First Indochina War: Battle of Dien Bien Phu & the Geneva Conference

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  • 0:06 Outbreak of the War
  • 1:48 The War Intensifies
  • 4:57 Battle of Dien Bien Phu
  • 5:59 Geneva Conference
  • 7:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

Conflict between the French and Viet Minh led to the First Indochina War. In this lesson, you will learn about the causes of the war, the important battles and the final resolution, which led to increased American intervention in Southeast Asia.

Outbreak of the War

The opening salvo of the First Indochina War, fought between France and the Viet Minh nationalist forces from 1946 to 1954, occurred on November 23, 1946. After months of failed negotiations between Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh and the French, tensions reached a boiling point. In the Northern territory of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), the name given to Indochina by Ho, minor skirmishes broke out between the French and Viet Minh.

After learning of a physical confrontation between the two sides in the city of Haiphong, the French navy shelled the nationalists. As a result, France claimed the lives of roughly 6,000 Vietnamese civilians. The Viet Minh promptly retaliated. On December 19th, the Viet Minh launched an attack on French encampments in the city of Hanoi. The war for Indochina was underway.

Now, while President Harry Truman approved of the French return to Indochina following the Second World War, the United States maintained a neutral position during the first three years of the war. In 1949, the United States began to increase its role in the conflict. With France realizing that a protracted war against a guerrilla force was extremely difficult, the nation began looking for alternative measures to defeat the nationalists.

France hoped to draw the United States into supporting its aims in Southeast Asia. They accomplished this goal by supporting the Elysee Agreement, which created a non-communist state under the leadership of former emperor of the Empire of Vietnam, Bao Dai. In 1950, the United States formally recognized the anti-communist state, named the State of Vietnam, and began supporting the Bao Dai regime, as well as the French. This opened the door to increased American intervention in the First Indochina War.

The War Intensifies

Disgruntled over the United States allying itself with the State of Vietnam, the Viet Minh intensified guerrilla activities against the French. With the increase in action, France knew that it needed to enhance its operations. In 1949, France created the National Army of Vietnam, which enlisted Vietnamese citizens in an effort to prevent the Viet Minh from destroying the State of Vietnam.

Concerned over the influence the successful communist North Korean invasion of South Korea would have on the Viet Minh, Truman decided to bolster the French cause by deploying American advisors to Indochina. In September 1950, the Military Assistance Advisory Group, Indochina (MAAG) was established in-country and assisted the French with war strategy, training and logistics. In 1952, France constructed the Vietnamese Navy as a marine system of defense.

Even with the increase in defense, the French suffered devastating defeats against Viet Minh forces under the principal leadership of General Vo Nguyen Giap. While the nationalists' tactics were unconventional, they succeeded in capturing several important installations during 1950, including Lai Khe, Dong Khe, and Lang Son. The only notable achievement of France during the year was its creation of the 'De Lattre Line,' which acted as a shield to prevent Viet Minh movement south of Hanoi. The achievements of Ho and the Viet Minh won broad support from China and the Soviet Union, which immediately began supplying the nationalists with war material.

The years 1951 to 1952 proved to be more favorable to France. With its victories in 1951, the confident Giap and Viet Minh orchestrated larger offenses against the French. However, France switched tactics and attempted to trap many of the Viet Minh divisions before they could launch guerrilla attacks. The alteration in strategy was largely successful as the French were able to inflict devastating punishment to the Viet Minh.

Simultaneously, the United States was transferring incredible amounts of financial aid to its allies in Southeast Asia. In 1952, the United States was supplying roughly 30% of the French military budget; this increased to 70% by 1954. The new strategy and sizeable American contributions led to a turn in the war. The French, however, failed to sustain the momentum.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered office in 1953, he immediately approved the deployment of American planes, technical advisors and maintenance teams to assist the French in the war. The additional supplies and intelligence still failed to help the French end the war. Giap altered his strategy in 1953 and attempted to engage the French from the country of Laos. Giap's ultimate plan was to invade Laos and establish a perimeter around the French in the Northern sections of the DRV.

Simultaneously, France sent General Henri Navarre to Indochina to head the anemic French forces. Navarre anticipated Giap's plan of invading Laos. To counter, Navarre stationed his forces at the small village of Dien Bien Phu. This village was located on Route 19, which was the primary road for moving Viet Minh troops from the DRV to Laos. The Navarre Plan, as it came to be known, was expected to decimate Giap's forces, gain Vietnamese support and push for an end to the war.

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