Why did France lose control of its Indochinese possessions post-WW2?

The Vietnamese people had faced many invasions throughout their history. The Party1 historians claim that Vietnam has been ceaselessly at war for 2000 years, and while not all of this period has been spent in protracted warfare Vietnam has certainly never been entirely safe. Through millennia of conflict, mostly against China, a martial cast had been lent to Vietnamese society: unlike the Chinese, the Vietnamese admired the mandarin-warrior above all else (the Chinese considered warriors a necessity, but not inherently desirable). In their eyes, their heroes were wise men who were also great warriors. Over the centuries such men had developed a military philosophy which held as its main principle that a smaller force could, when handled with skill, defeat a larger one.

In 1858, French warships opened fire on the seaport of Da Nang, in what was to become the French protectorate of Annam (Trung Bo). By 1884 Vietnam was effectively a French possession, the only tattered remnants of Confucian authority being a puppet Emperor sitting on the once August Imperial throne in Hué. Resistance to the French by the Confucian ruling elite was dead by now, but a new generation of men took a keen interest in winning back their national sovereignty. A revolutionary movement had been growing in Vietnam throughout the 1920s and 1930s, under the leadership of such men as Ho Chi Minh (first President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) and Vo Nguyen Giap (Defence Secretary of the DRV.)

The First Indochinese War, which culminated in the Geneva Accord of 1954 and the end of French rule in Indochina, has its origins in the August Revolution of 1945. While Party historians tend to paint the picture that ever since their country's conquest there had been an unrelenting struggle by the people for independence, this is not really the case. In an essay entitled The Vietnamese People's War of Liberation Against the French Imperialists and American Interventionists, Vo Nguyen Giap states:

"From the first day of French aggression, the national liberation movement of the Vietnamese people developed unceasingly. The repression used to stifle the movement only increased it the more; so much so, that after the First World War, it began to take on a powerful mass character."2

We should always be wary of Communist views, especially when they were written at a time such as this. The Cold War was an ideological battle between the capitalist West and the Communist East, and both sides engaged in propaganda to justify themselves to their own people and present a better image to the other side. As a Communist statesman, Vo Nguyen Giap would often bend the truth to make his side look more favourable to the Vietnamese people. This essay was written after the Geneva Accords had been signed, but while South Vietnam was still under, as Giap puts it, "the yoke of the American imperialists and the American-backed Ngo Dinh Diem authorities."3 This text was doubtlessly intended to inspire the people of North Vietnam for their next struggle against the South, and to cast the revolution in a favourable light for future generations. A more unbiased account of Vietnamese resistance prior to the August Revolution can be found in William J. Duiker's The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. Duiker points out that peasant revolts in Indochina up until August were frequently isolated because ill-feeling in one area was not duplicated elsewhere - these uprisings were not part of a mass movement or overtly political; rather, they were motivated by social and economic causes. The Communists, he says, are the people who took the revolution to the people and organized them - no-one had managed to beforehand.

Historians are generally agreed that the Communist Party carried out the revolution with skill, and applied revolutionary doctrine to their situation well. There is some disagreement over what the motivations of the peasantry was, and indeed if they had any motivation at all. Some historians (Duiker and others) claim that the peasants were generally quite apathetic about politics, and more concerned with social and economic problems. The Indochinese Communist Party certainly had very political motives and pretensions to rule the country. However, at this stage their strategy had not been overtly declared to the peasant masses, for it was feared doing so would alienate moderates and the urban bourgeois, whose support was still needed in these early stages of the revolution. Vo Nguyen Giap claims -

"The general insurrection of August 1945 was an uprising of the entire people. Our entire people, united in a broad national front, with their armed and semi-armed forces, unanimously rose up everywhere, in the countryside and in the cities."4

Communist historians (working from their Marxist interpretation of history5) would like you to believe that the insurrection was Marxist-Leninist motivated, and that the people rose up in a massive popular revolt against their occupiers. They would cite land confiscations from the landed classes as an example of this. It seems more likely that the political sophistication of the peasantry was not sufficiently advanced for them to have had these goals, however - rather, they were reacting to economic and social hardships which had not only reached a head, but had done so at a time when it was possible for something to be done about it. After all, peasants had been seizing property from their landlords in violent demonstrations for centuries before Karl Marx was born.

As World War II drew to a close, a famine ravaged Vietnam, leaving millions dead. Popular discontent was rising, and the Communists agitated the situation by staging protests outside granaries and demanding the release of rice and grain. In 1940, the Vichy government of France had allowed Japanese occupational forces to move into Vietnam to use it as a base for attacks into China. On March 9, 1945, the Japanese executed a coup d'état and abolished the French colonial government. Vietnam scholar Paul Mus believes this was a very important factor in preparing the Vietnamese people psychologically for the August Revolution - by failing to protect them against the Japanese, the French had lost the Confucian Heavenly Mandate6. We should also not discount the imagery of this short race of yellow-skinned men inflicting defeat on the white colonialist.

Certainly, when the Pacific War ended, the withdrawal of the defeated Japanese forces left a vacuum of power for the Communists to move into. Social factors and an obfuscation of their true intentions encouraged the people to rally behind them and help them in bringing about the revolution. It is not really correct to agree that the revolution was Marxist-Leninist motivated, because Communist instructions at the time discouraged and even threatened to punish those who were engaging in class action -

"All those who have instigated the peasants to seize the land owners' property will be severely and pitilessly punished. We have not yet made the Communist revolution which will solve the agrarian problem."7

Despite the success of the August Revolution, the war was not over and the French remained. Eventually, though, the People's Army overcame a technologically and economically stronger opponent. There is, however, some division of opinion on what factors led to their success, and predictably the division boils down to a Communist embellishment of the truth.

In his essay People's War, People's Army Vo Nguyen Giap writes -

"If the question is put: 'Why were the Vietnamese people able to win?' the most precise and most complete answer must be: 'The Vietnamese people won because their war of liberation was a people's war.'"8

As with the August Revolution, Communist historians again paint the picture that the entire nation rose up against what they perceived as the evil Imperialist. Certainly, the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Viet Minh) was popular in the countryside because of its rural program of cutting taxes and distributing food to the needy in the zones it controlled, yet only 820,000 peasants had enrolled in the Viet Minh's peasant association programs by 1948. William J. Duiker thinks that the Viet Minh did not actually have the unequivocal support of the peasant masses at this stage because they where still working on a compromise: they could not afford to alienate moderate elements of Vietnamese nationalism which where vital in providing support for their war. Landlord elements in the villages were coddled and sometimes took control of the Viet Minh organizations, thus the peasantry did not always see the Viet Minh as working in their interest.

Communist strategy in the conflict paid a lot of homage to the doctrine of revolutionary war established by Mao Zedong during the Chinese Civil War (and expounded in such volumes as On Protracted War) - first, the Viet Minh were forced to withdraw from major population centres. This they did in the first year of the war, despite a valiant holding action in Hanoi. Then, the Viet Minh gradually built up their forces and worked towards numerical and technological (by stealing weapons from defeated forces) parity with the French. Then, finally, they were able to meet and defeat the enemy in a conventional engagement, as they did at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Before they reached this point, however, they had mainly to rely on guerrilla tactics behind enemy lines.

Whatever occurred before it, there is general consensus among historians that the fall of the garrison of Dien Bien Phu was the final, crushing blow to the French psyche which allowed the Vietnamese to go to the negotiating table at Geneva with the upper hand. Disagreement arises over why the Vietnamese were able to win such a resounding victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu.

One school of thought stresses the weakening of the French political system and general incompetence by General Navarre (Commander in Chief of Indochinese forces from spring of 1953). The valley of Dien Bien Phu, with its garrison of 16,000 men of the French Expeditionary Corps, was very vulnerable to the type of attack which General Giap inflicted on it. The French made another error when they assumed that no artillery pieces could possibly be brought as close to Dien Bien Phu as they were in fact brought. General Navarre feels this was a vital factor in the defeat of his forces, and he accepts responsibility for his failure to appropriately predict the conditions of battle. This seems reliable because of his honesty (he is not trying to ascribe blame to someone else), and the leading artilleryman on the ground when the battle started seemed to agree - he committed suicide in shame on the first day.

If French historians seem wary of overly praising the Viet Minh, General Giap and other Vietnamese history writers have no such fears. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that by the time of Dien Bien Phu, the Vietnamese war of liberation had become a true people's war, and that it was the support of the people that allowed the Vietnamese to win. Soldiers came in their tens of thousands from all over Indochina to gather around the doomed garrison of Dien Bien Phu, including over one hundred thousand support and logistical soldiers. The most telling evidence of the sheer level of support from the people which the Viet Minh had is the effort which was required to bring artillery pieces into place around the valley.

This effort, revealed Giap, came from "pure sweat and muscle" - thousands of Vietnamese citizens had spent three months dragging heavy artillery pieces an inch at a time, half a mile a day, and then secreted them in caves and dugouts around the valley. When the first volley of artillery fire was unleashed by the Vietnamese just after 1700 hours on 12 March, "it was a massacre" states the commander of the forces on the ground, Colonel Pierre Langlais.

After fifty-five days, the colonial forces had run out of ammunition, resolve, and any hope of victory. The garrison fell that day, and when France went to Geneva its spirit was broken and its public, long disillusioned with colonial wars, would tolerate nothing but a settlement. Giap understood totally that the main victory he had won was a political victory - the French people had given up on their war in Indochina long ago (Ils sont foutus - 'They are finished' - ran the headlines in Le Figaro before the fighting even started.)

The condition of France certainly did not lend itself to a long war, and hadn't from the start. The Fourth French Republic had only become into being in 1946, and it would be dead by the end of the 1950s. All three branches (the legislative, the executive and the judicial) were sparring with each other over the correct division of power within the government. It had been necessary to expel the French Communist Party (of which Ho Chi Minh had been a founding member in the 1920s) from the government shortly after the Republic had come into being amidst fears of them taking too much power. At the time this had disenfranchised almost half of the French electorate. France was confused internally, was having trouble reinvigorating its economy, and its people became less and less concerned with events in Asia. Eight months after the war began, a poll showed that French opinion was split roughly 50/50 on whether to continue with armed conflict or withdraw with negotiations. In 1950 only 38% favoured war and 52% favoured negotiations. By February 1954 the figures were 7% for and 60% against. This shows not only an increase in support for negotiations, but a decrease in the response rate, indicating apathy.

The French government was not strong enough to take the fall of Dien Bien Phu, and it only lasted the extra month after the surrender because its opponents in the National Assembly didn't want to bring about a parliamentary crisis while the Geneva Conference was ongoing. France was entering another power struggle - with these sorts of internal problems, it is hardly surprising it had trouble dealing with the colonies, especially in the face of a public who would rather the problems of their own nation were looked into.

France lost its Indochinese possessions for a great variety of reasons. Communist histories claim that the Vietnamese people won because, right from the start, they were all willing to work resolutely against their enemy, and that they moved as one mass to throw him out (collaborators with the colonial regime, such as the Vietnamese fighting as part of the French Expeditionary Corps at Dien Bien Phu, are rarely mentioned in Communist histories.) By the time of Dien Bien Phu, this is truer - but the Communist Party perhaps takes some deserved praise away from itself, because they themselves were a primary factor. They managed to organize the peasants during the August Revolution, modulate their behaviour and move them towards the final victory. Western historians such as Duiker recognize the role of personal ability within the Party.

The loss of Vietnam wasn't just a loss to France; it was a loss to the Western cause. One decade of war merely begat another, and the Americans would be thwarted in Vietnam, again by a dutiful, well-led people. Those Vietnamese historians that have paid homage to the tenacity of their people have not been entirely misplaced in their faith, and some Westerners also agree that it was the sheer endurance and willingness to sacrifice themselves for the cause that led to the Vietnamese victory. For example, an army clerk stated "the Viet Minh became the greatest infantry in the world, these great enduring men turned out to be exceptional infantry and they managed to defeat us." Other Frenchmen think that the political situation at home is what ultimately crippled France, because the people, even the soldiers, had no interest in continuing the war.

The truth is, as usual, a combination of many factors. If the French nation had been entirely behind the war, it might have continued in a different way, until they finally prevailed. Had the Vietnamese people been more resigned to accept colonial rule, the French might have succeeded. Factors completely beyond the control of the two sides intervened as well, such as World War II, the Japanese coup d'état, and the convening of the Geneva Conference itself (which was called by the four Great Powers of the Cold War to solve problems such as Indochina.)

1. The Communist Party of Vietnam (Dang cong san Viet Nam), the only legal political party in modern-day Vietnam, publishes their version of the history of the Vietnamese Revolution on their website at http://www.cpv.org.vn/cpv/history/index.htm.

2. General Vo Nguyen Giap. The Military Art of People's War: Selected Writings of General Vo Nguyen Giap. Modern Reader: London and New York, 1970.

3. Ngo Dinh Diem was the first, CIA-sponsored, President of South Vietnam, who came to power in 1954.

4. General Vo Nguyen Giap. The Political and Military Line of Our Party published in The Military Art of People's War, originally from Vietnamese Studies n.7 (Hanoi.)

5. The Marxist interpretation of history ("historical materialism") attempts to explain history in terms of economics and class struggle. "All past history, with the exception of the primitive stages, was the history of class struggle," wrote Frederick Engels in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.

6. In traditional Confucianism, if a ruler failed to protect the country against an invader, then the legitimacy of that ruler died and could never be restored - they believed the will of Heaven ('God', we would say) was against this ruler. His lack of virtues had led Heaven to remove him.

7. This was a directive by Nguyen Van Tao to local Party officials in 1945. Mention of such directives is conspicuous in its absence from Communist histories.

8. General Vo Nguyen Giap. From the essay People's War, People's Army published in the collection of the same name. Foreign Languages Publishing House: Hanoi, 1961.

I've started writing a history of the Communist movement in Vietnam here: The prehistory of the Vietnamese Communist Party. The above is a coursework essay I wrote on the subject, I'm fleshing out the narrative slowly so as to maintain quality. I hope the above stands as interesting on its own.

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