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France's Leadership & Tactics in the First Indochina War

France's Leadership & Tactics in the First Indochina War
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  • 0:02 Background
  • 1:01 General Jean de Lattre…
  • 2:56 Air Power
  • 4:03 Pierre Mendes-France
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, we'll consider several key aspects of the role the French played in the First Indochina War. Imagine a battlefield without clear front lines, and find out how the French aimed to work with these conditions.

Background

As World War II came to a close in 1945, France began a long recovery process from the devastation caused by war and occupation. At the time same, decolonization was gaining momentum throughout the world. Many people in French colonies were resistant to their continued presence, at times willing to go to battle to push them out. France had many reasons for wanting to keep its colonies: from economic interest to the political power and symbolism colonies represented. The French also believed that their impact could be a positive one - even if it was imposed.

One of those countries seeking decolonization was Vietnam, which had declared independence in September 1945 under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. France didn't want to lose ground to communism and was willing to go to war with the supporters of Ho Chi Minh, known as the Viet Minh, in what would later be called the First Indochina War.

General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny

At first, the French were able to ward off Viet Minh guerilla attacks. However, as the Viet Minh grew stronger during the war, new tactics were needed if there was to be any hope of ending the resulting stalemate.

In December 1950, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny assumed command as the military leader the French needed to rally their troops and come up with a plan of action. De Lattre had significant achievements during World War II that added to his credibility. Before his death from cancer, he energized the forces in Vietnam to make important strides over the next two years. De Lattre also requested aid from the United States to achieve these aims.

Although evacuations of civilians had become more common with his predecessor in command, de Lattre wanted civilians to stay put and even assist with guard duty. He also believed that if servicemen in Vietnam knew their civilian family members' lives were at stake, their passion to fight and protect them would bolster them on in the war.

The de Lattre Line was named for the general's efforts to secure the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam by building up areas of weapons and blockhouses, or concrete structures used for monitoring and defending territory. Despite this, the Viet Minh were able to penetrate this line, and their military leader General Vo Nguyen Giap became convinced he could take over the Red River Delta. However, when Giap launched a massive attack in this area, his soldiers were forced to withdraw when the French successfully struck back with the help of American-supplied weapons.

De Lattre believed that one of the keys to success was in mobilizing willing Vietnamese to fight against their communist-nationalist counterparts. He also believed to have them take over these blockhouses over time. However, his plan never played out in the way he would have hoped, and the fortifications didn't become the source of strength they were intended to be.

Air Power

Ultimately, the French faced a unique challenge in Vietnam. Unlike many other wars fought with clearly drawn battle lines, the Viet Minh were not situated along one front. The war had to be fought in many locations across the country. Thus, mobilizing forces to new areas quickly became necessary.

Although airborne paratrooper forces had been used in World War II, the specialized technique of dropping these forces directly into the regions where they were needed became a common and key part of operations during the First Indochina War. The first parachute battalions were made possible in part due to the contributions of the French Foreign Legion, a hired army from a range of nationalities. The French were often at a disadvantage in terms of numbers of troops, so the help of about 30,000 troops from the Foreign Legion was critical.

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