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The first Indochina War: Attack at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam

The French gained control of Vietnam in the nineteenth century, during the Age of Imperialism. During World War II, the French loosened their control and focused on their own battles. However, as World War II came to a close, the French returned to Vietnam, expecting their control to remain. Under Ho Chi Minh, a communist leader of Vietnamese nationalists, independence from the French became a fervent goal of the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese came to the United States for independence support, but as Eastern Europe fell to communism, the United States decided to support the French.

The French returned to Vietnam in 1946, setting up a puppet government ruled by Bao Dai. France’s reoccupation of Vietnam marked the beginning of the Indochina War. Against the reoccupation, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh attacked the French. The first confrontation began in November 1946 at the city of Haiphong when French civilians were attacked by the Vietminh. As the years dragged on, the French began to lose momentum, while the Vietnamese remained strong and united.

At the end of 1953, the French settled in Dien Bien Phu, a city in northwestern Vietnam. Hoping to fight the Viet Minh, the French built up their garrison. The attack at Dien Bien Phu began on March 13, 1954, with a strong Viet Minh attack, and continued through May. The first French victory of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu was on March 22 as the last tanks were used to attack the Viet Minh. After another French success on March 26, the Viet Minh, commanded by Giap, started to lose faith in themselves. The tables turned, though, after a Viet Minh assault of the French troops at the end of April, which continued until French defeat in early May. After years of fighting this gruesome war, the French surrendered at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954. The defeat of the French denoted the end of the first Indochina War.

As a result, the French halted their colonial control of the country. The United States, on the other hand, did not want the country to fall to communism. They believed in the domino theory, which stated that if one Southeast Asian country fell to communism, the rest would also fall. The Geneva Accords divided the country of Vietnam at the 17th parallel. North Vietnam became communist under Ho Chi Minh, while South Vietnam remained under Western influence, with Ngo Dinh Diem in control. The roots of the Vietnam War were planted with the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu.

Researched by Megan Skochdopole
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum
Cosby High School


“Battle of Dien Bien Phu.” World History: The Modern Era. 2008. ABC-CLIO. 1 May 2008

“Indochina War.” World History: The Modern Era. 2008. ABC-CLIO. 1 May 2008

Kennedy, Bruce. “Dien Bien Phu.” The Cold War . CNN. 3 Jun 2008 .

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