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Viet Nam had been absorbed into the French Empire as French Indochina in stages from the mid to late 18th century. Vietnamese anti-colonial resistance surfaced shortly after, and grew notably in 1905 under the leadership of Phan Boi Chau. Chau was deported several times, and placed under house arrest until his death in 1940, at which time Japan launched the invasion of French Indochina. Vichy French forces defended the colony in the French-Thai War from late 1940 until May 1941, which ended with territorial concessions to Thailand.[1] Resistance to the Japanese occupation increased with growing popularity of the Viet Minh, who had provided food during the famine of 1945. At this time, Japan launched the Second French Indochina Campaign, ousted the Vichy government, and installed Bảo Đại as the leader of the Empire of Vietnam. The empire only survived until the August Revolution of August 16 1945 when the Viet Minh rose against Bảo Đại, abandoned by the Japanese since surrendering Vietnam, and ousted him in favor of a government centered in Hanoi, which later declared independence. After a brief interlude where a joint French-British task force was stationed in Saigon, the French General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque arrived in Vietnam to reassert French governance over the Viet Minh.[1]

The First Indochina War had raged, as guerrilla warfare, since December 19, 1946. From 1949, it evolved into conventional warfare, due largely to the victory of the communists in the Chinese Civil War.[2] The Viet Minh soon established close ties with the PRC, who provided much needed matériel and strategical planning support.[2] Benefitting from the difficult terrain, and the flow of arms across the nearby border with the People's Republic of China ("PRC"),[3] the Viet Minh succeeded in turning a "clandestine guerrilla movement into a powerful conventional army" able, for the first time, to confront a western army.[4] Following a PRC-developed dual strategy, the Viet Minh operated guerrilla cells in the French-controlled areas and fielded conventional divisional-sized units in the "liberated zones" to the north.[5][6] Throughout, the Viet Minh were assisted by PRC military advisers, seconded at battalion, regiment and divisional level.[7]

Against this, a French strategy of dispersing "forces in thousands of posts and garrisons scattered on all fronts to cope with [Viet Minh] guerrilla activity", particularly along the Vietnamese-Chinese border, proved ineffective.[8] The French Expeditionary Corps was composed not only of French soldiers, but also of African forces (particularly from Morocco) and many pro-French Vietnamese, who freed up regular French forces from jungle garrison duty.[9] Hand-in-hand with their troop build-up, the French sought aid from the United States to offset the increasingly crippling costs of the war. In March 1950, US president, Harry S. Truman, released US$15 million in aid.[10] From then on, US aid (provided under the Mutual Defense Assistance Act) rapidly increased, amounting to US$2.7 billion by the conclusion of hostilities in 1954.[10] Of this, about half (US$1.3 billion) was allocated to military equipment, sent in twice-weekly shipments to Saigon, with US$773 million expended in the four fiscal years of 1950–1953.[10] Additionally, a further US$1.29 billion was provided by the US Direct Forces Support Program, and spent on purchasing arms and equipment within France for shipment to Indochina.[10] By June 1953, "the United States had sent: 1,224 tanks and combat vehicles; 120,792 rifles and machineguns; more than 200 million rifle and machinegun cartridges; more than five million artillery projectiles; 302 boats and 304 aircraft".[10]

Since 1951, British and American advisory units in Saigon had recommended a move away from the dispersed forces strategy but the French high command was reluctant to change.[11] In an escalation of hostilities during 1952, Viet Minh attacks that had originally remained around the Red River Delta moved into the Thai Highlands.[12] It was only in December 1952, after victory at the battle of Na San, that the French high command become convinced that a new strategy – of strong ground bases, a versatile French Air Force and a model based on the British Burma campaign – would defeat the Viet Minh insurgents. The Viet Minh, however, remained unbeatable in the highland regions of Vietnam,[13] and the French "could not offset the fundamental disadvantages of a road bound army facing a hill and forest army in a country, which had few roads but a great many hills and forests".[14] In May 1953, with full US support, General Henri Navarre arrived to take command of the French forces, replacing General Raoul Salan.[15] Navarre spoke of a new offensive spirit in Indochina, based on very strong, fast-moving mobile forces,[8] and the media quickly took Operation Camargue to be a "practical realization" of that.[16] At about the same time, reinforcements from "France, West Germany, North Africa and Korea were rushed to the Indochina front".[8]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Paxton (2001: 82-91).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Chen Jian (1993: 85–87).
  3. Fall (1994: 17).
  4. Windrow (2004: 41–42).
  5. Windrow (2004: 93).
  6. Windrow (2004: 153-159).
  7. Chen Jian (1993: 91).
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Giap (1971: 119).
  9. Windrow (2004: 166-168).
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Cogan (2000: 61–62).
  11. Windrow (2004: 178).
  12. Windrow (2004: 56).
  13. Windrow (2004: 121).
  14. Windrow (2004: 129).
  15. Chen Jian (1993: 98–99).
  16. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named times1

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