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Digital History ID 3458


After World War II, neither France nor England wanted to see the end of their colonial empires. England was anxious to control Burma, Malaya, and India. France wanted to rule Indochina.

Under Franklin Roosevelt, the United States sought to bring an end to European colonialism. As he put it, condescendingly:

“There are 1.1 billion brown people. In many Eastern countries they are ruled by a handful of whites and they resent it. Our goal must be to help them achieve independence. 1.1 billion potential enemies are dangerous.”

But under Harry Truman, the United States was concerned about its naval and air bases in Asia. The U.S. decided to permit France into Indochina to re-assert its authority in Southeast Asia. The result: the French Indochina War began.

From the beginning, American intelligence officers knew that France would find it difficult to re-assert its authority in Indochina. The French refused to listen to American intelligence. To them, the idea of Asian rebels standing up to a powerful Western nation was preposterous.

Although Truman allowed the French to return to Indochina, he was not yet prepared to give the French arms, transportation, and economic assistance. It was not until anti-communism became a major issue that the United States would take an active role supporting the French. The fall of China, the Korean War, and the coming of Joe McCarthy would lead policymakers to see the French War in Vietnam, not as a colonial war, but as a war against international communism.

Beginning in 1950, the United States started to underwrite the French war effort. For four years, the United States provided $2 billion; however, this had little effect on the war. The French command, frustrated by a hit-and-run guerrilla war, devised a trap. The idea was to use a French garrison as bait, have the enemy surround it, and mass their forces. Then, the French would strike and crush the enemy and gain a major political and psychological victory.

The French built their positions in a valley and left the high ground to their adversaries. An American asked what would happen if the enemy had artillery. A French officer assured him that they had no artillery, and even if they did, they would not know how to use it. Yet, as the journalist David Halberstam noted, “They did have artillery and they did know how to use it.”

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