On Sept. 2, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). He was named Chairman of the Provisional Government, in effect the Premier of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Giap became Minister of the Interior, while still commanding the Viet Minh. Ho sought to obtain recognition of the DRV from the U.S., to no avail despite repeated entreaties to President Truman, who ignored them.
The Nationalist Chinese army arrived in Vietnam in early September, ostensibly to disarm the Japanese but occupying the northern half of the country. At the same time, British forces occupied the southern half. They remained until the French colonial army returned, starting in October. The leaders of the U.S., the USSR, and the UK (the Big Three) prearranged this scenario, which also succeeded in closing any gap in military authority that the resistance forces might seek to exploit before the French returned.
The Communist Party officially dissolved in 1945, presumably to save itself, although the leadership continued functioning, membership kept increasing, and the Viet Minh was in the beginning stages of a war for independence against powerful French force. The date for the beginning of the full-blown Anti-French Resistance War in Indochina is Dec. 19, 1946. This was, in effect, the First Indochina War. The second was against the U.S.
The Communist Party was formally reestablished in 1951, but with a new name: the Workers Party of Vietnam. According to the CIA, it had between 200,000 and 400,000 members.
Ho and Giap entered negotiations with the French, testing whether it might be possible to gain independence without a war. Ho followed up with a six-month parlay with the French government in Paris, leaving Giap in Hanoi, leading the DRV. In August 1946 Giap married a second time to Ba Hanh, who eventually gave birth to four children.
By October, 1946, the war was beginning, even while Ho was still negotiating abroad. On Dec. 19, the DRV declared war on France. A succession of skirmishes and small engagements followed. The Viet Minh had no heavy weapons and other essential accouterment for a larger war until the Chinese Communist Party won its war against the Nationalists in October 1949. Chinese and Soviet supplies soon began to cross the Chinese border, as did some Chinese instructors. Giap was soon able to launch large battles that seriously bruised the French forces. This broadened the antiwar movement in France and spawned doubts in a sector of the population about the necessity for holding on to Indochina.
By 1953, French generals feared the insurrection was spreading across Vietnam’s western border into Laos after a Viet Minh unit attacked French border outposts in that country. This convinced the French commander, Gen. Henri Navarre, to establish a major military base near the small town of Dien Bien Phu, just 10 miles from the border in northwest Vietnam. He intended to interdict Vietnamese forces heading to Laos or lure them to attack a base that he considered invulnerable because of its fortifications, and the fact that it was surrounded by mountains, with a nearby former Japanese airstrip for resupply. Navarre knew Giap did not possess heavy artillery or the means to transport such tonnage up the mountains and into position. After several months the base was ready by the end of 1953.
Giap figured out what to do — one of the most audacious maneuvers in modern military history. It resulted in France losing its three colonies in Indochina, and paved the way for the loss of most of its other colonies, mainly in Africa.
Navarre was wrong. Giap had artillery but he kept it a secret until the right moment. His plan required 50,000 troops, thousands of support forces, 24 howitzers, and antiaircraft guns, ammunition and supplies for an army. Each howitzer weighs between 3 and 7 tons, depending on the type Giap used. The problem was how to get the howitzers up the mountains despite roadless, very difficult terrain without being detected. He decided that large teams of porters would push and haul each piece up the backside of the mountains, facing away from the base. Once there, they would tunnel and drag the howitzers to the forward slopes on the other side facing the enemy down below, and position them to cause maximum damage to various parts of the sprawling base. It was an incredible accomplishment.
The French — who numbered about 13,000 — discovered the Viet Minh had heavy weapons on March 14, 1954, when the first shot came crashing down upon them. After two weeks of this bombardment, Giap sent in the troops. It was a tough fight, including trenches. On May 7, Giap sent 25,000 Viet Minh on a final assault on the remainder of the garrison — and it was over. (Figures on the dead and wounded are contradictory, but it is generally believed that the Viet Minh lost far more troops than the French — a not uncommon happening in Giap’s battles.)
Americans participated in Dien Bien Phu, from the armed forces and CIA. A total of 37 CIA pilots took part in air drops to supply the French. The Navy sent maintenance crews and mechanics. The U.S. sent planes and troop carriers.
An elated Ho was in Geneva when Giap claimed victory, planning to attend the May 8 Geneva Conference on Indochina. It was clear Dien Bien Phu was the end for France in Indochina. The conference came to a decision June 17: Vietnam would be split temporarily in two at the 17th parallel. The DRV would remain in control of the north. The powerful forces in the south were Emperor Bao Dai (a collaborator with both the French and Japanese) and his conservative government, the Catholic Church and the United States. A free election was to be held throughout Vietnam in two years to vote for a president who would rule the unified country. About a million people, overwhelmingly Catholics, migrated from north to south during the first year. The U.S. Navy supplied the ships. About 100,000 from the south went north, mostly leftists.
The election never took place, however. South Vietnam and its U.S. backers refused to participate. Presiding President Dwight D. Eisenhower explained why in his memoirs: Ho was going to get 80% of the vote, in his (and presumably the CIA’s) opinion. The U.S. only wanted a reunified Vietnam if it was in the hands of an anti-communist government.
According to the New York Times, “about 94,000 French troops died in the war to keep Vietnam, and the struggle for independence killed, by conservative estimates, about 300,000 Vietnamese fighters.”
The Pentagon says the Vietnam War lasted 11 years, (1962-1973), but U.S. involvement actually continued for 21 years (1954-1975). When Paris withdrew the remaining French troops in April 1956, according to writer John Prados, “their departure made America South Vietnam’s big brother,” i.e., overlord and military protector against popular liberation forces in the southern half of the country.
Giap led the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) throughout much of the American War, building it into a world class fighting force. He was also in charge of the guerrilla forces of the south, the fighting wing of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Many were southerners who moved north after the split, only to return surreptitiously as an organized fighting force. Others never left the south.
The NLF guerrillas played an extraordinary role in the anti-U.S. struggle. In time, the VPA sent many detachments from the north to join them in battle against U.S. troops.
Giap supplied the forces in the south through what was called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which consisted of newly built trails connected to many refurbished old paths from the now Democratic Republic of Vietnam, into Laos, south through Cambodia to various exits in South Vietnam. Much of it is covered by a canopy of jungle growth, hiding traffic from the air. It was put together, constantly repaired and sometimes diverted because of U.S. air strikes, between 1959 and 1975. It was clear enough by the decisive year of 1973 for heavy trucks to travel its length. Total length with many offshoots is said to be at least miles.
By June 1962, 9,700 U.S. “military advisers” plus a large number of CIA agents were training and fighting to support the corrupt U.S.-backed regime in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), at which time President Kennedy’s Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, announced that “every quantitative measure shows that we’re wining the war.” There were 20,000 by the end of 1963.
The major escalation of U.S. troops began after President Lyndon B. Johnson evidently lied about an alleged North Vietnamese attack Aug. 4, 1964, on a U.S. Navy destroyer, the Maddox, cruising in the Gulf of Tonkin. There had been an altercation between three Vietnamese torpedo boats and the Maddox on Aug. 2. The boats were heading toward the U.S. vessel when the Maddox opened fire, evidently believing it was coming under attack. Torpedoes were then fired, missing their target, and the small boats fled.
On Aug. 4, the Maddox reported it was again attacked, prompting an outcry from Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara the next day. Two days later, at Johnson’s request, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that allowed the U.S. to ultimately increase ground forces to 535,040 troops in Vietnam. The DRV always maintained there was no second attack. McNamara, who eventually regretted his role, traveled to Vietnam 31 years later to meet with Giap. During his visit, he asked the general what really happened Aug. 4, to which Giap replied, “Nothing.” A historian for the National Security Agency (NSA) has since acknowledged that the alleged attack never occurred.