of all of Vietnam. On February 28, 1946, a French-Chinese agreement was reached. The Chinese would remove their troops from North Vietnam, to be replaced by an equal number of French. In return, France gave up all claims to the Kwangchowan region of China (held by France since the late nineteenth century). France also agreed to sell the Yunnan railroad to Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government and to designate Haiphong as a free trade port for China.

Ho, glad to be rid of the Chinese, was not yet ready to settle for the return of French domination. Vietnam, to Ho and his followers, was now an independent republic, and he encouraged Vo Nguyen Giap to step up recruitment and training of more cadres of Viet Minh to ensure the protection of the country. The French, unable to stabilize both halves of the country, allowed a French diplomat, Jean Sainteny, to attempt negotiations with Ho. The Sainteny-Ho Agreement Sainteny-Ho Agreement (1946)[Sainteny Ho Agreement] was completed on March 6. France guaranteed the recognition of Vietnam as an independent state within the French Union French Union (Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam). In return, Ho agreed to allow twenty-five thousand French troops to remain in the country for a period of five years to protect French interests.

As each side stepped up its attempts to control the area, one situation became clear. The key to success was going to be in the countryside. The rural villages and peasant farm holdings were going to be needed as base camps. The average villager, desiring neutrality, was caught between the two opposing forces. By day, the villagers were victims of French recruitment and commissary officers. Fear for their lives or those of their families and the threat of losing the family farm, more than a committed belief in the right of the French to control Vietnam, caused peasant farmers to join the French forces. The French began to control the countryside around the major cities of Vietnam. By night, the countryside of Vietnam belonged to the cadres of the Viet Minh. The cadres were small, self-sufficient units that survived alone in the jungle. Usually without adequate weapons or supplies, they depended on local villages for support as well as additional recruits for Vo Nguyen Giap’s army. Several nights a week, they moved into the villages and conducted classes in nationalism, communism, anti-French tactics, and basic reading and writing skills. They targeted the youth of these villages as the source of future independence guerrillas and a present spy network against the French. Most of the peasants philosophically believed in independence, but they had no stomach for more warfare. Laboring to feed their families and to preserve their small plots of land, they became trapped in an untenable position. Harangued, threatened, beaten, and sometimes tortured and killed, the peasants of Vietnam were pulled into a conflict that the Sainteny-Ho Agreement was supposed to prevent.

Before the agreement could be signed officially in Paris, French president Charles de Gaulle Gaulle, Charles de [p]Gaulle, Charles de;French colonialism sent one thousand additional troops to Saigon. Ho Chi Minh appealed to Vo Nguyen Giap to redouble his military recruiting and training efforts. Colonial businesspeople, planters, and state officials published strong complaints against the agreement. They cabled Paris with their complaints and turned to the local governor, Admiral d’Argenlieu, with their fears. D’Argenlieu, committed to the policy of French colonialism in Vietnam, did not wait for orders from Paris. He violated the March agreement and declared the Republic of Cochin China (South Vietnam), South Vietnam in the name of France. Ho, in Paris for the official signing of the Sainteny Accords, was discredited as an impotent political upstart by d’Argenlieu’s actions and returned to Vietnam having failed to achieve recognition of Vietnam’s independence. Complaints from colonists in Vietnam put political pressure on the French cabinet to claim economic rights to both the north and south of Vietnam. Fearing the loss of what little recognition he had gained for his country’s right to political autonomy, Ho returned to Paris in October. Pressured by French intransigence, Ho agreed to and signed a draft of an accord known as the Fontainebleau Agreement, Fontainebleau Agreement (1946) a vague attempt to give joint rule over North Vietnam to both the French and the Vietnamese. Because of unstated lines of authority concerning the policing of cities and collection of customs, the draft led to frustration and dissatisfaction for both sides.

The confusion caused by the Fontainebleau Agreement can be argued as the direct cause of the French-Indochina War. Fighting broke out November 20, 1946, when a French patrol boat apprehended Chinese smugglers in the waterways of Haiphong Harbor. A Vietnamese patrol, observing the French apprehension of the Chinese smugglers and unsure of exact lines of authority, considered the act as one more indication of French unwillingness to allow the republic to control itself. The Vietnamese approached and overtook the French boat and arrested the three crewmen. Fighting broke out in the city of Haiphong as soon as the French became aware of the arrests. Throughout the day of November 20, French tanks entered the city of Haiphong and overran Vietnamese barricades. The Viet Minh cadres responded with mortar fire. A cease-fire was called the next day, and both sides began appealing to Paris for direction. Ho appealed to the French government to honor the signed accords. He was ordered to cede French control of the city and ports of Haiphong. When he refused, the battle resumed.

The French attack on Haiphong utilized the gamut of military technology of the day: infantry, tanks, artillery, air strikes, and naval bombardment. The underequipped Viet Minh responded with mortar fire and guerrilla raids. Entire neighborhoods of flimsy houses in the poorest sections of town were demolished, and thousands of Vietnamese refugees poured out of the city. The official French reports at the time stated that six thousand civilians had been killed as they fled the area. Later, the figures were reduced to read that no more than several hundred had died. The fighting spread to the city of Hanoi and lasted through most of December. On December 19, at 9:00 p.m., Vo Nguyen Giap declared virtual war on the country of France and Ho called on the people of Vietnam to rise up and to defend Vietnamese independence and unification. Ho continued to appeal to the Western powers to stop French aggression throughout the month of December. While not agreeing with the French policies, Europe and the United States refused to step in.

The war between France and Vietnam lasted eight years and did not go well for the French. A succession of commanders—Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, Jean-Étienne Valluy, d’Argenlieu, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, and Raoul Salan—could not overcome the guerrilla forces of the Viet Minh and their peasant support. The war finally ended with a devastating rout of the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu Dien Bien Phu, Battle of (1954) (March-May, 1954). This decisive conflict—in which French commander Henri Navarre attempted to defend Laos and overwhelm the Viet Minh from an air base near the village of Dien Bien Phu, located in a ten-mile-long valley in a remote portion of northwestern Vietnam—failed in the face of Vo Nguyen Giap’s unexpectedly strong and sophisticated two-month siege.

Navarre assumed command after de Lattre, in the spring of 1953, and was shocked by the lack of an overall plan and the deterioration of French morale. His mandate at this point in the war, although still the subject of controversy, was primarily to consolidate southern support and, in the north, create conditions that would allow an “honorable political solution” to the Indochina problem in preparation for peace talks in Geneva. The strategy was to consolidate southern support and conduct offensives in the north in order to negotiate from a position of strength. The issue of whether Navarre’s mandate included the defense of Laos, which had been overrun by Viet Minh, is still debated but was understood by Navarre to be part of his mandate. Navarre’s task was overwhelming and his options few, and he settled on a strategy he hoped would reproduce an earlier French victory at Nan Sanh. He did not, however, expect the Viet Minh to succeed in hauling heavy artillery into the remote region, and he did not bank on Vo Nguyen Giap’s willingness to wait until March, when his Viet Minh were entrenched with their weapons assembled and well hidden in the hills above the French base and its seven satellite fortresses. After a two-month siege, the satellites were defeated and, despite heavy casualties, the Viet Minh had won. In this battle alone, the French suffered more than 2,200 dead, nearly 5,200 wounded, and 11,800 captured (most of whom died on the 250-mile march to the prison camps or of disease or brutal treatment at the camps). The Viet Minh suffered more than three times the number of dead, 7,950, and 15,000 wounded, but these numbers paled against their moral victory.


The victory at Dien Bien Phu, as British historian Martin Windrow put it, represented “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved . . . to defeat a modern Western occupier in a pitched battle.” The victory not only put an end to French Indochina; it remains a milestone today in the minds of people in all so-called Third World nations, a symbol of colonialism’s demise and the potential of developing nations. As one World Bank official from India put it, “A small Asian nation had defeated a colonial power, convincingly. It changed history.”

After Dien Bien Phu, the 1954 Geneva Accords divided Vietnam into communist North Vietnam and French-administered South Vietnam. The United States, which had supplied significant equipment and technological support to the French during the First Indochina War, supported South Vietnam after the French withdrew and after the failure of the two countries to reunite in 1956, as mandated by the Geneva Accords. Accusations that Ho’s forces were terrorizing both northerners and southerners led the South’s Emperor Bao Dai and his prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, to break with the accords. Thus began another long engagement, the Second Indochina War, which eventually involved U.S. forces on the ground in the Vietnam War (1959-1975).

French colonialism thus had widespread effects not only in Southeast Asia but throughout Europe, China, and the United States also. Unable to receive the aid and support needed to break French control of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh reverted to seeking assistance from Communist China and Russia. This action placed Vietnam in the middle of Cold War politics and on a direct line of confrontation with the United States. Vietnam paid a heavy price for Ho Chi Minh’s dream of independence. More than three million Vietnamese were killed between 1946 and 1976, as fighting shifted from the First Indochina War to the Second Indochina War, the latter now known as the Vietnam War.

Thousands of children, along with women and soldiers, were burned and maimed as a result of bombings, mines, and enemy raids on villages. The civilians of Vietnam were all soldiers in the eyes of their enemies, and their elimination was often condoned as a way to prevent future generations of resistance fighters. Without sufficient medical supplies or technology, the Vietnamese victims were condemned to a lifetime of suffering and nonproductivity. The use of hundreds of thousands of gallons of defoliant and other chemicals imparted the legacy of fear—fear of cancer and birth defects that will not cease with the passing of this generation.

The physical human damage to the Vietnamese people was tremendous, but so was the fiscal damage. Thirty years of war not only prevented industrialization from occurring but also devastated the agricultural base, leaving the country at times unable to feed its citizens adequately. An economically devastated and war-torn land, Vietnam would continue to struggle for acceptance in world trade and for economic assistance to rebuild industry, farmland, and educational institutions into the 1990’s. First Indochina War (1946-1954) Indochina

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asselin, Pierre. “New Perspectives on Dien Bien Phu.” Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies 1, no. 2 (Fall, 1997). Identifies the Battle of Dien Bien Phu as more historically significant than previously recognized, and aims “to clarify the historical record by highlighting some of the main misconceptions about the engagement and providing more accurate descriptions of its origins and implications.” Chief among these were Vo Nguyen Giap’s decision to delay engagement from January 26 to March 13, when his troops and their artillery were well entrenched in the highlands above the valley, and the timing of the Geneva talks.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boettcher, Thomas D. Vietnam: The Valor and the Sorrow. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. One of the basic overviews of the Vietnam war. While the emphasis is on American political and military involvement in the area, there is a cursory overview of the French colonial period and the French war. There is no consideration given to the history of Vietnam prior to the late eighteenth century. Contains pictures, chapter notes, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Phillip B. Vietnam at War: The History 1946-1975. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1988. Presents a comprehensive history of the Vietnam War from a military perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fairbank, John King, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig. East Asia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. Possibly the best text for an overview of the entire Vietnamese-Chinese-European experience prior to 1950. The emphasis is on political, social, and military developments in specified periods. Contains a complete list of references and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fall, Bernard B. Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1967. Analysis both of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and of its global geopolitical consequences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayslip, Le Ly, and Charles Jay Wurts. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. New York: Doubleday, 1989. A personal account of what it was like to live in Vietnam under the rule of both the French and the American armies. The emphasis is on the peasant families and how they were controlled by the Viet Cong. Offers no references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam, a History: The First Complete Account of Vietnam at War. New York: Viking Press, 1983. Possibly the definitive history of both the French and the American involvements in Vietnam. The book, while highly researched and detailed, does not relate the history of the country prior to the eighteenth century. Excellent photographs. Provides chapter notes, sources, and an index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Troung, Tang Nhu, with David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai. A Vietcong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. A personal account of how and why Ho Chi Minh gained the hearts of the Vietnamese people. Emphasis is on the author’s experiences with French rule and why many Vietnamese were willing to work against it. Contains a glossary of names and an appendix of Vietcong documents. No other reference material is listed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Windrow, Martin. The Last Valley. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2004. Examines the French military strategy at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which was based on the successful one used at Nan Sanh but which failed to take certain differences into account and which could not anticipate the superior strategy of Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap. A detailed account of the siege that also examines the full historical impact of the event.

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Atlantic Charter Declares a Postwar Right of Self-Determination

Vietnam Is Named a State

Cambodia Gains Independence from France

Operation Passage to Freedom Evacuates Refugees from North Vietnam

SEATO Is Founded

United States Sprays Agent Orange in Vietnam

United States Enters the Vietnam War

Thieu Is Elected President of South Vietnam

Halberstam Reflects on American Involvement in Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest

Categories: History