Dien Bien Phu & the Fall of French Indochina, 1954
In the late 1940s, the French struggled to control its colonies in Indochina - Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Despite financial assistance from the United States, nationalist uprisings against French colonial rule began to take their toll. On May 7, 1954, the French-held garrison at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam fell after a four month siege led by Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh. After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the French pulled out of the region. Concerned about regional instability, the United States became increasingly committed to countering communist nationalists in Indochina. The United States would not pull out of Vietnam for another twenty years.
Southeast Asia, with Indochina at the center, had long been a region of interest to outside powers. Most of the region fell under European colonial control after the mid-19th century. During World War Two, Japan also sought the resources the area had to offer. After Japanese defeat, many of the countries of Southeast Asia occupied by Japan protested their return to colonial status, resulting in a surge of nationalism. American officials involved in the U.S. occupation of Japan also developed a strong interest in the region, which they viewed as a potential market for Japanese goods and a source of raw materials (like tin, oil, rubber, and rice) to supply Japanese manufacturing.
Like the other colonial powers, France attempted to reestablish its position in Indochina after 1945, but found that it was difficult. Laos gained its independence in 1949, and Cambodia became independent in 1953. France promised Vietnam its autonomy by 1949, but only offered limited independence, with France continuing to oversee defense and foreign policy. To counter the influence of popular nationalist Ho Chi Minh, the French attempted to reinstate former emperor Bao Dai, but he was never as popular as Ho Chi Minh, and Vietnam’s independence movement continued to grow. Bao Dai eventually abdicated a second time and lived out his life in exile in France.
Although Ho Chi Minh would become famous for leading the North Vietnamese forces against the United States in the 1960s, despite his communist leanings, he was not at the outset anti-American. He had been disappointed by the lack of support given native peoples struggling for independence from colonial rule at the Versailles Conference that ended World War I. In the 1940s, he made repeated requests for American aid and campaigned for independence. Following unsuccessful discussions with the French in 1946, general war broke out between Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces and French troops in the northern part of Vietnam.
U.S. interests in the late 1940s and early 1950s did not, however, include supporting Vietnam’s effort to gain independence under a nationalist with communist leanings. Active communist rebellions in Malaya and the Philippines, and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, caused U.S. officials great concern. President Eisenhower explained the link between Vietnam’s status and that of the rest of Southeast Asia through the metaphor of falling dominoes: if one country fell to communism, the rest of them would follow. The United States also required French assistance developing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and rebuilding West Germany, and, as such, supported the failing French regime in Indochina. By the time of the Korean War armistice in 1953, the United States was already irrevocably committed to defending the French against the increasingly aggressive Viet Minh forces.
In early 1954, the French army was encamped at Dien Bien Phu, a heavily fortified base located deep in a valley and near communications links on the Laotian border. By mid-March, it was clear that the French were struggling under a Viet Minh seige and that only outside intervention in the form of fresh troops or airstrikes could save them. Though President Eisenhower was determined to prevent a communist victory in Vietnam, the U.S. Congress and officials in the Administration were equally determined not to intervene unless they could do so as a part of a larger coalition. Britain and other members of NATO declined to participate in rescuing what they thought was a lost cause. Dien Bien Phu fell in May, and the French retreated from Vietnam.
In the wake of the French defeat, the French and Vietnamese, along with representatives from the United States and China, met in Geneva in mid-1954 to discuss the future of Indochina. They reached two agreements. First, the French and the Viet Minh agreed to a cease-fire and a temporary division of the country along the 17th parallel. French forces would remain in the South, and Ho Chi Minh’s forces would control the North. The second agreement promised that neither the North nor the South would join alliances with outside parties, and called for general elections in 1956. Laos and Cambodia were to remain neutral.
The United States did not sign the second agreement, establishing instead its own government in South Vietnam. As the French pulled out, the United States appointed Ngo Dinh Diem to lead South Vietnam. Like Bao Dai, Diem was an unpopular choice in Vietnam as he had waited out the nationalist struggle against France abroad. Diem had also collaborated with the Japanese occupation, but his Catholicism appealed to the Western powers. The United States also supported the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, designed to respond if there was an armed attack on any nation in the region.