Ho Chi Minh and the Struggle Against France for Independence, 1945-1954

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Key objectives
To be able to explain:

  • The role of Ho Chin Minh and the role of Vietnamese nationalism in opposing French rule
  • Harry S. Truman and US involvement on the side of the French
  • The struggle against the French, culminating in Dien Bien Phu

Key concepts, institutions and personalities

  • Ho Chi Minh;
  • Harry S. Truman, POTUS 1945-1953
  • Dwight Eisenhower, POTUS, 1953-1961
  • Dean Acheson, Secretary of State, 1949-1954
  • John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State 1954-1959
  • Emperor Bao Dai of Vietnam;
  • The Democratic Republic of Vietnam;
  • General Vo Nguyen Giap;
  • The Vietminh;
  • Military Advisery Assistance Group;
  • General Navarre;
  • Colonel Piroth;
  • Containment;
  • Truman Doctrine;
  • McCarthyism
  • Domino theory

Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese Nationalism
Ho Chi Minh

For a 1000 years before the French became involved in Vietnam, the people of that region had fought off frequent Chinese attempts at conquest, using guerrilla warfare techniques. Vietnamese internal squabbles had facilitated a French triumph by 1887. Ho Chi Minh was the son of a Vietnamese civil servant within the French government who nonetheless favoured Vietnamese independence and brought up his children to become fiercely nationalist. Between 1911 and 1941 Ho Chi Minh went into exile and assumed various identities in western countries, including America, where he worked in various jobs from that of assistant pastry cook and hotel porter in the Carlton Hotel, London, to painter of ‘genuine’ Chinese antiquities in Paris. He studied westerners with interest and admiration and would later use that knowledge in leading the struggle for independence. During a six year stay in Paris he brought a petition for Vietnam’s self-determination to Woodrow Wilson in 1919, which the latter chose to ignore, and became a founder member of the French Communist Party. In 1924 he went to Moscow where he met various communist leaders, including Stalin and in 1929 established the Indochinese Communist Party in Hong Kong. Throughout the 1930s his writings were smuggled into Vietnam whilst he continued travelling around China and the Soviet Union learning about Communist methods and Mao Zedong’s guerrilla tactics (for more of which see Ho Chi Minh’s Tactics and the Creation of the NLF). By the time he returned to Vietnam in 1941 he had adopted the title ‘Ho Chi Minh’ (meaning ‘Bringer of light’) and established the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Vietminh) to combat the the Japanese occupation. In 1943 he made contact with US operatives in Southern China and gained their support in training soldiers against the Japanese. Between 1941 and 1945, the Vietminh received weaponry from both the USSR and the USA. Unlike other would-be Vietnamese leaders, like the French puppet emperor Bao Dai and the later South Vietnamese president, (and American puppet) Ngo Dinh Diem, Ho Chi Minh was not associated closely with any one foreign power, so his main appeal lay not in his communism but in his patriotism. Ho Chi Minh’s movement was primarily nationalist, defined as anti-French and anti-Japanese. After the Japanese were forced to leave Vietnam, Ho declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in a speech to hundreds of his fellow countrymen, in which he quoted from the American Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the French Revolution. However, by the end of the war, the American government was more interested in his association with communism and the recognition given to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam by the USSR and by (now communist) China in 1950.

Harry S. Truman and US policy towards Vietnam
F. D. Roosevelt had been ambivalent towards the problem of Indochina during WWII, sometimes hostile to, other times favouring a continuation of French leadership. A more definite position was adopted under Harry S. Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, whose view of Vietnam was shaped by the Cold War struggle and by the fall of China in 1949. By the end of 1950, Truman had supplied $100 million to support the French military effort, established a US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) along with aircraft, patrol boats, napalm bombs and ground combat machinery. By 1954 America had supported the French to the tune of 80% of its costs in Vietnam. Though American involvement had not gone beyond the point of no return by this stage, Truman’s commitment to ‘containment’ in his 1947 speech known as the Truman Doctrine, meant that he and his successors would find it difficult to withdraw. The reasons for American involvement at this stage are briefly:

  • US hostility to USSR and the belief in the need for containment;
  • The fall of China to communism in 1949 and the fear of a domino effect – confirmed by the invasion of South Korea in 1950;
  • McCarthy hysteria in America which began in February 1950, which whipped Americans up into an anti-communist frenzy;
  • US support for France – because France was such a key ally against communism in Europe, America was compelled to support its ally against Communism in the far East;

Traditional (orthodox) interpretations of American involvement have argued that it was premised on the doctrine of containment; left-wing revisionists have argued that it was more to do with the extension of an essentially capitalist world framework. David L. Anderson argues that there were many factors involved in Truman’s decisions: ‘geopolitical strategy, economics, domestic US politics and cultural arrogance shaped the growing American involvement in Vietnam.’

The struggle against the French, culminating in Dien Bien Phu

  • The French had exploited Vietnam’s resources and its people since the late 1890s, but had established a university for the training of civil servants in Hanoi, which would become a training ground for radical opponents of French rule
  • In August 1945 – At Potsdam, the big three decided to divide Vietnam into two, the north under China and the South under Britain, which promptly agreed to hand it over to the French. China – under Chiang Kai Shek had enough problems of its own and understood the difficulties involved in trying to rule in Vietnam, decided also to leave its portion to the French; the Emperor Bao Dai went into exile but was allowed to return in 1948 and was installed by the French as head of state in 1949. He was never popular because of his allegiance to the French but also because of his corruption;
  • In September 1945 – Following Japanese withdrawal, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and deliberately quoted from the American Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold the truth that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
  • The French refused to recognise the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and in November 1946 the Vietminh officially declared war on the French.
    General Vo Nguyen Giap set out plans for a revolutionary war involving Guerrilla tactics. However, the Vietminh struggled to cope with the better trained French troops.
  • The 1949 Communist victory over nationalist forces in China meant that Vietminh now received support from across the border as well as receiving diplomatic recognition.
  • Between 1946 and 1952 90,000 French troops had been killed, wounded or captured; a growing number French people questioned France’s right to be in Vietnam.
  • By 1952, Giap commanded over a quarter of a million regular soldiers and a militia numbering 2 million. Each army was supported by 40,000 porters carrying rice or ammunition along jungle trails and over mountain passes; they followed set rules when dealing with civilians, returning anything borrowed; not causing damage or fraternising with women;
  • By 1953 the Vietminh controlled large areas of the north whilst the South lay under mostly French control. The French offered to negotiate.
  • In December 1953, with talks scheduled in Geneva, General Navarre hoped to end the war by forcing Giap’s forces into a large scale battle by setting up a defensive complex at Dien Bien Phu, which would block the route of Vietminh forces into Laos.
  • Events in Dien Bien Phu went as follows:
    • In February 1954 – General Giap took up Navarre’s challenge but instead of offering a frontal assault, amassed an army to outnumber the French (5-1). Thousands of peasant volunteers had dismantled heavy, long-range howitzers and anti-aircraft guns recently obtained from China and taken them piece by piece up into the surrounding hills. There, they successfully camouflaged the guns until they were ready to be fired.
    • Realising he had been surrounded, Navarre appealed for help to the US but Eisenhower refused to intervene unless the British supported. Neither Congress nor Britain were in favour, after the unpopular war in Korea. Eisenhower probably recognised that it was going to be impossible to win in Vietnam with French colonialism and could settle for a divided country and an armistice much like the division in Korea.
    • March 13th – Giap launched the offensive, which lasted 56 days; the French commander, Colonel Piroth committed suicide.
    • April 26th – Geneva Conference began.
    • May 7th – the French surrendered, having suffered 7000 casualties and 11,000 prisoners; the French announced their intention to withdraw the next day.
    • General Giap said: ‘The Dien Bien Phu campaign was a huge victory. It was the first time a poor feudal nation had beaten a great colonial power that had a modern industry and a massive army. The victory meant a lot, not just to us, but to people all over the world.’

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