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Rural scenes near Hanoi


Conflict in Indochina 1954 - 1979

Vietnam to the Second Indochina War

Geoff Lewis
Kelso High School

Rural scenes near Hanoi
G. Lewis


Key features and issues:

From this tutorial you will learn about:

Indochina after the French

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Central to any study of "Conflict in Indochina" must be a study of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Events in this country had a direct impact not only on its neighbours, Cambodia and Laos, but also on the United States and Australia. The ideological conflict of the Cold War and, later, between the Soviet Union and China had an influence on post-Second World War developments in Vietnam.

The key to understanding Indochina is Vietnam. It was from here that Indochinese communism was born and developed in the 1930s. It was here that Indochinese nationalism and the struggle for independence from European colonial powers originated and was largely led. It was from Hanoi that the war against South Vietnam, the United States and its allies spread into Cambodia and Laos.

Vietnam is a long, thin, S-shaped country running for 2000 km between China and the Gulf of Tonkin in the north, to the South China Sea in the south; and Laos and Cambodia in the west. It covers an area of 334,331 square kilometres and is an important part of the Indochina region.

Most of Vietnam is mountainous, with a long forested chain of mountains running down the centre and western side. However, large flat and fertile land lies in the south, centred on the capital city Hanoi and in the Mekong Delta in the south. The latter is the food bowl of the nation, producing, for example, three rice crops a year.

Vietnam has a population of about 84.5 million (2006). Most are nominally Buddhist, about 75 per cent, while there are Catholic minorities and members of the "homegrown" Cao Dai faith. It is still a poor nation with an average annual income of about $650 a year (2006). Most people continue to earn a living from the land or sea, but an increasing number are involved in industries such as manufacturing and tourism and a developing small to medium business sector.

Traditionally Vietnam and China have been enemies. A long history of warfare has existed as China tried to expand its empire south under various ruling dynasties. Most of Vietnam's heroes have fought successfully against the invaders from the north over several hundred years. There is also a tradition of conflict and the rise and fall of empires within the area we now call Vietnam. For example, the Cham people of central Vietnam established a large empire in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Civil war is not new to the Vietnamese people.

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Overview of Vietnam before 1954

There is a long history of conflict in Indochina. Periodically, Vietnamese, Khmer and Lao empires have come and gone. War has been waged internally and externally in the region. Military, economic and religious invasion has come from China and to a lesser extent from India. This has led to conflict and distress for the people. So in some ways the post-Second World War conflict can be viewed as a continuation of this tradition of violence and war. However, the twentieth century has added new geopolitical dimensions to conflict in Indochina.

Since the Second World War, there have been three wars in Indochina. The first, between the Vietnamese and the French colonial power, is outside the scope of the HSC Course. The Second Indochina War is more commonly known as the "Vietnam War" in the West and the "American War" in Vietnam. This war is the focus of the HSC Course. In 1978–79 there was a short war between Vietnam and China which spilled into Cambodia. This is also outside the Course.

Summary of events before 1954

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The First Indochina War

At the time Ho was flanked by American supporters and included excerpts from the United States' Declaration of Independence in his speech!

Very soon the French returned to reclaim their former colonies in Indochina, as General Philippe Leclerc proclaimed: "We have come to reclaim our inheritance!" At the same time the Nationalist Chinese, who were assigned the task of accepting the Japanese surrender, went on a rampage against the Vietminh in the north, taking the opportunity to try and occupy Vietnam. They conquered Vietnam down to Hue, and Ho had to turn to the French to drive the Chinese out.

For their part the French promised that they would only stay for five years. This was to be a hollow promise as they had no intention of leaving. Relations between the French and the Vietminh rapidly deteriorated. Ho moved to the mountains of the north and began a guerilla war against the French. This was the First Indochina War and continued for the next eight years.

For the Americans this situation presented a dilemma. In the United Nations and other international forums they strongly advocated anti-colonialism and the granting of independence to former colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. However, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower did not want to antagonise their French allies, especially President de Gaulle. In addition the fear of the spread of communism into Asia from China (communist since 1949) and the growing influence of the Soviet Union forced US foreign policy to withdraw support from the Vietminh which had been dwindling anyway and actively back the French through military and other aid in the war against the Vietminh.

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The French fall at Dien Bien Phu

Gradually the war turned in favour of the Vietminh. The French were unable to put down the type of war being waged against them in Vietnam. The French tried to draw the guerillas into a situation of open conflict. They got their wish but not quite how they expected.

Dien Bien Phu was a large French base made up of four sections in the mountains of northwest Vietnam, not far from the border with Laos. Under the leadership and careful planning and preparation of General Vo Nguyen Giap a siege to the base was laid. For six months the Vietminh had manhandled artillery and other equipment across mountains and through jungles to positions surrounding Dien Bien Phu. The French had no idea these preparations were under way.

In late April 1954 Giap launched his attack, using artillery which constantly moved so that the French could not target it and "waves" of infantry. Despite taking severe losses, Giap accepted the French surrender on 7 May. Over 10,000 French troops surrendered. It was to be the end of French Indochina.

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The Geneva Convention and Accords

Some kind of settlement had to be made in Indochina following Dien Bien Phu. Negotiations were opened in the Swiss capital Geneva in the following year. The Vietminh held almost all the high cards so far as Vietnam was concerned. The so-called Geneva Convention and its Accords were to be the foundation of Vietnam's history until 1975.

Basically the Geneva Accords:

Neither side had any real intention of holding elections. The south was to be temporarily governed by Ngo Dinh Diem [pron. Zee'em] with American support. Diem knew that he had no chance of winning the elections as Ho's popularity remained high due to his efforts in the nationalist struggle against the French and Japanese.

Probably Diem sought American help to rig a referendum to boost his authority in the South. He was a Catholic and was beginning to favour Catholics in his administration. Unsurprisingly, he won 98.5 per cent of the vote! Thus Diem unilaterally rejected the Geneva Accords.

With this "support" he declared his regime the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) which was formally recognised by France, the US, Britain, Japan, Thailand and Australia. In response Ho declared the North the People's Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which was later changed to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Military conscription was introduced in the North and the National Liberation Front (NLF) was established to remove all foreigners from Vietnam and unite the two halves into a unified socialist state.

Despite the good intentions of Ho Chi Minh, many people living in the north did not wish to live under a communist regime. Some elements of society, notably Catholics and some intellectuals, fled to the south. There is some evidence that a number of peasants who were unhappy with the communists disrupting traditional life also went south.

One of the first moves of Ho's government was to undertake land reform. Over 810,000 hectares of land were nationalised and redistributed. Ho was wise enough to keep the village administration intact. This program was completed in 1958. However, many thousand "enemies of the state" were imprisoned, re-educated or in some cases executed. In 1956 Ho largely reversed this policy and most political prisoners were released.

The Communists also believed that education was important to the development of the state and consolidating the revolution. Ho's aims were to remove illiteracy, provide skilled workers and instil in the population the "necessary" revolutionary ardour. By 1964 the number of students in schools had quadrupled and North Vietnam had one of the highest literacy rates in the developing countries. Some observers have placed this as high as over 90 per cent. Education in united Vietnam today is still compulsory, although literacy rates have fallen a little.

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The Second Indochina War

This is more commonly known as the Vietnam War in the West. The war grew out of many factors.

Very early in the history of South Vietnam it became apparent that President Diem and his family had scant regard for democracy. His first aim was to suppress any opposition, including criminals, supporters of the Vietminh and the powerful religious sects.

Diem himself was a Catholic, and he gave preference in government jobs and in the administration to his fellow believers. Nepotism became firmly established, and much power was given to Diem's sister-in-law, the notorious Madam Nhu, and to his brother the Archbishop of Vietnam.

Within a short time it was apparent that a dictatorship was being established. Diem justified this development on the grounds that the Republic was being threatened from the communist north. Diem was aggressively anti-communist.

Despite these turns, the United States poured huge amounts of aid into South Vietnam. Gradually the south became more and more dependent on US aid, much of which disappeared in graft and corruption.

In 1957 the beginnings of a communist insurgency appeared. Many of the former Vietminh were infiltrating into the south. Two years later, the Central Committee in Hanoi decided to support this insurgency, and the first lot of men and weapons began moving down what was to become known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In response Diem stepped up his persecution of dissidents, especially anyone considered to have communist sympathies.

In 1960 the National Liberation Front was established in Saigon. This organisation was similar to the Vietminh in that it included a range of political opinion, but was organised and led by communists from the north. Later the NLF combined with the illegal South Vietnamese Communist Party to become popularly known as the Vietcong (VC).

The US response was to step up aid to the south, following a request from Diem. A greater proportion of this aid was in the form of weapons.

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