The Vietnam War was the legacy of France's failure to suppress nationalist forces in Indochina as it struggled to restore its colonial dominion after World War II. Led by Ho Chi Minh, a Communist-dominated revolutionary movement—the Viet Minh—waged a political and military struggle for Vietnamese independence that frustrated the efforts of the French and resulted ultimately in their being ousted from the region.
The U.S. Army's first encounters with Ho Chi Minh were brief and sympathetic. During World War II, Ho's anti-Japanese resistance fighters helped to rescue downed American pilots and furnished information on Japanese forces in Indochina. U.S. Army officers stood at Ho's side in August 1945 as he basked in the short-lived satisfaction of declaring Vietnam's independence. Five years later, however, in an international climate tense with ideological and military confrontation between Communist and non-Communist powers, Army advisers of the newly formed U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), Indochina, were aiding France against the Viet Minh. With combat raging in Korea and mainland China recently fallen to the Communists, the war in Indochina now appeared to Americans as one more pressure point to be contained on a wide arc of Communist expansion in Asia. By underwriting French military efforts in Southeast Asia, the United States enabled France to sustain its economic recovery and to contribute, through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to the collective defense of western Europe.
Provided with aircraft, artillery, tanks, vehicles, weapons, and other equipment and supplies a small portion of which they distributed to an anti-Communist Vietnamese army they had organized—the French did not fail for want of equipment. Instead, they put American aid at the service of a flawed strategy that sought to defeat the elusive Viet Minh in set-piece battles, but neglected to cultivate the loyalty and support of the Vietnamese people. Too few in number to provide more than a veneer of security in most rural areas, the French were unable to suppress the guerrillas or to prevent the underground Communist shadow government from reappearing whenever French forces left one area to fight elsewhere.
The battle of Dien Bien Phu epitomized the shortcomings of French strategy. Located near the Laotian border in a rugged valley of remote northwestern Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu was not a congenial place to fight. Far inland from coastal supply bases and with roads vulnerable to the Viet Minh, the base depended almost entirely on air support. The French, expecting the Viet Minh to invade Laos, occupied Dien Bien Phu in November 1953 in order to force a battle. Yet they had little to gain from an engagement. Victory at Dien Bien Phu would not have ended the war; even if defeated, the Viet Minh would have retired to their mountain redoubts. And no French victory at Dien Bien Phu would have reduced Communist control over large segments of the population. On the other hand, the French had much to lose, in manpower, equipment, and prestige.
Their position was in a valley, surrounded by high ground that the Viet Minh quickly fortified. While bombarding the besieged garrison with artillery and mortars, the attackers tunneled closer to the French positions. Supply aircraft that successfully ran the gauntlet of intense antiaircraft fire risked destruction on the ground from Viet Minh artillery. Eventually, supplies and ammunition could be delivered to the defenders only by parachute drop. As the situation became critical, France asked the United States to intervene. Believing that the French position was untenable and that even massive American air attacks using small nuclear bombs would be futile, General Matthew B. Ridgway, the Army Chief of Staff, helped to convince President Dwight D. Eisenhower not to aid them. Ridgway also opposed the use of U.S. ground forces, arguing that such an effort would severely strain the Army and possibly lead to a wider war in Asia.
The fall of Dien Bien Phu on 7 May 1954, as peace negotiations were about to start in Geneva, hastened France's disengagement from Indochina. On 20 July, France and the Viet Minh agreed to end hostilities and to divide Vietnam temporarily into two zones at the 17th parallel. In the North, the Viet Minh established a Communist government, with its capital at Hanoi. French forces withdrew to the South, and hundreds of thousands of civilians, most of whom were Roman Catholics, accompanied them. The question of unification was left to be decided by an election scheduled for 1956.
Extracted from Revised Edition of AMERICAN MILITARY HISTORY, Army Historical Series, United States Army Center of Military History
See also 1st Indochina War - an excellent web site that details the conflict between the French and the Viet Minh.