Following France’s fall to Germany in June 1940, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded what was then known as French Indochina on 22 September 1940, taking Gia Lâm Airbase near Hanoi, the rail marshaling yard in Lào Cai, Phủ Lạng Thương city and had stationed 900 troops in the port of Haiphong as well as 600 more in Hanoi. Japan kept troops in North Vietnam for the remaining duration of WWII, albeit under control of the administrative structure of the French State. The First Indochina War would soon begin.
For the population of North Vietnam, the Japanese occupation was another notch in their experience of imperialism. Now not just with one master but two, they experienced the push and pull politics between the two colonial powers vying for their support. Soon after the occupation in September, Japanese officials were seen to encourage nationalist groups to revolt against French rule in Bắc Sơn. The American Consul in Saigon reported that “thousands of natives have been killed and more are in prison awaiting execution.” He described, “promiscuous machine-gunning” of Vietnamese civilians by French soldiers. French forces regained control of Bắc Sơn due to the poor military understanding and the poor military execution of the communist revolt leaders.
Communists in Vietnam, however, needed little encouragement to mobilise against a foreign power. Since the formation of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) (Đảng cộng sản Đông Dương), Hồ Chí Minh and his allies had repeatedly planned for an eventual uprising against colonial rule across the country. Hồ Chí Minh went as far as to sound out their plans of an armed communist assault in Cochinchina to Communist Party leaders in China.
The ICP had identified strong anti-French sentiment in Cochinchina early in 1940, using it as an opportunity to raise guerrilla forces in the south taken largely from city factory workers, farmers based in southern communes and newly conscripted soldiers. In addition to colonialism curbing Vietnamese independence, discontent among southern peasants rose in the face of high taxes, a fall in the price of rice and increased unemployment. Ultimately, peasant riots against conscription to French military service on the Thai-Cambodian border elicited a rise in riots throughout the Mekong Delta. The ICP concentrated their propaganda on these discontented peasants and soldiers, organising them regionally into groups that made weapons, distributed anti-colonial propaganda and worked at recruiting more allies for the communist cause.
Using Bắc Sơn as a meeting place, Phan Đăng Lưu of the Central Committee of the ICP in Cochinchina met with several members of the Regional Committee of the ICP in Tonkin in early November 1940. Plans solidified between the branches of the Communist Party in the North and the South called for a nationwide revolutionary movement. Under their eventual agreement, a revolutionary base was to be established in the Việt Bắc and it was assumed that the revolution could break out in the form of local uprisings leading the way toward a general uprising that would result in a seizure of power across the country. However, the Tonkin ICP Regional Committee members advised that any steps towards a general revolution should be put on hold until they could amass a significant armed force, professional ICP leadership could be installed in every revolutionary cell and plans set for an orderly retreat should the plans fail. Phan Đăng Lưu left Bắc Sơn deflated and prepared himself to break the news to his colleagues in the south that the ICP in the north was not willing to back the plans for an immediate revolution.
On his return on 22 November 1940, Phan Đăng Lưu was arrested by French police at Saigon Railway Station after receiving intelligence that Lưu was engaged in revolutionary activities. This, coupled with the impatience of revolutionary cells in the Mekong Delta and the Plain of Reeds, led to the outbreak of attacks on the same day known as the Cochinchina Uprising. In the centers for southern inter-regional ICP committees Gia Đình, Cholon, Mỹ Tho and Cần Thơ, communist insurgents attacked village notaries considered representatives of the French colonial administration. French military posts, post offices, police stations, ferries and communication links were also targeted. In some areas, revolutionaries formed short-lived tribunals to punish class enemies.
The insurrection lasted until 31 December. Although, by 13 December, the uprising had already lost its steam under the barrage of French retaliation and the loose coordination between revolutionary factions. In their eagerness to start the uprising, regional ICP committees in the south had underestimated the amount of preparation, equipment and leadership needed for such an undertaking. Specifically, they lacked a coordinated, trained and dedicated armed force, which proved a severe handicap against the professional Far East Expeditionary Force used by the French administration.
The suppression of the Cochinchina Uprising in a relatively short amount of time, leaving barely a mark on French colonial rule in the south, was a grave setback for the ICP and the communist revolutionary cause. Brutal punishments and the use of the guillotine on captured revolutionaries seriously deterred potential communist-sympathizers still left among the rural population against showing the same loyalty again in the future.
That is until 1941 and the revitalisation of the Việt Minh by Hồ Chí Minh and the ICP. Officially named the League for Independence of Vietnam, the Việt Minh traced its roots back to August 1935 when Vietnamese nationalists formed the group in Nanjing, China, as a united front against imperialism in Indochina. Although it soon lapsed into inactivity, Hồ Chí Minh’s return to Vietnam in February 1941, where he set up headquarters in a cave in Pác Bó, reiterated the struggle towards national independence at the Eight Plenum of the ICP in May. It was decided that above campaigning in favour of socialist ideology and committing to
Soon after the Eight Plenum in May, the Việt Minh began establishing its control throughout the northern region of the Việt Bắc, creating an autonomous revolutionary base secure from colonial control. The Việt Bắc served as an adequate region for this purpose: remote from French and Japanese influence, populated by tribes and ethnic minorities largely sympathetic to the communist cause and with access to China, which would provide invaluable refuge, training and material support for the resistance movement.
Despite a temporary spell in prison for two years in 1942, Hồ Chí Minh returned to North Vietnam once again in September 1944 with a team of eighteen men trained and armed by the Chinese government to head a guerrilla force under the Việt Minh. One of Hồ Chí Minh’s first acts was to establish armed propaganda detachments – the start of an intense focus on art as a weapon of war seen years later by artists like Huỳnh Văn Thuận, who provided propaganda images in the
Keen to establish the Việt Minh as an eligible political entity as well as a guerrilla force, Hồ Chí Minh travelled to China once again in January 1945 to negotiate with American and Free French units. While soliciting financial support from the Americas, Hồ Chí Minh failed to ensure guarantees for Vietnamese independence from the French. On 9 March 1945, Japanese forces seized administrative buildings, radio stations, banks and industries, and disarmed French forces, thereby breaking their peaceful arrangement with the French in Indochina. By also revoking the French Treaty of Protectorate of 1883, which established Indochina as a French protectorate, Japan declared the independence of Vietnam under Japanese tutelage. Before the end of WWII in May, 500,000 deaths in the Red River Delta and a power vacuum caused by the Japanese coup persuaded the Việt Minh that the time was right for a general uprising.
Beginning in northern rural areas and then moving to the cities, communist military forces moved armed propaganda units under ICP military strategist Võ Nguyên Giáp south from Cao Bằng into Thái Nguyên Province. To the east, the 3,000-man National Salvation Army commanded by Chu Văn Tấn began liberating the provinces of Tuyên Quang and Lạng Sơn, establishing revolutionary district administrations soon after. At the first major military conference of the ICP, held in April 1945 in Bắc Giang Province, the Việt Bắc was formally established as the revolutionary liberated zone. All existing ICP military units were united to form the new Vietnam Liberation Army (VLA), later called the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Giáp was named Commander-in-Chief of the VLA and chairman of the Revolution Military Committee, later called the Central Military Party Committee (CMPC). By June 1945, the Việt Minh had established revolutionary committees at all levels of society throughout the Việt Bắc and had begun distributing French-owned lands to the poor, abolished the corvée, established national language (quốc ngữ) classes, set up local self-defense militias in the villages, and declared universal suffrage and democratic freedoms. Under the new directorate governing the liberated zone, Hồ Chí Minh presided over an estimated one million people.
In South Vietnam, national salvation associations (cứu quốc hội) were formed made up of workers, peasants, women, youth, students and soldiers – much like the groups organized before the Cochinchina Uprising of 1940. By mid-summer, 100,000 peasants had enlisted to the cause in Quảng Ngãi Province; 200,000 had joined the Vanguard Youth (Thanh Niên Tiền Phong) in Saigon, which grew to a following of one million across Cochinchina.
When the atomic bombs dropped over Japan in mid-August, the Việt Minh National Congress convened bringing together delegates from many parties, organizations, ethnic and religious groups, and elected a National Liberation Committee, headed by Hồ Chí Minh (who was gravely ill at the time), to serve as a provisional government. Congress ratified the decision for a general uprising and the Việt Minh launched the August Revolution on 14 August 1945. Days later, Hanoi and most of the district capitals in the north were captured. Far from the disjointed revolutionary attempt of 1940, the August Revolution swept the country and looked unstoppable, taking over administrative buildings, usurping local authorities and disarming Japanese and French soldiers. The revolutionary government in Hanoi received Bảo Đại’s dynastic seal and sword on 25 August, signifying the fall of Huế, the capital of central Annam. Saigon also fell in August, where the Việt Minh organized a nine-member, multiparty Committee of the South, including six members from the Việt Minh, to govern the city.
On 2 September 1945, approximately 500,000 people gathered in Ba Đình Square to hear Hồ Chí Minh read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence and announce the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government. His words mimicked the American Declaration of Independence and also made a brief nod to the credo of liberty, equality and fraternity found in the French Constitution, some say in an attempt to reconcile with future allies and past enemies: “All people are created equal. They are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
No sooner had Hồ Chí Minh had his words immortalized, however, did the prospect of true Vietnamese independence
From May until December 1946, France concentrated their efforts on retaking Hanoi, which they succeeded at doing after the heavy bombardment of Haiphong
At the beginning of 1947, Hồ Chí Minh together with Võ Nguyên Giáp and Việt Minh officials retreated to the autonomous region of the Việt Bắc. Throughout the year, they engaged in sporadic battles across the northern countryside with French forces, using guerilla tactics to prevent further pitched battles. Negotiations between Hồ Chí Minh and the French government repeatedly broke down, fueling further violence. In October, the French Far East Expeditionary Force launched Operation Léa in an effort to take out the communications
Concerned with the failed attempts of meeting the Việt Minh head-on militarily in North Vietnam, the French administration sought to combat them through political means. At the beginning of 1948, they began negotiations with the former emperor Bảo Đại to lead an autonomous government of Vietnam recognized under the French Union. Despite receiving a similar set of terms from Hồ Chí Minh two years previously that also called for an autonomous Vietnamese government lead by a Head of State, the French naturally preferred Bảo Đại; a French collaborator in the past and a person of standing with no real political power in the country.
On 8 March 1949, France officially recognized the State of Vietnam as an independent country under the French Union, with Bảo Đại as Head of State. Independence, however, only meant so much. Under the new arrangement, France kept control of all foreign relations and all defense issues. The same notion of independence was also granted to other countries in Indochina: the Kingdom of Laos and the Kingdom of Cambodia. In July, in order to consolidate anti-communist forces and free up French troops for combat, the State of Vietnam formed the Vietnamese National Army (VNA) led by Vietnamese officers.
The Việt Minh quickly denounced the State of Vietnam government. When Chinese communists under Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China on 1 October, however, the ICP and the Việt Minh gained an important future ally that would bolster their strength by supporting them with weapons and supplies. Commander-in-Chief Võ Nguyên Giáp re-organised the irregular guerrilla forces in North Vietnam into five conventional infantry divisions. With a new ally and a set of new fighting divisions, Giáp intensified attacks on isolated French bases along Vietnam’s northern border with China.
With international recognition of the DRV from China and the Soviet Union at the beginning of 1950, the Việt Minh further escalated the First Indochina War against French forces, utilizing the economic and military support from both allies. This was a turning point in the First Indochina War not only because of Chinese and Soviet Union support for the
DRV, PAVN and Việt Minh preparations and training came to a fore in September 1950 with the Battle of Đông Khê. On 16 September, the Việt Minh launched an attack on the town of Đông Khê, the rendezvous point for the evacuation of French forces from Cao Bằng that was scheduled in October. Using mortar bombardments and full-frontal assaults, Việt Minh soldiers managed to capture the town after two days of fighting, with only a few French legionnaires managing to escape.
The French, however, would get no respite. On 30 September, the Việt Minh launched another full-scale assault known as the Battle of Route Coloniale 4. Effectively the broader campaign for control over Vietnam’s northern border with China, the Battle of Route Coloniale 4 would give the victor full control of the DRV’s northern provinces. For the Việt Minh, it also meant the possibility of an uninterrupted flow of troops, military equipment and supplies from China.
Route Coloniale 4 acted as the supply route for French forces linking the border towns of Cao Bằng, Đông Khê, Thật Khẽ and Lạng Sơn. After their defeat at Đông Khê, French battalions were dispatched from Cao Bằng and Thật Khẽ to reinforce the remaining troops surrounding Đông Khê. However, after successive Việt Minh ambushes and skirmishes, the French reinforcements were all but destroyed. By the end of the battle in October, French forces listed 4,800 as dead and 2,000 missing or captured, their worst casualty list until that point in the First Indochina War. In November, Lào Cai was the last northern town to be liberated by the Việt Minh, an event documented by artist Tô Ngọc Vân.
The French defeat on
Riding on a crest of military successes, Hồ Chí Minh formed Đảng Lao Động Việt Nam (the Vietnam Labour Party) in February 1951. This was an important step for Hồ Chí Minh’s control in government as it signified the first time that there was communist influence in the northern government since the dissolution of the Indochinese Communist Party in November 1945.
General Võ Nguyên Giáp launched the Red River Delta campaign in 1951, organizing 20,000 Việt Minh troops to attack French positions and outposts throughout northern Vietnam and the Red River Delta.
This spelt a turning point in the fortunes of the Việt Minh. In numerous attacks during the year, Võ Nguyên Giáp and the Việt Minh were caught on the back foot. At the Battle of Vĩnh Yên in January, Việt Minh forces were caught in a trap and forced to fight an open battle, suffering heavy losses. At the Battle of Mạo Khê in March, French naval forces, B-26s and Hellcats were used successfully in defending the town of Mạo Khê and the Việt Minh’s final retreat came after bitter hand-to-hand fighting. At the Battle of the Day River, where Võ Nguyên Giáp attacked the towns of Phủ Lý, Ninh Bình and Phát Diệm respectively, cunning counter attacks by de Lattre cost the Việt Minh over 10,000 men. Giáp may have taken some consolation that de Lattre’s son was killed at Ninh Bình but, for French forces, it spelt a time of optimism and the sense of an overall victory. Việt Minh morale was at an all-time low, which caused many members to question their loyalty to the communist government.
However, the Battle of Hòa Bình, from 10 November 1951 to 25 February 1952, proved a pivotal event in lifting the morale and fortunes of the Việt Minh. Hòa Bình, a town approximately 60
General Giáp had learnt from his previous mistakes at the Battle of Vĩnh Yên and the Battle of the Day River. From the end of 1951, Giáp oversaw numerous attacks on locations surrounding Hòa Bình and along Route Coloniale 6, reverting to skirmishing guerrilla tactics. The frequency of the attacks stretched French Union reinforcements to the point where they could no longer safely defend Hòa Bình. By 25 February 1952, the new Commander-in-Chief of the French Union forces, General Raoul Salan, had completed the French evacuation of Hòa Bình.
For the duration of 1952, General Giáp ordered more raids, skirmishes and guerrilla assaults aimed at cutting French Union supply lines. These were largely successful and the Việt Minh’s unconventional tactics seriously wore down the resolve of French Union forces in Vietnam. The French leadership also suffered from an inability to employ new and innovative military strategies, other than the hedgehog concept used at the Battle of Nà Sản. Although, the hedgehog concept, a ploy to lure the enemy out into a field of open battle via a series small, well-defended positions, became a tactic easily anticipated by PAVN leaders, a fact that would have disastrous consequences in future conflicts.
As well as the stagnation of French Union forces within Vietnam, French public opinion over the First Indochina War at home had taken a sharp decline. After US senator John F. Kennedy visited Vietnam in 1951 and questioned America’s support for French colonialism, many regarded the war as a futile venture. The total of 90,000 French casualties at the end of 1951 also increased public pressure for the French government to cease hostilities and engage in political negotiations.
Despite the failing French morale in Vietnam and at home, General Salan and the French Union forces did enjoy some success, notably using the de Lattre Line to good effect in the 30,000-strong Operation Lorraine. By the beginning of 1953, General Võ Nguyên Giáp realized he could not make any great impression on French Union forces with direct attacks alone. In April 1953, General Giáp launched an incursion into Laos, defeating several French outposts with little resistance. With the aim of forcing French forces to overstretch themselves, the invasion was only a partial success for Giáp, as General Salan refused to commit more troops to the war in Laos.
In May, General Salan was replaced as supreme commander by General Henri Navarre. In a report to the French government, General Navarre declared that there was “no possibility of winning the war,” and the best they could hope for was a stalemate. It was a view shared by many in the French government. With the armistice and division of Korea on 27 July, there was hope that France would be able to engineer the same result: create a stalemate, retire from the conflict and divide the country into two separate states.
In that vein, General Navarre claimed that the best way to see out the First Indochina War with the Việt Minh was through the use of the hedgehog concept, particularly in regards to combating the invasion into Laos. As such, General Navarre began looking into the best locations to set up a set of defensive positions to lure the Việt Minh out from Laos. He chose Điện Biên Phủ, a small town located 16
In response, General Giáp ordered PAVN and Việt Minh troops to journey from the De Lattre Line in the east to Điện Biên Phủ in the west, hoping to capitalize on the weak French position. From December 1953 to March 1954, thousands of Việt Minh made the journey to Điện Biên Phủ. One artist, Colonel Phạm Thanh Tâm, having recently finished artillery training in China, walked over 300 miles from the border-town of Lào Cai to Điện Biên Phủ, documenting the “bronze foot” soldiers transporting heavy and light artillery through the hills, stopping at local villages and interacting with the growing convoy. Other artists Lê Huy Toàn, Văn Giáo, Tô Ngọc Vân and Nguyễn Văn Tỵ all walked across the country and secretly encamped themselves in the hills surrounding Điện Biên Phủ with PAVN and Việt Minh soldiers.
On 13 March 1954, Việt Minh artillery opened fire on the French defensive positions encamped in the flood plain at Điện Biên Phủ, immediately destroying the airfield – General Navarre’s biggest advantage – as well as the only road leading in and out of the town. French counter-attacks were largely futile. General Giáp strategy of relocating artillery teams throughout the hills after every salvo meant the French had little knowledge of where to return fire. Together with fake artillery encampments scattered throughout the jungle, French forces were at a loss. On 7 May, the siege ended as a decisive Việt Minh victory. Although, the Việt Minh lost approximately 8,000 troops to France’s 1,500, they captured 10,000 soldiers from the Far East Expeditionary Corps who were marched out of Điện Biên Phủ to prison camps in the Việt Bắc.
On 8 May 1954, the Geneva Conference opened peace talks over Indochina and French imperialism in the region. The Battle of Điện Biên Phủ had, for the last time, confirmed the futility of continuing to operate a French colonial empire in the region. With Laos having gained its independence in October 1953, and Cambodia in November 1953, it was largely agreed that France should relinquish its claim to Vietnam as well. The accords, issued on 21 July, set out a number of provisions for the future of Vietnam: a provisional demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating communist North Vietnam from democratic South Vietnam along the 17th Parallel; French Union forces to regroup in South Vietnam and the Việt Minh to regroup in North Vietnam; the free movement of civilians across the DMZ; a halt to all military activities including seeking military alliances or reinforcements; a set of free and fair elections to take place in 1956.
The final Geneva Accords belied the reality of the French position in Vietnam after the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ. For Hồ Chí Minh, the DRV and the Việt Minh, the Accords fell well short of their ultimate goal of a fully united and independent Vietnam. Phạm Văn Đồng, furious with the outcome, believed that the DRV had been double-crossed by its allies China and the Soviet Union at the negotiating table, which resulted in the DRV agreeing to more concessions than was reasonable. Operation Passage to Freedom, aided by the US Navy, saw up to 2 million Catholics, intellectuals, business people,
France, on the other hand, came out of the Accords with the best possible outcome. On 9 October, the
In October 1955, Ngô Đình Diệm proclaimed himself as the first president of the new Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Over time, the provisions set out in the Geneva Accords became standard practice and eventually the status quo. The DMZ at the 17th Parallel, originally a temporary measure, would continue as a national border for the next twenty-two years. Although French Union forces abandoned the DRV completely, the Việt Minh and supporters of the northern government continued to live throughout the RVN. The movement of people from the DRV to the RVN was threatened by discriminate violence along the DMZ. Finally, as President of the RVN, Ngô Đình Diệm refused to hold the 1956 national elections prescribed in the Geneva Accords, citing that they were not possible with a communist government in the North. Although the First Indochina War had officially ended in 1954, constant disputes regarding the legitimate independence of Vietnam fueled further conflicts and a steady escalation, once again, to war.
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
 The old name for Bắc Giang city in Bắc Giang Province.
 The French State, also referred to Vichy France, headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain during World War II. Evacuated from Paris to Vichy in the unoccupied “Free Zone” (zone libre) in the southern part of metropolitan France, which included French Algeria, it remained responsible for the civil administration of France as well as the French colonial empire.
 Near the Chinese border.
 Formed by Hồ Chí Minh and colleagues in 1930 in Hong Kong. The first of three predecessors to the Communist Party of Vietnam. The other two predecessors were the Communist Party of Annam (An Nam cộng sản Đảng, 1929-1930) and the Communist League of Indochina.
 South Vietnam. At the time, the southern protectorate of French colonial rule.
 The scene for the recent Bắc Sơn Revolt in September.
 North Vietnam. At the time, the northern protectorate of French colonial rule.
 Cochinchina uprising (Nam Kỳ khởi nghĩa (Southern Revolution)).
 Including Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, the sister-in-law of Võ Nguyên Giáp. (Arthur Dommen, 2001, The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans, Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, Indiana University Press, Indianapolis, p. 34).
 Abbreviated from Việt Nam độc lập đồng minh (League for Independence of Vietnam).
 By 1945, the Việt Minh controlled large portions of North Vietnam. Ironically, they accomplished this due in no small part to the support they received from the United States Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency – the CIA).
 Provinces in North Vietnam.
 Forced labour exacted in lieu of taxes.
 Bảo Đại ruled as the Head of State of Vietnam from the historic Emperors Palace in Huế. He had abdicated on 23 August in fear of the August Revolution’s gathering momentum.
 Ba Đình Square, named after the Ba Đình Uprising, is in the center of Ba Đình District of Hanoi. When Ho Chi Minh died, the granite Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was built here to display his embalmed body. It remains a major site of tourism and pilgrimage.
 Lt. Col. A. Peter Dewey killed in Saigon.
 The French Union was a political entity created by the French Fourth Republic to replace the old French colonial system, colloquially known as the “French Empire” (Empire Français).
 Under the leadership of Hoàng Văn Thái
 Also known in Vietnamese as Chiến dịch Biên giới (or Border Campaign).
 General de Lattre later died of cancer at the Neuilly Military Hospital in Paris on 11 January 1952.
 At this point, Laos was still a protectorate of the French government in Indochina. The country gained its independence as a constitutional monarchy on 22 October 1953.
 Việt Minh soldiers were often shoeless throughout the First Indochina War. As such, Hồ Chí Minh described Việt Minh soldiers at the time as “Soldiers of bronze foot and iron skin.”
 Chief negotiator of the DRV government.
 Successor to the State of Vietnam.