President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the likelihood that Ho Chi Minh would win a national election in Vietnam in 1955

Source: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 1953-1956 ( Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, Inc, 1963), pp. 337-38

By the time I entered the Presidency the French nation had become weary of the war, and their government-at least in official circles, if not publicly-was promising eventual self-rule and even independence to Indochina. Undoubtedly the conflict was coming to be recognized as having global significance, but what the French political leaders said semi-publicly about fighting against Communism and what the Army and the population in Vietnam believed about the character of the war were quite different.

The forces of the French Union fighting in Vietnam comprised approximately 200,000 French and 200,000 natives from the Associated States of Indochina. Patriotic Frenchmen fighting there naturally expected to see their sacrifices accrue to the good of France. But Frenchmen, initially told that they were fighting in Indochina for France and the preservation of her empire, might react adversely to an announcement and a series of actions that would inevitably lead to a breakaway of the Associated States from France.

This was a time in history when France, along with other old colonial powers, did not necessarily want to continue maintaining-expensively in more than a few cases-its colonies. Initially their troops had been sent to preserve the status quo, but the cause, not the meaning of the war, was changing.

This put the French on the horns of a dilemma. Delay or equivocation in implementing complete independence could only serve to bolster the Communist claim that this was in reality a war to preserve colonialism. To American ears the first French pronouncements, soon made to the world, were a distinct step forward, but it was almost impossible to make the average Vietnamese peasant realize that the French, under whose rule his people had lived for some eighty years, were really fighting in the cause of freedom, while the Vietminh, people of their own ethnic origins, were fighting on the side of slavery. It was generally conceded that had an election been held, Ho Chi Minh would have been elected Premier. Unhappily, the situation was exacerbated by the almost total lack of leadership displayed by the Vietnamese Chief of State, Bao Dai, who, while nominally the head of that nation, chose to spend the bulk of his time in the spas of Europe rather than in his own land leading his armies against those of Communism.

Toward the end of 1953, the effect of the termination of hostilities in Korea began to be felt in Indochina. Overt Red Chinese aggression was not anticipated--that government had been adequately warned by the United States--but the Chinese Communists now were able to spare greatly increased quantities of materiel in the form of guns and ammunition (largely supplied by the Soviets) for use on the Indochinese battle front. More advisers were being sent in and the Chinese were making available to the Vietminh logistical experience they had gained in the Korean War.

To combat this, General Navarre, who had succeeded to the French military command in Indochina, proposed in 1953 an over-all scheme under which, hopefully, he would end the war successfully. Under the Navarre Plan the French were to send nine more battalions of troops and supporting units to Indochina, increasing the size of the French Expeditionary Forces in that region to 250,000. In addition, the French would train enough native troops to raise the strength of the Vietnamese Army to 300,000 during the following year. Thus, the planned strength of the French Union should be 550,000 troops by the end of 1954. Since the estimated strength of the Vietminh was not more than 400,000, it appeared that if the French Union could then lure them into open battle, they might be able to knock out the regular Vietminh forces by the end of the 1955 fighting season, reducing the fighting in Indochina to mop-up operations which could be conducted for the most part by native troops. In order to make this plan possible, the United States agreed on September 30, 1953, to grant France, in addition to the aid already earmarked, another $385 million to be available by the end of that calendar year; these funds were to supply and equip additional French and native forces during the build-up phase.

In this light the military situation was not alarming, but it was, at times, confusing. In October the French Union forces launched a fairly successful offensive against the Communist forces in central Vietnam, and on November 7 the French command reported a victorious conclusion of the battle. On November 20, French Union forces moved west from the Red River Delta in Tonkin and occupied an area ten miles from the border of Laos. This place was later to become a household word throughout the Free World: Dien Bien Phu.

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