Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The First Indochina War, Part I

For most Americans, thoughts about the beginning of "The Vietnam War" go back only to the early 60's, but that was actually The Second Indochina War. The First Indochina War was, if anything, more crucial than the war fought by the United States as it was that conflict which decided, in the eyes of the world at least, whether the battle was against a legitimate national government or simply the latest rebellion in a distant French colony. This was the true beginning of what would become a decades long war to decide whether or not Indochina would join the Free World or the Communist Bloc. It came right on the heels of the Second World War, in which, ironically, the United States O.S.S. had armed and trained the Communist guerillas under Ho Chi Minh (then called Nguyen Ai Quoc) and his school teacher -turned-military commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap. Once the French re-occupied southern and central Vietnam (at the invitation of Ho), and the Chinese evacuated the north, struggle soon emerged between the French government, which still claimed Indochina as a colony, and Ho Chi Minh who had earlier declared the independence of the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam", ignoring the earlier declaration of independence of the “Empire of Vietnam” by Emperor Bao Dai after the removal of the French colonial authorities by the forces of the Empire of Japan.

Flag of the Viet Minh
Throughout 1946 Ho Chi Minh negotiated with the French for independence, or at least full autonomy within the French Union. At this point, he was still more worried about Nationalist China than he was France. However, though it seemed clear to the world that the colonial era was over, the French were reluctant to hand over power to someone with such close ties to the international Communist forces in China and Soviet Russia. Although talks continued for some time, on August 27, 1946 President Charles DeGaulle declared that France would not give up any of her colonies and would fight to defend Indochina if Ho Chi Minh insisted on total independence. In November, the French stopped a junk carrying weapons to the VietMinh (Ho's political and military coalition) and were then themselves captured by the Communists. After a brief truce, fighting broke out when VietMinh forces infiltrated the port city of Haiphong. The French navy responded by shelling the city, killing an estimated 6,000 people before the Communists agreed to a cease-fire. All the while however, Ho Chi Minh was calling on the people to revolt. The French repelled an attack on Hanoi, but the war had started and the numbers of Communist guerillas in the countryside were increasing rapidly.

General Valluy
Ho Chi Minh, after retreating to a jungle hiding place, issued a call to the people to rise up in a massive war against the French, who at that point were still confident that a standard colonial police action would quickly pacify the region, as they had done several times in the past. However, on December 19, 1946 they were faced with how serious the situation was when 30,000 VietMinh troops under Vo Nguyen Giap attacked Haiphong. As before, the French repulsed the attack, but it was clear that this was not going to be an easy war and the battle gave them a determined resolve. The French commander, General Etienne Valluy said, "If these [people] want a fight, they'll get it". France was heavily outnumbered by the VietMinh, but so far had managed to hold their own due to the superiority of their artillery, heavy weapons and the overall training and discipline of their soldiers. Confronted by such resistance, reinforcements were still needed to consolidate the primary French fighting force, the "Corps Expeditionnaire Francais d'Extreme-Orient" or French Far Eastern Expeditionary Corps. Though still a relatively small force, along with armor support, they were able to secure all of the major cities and most of the immediately surrounding countryside, although Communist terrorist attacks would always be a problem for them, even in the cities.

French troops in Vietnam
General Vo Nguyen Giap knew that he was completely dependent on Communist China for the survival of his army. Although they were able to gain food and other supplies from the Vietnamese population, they depended totally on China for arms, ammunition and experienced officers to advise them in directing the Viet-Minh army. This dependence on China was something Ho Chi Minh did not like to make known to most of his own people, who were fearful of Chinese intervention. In January of 1947 Giap moved to Tran Trao to keep his supply lines open and establish a line of secret bases through the mountains and jungles from Lang Son to Truong Son to move material to his forces. The French discovered this and sent a striking force of 15,000 men to find and destroy these bases and depots. However, in the rough terrain, the French could not make full use of their superior weaponry. Moreover, Giap was now afraid of the French and refused to fight them, simply allowing his army to melt away whenever they approached. This was disgraceful for French soldiers and they soon became disgusted with the pursuit and could never find and pin down the VietMinh for a formal battle.

Former Emperor Duy Tan
Public opinion was also becoming problematic in both countries. The French public were not whole-heartedly behind the war, some were staunchly opposed. In Vietnam, many of the peasants supported the VietMinh. Others who opposed the Communists, still did not see any reason to support the French and became what was known as "fence-sitters". Ho Chi Minh, being a traditional Communist dictator, at least had a unified command, with one purpose and one direction. The French, on the other hand, quickly lost this. Charles DeGaulle had been the most forceful about retaining some ties with Indochina. He was a very conservative man, with some royalists leanings toward the Count of Paris and had even talked about restoring the popular Vietnamese Emperor Duy Tan to the throne to lead the opposition against the Communists. However, this plan was dashed when the young monarch died in a plane crash over Africa. The VietMinh was also not simply an army, but a political organization with a great deal of attention focused on propaganda geared toward gaining public support for the VietMinh to gain independence from France. At Bac Kan they established a radio station to broadcast the "Voice of Vietnam" radio, a Communist propaganda vehicle. Vietnamese peasants also discovered that if they were too friendly toward the French, or unfriendly toward the Communists, they would become the victims of horrific terrorist attacks and assassinations. This further helped strengthen the VietMinh and ensure that even those who opposed them would not dare to take any action.

French Indochina flag
In an effort to take out the radio station at Bac Kan, where it was believed that Ho Chi Minh and General Giap might be in hiding, the French mounted "Operation Lea", an intricate offensive including infantry, artillery, armored vehicles and airborne forces. The tanks and motorized units advanced from Lang Son along colonial road 4 (Routes Coloniale/RC4), the rest moving up by boat via the Clear River with the paratroopers being dropped in to secure key locations. The operation lasted from October 7 until December 22, 1947. Many French units were separated and cut off, but again most of the VietMinh troops scattered. The French inflicted 9,000 casualties on the Communists, but failed to make any other significant gains. After this, the French finally decided that a colonial policy would not solve the Indochinese problem and began looking for a viable political figure to provide a source of national support against the Communists. They had to have someone to deal with and it had to be someone as well known as Ho Chi Minh, who had some legitimate claim to hold power and, of course, who did not despise them on principle.

Ho Chi Minh & Emperor Bao Dai
France was prepared to offer what they had refused to Ho Chi Minh: full autonomy within the French Union. They turned to the recently exiled Emperor Bao Dai who had been forced to abdicate in 1945 after the defeat of Japan, briefly given a figurehead role to play by the communists but who had left them when it became clear that their deeds did not match their words. He had a legitimate claim to power as the former Emperor of Vietnam, and he was someone who they could rely on as he was raised and educated in France, and though he often voiced discontent with colonial rule, he was at least a self-professed friend of the French. In April of 1948 Bao Dai was finally persuaded to return to Vietnam to establish an anti-Communist government, though there were many problems from the outset. His position was ambiguous, he was not a president but he had also not formally been restored as emperor. The French were also less than clear over what full autonomy meant and when exactly it would come. This naturally did little to inspire popular support among the Vietnamese people. The following year, on March 8, 1949 the French recognized formally the independence of the "State of Viet Nam" under the former Emperor Bao Dai, within the French Union. However, France still retained control of the key ministries of defense and foreign relations. Recognized by the US and UK, the Communists denounced it as a French puppet state and declared that they wanted "real independence" not "Bao Dai independence".

Demonstrations in favor of the Emperor
Although his official title was “Chief of State” most referred to Bao Dai as the “Former Emperor” or simply “the Emperor” and addressed him as “Your Majesty” just as before. In effect, his government functioned as a constitutional monarchy regardless of what it was or was not designated to be on paper. There was no doubt that Emperor Bao Dai had been chosen because he was the legitimate monarch of the Nguyen Dynasty which had reigned over Vietnam since 1802 (and over the south for much longer still) and so the whole justification of his regime rested on monarchical roots. Despite what the Communists said, Emperor Bao Dai was no puppet and wanted his country to be free as much as anyone but he wanted peace and friendship with France and did not want to see it become a Communist dictatorship. He had seen who was in charge in the enemy camp, he knew what they were about, he knew about the massacres of landowners, scholars and scores of ordinary people who were accused by personal enemies. The fight the French and those loyal to Emperor Bao Dai were making would determine whether Vietnam would break totally with its ancient past or not and whether the ancient Nguyen Dynasty would make a comeback in Vietnam or not.

To be concluded in Part II

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