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Historical Dictionary

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COLD WAR

The Indochina War was one of the hottest and deadliest battlegrounds of the Cold War. The opposition between the East and the West, between the Soviet bloc and the Western bloc, first made itself felt shortly after the Pacific War ended.

American President Harry Truman abandoned his predecessor’s hostility towards the French in Indochina and distanced himself from Franklin Roosevelt’s belief in the Grand Alliance as a basis for building the postwar international system. By early 1947, Truman was determined to “contain” Soviet expansionism. To do this, he needed French support in Europe and he was not going to put it at risk by forcing them to decolonize rapidly in Indochina. Ho Chi Minh’s letters and overtures to the Americans between 1945 and 1947 went unanswered. In contrast to the pressure the Americans put on the Dutch to end the war with non-communist nationalists in Indonesia in 1949, the French were able to prolong their colonial presence in Indochina and to implicate the United States in that process on anticommunist grounds.

The fact that the Soviets balked at supporting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) only reinforced the French hand. Like Truman, Stalin was much more interested in maintaining good relations with the French in the hopes that they would distance themselves from the Americans, especially in light of the electoral success of the French Communist Party in France after the war. Stalin was not going to jeopardize his relations with the French after World War II by pushing the French too hard on Indochina. Like Truman, Stalin refused to answer Ho Chi Minh’s letters. And if Truman suspected Ho Chi Minh of being Moscow’s man in Asia, Stalin feared that Ho Chi Minh was not sufficiently internationalist and might follow Tito’s example by adopting a neutralist line in international affairs at a crucial juncture.

For the DRV, the Chinese communist victory of October 1949 shifted the Cold War to Asia and in so doing saved the DRV from diplomatic defeat. In January 1950, the Chinese persuaded Stalin to recognize the DRV, bringing with him the entire communist bloc. The Americans responded within weeks by recognizing the Associated State of Vietnam, bringing with them most of the Western alliance. However, non-communist Asian states, with the exceptions of Thailand and the Republics of China and of Korea, refused to choose between the two Vietnams, knowing that behind this choice lay the seeds of a major conflagration, as Jawaharlal Nehru put it.

Many ranking Vietnamese communists welcomed the arrival of the Cold War and were ready to assume their place as frontline soldiers in the global battle for Southeast Asia. Truong Chinh, acting general secretary of the Indochinese Communist Party, put it that way at the time. He promised to push revolution in all of Indochina in order to serve as the communist bloc’s bulwark in Southeast Asia against the West. The Cold War also allowed Vietnamese communists to begin transforming Vietnamese society in radical ways. The party began to increase its control over society, purge itself of socially unfit members, and launch land reform before the war against the colonizer had even finished.

The Cold War also complicated the DRV’s quest for power. Nowhere was this clearer than during the Geneva Conference of 1954. Despite the fact that the DRV had used military force to inflict an extraordinary defeat upon the colonizer at Dien Bien Phu, the DRV only obtained half of the Vietnam that Ho Chi Minh had declared independent in September 1945. Following Stalin’s death in April 1953, the Chinese and the Soviets had decided to seek a thaw in relations with the West by ending the Korean and Indochinese wars, even if it meant dividing Vietnam provisionally. They accepted a divided Korea in 1953; they did it again in Vietnam a year later. See also NEUTRALIZATION OF INDOCHINA.