On May 7, 1954, a ragtag army of 50,000 Vietnamese Communists defeated the remnants of an elite French force at a network of bases at Dien Bien Phu in northwestern Vietnam. The French, fighting to restore their Indochinese empire, planned to strike at their adversaries from a network of eight bases (surrounded by barbed wire and minefields) that they had built at Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh, Vietnamese Nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh, bombarded these bases with artillery from the surrounding hillsides. Heavy rains made it impossible to bomb the Vietnamese installations or to supply the garrisons. The French, trapped, were reduced to eating rats and pleaded for American air support. Despite support from Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower was not willing to commit American air support without support from Britain, Congress, and the chiefs of staff. Following the advice of Winston Churchill, Gen. Matthew Ridgway, and Senator Lyndon Johnson, President Eisenhower decided to stay out.
Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia had been a French colony since the late 19th century. During World War II, however, Japan occupied French Indochina. After Japan's defeat, France tried to re-establish control, but met opposition from the Viet Minh.
Despite American financial supports, amounting to about three-quarters of France’s war costs, 250,000 veteran French troops were unable to crush the Viet Minh. Altogether, France had 100,000 men dead, wounded, or missing trying to re-establish its colonial empire. In 1954, after French forces were defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, a peace conference was held in Geneva Switzerland. At the conference, the French and the Vietnamese agreed to divide Vietnam temporarily into a non-Communist South and a Communist North, pending re-unification following elections scheduled for 1956.
Those elections never took place. South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, with U.S. backing, refused to participate in the elections for fear of an overwhelming victory by Ho Chi Minh. The failure of the South to fulfill the terms of the Geneva Accord led the North Vietnamese to distrust diplomacy as a way to achieve a settlement.
In 1955, the first U.S. military advisers arrived in Vietnam. President Dwight D. Eisenhower justified this decision on the basis of the domino theory--that the loss of a strategic ally in Southeast Asia would result in the loss of others. "You have a row of dominoes set up," he said, "you knock the first one, and others will fall.” President Eisenhower felt that with U.S. help, South Vietnam could maintain its independence.
In 1957, South Vietnamese rebels known as the Viet Cong began attacks on the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1959, Hanoi approved armed struggle against Ngo Dinh Diem's regime in Saigon.
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