Vietnam War - Background Pre 1949
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
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
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
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.