From 1946 to 1954, France was bogged down in a war in Vietnam as they attempted to reimpose its control over the Indochina state, after losing it to Japan in WWII. The Strengths and weaknesses of Frances armed forces, and the Vietminh military, would be mirrored by the coming U.S. and Vietnam war, decades later.

As a major European power, France had the early advantage of greater numbers of professionally trained troops and resources to draw upon, however, the latter advantages turned into a liability as France was increasingly dependent on aid from the United States to continue fighting Viet Minh military forces. By 1950 the United States contributed $133 million to French efforts in Indochina including large amounts of arms, ammo, naval vessels, aircraft, and other military vehicles.[1] Another $385 million in U.S. aid arrived in 1953.[2]

While this was a major boon to France during the war, it also had the effect of making the French dependent on the U.S. government for victory, and so when the U.S. withheld aid towards the end of the war, it doomed Frances ability as a result. France also maintained control over Vietnam centers and centers of large populations, however, this strength too came at too high a cost as in 1949 the exposed French spent 167 million francs and lost 1,000 casualties per month.[3]


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Other weaknesses attributed to France’s eventual defeat. The Navarre Plan, which called for a major offensive with combined French and trained Vietnamese troops, was too risky and when it failed to do any major damage to the Viet Minh resulted in 12,000 of France’s elite forces being isolated in remote locations.[4]

France could not garner popular support from the people with their policy of colonialism. Most Vietnamese felt like they had two choices: supporting French imperialism or supporting the revolutionary nationalist’s cause of Vietnamese self-determination. Most chose the Vietminh cause.[5]

Historian George C. Herring notes that, by the time the United States started sending aid to the French, Ho Chi Minh already controlled two-thirds of the countryside, and Vietminh forces numbered in the hundreds of thousands. As the war effort was stretched to its furthest possible limits the French grew weary and worn out by a protracted war where time was not on their side.

Of course, this played to the Vietminh’s 3-stage plan of protracted warfare, taking notes from the guerilla tactics of Mao and the Communist’s war in China. First the Vietminh took on a defensive strategy, saving their strength while gaining support in rural Vietnam. The second phases consisted of wearing down the French until they were in a weaker position that the Vietminh.

The third stage was a general offensive in where the Vietminh would drive out the French from Vietnam. The Vietminh army was able transform itself into a modern army with the assistance of Communist China whose aid in resources in 1950 was over 400 tons a month plus 4,000 Chinese who were sent to support the Vietminh.[6]

American war correspondent Theodore White, commenting on the modernization of the Vietminh forces, said, “The enemy, once painted as a bomb-throwing terrorist or hill sniper lurking in night ambush has become a modern army, increasingly skillful, armed with artillery, and organized into divisional groups.”[7]


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Like the French’s dependence on aid from the U.S., the Vietminh’s support from China also proved to stymie its overall victory by the time of the Geneva Conference in 1954. Pressure from both Soviet Russia, and the China, caused the Vietminh to reluctantly agree to a ceasefire, leaving them in control of Northern Vietnam, and setting up the south the be eventually taken over from France’s hand to the United States.[8]

The U.S. would have done well to learn from French mistakes in Vietnam, as the same tactics of a protracted war where guerilla tactics were used to wear down a superior enemy would be used again, only this time it would be the United States throwing money and lives into a war that it did not want to be in.


Sources Cited


[1] George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 2nd Edition (New York: Newbery Awards Records, Inc. 1986), 18.

[2] Herring, 27.

[3] Herring, 16.

[4] Herring, 28.

[5] George D. Moss, Vietnam, 6th Edition. (New York: Person Education Inc, 2016), 18.

[6] Herring, 24.

[7] Ouoted in Herring, America’s Longest War, 24.

[8] Herring, 39.