Why did the French lose their war on Ho Chi-Minh?

By Alexander Frost

Originally published in July 2014.

[Note from the Editor: Below is the winning essay of Aberystwyth University’s Security Research Group’s Undergraduate Essay Competition 2014. It is analysis on the French defeat and withdrawal of its South East Asian territories during the First Indochina War (1946-1954).]


‘Should you re-establish a French administration here, it will not be obeyed. Every village will be a nest of resistance, each former collaborator an enemy, and your officials and colonists will themselves seek to leave this atmosphere,                                      

Bao Dai[1]

On the afternoon of May 7, 1954, the red Vietminh flag was raised over the besieged French garrison at Dienbienphu.[2] The next morning in Geneva, nine delegations opened discussions aimed at ending the war in Indochina.[3] Bao Dai’s prophecy had come true; La Sale Guerre was finally over for France, but it had been nothing short of a catastrophe. Indecision, infighting, instability and disinterest plagued both the French political community and its under-resourced military during the war. However, defeat was not solely self-inflicted; Ho Chi Minh and his burgeoning Vietminh cause, accompanied by its military arm led by the resourceful Vo Nguyen Giap, were a considerable thorn in the side of the French forces. The convergence of these factors resultantly contributed to one of the most infamous, but least understood military defeats of the 20th Century.

Thus, to fully comprehend the nature of French defeat, one has to appreciate the state of France domestically during the Indochina war, and the standing of the conflict in both the eyes of the French political community and French society. As George Kelly noted ‘Ignorance of the Indochinese situation was general…moreover the country was deeply involved in its own dilemmas.’[4] For instance in 1948, a national poll asked Frenchman to rank the most important problems confronting the country; Indochina featured at the end of the list.[5] In 1951, a national poll asked respondents what were their greatest concerns at the time; one out of three Frenchmen said ‘the cost of meat’.[6] Mobilized support is most crucial in a time of war, but such indifference saw France’s populace become disillusioned to the Indochina cause when confronted with staggeringly high cost and casualty figures, which gave rise to a potent notion of La Sale Guerre.

This view was no less distorted in France’s political community, particularly on the French Left, where many ‘deplored the vitiating effect of the Indochina War’ and sought ‘schematic ways of halting the operation.’[7] Despite dedicated support form the French Right, France’s notoriously powerful legislative served as a platform for such opposition and resistance; resultantly full political support and motivation for the conflict was not always forthcoming. This gave rise to a detached and divided response to Indochinese affairs, particularly when it concerned the appropriation of finances, material or men. As the war stagnated, opposition increased, particularly within France’s political moderates, and François Mitterrand echoed a view shared by many; ‘We have granted Vietnam ‘full independence’ eighteen times…isn’t it about time we did just once, but for good?’[8]

Moreover, the French Fourth Republic was politically complex and polarized, and was plagued by instability and infighting which severely hampered a stable and collective consensus on the Indochina question. Kelly criticized ‘the dreary succession of fourteen tottering governments of the Fourth Republic’ which had given ‘the Indochina War as much consistency and direction as it possessed.’[9] Roger Lévy meanwhile labelled French policy as ‘indecisions, contradictions, hesitations, decisions; orders and counter-orders of successive governments’[10] whilst Paul Isoart described Indochina merely becoming a ‘political football’ for the Assemblée nationale whilst genuine ‘interest in France or Vietnam had long been lost.’[11] As Bernard Fall asserted ‘Although French internal chaos did not in itself cause the military defeats…it certainly made a concerted Vietnam policy completely impossible.’[12]

Unsurprisingly, General Henri Navarre declared; ‘This uncertainty over political goals is the real reason why we were prevented from a continuous and coherent military policy in Indochina…the divorce between policy and strategy dominated the war.’[13] Though Navarre had reason to shift the blame, his criticism was certainly indicative of the political conduct of the war; as Robert Guillan declared; ‘Dien Bien Phu was not born in Indochina, but in Paris.’[14] Indeed, civil-military relations were clearly fragmented and strained during the war, being blighted by scandal, conflict and disagreement which ‘left a persistent scar on the bitter history of French civil-military relations.’[15] Aggrieved at what they sensed was a lack of political support and motivation, a strong notion of ‘abandonment’ swept the French military post-war.[16]

However, administration ‘on the ground’ in Indochina faired little better; termed ‘a two-headed monstrosity’[17] by Fall, the Ministry of Overseas France and the Ministry of Associated States (formed through ‘tardy and reluctant federal arrangements’[18]) held ‘inordinate influence over the conduct of war’[19] and presided, but more often collided, over domestic Indochinese affairs, whilst lacking a constructive relationship with theAssemblée nationale and the military. Moreover, the French-installed administration of Bao Dai, which was supposed to lend credibility to French control and represent true Vietnamese nationalism, was widely unpopular and disregarded, only driving support for the Vietminh. As Stanley Karnow asserted ‘composed principally of urban elite and wealthy landowners, it resembled the French bureaucracy it was supposed to replace’ and had ‘no appeal whatsoever to the masses.’[20]

Yet, despite being well debated, Indochina was also susceptible to losing precedence in French affairs, not least due to the concerted focus on French recovery and stability after World War Two. France, though not losing a generation of young men as in World War One, suffered greatly during World War Two, particularly from its devastating invasion, occupation and liberation. Northern towns and cities as well as general infrastructure and industry were the heaviest hit, which resulted in the French economy stagnating by an incredible 62%.[21] This gave rise to political and civil unrest (fuelled by food and fuel shortages) which saw worrying parallels to the turmoil in post-war Greece.[22] Moreover, France was obligated to assist in the Allied occupation of Western Germany and Austria. Resultantly, for much of the post-war era France experienced a huge vacuum and refocus of resources (both military and economic) as well as a concerted social and political will towards French recovery and stability, leaving little in the way for Indochina.

Even at the height of the war, French recovery was still very much evident, but had been greatly accelerated by the support afforded to it by the United States administered Marshall Plan. The success of European recovery ‘depended on the effective revitalization of [French] industry and the maximization of its material and human resources.’[23] Therefore, France would be central to the American plans of a strong, stable and prosperous Europe which would offset and contain the risk posed by communism. However, the US soon recognized communism would not be deterred by financial mobilization alone, as tensions in Prague, Turkey, Greece and Berlin demonstrated. Therefore, President Harold Truman, buoyant after re-election, declared to address the issue of European defence and pledge support to those willing to defend themselves. His solution was the creation of a collective trans-Atlantic defence force – NATO.[24]

France became a founding member of NATO in 1949,[25] and was well valued due to the relative size and strength of its armed forces compared with its European counterparts (in a way France was seen as a ‘first bastion’ against Soviet aggression, since the ‘indefensible’ West Germany would be without a military until 1955).[26] However, such obligations would have a telling impact on France’s military capabilities in Indochina. NATO and other European defence commitments, besides their significant costs, tied down a great deal of French men and material, particularly combat soldiers, pilots, support staff and officers as well as equipment (critically aircraft), supplies and munitions, all of which were in great demand in Indochina. This also served to further limit the pool for potential Metropolitan recruits, since the use of conscripted troops was forbidden under constitution.[27]

More so, financially France could not undertake a war in Indochina whilst contributing to European defence at the same time. Pierre Mendès-France warned the Assemblée nationale that the increasing cost of the war threatened ‘rising prices and civil unrest’,[28] declaring ‘you will never succeed in organizing our defences in Europe if you continue to send all your cadres to Asia, to sacrifice them every year without result.’[29] Such sentiment resonated within political and public opinion; there were heated debates when it became apparent Marshall Aid finances and American military aid were being siphoned off to Indochina.[30] Many shared François Quilici’s view when he asked ‘Hasn’t it always seemed paradoxical we fight Communism 12,000km away from our doors when a powerful Communist Party camps on our soil and Soviet tanks are two days from Strasbourg.’[31] Such notions were ‘widely discussed and generally approved’[32] and it was not long until many in the Assemblée nationale favoured a ‘Europe first’ approach, and this had all but taken precedence by the time of Navarre’s appointment.

Thus, with France and her military now heavily reliant on lucrative American aid, the outbreak of hostilities in Korea dealt a cruel blow to any prospect of a French victory. As the US led-force became bogged down in a bloody, attritional war in Korea, the indispensible financial and material began to dry up, whilst any prospect of a US military intervention in Indochina all but disappeared. In the fiscal year 1951-52, financial aid ‘proved to be a disappointing $23.5 million, instead of the $146 million needed.’[33] Arms deliveries were ‘delayed as long as six months to one year’[34] with shortages ranging from 52% for submachine guns to 100% for recoilless cannons.[35] The rearming of ROK forces (whom were woefully underequipped) prioritized over those in Indochina.[36] Moreover, all this occurred at a time France was pursuing one of its most successful military policies, the jaunissement (Vietnamization)of its Indochinese forces.[37]

Indeed, much has been made of French defeat militarily, and the French armed forces came under a significant amount of largely undue criticism for its conduct and ultimate defeat in Indochina. However, a great deal of its failure rested on several core deficiencies which severely weakened the efficacy of the Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient (CEFEO) whilst consigning victory to a mere hope rather than reality. Firstly, the CEFEO lacked a clear, coherent and overall strategy. Navarre himself admitted ‘we had no policy at all….at the end of seven years of war we had come to a complete imbroglio, and no one, from the common soldier to the commander-in-chief, knew exactly why the war was being fought.’[38] Kelly declared the French command ‘implemented no single viable strategy’[39] whilst genuine aims were ‘oblique… hesitant…vague and shifting.’[40]

Of course, this was not assisted by the fact the CEFEO was blighted by its ‘carousel of commanders’, which displayed about as much continuity as the administration back home. Each brought their own perception and approach to the conflict, and despite the excellent Jean de Lattre and the conversant Phillipe Leclerc, few others coveted themselves in such glory. Some were too defensive, apprehensive perhaps, whilst others, reared in conventional concepts, struggled to comprehend the complex and demanding nature of the conflict; as Kelly asserted ‘in Indochina, the stodgy immobility of classical warfare was challenged.’[41] Many failed to instil respect or faith from their men, and throughout the conflict the CEFEO suffered weakened morale. Relations between commanders in the field and high command were strained, especially when those in the field learnt through ‘bitter circumstance that the traditional manual of tactics had to be thrown away.’[42]

However, one can only sympathize with CEFEO’s leadership considering the limited manpower and resources they had under their control. The CEFEO was straddled with an impossible Force-to-Space ratio, with only ever a meagre c.100,000 troops in Indochina at any one time.[43] Demands for additional troops were seldom granted; when Navarre requested 12 battalions, 750 officers and 2550 NCO’s, he received only 8 battalions, 320 officers and 200 NCO’s, which, incredibly, were an advance on next years reinforcements.[44] Such shortages are greatly emphasized when considering William Westmoreland, commander of MACV, had at one point 541,500 troops (and much greater resources)[45] under his command during the Vietnam War, yet failed to deliver any more success than the CEFEO. This is even more impressive when considering CEFEO had to disperse their forces throughout the three Associated States of Indochina; Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – 737,000km² combined.[46] Westmoreland rather, ‘only’ ever had to spread his forces over 173,809km².[47] Indeed, such statistics highlight the sheer magnitude of the task facing such a meagre force.

Presiding over such a vast and hostile territory requires an equally vast and integrated logistical network, but the case was quite the opposite for the CEFEO. With only limited resources and primitive infrastructure, transporting men, supplies and equipment became a difficult and unenviable task. Reduced to using Indochina’s sparse and isolated road system, transport times were slow, whilst ambushes were prevalent. The lack of aircraft was particularly chronic; there were no more than 275 aircraft (of which only 10 were helicopters,[48] in contrast to the 12,000 under Westmoreland’s control[49]) present in Indochina before 1954.[50]

Fall details a popular joke in which the ‘Korea Battalion’ (a volunteer French battalion who had fought in Korea, and used to ‘standards of logistics which, to the French in Indochina, represented unreasonable luxury.’[51]), having suffered ‘only’ 20 casualties, request heli-CASEVAC. The Zone commander personally appeared over the radio and roared back; ‘Dammit, this isn’t Korea. You carry your own wounded like everybody else!’[52] Indeed, Fall reiterates the shocking contrast between two very different wars faced by the ‘Korea Battalion’, whilst highlighting, even with generous US support, the CEFEO was still a woefully underequipped and underprepared force.

Finally, throughout the war, particularly in France’s military hierarchy, there was a ‘woeful misunderstanding and gross underestimation of the Vietminh and Giap.’[53] This was demonstrated not least at Dien Bien Phu, where, according to Karnow, the French lost not on the battlefield, but in ‘Navarre’s air-conditioned headquarters in Saigon, where he had woefully miscalculated Giap’s intentions and capabilities even before the shooting started.’[54] Indeed, a French study into the debacle summed up a fundamental error; Navarre and his aides ‘substituted their preconceived idea of the Vietminh for the facts.’[55] Giap, often one for exaggeration, perhaps correctly asserted ‘…[Navarre’s] greatest mistake was that with the conception of the bourgeois strategist he could not visualize the immense possibilities of a people’s army.’[56]

However, one should be careful to dwell too long on French deficiencies and detract from the point that the Vietminh ‘had something to do with it.’[57] The Vietminh’s greatest strength laid arguably in the wealth of its popular support, which was mobilized and sustained by Ho’s organizational expertise and fluidly persuasive rhetoric. The strong anti-French sentiment that swept the Indochinese peninsula throughout and after World War Two (which intensified once the French reasserted control over Ho’s ‘independent’ Vietnam)[58] was manipulated by Ho to expand both the size and scope of the Vietminh. Within these ranks, Ho had a formulated ‘a nationalistic culture, nearly xenophobic in intensity, [which] inspired Vietminh activists the concept of a virtually holy war against the foreign invaders and their native clients.’[59] For the Vietnamese this was no dirty war, but a righteous war, a national war, a ‘people’s war’.

Utilizing such popular support, Giap would demonstrate an almost perfect representation of Mao Tse-tung’s ‘three phases’ of warfare, as the Vietminh evolved from a rural nuisance to a conventionally able force. On occasion Giap sought to accelerate the transition of phases too quickly,[60] but his quick reversion, and at times concurrent deployment of phases, demonstrated the sheer flexibility and adversity of the Vietminh. France, though no stranger to ‘small wars’, was unable to grasp the complex intricacies and multi-dimensional nature of Ho’s and Giap’s doctrine of war. France’s response was primarily military, yet in reality it was a total war, being fought on all fronts. Moreover, as Giap would demonstrate years later, he was a masterful logistician, moving troops, supplies and equipment discreetly with fluidity and purpose.[61]

However, Ho and Giap were greatly assisted by the generous foreign support afforded to them from a number of communist sources, most notably the USSR and Mao’s China. As we have observed, Chinese aid proved the most prolific, extending into economic, political, military, ideological, diplomatic and even geographic fields. Much of this exploded in scale and consistency at the cessation of hostilities in mainland China. Now ‘the Chinese communists were able to spare greatly increased quantities of materiel in the form of guns and ammunition…more advisers were being sent in’[62] whilst exhausted Vietminh troops ‘were trained and refitted.’[63]

According to Fall, the war was by now ‘strategically hopeless’[64] for victory by Mao’s forces provided a crucial sanctuary for the Vietminh at a time it was most greatly needed. Kelly noted Mao’s China brought ‘an undisguised military threat…[with] intense repercussions’ as it became a ‘potent supply base and ideological citadel that the Vietminh could draw on inexhaustibly.’[65] Indeed, and incredible $662 million and 21,500 tonnes of Chinese military aid found its way to the Vietminh,[66] and ‘thanks in large part to this assistance, Giap built, coordinated, and unleashed a remarkably modern army.’[67] The distraction of the Korean War did little to slow Chinese support, but its cease-fire ‘literally threw the whole burden of the Red Chinese war making potential onto the side of the Vietminh.’[68]

The plight of the Vietminh is worthy of an essay in itself, but one should be careful to fall into this romanticized image of the ‘grasshopper vs. the elephant’[69]; by the advent of Dien Bien Phu, the Vietminh was a lavishly equipped, well organized, and fiercely determined force. The unfortunate CEFEO meanwhile paled in comparison to the force envisaged, and requested, by its command. Much needed men, finances and equipment got little further than the contours of Western Europe, for both France and her Allies regarded the stability and security of Europe as their primary aim. By 1952, and with French political support long departed, it was a far-right deputy who summed the case up best of all: ‘distant expeditions are enormous trials for democracies’[70], a message which would be all too relevant twenty years later.


– Abouzahr, S. The Tangled Web: America, France and Indochina 1947-50 [Online] Available at: <http://www.historytoday.com/tangled-web-america-france-and-indochina-&gt; [Accessed 28 October 2013]

-A mbler, J. The French Army in Politics (Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1966)

– Ambrose, S. Brinkley D. Rise to Globalism (New York, Penguin Group, 2011)

– Davidson, P. Vietnam at War (London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1988)

– Gilbert, M. Why the North won the Vietnam War (New York, Palgrave, 2002)

– Fall, B. Hell in a Very Small Place (Cambridge, Da Capo, 2008)

– Fall, B. Last Reflections on War (Mechanicsburg, Stackpole Books, 2000)

– Fall, B. Street Without Joy (London, Pall Mall Press, 1964)

– Fall, B. The Two Vietnams: A Political and Military Analysis (London, Praeger, 1968)

– Gildea, R. France since 1945 (London, Oxford University Press, 2002)

– Guillain, R. La fin des illusions, Notes d’Indochine: fevrier-juillet 1954 (Paris, 1954)

– Isoart, P. Le Phenomene National Vietnamien (Paris, LGDJ, 1961)

Journal Officiel: Debats de l’Assemblee Nationale

– Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History (London, Penguin Books, 1997)

– Kelly, G. Lost Soldiers: The French Army and Empire in Crisis (Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1965)

– Lancaster, D. The Emancipation of French Indochina (London, Oxford University Press, 1961)

– Lévy, R. Reagrds sur l’Asie (Paris, Armand Colin, 1952)

– Lacouture, J. Devillers, P. La fin d’une guerre, Indochine 1954 (Paris, Ed. du Seuil, 1960)

– UQAM The Indochina War 1945-1956: An Interdisciplinary Tool [Online] Available at: <http://www.indochine.uqam.ca/&gt; [Accessed 5 November 2013]

– US Army Corps of Engineers, Historical Vignette 054. Available at: <http://www.usace.army.mil/About/History/HistoricalVignettes&gt; [Accessed 16 November 2013]


[1] Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History (London, Penguin Books, 1997), p. 163.

[2] Ibid., p. 214.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kelly, G. Lost Soldiers: The French Army and Empire in Crisis (Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1965), p. 42.

[5] UQAM The Indochina War 1945-1956: An Interdisciplinary Tool [Online] Available at:

<http://www.indochine.uqam.ca/&gt; [Accessed 5 November 2013]

[6] UQAM The Indochina War…

[7] Kelly, p. 62.

[8] Fall, B. The Two Vietnams: A Political and Military Analysis (London, Praeger, 1968), p. 221.

[9] Kelly, p. 55.

[10] Lévy, R. Reagrds sur l’Asie (Paris, Armand Colin, 1952), p. 117.

[11] Isoart, P. Le Phenomene National Vietnamien (Paris, LGDJ, 1961) p. 381.

[12] Fall, The Two Vietnams… p. 213.

[13] Lacouture, J. Devillers, P. La fin d’une guerre, Indochine 1954 (Paris, Ed. du Seuil, 1960) p. 12n.

[14] Guillain, R. La fin des illusions, Notes d’Indochine: fevrier-juillet 1954 (Paris, 1954), p. 69.

[15] Kelly, p. 65.

[16] Ambler, J. The French Army in Politics (Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1966), p. 102.

[17]Fall, The Two Vietnams… p. 211.

[18] Kelly, p. 58

[19] Ibid.

[20] Karnow, p. 202.

[21] Gildea, R. France since 1945(London, Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 9.

[22] Ambrose, S. Brinkley D. Rise to Globalism (New York, Penguin Group, 2011), p. 92.

[23] Abouzahr, S. The Tangled Web: America, France and Indochina 1947-50 [Online] Available at:

<http://www.historytoday.com/tangled-web-america-france-and-indochina-&gt; [Accessed 28 October 2013]

[24] Ambrose, Brinkley, p. 101.

[25] Gildea, p. 8.

[26] Ibid., p. 10.

[27] Fall, B. Hell in a Very Small Place (Cambridge, Da Capo, 2008), p. vii.

[28] Karnow, p. 203.

[29] Lancaster, D. The Emancipation of French Indochina (London, Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 240.

[30] Kelly, p. 62.

[31] Journal Officiel: Debats de l’Assemblee Nationale, October 27, 1953, p. 4597.

[32] Lancaster, p. 240

[33] Fall, The Two Vietnams…, p. 220

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Karnow, p. 202.

[38] Lacouture, Devillers, p. 12n.

[39] Kelly, p. 91.

[40] Ibid., p. 63.

[41] Kelly, p. 91.

[42] Ibid..

[43] UQAM The Indochina War…

[44] Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place…, p. ix.

[45] Ambrose, Brinkley, p. 237.

[46] Fall, Street Without Joy, p. 15.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Fall, Street Without Joy, p. 242.

[49] US Army Corps of Engineers, Historical Vignette 054. Available at: <http://www.usace.army.mil/About/History/HistoricalVignettes&gt; [Accessed 16 November 2013]

[50] Fall, Street Without Joy, p. 260.

[51] Ibid., p. 262.

[52] Ibid., p. 265.

[53] Davidson, P. Vietnam at War (London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1988), p. 275.

[54] Karnow, p. 209.

[55] Ibid., p. 210.

[56] Davidson, p. 276.

[57] Gilbert, M. Why the North won the Vietnam War (New York, Palgrave, 2002), p. 1.

[58] Karnow, p. 198.

[59] Ibid., p. 197.

[60] Kelly, p. 48.

[61] Davidson, p. 275.

[62] Fall, The Two Vietnams…, p. 124.

[63] Fall, Street Without Joy…, p. 17.

[64] Fall, B. Street Without Joy (London, Pall Mall Press, 1964), p. 17.

[65] Kelly, p. 47

[66] UQAM The Indochina War…

[67] UQAM The Indochina War…

[68] Fall, The Two Vietnams…, p. 124.

[69] Karnow, p. 196.

[70] Journal Officiel: Debats de l’Assemblee Nationale, January 27, 1954, p. 632.