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The Indochina Wars (Vietnamese language: Chiến tranh Đông Dương ) were a series of wars fought in Southeast Asia from 1946 until 1979, between communist Indochinese forces against French, South Vietnamese, American, Cambodian, Laotian and Chinese forces. The term "Indochina" originally referred to French Indochina, which included the current states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In current use, it applies largely to a geographic region, rather than a political area. The four wars were:

  • The First Indochina War (called the Indochina War in France and French War in Vietnam) began after World War II ended and lasted until the French defeat in 1954. After a long campaign of resistance Viet Minh forces had claimed a victory after Japanese and Vichy French forces surrendered in the North at the end of World War II. During World War II, the South was temporarily occupied by British forces, who restored French colonial control. In the United Nations and alliance with the United Kingdom and the United States, the French demanded return of their former Indochina colony prior to agreeing to participate in the NATO alliance opposing Soviet expansion beyond the Warsaw Pact countries in the Cold War. The communist/nationalist Viet Minh, whom the Allies had supported during the war, continued fighting the French with support from China and the Soviet Union, ultimately driving the NATO-backed French out of Indochina [1].
  • The Second Indochina War (called the Vietnam War in the West or the American War in Vietnam) began as a conflict between the United States-backed South Vietnamese government and its opponents, both the South Vietnamese-based communist Viet Cong (National Liberation Front) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), now known as the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN). It began in the late 1950s and lasted until 1975 when the North Vietnamese won. The United States, which supported France in the first war, backed the South Vietnam government in opposition to the National Liberation Front and the Communist-allied NVA. The North benefited from military and financial support from China and the Soviet Union, members of the Communist bloc. Fighting also occurred during this time in Cambodia between the US-backed government, the NVA, and the Communist-backed Khmer Rouge (known as the Cambodian Civil War, 1967–1975) and in Laos between the US-backed government, the NVA, and the Communist-backed Pathet Lao (known as the Laotian Civil War or Secret War, 1962–1975).
  • The Cambodian–Vietnamese War followed the Second Indochina War. Vietnam invaded Cambodia and deposed the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. The war lasted from May 1975 to December 1989.
  • The Sino-Vietnamese War was a short war fought in February–March 1979 between the People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The Chinese invaded Vietnam as "punishment" for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, and withdrew a month later to prewar positions.


French colonization and occupation of the region was a consequence of missionary work of the 16th century, which had resulted in Catholics forming a converted minority. While Gia Long tolerated Catholicism, his successors Minh Mang and Tu Duc were staunch Confucians, admiring China rather than France. They brutally suppressed Catholicism and attempted to remove French influence, which provoked the Catholic nations of Europe to retaliate. Confucian isolationist policy led the Vietnamese to refuse industrial modernization, so that they were ill-equipped against the French. In August 1858, Napoleon III ordered the landing of French forces at Tourane, (present-day Da Nang), beginning a colonial occupation that was to last almost a century. By 1884, the French had complete control over the country, which now formed the largest part of French Indochina[2].

A continuous thread of local resistance began with Ham Nghi, then to Phan Dinh Phung, Phan Boi Chau and lastly to Ho Chi Minh, who returned to Vietnam from France and joined the Viet Minh in 1941. A founding member of the French Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh had de-emphasised his communist ties and dissolved the Indochinese Communist Party, in order to win trust and gain power. When a famine broke out in 1945, causing 2 million deaths, the Viet Minh arranged a massive relief effort, consequently winning over many people to their nationalist cause. Ho Chi Minh rose to become the leader of the Vietcong.

When World War II ended, North Vietnam came under the control of Ho Chi Minh. The Japanese surrendered to the Chinese Nationalists in North Vietnam, and the Viet Minh organized the "August Revolution" uprisings across the country. Emperor Bảo Đại abdicated power to the Viet Minh, on August 25, 1945. In a popular move, Ho Chi Minh made Bảo Đại "supreme adviser" to the Viet Minh-led government in Hanoi, which asserted its independence on September 2 as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). In 1946, Vietnam had its first constitution.

In 1948, France tried to regain its colonial control over Vietnam. In South Vietnam, the Japanese had surrendered to British forces, who had supported the Free French in fighting the Viet Minh, along with the armed religious Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects and the Binh Xuyen organized crime group. The French re-installed Bảo Đại as the head of state of Vietnam, which now comprised central and southern Vietnam. The ensuing war, between the French-controlled South and the independent Communist-allied North, is known as the First Indochina War.

Indochina during World War II

First Indochina War

In the First Indochina War, the Communist North Vietnamese, supported by the Communist powers of the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, fought to gain their independence from the French, supported by the French-loyalist Vietnamese and the United Nations. This war of independence lasted from December 1946 until July 1954, with most of the fighting taking place in areas surrounding Hanoi. It ended with the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and French withdrawal from Vietnam.

Second Indochina War

A truck-mounted Quad .50 at Khe Sanh Combat Base, during the Battle of Khe Sanh.

The Second Indochina War, commonly known as the Vietnam War, pitted the recently-successful Communist Vietnam People's Army (VPA or PAVN, but also incorrectly known as the North Vietnamese Army or NVA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (South Vietnamese NLF guerrilla fighters allied with the PAVN, known in the Republic of Vietnam as the Viet Cong, meaning 'Vietnamese Communists') against United States troops and the United States-backed ARVN (South Vietnamese soldiers). Because there was no declaration of war, there is much disagreement as to when the war began, but two events commonly cited are the first arrival of United States advisors in South Vietnam in 1955, and open declaration of United States involvement in 1964. During the War, the North Vietnamese transported most of their supplies via the Ho Chi Minh Trail (known to the Vietnamese as the Truong Son Trail, after the Truong Son mountains), which ran through Laos and Cambodia. As a result, the areas of these nations bordering Vietnam would see heavy combat during the war.

For the United States, the political and combat goals were ambiguous: success and progress were ill-defined and, along with the large numbers of casualties, the Vietnam War raised moral issues that made the war increasingly unpopular at home. U.S. news reports of the 1968 Tet offensive, especially from CBS, were unfavorable in regard to the lack of progress in ending the war. Although the 1968 Tet offensive resulted in a military victory for South Vietnam and the United States, with virtually complete destruction of the NLF forces combat capability, it was ironically also a turning point in American voter opposition to U.S. support for their anti-communist Vietnamese allies.

The United States began withdrawing troops from Vietnam in 1970, with the last troops returning in January, 1973. The Paris Peace Accords called for a cease-fire, and prohibited the North Vietnamese from sending more troops into South Vietnam - although the North Vietnamese were permitted to continue to occupy those regions of South Vietnam they had conquered in the 1972 Easter Offensive.

The North Vietnamese never intended to abide by the agreement. Fighting continued sporadically through 1973 and 1974, while the North Vietnamese planned a major offensive, tentatively scheduled for 1976. The North Vietnamese Army in South Vietnam had been ravaged during the Easter offensive in 1973, and it was projected that it would take until 1976 to rebuild their logistical capabilities.

The withdrawal had catastrophic effects on the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). Shortly after the Paris Peace Accords, the United States Congress made major budget cuts in military aid to the South Vietnamese. The ARVN, which had been trained by American troops to use American tactics, quickly fell into disarray. Although it remained an effective fighting force throughout 1973 and 1974, by January 1975 it had disintegrated. The North Vietnamese hurriedly attacked the much weakened South, and met with little resistance.

Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was taken by the PAVN on April 30, 1975, and the Second Indochina War ended.

The fighting that took place between North and South Vietnam following United States withdrawal is sometimes called the Third Indochina War; this term usually refers to a later 1979 conflict, however (see below).

Third Indochina War

The Third Indochina War, commonly known as the Cambodian–Vietnamese War, started on 1 May 1975 when the Kampuchean Revolutionary Army invaded the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. Vietnamese forces quickly counter-attacked, regaining their territory and invading the Kampuchean island of Koh Wai.

In August 1975, Vietnam returned island of Koh Wai to Kampuchea and both governments started making peaceful noises, but behind the scenes tensions were mounting. On 30 April 1977, Kampuchea started attacking Vietnamese villages. In September, six divisions crossed the border, advancing 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) into Tay Ninh Province. Angered by the scale of the attacks, the Vietnam People’s Army assembled eight divisions to launch a retaliatory strike against Kampuchea. In December, in an effort to force the Kampuchean government to negotiate, the Vietnamese forces invaded Kampuchea, easily defeating the Kampuchean army. On 6 January 1978, Vietnamese forces were only 38 kilometers (24 mi) from Phnom Penh; however, the Kampuchean government remained defiant and the Vietnamese leadership realised they would not secure their political objective and decided to withdraw their troops.

As Kampuchean forces soon resumed their attacks across the border, the Vietnamese launched another limited counter-attack in June, forcing the Kampucheans to retreat. Again the Vietnamese withdrew and the Kampucheans resumed their attacks. Vietnam had had enough; in December 1978, it launched a full scale invasion. Phnom Penh was captured in January 1979, the ruling Khmer Rouge were driven from power and a pro-Vietnamese government was installed.

In 1984, Vietnam unveiled a plan for the disengagement of its army from Kampuchea. In 1988, the Vietnamese Government began withdrawing forces in earnest; the last men left in September 1989.

The Third Indochina War, also refers to the Sino-Vietnamese War, was fought in February–March 1979 between the People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Shortly after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the People's Republic of China, who were the Khmer Rouge's political ally, launched a punitive invasion of Vietnam.

Fighting was short but intense. The Chinese advanced about forty kilometers into Vietnam, occupying the city of Lang Son on 6 March. There, they claimed the gate to Hanoi was open, declared their punitive mission achieved, and withdrew.

See also

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