Indochina: First Indochina War

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


During World War II, Japanese occupation—whose policies, it must be noted in this study of the impacts of violence on civilian groups, resulted in a devastating famine in 1945[i]— effectively ended French Colonial administration of the area known as Indochina, which included present-day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Various Vietnamese actors contributed to establishing an independent Vietnam, unifying the country and seizing control of the capitol Hanoi. On September 2, 1945, the Vietminh (established in 1941, the Indochinese Communist Party), headed by the charismatic leader, Ho Chi Minh, declared Viet Nam’s independence, provocatively borrowing the language of the U.S. declaration of independence in an effort to appeal to Western powers.[ii] The Emperor Bao Dai abdicated, transferring national legitimacy to the new government.[iii]

Following the conclusion of World War II, however, France sought to re-establish its colonial administration. British forces accepted the Japanese surrender south of the 16th parallel and Chinese forces did so north of the line. The post-war transition was managed to allow the French to re-establish control and use force to dislodge the new nationalist government.[iv] Vietminh forces responded with an assault on Cite Herault on July 24, 1945, and killed “scores” of French and Eurasian civilians.[v] From this point on, violent struggles between and amongst Vietnamese groups, whether VietMinh or nationalists, and outside forces, the French, Chinese and later Americans, were set into motion. Over the course of several months armed confrontations broke out across the south, dating 1946 as the beginning of the conflict. 

While talks continued, the key players shifted towards hardline stances. De Gaulle’s France took an uncompromising posture and the VietMinh did likewise (various narratives apportion blame differently). An agreement between Ho and French negotiators of March 6, 1946 articulated an idea of shared sovereignty, but was vague and impractical.[vi] Both sides prepared for military action.

Atrocities, 1945 – 1955

Fighting in 1946 developed as a series of skirmishes, escalating in November with a full-scale French assault on the city of Haiphong, where an undetermined number of civilians were killed.[vii] Hanoi, the capital, witnessed fighting in mid-December. In 1947, the French battled to retake control of major cities, forcing Ho Chi Minh’s forces into the jungle.[viii] The Vietminh then resorted to guerilla tactics, avoiding direct confrontations with the better-armed French military. As they sought to control rural areas, the Vietminh tried to rely on indoctrination and education programs, but where support faltered, they resorted to coercion and assassination. [ix] The French sought to establish a pro-French Vietnamese administration, but offered their allies uncertain political concessions in return and only late in the conflict raised a Vietnamese Army.

In the favor of the Vietminh were the strong nationalist and anti-colonialist sentiments of the population. Further, as the Vietminh hid amongst the population, French use of torture, napalm and attacks that often killed civilians, fueled insurgent recruitment.[x] The conflict ground to an unwinnable status: neither side able to defeat the other. A turning point came in 1948 when Mao Zedong’s forces gained ground in neighboring China. By 1949, The US decided to back France and the Vietminh received support from China. Both sides were now better armed than previously and the scale of battles increased. With new Vietminh victories, the French began arming a national army, and undertook ‘cleansing operations’ to root out opponents in rural areas. The Vietminh used terrorist tactics to strike within French-held territory.[xi]

In April 1952, Vietminh invaded Laos, adding to fears in the US that if Vietnam fell to the communists that the wider region would soon thereafter fall as well. The US aggressively urged its French allies to adhere to the war effort rather than seek a negotiated solution. 1953 brought continued stalemate, despite ongoing fighting.

The French attempted to progress further in the north, designating Dien Bien Phu as the center of operations to be defended at all costs.[xii] The Vietminh launched an attack against the French stronghold on March 13, 1954, among the few set battles of the conflict. The Vietminh, although suffering considerable casualties, achieved an inconceivable (at least to the French) defeat of the French forces. After cutting off the French base from re-supply, the Vietminh continued to bombard the fortress until May 7, when the French surrendered. Dien Bien Phu was a humiliating and debilitating loss that cost the French 1,500 men, leaving another 3,000 to 4,000 wounded and the remaining 10,000 taken prisoner.[xiii] Of these, only 3,900 were handed back to French officials in March 1955, POWs were treated with callous unconcern for their lives.[xiv] Despite the amount of support being given to the French from the United States[xv] the First Indochina War ended when Vietnamese forces defeated the French.

With this decisive victory, new impetus was given to negotiations in Geneva. In attendance, were representatives of the Bao Dai government, the VietMinh leadership, Soviet and Chinese officials, and the French, British and the United States.

Subsequent Atrocities, 1955-1959

Unfortunately for the Vietnamese, the end of the First Indochina War did not signal the end of civilian deaths. The Geneva Accords, which established a cease-fire between France and the Viet Minh, also set the conditions of peace. Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh were to govern the North, while the American backed Ngo Dinh Diem was appointed Prime Minister of the South.[xvi] Under this agreement, it was intended that Vietnam would hold free, national elections on reunification in July of 1956.[xvii] Although these elections did not occur due to suspicions and questions over international oversight, governments in both regions sought to consolidate power in the aftermath of the peace accords.

The violence in the North largely occurred as a result of the land reform policies implemented by the communists. Land reform had been a key component of Vietnamese Communists plans, as their prospects rose in the war, particularly with increased aid from Chinese communists and Soviet support, they began to slowly implement land policies.[xviii] Training cadres were sent to villages with the goal of indoctrinating peasants, who would further expand the reach of indoctrination plans. The population of a village would be classified and landowners identified. Based on their conduct during mobilization campaigns, landowners deemed “traitorous, reactionary, and cruel” put on trial and some of whom were executed.[xix] However, it is not presently possible to accurately enumerate how many were executed. The ranges that currently exist tend to reflect political preferences of either the government of North Vietnam or its opponents, particularly the United States.[xx]

In the South, Diem alienated the majority of his citizens due to his strict anti-Communist and anti-French position. When appointed Prime Minister, Diem faced large cohorts that had fought for the French and remained sympathetic to their former colonial power. Diem’s highly repressive regime was composed of family members and corrupt officials that terrorized South Vietnam in an effort to eradicate pro-French and pro-Communist supporters.

In the instances of early rural violence in South Vietnam, data is once again difficult to find and verify, however, it is clear that wholesale policies of persecution were implemented as early as 1955.[xxi] At this time Diem’s regime in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), began confiscating huge swaths of formerly French land and replaced local officials with those loyal to the government. This quest for political consolidation resulted in the indiscriminate arrest, intimidation, and in some instances execution or “disappearance” of supposed communist members/sympathizers.[xxii] Due to the intentionally ambiguous nature of these “disappearances,” there do not appear to be reliable figures regarding civilian deaths during this time.

A legal apparatus of repression was formally created in 1956 with Ordinance 47, which was then strengthened with Law 10/59 in May 1959.[xxiii] Under these laws working with a communist or worse yet, being a communist, was a capital offense, while showing any pro-French sympathies were also grounds for arrest and potential execution. Furthermore, there was no ability to appeal as the cases were tried within three days before a military tribunal.[xxiv] As a result, Diem’s government imprisoned and executed tens of thousands of people in an effort to consolidate power. However, these estimates combine the number of arrested with those executed and there is no consensus on the numbers of people executed. While dramatic public displays of authority, including a guillotine that accompanied special mobile military tribunals, continued into 1959, the scale and intensity of the South Vietnamese government’s anti-Communist repression seems to have peaked by 1958.[xxv]


We adopt a rough minimum estimate of 175,000 civilians killed.

Data is exceptionally poor for this conflict even in terms of statistics on the number of soldiers killed or the sum total people killed—let alone any assessment that disaggregates civilian deaths.[xxvi] According to the University of Montreal’s research project The Indochina War 1945-1956: An Interdisciplinary Tool, the French government proposed a rough figure of 500,000 Vietnamese (presumptively includes both civilian and combatant) killed during the conflict. Lacina and Gledtich put forward a different number, but do not cite a source nor explain it: 365,000 killed in battle.[xxvii] Michael Clodfelter estimates that 125,000 civilians were killed, and that on the Vietminh side that an estimated 175,000 soldiers were killed and 300,000 were wounded during the war.[xxviii] Again, the numbers are not explained.

French historian Yves Gras, writes[xxix]: “Exact numbers are not known, but it is reasonable to estimate 500,000 deaths, of which 100,000 to 150,000 were assassinated by the Viet-minh.” He posits 59,745 killed or disappeared from the French expeditionary Corps, of whom 2,005 were French officers, 26,923 were Vietnamese soldiers, 12,997 were non-commissioned officers and soldiers, and 17,810 were legionnaires from Africa and North Africa. He further estimated 58,877 were killed or disappeared from Vietnamese armed forces. This would leave a rough estimate of 280,00 – 230,000 civilians killed.

Stein Tonnesson writes that the war cost 40,000 lives on the French side, 200,000 on the Vietminh side, including 125,000 civilians. [xxx]

For the post-War period:

The post-war violence likely did exceed 5,000 civilians annually in both north and south Vietnam, but did not reach the 50,000 point under a new perpetrator which would qualify as a new episode in this project, until the Vietnam War began in 1965.


Today, conservative estimates range between 3,000 and 15,000 civilians killed from 1955 to 1957 when the Communist party became increasingly concerned with strengthening political and military support in the south.[xxxi] However, the full range of estimates is significantly wider. The North Vietnamese government produced a number of 800 – 2,500 people killed, whereas U.S. President Nixon cited 1 million, which should be viewed skeptically given their many efforts to undermine the Communist government.[xxxii] Scholars have relied on sources that reflect the biases of governments, but have tried to probe their limits: Bernard Fall suggests close to 50,000 people died; Gerard Tongas argues that as many as 100,000 died and Gareth Porter places the number as 1,500 executions.[xxxiii]


Scholar Ed Miller addresses the question of competing estimate of fatalities in the post-war South:

“A 1960 RVN report put the number of communists arrested since 1954 at 
48,200, while a 1961 publication suggested that the combined total of arrests and deaths at the hands of security forces was above 60,000; see Georges Chaffard, Indochine: Dix ans d’independence (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1964), 168–169; and Seven Years of the Ngo Dinh Diem Administration, 1954–1961 (Saigon: Information Printing Office, 1961), 182–185. Such figures seem roughly consistent with information collected by USOM police advisors, who found in 1963 that suspected communists made up about 70 percent of the nearly thirty thousand people held in South Vietnamese prisons; see USOM Public Safety Division, “The Rehabilitation System of Vietnam: A Report,” 1 Oct 1963 (Microfilming Corp. of America, 1976), 15–16.”[xxxiv]

Others have attempted to quantify the numbers, suggesting a range of 12,000-15,000 executed between 1955-1957[xxxv] These numbers, like most for this conflict, are disputed. Without the quantitative data, what does become clear is that Diem’s efforts to consolidate power fueled the popular discontent and alienation that led to his overthrow.


When evaluating dynamics surrounding civilian deaths during the post-conflict period it is important to note that both the RVN and Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) sought to consolidate power and used force to do so. In both cases as well, state-sponsored executions of political opponents were official state policy. Ho, realizing that his land reform was fueling resentment, released some prisoners from jail and dissolved the Peoples Agricultural Reform tribunals in 1956, when his government also issued an apology for “excesses.” For the North, the peak periods for land reform-related violence occurred between 1955-1958.[xxxvi] After this time the DRV’s goals were largely achieved making more killing unnecessary and unsustainable.

In the South, violence against civilians began to temporarily subside by 1958-9, as the Diem government cracked down on Communist sympathizers. Until 1960, Diem appeared to be winning the battle against communism in the Southern countryside.[xxxvii] Although Diem’s policies undoubtedly fractured the communist party in the south, it by no means destroyed it. In fact, his oppressive policies terrorized the countryside and exacerbated the very problem they were intended to solve.[xxxviii]

For the North, the growing anti-Diem hostility served as an irresistible opportunity. Initially, the party in the North sought to pursue political efforts in the South in preparation for the elections that were supposed to be held in 1956. However, as Diem’s totalitarian rule increased in brutality, and fearful of a “spontaneous peasant movement” the DRV announced the creation of the National Liberation Army (NLF) in 1960 and began an increasingly militarized effort against the RVN. By the end of 1960 the NLF had a main force of 5,500 and roughly 30,000 guerillas and became increasingly successful at cultivating popular support.[xxxix] 1960 therefore marks an important turning point for both governments. Increased militarization of peasants against Diem increased support for the DRV, and pushed Diem’s regime into a downward spiral until it was overthrown.

In both the north and south, atrocities appear to have declined in 1959. Though the years between 1960 and 1963 were marked by increased skirmishes in the countryside, and a series of coups in Saigon, it appears that the number of civilian deaths was below 5,000 per year. This is the only period of time between 1945 and 1975 where that is the case.


We code this case  based on the targeting of civilians during the armed conflict, since that is the primary cause of civilian deaths. Hence, it is coded as ending through a defeat of perpetrators by domestic forces and the withdrawal of international forces. We also note that there were multiple victim groups and that the initiator, the Vietnamese forces, were not the primary perpetrator. Violence during the post-war period occurred under two new regimes, and diminishing through a process of normalization as the regimes consolidated power, but remains under our threshold.

We further note that some may view the French military defeat as partial, contributing to a process through which it decided to make a strategic shift. We address this view in a secondary coding.

A subsequent case begins in 1965 with the Vietnam War.

Works Cited

Banens, Mak. 2000. Vietnam: A Reconstitution of its 20th Century Population History (Tokyo: Asian Historical Statistics (AHSTAT) COE Project, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, January.

Barbieri, Magali. 2007. “De l’utilité des statistiques démographiques de l’Indochine française (1862-1954).”  Annales de démographie historique 1: 113, 85-126.

Clodfelter, Michael. 1995. Vietnam in Military Statistics: A History of the Indochina Wars 1772 – 1991. North Carolina: MacFarland and Co.

Demeny, Paul. 1967. “Final Report: A Population Survey in Vietnam.” Report by Simulatics Submitted to the Advanced Research Project Agency. Cambridge, MA.

Dommen, Arthure J. 2001. The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Gibson, James William. 1986. The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press.

Gras, Yves. 1979. Histoire de la guerre d’Indochine. France: Librairie Plan.

Harrison, James P. 1989. The Endless War: Vietnam’s Struggle for Independence. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kolko, Gabriel. 1994. Anatomy of a War. New York: The New Press.

Lacina, Bethany and Nils Petter Gleditsch. 2005. “Monitoring Trends in Global Combat: A New Dataset of Battle Deaths.” European Journal of Population 21: 2, 145–166,

Logevall, Frederik. 2012. Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. New York: Random House.

Miller, Edward. 2013. Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the Untied States and the Fate of South Vietnam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tønnesson, Stein. 2009. Vietnam 1946: How the War Began. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Vo, Alex-Thai D. 2015. “Nguyên Thi Năm and the Land Reform in North Vietnam, 1953.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 10:1, 1 – 62.

Young, Marilyn. 1991. The Vietnam Wars 1940-1990. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

The Indochina War 1945-1956: An Interdisciplinary Tool. “Casualties, Indochina War.” Université du Québec à Montréal. Available at: Accessed January 14, 2017.


[i] Logevall 2012, 81. He estimates that between 300,00 – 1 million people died in the famine; a range that testifies to the poor quality of the data.

[ii] Young 1991, 10-14.

[iii] Dommen 2001, 112.

[iv] Logevall 2012, 113.

[v] Logevall 2012, 115.

[vi] Dommen 2001, 148-151.

[vii] Dommen 2001, 157.

[viii] Logevall 2012,167.

[ix] Dommen 2001; Gibson 1986; Young, 1991.

[x] Logevall 2012, 177 – 176, and 270-271.

[xi] Logevall 2012, 255, 275, 294.

[xii] Logevall 2012, 392.

[xiii] Gibson 1986, 64.

[xiv] Logevall 2012, 541.

[xv] Young 1991, 22; Gibson 1986, 59-68

[xvi] Kolko 1994, 82-83.

[xvii] Young 1991, 41.

[xviii] Vo 2015, 17.

[xix] Vo 2015, 27.

[xx] Young 1991, 50.

[xxi] Kolko 1994, 95.

[xxii] Kolko 1994, 95.

[xxiii] Young 1991, 62.

[xxiv] Young 1991, 62.

[xxv] Miller 2013, 198.

[xxvi] As Shawn McHale explained (email to Bridget Conley-Zilkic May 28, 2015), French colonial demographic data was inconsistent. See also Barbieri 2007, which looks at the manner in which colonial era population statistics were compiled;  and Banens 2000, which models and reconstitutes population, projecting back from 1989 census. Also of use is Demeny 1967, which explores the weakness of pre-1960s demographic data.

[xxvii] Lacina and Gleditsch 2005,154.

[xxviii] Clodfelter 1995, 33.

[xxix] Gras, Yves 1979; Dommen 2001, 252.

[xxx] Tønnesson 2009, 1.

[xxxi] Young 1991, 50; and Kolko 1994, 103-05. Clodfleter 1995, 34 – 35.

[xxxii] Vo 2015, 6.

[xxxiii] Vo 2015, 4 – 8.

[xxxiv] Miller 2013, 378, footnote 39.

[xxxv] Kolko 1994, 89; Young 1991, 61-63.

[xxxvi] Young 1991, 50.

[xxxvii] Harrison 1989, 217.

[xxxviii] Kolko 1994, 92-6.

[xxxix] Kolko 1994, 105.

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