Vietnam Project Archives

Historical background

From 1945 to 1954, a war raged in Vietnam that was at once an anticolonial resistance, a civil war, and an emerging Cold War proxy. The so-called First Indochina War pitted the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), proclaimed independent in September 1945 by the communist-led Việt Minh and their Chinese and Soviet allies, against the Associated State of Vietnam (ASV), created in 1949 with the support of the French, Vietnam’s former colonial rulers, and their American backers, with both the DRV and the ASV claiming sovereignty over all of Vietnam’s territory. By the French defeat in May 1954, the Việt Minh and their allies had widespread political legitimacy and controlled the majority of the territory of Vietnam. But French and American pressure led to an agreement by which the country would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel with the DRV in control in the north and the ASV in control in the south. Nationwide elections were set for 1956. However, claiming that the ASV had not agreed to the elections, Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm announced in 1955 that the elections would not be held, and he carried out a referendum to remove the ASV head of state—the king, Bảo Đại—and to proclaim a republic. The elections, widely criticized as corrupt, resulted in the creation of a new state—the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) with Diệm as its president.

Diệm faced widespread opposition from the beginning. The Việt Minh remained in control of large parts of rural areas, with the religious sects Cao Đài and Hỏa Hào in control of others. In Saigon, Diệm faced a challenge from the Bình Xuyên, an independent force with control of Saigon’s police force, as well as from the city’s drug and prostitution networks. Diệm moved quickly against his opponents, but his ability to maintain a stable noncommunist regime in the south was by no means assured. The United States, which by 1950 had funded the majority of the French war against the Việt Minh, perceived a vital Cold War interest in keeping Diệm in power, and the Eisenhower administration began to increase its support for the RVN. From 1955 until 1962, this support came largely through a U.S. Department of State-funded program of technical assistance run by faculty and staff from Michigan State University, known as the Michigan State University Vietnam Advisory Group.

Historical content provided by Dr. Charles P. Keith, Department of History, Michigan State University.

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