Background to the Vietnam War, an historical perspective.

An Historical Perspective


In the years following the end of the Second World War, colonies of the Western Powers throughout Africa and Asia were clamouring for self-determination and nationhood. The means by which they sought to achieve these goals ranged from peaceful negotiation to armed insurrection and protracted revolutionary warfare. The independence movements were likewise diverse. They were not all communist, although communists actively involved themselves in most of the "wars of liberation", forming blocs within other movements where they did not have the strength to stand alone. Some movements were purely nationalist, of no particular political colour. Some were even elitist, representing the interests of a privileged caste. Nor were they united in their common goal, but were frequently divided into rival factions, split along political, religious, ethnic (or tribal) or special interest lines. Even after independence was achieved, the new nations were wracked by bitter and internecine conflicts between such factions.

The colours of political maps changed as these emerging nations either retained or repudiated old allegiances and declared new ones, such as to the World Communist Movement. Nowhere was this trend more evident than in the region of South-east Asia, where the Japanese occupation, even if it achieved nothing else, destroyed the myth of white supremacy for good and all. Thus, when the colonial powers returned to reclaim their former colonies, or impose their plans for a guided path to self government within a new 'commonwealth', they found themselves confronted by armed and aggressive resistance movements, many of whom had gained skill and experience in fighting the Japanese.

Ho Chi MinhSuch was the case in French Indochina where the Administration, having declared for Vichy, was left in place by the Japanese until 9 March 1945. The Viet Minh (an abbreviation of "Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi" or "League for Independence of Vietnam") under the political leadership of a man best known by his last nom de guerre, Ho Chi Minh, and the military guidance of the able Vo Nguyen Giap, conducted a resistance movement against the Japanese from bases in Tonkin (in northern Vietnam). (Tonkin Annam and Cochin China were regions in the North, Central and South Vietnam. They were French territorial divisions but had no significance other than that.) The capitulation of the Japanese in August 1945 saw the Viet Minh seize control of Hanoi and declare an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN). In Saigon, the Provisional Executive Committee of South Vietnam, dominated by communists, recognised Ho's authority.

The Potsdam conference had invested the responsibility of disarming the Japanese in Vietnam north of the 16th parallel with the Nationalist Chinese and with the British in the South. The Chinese had no sympathy for the French and when they withdrew, they left Ho's government in place.

Not so the British commander, Maj. Gen D. D. Gracey, who released and rearmed the French colonial prisoners of the Japanese and permitted them to oust the Committee, thus setting the scene for the return of the French forces under General LeClerc. By December, they had control of Vietnam to the 16th parallel.

However the French were not able to gain control of the North and negotiations were opened with Ho in March 1946. These negotiations culminated with the Dalat and Fontainebleau conferences, but failed to satisfy Ho that the integrity of the DRVN would be preserved. Admiral Thierry d'Agenlieu, the French High Commissioner in Vietnam, proclaimed the Provincial Republic of Cochin China within the French Union on 30 May 1946 and on 23 November 1946, bombarded Hanoi's port, Haiphong, with naval gunfire, killing at least 6,000 Vietnamese. This was followed by landings at Tourane (Da Nang) and Nha Trang.

The French forced the Viet Minh into the country areas and the first Indo-Chinese war had begun.


In the early years, the Viet Minh forces suffered from shortages of arms and equipment, and so from 1946 to 1949, they were unable to undertake more than guerrilla operations. By the end of 1949, the situation had radically changed with the success of the Chinese Communist People's Liberation Army (PLA) against the Nationalist Chinese. The PLA controlled the border with Vietnam, contact was made with the Viet Minh and the way was open for large scale support.

In 1950, the war moved from the passive to the active stage. French troops were concentrated in fortresses in North Vietnam fighting a static war. During this year the Viet Minh swept along the frontier road with China, capturing fort after fort over a distance of 100 miles within 6 weeks. Then came Vinh Yen, a "set-piece" battle fought along conventional lines that resulted in a decisive French victory. This forced the Viet Minh to revert to a passive strategy of revolutionary warfare and gave the French a false sense of security that the Viet Minh could never match them in a "set-piece" battle.

The Viet Minh started rebuilding their forces in the Red River Delta and gaining control over, and support from, the villages. They again took the initiative, consistently interdicting French use of the roads.

In the South, "Cochin China", the communist-led forces were too weak, lacking in arms and effective leadership, to prevail against the French.

Moreover, the myriad sectarian interests present in the South, the Catholic areas and the domains of the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao and the Binh Xuyen, were satisfied to negotiate with the French for regional autonomy and prevented the formation of a broadly based popular front.

Cao Dai and Hoa Hao were indigenous, syncretic religious sects created in the 20th century. The Binh Xuyen on the other hand was a drug and crime cartel operating in the Saigon-Cholon area. After being deprived of their private armies and regional autonomy by Diem, Cao Dai and to a lesser extent Hoa Hao continued to exist as religions. The Binh Xuyen on the other hand, took up banditry in the Rung Sat until they were finally suppressed or absorbed by the Viet Cong.

Bao Dai was another figure on the political scene in the South. Installed by the French as emperor, it was hoped he would attract nationalist support away from the communists. Although he signed agreements in 1949, he was disappointed in how far short of independence the French provisions were. In the end, he did little for the French military effort.

In the North the Viet Minh were again overrunning forts and the French continuing to try to draw them into "set-piece" battles. To this end, Dien Bien Phu was occupied and established as a major fortress in 1953. It was a serious tactical error, being sited too far from major centres where support resources were, and the enemy's capabilities were grossly underestimated. General Vo Nguyen Giap spread his forces widely, neutralising French reserves. He then ringed the fortress with artillery and entrenchments, cutting off all French means of support except by air and that was severely interdicted by anti-aircraft fire. Finally, after much costly and bloody fighting, Dien Bien Phu fell on 7 May 1954 and the surviving defenders were marched off into captivity.

French public opinion had long turned against the war and "sale guerre" ("dirty war") was on everyone's lips. The loss of Bien Dien Phu had broken French will to continue and on 20 July 1954 hostilities were ended after negotiations at Geneva.


The Geneva agreements of 1954, which divided Vietnam along 17th parallel (later known as the Demilitarised Zone or DMZ), provided for a regrouping period to permit refugees to move north or south according to their persuasion. As many as 900,000 refugees fled to the South and about one tenth of that number, Viet Minh troops and sympathisers, went to the North. A number of Viet Minh remained in the South as a cadre for a future revolutionary movement.

Ho Chi Minh instituted a single party system in the North for his Workers' party (Dang Lao Dong). His land reforms were draconian, a mere quarter-acre differentiated the "landlord" from the "worker", with the landlords being bound over for trial facing a possible death sentence. As many as 50,000 of the alleged landlords were executed before August 1956, before the inequity was addressed, but a resultant uprising erupted in November and was swiftly put down by Giap's army with 6,000 being killed or relocated.

Even so, Ho Chi Minh had widespread support, even arming the ethnic minorities in North Vietnam including the Montagnard tribes.

In the south, emperor Bao Dai who, after collaboration with the Japanese to 1945 and a brief period as "adviser" to Ho Chi Minh's government in Hanoi before fleeing the country in 1946, had been installed as a French puppet on his return in 1949, sought the services of Ngo Dinh Diem as premier. Diem had earned a reputation for honesty and integrity as provincial administrator under the French and as Bao Dai's Minister for the Interior in the 1930's but quitted the colonial regime and went into voluntary exile before World War II. Fiercely independent, and both anti-colonial and anticommunist, he spurned offers for high administerial posts by both Ho Chi Minh and the French. Committed to the cause of an independent non-communist Vietnam, he accepted Bao Dai's offer on condition he had full authority over the Army and civil administration.

In 1955, Diem moved against the Hoa Hao sect and the Binh Xuyen, who maintained regional autonomy with private armies. The Binh Xuyen were driven into the swamps of the Rung Sat and the Hoa Hao forces were scattered. The Cao Dai sect, having been bribed to stand aside during the campaign, was now isolated and its 30,000 strong army was integrated with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

Diem ousted Bao Dai in a patently rigged referendum in October 1955. The Geneva agreement provided for elections to be held in both the North and South for the reunification of the two in 1956. Diem refused to hold the elections on the basis that a fair election was not possible in the one-party system of the North. This drew charges that he had breached the Geneva agreement.

During the first Indo-Chinese war, the United States, with their anti-colonial stance, had been sympathetic to Ho Chi Minh, but in 1950 when the Viet Minh received aid and assistance from the People's Republic of China and became more overtly communist, they commenced to send military aid and material to the French. US advisory presence commenced with their aid but their role was jealously restricted by the French. Then, shortly after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, there arrived the Saigon Military Mission (SMM), headed by Colonel (later Maj-Gen) Edward G Lansdale, a US Air Force Officer seconded to the CIA, who specialised in covert and unconventional warfare. He stayed on as an adviser to Diem until 1956. The CIA element remained in country throughout the American involvement. On 24 October 1954 US President Eisenhower advised Diem that American assistance would henceforth be provided directly to Vietnam instead of channelling it through the French. On 28 April 1956, an American Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) took over the training of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF). The French Military High Command then disbanded and the French troops departed from South Vietnam.

For the three years following the Geneva agreement, Ho Chi Minh had been devoting his energy to consolidating control over North Vietnam while his senior Viet Minh leader remaining in the South, Le Duan, was chafing at the bit to commence operations against the Diem Government. In 1957 he visited Hanoi, and fighting increased from individual acts of terrorism, kidnapping, bombing and assassinations, to raids and ambuscades. As terrorism increased in the South, Ho called a Party Congress in Hanoi in September 1960, where it was vowed to liberate South Vietnam. In December that year, he announced the formation of a National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF). However, the organisation was to become known as the Viet Cong, a contraction of Viet Nam Cong San (Vietnamese communists).

US President John F Kennedy, who took office in January 1961, took an immediate concern in the deteriorating situation in South-East Asia. Studying the problem and dropping the idea of committing a combat force, he settled on increased American aid. As the aid increased, so did the number of Americans in South Vietnam. Pilots, ostensibly to train the Vietnamese Air Force, flew combat missions under the guise of training. US Special Forces (USSF), sent to advise ARVN units in the field, led them on operations. In February 1962, MAAG was replaced by an umbrella organisation, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), to coordinate US Military policy, assistance and operations in South Vietnam.

With the increased support and number of advisers, the US became sensitive to the charge that American Imperialism had replaced French colonialism, and so initiated a "Many Flags" policy which aimed at having many nations standing with her and South Vietnam, demonstrating that opposition to the Viet Cong was truly international.


Bob Teusner (9RAR), The Australian Veteran and the Vietnam Experience


Whats New | Site Search | The War | Wargaming | Reviews | Bibliography | Miscellaneous
Delta Mike 2
| Links | News | Contents | Email | Rate This Site | Feedback | Message Board
Sign Guestbook | View Guestbook

Retrieved by Memoweb from at 02/12/01