The Battle of Dien Bien Phu — (Part 2) Asymmetric war in Indochina

By the beginning of the Second World War 1 the Second French Colonial Empire, or Overseas France (la France d'outre-mer in French),2 sprawled over 10 percent of the world’s land area, second only to the British Empire in extent and influence. On May 1, 1940, France issued a semi-postal stamp picturing its empire, the existence of which would soon be in doubt.

A French semi-postal stamp issued May 1, 1940 shows the extent of France’s colonial empire, Overseas France (la France d'outre-mer). Semi-postal stamps are issued to raise money for a particular purpose (usually a charitable cause) and sold at a premium over their postal value. In the case of this stamp, 1 franc paid for postage and the additional 25 centimes was for war charities.

Although France was a force to be reckoned with — its military was far more powerful than that of Germany — it collapsed quickly beneath a blitzkrieg attack like those which which earlier had overwhelmed Poland, Denmark, Scandinavia, and the Low Countries — Belgium, Luxembourg, and Netherlands — and sent British forces scuttling back to temporary safety in the Great Britain. On June 14, the German army occupied Paris, jeopardizing the continued existence of the colonial empire and France itself. In reality, however, the French empire had been in jeopardy for a very long time, and the colony most in jeopardy was Indochina.

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Setting the stage for colonial liberation

The Second World War set the stage for the liberation of Indochina and most French colonies throughout the world, but freedom wouldn’t come until a decade after the war for Indochina and even later for most other French colonies and “protectorates”.

No colonial power can long survive without help from the very people it has made subservient; harnessing and transforming Vietnam’s economy required local support. The only Vietnamese to benefit from French colonialism were those who became its functionaries — local officials, bureaucrats called nguoi phan quoc — “traitor” — by other Vietnamese. They often held positions of authority in local government, economic institutions, or businesses; some received scholarships to study in France, and a few even received French citizenship. French propagandists held these collaborators up as an example of how the Mission Civilisatrice was benefitting the Vietnamese people.

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A “comical” postcard published in Paris in the 1930s. When the Second World War began, on September 1, 1939[^1] the French Empire was intact

Because colonial powers normally bring colonies within their spheres of influence through military force, they necessarily require that same military force to control them. Indochina was no exception. Throughout the colony’s 67-year existence, there was never a time when Frenchmen in France were safe from attack by insurgents, especially Vietnamese insurgents. They were protected — but never fully protected — by French army officers whose commands consisted largely of Foreign Legionaires (who could not be French) and volunteers and conscripts from its colonies in Africa. There were only 11,000 French troops there in 1900.

A hand-coloured Indochina postcard postmarked in Hanoi in 1904 pictures French troops in Indochina on a patrol or operation. Few enlisted soldiers in the French army were French; they were members of the Foreign Legion or volunteers and conscripts from French colonies in Africa. See an image of the back of the postcard.
In 1945, France issued this stamp to illustrate its colonial possessions throughout the world. The situation in Vietnam, shown in the highlighted oval, was uncertain, however: the Communist insurgent leader, Ho Chi Minh, and his Vietminh army were in control of much of the country, including Saigon, and France didn’t even have a military presence there.

The French Far East Expeditionary Corps (French: Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient, CEFEO) was a colonial expeditionary force of the French Union Army that was initially formed in French Indochina during 1945 during the Pacific War. The CEFEO later fought and lost in the First Indochina War against the Viet Minh rebels.

The federation lasted until 1954. In the four protectorates, the French left the local rulers in power in the four protectorates, but in fact were puppets acting only as figureheads. Initially, French colonial rule met with little organized resistance, but anti-colonial sentiment soon began to emerge as a growing reflection of national Vietnamese identity.

The arrival of a British Indian brigade and promises of help from the United States would slow, not prevent, a communist takeover; nine years would pass

French colonialism in Vietnam lasted more than six decades. By the late 1880s France controlled the “protectorates” of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, collectively called Indochine Francais (French Indochina in English, usually just Indochina). Indochina soon became one of France’s most lucrative colonial possessions, part of an empire that spanned northern and western Africa, as well as islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Bac-Ninh August 6, 1891 Dear Cousine (f) I am replying to your letter and it pleased me a lot to know that you were in good health. I will tell you my dear Cousine that I have received a transfer of the sum of 10 Francs which tickled me, especially to know that you were thinking of me, even if I was far away, because from Tonkin to France it is 4,600 (km) that separates us. Dear Cousine, you tell me not to take any risks with the Tonkinois, but you can be sure about it because if you knew how they are, I would say as ugly as a devil and I will send you proofs. I am sending 2, to show you and you will be the judge of their figure, and I won't have to draw pictures of the pirates..(?? note...I am not sure I read the last few words here to translate properly) Dear Cousine, you ask me for stamps for your collection and as soon as I find some I will promptly send them.
Nothing much else to say right now. I will say that I am feeling in good health and hope that you are too. I am for life your cousin who loves you and always will think about you. Henri Carrier(?) Please extend my salutations to Mr and Mrs Guyot as well as to your employees.

For 2 days now the attacks by air, artillery, paratroops and infantry have been raging in an Annamite Section of Hanoi and and these “lemon faces”, still supported by the Japanese, are holding fast. It seems that these bastards, after fortifying and digging tunnels, mainly isolated snipers, push through the tunnels and shoot you in the face, even behind the front lines. We lose several men every day, especially among the paratroopers, who are fighting in the streets, climbing into windows using their crampons and looking for the snipers. These stories are much worse than any great battle. When you least expect it a bullet hits you in the face and I don’t need to tell you how that ends up.

Profit and production

Taxation and monopolies

A society transformed


  1. Historical dates are sometimes “messy”. Germany’s attack on Poland, on September 1, 1939, is marked by many historians as the beginning of the Second World War. However, the Second Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935–1936, which resulted in the occupation of Ethiopia by Italy, and the Second Sino-Japanese War between Japan and China, starting in 1937, can be understood as “opening shots” in the Second World War. 

  2. The First Colonial French Empire, lasting from the 16th to the 18th Centuries, was built largely by Royal Trading Companies such as the French West India Company (Compagnie française des Indes occidentales). At its greatest extent, it included much of North America, some of the richest Caribbean Islands, and a portion of eastern India, and scattered colonies in South America, and the Indian Ocean. As a result of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War in 1783, most the empire was ceded to England.

    The Second Colonial Empire began with the conquest of Algiers in 1830 and ended following the losses of the First Indochina War in 1955 (also known as the Indochina War in France, and as the Anti-French Resistance War in contemporary Vietnam); the Algerian War in 1962 (also known as the Algerian War of Independence or the Algerian Revolution), and peaceful decolonization elsewhere after 1960.