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French Indochina

The Indochina War


The French Choose Incorrectly 

When the French first gained control of Vietnam in the mid-1800’s, they were faced with a choice. They could have ruled Vietnam in the manner the British chose to rule India, using a policy of “association.” The British governed India indirectly through native institutions.


Assimilation ď Ź

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Despite the fact that the Vietnamese culture and nation was older than that of France, the French government ordered a policy of assimilation. In their arrogance, the French assumed that no nation could have a greater honor bestowed upon it than to have the ideas and culture of France forced upon them.


Corruption ď Ź ď Ź

The French were unable to rule Vietnam in an efficient, or ethical manner. The lowest paid French official made more than the highest paid Vietnamese official, making corruption and graft the goal of obtaining a government job working for the French.


Abuse of Power ď Ź

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The collection of taxes, manpower, and other projects were left up to the local village chiefs. They in turn used the power bestowed upon them to engage in corruption and to oppress the peasants. The French themselves were often involved in the corruption.


Destroying Vietnamese Society ď Ź

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The French, motivated for once by compassion and not greed, replaced the Draconian Vietnamese judicial system with French codified law. The Vietnamese would behead a thief and have an adulteress trampled to death by an elephant. The French also overlooked the Vietnamese concept of the family’s father arbitrating all disputes or obtaining an unbiased outside arbiter.


Illiteracy ď Ź

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In an effort to further erode Vietnamese culture and inculcate the French culture, the French banned the use of Chinese pictographs to express the Vietnamese language in written form, instead teaching the Romanized Vietnamese method of writing the language, created by the French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes. By the start of WW II, only 1/5 of school aged males continued to attend school, in large part due to the resentment of the teaching methods utilized by the French.


Paul Doumer 

Exiled to Vietnam as the Governor of Indochina, Doumer arrived with a single goal in mind: The financial exploitation for France’s economic benefit of Indochina. Doumer quickly gained control of the economy, displaced the remaining peasants who owned land, created the opium trade, made Indochina a source of raw materials for France and a protected market for its manufactured goods.


Paul Doumer ď Ź

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Doumer was the French governor-general of Indochina. It was during his administration that the colony became profitable as it was exploited for its resources. Doumer was later the President of France and was assassinated in Paris in 1932.


Construction ď Ź

While Doumer saw to it that Indochina produced a healthy profit for France, he also engaged in numerous public construction projects, building opera houses, roads, schools and railways.


Ho Chi Minh as age 30. He is shown here attending the French Socialist Party Congress in December of 1920.


A Vietnamese nationalist cartoon from the 1930s depicting the rout of French colonial troops. The caption reads, “Wipe out the gang of imperialists, mandarins, capitalists, and big landlords.�


French Indochina ď Ź

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This map shows the French colony of Indochina from 19081954. Notice that portions of Laos as well as Cambodia are included in the colonial possession.


Is it Paris or Saigon? ď Ź

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Life for a French colonial in Saigon was not bad. This photograph depicts French colonials in Saigon enjoying a meal in a local Vietnamese restaurant.


Hard at work ď Ź

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This photograph shows French governmental officials hard at work, if you want to call it that. These officials are overseeing the annual blessing of the rice harvest.


Ho Chi Minh in Paris, 1946 ď Ź

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Ho Chi Minh is shown here giving an address in Paris following the end of World War II. Ho Chi Minh pleaded for support for Vietnamese independence as a reward for their fight against Japan.


The French Indochina War ď Ź

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Frustrated by the lack of support in the effort to gain Vietnamese independence, the Vietnamese, organized by the now communist Ho Chi Minh, declared their independence. Interestingly, Ho based the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence on the United States Declaration of Independence.


The War Begins ď Ź

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Under the political leadership of Ho Chi Minh and the military leadership of Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietminh began a war of insurgency against the French. The French Indochina War lasted from 1945 until 1954.


Dien Bien Phu 

The French, acting under the principle of you cannot defeat that which you cannot engage in battle, built a fortified base camp for air land operations in Northwest Vietnam. The purpose was to so interdict Vietminh operations in that part of Vietnam, combined with blocking the Vietminh’s ability to enter Laos, that it would force the Vietminh to draw a large force to the area to attack the French, allowing the French to destroy the Vietminh in a final, culminating battle.


Dien Bien Phu – Operation Castor 

The French visualized a mobile operation from their encampment at Dien Bien Phu that would be resupplied by air. The commander of the camp was well suited for this type of military fighting.


March 13, 1954 ď Ź ď Ź

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The battle started with a Vietminh barrage. The surrounded French forces were immediately under siege. Instead of preparing for a World War I type battle, the French had mistakenly planned to fight a mobile battle. The results were disastrous. On May 7, 1954 the fort was finally overrun.


How did they do it? ď Ź

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The Vietminh learned from their earlier defeats and mistakes. Giap was a selftaught general. In preparation for the battle, the Vietminh dragged large numbers of artillery guns into position on hilltops surrounding the encampments and camouflaged them. They dug trenches and tunnels to approach the French fortifications.


How did they do it? ď Ź

ď Ź

Having learned that resupply by air was the key to the French winning, Giap brought in large numbers of anti-aircraft guns. The French effort to resupply by air failed and paratroopers who were airdropped suffered a disastrous fate.


A Great Propaganda Victory  

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Many of the soldiers at Dien Bien Phu were French Foreign Legionnaires. This elite group of soldiers fought bravely and against incredible odds. They were largely German nationals who were ex-Wehrmacht and Waffen SS soldiers. The capture of these soldiers served to tarnish the French reputation worldwide and encouraged the French African colonies to move towards independence. France was no longer viewed as a great military power – a small, rag tag Asian force of insurgents had defeated the mighty French. And in the end, it was Germans who were doing the bulk of the fighting. The embattle French paratroopers, who were elite soldiers, and the German Legionnaires fought against impossible odds for 50 days.


The Conclusion of the War   

The end of the war did not result in a united independent Vietnam. The Geneva Accords settled the fate of Vietnam. Like the Koreas, the nation was partitioned into a communist nation in the north and what was technically a democracy in the south. At the request of the South Vietnamese, through the French, American military aid was requested during the Eisenhower Administration.


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