French colonial ambitions led to la sale guerre, France’s dirty war in Indochina, 1946–54. By Craig Tibbitts
The war between the French and the Vietnamese from 1946 to 1954 is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, yet knowledge of this conflict is essential to a full understanding of the Vietnam War that followed. The war’s root causes and the key actors’ ambitions were often clouded by greater concerns and perceptions of “world order”. Many experiences, mistakes and missed opportunities would be uncannily repeated as France bowed out and the United States took over. Indeed, some view the two wars as one long war from 1945 to 1975. The initial stage is generally referred to as the First Indochina War. To the Vietnamese it was simply known as the French War.
Vietnam has battled foreign domination for much of the past 2,000 years. From the first century BC until the early tenth century, this land of great beauty and resource was invaded and annexed by successive Chinese dynasties. Independent for centuries thereafter, Vietnam once more came under foreign domination as France sought overseas colonies. Between 1858 and 1883, all of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was seized as the French “protectorates” of Indochina. As India was to Great Britain, so Indochina became the jewel of France’s Third Republic. Rich in resources and exotic culture, the colony became prosperous as business boomed and the French administration grew. But the French were not kind overlords. Resources were exploited and the people were treated as little more than servants and a source of cheap labour. The administration was harsh too: any dissent or threat of revolt was swiftly crushed – many were imprisoned and many executed over the years of French rule.