Many historians in Vietnam and other countries are happy just to say the Việt Minh attacked the French in December 1946 and that full-scale war, after the French bombed and occupied Haiphong, was bound to happen.
Events leading up to the conflict, however, cast doubt on the common belief in the inevitability of a war that sparked a cycle of Indochina violence lasting until the Paris Peace Agreements signed in 1991 ratified a peace settlement in Cambodia.
An explosion in a power plant left much of Hanoi in darkness at 8pm on 19 December 1946. The detonation unleashed a pre-planned assault by Vietnamese militia forces (Tu Ve) against French targets. The fighters took some 200 French civilians as hostages and killed those who resisted, triggering a French counterattack. In a few hours the French took control of all public buildings used by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). They did not, however, capture president Hồ Chí Minh or any of the DRV’s top leaders hidden in a system of caves 10 kms south of Hanoi.
The French needed several weeks to overcome the Tu Ve’s entrenched resistance in the Vietnamese quarters of Hanoi, but on 17 February the last surviving fighters slipped out of the city to join the resistance army in the northern highlands. Guerrilla warfare characterised the years 1947–49, until the DRV received training and weapons from China and built a conventional army to attack French forces in pitched battles.
In October 1954, after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu and agreed to an armistice, the last Vietnamese fighters to have left Hanoi in 1946 were the first to re-enter.
What went wrong?
Something must have gone awry on 19 December. Since the Haiphong massacre on 23 November when the French took control of northern Vietnam’s main port city, the DRV military command had been planning a nationwide counterattack.
Hồ Chí Minh drafted a speech on 18 December urging the Vietnamese people, “Fight with all the means at your disposal. Fight with your arms, your picks, your spades, your sticks!” Yet his call was not broadcast the next evening, when the Tu Ve attacked: a radio speaker read the message only the following evening.
The attack in Hanoi also failed to be synchronised with attacks elsewhere. The DRV forces outside Hanoi did not advance and attacks against French garrisons in Hải Dương, Phủ Lạng Thương, Bắc Ninh, Vinh, Huế and Sông Bé bridge (Pont des Rapides) happened only later in the night, removing the element of surprise.
Fight with all the means at your disposal. Fight with your arms, your picks, your spades, your sticks!Hồ Chí Minh
Through his long life, General Võ Nguyên Giáp, commander of the DRV army in 1946, claimed the outbreak was inevitable and he had given the attack order. However, there is an argument that hesitation due to French political developments caused the Vietnamese failures.
Although Hồ Chí Minh could not know that the outgoing French government had already strictly prohibited its high commissioner in Saigon, admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu, from initiating a war, he may have clung to a hope that a new government elected by the French National Assembly on 17 December would intervene and prevent the French colonial army from continuing its provocations.
Since D’Argenlieu, loyal to general Charles de Gaulle and not the left-leaning French government, was prevented from taking the initiative to launch the war he wanted, he instead provoked the DRV into action. Several deliberate French actions in Hanoi in the weeks preceding 19 December were aimed at sparking Vietnamese reaction. The French colonial authorities also hoped to split moderates from extremists within the DRV leadership.
Hồ and Giáp must have anticipated a French assault. Hồ Chí Minh, however, also hoped to split moderates from extremists on the French side.
His main hope was on the veteran socialist leader Léon Blum, head of a new French interim government beginning on 18 December 1946. A week earlier, Blum published an article in a French socialist mouthpiece, Le Populaire, urging France to stick to an earlier agreement with Hồ recognising Vietnam as a “free state.”
“…there is but one means, one only, to preserve the prestige of our civilisation, our political and spiritual influence in Indochina, and also those of our material interests that are legitimate: That is sincere agreements on the basis of independence, it is confidence, friendship…. The decision must not belong to the military authorities or the civilian colons in Indochina, but to the government situated in Paris.”
Communication failures between Hồ and Blum provide a lesson in crisis management. Top level decision makers need hotlines.
Hồ knew Blum from the 1920 French socialist party congress. Blum remained in the party while Hồ joined members who left to found the French Communist Party. Learning Blum would take over as government leader, Hồ wrote a personal letter on 15 December 1946 reflecting Blum’s wish for peace. The letter and Hồ’s subsequent telegrams were deliberately delayed by French authorities in Indochina and did not reach Blum in time.
Yet immediately after assuming power on 18 December, Blum sent his fellow socialist and minister of overseas France, Marius Moutet, on a peace mission to Indochina. This may have led to second thoughts among Vietnamese leaders about the decision to attack on 19 December.
Their hesitation could explain the lack of coordination in the 8 pm attack. But the ensuing savage killings of French civilians by Vietnamese forces stirred French public opinion and convinced Moutet there was little he could do. He did not even try to meet Hồ after arriving.
Indochina’s Cycle of Wars
The First Indochina War lasted from 1946 through the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 and was temporarily resolved by a conference in Geneva of the Great Power nations, which recognised Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as independent states but provisionally divided Vietnam into a communist-led North and anti-communist South. This division led to the Second Indochina War from 1959 to 1975, better known as the Vietnam War.
After the Vietnam War ended, the Third Indochina War soon began. Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea (DK) launched incursions into the southern part of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). In December 1978, the SRV invaded the DK and ended the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia.
A protracted war followed with an alliance of China, Thailand and the US supporting a Khmer Rouge-led, anti-Vietnamese insurgency. Meanwhile, Vietnam and China fought a border war until 1987 following a full-scale Chinese invasion in February and March 1979. Toward the end of the 1980s, the Third Indochina War approached a conclusion as Vietnam lost Soviet support and pulled out of Cambodia.
The government of French socialist president François Mitterand hosted a conference in Paris 45 years after Hồ and Blum’s failure to prevent the outbreak of war in Hanoi. The event resulted in a comprehensive peace agreement for Cambodia signed on 23 October 1991, which was a significant achievement.
The accords led to the establishment of a coalition government in Phnom Penh and a temporary UN mission to monitor a ceasefire, as well as free elections. The agreement resulted from a temporary convergence of interests among the Great Power nations and from consensual initiatives by the five members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Southeast Asia entered a period of developmental peace. For the most part, the process was not democratic, but was ultimately beneficial
The diplomatic effort in 1991 compelled the rival Cambodian parties to talk and had a positive influence on regional developments over the next decade. The Khmer Rouge was marginalised and went into terminal decay. Vietnam’s relations with China and the US were normalised. Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia joined ASEAN.
After four decades of intense and widespread warfare, Southeast Asia entered a period of developmental peace. For the most part, the process was not democratic, but was ultimately beneficial.
Among historians there has been much discussion about missed opportunities by the US to make peace in Vietnam. The first and perhaps most important missed opportunity was not a US misstep, but an error by France. The government in Paris failed to control its high commissioner in Saigon, who deliberately provoked the outbreak of a war that cut through the region and permanently scarred an unfortunate cast of global participants for decades afterward.
Stein Tønnesson is a research professor with the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and the author of “The Vietnamese Revolution of 1945” and “Vietnam 1946: How the War Began.”
National Geographic photos sourced through Flickr. Images have been edited for publication by Southeast Asia Globe.