Decolonization and Indo-China




The following paper was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements in Modern Europe, 1914–Present, a Graduate level course, at Millersville University, spring 2008. If anyone would like to use it in their research please email me.

John Keegan.

May 2008


The theory of self-determination, in its twentieth century form, can be traced back to Woodrow Wilson. While, he never precisely defined the term, Wilson did state that “national aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self-determination is not a mere phrase it is an imperative principle of action ….”[1] This idea was also expressed as the fifth of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which in essence, stated that the interests of a colonial population must be given equal weight to that of its prospective ruling government.[2] However, the Versailles Conference did not settle the colonial question, and it would be some twenty-two years before the issue of decolonization would surface again in the Atlantic Charter of August 1941; its third principle respected the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they lived. Article 76 Paragraph B of the United Nations Charter of June 1945 reinforced that principle. Thus, near the end of the Second World War decolonization was a major issue for the Allies especially the French who desperately wanted to retain their colonial possessions after the war.

Indo-China exemplified the difficulties the French had in retaining their colonial possessions. The Vietnamese wanted the independence that the Atlantic and United Nations Charters called for and were prepared, if necessary, to fight for it. The French were no less determined to retain possession of Vietnam and the rest of Indo-China, for they viewed the retention of their colonial possessions as necessary to regain their international stature. Thus, the French, with monetary assistance from the United States, fought the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Viet Minh). France was able to secure American aid as part of the United States effort to contain communism. Despite American assistance, the French were unable to defeat the Viet Minh and withdrew from Vietnam and the rest of Indo-China.


During the Second World War the Communists, Socialists, and the internal French Resistance were much less concerned about the colonies than were Charles De Gaulle’s free French. Based in Africa the National Council of the Resistance advocated social, economic, and political rights for colonial populations, but not independence. During the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Communists actively encouraged colonial rebellion, but after its disintegration, they hoped that the colonies would provide an army of one million soldiers for the anti-Fascist struggle.

Even before the liberation of Paris in late August 1944, the free French and Resistance elements examined the colonial question at the Brazzaville Conference in January-February 1944. The delegates were mostly colonial administrators and members of De Gaulle’s Consultative Assembly including some socialists and communists. Recognizing growing nationalist sentiments in the colonies, which the war had increased, De Gaulle, and the other delegates agreed to comprehensive social reform and economic development, and increased political participation for indigenous peoples. Additionally, cooperation would replace assimilation.[3] However, the possibility of colonial independence was dismissed:

Whereas the aims of the work of civilization accomplished by France in her colonies rule out all idea of autonomy and all possibility of development outside the French Empire; [therefore] the eventual constitution, even in the far-off future, of self-government in the colonies is out of the question.[4]

The Brazzaville Policy reflected the belief held by many liberal French colonial officials who identified De Gaulle’s French Union as the means of restoring the international stature of France as a great power after the humiliations of the Second World War. However, France had little control over her colonies, and nationalist movements in the colonies, specifically Indo-China, took advantage of France’s weakened condition to move toward independence. Additionally, the Atlantic and United Nations Charters supported decolonization and self-determination. In fact, one of the many things France was supposed to promote in her colonies as a member of the United Nations was their progressive development towards self-government or independence. [5] The Brazzaville Policy failed to do that, it illustrated French determination to regain national prestige by declaring the opposite.

By May 1945, the unity among the three major Resistance parties the French Communists (PCF), People’s Republican Movement including Christian Democrats and De Gaullists and the French Socialists was breaking down, and De Gaulle’s resignation as Prime Minister in January 1946, placed further strain on the coalition government. De Gaulle resigned because he was opposed to the assembly-dominated system of government being created by the constitutional committee. The coalition continued to function in an aimless manner until May 1947 when the PCF was evicted from the government after the French finally decided to back the West in the Cold War. From then on, the Communists were reduced to destructive criticism. The elimination of the Communists did not bring about stability in the government.

The weakness of the French governments accurately reflected the political divisions of the nation, thus the coalition governments of the Fourth French Republic were unstable, and after 1947 susceptible to right-wing pressure. Instability and political pressure exacerbated the difficulties of developing a new relationship with Indo-China and specifically Vietnam. The Communists were demanding complete colonial independence, and the nationalist leader of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, was a communist. Despite that disquieting fact, the French government could have negotiated a deal with Ho Chi Minh if the PCF had not enthusiastically advocated his claims. The Communists only had to support a particular course of action for most of the other factions within the government to oppose it. Thus, the most ardent supporters of decolonization made the process more difficult. At the other political extreme were the De Gaullists. They insisted that no concessions should be made to the nationalists in the colonies regardless of their political views. Somewhere in the middle was the government dominated by Christian Democrats and Socialists, both parties were sincere in their desire to negotiate a new relationship with the colonies. However, they were ignorant about the problems they faced, particularly during the first few years after the Second World War, and were indecisive about implementing their policies.[6]


The instability and indecisiveness of the government, and the fact that the French had no troops to send to Indo-China to organize the Japanese surrender in August 1945, created a power vacuum into which stepped Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to change French policy toward Vietnam can be traced back to the Versailles Conference of 1919. Reasoning that Woodrow Wilson's doctrine of self-determination applied to Asia, wearing a rented black suit and a bowler hat, he tried to present Wilson with a long list of French abuses in Vietnam but was rebuffed. In 1920, as a delegate to the French Socialist Party national congress from the colonial areas, Ho took the Socialists to task for not keeping their promise to help the oppressed “colonial peoples to regain their liberty and independence.”[7] Because the Socialists ignored the oppressed colonial people, he voted with the Communist wing of the party, thus becoming a founding member of the French Communist Party on December 30, 1920, and then founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party in early 1930.[8]

In late 1940,Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam after 30 years of wandering and working with French, Russian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian Communists. In May 1941, Ho Chi Minh formed the Viet-Minh, and with the help of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (VNQDD), fought the Japanese and the Vichy administration in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh resisted the Japanese for three years, for he was arrested by the Chinese in 1942 for entering China without valid travel documents. He entered China to organize units of Viet Minh.

American OSS officers intervened on his behalf and he was released in 1943.[9] By then, Ho had convinced those officers, who were assisting the resistance against the Japanese, “that he was no more than an energetic nationalist leader imbued with strong anti-colonial sentiments.”[10] At about the same time, Ho was handed overall control of the Vietnamese resistance, for the leader of the VNQDD had proven to be incompetent. Thus with the support of the Chinese and the United States, Ho set to work with skill and determination assisted by men who would be his closest colleagues for the next twenty-five years, the most important of which was Vo Nguyen Giap.

When the Viet Minh took control of Hanoi, disarmed the Japanese, and set up a provisional government in 1945, Ho’s forces seemed to have established official relations with the United States, and that the United States was giving the Viet Minh regime its full support. That belief led “Bao Dai and his nationalist supporters to abandon the reins of government to the Viet Minh without a struggle.”[11] However, Ho Chi Minh soon realized that the needed American support was not forthcoming. Thus, Ho began to advocate cooperation with the French. “It was during this period, from 1945 to 1946, that he acted as a Vietnamese first and a Communist second, in his grim determination to see the Vietnamese state survive at almost any price.”[12]

On August 22, 1945, the French Government sent Jean Sainteny to Hanoi. His primary mission was, among other things, to work out an understanding with Ho Chi Minh. Even before Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945, it was obvious to Sainteny that Ho’s government could not be ignored. Thus, Sainteny along with others in the French Government urged negotiations with Ho. It was clear to Sainteny that a revolution was occurring and Ho Chi Minh was leading it. Additionally, Vietnam could not, and would not, simply revert to its antebellum condition. However, D’Argenlieu High Commissioner of Indo-China opposed negotiations. Appointed by De Gaulle, D’Argenlieu arrived in Saigon in late October 1945, and purged all administrators suspected of collaboration with the former Vichy government, replacing them with inexperienced De Gaullists. D’Argenlieu viewed Ho Chi Minh’s Hanoi government as in rebellion, and negotiation would only legitimize it. Furthermore, if Vietnam were granted independence, as Sainteny argued, it would destroy the whole basis of the French Union.[13]

Despite D’Argenlieu’s opposition, the French Government in Paris decided, in early 1946, to open negotiations with Ho Chi Minh’s government in Hanoi. While Ho Chi Minh was negotiating with the French, Vo Nguyen Giap and others were liquidating internal enemies of the regime including Ngo Dinh Diem’s brother (Ngo Dinh Diem would become President of the Republic of Vietnam in 1955) as well as intellectuals, leaders of religious sects, Trotskyites, and anticommunist nationalists. Both the sects and the Viet Minh dealt with each other sympathizers in the same way: Tying them together into human rafts, and then throwing them into the Mekong River so they could float out to sea slowly drowning on the way.[14] Meanwhile, the March 6, 1946 agreement reached by Sainteny and Ho Chi Minh, and signed in Hanoi pleased none of the hardliners on either side. In essence,Francerecognized the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a free state, having its own government and parliament and forming part of the Indochinese Federation within the French Union, and the Vietnamese agreed that the French army should relieve the Chinese north of the sixteenth parallel. Ho Chi Minh agreed to the above because he realized Vietnam needed French economic aid. However, Ho lamented to Sainteny that the agreement was a victory for France, for he had received less than what he wanted, but Ho realized that he could not achieve everything in one day.[15]

The agreement met immediate opposition from both sides. Hanoi disliked the agreement, for it said nothing about independence, and some in Paris disliked the idea of negotiation altogether Two more conferences were held between April-September 1946. Both failed leading Giap to conclude the French are not to be trusted, and Ho Chi Minh to conclude, “It will be war between an elephant and a tiger…. [The tiger] will leap upon the back of the elephant tearing huge chunks from his side, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death. That will be the war of Indo-China.”[16]

The War and Siege of Dien Bien Phu

Due to their irreconcilable differences tensions increased from September to December 1946, and both the French and the Viet Minh prepared for the coming conflict. When fighting broke out in Haiphong in November 1946 a French warship shelled the city, killing 6,000 civilians.[17] The reason fighting broke out in Haiphong was that French authorities, in October, seized control of customs ignoring the March 1946 agreement, which promised the Democratic Republic of Vietnam control of its own finances. The French were ready to provoke a major incident. On November 20, 1946, the Viet Minh clashed with French sailors who had seized a Chinese junk suspected of carrying contraband. The French were able to negotiate a ceasefire, but unknown to the Viet Minh, the French had received full approval from Paris to “take complete control of Haiphong.”[18] Thus on November 23, 1946, during the above shelling, French troops moved into the city.

Giap, now a general, wanted to strike back, but Ho Chi Minh told Sainteny and wired that he still wanted to avoid a rupture if the French would return to the situation that existed prior to November 20, 1946. The telegram was held up by French authorities in Saigon, and did not arrive in until nine days later, five days too late. Hearing no response from Paris, Ho Chi Minh gave Giap the go ahead to attack.[19] On December 19, 1946, the Viet Minh attacked French positions in Haiphong. After the battle in Haiphong the Viet Minh retreated into the jungle to fight what General Giap called the people’s war. The people’s war strategy, based largely on the elephant and tiger metaphor quoted above, mobilized the entire population of northern Vietnam to fight the French. The Viet Minh avoided major engagements, mobilized popular support, and harassed French outposts. The fact that the French held the major towns and cities made little difference; the people’s war strategy placed a growing strain on French personnel, resources, and in time produced war-weariness at home.[20]

By 1950, the French realizing they could not defeat the Viet Minh militarily, attempted to undercut it politically by forming free states within the French Union in Laos, Cambodia, and the southern half of Vietnam below the sixteenth parallel. South Vietnam was headed by Bao Dai. American officials were skeptical of the Bao Dai solution. However, seeing no other alternative to a communist dominated Indo-China, the Truman administration in, February 1950, formally recognized the Bao Dai government.[21] Despite Franklin Roosevelt’s anti-colonial attitude toward France, which he expressed as early as 1943 at the Tehran Conference, and with which Stalin agreed that Indo-China should not be returned to the French.[22] Roosevelt's trusteeship plan was put aside by the Truman administration to focus on more pressing Cold War concerns.Its main concern, as expressed in the Truman Doctrine, was the containment of communism to keep it from spreading to Western Europe. Thus, a stable anticommunist French Government was important, especially after the loss of China in 1949, and the invasion of South Korea in 1950. Therefore, the United States financially supported the French in their efforts.

By the Eisenhower administration, the Cold War mentality was entrenched in the minds of the American public and the State Department. Viewing any country that turned away from democracy as a loss for the United States and a gain for the Soviet Union, Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles viewed Ho Chi Minh as an instrument of international communism, thus controlled by the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Eisenhower and Dulles were convinced that the fall of Indo-China to communism would lead to the loss of Southeast Asia as well. That domino effect would have disastrous political, economic, and strategic consequences for the United States. Thus, the Eisenhower administration continued to monetarily and materially support the French war effort, but Eisenhower and Dulles were reluctant to commit American combat troops to Indo-China and agreed that France must bear the burden of that responsibility.[23]

The combination of the people’s war strategy and the cautious defensive strategy of the French generals led to stalemate. Eisenhower and Dulles deplored the French strategy, and put two conditions on further French aid; the French had to get aggressive and to make firm commitments to the independence of Indo-China. In early May 1953, under increasing public and political pressure to do something in Indo-China or withdrawal, the French Government appointed General Navarre to command its forces in Indo-China. Navarre proposed the withdrawal of his scattered forces from their garrisons, combining them with new forces, and initiating a major offensive in the Red River Delta. The Navarre plan was tailored to the specifications of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, he secretly warned Paris that the war could not be won in a strictly military sense and the best that could be obtained was a draw. The French Government adopted the plan as a final effort to salvage some return on a massive investment and to assure continued American support.[24]

By the fall of 1953, the military and political situation had deteriorated to the point that the Navarre plan was never implemented. General Giap recognizing that a blow had to be struck before the increased American aid could take affect, invaded Central and Southern Laos increased guerrilla activity in the Red River Delta, and prepared for a major strike into Northern Laos. Meanwhile, Navarre was mobilizing his forces for the planned offensive. However to counter Viet Minh activity, Navarre had to scatter his forces. By early 1954, both sides had committed major forces to a remote village in the northwest corner of Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu. Navarre reasoned his forces were in good positions to cut off the anticipated invasion, and force the Viet Minh into open combat, instead, they found themselves isolated in a far corner of Vietnam where the only way in and out was by air. Giap took advantage of the situation, encircled the French garrison, and destroyed the landing strips.[25]

The siege lasted from March 13, 1954 to May 7, 1954 when the French surrendered. The only thing that could have saved the French was American airstrikes, for both French and American military experts concluded that it was impossible to move artillery into the area. However, the Viet Minh were able to do just that, moving an army of 50,000 into the hills around the French fortress. Thousands of porters including an army of women moved tons of supplies and equipment over hundreds of miles of indescribably difficult terrain from staging areas near the Chinese border. Additionally, the Viet Minh formed human anthills carrying disassembled artillery pieces up piece by piece, and reassembling them. Thus, the siege was a near perfect execution of the people’s war strategy.[26] French requests for air support, Eisenhower, due to the insistence of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not provide the aircraft the French needed.

Geneva and Conclusion

The Geneva Conference began its consideration of the Indo-China issue on May 8, 1954. The Viet Minh flush with victory savored the prize for which it had fought for more than seven years. In contrast, the French began preparations to salvage as much as possible below the sixteenth parallel. The United States was a reluctant participant at Geneva, for it did not like negotiating with communists especially the Chinese. Thus, American participation in the conference took on the character of an interested nation that neither negotiated nor endorsed an agreement. It had determined to take over responsibility for defending Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam (below the sixteenth parallel), and draw a line that the Communists would not cross, keeping freedom alive in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, under pressure from China and the Soviet Union, the Viet Minh reluctantly accepted a temporary partition of Vietnam and it removed its forces from Laos and Cambodia.

Under the Geneva Accords of 1954 in addition to the above and French withdrawal from Vietnam, and other provisions, the country would be reunified by election in the summer of 1956. Additionally, the Ceasefire agreements recognized the right of both Laos and Cambodia to self-determination, but to ease Chinese fears of American intervention, they were not allowed to enter military alliances or permit bases on their soil except in cases where their security was clearly threatened. Neither the United States nor South Vietnam associated themselves with the formal agreements.[27] Ngo Dinh Diem, in 1955 became President of the Republic Vietnam and refused to hold the reunification elections in 1956 citing Viet Minh violations of the Geneva Accords.Thus, Diem and the United States perpetuated Vietnam's status as one of the major battlegrounds of the Cold War.

The first Indo-China War 1946-1954 was an effort on the part of the Vietnamese to gain independence, on the part of the French, it was an effort to regain national prestige and international stature through the retention of its colonies, and on the part of the United States, it was an effort to contain communism. In the end, the French lost national prestige and international stature because they lost to the Viet Minh. The French could not retain Indo-China without American assistance, and they failed to understand the people’s war strategy and the Vietnamese people. The United States involvement in the war to contain communism was only temporarily successful, and resulted in its own prolonged military involvement in Vietnam in which it too failed to understand the people’s war strategy and the Vietnamese people. The Viet Minh did unify its country, but it took another twenty years of war.


[1] Quoted in M. K. Nawaz “The Meaning and Range of the Principle of Self-Determination,” Duke Law Journal 1965.1 (1965): 3.

[2] Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points ,(accessed April 9, 2016),

[3] Edward Rice-Maximin, The French Left, Indochina and the Cold War, 1944-1954 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 14.

[4] Conference January-February 1944 (Colonial Ministry, Paris, 1945) p 32. Quoted in R.E.M. Irving The First Indochina War: French and American Policy, 1945-54 (London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1975), 4

[5] United Nations Charter Article 76 Paragraph B , (accessed April 9, 2016),

[6] Irving, 5-6

[7] Bernard Fall, The Two Viet-Nams (New York: Frederick A Praeger, 1966), 90.

[8] Ibid, 95.

[9] Ibid, 98-99, Irving, 10

[10] Irving, 10

[11] Fall, 100-101

[12] Ibid, 101

[13] Irving, 14, 16-17

[14] Fall, 101

[15] Irving, 18-19

[16] Ibid, 22, 29

[17] George C Herring, America's Longest War: the United States and Vietnam 1950-1975 4th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002): 8.

[18] Rice-Maximin, 42-43

[19] Ibid, 45

[20] Herring, 8

[21] Ibid, 21

[22] John J. Sebrega, “The Anticolonial Policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Reappraisal” Political Science Quarterly, 101.1 (1986): 74.

[23] Herring, 30

[24] Ibid, 32

[25] Ibid, 32-33

[26] Ibid, 37

[27] Ibid, 48-49