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When the War In Vietnam Was Really Lost
General DeLattre
General Leclerc
General Nguyen Van Hinh
      Many people continue to believe that the war in Vietnam ended when, after a decade of 'successful military actions', the United States decided to tuck tail and run, leaving South Vietnam, and their President Nguyen Van Thieu, who had been naive enough to believe American promises of support (imagine) to be conquered by the Communists in 1975. I say: not true! The war in Vietnam did not end in the 70's, in fact it did not end in the 60's. The war in Vietnam was, in fact, all but lost before the first U.S. regular combat forces ever set foot in the country. The fate of freedom in Vietnam was sealed way back in 1954, with the French and Vietnamese defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The final nail in the coffin was driven in at the Geneva Conference shortly thereafter. As far as I can tell, by the time the "unbeatable" USA became firmly involved in the field, the situation which existed ensured that the effort was doomed from the start.
      The war in Vietnam which ultimately proved the only to have a chance of success was fought by 20,000 French Legionnaires, 48,000 French colonial troops and 300,000 native soldiers of the National Army of Vietnam. In nominal command of this military was the Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai, head of the State of Vietnam which was opposed by the Communist Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic. France had tried to negotiate with Ho, but what he asked, they could not give: full autonomy for Viet-Nam. However, they did agree to give this to Emperor Bao Dai. The terms were met, almost word for word, but  still the Communist VietMinh refused to stand down. Why? Because the concessions had been made to the Emperor rather than "Uncle Ho", who wanted power most of all, not just freedom.
      France had tried to fight the war as a simple colonial police action, but when this failed they agreed to the formation of a Vietnamese army to be commanded by the World War II veteran soldier Nguyen Van Hinh, a man who showed considerable talent at adapting French strategy for the Vietnam theatre and who was just as steadfastly loyal to Bao Dai as he was opposed to the Communists. Supreme command of the French forces passed to a succession of officers, which was just as much a result of their own policies as it was the chaotic state of civilian politics back in Paris.
       To be sure, it was no easy task the French and Bao Daist forces had to face. They had a military establishment of roughly 380,000 men and where opposed by a well-armed, US-trained (that's right) corps of 350,000 VietMinh soldiers aided by several hundred thousand more men and women in guerilla warfare units and small cells of civilian terrorists. As the victories went, so also went the support of the peasant population.
      At first, the French were more than able to hold their own, in spite of their inferior numbers. The VietMinh were ill-equipped and had little support from Russia, still recovering from World War II, or from China, which was in the midst of civil war. However, by 1950 the Communists had won in China and Chairman Mao was sending in large numbers of weapons, munitions and supplies of every kind to his allies in Vietnam. The French and nationalist Vietnamese held on to the cities but much of the countryside was VietMinh territory. This led General Marcel Carpentier to establish a line of forts along the border in the hopes of cutting Ho off from his Chinese supply base. The Red and Mekong river deltas were also singled out as an essential source of rice for the VietMinh armies.
       This was the primary difference between the French and American dominated war efforts in Vietnam, particularly brought into contrast with the arrival of General Henri Navarre to command the theatre. From Haiphong to Dien Bien Phu, the major battles fought by the French were all in the north, in the heart of VietMinh territory. The stakes for the Vietnamese troops of Bao Dai's army, and the subsequent republican ARVN were always high: survival. However, the French and the Americans could not have been more different in their conduct of the war. France may have been much smaller, but they were much more aggressive, made up entirely of volunteers, and were fighting to win. The Americans, on the contrary, came in after the north had been recognized as a defacto government and refused to
General Henri Navarre
take the strategic offensive against their enemies. As another famous French general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte could have told them, "The only logical end to defensive warfare is surrender". Deploying strategic bombers against bamboo huts was a poor substitute for a full invasion of the Communist infrastructure.
      The greatest blunder made by France was, not surprisingly, political rather than military, selling out the State of Vietnam at the conference table in Geneva. However, in the field, most clearly at the "last stand" of Dien Bien Phu, the major French mistake was in underestimating the Vietnamese soldier, no matter who he was fighting for. However, what is more mind-boggling is that, even after the entire French experience in the First Indochina War, the Americans came in and made the exact same mistake in the second, along with a few others thrown in for good measure.
       After the defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the pull out of the French, the National Army of Vietnam was forced to disband, the fragile coalition built by Emperor Bao Dai was soon lost by Premier Diem and the Communists gained a major morale boost. After that, it became simply a matter of time.