Battle of Dien Bien Phu
The historic final battle of the French in Vietnam that effectively ended the First Indochina War.
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Rising of a Leader
June 1919 –19 May 1941 | France and U.S.S.R.
Though growing up in the small village of Kim Lien beginning in 1895, Nguyen Sinh Cung (later known as Ho Chi Minh) worked odd jobs in France, England, and the United States. Some time between 1919–1923, he embraced communist ideals while in France, most likely through his friend, Marcel Cachin. On multiple occasions, under the name of Nguyen Ai Quoc, he petitioned both the French government and the United States for aid in gaining independence for Vietnam. All of his requests were rejected.
In 1923, Quoc traveled to Moscow, U.S.S.R., where the Comintern (the Russian communist movement that overthrew the existing government in 1922) employed him. He participated in the Fifth Comintern Congress in June 1924, but eventually traveled to Canton, China, by November of that same year.
For 100,000 piastres, Quoc betrayed another revolutionary leader, Phan Boi Chau, in June 1925. He later explained that he did this because he needed the money to start his own communist organization. However, an anti-communist coup in 1927 prompted Quoc to leave in April 1927. After returning to Moscow and then Paris, he made his way back to Asia, eventually getting arrested in June 1931. The British announced he had died, however, and released him quietly in 1933.
After several years of recovering from tuberculosis in the U.S.S.R., he eventually returned to China in 1938. After serving as an advisor to the Chinese communist forces, he began using the name Ho Chi Minh (the last part of this name in essence meaning "bringer of light"). He returned to Vietnam in 1941 and began leading the movement called Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (Viet Minh for short). He set up headquarters in a cave at Pac Bo.
Prelude to War
9 March 1945 – 19 December 1946 | Vietnam
On 9 March 1945, the Japanese defeated the Vichy French Decoux Government and took control of Vietnam, reinstating Bao Dai as a puppet emperor. The United States began friendly relations with the Viet Minh as early as 30 April 1945, after Major Archimedes Patti, of the US Office of Strategic Services, met with Ho Chi Minh and was received warmly.
On 14 August 1945, the Japanese surrendered to the Allies of World War II, ending that war. Though defeated, the Japanese (against the terms of their treaty) helped the Viet Minh take control of the government until the transitional occupation by the Nationalist Chinese forces in the north and the British occupation force in the south in early September 1945.
In late 1945, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh began negotiations with the French; they distrusted the Chinese from both ideological and historical viewpoints. With the initial cooperation of the Viet Minh, the French returned in the beginning of the following year and rapidly reestablished their authority. Once he decided his goal was met, Ho Chi Minh let relations between the Viet Minh and the French gradually fall apart.
Initial Engagements of the First Indochina War
23 November 1946 – 3 October 1950 | Vietnam
After a conflict of interest at Haiphong port and the resulting uprising of the locals there, the French heavy cruiser Suffren bombarded the city on 23 November 1946, killing at least 2,000 Vietnamese. The Viet Minh acquiesced and quickly left, although they had no intention of just accepting the French rule. General Vo Nguyen Giap returned shortly with a force 30,000 strong. Because the French had superior technology and firepower, the Viet Minh failed to retake the city and retreated.
Violence erupted in Hanoi in December 1946, forcing Ho Chi Minh to flee the city. Around this time, the French occupied the majority of the country, while the Viet Minh held only very remote areas and struck at the French using guerilla tactics. Training facilities were set up in the liberated areas. However, the French took advantage of the initiative and hit hard and fast in a northerly direction, all the way to the Sino-Vietnamese border by the autumn of 1947, inflicting heavy casualties and somewhat crippling the Viet Minh.
What was worse, the Viet Minh obliterated all hope of support by religious sects by executing Huynh Phu So, leader of the Hoa Hao, in Cochinchina. The Hoa Hao and Cao Dai quickly formed alliances with the French. By 1948, the French pretended acceptance of Vietnamese independence by making the area the Associated State of Vietnam. This was still a part of the French Union, however, and it was clear the Vietnamese would have no real power.
Because of its harsh tactics in Cochinchina, the Resistance Committee for the South (set up by the Viet Minh) was replaced in 1951 by the Central Office for South Vietnam, headed by Le Duan. And, although the United States recognized the "associated statehood" of Vietnam in early 1950, both China and then the U.S.S.R. recognized the Democratic Republic of Vietnam shortly thereafter. At this point, the Viet Minh more openly declared their communist agenda.
The situation in the north improved markedly as well. The Viet Minh had grown its army to over 250,000, and their guerrilla tactics had helped them retake part of the Viet Bac and a few liberated base areas in the south. In March 1950, Ho Chi Minh signed an agreement with China, calling for limited assistance to Hanoi.
The political power of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) grew, although peasants continued to generally avoid supporting the Viet Minh, especially because a land reform program was not developed and the group's continued moderate policy toward French patriotic gentry who had been granted lands. The revolutionary model set up by Mao Zedong of China was openly praised in the Vietnamese press, and the ICP surfaced under a new name in 1951 that removed all doubt about the communist nature of the party: The Vietnam Workers' Party. Ho was elected as party chairman, with Truong Chinh as general secretary.