In the early twentieth century, Vietnamese nationalism against the French surged. In 1919, Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese socialist activist living in France at the time, submitted eight demands to the French at the Versailles Peace Conference that followed the end of World War I. The list included representation in the French parliament, freedom of speech, and release of political prisoners. When France ignored these demands, several nationalist and Communist organizations sprang up in Vietnam.
The French tried to counter the nationalist movements by appealing to traditional authority, propping up the Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai, who took power in 1926. Indeed, many of the new nationalist and Communist movements in Vietnam were urban-based militant insurgencies, and none met with much success. However, the movements did create several enduring organizations, including the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (VNQDD), formed in 1927, and the Indochinese Communist Party (PCI), founded in 1930 by Ho Chi Minh himself.
During World War II, when France fell to Germany, Japan occupied Vietnam from 1940 to 1945. Ho saw the Japanese invasion as a chance to build up a new nationalist force, one that appealed to all aspects of Vietnamese society. Therefore, in 1941, he founded the Viet Minh (the League for Vietnamese Independence).
Americans opposed the Japanese in World War II, so Ho was able to convince U.S. leaders to secretly supply the Viet Minh with weapons to fight their new Japanese oppressors. General Vo Nguyen Giap fought successfully against the Japanese after Ho convinced him to adopt guerrilla tactics. Throughout the course of World War II, the Viet Minh successfully expanded its power base in Tonkin and Annam. It helped peasants in the region during a wartime famine, which won the organization immense popularity.
In August 1945, near the end of the war and with Japan’s attention completely diverted, the Viet Minh conquered Hanoi in what became known as the August Revolution. Emperor Bao Dai abdicated his throne in late August, and just a week later, on September 2, the Japanese signed a formal surrender to end World War II.
Upon Japan’s defeat, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam to be independent, naming the country the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The French did not recognize Ho’s declaration, however. French forces returned to Vietnam and drove the Viet Minh into the north of the country but were unable to penetrate farther.
Later in 1945, Ho wrote a number of letters to Harry S Truman, the U.S. president, appealing for official U.S. recognition of the DRV. However, the United States was becoming embroiled in postwar tension with the Soviet Union—tension that would quickly escalate into the Cold War. Wary of Ho’s Communist leanings, the United States refused his request, denounced him, and offered to help the French. Within a year, American ships were transporting French troops into Vietnam.
One of the things that made the Vietnam War so morally confusing for Americans was the fact that the Viet Minh were both nationalists and Communist. Americans, brought up extolling the glory of the freedom fighters of the American Revolution, generally viewed nationalism and self- determination as a good thing. In this light, Ho Chi Minh’s courageous fight against French imperialism seemed heroic. However, as the United States was a capitalist country that at the time was engaged in a paranoid ideological battle with the Communist USSR, Americans also were concerned with and frightened by Ho’s socialist beliefs.
Although a number of Vietnamese groups engaged in several separate nationalist initiatives against the French, only the Viet Minh finally hit on the right formula. The Viet Minh leadership was remarkably experienced, its abilities honed by a lifetime of conflicts opposing France and then reinforced by the struggle against the Japanese in World War II. The fight against Japan also helped the Viet Minh become enormously popular among the Vietnamese people.
The brilliant tactician Ho Chi Minh perfectly surveyed the political situation during World War II, playing upon the United States’ anti-Japanese priorities in order to obtain weapons and supplies that would help the Viet Minh establish a northern power base. Thus, the early successes of the Viet Minh were ironically accomplished via U.S. support.
The Viet Minh had a slew of other unusually talented and committed leaders in addition to Ho. The hawkish Le Duan controlled DRV guerrilla operations in southern Vietnam. Truong Chinh, a Marxist theorist who adopted a name that means “Long March” (in reference to Mao Zedong’s exploits in China), advocated land reforms following the Chinese model, which were ultimately unsuccessful. Finally, Pham Van Dong was an able negotiator who often represented the Viet Minh in its dealings with outside groups. The experienced, patient, dedicated leadership of these men made them immensely popular with the Vietnamese peasants—and contrasted sharply with the unpopular, corrupt governments in South Vietnam, both the kingdom of Bao Dai and the U.S.-backed government that would emerge later.
At the time of the French return to Vietnam, three other important groups in southern Vietnam commanded large followings and existed outside the Viet Minh influence. The first was the Cao Dai, the adherents of an eclectic cult that combined aspects of Eastern religions and Western pop culture. The Hao Hoa, meanwhile, combined Buddhism and nationalism and maintained a sizable army. Finally, the Binh Xuyen, headquartered in a Chinese-dominated suburb of Saigon called Cholon, were essentially the Vietnamese mafia. All three groups had considerable influence in southern Vietnamese politics, which was extremely factionalized and corrupt.
With France’s return to Vietnam, the ranks of the Viet Minh swelled, and fighting quickly broke out between French and Viet Minh forces. Almost immediately after the war, the French, who did not recognize Ho Chi Minh’s government, set up a rival government in the south. By 1949, when the French reinstalled Bao Dai as figurehead, the two sides had fought to a standstill. The fighting between the French and Viet Minh came to be called the First Indochina War and would last for another five years, until 1954.
As the war progressed, the French developed a military strategy based on maintaining fortresses, called “hedgehogs,” in DRV territory. The French also developed a strategy that called for the occupation of the outpost of Dien Bien Phu in the mountains of northern Vietnam, near the border with Laos. The French would build a large central base there and surround it with three artillery bases, luring Viet Minh forces into assaulting the central base and then destroying them in the crossfire from the artillery bases. French forces took Dien Bien Phu in late 1953 and then put their plan into action.
As expected, the Viet Minh did attack Dien Bien Phu in early 1954, but Viet Minh commander General Vo Nguyen Giap saw through the French plan. He had Vietnamese peasants on bicycles carry components of artillery guns piece by piece into the mountains surrounding Dien Bien Phu, often right under the eyes of French troops. Viet Minh forces then reassembled the artillery pieces in the mountains. Using these strategically placed guns to destroy the French airstrip supplying the central base, Giap launched an offensive with 40,000 troops, and Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh on May 7, 1954.
Although Dien Bien Phu was a stunning Vietnamese victory, many more Vietnamese actually died than French. Historians are quick to highlight Vo Nguyen Giap’s military brilliance, but his victory came at a high cost, with probably around ten Viet Minh casualties for every French casualty. As in the war with the United States that would come later, the Communist Vietnamese forces proved far more willing to accept a high death toll than their enemies.
The defeat at Dien Bien Phu humiliated the French and turned the tide of French public opinion against the war. The French government, wanting to end the fighting, organized the Geneva Conference, which lasted until July 1954. At the conference, diplomats from France, Vietnam, the United States, the USSR, Britain, China, Laos, and Cambodia declared a cease-fire and decided to split Vietnam officially at the 17th parallel, into Communist-controlled North Vietnam (under Ho and the Viet Minh) and South Vietnam (under Bao Dai).
The Geneva Accords, as these agreements were called, also required French withdrawal from North Vietnam and Viet Minh withdrawal from South Vietnam. The accords also promised reunification of Vietnam after free elections, which were to be to be held by July 1956. As it turned out, these elections were never held.