A Comparison of the French Indochina War and the Vietnam War

By Gene Im, IB Diploma Recipient Class of 1995


After the dust had settled from the Second World War, a new conflict was creating tension in distant Southeast Asia. France had been the colonial power in Indochina, but the French grip on its colonial possessions had loosened. It was the Vietnamese people, in particular, who sought independence from the French. Thus, two significant conflicts manifested in Vietnam, the French Indochina War (1946-1954) and the Vietnam War (1964-1973). There are similarities and differences between these wars, making it necessary to understand the causes, practices and effects of each war, in relation to one another.

There are general trends which led to the French Indochina War and several major incidences that sparked it. During the Second World War, the Japanese took over the French colony of Indochina. This action triggered two responses: the shattering of the myth of white invincibility and the rise of nationalism. (1) The concept that the Europeans could be defeated sent a shock wave throughout the Eastern nations under colonial rule. This was especially true in Vietnam. In 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was created by Ho Chi Minh and the League for the Independence of Vietnam or Viet Minh. (2) As an unstable condition, Vietnam served as a power vacuum, during which France, U.S., Britain, China and the Soviet Union were drawn in politically. (3) Nevertheless, France was not about to give up its position in Indochina. After a coup d'6tat, the French regained control of Vietnam and drove out the Viet Minh.

The French prestige had taken a sharp blow in the Second World War for the preservation of French greatness in retaining its colonies was felt as necessary. (4) The French proposed a compact Union of the states of Indochina, but Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese desired complete independence. (5) In the Dalat and Fontainebleau Conferences (April 18-August, 1946), it became clear that the French and Ho Chi Minh had diffefing opinions regarding the future of Vietnam. (6) Soon after, two critical incidences brought the French to war against the Vietnamese. The bombardment of Haiphong (November 1946) by the French, in which 6,000 Vietnamese civilians died, and the attempted Viet Minh coup d'6tat of December 19, 1946, catalyzed the war effort. (7)

"It will be a war between an elephant and a tiger. If the tiger ever stands still, the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger will not stand still... Hc will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his side, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death. That will be the war of Indochina." (8)

Ho Chi Mnh's statement, metaphorically, is quite accurate. The French clearly had the advantage, having superior armaments, technology, and the military strength and organization of a world power. (9) However, the Viet Minh had the advantage of fighting on familiar soil with a common aim shared by most of the Vietnamese: independence.

From the onset of the war, the French held the major cities in Vietnam and the most significant actions were in the countryside of Cochin China and Tonkin (Southern and Northern sectors of Vietnam). (10) The cities, which had been the hub of Indochinese politics during the period of French rule, gained a peripheral existence, while the power had returned to the villages. (I 1) In this environment, the Viet Minh engaged in what is known as the "people's war" to fight the French. (I 2)

The Viet Minh used guerrilla warfare, which was effective against the French because of the extreme mobility of the guerrilla units. But it was the support of the Vietnam people that enabled the Viet Minh to be victorious. Under the "people's war," the Viet Minh concentrated upon the immediate needs of the peasants--increasing food supplies, encouraging the growth of local industries, building roads, reforming educational programs, improving production and setting up health facilities. (13) In this way, it was not the French Army against the Viet Minh, but in effect, against the united Vietnamese people.

From the beginning, the French reacted conventionally, as if they were engaged in no more than a colonial war of re-conquest. (14) The French instigated a Counter Insurgency policy to combat the guerrilla warfare of the Viet Minh, in which specific military and non-military plans are used. (15) The Viet Minh defeated the non-military policy of Counter insurgency, as they outadministered the French on the village level. (16) The so-called Blockhouse strategy failed because the Viet Minh were too quick and the French never had enough troops to utilize a Counter Insurgency method of fighting the Viet Minh. The "pacification" tactic, tache dhuile (oil slick) was also used to the end, as French troops swept areas to gain control. (17) However, the inadequacy of troops and the diversity of terrain and population density made lache d'huile particularly inapplicable to Indochina. (I 8)

In 1954, the Navarre Plan was put into action, purposefully setting up a face-to-face match-up between the French and Viet Minh under General Vo Nguyen Giap at Dien Bien Phu in the Tonkin sector. (19) The French attitude was one of total confidence, as conventional warfare could finally be used. The French were positioned in the valley, while the support of the Vietnamese truly came through, as artillery was essentially carried by the people to Dien Bien Phu, due to the lack of roads. (20) Thus, the Viet Minh gained the advantage of artillery, making the defeat of the French troops imminent, while ending the war.

The most tangible effect of the French Indochina War was in 1954, when the Geneva Conference was held to decide the fate of Indochina. It was decided that the Communists get North Vietnam and the non-Communists get South Vietnam. Free elections to unify Vietnam were planned for 1956, but the U.S. and South Vietnam do not sign treaty because of the imminent Communist victory. This precedent of anti-unification increased Ho Chi Minh's desire for unification. To the French, the loss in the war was devastating to France's prestige, and ultimately led to the insurrection in Algeria by the Muslims, following the example of the Vietnamese. Also, a "demonization" of returning French soldiers occurred, as a result of the anti-war public opinion of the time in France.

There are two major reasons for the cause of the Vietnam War: Ho Chi Minh's desire of a unified Vietnam, and the creation of a power vacuum. Because of the Vietnam split at the Geneva Conference, free elections were called for to unite Vietnam, but they were never held, as two regimes, Ho Chi Minh's Communist in the North and Ngo Dinh Diem's Democratic in the South were established. In 1957, Viet Minh members began to rebel against Diem's government, while being openly supported by North Vietnam. These rebels, the Viet Cong, worked for the unification of Vietnam.

By 1959, the Vietnamese Communists were making a clear aggressive stand for unification. (21) This unstable situation caused a power vacuum, as world powers looked to protect its interests in Vietnam. The other Communist powers, China and the Soviet Union, clearly supported the North Vietnamese cause. According to the Domino Theory, if South Vietnam would fall to Communism, the rest of Southeast Asia would fall with it. Thus, the U.S. became involved as the "container" of Communism, supporting the South Vietnamese. In 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Incidents and corresponding resolution sealed the fate of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. What began as general aid from the U.S. to the South Vietnamese, became an "authorization to retaliate" and full involvement in the Vietnam War.

The practices of the Vietnam War were more complex in contrast to those used in the French Indochina War. The North Vietnamese had essentially two fighting arms: the Viet Cong and the NVA. The Viet Cong were the Communist guerrilla forces in South Vietnam. The NVA was a regular uniformed army that was more organized than in the previous war. The "people's war" was not in full effect because the Vietnamese as a whole did not fight a common enemy and the Viet Cong was never promoted to the NVA status.

The primary difference for the U.S. was the use of the helicopter. (22) The helicopter revolutionized the methods and strategies of warfare, particularly against guerrilla warfare. With the advent of the helicopter, the advantage of the guerrillas, mobility, was nullified because helicopters could be used to transport troops quickly and efficiently. The U.S. also used Counter Insurgency, but more effectively than the French. Instead of the blockhouse strategy, U.S. troops would use active bait tactics. (23) For example, a platoon would lure Communists to shoot at them. Firebases set up on hills would prevent escape while the platoon would radio out for help. With the helicopter, reinforcement troops would fly in without much difficulty and the Communists would be trapped.

Another integral part of the U.S. practice was airmobile warfare. (24) Along with the helicopter, B-52 bombers were used extensively for strategic purposes, roads, factories, supply routes. A major battle in la Drang (1965) was primarily won by the U.S. through the use of airmobile warfare. According the U.S., the Viet Cong were the enemy and the main threat. By 1970, the Viet Cong were destroyed or ineffectual, and the Tet Offensive of 1968 demonstrated their weakness. The Tet Offensive was a monumental failure by the Communists, but a surprising propaganda victory because it hurt U.S. public opinion of the war.

From 1969, Vietnamization was initiated by President Nixon, to gradually make it the ARVN's war and pull out American forces in Vietnam. A major emphasis was cutting off of supplies to the Communists, which led to Lam Son 719 (1971).

The Easter Offensive (1972)- By January 1973, the U. S . was officially out. The U. S. had Americanized the fighting style of the South Vietnamese, but the money supply was quickly cut off by the Congress of the U.S. (25) Thus, with U.S. tactics and little money, the South Vietnamese had little hope of winning. By August 1974, the North Vietnamese conquered the South, and the war was over.

The U.S. lost a tremendous amount of prestige as the French had done. Ho Chi Minh's dream of unification was a reality, and with it, the failing of the South Vietnam economy. With the Communists free in Southeast Asia, Laos and Cambodia also went Communist. The Domino Theory was solidified by this occurrence, and the mass emigration of South Vietnamese, Hmong, and others, became a significant immigration problem for accepting-refugee nations, such as the U.S. (26)

There are many correlations and significant differences between the French Indochina War and the Vietnam War. In both cases, a power vacuum was created by an unstable The causes, practices and effects of the French Indochina War and the Vietnam War are significant because they demonstrate the evolution, in their similarities and differences, of warfare and the affairs of the world in that time period. The French Indochina War is rarely mentioned in the history texts, but it served as a precursor to the more publicized Vietnam War.