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Conflicts that have involved France since 1945, the Indochina war certainly remains the least well known. Begun in the delicate context of reconstruction, it was often relegated to the background of the concerns of the French, before giving way to a much more mobilizing conflict: the Algerian war. However "the Indo "(To borrow the time-honored expression of its French veterans), this eight-year colonial war represents in many ways a historical episode of great importance. The first fire in the blaze of decolonization, it also heralds the stakes of the Cold War, one of the most striking episodes of which will be played out in the same place ten years later.
Indochina War: the origins
What is called from 1905, Indochina represents a disparate set of French possessions and protectorates that encompass the present-day states of Vietnam, of Cambodia and Laos, conquered between 1858 and 1896 (or even 1907). If the southern part of present-day Vietnam, then named Cochinchina (Mekong Delta region) is a colony, theAnnam (Central Vietnam, headed by the emperors of the Nguyễn lineage), the Tonkin (North Vietnam), Cambodia and Laos are protectorates (just like Morocco or Tunisia).
This division, the result of various military operations, responds above all to administrative requirements and is obviously a source of discontent for the local populations. This is even truer in what will become Vietnam, a country heir to a long tradition of resistance to foreign domination (formerly Chinese) whose patriotic circles resent the division into several entities.
This feeling of alienation is further reinforced by the desire of the French to make Indochina an economically exploitative colony. Paris levies significant taxes and levies there and reserves a monopoly on strategic trade in opium, alcohol, salt and rice. The region’s natural resources are intensively exploited (which translates into heavy investments), especially rubber produced from rubber plantations where the working conditions of Vietnamese peasants are deemed very harsh. Finally, there is the strong proselytizing of Christian missionaries, which despite numerous conversions arouses the anger of many Indochinese.
These factors explain that from the 19th century various resistance to the French presence in Indochina developed. With economic development and the emergence of a local bourgeoisie and proletariat (to use a Marxist vocabulary) from the 1920s, the Indochinese patriot movements modernized and strengthened. We must also include the Communists, with their head Nguyên Aï Quoc says Ho Chi Minh, who like their Chinese comrades, claim patriotic sentiments without denying their Marxist-Leninist commitment.
The decisive role of World War II
If in the 1930s popular revolts were still contained by the French, World War II gave the various Indochinese nationalist groups the opportunity to assert themselves irreparably. From the summer of 1940, the Japanese through armed blackmail and diplomatic pressure gradually subdued the French colonial authorities (otherwise loyal to the French state of Pétain). The position of some 34,000 French Indochina was then greatly weakened by the resulting loss of prestige. An anti-Japanese and anti-French armed resistance develops, including the Viet-Minh (political league bringing together Vietnamese communists and nationalists) Ho Chi Minh constitutes the most active fringe. The negligence of the French colonial authorities in the face of the deteriorating situation finds its most dramatic expression in its inability to cope with the terrible famine of 1944-1945.
In March 1945, the Japanese decided to seize Indochina directly and brutally sweep the French garrisons. In doing so they destroy what remained of French influence and subsequently play the card of local nationalism by promoting the establishment of friendly indigenous regimes. This will be the case in Annam with the emperor Bao Dai. Added to this are the plans of the allies, who intend to retake Indochina from the Japanese and divide it into two zones of influence: British in the south, Chinese (nationalists) in the north.
Such plans were narrowly averted by General de Gaulle's GPRF, with the dispatch in September 1945 of a French Expeditionary Force from the Far East (CEFEO) at the orders of the general Leclerc and partly made up of former members of the famous 2e DB and legionaries. The situation they find there when they disembark in Saigon is particularly chaotic. Leclerc, who was charged with re-establishing the authority of France over Indochina, must deal with the British and the Chinese, but above all with the Viêt Minh. Indeed, on August 13, the latter unleashed a general insurrection against Bao Dai (who was forced to abdicate, while being associated with the regime as a "special advisor") and proclaimed in Hanoi a Democratic Republic of Vietnam (RDVN).
1945-1946: The Lost Opportunities of the Indochina War
Leclerc who shares his authority with the admiral Thierry d`Argenlieu (High Commissioner for Indochina and therefore head of the civilian side of the operation) manages to get the Chinese and British to gradually withdraw. However, the latter strongly insist on the need to negotiate with local nationalists, whom they sometimes provide material assistance. General de Gaulle understood from the start that it would not be possible to restore French Indochina to its pre-war form and therefore left Leclerc sufficient leeway to negotiate a compromise with the Viet-Minh. It is about establishing an Indochinese federation which incorporates the concept of a unified Vietnam. After tight negotiations, a convention was signed on March 6, 1946 which recognized Vietnam as "A free state with its government, parliament and finances, part of the Indochinese Federation and the French Union ". The unification of the whole Vietnamese (Annam, Cochinchina, Tonkin) is subject to referendum and has as a counterpart the installation of French troops in Hanoi.
It must be said that between 1945 and 1946, the CEFEO's strength swelled and that Leclerc proceeded energetically to re-establish a French military presence over much of Indochina ... except in northern Vietnam (Tonkin) of course. In the summer of 1946, the situation which might have inspired some optimism will suddenly become strained. In Paris and Saigon, colonialist pressure groups have resumed their past influence and weigh heavily on the decision-making process.
Admiral Thierry d'Argenlieu, who unlike Leclerc (with whom he hardly gets along) does not trust Ho Chi Minh, decides to proclaim the 1er June a republic of Cochinchina, in complete contradiction to the March 6 accords which he personally disapproved of. Ho Chi Minh, who was in France at the time, noted with Leclerc's departure for North Africa (July 1946) and the failure of the Fontainebleau Conference (July-August 1946) that an agreement with Paris drew further and further away.
Pressed by the "tough guys" in his own movement, the Vietnamese communist leader will preside over the deterioration of the situation. The month of November sees the eruption of an extremely serious crisis in the port ofHaiphong (100km from Hanoi). After the installation of a French customs office and clashes between Vietnamese and French soldiers, the city is covered with barricades. The French commander of the place: Colonel Debes, reacted with the greatest firmness and in the face of armed resistance from the Viet Minh ordered naval artillery to be given to the port. This November 23, several thousand Vietnamese civilians (6000?) Will perish. The Indochina War has just started.
The bombing of Haiphong causes a total and final rift between the French and Ho Chi Minh. The latter then calls on the Vietnamese people to resistance and to war against the French: "Whoever has a gun uses his gun, whoever has a sword uses his sword… Let everyone fight colonialism ”. This partisan war, politically organized by the Viet Minh, will be fought within the framework of a Vietnamese people's army strongly marked by the personality of its creator and most famous leader: the general Giap.
This history teacher and historic Vietnamese communist, is not a career officer, but shows great military qualities. An outstanding organizer, renowned for being uncompromising, very familiar with the psychology of combatants, he set up structures dedicated to the conduct of a merciless guerrilla. He admirably knows how to take advantage of the support of the Vietnamese population (sometimes obtained by force), facing a CEFEO (and its local allies) admittedly composed of elite troops but having too few manpower to react quickly in all places. .
Giap relies on the mobility of troops and the fluidity of operations, imposing heavy losses on French troops by systematically taking on its logistics. Very quickly it appeared in Paris that the CEFEO was only able to control certain towns and roads, the rest of the country and in particular the countryside escaping it most of the time.
Nonetheless, the situation for the Vietnamese People's Army is no less difficult. Its fighters and officers, although trained in an efficient and original manner, have only very light weapons and erratic supplies. Above all, at the international level, Ho Chi Minh still enjoys very little support. The US of Truman, although not very favorable to French colonialism, does not yet show much interest in the region. Moscow is focusing on other geographic areas (from Berlin to Iran) and as for the Chinese Communists, they are still embroiled in their clash with the Chang Kai Check nationalists.
Indochina War: the turning point of 1949
After nearly 3 years of conflict, the Indochina War is starting to become clearly unpopular in a metropolis which still suffers from the deprivations resulting from the world war. Before taking the initiative again and in order to force Ho Chi Minh to a compromise, the French decided to put forward the ex-emperor Bao Dai who had been exiled to Hong Kong. They place him at the head of a state in the south Vietnamese, nominally independent, regrouping Cochinchina and Annam (Tonkin remaining under the control of Ho Chi Minh and its RDVN. This state is even endowed with an army (army Vietnamese National), which like the armies of Laos and Cambodia, participated in the war against Giap's forces.
This attempt to "vietnamize (To use an expression later Americans used) the conflict turned out to be a relative failure. The state led by Bao Dai is plagued by factionalism and corruption, and the military intends to play an increasingly important role there that bodes ill for the future. Faced with this, the Vietnamese People's Army is strengthening itself with new recruits and even has the luxury of defeating the CEFEO in frontal confrontations (such as the battle of the Colonial Road n ° 4 in October 1950).
It must be said that 1949 saw Ho Chi Minh come out of its international isolation. With the victory of Mao's Communists in China and the intensification of the Cold War, the leader of Hanoi can count on the support of the socialist bloc. Its troops are now re-equipped with modern equipment and their logistics situation is greatly improved. Giap, which has a secure rear base, is therefore in a position to envisage increasingly ambitious operations.
The general of Lattre de Tassigny (nicknamed "King John", commander of the French 1st Rhine and Danube Army in 1944-45) arrived at the Indochinese theater in 1950, putting all his energy into restoring the situation to the advantage of Paris. In particular, he succeeded in obtaining increasing aid from the United States (which nevertheless neglected to find local allies with a view to a possible departure of the French), which resulted in a drastic increase in air assets. This allows him to lead an energetic and initially successful counter-offensive (especially in the Red River Delta) .However, undermined by disease (cancer) and grief (his son was killed in operation in May 51 in Tonkin) he left his command in December 1951.
From Diên Biên Phu to Geneva
The operations carried out by De Lattre were the last significant and successful French offensives of the war. The leaders of the Fourth Republic know the price to pay for new successes and the exorbitant esteem. In metropolitan France, this colonial war is widely condemned by the left, which denounces the corruption of the colonial system. Cornered on the defensive, CEFEO sought to maintain its positions to the south and along the “De Lattre” line. As for Giap and Ho Chi Minh, they are leading the operations that will bring France to the negotiating table. During 1952, the Vietnamese People's Army, not very frugal with its men, launched costly but effective offensives against the French and penetrated as far as Laos.
In November 1953 the new CEFEO commander, General Navarre decides to lure Giap's army into a trap by creating a point of fixation on which it will come to be broken, due to French material superiority (guaranteed by US aid). This is the operation Beaver which sees two battalions of paratroopers seize Dien Bien Phu (in upper Tonkin). This basin is one of the few places that can accommodate an airfield in the region and is strategically located near the Laotian and Chinese borders.
During the following four months, a large deployment of equipment (transported by air) made it possible to transform Dien Bien Phu into an entrenched camp, a priori impregnable. At the beginning of March, the French garrison numbered more than 14,000 men there, paratroopers and colonial paras, legionnaires, Algerian and Moroccan riflemen, armored cavalry platoons, artillery ... the best of the French army commanded by prestigious officers ( including a certain Commander Bigeard…).
Giap, although impressed by this deployment of force, took up the challenge that would at first appear insurmountable due to the French firepower. This was without counting on the ingenuity of Vietnamese logisticians (and Chinese material aid). Braving the obstacles of the jungle, they manage to install on the heights overlooking the basin of Dien Bien Phu, a large artillery device (Heavy Division 351, comprising 105 guns and multiple Russian Katiousha rocket launchers).
On March 13, 1954, 4 Vietnamese divisions (the entire force of Giap amounted to 80,000 men) launched an assault on Dien Bien Phu. The legionaries of the 13e DBLE which hold the fulcrum "Beatrice "Are crushed under a shelling that the French General Staff could not foresee. Despite heroic resistance, the legionaries are finally destroyed ... the fate soon to be suffered by their brothers in arms from the rest of the entrenched camp.
The strategy of General Navarre, turned against him, the battle of Dien Bien Phu, point of fixation against Giap, will become the tomb of the best elements of CEFEO. The basin, already isolated on the ground, will finally be cut off from its logistical bases when the Vietnamese manage to ban all use of the runways. Despite the parachuting of reinforcements and equipment, the battle was hopeless for the French, it will however last until May 7. Once again the Vietnamese will pay dearly for their success (25,000 dead?), But it is total. On the evening of May 7, they took 11,000 prisoners (70% died in captivity in appalling conditions) and killed 2,000 French soldiers.
At the same time as Dien Bien Phu, the beginning of 1954 saw the negotiations between the Viet Minh and the Fourth Republic enter their final phase. With the surrender of the entrenched camp, Ho Chi Minh knows it is in a strong position. The new President of the French Council: Pierre Mendes France (who is concerned about the situation in Algeria) pledges to settle the Indochinese question as soon as possible.
This one finds its resolution (although provisional it is true) by the Geneva agreements of July 20 and 21, 1954. They ratify the independence of Laos, Cambodia and the (temporary) division of Vietnam into two entities: in the north the Democratic Republic of Ho Chi Minh in the south the State of Bao Dai. As in 1946, a popular vote, in the form of general elections, is planned (in 1956) to definitively resolve the problem of the division of Vietnam. At the same time, the French troops began their withdrawal, giving way to more and more American advisers ...
The end of an era
With the defeat of Dien Bien Phu, begins in what remains of France's colonial empire, an irrepressible fundamental movement that is that of the last phase of decolonization. If this process will find a peaceful outcome in black Africa, Morocco and Tunisia, it will however result in a bloodbath in Algeria, given the special status of this territory.
For South East Asia, the French defeat in Indochina will have profound consequences. The influence of the North Vietnamese communist regime and the resumption of its confrontation with the south in 1959, will push Washington to become more involved in the region for fear of the famous "domino effect " in the world. As early as August 1964, the very brutal Vietnam War resulted, which also affected Laos and Cambodia, constituting one of the "hottest" episodes of the Cold War. Like the French army, the American forces will find their measure in their Vietnamese adversary, led by a Giap always so determined and not looking at losses ...
Bibliography on the Indochina War
- Michel Bodin, Dictionary of the Indochina War 1945-1954. Economica, 2004.
- Jacques Valette, The Indochina War, 1945-1954, Armand Colin, 1994
- Marcel Bigeard, Ma guerre d'Indochine, Hachette, 1994.
- Georges Fleury, The War in Indochina, Perrin, 2003