What really caused France’s humiliating loss to the Viet Minh in the French Indochina war? To understand we must focus on logistics. Charles Shrader’s A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945–1954 reveals the true staggering failures of the French were simply the result of poor logistics. On the surface it may not make sense. A western power falling to an agrarian band of guerrilla fighters?
No author has precisely examined Viet Minh and French military logistics in great detail. This is an impressive view.
Shrader has taught at West Point, the Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and at the Army War College.
He is a former executive director of the Society for Military History. His metrics and well written history document those French military pillars that collapsed triggering their retreat not only from Indochina but from the world stage.
Many respected books point to Dien Bien Phu as the surprising French loss and subsequent defeat in the war. Shrader documents how this battle was the culmination in a series of shocking logistical failures that plagued their efforts against the Viet Minh.
The shift benefitting the Viet Minh developed after the Korean War. China began delivering overwhelming logistical resources to the Viet Minh. While French and CIA intelligence captured communications confirming numerous deliveries of infrastructure, France did not adjust to this threat.
In retrospect the logistical failure to support the French effort should have been sending strong signals to American military advisors that success against this communist enemy would be a long and difficult task.
Shrader has addressed today in the age of analytics a unique view of a war fought seventy years ago by revealing the military infrastructure throughout Indochina created at the onset of the conflict was in fact an uneven stage favoring the Viet Minh.
On the surface, following World War II the obvious advantage in this war was with France. The Viet Minh were literally a band of guerrilla fighters confronting a colonial empire that fought and suffered through the greatest conflict on the world’s stage from 1917-1945.
The seemingly largest advantage for France was airpower. The Viet Minh had no air force. The French had access to planes with napalm that horrified the Viet Minh. Again on the surface how could France be defeated with an ememy lacking any air force?
Yet France could not overcome the country’s physical environment as their logistical efforts remained in a European battlefield mentality.
For having modern armaments the French never swayed the outcome of most battles, most notably Dien Bien Phu which was Navarre’s plan to draw their Viet Minh enemy into a final confrontation.
Paris was forever trapped with colonial-era demands upon their French Union forces. It was a war that post World War II France was not willing to fight:
In August 1949, the French National Assembly made continued support for the Indochina war contingent on a pledge that no draftees would be sent to Indochina, thus further limiting the already small pool of manpower available for assignment to the theater.
As I have noted in previous blog posts regarding Dien Bien Phu book, Paris would not send French boys to bleed across Indochina. Their colonial armies would take that role. And they sadly filled it well. During the war French backed communist parties did their best to slow all legislation to bolster their military.
This loss of a true military commitment and logistical support doomed their war plans and ultimately their seat on the global stage as a world power.
Even the most mobile French Union forces were heavily laden with weapons, ammunition, and a plethora of other equipment, and the French discovered, much to their sorrow, that their mechanized mobility was no match for the foot mobility of the Viet Minh. In their after-action reports, French commanders freely acknowledged that their units, organized for warfare in Europe, proved to be “ill-suited to the task of carrying on a struggle against rebel forces in an Asiatic theater of operations.
As late as the end of 1953, the commandant en chef still found it necessary to issue a bulletin that admonished: “Commanders at all echelons still suffer from a ‘motor complex.’ They are used to moving with vehicles which restrict them to roads and certain trails. They forget that our enemy is completely independent of motor transport and can rapidly assemble and move large forces in difficult areas where it is impossible for us to follow and give battle unless we give up our motorized transport
Not only were the motorized GMs tied to the limited road networks of Indochina, they were also notorious consumers of logistical support, particularly petroleum products, ammunition, and maintenance. The artillery and the headquarters elements of the typical GM were 100 percent motorized, and the infantry battalions were usually about one-third motorized. In part, the high consumption of fuel and repair parts associated with the GMs stemmed from the fact that the older trucks, scout cars, half-tracks, and light tanks utilized by them, although adequate for route security and escort duties, were not specially adapted to the climate and terrain of Indochina.
The role of the emerging 4th Republic was forever tied to the failed 3rd republic and the divided Vichy government that came stumbling out of World War II. While not directly addressed by Schrader, France was simply unable to fight this war for colonial restoration. Paris understood this yet ordered their French Union troops into war and sacrificed a generation of young officers from St. Cyr:
Throughout the First Indochina War, the leaders of the French Union forces struggled to maintain the necessary troop levels and to organize effective forces to deal with the Viet Minh threat. The debilitation of French resources in World War II, commitments elsewhere, and political resistance at home meant that sufficient resources of men, money, and materiel were not forthcoming, even after 1950, when military and economic aid from the United States became more available.
The lack of well-trained staff officers created many weaknesses in the functioning of the Viet Minh General Staff, the weakest functional area being that of logistics. However, by 1953 many Viet Minh officers had been trained in Chinese Communist military schools, and the influence of Chinese advisors became evident with the reorganization of the General Staff to bring it more into line with Chinese organizational concepts.7 In January 1951, the head of the Chinese Military Advisory Group (CMAG)
By 1953, the battlefield in Indochina looked much more like the European battlefield for which much of the French Army was organized and equipped, but, nevertheless, Indochina remained a unique theater of war. The harsh climate, difficult terrain, and poor transportation networks were coupled with a distant overseas supply base controlled by a constantly changing, unenthusiastic, and generally parsimonious government.
A major contributing factor to the problems that afflicted the French supply services in Indochina was the unfavorable political and economic situation in France. Even by 1954, France’s political morale as well as its physical capital had not yet recovered from the shock of the Second World War. The instability occasioned by some fourteen governments in the ten years from 1945 to 1954 did little to ensure adequate systematic planning and execution of the war in Indochina. Ideological divisions within the French government as well as doubts over whether France’s colonial empire ought to be retained at all hampered the adequate support of its forces in Indochina.
The impact of China upon the Viet Mihn effort was not directly confronted between France and the United States.
As the war progressed, so too did the organization of the Viet Minh combat units, which grew larger, better equipped, and capable of sustained combat operations against the French Union forces. Although the Viet Minh developed division-size units, including a heavy division, they did not permit the addition of artillery and engineer forces to hamper their operations by restricting their mobility. In the end, the Viet Minh were far more successful than the French in adapting their combat organizations to the physical and operational environment. They thus secured a significant advantage over their opponent, one that led ultimately to victory.
What price did France pay in logistics to maintain their colonial armies fighting for Paris? Plenty:
At the beginning of the war French Union forces ate fresh meat from local livestock, but the situation in Indochina soon required a shift to the use of imported boneless frozen meat. This in turn required the establishment of a system of cold storage facilities and the use of refrigerated trucks and containers for distribution of frozen meat to the field. The resulting system of cold storage depots, completed in 1951, consisted of large-capacity cold storage facilities for long-term storage at the major ports and depots and a number of smaller, short-term cold storage facilities located at the less important depots or near the troops. The cold storage facilities available in 1952 amounted to 92,660 cubic feet, the bulk of which was located in Saigon and Haiphong. Another 6,178 cubic feet of space was under construction, and plans for 1953 called for the construction of an additional 102,370 cubic feet of cold storage.
American Thomas J. H. Trapnell, a former chief of MAAG-Indochina, noted in May 1954:
The French Expeditionary Corps is composed of Foreign Legion, Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Senegalese and a small percentage of metropolitan French volunteers. These units are diluted nearly 59 percent by native Indochinese. The Associated States Forces are composed of varieties of native Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians. The whole effect is that of a heterogeneous force among whom even basic communication is difficult. Troops require a variety of clothes sizes and diets. They have different religious customs, folk-ways and mores. They vary in their capacity for different tasks and terrain. Logistically, a great problem exists in the support of such troops.
And the logistical demands to arm the French Union troops were just as demanding upon France’s strained infrastructure:
Until 1950, the French Union forces in Indochina suffered chronic shortages of equipment and were plagued by the age and diverse types of most of the weapons, vehicles, and other equipment available. In 1947, for example, only 210 vehicles were received from France out of 3,682 requested; of 9,148 motors requested only 250 were received; and out of 76,639 tires requested only 10,843 arrived, of which only 6,517 were from France and half of them were used. The weapons and vehicles used by the French Union forces in Indochina were drawn from the stocks of at least five countries (France, the United States, Britain, Germany, and Japan) and represented a large number of makes and models, many of which were obsolete and for which spare parts were no longer available.
The First Indochina War was fought with arms and equipment designed for a war in Europe rather than in the tropical climate and terrain of southeast Asia. The effect of high temperatures and high humidity on packaging, textiles, and radios and other electronic equipment significantly reduced the performance and life span of some equipment and increased the demand for those items.
Overall, the French authorities, both at home and in Indochina, demonstrated an inability (or perhaps an unwillingness) to come to grips with the logistical problems of supporting a modern army engaged in heavy fighting against a determined and increasingly sophisticated enemy halfway around the world. For a while, peacetime regulations and a blasé contempt for the ability of the Viet Minh inhibited the search for viable solutions to the logistical problems inherent in the Indochina situation. However, French military leaders at lower levels in Indochina could not blame their misfortunes entirely on the parsimonious government at home and the lack of wisdom of the higher commanders. Almost every observer of the First Indochina War reported the lack of commitment, lackadaisical attitude, and sloppy performance of many of the officers and soldiers at the lowest levels. Of course, dedication and even heroism were to be found frequently, but on the whole the technical skill and massive amounts of modern war equipment available to the French Union forces could not compensate for the lack of enthusiasm and discipline, qualities that were so prominently displayed by their Viet Minh opponents. “Once it was recognized that the Viet Minh were indeed capable of achieving their objective of driving out the French colonial regime, it was almost too late to devise effective means of countering them.
Schrader at times shows the French effort as almost a comedy of errors:
French air capabilities were further limited by inadequate maintenance stemming from poor procedures, the lack of qualified personnel, and a general lack of interest in improving the situation.
As might be expected, the weather limited the air transport of men and supplies as well as the tactical employment of airborne forces in Indochina, but the principal constraints were the limited number of suitable transport aircraft and crews and the perpetual shortage of parachutes and related equipment.
Between November 20, 1953, and May 7, 1954, 20,860 tons of cargo were delivered to Dien Bien Phu, some 6,584 tons of which were airlanded before the loss of the airfields. The other 14,276 tons were airdropped or parachuted over the course of the entire 169 days of the operation, and amounted to about 100 kilograms per minute, or about 124 tons per day, and required almost 80,000 parachutes, plus airdrop rigging.
The number and quality of the transport aircraft available grew steadily throughout the First Indochina War but were never sufficient to meet the ever-increasing air transport and airdrop needs of the French Union ground forces. In November 1947, for example, the three available transport groups could muster only seventeen C-47s and thirty-five ancient Amiot AAC 1 Toucans (a French-built version of the German Junkers Ju 52), of which twenty-seven were inoperative.
Losses, particularly over Dien Bien Phu in the first months of 1954, were heavy, and the Viet Minh conducted several daring raids on French air transport bases in Tonkin that resulted in heavy losses.
The perpetual shortage of transport aircraft required the French authorities to rely heavily on the temporary augmentation provided by the civil air transport firms operating in Indochina. By the end of the war, civilian aircraft and pilots were used even for the most dangerous missions, such as the resupply of commando units and the support of Dien Bien Phu. The civilian pilots, already thoroughly familiar with flying conditions in Indochina, became very experienced at military formation flying and air delivery techniques and were a valuable supplement to the limited military air transport. However, as late as November 1953, the French authorities still had not instituted effective procedures for the control of the available airlift, military or civilian, and there were no definitive procedures to regulate the flow of cargo and establish priorities.
A few British Bristol 170 Freighters belonging to commercial airlines in Indochina were also employed and proved particularly useful for the air transport of heavy equipment. The most notable achievement of the Bristol Freighters was the delivery of ten M24 Chaffee light tanks to Dien Bien Phu in what was called Operation RONDELLE II. The French command in Indochina established the requirement for a cargo plane capable of landing or taking off with a two-ton load of personnel or equipment on short (less than 150 yards) unimproved landing strips, and the French aeronautical designer Louis Breguet actually designed such an airplane, but the French Air Force was not interested.
Influence of Korean war logistics that failed included helicopters. On the surface it appears the American deployment of helicopters in Korea for mobile surgical hospitals was a success. Across Indochina the results were less than stellar:
The helicopter, which proved so characteristic an element of the Second Indochina War, was still something of a novelty during the First Indochina War. Although helicopters held the promise of overcoming many of the obstacles to the movement of men and supplies in Indochina, they were employed by the French in very small numbers and almost entirely for medical evacuation purposes. The first two Hiller H-23 ambulance helicopters were delivered to Saigon in April 1950. The delivery of additional medical evacuation helicopters was delayed due to the priority given to forces in Korea, but by 1952 ten were available. On December 31, 1953, the French forces in Indochina had eighteen helicopters on hand (six Hiller H-23As; five Hiller H-23Bs; three Westland-Sikorsky WS-51s; and four Sikorsky S-55s), which had already accumulated a total of 4,821 flying hours, evacuated 4,728 casualties, and rescued nineteen pilots and three observers who had been shot down.
However, the French were already in the process of shipping the Westland-Sikorsky WS-51 helicopters back to France due to insurmountable maintenance support problems. The army organized a helicopter training command in early 1954, built a heliport in Saigon, and made plans to acquire one hundred helicopters by the end of the year. The plan was to activate GT 65 with a twenty-five-machine light helicopter squadron, a twenty-five-machine medium helicopter squadron, and a maintenance squadron. However, only twenty-eight helicopters had arrived by the end of 1954, and American military aid personnel, who were supplying the helicopters, advocated “a more modest approach to the helicopter force build up for the French Land Forces. The small number of available machines and pilots as well as the lack of a well-developed understanding of helicopter operations limited the use of the helicopter in Indochina to medical evacuation and rescue work. As a result, they played an insignificant role in the logistics of the First Indochina War.
A basic lack of infrastructure stretching across the French Union would paralyze their battle plans:
Throughout much of the First Indochina War, parachutes and airdrop equipment were in short supply. Basically, every man and every one hundred kilograms of cargo dropped required one parachute. Given the heavy use of paradrops to support isolated garrisons and combat forces in the field, the perpetual shortage of parachutes demanded a maximum effort on the part of airborne forces to recover parachutes after an operation. After every jump, one-fourth to one-third of the paratroopers spent up to half a day just recovering the parachutes. This imposed a significant burden on the parachute units and supporting logistical personnel. The shortage of parachutes also increased the importance of free-drop techniques. As early as 1950, about 40 percent of the air-delivered tonnage was free-dropped, and the use of free-drop techniques made possible a gain of up to 12 percent in the useful tonnage delivered by air. Increased French production and American aid deliveries of parachutes and airdrop equipment provided some relief by the end of the war.
Not only were the parachutes and other airdrop equipment used in Indochina expensive and generally in short supply, but the great variety of such materiel greatly complicated the work of the French aerial resupply units. French industry was unable to supply parachute releases suitable for the 118-mile-per-hour speed of the C-47, so about 80 percent of the parachutes used in Indochina were supplied by the United States under the MDAP. Although many of the technical “problems associated with the design and manufacture of parachutes, particularly the heavy-drop parachutes required for equipment and supplies, were resolved during the First Indochina War, some problems were never satisfactorily overcome. For example, the increasing strength of Viet Minh antiaircraft defenses later in the war made delayed-opening drops from higher altitudes a necessity, but a truly effective delayed-opening device capable of ensuring reasonable accuracy of the drop and reliable opening of the parachute was not perfected before the cease-fire. The lack of reliable delay fuzes resulted in as much as 50 percent of some drops failing to hit the designated drop zone. Parachute loads with malfunctioning delay fuzes often were destroyed on impact, and occasionally the results were even more tragic, as when the defective parachutes and their loads fell indiscriminately, destroying friendly bunkers and killing friendly personnel. The ground lighting of drop zones and temporary landing fields was yet another problem not resolved satisfactorily before the end of the war.
The French were highly successful in overcoming many of the obstacles to effective and efficient aerial support of their forces in Indochina. Effective staff and operating organizations were developed to plan and execute air transport, and techniques were developed to minimize the impact of climate, terrain, and an aggressive enemy. However, persistent shortages of trained personnel and specialized equipment, particularly aircraft and parachutes, limited what could be accomplished. Excited by the advantages inherent in air transport unopposed by enemy counterair operations, the French came to rely too heavily on what was in reality a very thin and fragile rope, and in the final analysis air transport and aerial resupply, which many French military leaders saw as the key to victory in Indochina, turned out to be a major factor in their ultimate defeat.
The Viet Minh spent the first half of the war destroying roads, bridges, railways, and other transportation facilities, but with the advent of Chinese Communist aid in 1950 they found it necessary to initiate a program for the repair and improvement of existing routes and the construction of new routes in the areas under their control as well as those leading to the areas in which they intended to conduct operations.
The Viet Minh skillfully utilized all of the modes of transport at their disposal, including porters, animal transport, trucks, coastal and inland water transport, and railroads. Although there is no firm evidence to suggest that the Viet Minh had access to air transport, some French officials claimed that small amounts of cargo were flown in to the Viet Minh from Communist China. In the early days of the war the Viet Minh armed forces requisitioned civilian laborers locally as required to meet their needs. But beginning in November 1949, the Viet Minh leadership implemented a program of obligatory military service and tried to mobilize the entire civilian population to support what was rapidly becoming a conventional modern war.
The porter system was placed on a more regular basis in 1951 when the Viet Minh government decreed that all able-bodied peasants, male and female, must contribute three months of labor per year to the Viet Minh logistical effort.
Operationally, the supporting Viet Minh porters were organized in “convoys” protected by armed escorts.86 The escorts provided security for the porters and sometimes created diversions to distract French Union forces while the porters slipped by an observation post. The porters marched mainly at night over routes offering good cover and concealment. The established routes were cleared, smoothed out, and maintained. They usually were divided by relay posts called trams.
The night’s march usually ended at a tram, which often was equipped with crude facilities for cooking and shelter and at which the porter convoy hid and rested during daylight hours.
That in the eight major battles between the battle for RC-4 in 1950 and Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Viet Minh employed some 1,541,381 “transport porters” who worked a total of 47.8 million man days in all.
As one French authority noted: “The arrival of Chinese automotive equipment revolutionized the enemy’s military transportation system. It resulted in the country’s roads being put into good condition and removed the terrible strain off the country insofar as the levying of coolies was concerned for forming up the troop combat trains.
The Viet Minh truck fleet began with fifty–sixty trucks abandoned by the French during their evacuation of Cao Bang and Lang Son in 1950.103 In 1951, the Viet Minh still had less than one hundred trucks, mostly taken from the French, but by 1953 the number had risen to nearly one thousand. Most of the motor vehicles used by the Viet Minh after 1951 were supplied by Communist China, and they included large numbers of American trucks captured in Korea and subsequently refurbished by the Chinese.
The heavy reliance of Viet Minh logisticians on porters for the movement of supplies was considered by many Western observers to be a weakness, but in reality the use of porters was perfectly adapted to the terrain of Indochina and capitalized on the large but untrained manpower pool available to the Viet Minh. Porters could go where trucks could not, and they proved generally invulnerable to French air and ground interdiction. More significantly, although difficult to manage, after a few initial failures the porter system proved more than adequate to meet Viet Minh needs. The adaptability of the Viet Minh logistical system was further demonstrated by the effective use of motor transport once it became available in sufficient quantities.
While the Viet Minh porters slipped through the jungles and mountains with relative ease to support their combat forces in the areas of operations, the French Union forces struggled to support their wide-spread garrisons and operational units by land, water, and air. The terrain, climate, and poor transportation infrastructure restricted movements and often meant that isolated units went days without resupply. The wear and tear on both equipment and personnel were heavy, and in the end the results proved unsatisfactory for the French, who, unlike the Viet Minh, failed to adapt adequately to the existing physical and operational environment.
In 1945, the French Union forces seemed to have an enormous advantage over the Viet Minh with respect to the acquisition of war materiel. France was an industrial nation with direct access to the production of the other major Western industrial powers. Moreover, France controlled the principal resources of Indochina itself as well as the facilities necessary to process them for use. But to some degree the French advantage was illusory because neither the French nor the Viet Minh would have been able to pursue the war in Indochina without outside assistance. Although possessed of enormous potential resources, including those of its colonies in Africa and Asia, France had suffered heavily in World War II and the French economy was in shambles. Hard pressed to restore the economy of metropolitan France, the French were clearly unable to sustain a major war effort in Indochina without help. That aid became available after 1950 in the form of massive American financial and material support, including aircraft, watercraft, arms, ammunition, and a vast array of other war supplies.
In the immediate post–World War II period, the French authorities in Indochina attempted to purchase some of the enormous amounts of military equipment declared surplus or simply abandoned by the U.S. and British forces in Asia. Purchasing missions were established in Manila, Singapore, New Delhi, and Calcutta, and a significant amount of war surplus was purchased before anticolonialist opposition cut off such sources of supply.4 The Americans were generally reluctant to approve such purchases, but the British were more accommodating.
The delays in deliveries from metropolitan France and North Africa to Indochina were due not only to the long distances involved and the delays in budgeting and procurement. Active opposition to the war in Indochina was promoted by the French Communist Party and by other left-wing groups that were able to slow down movements of cargo to the ports and the loading of that cargo aboard ships bound for Indochina.
From mid-1950 to the end of the war in July 1954, the United States was the principal source of military equipment and supplies for the French Union forces. In May 1954, one former chief of MAAG-Indochina estimated that “indigenous production is practically negligible,” and that only about 30 percent of the hard items needed by the French Union forces was provided by French procurement agencies, the remainder being provided through U.S. military aid….Although entirely dependent on American support to continue the war, the French were rude and ungrateful recipients of American largesse….U.S. leaders were uncomfortable with the idea of supporting a failed colonial regime and with providing millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and supplies to a client who refused to consider seriously any American suggestion. In fact, the goals of the two countries in Indochina were very different. France sought to retain control over her colonies, while the United States was instead focused on containing the spread of Communism.
The Pentagon Papers show the relationship with Indochina began with President Roosevelt and contuined through Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. Ike was the single most influencial President regarding Indochina and the Chinese threat. Eisenhower was in office for over a year before Dien Bien Phu and saw the need for a strong defense of the French. Yet the US and French governments were strained due to the support for a free Indochina following World War II:
In his several works on Indochina, Bernard B. Fall, reflecting a French perspective, portrayed the American opposition to the French as strong and premeditated. More recently, Ronald H. Spector has taken a contrary view, noting that “the view that the United States deliberately limited and delayed its help to the French during the Japanese takeover is incorrect,” and that, although opposed to the restoration of French colonial rule in Indochina, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did permit limited support to the French. In any event, the French perception that the United States deliberately abandoned them to the Japanese and then worked with the Viet Minh to prevent the restoration of French control in Indochina did much to sour relationships between France and the United States in the postwar period.
From the beginning of the Second World War until 1950, American policy toward the French in Indochina might indeed be described as thoroughly antipathetic. President Roosevelt himself led the anti-Vichy, even anti-French, opposition and limited assistance to the French regime in Indochina before and during World War II. Roosevelt’s distaste for French colonial rule in Indochina seems to have been largely personal, but it was translated into policies that inhibited French resistance to the Japanese. In a memorandum to Secretary of State Cordell Hull on October 13, 1944, President Roosevelt stated, “We should do nothing in regard to resistance groups or in any other way in relation to Indochina,” and less than a month later, on November 3, he instructed American field commanders in Asia to refuse “American approval . . . to any French military mission being accredited to the South-East Asia Command.
French efforts to obtain aircraft, weapons, and other equipment from the United States or elsewhere before the Japanese moved into French Indochina on September 22, 1940, were also stymied. For example, the efforts of the French commander in Indochina, General Georges Catroux, to strengthen his position against Japanese demands by obtaining the 120 modern fighter aircraft and the antiaircraft artillery already bought and paid for by the French government were brought to naught when the U.S. government prohibited shipment of the equipment to Indochina.
Once the French had taken up arms against the Japanese, President Roosevelt refused to sanction low-level French participation in U.S. intelligence and commando operations in Indochina, and the few joint Franco-American operations that did take place were mostly unsuccessful since the Indochinese were wary of the French members of the teams and refused to help. According to Bernard Fall, President Roosevelt directed his military commanders in China to deny support to the scattered and starving French forces even when they were overrun by the Japanese in March 1945 and were fighting for their very existence against the common enemy.
The British were somewhat more sympathetic and provided the French forces recently returned to Indochina with some eight hundred U.S. Lend-Lease jeeps and trucks as well as other materiel.32 President Truman approved the transfer only because repatriation of the vehicles to the United States would have been impractical, but in general the U.S. government continued to oppose such aid. For example, until 1950 American-built propellers installed on British aircraft had to be removed when such aircraft were sent to the French in Indochina.
The brief flirtation of the United States with the Viet Minh in 1945 and 1946 also created a very negative impression on the French that has even yet to be dispelled. The desire to defeat the Japanese and American anticolonialist sentiment combined to produce a degree of American cooperation with Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist movement. Although the degree of cooperation and the amount of arms and equipment provided to the Viet Minh by the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) were small, the public approbation of the Viet Minh greatly offended the French, who had hoped for more from their old ally….The French complained bitterly that the Viet Minh had been able to seize control of large parts of Indochina in 1945 only because they had been supplied by the OSS with arms and ammunition, but Ronald Spector notes that the effect was mainly psychological and that “arms received during World War II accounted for only about 12 percent of the estimated 36,000 small arms in Viet Minh hands in March 1946 and only about 5 percent of the weapons available to them at the start of the war against the French in December 1946. On the other hand, the humiliating treatment of French prisoners of war and the public encouragement of the Viet Minh by American officers in the immediate postwar period provided more than sufficient grounds for French suspicion and distrust of American motives….At best, American attitudes toward the French in Indochina were ambivalent until the late 1940s. Even after the United States abandoned Uncle Ho, little effort was made to aid the French in retaining their colonial empire in Asia. However, as the Cold War with the Soviet Union began to take shape, the U.S. State Department and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) recognized that Indochina was an area of vital strategic interest to the United States, and France came to be viewed as a lynchpin of the NATO alliance facing the Soviets in Europe. The situation began to change dramatically in 1949 with the successful Soviet testing of an atomic bomb and, more importantly, the victory of Mao Tse-tung’s People’s Liberation Army over the Chinese Nationalist troops of Chiang Kai-shek at the end of the year. The outbreak of the war in Korea in June 1950 and the subsequent intervention of the Chinese Communists in that conflict in October 1950 completed the transformation. Thereafter, the United States acted forcefully to assist the French Union forces against the Viet Minh as part of an overall effort to stop the Communist tide in Asia. As Lieutenant General Henri Navarre, one of the last French commandants en chef in Indochina, later wrote: “The Americans finally realized the danger of Communism in Southeast Asia, which led them to modify their point of view on the war in Indochina. In place of an impious ‘colonial war,’ they promised a holy war against Communism.
On February 4, 1950, the French government announced formal ratification of the Elysée Agreements granting independence within the French Union to the so-called Associated States, and on the following day the United States recognized the governments of Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. Although reluctant to call upon the United States for assistance, following an interarmy conference at Paris in February 1950, the French drew up initial lists of equipment needed in Indochina, and on March 16, 1950, those lists, which included arms and equipment worth some $94 million, were presented by the French government to the U.S. embassy in Paris as a formal request for American aid.
Meanwhile, on March 1, 1950, the JCS recommended the allocation of $15 million in Section 303 funds to Indochina, and President Harry Truman “approved that recommendation on March 10.40 The same day, President Truman asked the JCS to study the situation in Indochina and forward its recommendations. The JCS responded in a memorandum for the Secretary of Defense dated April 10, 1950, and recommended “early implementation of military aid programs for Indochina, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Burma.
Given the recent debacle in China, where enormous amounts of U.S. military aid had fallen into Communist hands, the JCS urged that the following conditions be applied to aid to Indochina:
a. That United States military aid not be granted unconditionally; rather, that it be carefully controlled and that the aid program be integrated with political and economic programs; and
b. That requests for military equipment be screened first by an officer designated by the Department of Defense and on duty in the recipient state. These requests should be subject to his determination as to the feasibility and satisfactory coordination of specific military operations. It should be understood that military aid will only be considered in connection with such coordinated operational plans as are approved by the representative of the Department of Defense on duty in the recipient country. Further, in conformity with current procedures, the final approval of all programs for military materiel will be subject to the concurrence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The JCS also recommended the immediate formation of “a small United States military aid group in Indochina” to fulfill the requirements set forth in paragraph 9b of the memorandum.43 The bottom line was that the JCS recommended “the provision of military aid to Indochina at the earliest practicable date under a program to implement the President’s action approving the allocation of 15 million dollars [of MDAP aid] for Indochina and that corresponding increments of political and economic aid be programmed on an interim basis without prejudice to the pattern of the policy for additional military, political and economic aid that may be developed later.
Following the Communist Chinese capture of Hainan Island at the beginning of May 1950, President Truman approved the allocation of $10 million to pay for the shipment of urgently needed military supplies to Indochina.
President Truman acknowledged his decision publicly two days after North Korean forces attacked the Republic of Korea, when he issued a press release on June 27, 1950, condemning the Communist action and outlining the measures that the United States would take to aid South Korea and prevent further Communist aggression in Asia. As part of those actions, President Truman “directed acceleration in the furnishing of military assistance to the forces of France and the Associated States in Indo China and the dispatch of a military mission to provide close working relations with those forces.
Three days later, on June 30, the same day U.S. ground forces were committed to combat in Korea, the first shipments of American aid arrived in Saigon aboard eight old C-47 transports loaded with spare parts, and by July 30, equipment sufficient for twelve infantry battalions was en route by ship to Indochina.
Schrader also reveals the role of the US military’s aid to France. The American material began to increase to Indochina in 1950 when China joined the war in Korea. For a year infrastructure shipments were slowed as America could not generate enough production facilities and tools. At the end of 1951 just 444 of the 968 promised jeeps were in service by the French. Yet the French at the same time used the slow arriving American aid as a reson for their continued failures in Indochina.
Yet, despite the slowness of American deliveries, the French were unable to keep up with the distribution of the material within Indochina, although many observers credited the influx of American equipment with contributing to the French victories in the first half of 1951.
Following the successful visit of General de Lattre to the United States in September–October 1951, U.S. military aid deliveries were speeded up—as U.S. Army Chief of Staff General J. Lawton Collins had personally assured de Lattre they would be. From November 1951, deliveries were quite steady, delivery time was reduced, and the number of items in critical short supply in Indochina declined.58 Between October 1951 and February 1952, a total of 130,000 tons of equipment, including 53 million rounds of ammunition, 8,000 vehicles, 650 combat vehicles, 200 aircraft, 3,500 radios, and 14,000 automatic weapons were received by the French from American sources.59 Overall, deliveries in 1951 from the United States and from U.S. stocks in Japan totaled some 95,000 tons and then rose to 110,000 tons in 1952, and by February 1953 some 137,200 long tons—the equivalent of 224 shiploads—of American equipment had reached Indochina.60 That materiel included 900 tracked combat vehicles, 15,000 wheeled vehicles, nearly 2,500 artillery pieces, 24,000 automatic weapons, 75,000 small arms, and almost 9,000 radios, as well as 160 F6F and F8F fighters, 41 B-26 light bombers, 28 much-needed C-47 transports, “155 aircraft engines, and 93,000 bombs for the French air forces in Indochina.
In his May 3, 1953, debriefing, the former commander of MAAG-Indochina, Major General Thomas J. H. Trapnell, noted:
The U.S. has greatly contributed to the success of the French in holding Indochina from the beginning. In January 1951, material was rushed from the docks of Haiphong to the battlefield of Vinh Yen, then being fought under the personal direction of Marshall De Lattre himself. Since then, delivery of aid has kept pace with changing French needs, often on a crash basis, down to the present heroic defense of Dien Bien Phu. U.S. aid has consisted of budgetary support, furnishing of end items, military hardware, and of technical training teams. The magnitude and range of this contribution is shown by the following very few examples. All of these figures are as of 31 March this year  a. 785 million dollars has been allocated for the budgetary support of the French Expeditionary Force and the Vietnamese Army. This will assist in meeting budgetary requirements for pay, food, and allowances for these troops
b. Under MDA Programs, a total of more than 784 millions of dollars has been programmed for the years 1950–54. Of this, more than 440 million dollars’ worth of military end items have been received.
c. To date, 31 March 1954, 441 ships have delivered a total of 478 thousands of long tons of MDA equipment to Indochina.
With the inactivation of the CEFEO on April 28, 1956, the U.S. military assistance program was terminated, and all the remaining MAP-provided equipment was supposed to revert to the U.S. government, but the French kept the best of it and left the rest for the armed forces of the Republic of Viet Nam.
Between 1950 and 1954, the United States provided the French Union forces in Indochina with an astounding amount of arms and equipment, in all more than 1.5 million measurement tons, not including aircraft and naval vessels that arrived under their own power. As the authors of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff history of the period stated: “When the United States entered the picture in 1950 French Union forces were indifferently armed with largely obsolescent World War II equipment.
Included in the total of equipment and supplies provided by the United States to the French in Indochina between 1950 and 1954 were 1,880 tanks and combat vehicles, 30,887 motor vehicles, 361,522 small arms and machine guns, 5,045 artillery pieces, over 500 million rounds of small arms ammunition, and over 10 million artillery shell.
Article 1719 of the Geneva Accords, which ended the First Indochina War on July 20, 1954, severely restricted the supply of arms and equipment to the former belligerents by outside parties. The shipment to Indochina of new types of arms, ammunition, and equipment was forbidden, and worn-out or defective materiel could be replaced only on a one-for-one basis and then only through designated control points.
The US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) Indochina as the point team for the flow of US finanical aid to France was never well received by Paris:
The French gave the American plan a chilly reception; they wanted American arms with no strings attached. Their views indicated a desire that the United States simply fill French orders for equipment without attempting to influence types or quantities of material or how it was employed. General Marcel Carpentier, French Commander-in-Chief in Indochina, said that he “would welcome” a United States military mission but wished it to be as small as possible and part of the attaché group at the American legation in Saigon. Although he “would welcome” representatives of the Associated States in the receiving and distributing apparatus, only the French High Command “would be equipped [to] receive and stock American materiel for Indochina.
Despite French misgivings, the first elements of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group–Indochina (MAAG-Indochina) arrived in Saigon on August 3, 1950. The MAAG was formally organized on September 17, and assembled in the Saigon-Cholon area on November 20. Thus, the main function of MAAG-Indochina was “to make sure that equipment supplied by the United States reached its prescribed destination and that it was properly maintained by French Union forces.” The allocation of aid to the Associated States had to be made through the French, and the French prohibited the MAAG from controlling the dispensing of supplies once they were in Indochina. At least one French commander in chief in Indochina, General Henri Navarre, considered “any function of MAAG in Saigon beyond bookkeeping to be an intrusion upon internal French affairs,”
Although the French had the final say on the use of the materiel provided, MAAG-Indochina was charged with providing advice and with conducting inspections in the field to observe how the American-supplied weapons and other equipment were being maintained and utilized. However, MAAG-Indochina proved unable to perform even the minimum functions assigned to it inasmuch as the French, never eager for U.S. advice, limited the MAAG to “order-taking in the commercial sense. Accordingly, Brigadier General Brink was directed to not assume any training or advisory responsibilities toward the armies of the Associated States, and “from the outset, the French rigorously limited end-use inspections of MAAG to a small number of carefully prescribed visits.
Despite the restrictions imposed by the French on American observation, examination, and advice-giving, the members of the MAAG did their best to aid the ungrateful and obstinate French.
Unfortunately, few of the officers and men assigned to MAAG-Indochina spoke French, and the French military authorities in Indochina actively obstructed their efforts.78 French pique at their dependence on American aid was manifested in a number of petty ways. For example, MAAG-Indochina personnel received very little assistance in either their living arrangements or in the conduct of their duties, which after all did involve the coordination of U.S. aid to the French in Indochina.79 Of greater consequence, however, was that: “MAAG officers were not given the necessary freedom to develop intelligence information on the course of the war; information supplied by the French was limited, and often unreliable or deliberately misleading.
What MAAG-Indochina personnel did see of French logistical operations was not pleasing, and the officers of the MAAG frequently complained of the waste and sloppy supply accounting of the French. U.S. Air Force and Navy MAAG officers, who had somewhat freer access to French air and naval bases, also complained of the lack of safety precautions and the poor quality of French maintenance efforts.
Shrader reveals the arrogance of the French military leadership approaching their enemy with a European battlefield mentality this error revealed an incredible oversight to the execution of their war efforts beginning in 1946 and culminating at the defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva Accords were waiting the in the wings with a new role for China that also altered how the US approached South Vietnam, Bao Dai and ultimately Ngo Dinh Diem.
It cannot be overstated that France was never fully committed to winning against the Vietnam Minh, The French, with American financial and military support could not turn the tide of the war after the Korean armistice which led to China flooding the north with material, training and armaments.
It would be schadenfreude to exclaim the French got what they deserved. But the US efforts to stop the spread of communism in Asia only delayed our own national nightmare. The US repeated some of the same logistically errors fighting the Viet Cong and the NVA throughout the 60s and 70s.
Shrader offers us a larger picture of the Indochina war by examining the infrastructure of both opponents purely from a numbers view. While western history was initially surprised by the French defeat, as become accepting of the ‘surprise” defeat of the French by digesting his book we understand the uneven battlefields, armies and supply lines that tipped the scale into the favor tho the Viet Minh.
To ensure that students can easily come to grips with the lessons in this war I would easily recommend starting wth their book. This will provide an eye opening account of how both opponents pursued a logistical advantage from 1946 to 1954. This book will also reveals early reporting by the CIA of the failed French efforts, their hubris and the will of the national movement across Indochina.
Published in 2015 Shrader benefits from time as resources have been recently declassified, providing a much deeper insight to the effort by France.
Due to the nature of the closed approach to their history Vietnam has not released counts of their men, material and losses. In order to truly measure the impact of their tremendous sacrifice this book can serve as a base to which future authors may explore war logistics from multiple angles.
Shrader does echo notable authors who addressed Paris, which gave no support to their Far East Expeditionary Corps campaign. Wavering from the devastating tolls of two world wars France experienced the rise and fall of multiple governments. With less than total support by their government the French Union was destined to fail.