The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

French Indochinese War, 1945–1954

  • Laurent CesariEmail author
Living reference work entry



Overview of the war, from its causes to the implementation of the peace agreement, from the viewpoint of international history. The connections of this war with the overall development of the Cold War, in Europe as well as in Asia, are a fundamental characteristic of this colonial conflict.

Introductory Paragraph

The peculiarity of the French Indochina war among conflicts of decolonization consists in the intensity of its connections with the general diplomatic history of the period. This is why the history of the war has benefited invaluably from the international history of the Cold War which has developed since the early 1990s. Furthermore, very recent openings of archives provide information on the decision-making process of the French and Vietnamese communist parties. The present entry synthetizes these findings.

The war can be divided in two distinct periods. Up to June, 1950, it was a colonial struggle of regional significance and moderate intensity. The Korean War transformed it in a major East-West conflict.

French Indochina

The conquest of Indochina by France is a by-product of the “opening” of China in the mid-nineteenth century. It started in 1858 as a response to the assassination of Catholic missionaries in Vietnam, a tributary state of China, and was extended northward as France looked for an inland waterway to China. When French Indochina – named Indochinese Union in 1887 – took its final form in 1900, Vietnam had been divided in one colony (Cochinchina/Nam Bô in the South) and two protectorates (Annam/Trung Bô in the center, Tonkin/Bac Bô in the North). The Union also included two non-Vietnamese protectorates, Cambodia and Laos. The legal distinction between colony and protectorates meant little in fact: the kings of Cambodia and Laos, and the emperor of Vietnam who reigned in Annam, were only nominal monarchs. French civil servants ruled in the five “countries,” and the Union as a whole was supervised since 1891 by the Colonial Office. In addition, France was endowed with a sphere of influence in southwestern China, linked to Tonkin by the Yunnan railway.

There were few French residents in Indochina, consisting mainly of civil servants, military personnel, and businessmen. Indochina was the economic “jewel” of the French empire, thanks above all to the large rubber plantations in Cochinchina owned by companies such as Michelin and to rice exports from the Red River delta in Tonkin. At the local level, French administration relied on village chiefs. Vietnamese personnel, deemed more “enlightened” by the French, often served as junior administrative personnel in Cambodia and Laos. French citizenship was granted to some assimilated Indochinese. These were a select few, since higher education was limited. Vietnamese Catholics, who had often served as interpreters during the conquest and had been rewarded with land, the landed elite of the Red River delta, and a few important Chinese and Vietnamese tradesmen could be counted either as supporters of French rule or as members of a “loyal opposition” which, at least before World War II, asked for a constitution but not for independence.

French rule had been accepted on the whole in Cambodia and Laos, since it has prevented these weak states from being partitioned between Siam and Vietnam, but Vietnam was not officially pacified before the end of the nineteenth century. At this time, traditional civil servants (mandarins), who previously had led the resistance to French rule, were coopted as agents of a limited, conservative modernization. This policy inspired, for instance, the education provided to emperor Bao Dai (1913–1997), who was to be acquainted with French thought and civilization, but not enough to cause political trouble, and the promotion of local varieties of Buddhism in Cambodia and Laos to contain Siamese influence.

A non-communist nationalist opposition existed in Vietnam since the beginning of the twentieth century, inspired by republican China and imperial Japan. The main party of this persuasion was the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (VNQDD), modeled after the Chinese Guomindang. But after an aborted insurrection in 1931 which was severely repressed, the VNQDD survived only in exile. The Marxist left prospered during the more politically lenient popular front governments of the late 1930s, but it was deeply divided between Stalinists and Trotskyists, and communist organizations of all stripes were banned when France entered World War II.

World War II: Crucible of the Vietnamese Revolution

The Japanese occupation of Indochina provided the setting which made possible the Vietnamese revolution of 1945. The Japanese army occupied Tonkin in September 1940 and the whole Indochina in July 1941, both to deny use of the Yunnan railway to the Guomindang government, then located in Chongqing, and to base air forces that would strike further South. The 1940 armistice between Germany and the Vichy regime had left all French colonies intact, and Japan likewise acknowledged French sovereignty over Indochina. French authorities were left in place, but Indochinese material resources were diverted to the Japanese war effort. To divert the population from collaboration with Japan and Siam, Admiral Decoux, the governor general, took several measures to promote both national and Indochinese cultural identities (for instance, the creation of a cycling tour of Indochina). But unavoidable submission to Japanese demands undermined the legitimacy of French rule. For instance, during the mass starvation of 1944–1945, French authorities diverted rice from public granaries to feed the Japanese army.

The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) seized the opportunity provided by the Japanese occupation of Tonkin to launch an insurrection in Cochinchina in November 1940. It was badly coordinated and severely repressed. This complete failure wiped out the ICP apparatus in the South, leaving the Trotskyists as the dominant force on the left in this part of the country. From then on, the rural Northwest of Vietnam, near the Chinese border, would be the stronghold of the ICP.

From his travels in China, Hô Chi Minh (1890–1969), the Annamese-born Komintern operative who had founded the ICP in 1930, had a firsthand knowledge of the “New Democracy” line adopted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1937. Like the New Democracy, the Vietminh (Alliance for Independence of Vietnam, founded in clandestinity by the ICP on May 19, 1941) was a broad national front which prioritized national liberation over class struggle, but only as a temporary tactic, since according to party leaders, the anti-imperialist struggle itself, in the context of the world war, could hasten the socialist revolution. Just like the CCP, the ICP viewed itself as a part of the communist movement led by the Soviet Union, but had to adapt its methods to a country endowed with a large peasantry and a small proletariat, under conditions of foreign occupation. Vietminh fighters were able to seize several granaries and distribute the rice to peasants during the starvation of 1944–1945, thereby gaining their sympathy.

The Japanese coup of March 9, 1945, provided the Vietminh with an opportunity to plan a general uprising. After a raid of the US Navy on the coast of Vietnam, on January 12, 1945, the Japanese military jailed French officials to prevent them from assisting in an eventual Allied landing. The Japanese abolished French sovereignty over Indochina, reunified Vietnam, proclaimed independence of the three states, and forced the monarchs to nominate nationalist cabinets. Even before the coup, the Japanese had encouraged several nationalist entities such as the Cao Dai (urban) and Hòa Hào (rural) sects. They filled the new cabinets with genuine nationalists, but handed them very limited powers and did not cease requisitions. The popularity of their protégés declined accordingly. This political situation, and the fact that a sizeable part of the French repressive apparatus was now in jail, prompted the Vietminh to act. When Japan surrendered on August 10, 1945, the Vietminh launched a general uprising.

The Vietnamese Revolution

If the Japanese surrender made the Vietnamese revolution possible, the interallied conference at Potsdam (July 17–August 2, 1945) determined its characteristics. The conference assigned the disarmament of Japanese troops and the temporary occupation of Indochina to Chinese military authorities North of the 16th parallel and to British ones in the South. When Japan surrendered, neither the British nor the Chinese were present in Indochina. Since it was the Japanese that US President Harry Truman had invested with police tasks before the arrival of the allies, French authorities remained in jail. The Vietnamese revolutionaries took advantage of this power vacuum, and Japanese troops let them operate, defending only the buildings of the Indochinese central bank.

The resignation of the Trân Trong Kim cabinet on August 13 set off a series of peasant uprisings, some spontaneous and others communist-inspired, which allowed the Vietminh to march South and take Hanoi on August 19. Emperor Bao Dai abdicated. A “Southern Committee” and a coalition cabinet were formed in Saigon and Hanoi, respectively, composed of a majority of communist members and a minority of non-communist nationalists. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was founded in Hanoi on September 2, 1945, with Hô as president. The power of the Vietminh was much more secure in the North than in the South, where it had to compete with the sects and the Trotskyists.

Of course, the independence of the three states was legally null and void, since it had been unilaterally proclaimed in wartime by the Japanese enemy. The Provisional Government of the French Republic (PGFR) never thought of granting them recognition, for if the Free French accepted to endow Indochina with some measures of social welfare and a limited dose of parliamentarism, they agreed with Vichy that the empire was the main claim of France to great power status. The PGRF did not even accept the reunification of Vietnam.

British military authorities in Saigon sympathized with GFR delegates. Both ignored the Southern Committee, which reacted by calling a general strike. In response, General Gracey proclaimed martial law and, on September 23, evicted the Committee from the Saigon town hall. The Committee and its troops fled to the countryside, where they were pursued by British soldiers and the French Expeditionary Corps to Indochina (FEC), which had now arrived in Cochinchina, using Japanese troops as auxiliaries. The FEC then proceeded to Cambodia, where the nationalist prime minister, Son Ngoc Thanh, was arrested on October 15. King Sihanouk signed in January 1946 an agreement with France which mentioned the internal autonomy of Cambodia, but within the limits set by the Union Française (French Union, the new name of the empire). These were unspecified at the time of the agreement, since they would be set by the new constitution that France would adopt in 1946. The agreement also provided that Cambodia would get a constitution with universal male suffrage.

North of the 16th parallel, the Chinese occupation was a blessing in disguise for the DRV. The Chinese military looted the country, and they exerted such political pressure in favor of minority VNQDD members of the cabinet that, to prevent a Chinese coup in their behalf, the ICP nominally dissolved itself in November 1945, thereby earning the suspicion of Stalin. (The party simply went underground.) But the occupation allowed the Vietminh to gain time, since China would not let the FEC reenter Tonkin prior to the relinquishment of French extraterritorial rights in China. The Sino-French treaty was signed on February 26, 1946.

China even saved the DRV from the military repression that the Southern Committee had suffered. General Leclerc, the commander of the FEC, wanted to land in Tonkin in March 1946, to gain time, if necessary, to repress a local uprising before the rainy season. Tide calendar made it imperative to land on March 6 at Haiphong, the port of Hanoi. On March 5, the Chinese government conditioned the landing to the prior conclusion of a political treaty between France and the DRV. Jiang Jieshi needed peace at his southern border to concentrate on the civil war against Maoists in northern China. It was also feared that , if Chinese military authorities had allowed the French to land without any agreement with the DRV, the Vietnamese might have exacted revenge against the Chinese community in Tonkin. Hence the agreement of March 6, 1946, between France and the DRV. This text recognized the DRV as a “free state” within the Indochinese Federation and the French Union. It provided for a referendum on the reunification of Vietnam and allowed the FEC to remain on DRV soil for no more than 5 years.

The FEC then proceeded to Laos, where the nationalist Lao Issara (Free Lao) cabinet was deposed on April 25. The three princes who headed the Lao Issara followed different paths: Phetsarath fled to Thailand, Souphanouvong (who had married a Vietnamese) became an ally of the DRV, and Souvanna Phouma played the political game within the French Union. Like Cambodia, Laos became a constitutional monarchy within the Union.

The Political Deadlock Between France and the DRV

Militarily, the March 6 agreement gave time to the DRV to smuggle arms from China and, should war start with the French, to plan the removal of its political and military apparatus to the countryside. Politically, it allowed it to negotiate the conditions of its “association” with France. But since the agreement had been extorted by China, the French were reluctant to negotiate with the DRV. Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu, the new high commissioner in Indochina, a fervent Gaullist, was keen to implement the declaration on Indochina proclaimed by the PGFR on March 24, 1945. This text envisioned the creation of a new “Indochinese Federation” consisting of five “countries” – the reunification of Vietnam was not on the agenda. Civil liberties and equal access to public charges were granted, but only a limited kind of parliamentarism would be allowed: ministers would be responsible to the governor of Indochina, not to local parliaments. The governor would keep very large economic powers, for French planners wanted Indochina – which contained coal in Tonkin and hydroelectricity in Annam – to replace defeated Japan as the industrial powerhouse of East Asia. (The war would soon dry up the public funds that such a plan called for.) D’Argenlieu was certain that De Gaulle, who resigned from the presidency of the PGFR on January 19, 1946, would soon return to power, and he wanted the Gaullist vision for Indochina to be implemented. His unilateral decisions infuriated his superiors in Paris, but they were never countermanded, for Georges Bidault (1899–1983), who was prime minister during the negotiation with the DRV, belonged to a Christian Democratic party which professed to be “faithful” to De Gaulle; he was also very anti-communist and a hard-liner in colonial matters. Even Marius Moutet, the socialist minister of colonies, did not object to the initiatives of d’Argenlieu.

Moutet even inspired the measure that the DRV found the most provocative. Since the March 6 agreement provided for a referendum on the reunification of Vietnam, Moutet advised d’Argenlieu to launch a propaganda on the theme of “Cochinchina for the Cochinchinese.” On June 1, d’Argenlieu created a provisional autonomous Republic of Cochinchina, presided by Dr. Nguyên Van Thinh. This initiative was unacceptable for the DRV, since it preempted the referendum and, should Vietnam remain divided, the DRV, locked in Tonkin, would not be able to develop the economic complementarity between the three parts of the country (rubber in Cochinchina, hydroelectricity in Annam, coal and rice in Tonkin).

Negotiation between France and the DRV began on July 6, not in Paris, but in the nearby town of Fontainebleau, to isolate the Vietnamese delegates. On July 22, d’Argenlieu unilaterally convened a conference with Cochinchina, Cambodia, and Laos, to define the details of the Indochinese Federation. For the DRV, which negotiated directly with the French government, the Federation was an option; for d’Argenlieu, it was a given. When the conference opened at the mountain resort of Dalat in Annam, on August 1, the Vietnamese delegation suspended the talks in protest.

The conference was supposed to resume in January 1947. On September 15, 1946, Moutet and Hô Chi Minh (who had traveled with the delegation to Fontainebleau) concluded a provisional agreement which stipulated a cease-fire, effective October 30, between the French and Vietminh armies South of the 16th parallel. Both sides duly implemented the cease-fire, but Vietminh terrorist units intensified their assassination campaign against pro-French leading citizens. In the meantime, the cause of autonomous Cochinchina did not prove very popular, to such extent that Léon Pignon, the political advisor to d’Argenlieu, began playing the traditionalist card by establishing contact with Bao Dai, who had fled to Hong Kong. Dr. Thinh committed suicide on November 19. In the North, the DRV had assassinated its main political opponents during the summer with the tacit agreement of the French army, since these non-communist nationalists were more vocally opposed to France than the DRV professed to be. The end result was that in autumn 1946, the DRV had established its firm political control in the North and was gaining ground in the South.

To counter this trend, d’Argenlieu planned a coup against the DRV government, to be carried in January 1947. But in November 1946, the Bidault cabinet denied the needed military reinforcements. The French government did not want to grant Vietnam an association between equals, such as between Britain and India, because France would lack the economic and military means to impose its will on Vietnam in such a setting. It did not want to create in Vietnam a precedent which would give arguments against French rule to the protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia. But in the context of the decolonization of British India, it did not want a coup which would be difficult to justify abroad.

The short-term aim of the French military was to stop the smuggling of arms from China to the DRV. Custom services in Haiphong were reinforced in October. The interception of a junk loaded with fuel caused the French Navy to bomb Haiphong on November 23, killing between 300 and 6000 people, including many civilians. During the bombing, Vietminh fighters discovered a copy of the coup operation planned by d’Argenlieu, which was carried by a French soldier. The DRV could not know that the French government had just shelved this option. From then on, the Vietminh prepared for a preventive war.

This war started on December 19, 1946. On December 18, the French high commissioner in Hanoi, Jean Sainteny, had ordered the removal of barricades from the streets of the European district. This decision led the Vietminh to believe that an assault was imminent. On December 19, at 8:00 PM, DRV authorities fled to the countryside and called for a general insurrection. Since the Vietminh had initiated the fight, France could now claim to wage a defensive war.

Soon afterward, the DRV issued several peace feelers. Sincere or not, they were deliberately ignored. On January 3, 1947, during the inspection trip of Moutet in Hanoi, Hô Chi Minh sent him a message calling for an immediate cease-fire and a meeting. The letter was intercepted by the French military and never delivered to the minister. On April 19, Hô again asked for an immediate cease-fire and peace talks. The answer came on May 12, 8 days after the dismissal of communist ministers from the French government: the DRV would have to relinquish 50% of its armament; hand over to the FEC all hostages, prisoners, and defectors; and allow the FEC full liberty of action North of the 16th parallel. General Valluy, the new commander in Indochina, had drafted these conditions with the expectation that they would be turned down, since he did not want to compromise the large offensive that he was planning for autumn. Indeed, they were turned down, and the war started for real.

The causes of the war are clear. France and the DRV could not come to terms, since France refused to grant independence, whereas the DRV considered independence as a given and accepted only to negotiate the terms of a temporary association with France, on an equal basis. But the French government was wary of a full-blown war. The French military in Indochina and, through them, the Gaullists forced the hand of Paris.

A Colonial War

French intransigence was based on the assumption that the DRV was militarily weak and that war would be short. Indeed, in October 1947, the FEC almost captured Vietminh leaders. But they escaped and the war went on.

The early years of the war were very difficult for the Vietminh. Its troops, concentrated in the North, were thinly spread. Communications between North and South were very slow – hence, the importance of short-wave radio. The regular army – as opposed to guerilla irregulars – was entirely staffed by volunteers up to November 1949. Political commissars supervised officers and men, but communists were a minority among the military. So as not to alienate “bourgeois specialists,” whose technical skills were needed, socialist measures were delayed: rents were reduced, but land was not redistributed. The cult of Hô Chi Minh was instituted to mobilize the masses, but “national salvation” associations devised to control the population remained understaffed. The Vietminh traded opium against armament – as the French did – but arms procurements became scarce, especially once the French were able to seal the border between Tonkin and China in October 1947. The main provider was Thailand, whose armed forces gladly sold arms which would be used against the FEC, since Thailand had been forced to relinquish the provinces of Western Laos which it had acquired during World War II with Japanese backing. The Free Thai movement, which had opposed Japan, also sold arms, since it maintained good relations with the Vietnamese community in Eastern Thailand. But when Bangkok granted diplomatic recognition to the State of Vietnam in February 1950 to obtain American armament, supplies from Thailand quickly dried up.

The diplomatic position of the DRV was just as shaky. The Soviet Union prioritized Europe, and India went no further than barring the French Air Force from flying over its soil. Without the Maoist victory in China, the DRV would have risked isolation. DRV leaders were aware of the situation, and in the middle of 1949, they diverted soldiers to South China, to fight Guomindang troops there jointly with local communist forces, a gesture which was warmly appreciated by Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi.

France was in a much more comfortable position, but it too had problems. The FEC was dominant in the South and controlled cities and the main roads in the whole country. But terrorism was rampant in Hanoi and Saigon up to 1951, and the roads were frequently blocked. Due to the paucity of French citizens in Indochina, and to avoid sabotage by communist recruits, conscripts were not sent to Indochina, and the FEC was entirely staffed by professional soldiers, including colonial troops from Africa and North Africa. War expenditures were contained, from 4% of overall public spending in 1947 to 7% in 1950, but conversely worn-out armament was seldom replaced. American aid, which started in March 1950, was a real relief.

On the whole, French public opinion remained indifferent to the war. Communist ministers had been dismissed from the government after communist representatives had failed to approve the military budget in March 1947 (they abstained but did not oppose it), but communist workers did not impede arm shipments to Indochina before November 1949. The Communist Party had started such actions at the request of the Cominform, which wanted it to engage in more offensive tactics. So, all in all, French governments could operate with a relatively free hand, and what is striking is that they did not offer more generous conditions to non-communist nationalists than to the Vietminh. The war was ostensibly waged as an anti-communist cause, but its real motive was the preservation of the French empire.

The official position was that France accepted to negotiate in good faith – but not with the “treacherous” Vietminh – within the limits set by the constitution of the Fourth Republic (October 27, 1946). This text invested the French government with full authority on the foreign and military affairs of the French Union, including Indochina, and it created a new status of “Associated States” whose relations with France would be negotiated on a bilateral basis. Although the constitution did not preclude the independence of these states, they could in fact be at most protectorates, endowed with full internal autonomy but having their foreign affairs managed by France. Bao Dai, to whom the VNQDD and similar parties had rallied, signed on December 6–7, 1947, an agreement on this basis, which mentioned the unity of Vietnam. But the treaty contained a secret protocol which conferred to the French high representative in Indochina all the powers of economic coordination previously mentioned in the Indochinese Federation project of 1945–1946. The protocol even added the creation of separate courts of law for French citizens, on the model of capitulations in the Ottoman Empire.

Bao Dai was unable to convince his followers to accept such conditions. Since new concessions were not forthcoming, he retired on the French Riviera. He could not rely on external support. The Truman administration was certain that French intransigence played in the hands of the Vietminh, but it remained passive, since the DRV was communist and France was the main power in continental Western Europe. So Bao Dai resigned himself to sign, on March 8, 1949, a new agreement which created a united Vietnam as an associated state within the French Union. France had not offered new concessions. Bao Dai signed because, had he waited longer, France might have concluded a deal with General Nguyên Van Xuân, the head of the nominal Republic of Cochinchina.

Since war operations made it impossible to hold elections or a referendum, the State of Vietnam had no constitution. Cabinets were responsible only to the “chief of state,” Bao Dai. When the “chief” returned to Vietnam, he was denied use of the palace of the French high commissioner in Saigon and retired to Dalat.

Cambodia and Laos were granted similar status. From then on, collaboration between France and the Associated States was conducted at the High Council and at the Assembly of the French Union, two bodies created by the 1946 Constitution. The High Council was an intergovernmental organization mandated to “assist” the French cabinet on the general policy of the Union (Constitution, Article 65). It met at irregular intervals, and its head was the French president. The Assembly, where metropolitan France was allotted 50% of the seats, was only a consultative body.

A War by Proxies Between China and the United States

The creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, provided relief to the Vietminh. Helping the DRV was a priority for Mao: it was an internationalist duty, and it might deter the United States from using Indochina to back Guomindang military operations in Southern China. But the PRC imposed nothing to the Vietminh. It was the DRV which asked for Chinese arms, money, and military advisers.

The PRC recognized the DRV on January 18, 1950, prompting the Soviet Union to do the same on January 30. This situation forced the US secretary of state, Dean Acheson, to recognize immediately the State of Vietnam (on February 7), although he would have preferred to make this recognition conditional on French assurances than the association agreement would be implemented in a liberal spirit. Non-communist Asiatic states doubted that the Associated States were really independent: only Thailand recognized them.

Conversely, the creation of the PRC prompted the United States to start arming the FEC, provided that France expressly renounces to recognize Beijing. Since the start of the Malayan insurrection in 1948, Great Britain had urged Washington to assist France so that Indochina could resume its rice exports to Malaya. But it was China policy which prompted the United States to back France. The “China lobby” in the Republican party and at the Department of Defense kept asking for continued military payments to the Guomindang, which Acheson considered a failed state. Acheson much preferred military spending South of China, which would be both more effective and less provocative to Beijing. The first US shipments of war material were landed in Vietnam in March 1950. They were still of modest size, but the Korean War would soon quicken the deliveries.

Chinese reinforcements allowed General Vo Nguyên Giap (1911–2013), the Vietminh commander in chief, to attack in force at Cao Bang, in October 1950, the FEC troops which were retreating from the Chinese border. That was the military turning point of the war: from then on, the border between Tonkin and China would remain open, and Chinese material could flow freely to Vietnam. The DRV would now have the means to mobilize the whole population in its zones in Tonkin and Annam, at the price of a heavy regimentation. Military service had been made compulsory for men aged between 18 and 45 in November 1949, but many peasants did not want to leave their villages. To mobilize them, China and the Soviet Union urged the DRV, in 1951, to move from rent reduction to land redistribution. Chinese advisers taught the Vietminh propaganda devices such as the cult of working-class heroes. They convinced a reluctant Hô Chi Minh to mobilize women for portage (not for combat). Starting in September 1952, portage duty became compulsory for citizens of both sexes aged from 18 to 50. The counterpart was agrarian law, which was announced in January 1953, but implemented only after the war.

Chinese advisers did not dictate on the DRV. It was on his own volition that Giap engaged the FEC in pitched battles in the Red River delta as early as 1951, with disastrous results. (At Vinh, French planes poured napalm over enemy forces.) But this failure allowed Chinese advisers to prevail upon Giap and have the war zone extended westward, toward the mountains of Tonkin and Laos, to force the FEC to dilute its resources.

After the recognition of the DRV by China and the Soviet Union, there was no point for it to keep hiding its communist identity. The ICP was revived in May 1951, but was divided in three separate parties: Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese. This reorganization was meant to enhance the “national” character and patriotic appeal of the Cambodian and Lao communists: the communist branch of the Khmer Issarak (Free Khmers) and the Pathet Lao (Lao state). The Vietnamese controlled the Cambodian and Lao parties. This made sense in the short term, since the two new parties were much weaker and Indochina had become a single, unified theater of war, but it was the seed of the bitter relations between the Cambodian and Vietnamese parties during and after the American war.

France, as well as the DRV, was on the verge of overstretch, in spite of American help. The United States paid for some 70% of war expenses in 1954, and these expenses decreased from 9% of French public expenditures in 1952 to 4% in 1954. But increased help to the FEC was only one aspect of American policy during the Korean War. The Truman administration also called, in autumn 1950, for an immediate and massive rearmament of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) countries and of West Germany. Accordingly, overall defense spending jumped to 30% of French public expenditures in 1951 and 1952. Such amounts dwarfed economic returns from Indochina: French capital had fled to other parts of the empire soon after the beginning of the war, plantations offered obvious targets for sabotage, and metropolitan exports to Indochina accounted only for an average 40% of French war expenditures.

The war, waged by professionals, depleted French units outside Indochina of officers and noncommissioned officers. The creation in 1951 of a Vietnamese National Army (VNA) by Bao Dai, at the urging of General De Lattre de Tassigny, then commander in chief, and of the United States, did not really change the situation, since this army needed many French instructors who would train it to interoperate with French units in the context of the French Union. Political rivalry between France and West Germany increased difficulties. To avoid the politically explosive creation of a German army so soon after World War II, France proposed at the end of 1950, and NATO accepted, the foundation of a European Defense Community (EDC). Germany would contribute 12 divisions to this entity. The project divided the French parliament so much that it was not called to vote before August 30, 1954. But one thing was certain: for the EDC to have a chance to pass, France had to contribute at least as many divisions as Germany; otherwise, Germany would have been the dominant power in the organization. Socialist representatives, whose vote was crucial to obtain a majority, insisted on this condition. And since, without the EDC, Germany had no army, NATO needed a vote as soon as possible. This made it necessary to end the Indochina war quickly, to bring the FEC back to Europe.

Relations between France and the Associated States were just as difficult. Cambodia and Laos, eager to save rice for their own citizens, refused to implement the customs union with Vietnam which was an essential part of the French economic program. The three states complained about the slow devolution of internal powers by French administrations. Grumbling against France became a resource for internal politics. King Sihanouk of Cambodia resented the Democratic Party which had won a large parliamentary majority at the 1946 election. This party asked for complete independence from France and a fully parliamentarian regime, whereas Sihanouk wanted to retain absolute power. In June 1952, with French backing, the king sacked the Democrat cabinet, had party leaders arrested, and nominated submissive ministers. Since independence from France was a popular theme, Sihanouk used it to consolidate his new powers. At the beginning of 1953, he started asking for full independence. France refused to deal with him, the United States asked him to compromise, but since Vietminh troops had entered Laos and Northeast Cambodia in 1953, it was France which had to compromise.

This compromise was brought by the “scandal of piasters.” The piaster was the currency of the Associated States. Its market value was inferior to its official value, set by France in 1945. By exchanging francs with piasters on the market, and then presenting these piasters to the central bank, which was bound by charter to buy and sell at official value, one realized a profit of more than 40%. The Vietminh, Bao Dai and his ministers, FEC soldiers, and all French political parties save the communists partook in the traffic.

The weekly L’Observateur exposed the affair on May 7, 1953. To cut the scandal short, Prime Minister René Mayer devalued the piaster on May 8, without prior consultation with the Associated States. This was a breach of sovereignty, since the independence association agreements made currency a joint responsibility of France and the three states. Bao Dai reacted immediately by joining Sihanouk in opposition to France. On May 20, Vietnam asked for a complete overhaul of institutional arrangements between the Associated States and France.

After the fall of Mayer (caused by the EDC), Paul Reynaud, minister for Associated States in the new Laniel cabinet (June 1953–June 1954), renegotiated the relations between France and the three states. According to Reynaud, a fiscal conservative, very favorable to the EDC, Indochina had become a burden for France. The talks transformed the French Union in a voluntary association of equals, comparable to the British Commonwealth. Although this was a flat contradiction of the 1946 Constitution, neither parliament nor the French people were consulted. Negotiations proceeded smoothly with Cambodia and especially Laos, but were much more difficult with Vietnam, to the point that when peace was concluded on July 21, 1954, the new independence and association treaty between France and Vietnam had only been initialed. It would never be signed. Angered by the slow proceedings, Bao Dai reacted by making Vietnamese participation to the Geneva peace conference conditional on a prior French promise not to partition Vietnam, which Bidault, now foreign minister, had to give. This would have grave consequences for peace.

Peace on the Agenda

The demands of the Associated States against France were concomitant with the thaw in international relations after the death of Stalin, which made possible the Korean armistice of July 27, 1953. In this new context, the opinion that the conjunction of rearmament in Europe and continuation of the war in Indochina was beyond French means gained ground. The most eminent proponent of this thesis was Pierre Mendès France (1907–1982), a representative from the Radical (center-left) party. After the fall of Mayer, Mendès failed to be elected prime minister by only 13 votes. If one added the communists, a majority of French representatives were now in favor of peace.

The new prime minister, Joseph Laniel, elected on June 27, 1953, declared that his cabinet would negotiate “untiringly” to end the war. The difference with Mendès – which was left unsaid – was that foreign minister Bidault would not negotiate with the DRV. Bidault hoped that a relaxation of the Western commercial embargo against China – more severe than against the Soviet Union since the United Nations Organization (UNO) had declared the PRC an aggressor in the Korean War – and French assent to admission of the PRC at the UNO would induce Beijing to desist helping the DRV, thereby making possible a French military victory. The deal would be concluded at the political conference on Korea, planned for Spring 1954 in Geneva, for Article 60 of the Korean armistice allowed for the discussion at this conference of other topics than the conclusion of a peace treaty.

The program that Bidault set for himself contradicted the “wedge” policy of the US Eisenhower administration, which relied on a harsh treatment of the PRC to cause a rift between Beijing and Moscow. Bidault had to negotiate very hard with the new, Republican secretary of state, John Foster Dulles (1888–1959), to have him issue the declaration of September 2, 1953, which stated that the Geneva conference could lead to peace in Indochina if China desisted from its aggression, but warned that an open Chinese intervention in Indochina would provoke a US military reaction which, if necessary, would be extended to China itself (Dulles had in mind operations on Hainan island).

The communists, too, aimed at military victories to maximize their bargaining power. After the Korean armistice, China warned the DRV that it would not send soldiers to Indochina. China had had to borrow two billion dollars to the Soviet Union to fund the Korean War. It could not afford a new war so soon. This caused DRV war plans, based once again on a large offensive in the Red River delta, to be rewritten at Chinese insistence. China asked for a consolidation of military positions in Northwest Vietnam and Laos. The main battle would have to take place at Diên Biên Phu, a large fortress in the mountains of Northwest Tonkin, which General Navarre, the new French commander in chief, had chosen to cover Laos and to start a counteroffensive. Such concentrations of fire power in remote locations had proved very effective in the past to bait and kill Vietminh soldiers, but their supplies had to be delivered by air, and at Diên Biên Phu, thanks to massive Chinese supplies of artillery, the Vietminh was able to neutralize the airstrip at the start of the battle on March 13, 1954. From then on, the Vietminh had the upper hand, and Diên Biên Phu would capitulate on May 7, the very day when negotiation on Indochina started in Geneva. Of course, Navarre had posted only a portion of the FEC at Diên Biên Phu, and operations continued in the rest of Vietnam.

The political objectives of the major communist powers were clearly defined. The Soviet Union wanted the EDC to be shelved, and it was ready to offer France a graceful exit from Indochina as a quid pro quo. There would be no formal linkage, but Moscow hoped that the end of the war would create a détente that would make French parliamentarians conclude that the EDC had become unnecessary. Moscow also wanted the West to accept the PRC as a full member of the international community. China shared both of these goals, and to achieve them, it stood ready to give reassurance to foreign powers. It is during the Geneva conference that Beijing decoupled anti-imperialism from the exportation of revolution, a distinction embodied in the Sino-Indian treaty of peaceful coexistence (April 29, 1954).

This strategy might prove detrimental to the DRV, since if the independence of the whole Vietnam under Vietminh rule could not be gained in Geneva, both China and the Soviet Union accepted a temporary partition at the 16th parallel as a second best. The three communist powers coordinated their positions during a conference in Moscow in April 1954. The DRV and the PRC, both regional powers which were parties to the conflict, would table propositions, and the Soviet Union would act as an umpire and a broker with Western powers, as befitted the leader of the coalition. It is unclear if, in Moscow, the DRV formally accepted temporary partition as a fallback option. Partition, even temporary, was a sacrifice for the DRV, for during the whole war, it had maintained a foothold South of the 16th parallel, the Interzone 5, around the cities of Quang Ngai and Qui Nhon.

Among Western powers, it is very possible that, without the EDC in the balance, Dulles would have vetoed discussion of Indochina in Geneva. At the Berlin conference of the four occupying powers in Germany (January–February 1954), Bidault and his British colleague Anthony Eden (1897–1977) implored Dulles to accept this negotiation. According to the Churchill cabinet, a government that had ended war in Indochina would be in a good position to pass the EDC in parliament. Britain opposed a continuation of the war which might bring China in the conflict. Western allies knew that in such case, American war plans prioritized operations in China, with nuclear bombings if need be, and allotted few resources for the defense of Southeast Asia itself. It was not necessary for Britain to run such a risk, for the border between Malaya and Thailand was now secure, and, should the Sino-Soviet pact be activated, American air bases in England, where nuclear bombs were stocked, would have been a prime target for the Soviet Air Force. For all these reasons, Eden accepted a definitive partition of Vietnam as a reasonable compromise. (He would agree to temporary partition only later, during the Geneva conference.) Dulles was not convinced, but he relented for fear that, should Indochina not be discussed in Geneva, the French parliament might definitely turn against the DRV.

Nevertheless Dulles tried to sabotage the conference. In late March 1954, the French and American chiefs of staff informally discussed the possibility of a massive American bombing around Diên Biên Phu (Operation “Vulture”). The Laniel cabinet secretly requested the bombing on April 4. What the Eisenhower administration offered instead was “United Action,” a pursuit of the war until victory with massive American air and naval support. Congressional leaders asked that US allies provide the ground troops. That was not what Bidault needed, but Diên Biên Phu has received such attention that, after several weeks, he agreed to “United Action” if that was the price to obtain “Vulture.” Eden killed the whole scheme by refusing British participation to “United Action” which, he understood, would have made negotiation in Geneva impossible.

Dulles issued new military threats during the conference itself. On May 8, he secretly offered France an American intervention in the war. The Laniel cabinet studied the proposition, but again American conditions did not fit French needs. France was asked to declare that it would maintain its forces in Indochina for the whole duration of operations, whatever turn they might take. Laniel, with his slim parliamentary majority of two votes, could not give such assurances after 8 years of war, and Dulles withdrew his offer on June 11. From then on, the Eisenhower administration was secretly resigned to the partition of Vietnam, even though it publicly condemned it.

Since major newspapers such as the International Herald Tribune mentioned in general terms these talks between France and the United States as early as May 15, American threats had a real influence on the conference. Vietminh armies were very tired after Diên Biên Phu and could not have sustained an extension of the war, not to mention an American intervention. Dulles gave arguments to China and the Soviet Union to convince the DRV to settle for partition.

The Geneva Conference (April 26–July 21, 1954)

During the first weeks of the conference, the United States issued military threats but did not contribute propositions. Both the State of Vietnam and the DRV demanded the whole of Vietnam. Bidault refused to meet Pham Van Dông (1906–2000), the head of the Vietminh delegation. So, by default, it was left to Eden and his Chinese and Soviet colleagues, respectively, Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) and Viatcheslav Molotov (1890–1986), to conduct serious diplomatic business.

Since the United States refused that China chair the conference, a rotating chair was impossible, and the debates were co-chaired by Britain and the Soviet Union. From the outset, Zhou and Molotov tried to create an atmosphere favorable to negotiation. Zhou had Pham Van Dông agree to contact between French and Vietminh officers about the evacuation of the wounded at Diên Biên Phu. This technical commission would later be used as a sounding board to explore informally the possibility of partition. It is in this setting that the DRV would mention partition for the first time on June 10. Molotov accepted that negotiation of an armistice should be given priority over that of a political agreement and that this armistice be supervised by an international commission. Eden proposed that the conference convene in secret meetings as well as in official sessions. From then on, negotiation would progress mostly through private contacts.

Zhou made the first political opening on May 20, accepting that the wording of agreements could differ in each Associated State. It was an important concession, for even though the Pathet Lao and the Khmers Issarak depended on Vietminh assistance, they controlled one third of the Cambodian and Lao territories. But if China had backed them to the end, Cambodia and Laos might have called the United States to the rescue. Zhou took another important initiative on June 15, when he forced the DRV to move its armed forces out of Cambodia and Laos and to renounce to have the Khmers Issarak and the Pathet Lao invited to the conference. Without these concessions, Western ministers, prodded by Dulles, might well have closed the conference without an agreement.

Mendès, who had been informed in general terms of “Vulture” and “United Action” by Edgar Faure, a fellow Radical and minister in the Laniel cabinet, revealed the affair in parliament, obtained a vote of no-confidence against Laniel, and was elected prime minister on June 17. He set himself 1 month to get an agreement in Geneva; otherwise, he would resign. It would be inaccurate to oppose Mendès the negotiator to Bidault the warrior. Mendès had talks with Pham Van Dông – whom Bidault had refused to meet – but he too issued military threats. On July 7, he declared that, should the conference fail, his last initiative as prime minister would consist in asking parliament to send conscripts to Indochina. Mendès, like Bidault, was an anti-communist. He accepted the partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel only, not the 16th, so that Laos could be linked to the sea by a road running in non-communist territory. He insisted that the referendum on the reunification of Vietnam must take place 2 years after the peace agreement, not 6 months as Pham Van Dông would have liked, to give time to South Vietnam to put its house in order.

Mendès succeeded because Molotov and Zhou wanted an agreement. Zhou accepted a 2-year interval between peace and referendum; agreed that Pathet Lao forces would regroup in the Northeastern provinces of Phongsaly and Sam Neua, well to the North of the 17th parallel; and even threatened to cut all funds to the DRV if it did not give its assent to the 17th parallel. Molotov admitted that Cambodia and Laos, although they would be neutralized just like Vietnam, would be allowed to call foreign forces to their rescue if they deemed it necessary for their security. Molotov also agreed that, since the United States refused to sign any treaty with China, the political document of the conference – not the cease-fires – would be issued as an oral declaration. All these Chinese and Soviet concessions made it possible to conclude peace on July 21, 1954.

Peace Terms

The Geneva agreement consists in three cease-fires (one for each Associated State) and a political declaration.

The three cease-fires are signed by the military commanders of the DRV and France. France and the DRV had chosen this arrangement to circumvent any objection from the State of Vietnam, since Bao Dai had delegated military powers to France for the duration of the war. In each state, the cease-fire is supervised by an international control commission comprising India (neutral, in the chair), Canada, and Poland. These commissions have very limited powers: they must report breaches of the armistice but cannot issue recommendations.

The cease-fires declare the three states neutral, neutrality terms being stringent in Vietnam only, where military reinforcements (both armament and military personnel), and the creation of foreign military bases, are strictly prohibited.

In Vietnam, Vietminh troops must regroup North of the 17th parallel and the VNA in the South. Vietnamese citizens are given 300 days after the cease-fire to regroup North or South of the 17th parallel, as they wish. This provision would allow the Catholics of Tonkin, who had fought against the Vietminh, to flee en masse to the South, where they would become the main political base of Ngô Dinh Diêm. The 17th parallel is only a provisional demarcation line, since Article 14a of the cease-fire mentions the future general election in all Vietnam (not its date). Therefore, it is illogical to separate the cease-fire from the political declaration, which mentions the interval of 2 years between the peace and the referendum.

The oral form of the declaration does not make it less binding, since oral agreements have the same legal value than written treaties. The declaration enjoins Vietnamese authorities North and South of the 17th parallel to get in touch on July 20, 1955, to organize general elections which will take place in July 1956, under the supervision of members of the cease-fire commissions. Article 13 provides that the co-chairmen of the conference, Britain and the Soviet Union, will consult in the future, at the requirement of the control commissions, to “study” the measures necessary to enforce the three cease-fires. This wording is intentionally vague, but it allows for some form of cooperation between the two sides of the Cold War to maintain peace.

The United States and the State of Vietnam are not parties to the declaration. The United States only “took note” of it, excluding Article 13, since it did not want to cooperate with communist powers to preserve an agreement which it disapproved. The delegation of the State of Vietnam rejected both the cease-fire and the declaration. The move came from the new prime minister, Ngô Dinh Diêm (1901–1963), not from Bao Dai who had reluctantly assented to temporary partition as early as July 4. The chief of state had chosen Diêm to coopt the extreme nationalists who resented his cooperation with France. The nomination had taken place on June 16, at a moment when peace was still far from certain. If war continued, it would be with increased American participation, and Diem, with his well-known connections in the United States, was the man of the situation. He had officially applied for the position in May, the Saigon station of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had started lobbying for him at the end of the month, and Bao Dai may have consulted with Dulles before choosing him. Laniel and Bidault, too, gave the green light to his nomination: it was their last contribution to the war effort.

The conference overlooked the protestation of the State of Vietnam because, in July 1954, this entity was not yet fully independent: the transfer of French powers was finalized only on December 31, 1954. But the day after, when South Vietnam became really independent, was it or not the successor state of France to the Geneva agreement? If it was, its protestation had no value. But it was not: according to the new treaty of association between France and Vietnam, initialed on June 4 1954, 17 days before the Geneva agreement, Vietnam would be the successor of France only for the treaties concluded before this convention itself. And on both sides of the Cold War, nobody would take the risk to pressure South Vietnam to comply with the Geneva agreement.

The Consolidation of Partition

For all the talking about the unity of Vietnam, Dulles decided immediately after Geneva that reunification must never take place, since a communist success at the “general election” was likely. Diêm, who opposed any dealing with the DRV, was the ideal partner for such a policy. France and the two co-chairs did not object, and China was sidelined, since it was neither a co-chair of the conference nor a member of the control commission. The United States now took the initiative.

First, Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam were included under the umbrella of the Manila Pact, or Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO, September 6, 1954). Technically, the neutrality of Indochina was respected, since the three states were not parties to the treaty, but Zhou Enlai felt cheated. SEATO was an offshoot of “United Action,” the coalition that Dulles had tried to create before Geneva. Eden had refused a coalition before the conference, which would have hampered the negotiation, but welcomed it after the peace. He shelved his project of “Asian Locarno,” a cooperation between communist, neutral, and Western powers to guarantee peace in Indochina, which was unacceptable to Dulles. Now that war had been averted, Britain no longer interfered with American policy.

Moved by the same spirit of peaceful coexistence as Eden, Mendès would have liked the wording of the Manila Pact to insist as much on economic development as on defense, but he was in no position to insist nor to object to American initiatives in Asia in general. Mendès had brought the EDC to a vote on August 30, 1954, but had not asked for a vote of confidence over the project, and it had been defeated. From then on, until the French parliament definitely agreed to the admission of Germany into NATO (effective May 5, 1955), France ran the risk that the United States might rearm Germany on a bilateral basis, without any conditions.

For the same reason, Mendès did not extend recognition to Hanoi and Beijing after Geneva and accepted that the DRV be submitted to the same severe commercial embargo by Western powers than the PRC.

Neither could France pressure South Vietnam to implement the peace terms relative to reunification, since its contribution to the defense of the country was coming to an end. In Geneva, Mendès had promised that the FEC would leave South Vietnam if Saigon so requested. In September 1954, Diêm asked that this departure take place no later than March 1956. Anyway, the FEC was now needed in Algeria, and the Algerian war put Paris in the dependence of Washington. Technically, only the United States could provide the helicopters needed to trace the guerilla. Politically, since the Algerian independence movement was not communist, American support for this new war, crucial in the United Nations, was more difficult to obtain than in the case of Indochina. Possibly with these factors in mind, Mendès eased the transition toward defense of South Vietnam by American troops by secretly allowing, in January 1955, that all civilians within the US military mission in Saigon be replaced by military personnel.

The Soviet Union, too, renounced to interfere. Moscow convened three meetings of the co-chairmen: after Saigon failed to establish contact with Hanoi to prepare the general election in July 1955; after the rigged referendum of October 19, 1955, which established in South Vietnam a republican regime presided by Diêm; and in April 1956, when Diêm, prompted by the United States, reiterated his repudiation of the Geneva settlement, but promised unilaterally to respect the cease-fire. At each meeting, Britain defended South Vietnamese initiatives, and, more tellingly, the Soviet Union issued only mild and formal protests. Chinese and North Vietnamese calls for a new Geneva conference, in 1956, were ignored.

In fact, after Geneva, both the Soviet Union and China prioritized the consolidation of North Vietnam over reunification. Moscow refused to grant Hanoi a defense treaty, but, like China, offered generous economic aid. Both Molotov and Zhou Enlai advised a long-term strategy of national front in the South, so as not to provoke an increased American presence there. As long as Beijing and Moscow were in good terms, Hanoi had to bend to their will. The Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s and 1970s would provide the DRV with its historic chance; for now that Beijing and Moscow vied for primacy in the socialist camp, none of them could afford to let down the anti-imperialist cause of North Vietnam.


In retrospect, the Algerian war underlined the colonial character of the French Indochina conflict. The French defeat in Indochina encouraged the Algerian insurgents. The French military, who had become acquainted in Indochina with Maoist and Vietminh methods of indoctrination, were now keen to implement them in Algeria, in the most violent way. But the most distinctive feature of the French Indochina conflict remains its linkage with the general course of East-West relations in Europe as well as in Asia, since the EDC exerted a decisive influence on the course on the war and on the terms of the peace.

The same remark applies to the two other Indochina conflicts: the American war and the war between Cambodia, Vietnam, and China, which cannot be separated from the passage of Soviet-American relations from coexistence first to détente, then second Cold War, from the course of Sino-Soviet relations from rivalry to reconciliation, nor from the evolution of Sino-American relations from glacial Cold War first to unspoken alliance, and later to mutual indifference. The Indochina wars provide the classic example of the connection between local and global rivalries during the Cold War.

Further Reading

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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and GeographyUniversité d’ArtoisArrasFrance