French Indochina

The states of Indochina had belonged to France since the 19th century. In March 1945, Japan launched a coup d'├ętat in French Indochina, interning all French officials and turning all civil government over to local authorities. The power vacuum resulting from the Japanese surrender allowed the Viet Minh to establish themselves throughout Vietnam. When the French returned to the north, incidents between them and the Viet Minh were inevitable, negotiations collapsed and conflict followed.

In his early years as President Harry Truman's Secretary of State, Dean Acheson was torn about which way to go in Vietnam. In the early spring of 1949, Acheson resisted pressure from State Department conservatives to throw full U.S. support behind France and Emperor Bao Dai. He couldn't get away from the notion that Bao Dai was a weak leader who had no chance of winning broad popular support, and couldn't avoid the suspicion that France was merely seeking to continue her colonial war under a new guise. In this respect, Acheson endorsed the views of those who had voiced deep pessimism regarding prospects in Indochina.

In his early years as President Harry Truman's Secretary of State, Dean Acheson was torn about which way to go in Vietnam. In the early spring of 1949, Acheson resisted pressure from State Department conservatives to throw full U.S. support behind France and Emperor Bao Dai. He couldn't get away from the notion that Bao Dai was a weak leader who had no chance of winning broad popular support, and couldn't avoid the suspicion that France was merely seeking to continue her colonial war under a new guise. In this respect, Acheson endorsed the views of those who had voiced deep pessimism regarding prospects in Indochina.

The Viet Minh for some reason had withdrawn and the paratroopers cleared the first line of hills without being intercepted. It seemed that luck had been with the French, at least this time. But the Viet Minh had simply chosen to let the French battalion withdraw from its fixed position, where its guns would be able to inflict heavy damage on the assailants, and string itself out along a jungle path where it could be hacked to pieces at leisure. Thus an entire battalion walked into a vast trap. The density of the automatic fire which now greeted the French was unheard of in the Indochina war. The two rear guard companies were wiped out, but their sacrifice saved the remainder of the battalion.

The Viet Minh for some reason had withdrawn and the paratroopers cleared the first line of hills without being intercepted. It seemed that luck had been with the French, at least this time. But the Viet Minh had simply chosen to let the French battalion withdraw from its fixed position, where its guns would be able to inflict heavy damage on the assailants, and string itself out along a jungle path where it could be hacked to pieces at leisure. Thus an entire battalion walked into a vast trap. The density of the automatic fire which now greeted the French was unheard of in the Indochina war. The two rear guard companies were wiped out, but their sacrifice saved the remainder of the battalion.

Another failure was the total underestimation of the Viet Minh's antiaircraft gunmanship. The Korean War had ended only a few months before the Battle for Dien Bien Phu began. In Korea, flak had - in the final analysis - accounted for 816 kills, while "only" 147 Allied planes were lost in air-to-air combat. Flak-suppression strikes usually drove enemy gunners under cover but seldom destroyed their weapons. The French paid dearly for their error, with a total of 48 aircraft downed over the valley, 14 destroyed on the ground, and 167 damaged over the valley by enemy flak. For an air force that never had more than 175 aircraft available for Dien Bien Phu, those losses were extremely heavy.

Another failure was the total underestimation of the Viet Minh's antiaircraft gunmanship. The Korean War had ended only a few months before the Battle for Dien Bien Phu began. In Korea, flak had - in the final analysis - accounted for 816 kills, while "only" 147 Allied planes were lost in air-to-air combat. Flak-suppression strikes usually drove enemy gunners under cover but seldom destroyed their weapons. The French paid dearly for their error, with a total of 48 aircraft downed over the valley, 14 destroyed on the ground, and 167 damaged over the valley by enemy flak. For an air force that never had more than 175 aircraft available for Dien Bien Phu, those losses were extremely heavy.

After the Chinese Communist victory in September 1949, the Viet Minh acquired safe havens just across Tonkin's northern border. Over the coming years, they would be equipped and trained as a conventional force by the People's Liberation Army. Conscription was introduced, allowing the assembly of existing and new Viet Minh regiments into nine-battalion divisions, armed with recoilless guns, some light artillery and anti-aircraft weapons. They now progressed from guerrilla warfare to major confrontations with the French Far East Expeditionary Corps. The first warning of General Giap's new capabilities came in September 1950, in the jungle mountains that stretched along the Tonkin-China border.

After the Chinese Communist victory in September 1949, the Viet Minh acquired safe havens just across Tonkin's northern border. Over the coming years, they would be equipped and trained as a conventional force by the People's Liberation Army. Conscription was introduced, allowing the assembly of existing and new Viet Minh regiments into nine-battalion divisions, armed with recoilless guns, some light artillery and anti-aircraft weapons. They now progressed from guerrilla warfare to major confrontations with the French Far East Expeditionary Corps. The first warning of General Giap's new capabilities came in September 1950, in the jungle mountains that stretched along the Tonkin-China border.

Viet Minh regional units were typically based, part time, in hideouts in difficult terrain. Most of the attacks on convoys and posts during the "guerrilla" phase of the war fell to them. Their activities were coordinated at higher echelons, however, and they might be thrown into an all-out battle in support of or in order to mask nearby main force operations. In the early years, these second-line troops were scattered in local sections, platoons, companies or commandos of varying military value. Titles were transient, and allegiance to larger regional regiments was more administrative than tactical. The command network was based on the Integrated Zones into which the country was divided from 1948.

Viet Minh regional units were typically based, part time, in hideouts in difficult terrain. Most of the attacks on convoys and posts during the "guerrilla" phase of the war fell to them. Their activities were coordinated at higher echelons, however, and they might be thrown into an all-out battle in support of or in order to mask nearby main force operations. In the early years, these second-line troops were scattered in local sections, platoons, companies or commandos of varying military value. Titles were transient, and allegiance to larger regional regiments was more administrative than tactical. The command network was based on the Integrated Zones into which the country was divided from 1948.

Anti-vehicle mines were made from unexploded French bombs and shells which had been courageously recovered and ingeniously re-fused. Viet Minh sappers lifted and relaid French mines which had been sown to protect forts. Anti-personnel booby traps were rigged with tripwires and grenades, or with punji sticks, which were bamboo or barbed iron spikes, often smeared with excrement, placed in camouflaged pits just deep enough to ensure that a careless step would drive them through the foot and out the instep. The iron spikes were often set into blocks of wood, so that much time and pain would be involved in freeing the impaled victim.

Anti-vehicle mines were made from unexploded French bombs and shells which had been courageously recovered and ingeniously re-fused. Viet Minh sappers lifted and relaid French mines which had been sown to protect forts. Anti-personnel booby traps were rigged with tripwires and grenades, or with punji sticks, which were bamboo or barbed iron spikes, often smeared with excrement, placed in camouflaged pits just deep enough to ensure that a careless step would drive them through the foot and out the instep. The iron spikes were often set into blocks of wood, so that much time and pain would be involved in freeing the impaled victim.