The Vietnam War - Background Pre 1949


 War Movies Home


France began its conquest of Indochina in 1859. In spite of military resistance, by 1888 the area of the current-day nations of Cambodia and Vietnam was made into the colony of French Indochina (Laos was added later). Various Vietnamese opposition movements to the French rule existed during this period but none were ultimately as successful as the Viet Minh common front (openly controlled by the Communist Party of Vietnam) which was founded in 1941.

During World War II, the French were defeated by the Germans in 1940. For French Indochina, this meant that the colonial authorities became Vichy French, allies of the German-Italian Axis powers. In turn this meant that the French collaborated with the Japanese forces after their invasion of French Indochina during 1940. The French continued to run affairs in the colony, but ultimate power resided in the hands of the Japanese.

This situation continued until the German forces were expelled from France and the French Indochina colonial authorities started holding secret talks with the Free French. Fearing that they could no longer trust the French authorities the Japanese army interned them all on 9 March 1945 and assumed direct control themselves through their puppet state of the Empire of Vietnam under Bảo Đại.

During 1944–1945, a famine struck northern Vietnam due to a combination of poor weather and Japanese exploitation. 1 million people died of starvation (out of a population of 10 million in the affected area). Exploiting the administrative gap that the internment of the French had created, the Viet Minh in March 1945 urged the population to ransack rice warehouses and refuse to pay their taxes.  Between 75 and 100 warehouses were consequently raided. This rebellion against the effects of the famine and the authorities that were partially responsible for it, bolstered the Viet Minh's popularity and they recruited many members during this period.

In August 1945, the Japanese had been defeated and surrendered unconditionally. In French Indochina this created a power vacuum as the French were still interned and the Japanese forces stood down. Into this vacuum, the Viet Minh entered and grasped power across Vietnam in the "August Revolution"(in large part supported by the Vietnamese population). On 2 September 1945, Ho Chi Minh (leader of the Viet Minh) declared the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam before a crowd of 500,000 in Hanoi. In an overture to the Americans, he began his speech by paraphrasing the United States Declaration of Independence: All men are created equal. The Creator has given us certain inviolable Rights: the right to Life, the right to be Free, and the right to achieve Happiness.

However, the major allied victors of World War II (the United Kingdom, the USA and the Soviet Union) all agreed that the area belonged to the French As the French did not have the ships, weapons or soldiers to immediately retake Vietnam, the major powers came to an agreement that British troops would occupy the south while Nationalist Chinese forces would move in from the north. When the British landed they rearmed the interned French forces as well as parts of the surrendered Japanese forces to aid them in retaking south Vietnam as they did not have enough troops to do this themselves.

Following the party line from Moscow, Ho Chi Minh initially attempted to negotiate with the French who were slowly re-establishing their control across the country.   In January 1946, the Viet Minh won elections across central and northern Vietnam. The French landed in Hanoi by March 1946 and in November of that year they ousted the Viet Minh from the city. Soon thereafter the Viet Minh began a guerilla war against the French Union forces, beginning the First Indochina War.

The war spread to Laos and Cambodia where Communists organized the Pathet Lao and the Khmer Serai after the model of the Viet Minh. Globally, the Cold War began in earnest which meant that the rapprochement that had existed between the Western powers and the Soviet Union during World War II disintegrated. The Viet Minh fight was hampered by a lack of weapons; this situation changed by 1949 when the Chinese Communists had largely won the Chinese Civil War and were free to provide arms to their Vietnamese allies.




   War Movies Home