First Indochina War and Vietnam War

GWonline Learning & Teaching Suggestions
The Indochina Wars (1946–1975)


The two Indochina Wars, covering three decades, started with the First Indochina War (1946–54), an anti-colonial struggle for liberation fought by the Việt Minh, the League for the Independence of Vietnam, against Imperial France. This conflict was followed by the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War (1955–75), fought between South Vietnam and its supporters—primarily the United States of America—and North Vietnam, its supporting guerilla forces in the South, the Việt Cộng (National Liberation Front), Laos and Cambodia. China and the Soviet Union supported North Vietnam. The Vietnam War was deeply embedded in the Global Cold War (1946–90) and is considered by some historians as one of its many proxy wars.

The First Indochina War was an anti-colonial war that started after Imperial Japan was defeated in the Second World War in August 1945. The conflict erupted after attempted negotiations over the fate of Indochina between Indochinese nationalists and French colonialists failed. The first few years of the war involved a low-level rural insurgency against the French. In 1949, the conflict turned into a conventional war between two armies equipped with modern weapons supplied by the United States, China, and the Soviet Union. But the French forces proved unable to defeat the Việt Minh and lost dramatically at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, a climactic confrontation between the French Far East Expeditionary Corps and the Việt Minh from March to May 1954. The following Geneva Conference in May 1954 led to a divided Vietnam with a communist north and an anti-communist south separated at the 17th parallel. Historians estimate that 170,000 to 300,000 Việt Minh were killed or missing in action during this conflict, compared to 75,581 dead, 64,127 wounded, and 40,000 captured soldiers of the French Union. The estimated number of civilian deaths varied between 125,000 and 400,000.

The United States heavily supported South Vietnam as a part of the broader U.S. strategy of containment in the Cold War since 1955. By 1964, there were 23,000 U.S. “advisors” in South Vietnam. Since 1965, the United States became involved with ground troops, though the U.S. Armed Forces leaned heavily on air campaigns, bombing North Vietnam and later Cambodia and Laos extensively. The Việt Cộng led a series of offensives in 1968 during the lunar New Year (Tet) holiday and achieved some success. It was, however, ultimately unsuccessful at achieving a full victory. Only after heavy domestic resistance to the war in Vietnam inside the United States and increasing number of dead American soldiers, did the U.S. government withdraw from Indochina. In 1975, Vietnamese communists overcame resistance and entered Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam) having achieved a unified communist country with the aid of China and the Soviet Union. But the conflict still continued in Cambodia and Laos. The Vietnam War has widely varying casualty estimates as well, with 1 million to 3.8 million Vietnamese dead, including 627,000 to 2 million civilians. Some 275,000–310,000 Cambodians, 20,000–62,000 Laotians, and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, and a further 1,626 remain missing in action. The American bombing campaigns and war crimes found in instances like the My Lai Massacre in March 1968 undermined the claims of the moral high ground by the United States during the Cold War. The defeat of the U.S. Armed Forces, the most powerful in the world, also demonstrated to many anti-colonial groups that great Western powers could be defeated over time.

For basic information see the Wikipedia pages on the First Indochina War (1792–1802) and the Vietnam War (1803–1815).


Selected Suggestions for Learning & Teaching

Introductory Readings

Book Chapters and Journal Articles

General Literature 

Literature on Gender & War

Methodological Introductions

Websites with Timelines and Maps

Websites with Primary Sources

Women's Autobiographies

Documentaries and Movies


All linked titles of introductory readings, autobiographies, websites, documentaries and movies are connected to an entry in GWonline that provides an abstract and additional information.