Indochina



France and Indochina

After decades of serving as France’s colony of economic exploitation, Indochina fell under Japanese control during World War II. Although the French regained control of the region after the war, independence movements across Indochina grew strong enough to continue their anti-French struggle.

Learning Objectives

Describe the relationship between France and Indochina prior to Indochina’s independence

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • French Indochina, officially known as the Indochinese Union after 1887 and the Indochinese Federation after 1947, was a group of French colonial territories in Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese regions of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina were combined with Cambodia in 1887. Laos was added in 1893 and the leased
    Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan in 1898.
  • French Indochina was designated as a colony of economic exploitation by the French government. Funding for the colonial government came by means of taxes on local populations and the French government established a near monopoly on the trade of opium, salt, and rice alcohol. Unlike in Algeria, French settlement in Indochina did not occur at a grand scale.
  • In 1940, colonial administration of French Indochina passed to the Vichy French government. In September 1940, Japan launched its invasion of French Indochina. Keeping the French colonial administration, the Japanese ruled from behind the scenes in a parallel of Vichy France. Indochinese communists set up hidden headquarters in 1941 and Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese communist leader, returned to Vietnam from China to lead the Viet Minh  independence movement. In March 1945, the Japanese took direct control of Vietnam.
  • After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the Viet Minh immediately launched the insurrection (the August Revolution). Ho Chi Minh declared independence for the newly established Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. However, the Viet Minh faced various problems in the southern part of the country, where it had been unable to establish the same degree of control. On August 25, the communists established a Provisional Executive Committee with Tran Van Giau at its head. The committee took over public administration in Saigon, but followed Allied orders that the Japanese maintain law and order until Allied troops arrived.
  • As southern Vietnam’s disunited resistance forces struggled to push back French advances, Ho Chi Minh started to negotiate with France in hopes of preserving national independence while avoiding war. Instead of obtaining French recognition of Vietnamese “independence,” Ho Chi Minh agreed to his government being weakly identified as a “free state” within the Indochinese Federation under the French Union. The reached accord, which called for a referendum to determine whether the south would rejoin the rest of the country or remain a separate French territory, left the fate of former Cochinchina in flux. Negotiations broke down over the fate of southern Vietnam. Nearly one year after the August Revolution, Vietnam and France were at war.
  • After World War II, the French reestablished control in Laos and Cambodia. In 1946, the French endorsed the unity of Laos as a constitutional monarchy within the French Union. In Cambodia, King Sihanouk reluctantly proclaimed a new constitution in 1947. While it recognized him as the “spiritual head of the state,” it reduced him to the status of a constitutional monarch of a Cambodia within the French Union.

Key Terms

  • Khmer Issarak: A loosely structured anti-French and anti-colonial independence movement in Cambodia, formed around 1945 and composed of several factions, each with its own leader. Most of its bands fought actively from 1945 to 1953, when Cambodia gained independence. The initial objective of the movement was to fight against the French to gain independence. Later, overthrowing the Cambodian government was added to some bands’ agendas.
  • French Indochina: A grouping of French colonial territories in Southeast Asia. A grouping of the three Vietnamese regions of Tonkin (north), Annam (center), and Cochinchina (south) with Cambodia was formed in 1887. Laos was added in 1893 and the leased Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan in 1898.
  • Viet Minh: A national independence coalition formed in 1941 with the initial goal to seek independence for Vietnam from the French Empire. After World War II, the organization opposed the reoccupation of Vietnam by France and later opposed South Vietnam and the United States in the Vietnam War.
  • August Revolution: A revolution launched by the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam) against French colonial rule in Vietnam, on August 14, 1945.
  • Vichy France: The common name of the French state headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain during World War II. In particular, it represents the southern, unoccupied “Free Zone” that governed the southern part of the country. From 1940 to 1942, while the regime was the nominal government of France as a whole, Germany militarily occupied northern France and the state was a de facto client and puppet of Nazi Germany.

French Indochina

French Indochina, officially known as the Indochinese Union after 1887 and the Indochinese Federation after 1947, was a grouping of French colonial territories in Southeast Asia. The three Vietnamese regions of Tonkin (north), Annam (center), and Cochinchina (south) were combined with Cambodia in 1887. Laos was added in 1893 and the leased Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan in 1898. The capital was moved from Saigon to Hanoi in 1902 and again to Da Lat (Annam) in 1939. In 1945 it was moved back to Hanoi.

French Indochina was designated as a colonie d’exploitation (colony of economic exploitation) by the French government. Funding for the colonial government came from taxes on local populations, and the French government established a near monopoly on the trade of opium, salt, and rice alcohol. The French administration established quotas of consumption for each Vietnamese village, thereby compelling villagers to purchase and consume set amounts of monopolized goods, including alcohol and opium. The trade of those three products formed about 44% of the colonial government’s budget in 1920 but declined to 20% by 1930. Beginning in the 1930s, France began to economically diversify the region and exploit it for its natural resources. Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin (modern-day Vietnam) became a source of tea, rice, coffee, pepper, coal, zinc, and tin while Cambodia became a center for rice and pepper crops. Only Laos was seen initially as economically nonprofitable, although timber was harvested at a small scale from there.

At the turn of the 20th century, the growing automobile industry in France resulted in the growth of the rubber industry in French Indochina and plantations were built throughout the colony, especially in Annam and Cochinchina. France soon became a leading producer of rubber through its Indochina colony and Indochinese rubber became prized in the industrialized world. The success of rubber plantations resulted in an increase in investment in the colony. With the growing number of investments in the colony’s mines, rubber, and tea and coffee plantations, French Indochina began to industrialize as factories opened in the colony. These new factories produced textiles, cigarettes, beer, and cement which were exported throughout the French Empire.

Unlike in Algeria, French settlement in Indochina did not occur at a grand scale. By 1940, only about 34,000 French civilians lived in French Indochina, along with a smaller number of French military personnel and government workers. The fact that Indochina was the economic colony (as opposed to settlement colony) and its distance from France were the principal reasons why French settlement did not grow in a manner similar to that of French North Africa (which had a population of over 1 million French civilians). Despite this limited presence of the French in the colony, the French language was the principal language of education, government, trade, and media. It became widespread among urban and semi-urban populations and was the principal language of the elite and educated. However, local populations still largely spoke native languages.

World War II

In 1940, France was swiftly defeated by Nazi Germany and colonial administration of French Indochina passed to the Vichy French government, a puppet state of Nazi Germany. In September 1940, Japan launched its invasion of French Indochina, mirroring its ally Germany’s conquest of metropolitan France. Keeping the French colonial administration, the Japanese ruled from behind the scenes in a parallel of Vichy France. The United States, concerned by this Japanese expansion, put embargoes on exports of steel and oil to Japan. The desire to escape these embargoes and become resource self-sufficient ultimately led to Japan’s decision to attack the British Empire in Hong Kong, Malaya, and Singapore and simultaneously the USA at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941.

Indochinese communists had set up hidden headquarters in 1941, but most of the Vietnamese resistance to Japan, France, or both, including communist and non-communist groups, was based over the border in China. In 1941, Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese communist leader, returned to Vietnam from China to lead the Viet Minh independence movement. The “men in black” was a 10,000-member guerrilla force that operated with the Viet Minh, but Ho was soon jailed in China by Chiang Kai-shek’s local authorities. As part of the Allied fighting against the Japanese, the Chinese formed a nationalist resistance movement, the Dong Minh Hoi, which included communists but was not controlled by them. When the movement did not provide the desired intelligence data, Ho Chi Minh was released from jail and returned to lead an underground centered on the communist Viet Minh. This mission was assisted by Western intelligence agencies, including the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Free French intelligence also tried to affect developments in the Vichy-Japanese collaboration.

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Japanese troops on bicycles advance into Saigon, ca. 1941.

Vichy signed the Protocol Concerning Joint Defense and Joint Military Cooperation in 1941. This agreement defined the Franco-Japanese relationship for Indochina until the Japanese abrogated it in March 1945. It gave the Japanese a total of eight airfields and allowed them to have more troops present and use the Indochinese financial system, in return for a fragile French autonomy.

In March 1945, the Japanese imprisoned the Vichy French and took direct control of Vietnam. After the Japanese removed the French from administrative control in Indochina, they made no attempt to impose their own direct control of the civilian administration. Primarily concerned with the defense of Vietnam against an Allied invasion, the Japanese were not interested in Vietnamese politics. However, they also understood the desirability of a certain degree of administrative continuity. It was to their advantage to install a Vietnamese government that would acquiesce in the Japanese military presence. With this in mind, the Japanese persuaded the Vietnamese emperor, Bảo Đại, to cooperate with Japan and declare Vietnam independent of France. In March 1945, Bảo Đại did just that. Vietnam’s new “independence,” however, rested on the government’s willingness to cooperate with Japan and accept the Japanese military presence. From March until August 1945, Vietnam enjoyed what was called “fake independence,” when all the affairs of Indochinese were still in the hands of the Japanese.

After World War II

Three conflicting visions of post-war French Indochina emerged: Western anticommunists saw the French as protectors of the area from communist expansion; nationalists and anti-colonialists wanted independence from the French; and communists focused on the expansion of communism. Lines between the movements that promoted these three visions were not always clear, and their co-existence shaped the post-war fate of French Indochina.

When the Japanese surrendered, the Viet Minh immediately launched the insurrection, which would be known as the August Revolution. People’s revolutionary committees across the countryside took over administrative positions, often acting on their own initiative, while in the cities the Japanese stood by as the Vietnamese took control. On August 19, the Viet Minh took control of Hanoi, seizing the northern Vietnam in the next few days. Ho Chi Minh declared independence for the newly established Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), headquartered in Hanoi, on September 2, 1945. However, the Viet Minh faced various problems in the southern part of the country. The south was politically more diverse than the north and the Viet Minh had been unable to establish the same degree of control there that they had achieved in the north. There were serious divisions in the independence movement in the south, where different nationalist groups competed for control. On August 25, the communists established a Provisional Executive Committee with Tran Van Giau at its head. The committee took over public administration in Saigon, but followed Allied orders that the Japanese maintain law and order until Allied troops arrived.

The photograph shows a crowd gathered at the gates of a government building.

The uprising in capital Hanoi on August 19, 1945.

At the Potsdam conference in July 1945, the Allies divided Indochina into two zones at the sixteenth parallel, attaching the southern zone to the Southeast Asia command and leaving the northern part to Chiang Kai-shek’s China, to accept the surrender of the Japanese. However, in the north, occupation period became a critical opportunity for the Viet Minh to consolidate and triumph over domestic rivals.

As southern Vietnam’s disunited resistance forces struggled to push back French advances, Ho Chi Minh and the DRV started to negotiate with France in hopes of preserving national independence while avoiding war. In March 1946, the two sides reached a preliterate accord. Instead of obtaining French recognition of Vietnamese “independence,” Ho Chi Minh agreed to his government being weakly identified as a “free state” within the Indochinese Federation under the French Union. For their part, the French agreed to two provisions they had no intention of honoring: French troops north of the sixteenth parallel would be limited to 15 thousand men for a period of five years, and a referendum was to be held on the issue of unifying the Vietnamese regions. This agreement entangled the French and Vietnamese in joint military operations and fruitless negotiations for several months. However, the status of southern Vietnam remained the sticking point. The March accord, which called for a referendum to determine whether the south would rejoin the rest of the country or remain a separate French territory, left the fate of former Cochinchina in flux.

The preliminary accord was but the first step toward an intended overall and lasting agreement. Southern Vietnam’s future political status had to be negotiated. From June to September 1946, Ho Chi Minh met with French representatives in Vietnam and France to discuss this and other issues. However, almost immediately after the signing of the March accord, relations began to deteriorate. Negotiations broke down over the issue of the fate of southern Vietnam. As talking failed to bring results, both sides prepared for a military solution. Provocations by both French and Vietnamese troops led to the outbreak of full-scale guerrilla war on December 19, 1946. Nearly one year after the August Revolution, Vietnam and France were at war.

After World War II, the French also reestablished their control in Laos and Cambodia.
In October 1945, supporters of Laotian independence announced the dismissal of the king and formed the new government of Laos, the Lao Issara. However, the Lao Issara was ill-equipped and could only await the inevitable French return. In 1946, the French forced the Lao Issara leadership to flee into exile in Thailand and formally endorsed the unity of Laos as a constitutional monarchy within the French Union.
The Japanese occupation of Cambodia ended with the official surrender of Japan in August 1945 and the Cambodian puppet state lasted until October 1945. Some supporters of the kingdom’s prime minister Son Ngoc Thanh escaped to north-western Cambodia, then still under Thai control, where they banded together as one faction in the Khmer Issarak movement. Although their fortunes rose and fell during the immediate postwar period, by 1954 the Khmer Issarak operating with the Viet Minh by some estimates controlled as much as 50 percent of Cambodia’s territory. King Sihanouk reluctantly proclaimed a new constitution in May 1947. While it recognized him as the “spiritual head of the state,” it reduced him to the status of a constitutional monarch of a Cambodia within the French Union.

Independence in Indochina

The division of Vietnam into the communist North and pro-Western South led to the First Indochina War. Viet Minh forces fought against the French Union from 1945 until the Geneva Conference of 1954 that forced France to abandon all claims to the colonies of Indochina, including Laos and Cambodia.

Learning Objectives

Outline the path to independence in French Indochina

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, it was decided that Indochina south of latitude 16° North was to be included in the Southeast Asia Command under British Admiral Mountbatten. Japanese forces south of that line surrendered to him and those to the north surrendered to Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese accepted the Vietnamese government under Ho Chi Minh but the British refused to do likewise in Saigon.
  • On September 2, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. On September 23, with the knowledge of the British Commander in Saigon, French forces overthrew the local DRV government and declared French authority restored in Cochinchina. Guerrilla warfare began around Saigon immediately. The first few years of the war involved a low-level rural insurgency against French authority. However, after the Chinese communists reached the northern border of Vietnam in 1949, the conflict turned into a conventional war between two armies equipped with modern weapons supplied by the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • Negotiations between France and the Viet Minh started in Geneva in April 1954 at the Geneva Conference, when the French Union and the Viet Minh were still fighting at Dien Bien Phu. The Conference recognized the 17th parallel north as a “provisional military demarcation line,” temporarily dividing the country into two zones, communist North Vietnam and pro-Western South Vietnam. The Geneva Accords promised elections in 1956 to determine a national government for a united Vietnam.
  • When the elections failed to occur, Viet Minh cadres who stayed behind in South Vietnam were activated and started to fight the government. North Vietnam also invaded and occupied portions of Laos to assist in supplying the guerrilla fighting National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. The war gradually escalated into the Second Indochina War, more commonly known as the Vietnam War in the West and the American War in Vietnam.
  • Laos witnessed tensions between pro-independence and pro-French movements. The Franco-Lao General Convention of 1949 sought appeasement by establishing the Kingdom of Laos a quasi-independent constitutional monarchy within the French Union. In 1950 additional powers were granted. In 1953, the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association transferred remaining French powers to the independent Royal Lao Government.
  • The French were able to reimpose the colonial administration in Cambodia in October 1945. King Norodom Sihanouk’s “royal crusade for independence” resulted in grudging French acquiescence to his demands for a transfer of sovereignty. A partial agreement was struck in October 1953. Sihanouk then declared that independence had been achieved and returned in triumph to Phnom Penh.

Key Terms

  • First Indochina War: The military conflict that began in French Indochina in December 1946 and lasted until August 1954, although fighting between French forces and their Viet Minh opponents in the South dated from September 1945. The conflict pitted a range of forces, including the French Union’s French Far East Expeditionary Corps, led by France and supported by the Vietnamese National Army, against the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and its People’s Army of Vietnam led by Vo Nguyen Giap. Most of the fighting took place in Tonkin in Northern Vietnam, although the conflict engulfed the entire country and also extended into the neighboring French Indochina protectorates of Laos and Cambodia.
  • Geneva Conference: A 1954 conference among several nations that took place in Geneva, Switzerland, to settle outstanding issues resulting from the Korean War and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina. The Soviet Union, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the People’s Republic of China were participants throughout the conference, while other countries concerned were represented during the discussion of questions of interest to them. These included the countries that contributed troops to the United Nations forces in the Korean War, and countries that participated in the resolution of the First Indochina War between France and the Viet Minh.
  • Viet Minh: A national independence coalition formed in 1941 with the initial goal to seek independence for Vietnam from the French Empire. After World War II, the organization opposed the reoccupation of Vietnam by France and later opposed South Vietnam and the United States in the Vietnam War.
  • Franco-Thai War: The 1940–1941 military conflict fought between Thailand (Siam) and France over certain areas of French Indochina. As a result of the war, France ceded certain provinces from Cambodia and Laos to Thailand.

First Indochina War

At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the Combined Chiefs of Staff decided that Indochina south of latitude 16° North was to be included in the Southeast Asia Command under British Admiral Mountbatten. Japanese forces located south of that line surrendered to him and those to the north surrendered to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. The Chinese accepted the Vietnamese government under Ho Chi Minh, created by resistance forces of the Viet Minh, then in power in Hanoi. The British refused to do likewise in Saigon and deferred to the French, against the ostensible support of the Viet Minh by American Office of Strategic Services representatives. On September 2, Ho Chi Minh had proclaimed in Hanoi the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The DRV ruled as the only civil government in all of Vietnam for about 20 days after the abdication of Emperor Bao Dai, who had governed under Japanese rule and thus was considered by Viet Minh a Japanese puppet. On September 23, 1945, with the knowledge of the British Commander in Saigon, French forces overthrew the local DRV government and declared French authority restored in Cochinchina. Guerrilla warfare began around Saigon immediately.

The first few years of the war involved a low-level rural insurgency against French authority. However, after the Chinese communists reached the northern border of Vietnam in 1949, the conflict turned into a conventional war between two armies equipped with modern weapons supplied by the United States and the Soviet Union. French Union forces included colonial troops from the whole former empire (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities), French professional troops, and units of the French Foreign Legion. The use of metropolitan recruits was forbidden by the government to prevent the war from becoming even more unpopular at home.

The strategy of pushing the Viet Minh into attacking well-defended bases in remote parts of the country at the end of their logistical trails was validated at the Battle of Na San. The French efforts were made more difficult due to the limited usefulness of armored tanks in a jungle environment, lack of strong air forces for air cover and carpet bombing, and use of foreign recruits from other French colonies. On the other hand, General Vo Nguyen Giap,
the military leader of the Viet Minh considered to be one of the greatest strategists of the 20th century, used efficient and novel tactics of direct fire artillery, convoy ambushes and amassed anti-aircraft guns to impede land or air supply deliveries together with a strategy based on recruiting a sizable regular army facilitated by wide popular support, a guerrilla warfare doctrine, instruction developed in China, and the use of simple and reliable war material provided by the Soviet Union. This combination proved fatal for the Viet Minh’s opponents, culminating in a decisive French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

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Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh (1942)

The two men were credited for the success of the Viet Menh and People’s Army of Vietnam in the First Indochina War.

Geneva Conference

Negotiations between France and the Viet Minh started in Geneva in April 1954 at the Geneva Conference, when the French Union and the Viet Minh were still fighting at Dien Bien Phu. The Conference recognized the 17th parallel north as a “provisional military demarcation line,” temporarily dividing the country into two zones, communist North Vietnam and pro-Western South Vietnam. The Geneva Accords promised elections in 1956 to determine a national government for a united Vietnam. With respect to the question of reunification, the non-communist Vietnamese delegation objected strenuously to any division of Vietnam, but lost out when the French accepted the proposal of Viet Minh delegate Pham Van Dong, who proposed that Vietnam eventually be united by elections under the supervision of “local commissions.” The United States countered with what became known as the “American Plan,” with the support of South Vietnam and the United Kingdom. It provided for unification elections under the supervision of the United Nations, but was rejected by the Soviet delegation. From his home in France, Emperor Bao Dai appointed Ngo Dinh Diem as Prime Minister of South Vietnam. With American support, in 1955 Diem used a referendum to remove the former Emperor and declare himself the president of the Republic of Vietnam.

When the elections failed to occur, Viet Minh cadres who stayed behind in South Vietnam were activated and started to fight the government. North Vietnam also invaded and occupied portions of Laos to assist in supplying the guerrilla fighting National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. The war gradually escalated into the Second Indochina War, more commonly known as the Vietnam War in the West and the American War in Vietnam.

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French Foreign Legion patrol question a suspected member of the Viet Minh

French Union forces included colonial troops from the whole former empire (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities), French professional troops, and units of the French Foreign Legion. The use of metropolitan recruits was forbidden by the government to prevent the war from becoming even more unpopular at home. It was called the “dirty war” by the Leftist intellectuals in France.

Laos’ Independence

In 1945, under Japanese pressure, King Sisavangvong declared the independence of Laos. The move allowed the various independence movements in Laos to coalesce into the Lao Issara or Free Lao movement, which was led by Prince Phetsarath and opposed the return of Laos to the French. The Japanese surrender in August 1945 emboldened pro-French factions and Prince Phetsarath was dismissed by King Sisavangvong. Undeterred, Prince Phetsarath staged a coup in September and placed the royal family in Luang Prabang under house arrest. In October 1945, the Lao Issara government was declared under the civil administration of Prince Phetsarath but the French were able to reassert control over Indochina in April 1946. The Lao Issara government fled to Thailand, where they maintained opposition to the French until 1949, when the group split over questions regarding relations with the Viet Minh and the communist Pathet Lao was formed. With the Lao Issara in exile, in August 1946 France instituted a constitutional monarchy in Laos headed by King Sisavangvong and Thailand agreed to return territories seized during the Franco-Thai War in exchange for representation at the United Nations. The Franco-Lao General Convention of 1949 provided most members of the Lao Issara with a negotiated amnesty and sought appeasement by establishing the Kingdom of Laos a quasi-independent constitutional monarchy within the French Union. In 1950 additional powers were granted to the Royal Lao Government, including training and assistance for a national army. In 1953, the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association transferred remaining French powers to the independent Royal Lao Government. By 1954, the defeat at Dien Bien Phu brought eight years of fighting with the Viet Minh during the First Indochinese War to an end and France abandoned all claims to the colonies of Indochina.

Cambodia’s Independence

Cambodia’s situation at the end of World War II was chaotic. On March 9, 1945, during the Japanese occupation of Cambodia, young king Norodom Sihanouk proclaimed an independent Kingdom of Kampuchea following a formal request by the Japanese. Shortly thereafter the Japanese government nominally ratified the independence of Cambodia and established a consulate in Phnom Penh. After Allied military units entered Cambodia, the Japanese military forces present in the country were disarmed and repatriated. The French were able to reimpose the colonial administration in Phnom Penh in October the same year. Sihanouk’s “royal crusade for independence” resulted in grudging French acquiescence to his demands for a transfer of sovereignty. A partial agreement was struck in October 1953. Sihanouk then declared that independence had been achieved and returned in triumph to Phnom Penh. As a result of the Geneva Conference, Cambodia was able to bring about the withdrawal of the Viet Minh troops from its territory and withstand any residual impingement upon its sovereignty by external powers.

The Geneva Agreements

The 1954 Geneva Conference produced an agreement between the French and Viet Minh military commands (but not the pro-Western State of Vietnam) that divided Vietnam along the 17th Parallel, escalating tensions between the North and the South and leading to the Second Indochina War (Vietnam War).

Learning Objectives

List the key points of the Geneva Agreements

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Geneva Conference took place between April 26 and July 20, 1954. Its goal was to settle outstanding issues resulting from the Korean War and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina following the First Indochina War. The part of the conference on the Korean question ended without any declarations or proposals. On Indochina, the conference produced a set of documents known as the Geneva Accords.
  • The Western allies did not have a unified position on what the Conference should achieve in relation to Indochina. Two Vietnamese delegations, one from the communist North and one from the pro-Western South, were also divided on the question of the future of Vietnam. Lengthy negotiations revolved around the questions of the division vs. unification of Vietnam, the spheres of influence in the region, and the status of Laos and Cambodia.
  • On July 20, the remaining outstanding issues were resolved as the parties agreed that the partition line should be at the 17th parallel and that the elections for reunification should be in July 1956, two years after the ceasefire. The Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam was signed only by French and Viet Minh military commands, completely bypassing the State of Vietnam.
  • The Geneva Accords, issued on July 21, 1954, set out a “provisional military demarcation line” running approximately along the 17th Parallel. A 3-mile (4.8 km) wide demilitarized zone was expected on each side of the demarcation line, and French Union forces were to regroup to the south of the line while Viet Minh to the north. Free movement of the population between the zone would be open for 300 days and neither zone was to join any military alliance or seek military reinforcement. The International Control Commission, comprising Canada, Poland, and India as chair, was established to monitor the ceasefire.
  • Many communist sympathizers viewed South Vietnam as a French colonial and later American puppet regime. Simultaneously, many viewed North Vietnam as a communist puppet state. After the cessation of hostilities, a large migration took place. North Vietnamese, especially Catholics, intellectuals, business people, land owners, anti-communist democrats, and members of the middle-class, moved south of the Accords-mandated ceasefire line.
  • The United States replaced the French as a political backup for Ngo Dinh Diem, then Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam, and he asserted his power in the South. Diem refused to hold the national elections, citing that the South did not sign and thus was not bound to the Geneva Accords. North Vietnam violated the Geneva Accords by failing to fully withdraw Viet Minh troops from South Vietnam, stifling the movement of North Vietnamese refugees, and conducting a massive military build-up. The tensions led to the Second Indochinese War, more commonly known as the Vietnam War or American War in Vietnam.

Key Terms

  • Geneva Accords: The 1954 settlement that ended the First Indochina War, reached at the end of the Geneva Conference. A ceasefire was signed and France agreed to withdraw its troops from the region. French Indochina was split into three countries: Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Vietnam was to be temporarily divided along the 17th Parallel until elections could be held to unite the country.
  • Geneva Conference: A 1954 conference among several nations that took place in Geneva, Switzerland, to settle outstanding issues resulting from the Korean War and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina. The Soviet Union, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the People’s Republic of China were participants throughout the conference, while other countries concerned were represented during the discussion of questions of interest to them. These included the countries that contributed troops to the United Nations forces in the Korean War and countries that participated in the resolution of the First Indochina War between France and the Viet Minh.
  • First Indochina War: The military conflict that began in French Indochina in December 1946 and lasted until August 1954, although fighting between French forces and their Viet Minh opponents in the South dated from September 1945. The conflict pitted a range of forces, including the French Union’s French Far East Expeditionary Corps, led by France and supported by the Vietnamese National Army, against the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and its People’s Army of Vietnam led by Vo Nguyen Giap. Most of the fighting took place in Tonkin in Northern Vietnam, although the conflict engulfed the entire country and also extended into the neighboring French Indochina protectorates of Laos and Cambodia.
  • Operation Passage to Freedom: A term used by the United States Navy to describe its assistance in transporting in 1954–55 310,000 Vietnamese civilians, soldiers, and non-Vietnamese members of the French Army from communist North Vietnam (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) to South Vietnam (the State of Vietnam, later to become the Republic of Vietnam). The French and other countries may have transported a further 500,000.
  • Viet Cong: A political organization and army, known also as the National Liberation Front, that operated in South Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. It was allied with North Vietnam and fought against the armies of South Vietnam and the United States. It had both guerrilla and regular army units, as well as a network of cadres who organized peasants in the territory it controlled.
  • Viet Minh: A national independence coalition formed in 1941 with the initial goal to seek independence for Vietnam from the French Empire. After World War II, the organization opposed the reoccupation of Vietnam by France and later opposed South Vietnam and the United States in the Vietnam War.

The Geneva Conference took place between April 26 and July 20, 1954 in Geneva, Switzerland. Its goal was to settle outstanding issues resulting from the Korean War and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina as the First Indochina War fighting was still going on when the Conference first gathered. The Soviet Union, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the People’s Republic of China were present throughout the conference, while other countries concerned were represented during the discussion of questions of interest to them. These included the countries that contributed troops to the United Nations forces in the Korean War and countries that participated in the resolution of the First Indochina War between France and the Viet Minh. The part of the conference on the Korean question ended without any declarations or proposals. On Indochina, the conference produced a set of documents known as the Geneva Accords or Geneva Agreements.

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The Geneva Conference, July 21, 1954.

The last plenary session on Indochina in the Palais des Nations. Second left Vyacheslav Molotov, 2 unidentified Russians, Anthony Eden, Sir Harold Caccie, and W.D. Allen. In the foreground North Vietnamese delegation. Although the eventual Geneva Accords were presented as a consensus view, the settlement was not accepted by the delegates of either the State of Vietnam or the United States.

The Question of Indochina

While the delegates began to assemble in Geneva in late April, the discussions on Indochina did not begin until May 8. The Viet Minh had achieved their decisive victory over the French Union forces at Dien Bien Phu the previous day. The Western allies did not have a unified position on what the Conference should achieve in relation to Indochina. The British delegation favored a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The French delegation was keen to preserve something of France’s position in the region. The Unites States had been supporting the French in Indochina for many years and the Republican Eisenhower administration wanted to ensure that it could not be accused of having lost Indochina to the communists. Its leaders had previously accused the Truman administration of having lost China when the communists successfully dominated the country.

On May 10, Pham Van Dong, leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV; North) delegation set out their position, proposing a ceasefire, separation of the opposing forces, a ban on the introduction of new forces into Indochina, exchange of prisoners, independence and sovereignty for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, elections for unified governments in each country, withdrawal of all foreign forces, and the inclusion of representatives of the independence movements from Laos and Cambodia, Pathet Lao, and Khmer Issarak in the Conference. On May 12, the State of Vietnam (South) rejected any partition of the country and the United States expressed a similar position the next day. The French sought to implement a physical separation of the opposing forces into enclaves throughout the country, known as the “leopard-skin” approach, which divided the state’s territories between the DRV/Viet Minh and the French Union.

Although behind the scenes the U.S. and French governments continued to discuss the terms for possible U.S. military intervention in Indochina, by mid-June it was clear such intervention would not receive much support among allies and the United States began to consider the possibility that, rather than supporting the French in Indochina, it might be preferable for the French to leave and for the United States to support the new Indochinese states. Unwilling to support the proposed partition or intervention, by mid-June the United States decided to withdraw from major participation in the Conference.

The Soviet and Chinese representatives also argued that the situations in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were not the same and should be treated separately. Consequently, Pham Van Dong agreed the Viet Minh would be prepared to withdraw their forces from Laos and Cambodia provided no foreign bases were established in Indochina. This represented a major blow to the DRV, as they had tried to ensure that the Pathet Lao and Khmer Issarak would join the governments in Laos and Cambodia, respectively, under the leadership of the DRV. The Chinese likely sought to ensure that Laos and Cambodia were not under Vietnam’s influence in the future, but under China’s.

Geneva Accords

After lengthy negotiations, on July 20 the remaining issues were resolved as the parties agreed that the partition line should be at the 17th parallel and that the elections for reunification should be in July 1956, two years after the ceasefire. The Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam was signed only by French and Viet Minh military commands, completely bypassing the State of Vietnam.

The Geneva Accords, issued on July 21, 1954, set out a “provisional military demarcation line” running approximately along the 17th Parallel “on either side of which the forces of the two parties shall be regrouped after their withdrawal.” A 3-mles (4.8 km) wide demilitarized zone was expected on each side of the demarcation line and French Union forces were to regroup to the south of the line while Viet Minh to the north. Free movement of the population between the zone would be open for 300 days and neither zone was to join any military alliance or seek military reinforcement. The International Control Commission (ICC), comprising Canada, Poland (at the time under the communist rule), and India as chair, was established to monitor the ceasefire. Because the Commission was to decide on issues unanimously, Poland’s presence in the ICC provided the communists with effective veto power over supervision of the treaty. The unsigned Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference called for reunification elections, which the majority of delegates expected to be supervised by the ICC. The Viet Minh never accepted ICC authority over such elections.

The agreement was signed by the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam, France, the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. The State of Vietnam under emperor Bao Dai rejected the agreement, while the United States stated that it “took note” of the ceasefire agreements and declared that it would “refrain from the threat or use of force to disturb them.” Separate accords were signed by the signatories with the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Kingdom of Laos in relation to Cambodia and Laos respectively.

Outcomes

In October 1954, the last French Union forces left Hanoi. In May 1955, French Union forces withdrew from Saigon to a coastal bases and in April 1956, the last French forces left Vietnam.

Many communist sympathizers viewed South Vietnam as a French colonial and later American puppet regime. Simultaneously, many viewed North Vietnam as a communist puppet state. After the cessation of hostilities, a large migration took place. North Vietnamese, especially Catholics, intellectuals, business people, land owners, anti-communist democrats, and members of the middle-class, moved south of the Accords-mandated ceasefire line during Operation Passage to Freedom. The ICC reported that at least 892,876 North Vietnamese were processed through official refugee stations, while journalists estimated that as many as 2 million more might have fled. Around 52,000 people from the South went North, mostly Viet Minh members and their families.

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Anticommunist Vietnamese refugees moving from a French LSM landing ship to the USS Montague during Operation Passage to Freedom in August 1954, photo by H.S. Hemphill.

The mass emigration of northerners was facilitated primarily by the French Air Force and Navy. American naval vessels supplemented the French in evacuating northerners to Saigon, the southern capital. The operation was accompanied by a large humanitarian relief effort, bankrolled in the main by the United States government in an attempt to absorb a large tent city of refugees that had sprung up outside Saigon.

The United States replaced the French as a political backup for Ngo Dinh Diem, then Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam, and he asserted his power in the South. Diem refused to hold the national elections, citing that the South did not sign and thus was not bound to the Geneva Accords and that it was impossible to hold free elections in the communist North. He went on to attempt to crush communist opposition.

North Vietnam violated the Geneva Accords by failing to fully withdraw Viet Minh troops from South Vietnam, stifling the movement of North Vietnamese refugees, and conducting a massive military build-up that more than doubled the number of armed divisions in the North Vietnamese army (while the South Vietnamese army was reduced by 20,000 men). North Vietnam established military operations in the South by providing military supplies and equipment, weaponry, and military personnel and leadership to the Viet Cong (the National Liberation Front created by Ho Chi Minh’s government) in the South. Guerrilla activity in the South escalated, while U.S. military advisers continued to support the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. The tensions led to the Second Indochinese War, more commonly known as the Vietnam War or American War in Vietnam.

The Vietnam War

The 20-year-long Vietnam War between the communist North and pro-Western South backed by the United States has had tragic consequences for the entire region, including the victory of communists in Vietnam, the rise of the Khmer Rouge to power in Cambodia, a massive refugee crisis, and the lasting impact that the use of chemicals by the U.S. military had on the region’s population.

Learning Objectives

Explain the events of the Vietnam War and their lasting effects on the country

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The 1954 Geneva Conference did not end tensions between North and South Vietnam. In 1955, in a referendum on the future of the State of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem rigged the poll and was credited with 98.2% of the vote. Three days later, he declared South Vietnam to be an independent state under the name Republic of Vietnam, with himself as president. Likewise, Ho Chi Minh and other communist officials always won at least 99% of the vote in North Vietnamese “elections.” Between 1954 and 1957, there was large-scale but disorganized dissidence in the countryside, which the Diem government succeeded in quelling. However, by mid-1957 through 1959, incidents of violence increased.
  • Because of the ongoing conflict and constant tensions, the beginning date of the Second Indochina War, known in the US as the Vietnam War and in Vietnam as the American War, is a matter of debate, with 1955, 1956, and 1959 as potential starting points. Eventually, the war pitted the Communist Vietnam People’s Army and the Viet Cong  against United States troops and the United States-backed ARVN (Republic of Vietnam soldiers). The war would last until 1975.
  • Following the escalation of the war under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Richard Nixon began troop withdrawals in 1969. His plan, called the Nixon Doctrine, was to build up the ARVN so that they could take over the defense of South Vietnam. The policy, known as Vietnamization, largely failed.
  • Prince Norodom Sihanouk had proclaimed Cambodia neutral since 1955, but the communists used Cambodian soil as a base and Sihanouk tolerated their presence because he wished to avoid being drawn into a wider regional conflict. Under pressure from Washington, however, he changed this policy in 1969. The ostensibly neutral Laos had long been the scene of a civil war, pitting the Laotian government backed by the United States against the Pathet Lao and its North Vietnamese allies.
  • The 1973 Paris Peace Accords officially ended direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, but a declared cease-fire across North and South Vietnam did not last long. The final series of increasingly large-scale offensive operations by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong began in December 1974. On April 30, 1975, NVA troops entered the city of Saigon and quickly overcame all resistance, capturing key buildings and installations.
  • In 1976, North and South Vietnam were merged to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Cambodia fell to the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975. The Pathet Lao overthrew the monarchy of Laos in 1975, establishing the Lao People’s Democratic Republic under the leadership of a member of the royal family, Souphanouvong. Over 3 million people left Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the Indochina refugee crisis. The widespread use of chemical defoliants by the U.S. military between 1961 and 1971 continues to impact the health of those who survived the war and generations of their descendants.

Key Terms

  • Geneva Conference: A 1954 conference among several nations that took place in Geneva, Switzerland, to settle outstanding issues resulting from the Korean War and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina. The Soviet Union, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the People’s Republic of China were participants throughout the conference, while other countries concerned were represented during the discussion of questions of interest to them. These included the countries that contributed troops to the United Nations forces in the Korean War and countries that participated in the resolution of the First Indochina War between France and the Viet Minh.
  • Second Indochina War: A military conflict known commonly in the United States as the Vietnam War and in Vietnam as Resistance War Against America or the American War, that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1955 (with some sources citing 1956 or 1959 as the starting date) to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. The North Vietnamese army was supported by the Soviet Union, China, and other communist allies and the South Vietnamese army was supported by the United States, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and other anti-communist allies. The war is therefore considered a Cold War-era proxy war.
  • Viet Minh: A national independence coalition formed in 1941 with the initial goal to seek independence for Vietnam from the French Empire. After World War II, the organization opposed the reoccupation of Vietnam by France and later opposed South Vietnam and the United States in the Vietnam War.
  • Pathet Lao: A communist political movement and organization in Laos formed in the mid-20th century. The group was ultimately successful in assuming political power in 1975 after the Laotian Civil War. It was always closely associated with Vietnamese communists and fought against the anti-communist forces in the Vietnam War. Eventually, the term became the generic name for Laotian communists.
  • Viet Cong: A political organization and army, known also as the National Liberation Front, that operated in South Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. It was allied with North Vietnam and fought against the armies of South Vietnam and the United States. It had both guerrilla and regular army units, as well as a network of cadres who organized peasants in the territory it controlled.
  • Vietnamization: A policy of the Richard Nixon administration to end U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War through a program to “expand, equip, and train South Vietnam’s forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops.”
  • Paris Peace Accords: A peace treaty signed on January 27, 1973, to establish peace in Vietnam and end the Vietnam War. The treaty included the governments of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), and the United States, as well as the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) that represented indigenous South Vietnamese revolutionaries. It ended direct U.S. military combat and temporarily stopped the fighting between North and South Vietnam.
  • Khmer Rouge: The name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. It was formed in 1968 as an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army from North Vietnam, and allied with North Vietnam, the Viet Cong, and Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War against the anti-communist forces from 1968 to 1975.

Second Indochina War

Following the Geneva Conference, Vietnam was temporarily partitioned at the 17th parallel and civilians were given the opportunity to move freely between the two provisional states for a 300-day period. Elections throughout the country were to be held in 1956 to establish a unified government.  While the North remained under the control of communists, the South constituted the State of Vietnam, with Bao Dai as Emperor and Ngo Dinh Diem as his prime minister. Neither the United States government nor the State of Vietnam signed anything at Geneva. With respect to the question of reunification, the non-communist Vietnamese delegation objected strenuously to any division of Vietnam, but lost out when the French accepted the proposal of Viet Minh delegate Pham Van Dong, who proposed that Vietnam eventually be united by elections under the supervision of “local commissions.” The United States countered with what became known as the “American Plan,” with the support of South Vietnam and the United Kingdom. It provided for unification elections under the supervision of the United Nations, but was rejected by the Soviet delegation. In 1957, independent observers from India, Poland, and Canada representing the International Control Commission (ICC) stated that fair, unbiased elections were not possible, with the ICC reporting that neither South nor North Vietnam had honored the armistice agreement.

In a referendum on the future of the State of Vietnam in 1955, Diem rigged the poll supervised by his brother and was credited with 98.2% of the vote, including 133% in Saigon. Three days later, he declared South Vietnam to be an independent state under the name Republic of Vietnam (ROV), with himself as president. Likewise, Ho Chi Minh and other communist officials always won at least 99% of the vote in North Vietnamese “elections.”
Diem also launched the “Denounce the Communists” campaign, during which communists and other anti-government elements were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, or executed. He instituted the death penalty against any activity deemed communist in 1956.

Between 1954 and 1957 there was large-scale but disorganized dissidence in the countryside, which the Diem government succeeded in quelling. However, by mid-1957 through 1959, incidents of violence increased. There had been some division among former Viet Minh groups, whose main goal was to hold the elections promised in the Geneva Accords, leading to “wildcat” activities separate from the other communists and anti-government of Vietnam (GVN) activists. In 1960, the National Liberation Front, known more commonly as the Viet Cong, was formally created with the intent of uniting all anti-GVN activists, including non-communists. In 1959, North Vietnam invaded Laos and used 30,000 men to build invasion routes through Laos and Cambodia by 1961. About 40,000 communist soldiers infiltrated into the south from 1961-63. North Vietnam sent 10,000 troops of the North Vietnamese Army to attack the south in 1964, and this figure increased to 100,000 in 1965.

Because of the ongoing conflict and constant tensions, the beginning date of the Second Indochina War, known in the US as the Vietnam War and in Vietnam as the American War, is a matter of debate. U.S. government reports currently cite November 1, 1955, as the commencement date of the “Vietnam Conflict” because that was when the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Indochina (deployed to Southeast Asia under President Truman) was reorganized into country-specific units and MAAG Vietnam was established. Other start dates include when Hanoi authorized Viet Cong forces in South Vietnam to begin a low-level insurgency in December 1956, or September 26, 1959, when the first battle occurred between the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese army. Eventually, the war pitted the Communist Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) and the Viet Cong against United States troops and the United States-backed ARVN (Republic of Vietnam soldiers). The war would last until 1975.

Vietnamization

Following the escalation of the war under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Richard Nixon began troop withdrawals in 1969. His plan, called the Nixon Doctrine, was to build up the ARVN so that they could take over the defense of South Vietnam. The policy became known as Vietnamization. On October 10, 1969, Nixon ordered a squadron of 18 B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons to race to the border of Soviet airspace to convince the Soviet Union, in accord with the madman theory, that he was capable of anything to end the war.

Nixon also pursued negotiations and began to pursue détente (relaxation policy) with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with China. This policy helped to decrease global tensions. Détente led to nuclear arms reduction on the part of both superpowers but Nixon was disappointed that China and the Soviet Union continued to supply the North Vietnamese with aid. In September 1969, Ho Chi Minh died. Beginning in 1970, American troops were withdrawn from border areas where most of the fighting took place and instead redeployed along the coast and interior.

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A Viet Cong prisoner captured in 1967 by the U.S. Army awaits interrogation. He has been placed in a stress position by tying a board between his arms.

A large number of war crimes took place during the Vietnam War. War crimes were committed by both sides during the conflict and included rape, massacres of civilians, bombings of civilian targets, terrorism, the widespread use of torture, and the murder of prisoners of war. Additional common crimes included theft, arson, and the destruction of property not warranted by military necessity. The United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the Viet Cong, and the Khmer Rouge were all found guilty of war crimes.

Cambodia and Laos

Prince Norodom Sihanouk had proclaimed Cambodia neutral since 1955, but the communists used Cambodian soil as a base and Sihanouk tolerated their presence because he wished to avoid being drawn into a wider regional conflict. Under pressure from Washington, however, he changed this policy in 1969. In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was deposed by his pro-American prime minister Lon Nol. North Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1970 at the request of Khmer Rouge deputy leader Nuon Chea. U.S. and ARVN forces launched an invasion into Cambodia to attack NVA and Viet Cong bases.

The ostensibly neutral Laos had long been the scene of a civil war, pitting the Laotian government backed by the US against the Pathet Lao and its North Vietnamese allies. After meeting resistance, ARVN forces retreated and fled along roads littered with their own dead. The operation was a fiasco and represented a clear failure of Vietnamization. Vietnamization was again tested by the Easter Offensive of 1972, a massive conventional NVA invasion of South Vietnam. The NVA and Viet Cong quickly overran the northern provinces and in coordination with other forces attacked from Cambodia, threatening to cut the country in half. U.S. troop withdrawals continued. American air power responded, beginning Operation Linebacker, and the offensive was halted. It became clear that without American air power South Vietnam could not survive. The last remaining American ground troops were withdrawn by the end of March 1973. U.S. naval and air forces remained in the Gulf of Tonkin, as well as Thailand and Guam.

No Peace after Paris Peace Accords

The war was the central issue of the 1972 U.S. presidential election. Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, continued secret negotiations with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho. On January 15, 1973, Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action against North Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords on “Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam” were signed on January 27, 1973, officially ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A cease-fire was declared across North and South Vietnam. U.S. prisoners of war were released. The agreement guaranteed the territorial integrity of Vietnam and, like the Geneva Conference of 1954, called for national elections in the North and South.

Despite the accords, military conflict between the South and the North continued. The final series of increasingly large-scale and ambitious offensive operations by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong began in December 1974. The eventual goal of these operations was to defeat the armed forces and force the surrender of the government of South Vietnam. The operational plan for what would be known as the Ho Chi Minh Campaign called for the capture of Saigon before May 1. By the end of April, the ARVN had collapsed on all fronts except in the Mekong Delta. Thousands of refugees streamed southward ahead of the main communist onslaught. Chaos, unrest, and panic broke out as hysterical South Vietnamese officials and civilians scrambled to leave Saigon. Martial law was declared. On April 30, 1975, NVA troops entered the city of Saigon and quickly overcame all resistance, capturing key buildings and installations.

Aftermath in Southeast Asia

On July 2, 1976, North and South Vietnam were merged to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Despite speculation that the victorious North Vietnamese would massacre South Vietnamese, there is a widespread consensus that no mass executions took place. However, in the years following the end of the war, up to 300,000 South Vietnamese were sent to reeducation camps, where many endured torture, starvation, and disease while being forced to perform hard labor. In addition, 200,000 to 400,000 Vietnamese boat people died at sea, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, fell to the communist Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge would eventually kill 1-3 million Cambodians out of a population of around 8 million in one of the bloodiest genocides in history. After repeated border clashes in 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge, who were being supported by China, in the Cambodian-Vietnamese War. In response, China invaded Vietnam in 1979. The two countries fought a brief border war, known as the Sino-Vietnamese War.

The Pathet Lao overthrew the monarchy of Laos in December 1975, establishing the Lao People’s Democratic Republic under the leadership of a member of the royal family, Souphanouvong. The change in regime was relatively peaceful, although 30,000 former officials were sent to reeducation camps, often enduring harsh conditions for several years.

Over 3 million people left Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the Indochina refugee crisis. Most Asian countries were unwilling to accept the refugees, many of whom fled by boat and were known as boat people. Between 1975 and 1998, an estimated 1.2 million refugees from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries resettled in the United States, while Canada, Australia, and France resettled over 500,000. China accepted 250,000 people. Of all the countries of Indochina, Laos experienced the largest refugee flight in proportional terms, as 300,000 people out of a total population of 3 million crossed the border into Thailand. Included among their ranks were about 90% of the educated and professional elites. Vietnam retained its pro-Soviet orientation after the war and remained an important ally of the USSR in the region.

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Vietnamese women and children in My Lai before being killed in the massacre, March 16, 1968. They were killed seconds after the photo was taken.

Estimates of casualties in the Vietnam War vary widely. They include both civilian and military deaths in North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Civilian deaths caused by both sides amounted to a significant percentage of total deaths, perhaps from 30 to nearly 50%. Civilian deaths caused by communist forces, which included the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese Army, Pathet Lao, and Khmer Rouge, mostly resulted from assassinations and terror tactics. Civilian deaths caused by the armed forces of the governments of South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the United States, South Korea, and other allies were primarily the consequence of extensive aerial bombing and the use of massive firepower in military operations conducted in heavily populated areas.

One of the most controversial aspects of the U.S. military effort in Southeast Asia was the widespread use of chemical defoliants between 1961 and 1971. They were used to defoliate large parts of the countryside to prevent the Viet Cong from being able to hide their weapons and encampments under the foliage. These chemicals continue to change the landscape, cause diseases and birth defects, and poison the food chain today. Vietnamese victims affected by Agent Orange attempted a class action lawsuit against Dow Chemical and other U.S. chemical manufacturers, but District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein dismissed their case. They appealed, but the dismissal was cemented in 2008 by the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. As of 2006, the Vietnamese government estimates that there are over 4,000,000 victims of dioxin poisoning in Vietnam, although the United States government denies any conclusive scientific links between Agent Orange and the Vietnamese victims of dioxin poisoning. In some areas of southern Vietnam, dioxin levels remain at over 100 times the accepted international standard. The U.S. Veterans Administration has listed prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, multiple melanoma, diabetes type 2, B-cell lymphomas, soft-tissue sarcoma, chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, peripheral neuropathy, and spina bifida in children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia (1975-1979) introduced an extreme governing system based on the relocation of urban residents to rural areas and halting nearly all economic, social, and cultural activities. It was responsible for mass atrocities known as the Cambodian genocide.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the crimes perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The history of the Khmer Rouge is tied to the history of the communist movement in Indochina. In 1951, the Indochinese Communist Party was reorganized into three national units — the Vietnam Workers’ Party, the Lao Issara (in Laos), and the Kampuchean (or Khmer) People’s Revolutionary Party. However, during the 1950s, Khmer students in Paris organized their own communist movement. From their ranks came the men and women who returned home and took command of the party apparatus during the 1960s, led an effective insurgency against Lon Nol from 1968 until 1975, and established the regime of Democratic Kampuchea under the leadership of Pol Pot.
  • In 1968, the Khmer Rouge was officially formed and its forces launched a national insurgency across Cambodia. Vietnamese support for the insurgency made it impossible for the Cambodian military to effectively counter it. For the next two years the insurgency grew as Prince Sihanouk, head of Cambodia, did very little to stop it. The political appeal of the Khmer Roug  increased after the removal of Sihanouk as head of state in 1970 by Premier Lon Nol. Sihanouk, in exile in Beijing, made an alliance with the Khmer Rouge, after which their ranks swelled from 6,000 to 50,000 fighters. Many of the new recruits for the Khmer Rouge were apolitical peasants who fought in support of the Prince, not for communism. On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh.
  • The Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from all foreign influences, closing schools, hospitals, and factories, abolishing banking, finance, and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms, where forced labor was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn Cambodians into “Old People” (as opposed the urban populations known as “New People”) through agricultural labor.
  • Money was abolished, books were burned, and teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered to make the agricultural communism, as Pol Pot envisioned it, a reality. The planned relocation to the countryside resulted in the complete halting of almost all economic activity.
  • In 1978, Pol Pot, fearing a Vietnamese attack, ordered a pre-emptive invasion of Vietnam. At the end of the same year, the Vietnamese armed forces, along with the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, an organization that included many dissatisfied former Khmer Rouge members, invaded Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh in January 1979.
  • The Khmer Rouge government arrested, tortured, and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed “enemies.” Various studies have estimated the death toll at between 740,000 and 3 million most commonly between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths due to executions and the rest from starvation and disease. Because of the intense opposition to the Vietnam War, for years many Western scholars denied the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime.

Key Terms

  • Democratic Kampuchea: The name of the Khmer Rouge-controlled state that between 1975 and 1979 existed in present-day Cambodia. It was founded when the Khmer Rouge forces defeated the Khmer Republic of Lon Nol in 1975. During its rule between 1975 and 1979, the state and its ruling Khmer Rouge regime was responsible for the deaths of millions of Cambodians through forced labor and genocide. After losing control of most of Cambodian territory to Vietnamese occupation, it survived as a rump state supported by China.
  • Cambodian Genocide: Mass attrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979, in which an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people died.
  • Khmer Rouge: The name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. It was formed in 1968 as an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army from North Vietnam, and allied with North Vietnam, the Viet Cong, and Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War against the anti-communist forces from 1968 to 1975.

Khmer Rouge: Rise to Power

The history of the Khmer Rouge is tied to the history of the communist movement in Indochina. In 1951, the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) was reorganized into three national units — the Vietnam Workers’ Party, the Lao Issara (in Laos), and the Kampuchean (or Khmer) People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP). According to a document issued after the reorganization, the Vietnam Workers’ Party would continue to “supervise” the smaller Laotian and Cambodian movements. Most KPRP leaders and rank-and-file seem to have been either Khmer Krom, or ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia. The party’s appeal to indigenous Khmers appears to have been minimal.

During the 1950s, Khmer students in Paris organized their own communist movement, which had little if any connection to the hard-pressed party in their homeland. From their ranks came the men and women who returned home and took command of the party apparatus during the 1960s, led an effective insurgency against Lon Nol from 1968 until 1975, and established the regime of Democratic Kampuchea. Some members of the Paris group, most notably Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, turned to Marxism-Leninism and joined the French Communist Party. In 1951, the two men went to East Berlin to participate in a youth festival. This experience is considered a turning point in their ideological development. Meeting with Khmers who were fighting with the Viet Minh, they became convinced that only a tightly disciplined party organization and a readiness for armed struggle could achieve revolution. They transformed the Khmer Students Association (KSA), to which most of the 200 or so Khmer students in Paris belonged, into an organization for nationalist and leftist ideas. After returning to Cambodia in 1953, Pol Pot threw himself into party work.

In 1960, 21 leaders of the KPRP held a secret congress in a vacant room of the Phnom Penh railroad station. This pivotal event remains shrouded in mystery because its outcome has become an object of contention (and considerable historical rewriting) between pro-Vietnamese and anti-Vietnamese Khmer communist factions. The question of cooperation with or resistance to Prince Sihanouk (head of the Cambodian state) was thoroughly discussed. The KPRP was renamed the Workers’ Party of Kampuchea (WPK).

In 1962, Tou Samouth, the WPK secretary, was murdered by the Cambodian government. A year later, Pol Pot was chosen to succeed Tou Samouth as the party’s general secretary. Pol Pot was also put on a list of 34 leftists who were summoned by Sihanouk to join the government and sign statements saying Sihanouk was the only possible leader for the country. Pol Pot and one more leader, Chou Chet, were the only people on the list who escaped. The region where Pol Pot moved to was inhabited by tribal minorities, the Khmer Loeu, whose rough treatment (including resettlement and forced assimilation) at the hands of the central government made them willing recruits for a guerrilla struggle. In 1965, Pol Pot made a visit of several months to North Vietnam and China.

In 1968, the Khmer Rouge was officially formed and its forces launched a national insurgency across Cambodia. Although North Vietnam had not been informed of the decision, its forces provided shelter and weapons to the Khmer Rouge after the insurgency started. Vietnamese support for the insurgency made it impossible for the Cambodian military to effectively counter it. For the next two years the insurgency grew as Sihanouk did very little to stop it. As the insurgency grew stronger, the party finally openly declared itself to be the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK).

The political appeal of the Khmer Rouge increased as a result of the situation created by the removal of Sihanouk as head of state in 1970. Premier Lon Nol, with the support of the National Assembly, deposed Sihanouk. Sihanouk, in exile in Beijing, made an alliance with the Khmer Rouge and became the nominal head of a Khmer Rouge-dominated government-in-exile (known by its French acronym, GRUNK) backed by China. After Sihanouk showed his support for the Khmer Rouge by visiting them in the field, their ranks swelled from 6,000 to 50,000 fighters. Many of the new recruits for the Khmer Rouge were apolitical peasants who fought in support of the Prince, not for communism. Sihanouk’s popular support in rural Cambodia allowed the Khmer Rouge to extend its power and influence to the point that by 1973 it exercised de facto control over the majority of Cambodian territory, although only a minority of its population. Many people in Cambodia who helped the Khmer Rouge against the Lon Nol government thought they were fighting for the restoration of Sihanouk. By 1975, with the Lon Nol government running out of ammunition, it was clear that it was only a matter of time before the government would collapse. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh.

Khmer Rouge Regime

The Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from all foreign influences; closing schools, hospitals, and factories, abolishing banking, finance, and currency; outlawing all religions; confiscating all private property; and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labor was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn Cambodians into “Old People” (as opposed the urban populations known as “New People”) through agricultural labor.

The Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities. The entire population was forced to become farmers in labor camps. The total lack of agricultural knowledge by the former city dwellers made famine inevitable. Rural dwellers were often unsympathetic or too frightened to assist them. Such acts as picking wild fruit or berries were seen as “private enterprise” and punished by death. The Khmer Rouge forced people to work for 12 hours, without adequate rest or food. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation. Commercial fishing was banned in 1976, resulting in a loss of primary food sources for millions of Cambodians, 80% of whom rely on fish as their only source of animal protein.

Money was abolished, books were burned, and teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered to make the agricultural communism as Pol Pot envisioned it a reality. The planned relocation to the countryside resulted in the complete halting of almost all economic activity.

All religion was banned. Any people seen taking part in religious rituals or services were executed. Thousands of Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians were killed for exercising their beliefs. Family relationships not sanctioned by the state were also banned and family members could be put to death for communicating with each other. Married couples were only allowed to visit each other on a limited basis. If people were seen engaged in sexual activity, they would be killed immediately. In many cases, family members were relocated to different parts of the country with all postal and telephone services abolished. Almost all freedom to travel was abolished. Almost all privacy was eliminated. People were not even allowed to eat in privacy. Instead, they were required to eat with everyone in the commune.

Fall of Khmer Rouge Regime

In 1978, Pol Pot, fearing a Vietnamese attack, ordered a pre-emptive invasion of Vietnam. At the end of the same year, the Vietnamese armed forces, along with the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, an organization that included many dissatisfied former Khmer Rouge members, invaded Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh in January 1979. Despite a traditional Cambodian fear of Vietnamese domination, defecting Khmer Rouge activists assisted the Vietnamese and with Vietnam’s approval became the core of the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea. At the same time, the Khmer Rouge retreated west and continued to control certain areas near the Thai border for the next decade.
The Khmer Rouge survived into the 1990s as a resistance movement operating in western Cambodia from bases in Thailand. In 1996, following a peace agreement, Pol Pot formally dissolved the organization. He died in 1998, having never been put on trial. Today,
Cambodia is officially a multiparty democracy but in reality, it is a communist-party state dominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a recast Khmer Rouge official in power since 1985.

Cambodian Genocide

The Khmer Rouge government arrested, tortured, and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed “enemies,” including anyone with connections to the former Cambodian government or with foreign governments, professionals and intellectuals, ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, and other minorities in the Eastern Highlands, Cambodian Christians, Muslims, and Buddhist monks, and “economic saboteurs” – a category that included many former urban dwellers deemed guilty of sabotage due to their lack of agricultural ability. Those who were convicted of treason were taken to a top-secret prison called S-21. The prisoners were rarely given food and, as a result, many people died of starvation. Others died from the severe physical mutilation caused by torture.

Modern research has located 20,000 mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era all over Cambodia. Various studies have estimated the death toll at between 740,000 and 3 million, most commonly between 1.4 million and 2.2 million, with perhaps half of those deaths due to executions and the rest from starvation and disease. The Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University estimates the number of deaths at approximately 1.7 million (21% of the population of the country). A UN investigation reported 2–3 million dead, while UNICEF estimates that 3 million had been killed. An additional 300,000 Cambodians starved to death between 1979 and 1980, largely as a result of the after-effects of Khmer Rouge policy.

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Rooms of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum commemorating the Cambodian genocide contain thousands of photos taken by the Khmer Rouge of their victims.

The Khmer Rouge regime targeted various ethnic groups during the genocide, forcibly relocated minority groups, and banned the use of minority languages. The Khmer Rouge banned by decree the existence of ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, Muslim Cham, and 20 other minorities, which altogether constituted 15% of the population at the beginning of the Khmer Rouge’s rule.

Because of the intense opposition to the Vietnam War, particularly among Western intellectuals, many Western scholars denied the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime. Despite the eye-witness accounts by journalists prior to their expulsion during the first few days of Khmer Rouge rule and the later testimony of refugees, many academics in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Australia, and other countries portrayed the Khmer Rouge favorably or at least were skeptical about the stories of Khmer Rouge atrocities. None of them, however, were allowed to visit Cambodia under Khmer Rouge rule and few actually talked to the refugees whose stories they believed to be exaggerated or false. Some Western scholars believed that the Khmer Rouge would free Cambodia from colonialism, capitalism, and the ravages of American bombing and invasion during the Vietnam War. Cambodian scholar Sophal Ear has titled the pro-Khmer Rouge academics as the “Standard Total Academic View on Cambodia” (STAV).

With the takeover of Cambodia by Vietnam in 1979 and the discovery of incontestable evidence, the Khmer Rouge atrocities proved to be entirely accurate. Some former enthusiasts for the Khmer Rouge recanted their previous views, others diverted their interest to other issues, and a few continued to defend the Khmer Rouge. A few months before his death in 1998, Nate Thayer interviewed Pol Pot. During the interview, Pol Pot stated that he had a clear conscience and denied responsible for the genocide. In 2013, the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen passed legislation that makes the denial of the Cambodian genocide and other war crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge illegal.