Sometimes the further away in time you get from an event, the clearer it becomes. Time often enables historians to learn more facts and circumstances about, and fosters a more dispassionate view of, historical events like wars. The Vietnamese wars against France in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and against the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, have far too frequently been analyzed through ideological and political lenses, with both sides ignoring or downplaying facts that do not fit within their ideological-political agendas. The greatest merit of Christoper Goscha’s splendid history of the First Indochina War (1945-1954) is his unsparing devotion to letting facts inform his assessments and conclusions.
The First Indochina War at first glance pitted Ho Chi Minh’s communist army and its anti-colonial allies against the French army and its Vietnamese allies. As the Second World War came to a close, Japan’s occupation of French Indochina ended, setting the stage for a postwar struggle for power in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between communists, nationalists, and the French colonial administration. Goscha explains at the outset of the book, however, that what he thought was a “simple war of decolonization turned out to be a series of conflicts wrapped into one very complicated conflagration.”
Goscha, who teaches in the history department of the University of Quebec in Montreal, describes the First Indochina War in all its complexity. It was a civil war between communist and non-communist Vietnamese. It was an anti-colonial struggle in which Vietnamese nationalists sought to free themselves from French rule. And it was part of the larger international Cold War struggle between East and West. There were Vietnamese nationalists who sided with the communists, and there were Vietnamese anti-communist nationalists who sided with the French. And the First Indochina War overlapped with the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War. Goscha sheds new light on how the outcome of those two wars shaped the outcome of the First Indochina War.
The newly established People’s Republic of China, Goscha writes, provided crucial assistance to Ho Chi Minh’s forces, enabling them after 1950 to arm and equip a conventional army that defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. (The Soviets helped, too). Meanwhile, the Americans were locked in a stalemate with Chinese forces on the Korean peninsula and were unwilling to directly intervene in Indochina, though they provided military assistance to the French there. Goscha rightly situates “the road to Dien Bien Phu” within this larger historical context. The so-called “loss of China” had both immediate and long-term international consequences.
Goscha also shows that Ho Chi Minh, though he skillfully appealed to Vietnamese nationalists, was first and foremost a communist (trained as a Comintern agent in Moscow and familiar with Lenin’s and Mao’s writings and tactics) whose goal was to establish an imperial communist Indochina federation in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. And while it was China that made Ho Chi Minh’s victory over the French in Vietnam possible, it was the Vietnamese communists (with China’s support) who made possible the later victories of the Pathet Lao in Laos and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s.
Within that larger context, Goscha explores the Vietnamese road to victory in the First Indochina War. Ho Chi Minh’s communist-controlled areas of Vietnam evolved from what Goscha calls an “archipelago state” where sovereignty extended “from one craggy, atoll-like territory to another” in the mid-1940s to a more extensive, contiguous region from where he launched the war’s final offensive in 1953-54. And during that territorial expansion, Ho and the party’s senior leaders adapted flexibly to conditions on the ground, initially making temporary alliances with Vietnamese nationalists and later imposing the Vietnamese version of “war communism” on the populace under their control.
War communism included rectification and propaganda campaigns, political indoctrination on a massive scale, expanded control over security services and the armed forces, increased party control over the economy, agriculture (food shortages were constant during the war), local villages, and the state bureaucracy, and “land reform” which seized land from property owners (the Vietnamese version of Russian kulaks) and divided it among the peasantry. It was, Goscha writes, a “general mobilization” of the population to win the war and to enable the Communist Party “to take full control of the state and transform it in communist ways.” It was during the First Indochina War that Ho’s regime constructed the “single-party communist state” that defeated the French in 1954 and the Americans in 1975, and that still governs Vietnam today.
The actual battle of Dien Bien Phu, located in a valley in the highlands of northwestern Vietnam just east of the Laotian border and south of the Chinese border, began with a Vietnamese artillery barrage on 13 March 1954. It pitted 51,000 Vietnamese troops against 16,000 French troops. The French army led by General Henri Navarre had moved to Dien Bien Phu to prevent Vietnamese forces under Vo Nguyen Giap from seizing the Lai Chau province. Giap’s army stealthily surrounded the French forces and the battle became a siege. The fighting, Goscha writes, was reminiscent of the First World War’s western front, with a cratered landscape, trenches, and infantry charges into a sort of “no man’s land” where soldiers were gunned down by machine guns and artillery fire. It reminded some French soldiers of Verdun. On 7 May, the Vietnamese forces took the French fortress.
Meanwhile, the great powers were meeting in Geneva about Korea and Indochina. The diplomatic outcome of that conference meant that Ho’s vision of a united Vietnam under communist rule and a federation of communist states in Indochina would have to wait. Twenty-one years later, Ho’s vision became a partial reality as North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon after an even longer and much bloodier war against the United States and its South Vietnamese allies. Communist regimes also gained power in Laos and Cambodia, but there would be no federation of communist states in Indochina. Communist regimes in Vietnam and Cambodia fought each other in a war a few years later.
Goscha argues that studying the communist conduct of wars in Asia may provide valuable lessons to Westerners and Asians alike, especially “if ever things [light] up again in the Asia-Pacific region.” “[C]ommunist states remain in power in Asia even if they run capitalist economies”, he writes. The current leaders of China, Vietnam, North Korea, Laos, and Cambodia “are products of [the] same revolutionary process” and are inheritors of what Goscha calls the traditions and practices of “communist warfare”.