The end of the French Empire
Indo-China was occupied by France in the nineteenth century and became part of the French Empire. The area occupied covered the modern countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Unlike the British Empire, the French Empire remained strictly controlled from the centre. The French treated their empire as ‘France overseas’. They referred to it, and still do, as Outre-mer, beyond the sea. In other words, French colonies were not allowed any real form of self-government at a time when British possessions were self-governing
What effects did the Second World War have on Indo-China?
France was defeated by Germany in 1940 and occupied. This encouraged opposition groups in Indo-China. In 1941 the Vietminh was set up by the communists. The French colonies in Indo-China were occupied by the Japanese in 1942. They encouraged anti-colonialism. As the Japanese withdrew in August 1945, the Vietminh occupied Hanoi and set up the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. But at the end of the war it was agreed that the Chinese would occupy Vietnam north of the 16th parallel and the British would occupy the south. The Chinese armed the Vietminh, but the British handed power back to the French. In 1946 the French reoccupied Saigon with 30,000 troops.
How did the French act after the end of the war?
The French were determined to re-conquer Indo-China. They wanted to prove that France was still a great power, despite the defeat in 1940. They believed that the Vietminh was too weak to oppose them. The French plan was to set up a federation in Indo-China and they reached an agreement with Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietminh. But the agreement soon broke down. The French were only prepared to allow Ho Chi Minh to control a small area in the north. He wanted to control all of Vietnam. Instead the French once again began to treat Indo-China as an extension of France. All important posts were held by French and there was no idea such as the British Commonwealth.
During the next nine years, the French tried to regain control of the whole area. They were relatively successful in the south, but unsuccessful in the north. War soon broke out between the French and the Vietminh. At first neither side appeared strong enough to win, but in 1949 the Communists came to power in China. The new government began to supply help to the Vietminh. The French appealed to the USA for help. At first President Truman was unwilling to send any aid to the French. He did not want them to rebuild their empire. But with the growing threat from communism and the outbreak of the Korean War, Truman changed his mind. In all he sent $3,000,000,000, but no US forces.
Truman was determined to stop the spread of communism and was prepared to use US money to do so. The Berlin Blockade, the Chinese Revolution and the Korean War had all shown the threat that communism posed. By 1953 the US government was paying 70% of the cost of the war. Most of the fighting took place in dense jungle and the Vietminh, using guerrilla tactics, were able to avoid the full impact of French firepower. Eventually the French had 600,000 men in Vietnam, but were unable to defeat the Vietminh, because the Vietnamese refused to fight a set-piece battle.
In 1954 the French commander decided to try to defeat the Vietminh by drawing them into a major battle. He set up a heavily fortified camp at Dien Bien Phu, with two air-fields, filled it with 12,000 crack troops and waited for the Vietminh to attack.
Why were the French defeated at Dien Bien Phu
The French believed that the Vietminh would be forced to mount a frontal attack as it would be impossible for them to move heavy artillery through the jungle. This would allow superior French fire-power to be effective. The attack came in March 1954. The Vietminh attacked with 70,000 troops and soon overran the airfields. The French inside Dien Bien Phu were outnumbered six to one.
Once the Vietminh captured the airstrips, the garrison had to be supplied by air. Many of the supplies fell into the hands of the Vietminh and the French soon ran out of food and ammunition. In two months the French were forced to surrender and evacuate all of Vietnam.
The main reason for the French defeat was that they had underestimated the Vietminh. The Vietminh commander General Giap had been training his army using modern weapons from China. They had also found ways to manhandle heavy artillery over mountains and through the jungle. The French defenders were outnumbered and soon under heavy bombardment. The camp was isolated, but the French believed that they could keep it supplied by air. After the loss of the two airfields it was only possible to drop supplies by parachute. This was ineffective and the survivors were forced to surrender
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