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  Page 11 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)    

BACKGROUND TO MILITARY ASSISTANCE

16th parallel by the end of 1945. Two months later French negotiators secured an agreement with the Chinese Nationalists whereby French units would replace the Chinese occupation forces north of the 16th parallel.

Wartime developments in French-Indochina, however, had brought about profound political changes which eventually would doom the French effort to re-establish political and economic influence in the region. During World War II, Ho Chi Minh, an avowed Communist, had transformed a relatively feeble political party into a sizable guerrilla organization. Known as the Viet Minh, the Communist guerrillas had been organized, trained, and led by Vo Nguyen Giap, a former history teacher from Annam. During the latter stages of the war, the United States had supplied the Viet Minh with limited quantities of military supplies. In return, Ho's guerrillas had assisted downed American pilots and occasionally had clashed with small Japanese units. But the Viet Minh had wasted few men on costly major actions against the Japanese. Conserving their forces. Ho and Giap had concentrated on organization and had managed to extend their strength into the densely populated Red River Delta and along the Anna-mese coast. In Cochinchina, where their numbers were considerably smaller, the Communists had limited their activities almost entirely to organization and recruitment. Thus, by the end of the war Ho's organization was able to emerge as a definite military-political force in northern French-Indochina.

Following the Japanese surrender and before the arrival of the Chinese Nationalist occupation forces, the Viet Minh seized control of Hanoi, the capital of Tonkin, and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. At Ho's direction the Viet Minh promptly shifted from their anti-Japanese posture and prepared to contest the French return.

Confronted with this situation in northern Indochina, the French were forced to bargain with the Communists. A preliminary agreement was reached on 6 March 1946 whereby the French agreed to recognize the newly founded but relatively weak Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a "free state within the French Union." In return, Ho's government declared itself ''ready to welcome in friendly fashion the French Army, when in conformance with international agreement, it would relieve the Chinese forces" which had accepted the Japanese surrender in Tonkin.5 Shortly after the conclusion of this agreement, French forces began reoccupying Tonkin and northern Annam. Within six months they controlled every major strategic position from the Chinese border to the Ca Mau Peninsula, Cochinchina's southern tip.

The uneasy peace was broken in December 1946 after Viet Minh and French negotiators failed to reach a final agreement on actual political control of Tonkin and Annam. When open warfare erupted, Ho withdrew the bulk of his military forces into mountainous sanctuaries along the Chinese border, but left small groups of guerrillas scattered throughout the heavily populated Red River Delta. Reinforced with contingents from Europe and Africa, the French Expeditionary Corps initially managed to hold its own and, in some cases, even extend its control. But, drawing strength from its natural appeal to Vietnamese nationalism, the Communist movement began gaining momentum in the late 1940s. Gradually the war intensified and spread into central Annam and Cochinchina.

In January 1950, the French moved to undercut the Viet Minh's appeal to non-Communist nationalists by granting nominal independence to its Indochina possessions. Under the terms of a formal treaty, all of Vietnam (Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina) was brought together under a Saigon-based government headed by Emperor Bao Dai. Laos and Cambodia likewise formed their own governments, whereupon all three countries became known as the Associated States of Indochina.

This new arrangement, however, had little effect on the ongoing war with the Viet Minh. In accordance with the treaties, the Associated States became members of the French Union and agreed to prosecute the war under French direction. Moreover, French political dominance in the region continued, virtually undiluted by the existence of the Associated States.

In related developments, Mao Tse-tung's Chinese Communist armies seized control of mainland China in 1949 and Communist North Korean forces invaded the pro-Western Republic of Korea in 1950. These events added new meaning to the French struggle in Indochina as American policy makers came to view the war on the Southeast Asian mainland within the context of a larger

 

Page 11 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)