series of wars fought in Southeast Asia from 1946 until 1989

The Indochina Wars were a series of conflicts in Southeast Asia from 1946 to 1989.

The major conflicts with global impact were the First Indochina War from 1946 to 1954 in which an independence movement supported by the Soviet Union and China defeated French colonial forces, and the Vietnam War in 1955-1975, in which North Vietnam (supported by the Soviet Union and China) defeated and finally annexed South Vietnam, which was supported by the United States and some of their allies.

There were other smaller parallel and later conflicts, within the region.


The Indochina Wars began as wars for independence from colonial powers, especially France. They became part of the Cold War, which pitted the Western allies of the United States against the Soviet Union and China (often called "Communist China" or "Red China" in the West in those days to distinguish it from the Nationalist government in Taiwan). They were also ideological conflicts between socialism and capitalism. The communist camp was split into a pro-Soviet and a pro-Chinese faction in 1961, culminating in a war between the former "brother" nations in 1969.

Background and First (French) Indochina War (1946–54)Edit

French Indochina in the 1930s

What is today Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia became part of the French Colonial Empire in the late 19th century. At the time, some realms in the region were tributaries of Imperial China, and there were a series of Sino-French conflicts over this issue. As usual in the 19th century, the European power easily won most of the battles, and won all the wars. In 1884 the French sank much of China's newly-built navy at its main base in Mawei. In addition to grabbing Indochina, the French took the Chinese city of Zhanjiang.

Early in World War II, France was invaded and defeated, with most of the country directly occupied by Germany and the rest under a government based at Vichy, essentially a puppet regime. The Vichy government told its officials in Indochina to co-operate with Japan, and most did; Indochina was the main base for the Japanese invasions of Burma, Thailand and Malaya.

When the Japanese were defeated, the French wanted their colonies back but their allies, especially the U.S., opposed that idea. Laos and Cambodia got independent governments, both of which soon had problems with local Communists backed by Moscow and/or Beijing. In Vietnam, things became much more complex.

The Allies agreed that the Chinese (in the immediate postwar period, that meant the Nationalists) would administer the north and the British the south until a Vietnamese government could be set up. Unfortunately both had other problems — a civil war in China and a major Communist insurgency in Malaya — so neither did a good job in Vietnam. The north ended up with the Soviet Union-backed Việt Minh (a Communist-dominated anti-colonial coalition) declaring independence while the south saw a return of the French. By 1947, the two were at war and after 1949, the Chinese Communist government gave the Việt Minh considerable support. The US supported France but President Eisenhower refused to send American troops. After the French lost the bloody Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the 1954 Geneva Accords ended that war.

(American) Vietnam War (1955–75)Edit

The accords again divided Vietnam, with the Việt Minh led by Ho Chi Minh controlling the north and the French the south, and provided for elections in 1956 to create a government for the whole country. The French turned power over to a United States-backed capitalist regime led by Ngo Dinh Diem in the south, and Diem refused to hold the elections resulting in another war. Diem, who was a Roman Catholic, enacted laws that favoured the Roman Catholic minority and discriminated against the Buddhist majority, making him very unpopular among the citizenry of South Vietnam.

This time the United States stepped in to back South Vietnam, which they recognized as an independent country, even though the Geneva Accords included the statement "the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary". The pro-communist National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF), colloquially known as Viet Cong (VC or "Charlie" in US military slang), did not recognize the Diem administration, which they viewed as an American puppet regime. Aided by the North Vietnamese People's Army, they fought for a re-unification of Vietnam under communist leadership and against the U.S. presence. While the U.S.-backed government had strong support in the cities, it for the most part lacked support among the rural peasants, who largely backed the Viet Cong.

First, the United States only provided arms and military advisors to South Vietnam; but after the 1963 "Gulf of Tonkin incident" (one real and one falsely claimed confrontation between North Vietnamese and U.S. ships), President Lyndon B. Johnson sent thousands of American "boots on the ground". In the course of the war, more than 2.7 million U.S. soldiers fought in Vietnam. Despite the American forces' far superior armament, the use of attack helicopters, napalm and "Agent Orange" defoliant, they were not able to rout the Viet Cong who made use of guerilla tactics, benefiting from their acquaintance with the rough terrain and support from parts of the civilian population. Both sides committed horrendous war crimes, most notably the Huế Massacre during the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre in 1968.

Thailand, known as Siam until 1949, was the only Southeast Asian country to remain independent throughout the Colonial Age. This was partly because it had a strong monarchy and a substantial army, but also because it bordered both French and British colonies and neither power wanted the other to take Thailand. During World War II, Thailand had signed a treaty of friendship with Japan, allowing the Japanese to set up military bases in the country, and allowing Japanese troops free passage, and was thus the only part of Southeast Asia that successfully avoided Japanese occupation. Following World War II, Thailand became a U.S. ally and an important forward base for U.S. operations in the Vietnam War. From the 1960s to the 1980s, there was an unsuccessful Communist insurgency in Thailand. Thailand would also grant refuge to numerous Chinese Nationalist soldiers fleeing in the aftermath of their defeat to the Communists in the Chinese Civil War, granting them Thai citizenship in exchange for their help in fighting communist insurgents; these soldiers settled in villages near the Burmese border such as Ban Rak Thai and Mae Salong, where their descendants continue to live to this day. The Philippines also had important bases for the U.S. war effort. While neither an official U.S. ally nor home to a U.S. military base, Singapore also played a significant role by allowing the American military to use the local naval bases for resupplies.

United by their fear of communism, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed as a de facto anti-communist grouping by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore in 1967; Brunei would join the grouping following their independence in 1984.

The Americans pulled their forces from South Vietnam in 1973 amid mounting losses and domestic pressures back home to end the war. The Vietnam War eventually ended with the Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, when a North Vietnamese tank drove into South Vietnam's Presidential Palace.

Laotian Civil WarEdit

Happening concurrently with the Vietnam War was the Laotian Civil War (1959-1975), which pitted the French-aligned royal family, backed by the United States, Thailand and South Vietnam, against the communist Pathet Lao, backed by North Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Following the Fall of Saigon, and the consequent loss of South Vietnamese support for the royalists, the Pathet Lao won the civil war, imprisoning the royal family in re-education camps, where they died by the 1980s. Some royal family managed to escape to France, where they established a government-in-exile, and continue to push for the toppling of the communist government and restoration of the monarchy.

Spillover to Laos and CambodiaEdit

The Vietnam War had significant spillover into Laos and Cambodia, first through the "Ho Chi Minh trail" that was used by North Vietnamese smugglers to supply South Vietnamese communist forces and later when President Nixon decided to bomb those countries that had been officially neutral up to that point.

"Third Indochina War"Edit

Skulls from the Khmer Rouge killing fields

The horror, however, was not over yet. After the communist victory, many of the ethnic Chinese and business-owning upper and middle class Vietnamese in the South were targeted for purges. This sparked off a massive refugee crisis ("boat people"), leading to the establishment of Vietnamese communities in the United States, Australia and Canada. Likewise, the Hmong people of Laos came under general suspicion by the victorious communists of being pro-American collaborators, leading to a mass exodus of that ethnic group to Thailand, the U.S. and other Western countries. The U.S.-backed military regime of Thailand, fearing to become the next "domino" to fall for communism, committed atrocities against citizens suspected of supporting the communists.

In the course of the war and chaos, Cambodia was taken over by the "Khmer Rouge", as they came to be known in the West, under Pol Pot, who toppled the royal family in 1970, and proceeded to perpetrate one of the most horrific genocides in history, killing roughly a quarter of the Cambodian population. Nonetheless, the West supported the regime despite its professed communism (being pro-China and anti-Soviet, they were seen as the lesser evil in the cynical logic of the Cold War). It was the Vietnamese army that intervened in 1978/79, stopped the genocide and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime. In retaliation, China invaded Vietnam in 1979, but withdrew shortly after, though sporadic border skirmishes between China and Vietnam would occur until both countries normalised relations in 1991. The Sino-Vietnamese war led to an intensification of the purges of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese, with virtually the entire ethnic Chinese population in northern Vietnam expelled to China. A significant ethnic Chinese community remains in southern Vietnam, albeit in much smaller numbers than prior to the Fall of Saigon.

Vietnamese forces only withdrew from Cambodia under pressure from ASEAN in 1989, which was followed by a normalisation of Sino-Vietnamese ties in 1991, and the final demarcation of the China-Vietnam land border being completed in 2008. Following the normalisation of Sino-Vietnamese ties, the discriminatory laws against the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam were repealed, and the remaining ethnic Chinese were granted Vietnamese citizenship in 1995. In Cambodia, stability was only restored in 1993 with the restoration of the monarchy, albeit as a constitutional monarchy, and the successful conduct of elections under the oversight of the United Nations.

Depiction and legacyEdit

As the American Civil War was the breakthrough of war photojournalism and telegraphy, World War I of radio and World War II of the newsreel, the Vietnam War was the first major war to be daily reported through television around the world. Photos and television footage from Vietnam strengthened the anti-war movement inside and outside the United States, and are held to have contributed to the American retreat and the end of the war. The Vietnam War was also the last American war to date with active conscription. While most American soldiers on the frontline were volunteers, and a majority of the 2.2 million conscripts were deployed outside the theatre, the draft was a main source of protest against the war. The anti-war sentiment was one of the main issues for the 1960s counterculture. The draft was an important reason to adopt the 26th amendment, lowering voting age from 21 to 18.

The Vietnam War also represents a turning point for Hollywood's depiction of war, and to some extent of Westerners' impression of war. While earlier American war films used to be patriotic, most films about the Vietnam War, such as Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, are cynical and nihilistic. It would not be until the release of Iron Eagle and Top Gun in 1986 that a pro-war movie became a box office hit again.

In the Western world, the war is associated with rock'n'roll music of the 1960s. American troops were entertained by radio, and the music was an integral part of the protests at home.

Following the end of the Cold War, all three countries that made up the former French Indochina were admitted into ASEAN, beginning with Vietnam in 1995, followed by Laos (together with Myanmar) in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999.


Map of Indochina Wars

North VietnamEdit

  • 1 Dien Bien Phu. Provincial town in the mountainous far northwest of the country. The French were defeated here in 1954, documented by a war cemetery and a museum dedicated to the Viet Minh victory.    
  • 2 Haiphong. Vietnam's third largest city, and the main port in the north, shelled by the French Navy in 1947. It has both a military and a naval museum.    
  • 3 Hanoi. Capital of North Vietnam, and since the victory of the Viet Minh and unification of Vietnam, capital of Vietnam. Much of the Vietnam Military History Museum is dedicated to the Indochina Wars.    
  • 1 Vịnh Mốc tunnels. Large underground system close to the erstwhile demarcation line, in which entire village populations found refuge for more than two years to escape aerial bombing during the Vietnam War.    

South VietnamEdit

Tunnel of the Cu Chi network
  • 4 Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City). Capital of South Vietnam, and American base of operations during the Vietnam War. It remains Vietnam's largest city, as well as its main economic and financial centre. There is a large War Remnants Museum, as well as the former presidential palace of South Vietnam.    
  • 2 Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnel complex served as a hiding spot for Viet Cong fighters and as the communists' base of operations for the 1968 Tet offensive.    
  • 5 Khe Sanh. A US Marine base late in the Vietnam War, scene of fierce fighting and now with a good museum.    


  • 6 Phnom Penh. Capital of Cambodia with Independence and Liberation Memorials and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison).    
  • 3 Choeung Ek. The infamous killing fields, where those found to be unfit for the back-to-the-earth style communism perception of the Khmer Rouge (for "crimes" such as wearing eyeglasses or being able to speak a foreign language) were massacred en masse.    


  • 7 Beihai (北海). The city is home to thousands of ethnic Chinese who fled Vietnam as refugees in the late 1970s. A large proportion of them reside in the fishing town of Qiaogang (侨港) in the city's south.    
  • 4 Malipo Martyrs Cemetery (麻栗坡烈士陵园), Malipo County (77 km southeast of the city of Wenshan in Yunnan Province). The largest cemetery in China dedicated to soldiers killed in the Sino-Vietnamese War. It features a museum about the Battle of Laoshan (known in Vietnam as the Battle of Vị Xuyên).


Patuxai monument, Vientiane
  • 8 Vientiane. Heritage and memories of the Lao Civil War are present at the Lao National Museum, Kaysone Phomvihane Museum (dedicated to the leader of the communist rebels), Lao People's Army History Museum. The monumental Patuxai (Victory Gate) was built during the war, memorialising Laos' independence from France, but later re-dedicated to the communists' victory of 1975.    
  • 5 Vieng Xai caves. Hidden base of the communist Pathet Lao rebels, that became the country's ruling party after their victory.    
  • 6 Plain of Jars. Famous for its ancient monuments, this was the most heavily bombed area during the Indochina Wars (and perhaps in world's history). Some locals used the remnants as part of their daily life, bomb fragments became spoons, bombshells were incorporated as building material and décor for houses.    


The US had two important bases in the Philippines at this time, though both have since been shut down. Many US veterans have since retired in the country, though most say the base areas "ain't what they used to be".

  • Subic. This was a US Navy base. Today it is a port with a free trade zone; products manufactured here for export get a break on Philippine taxes.
  • Angeles. There was a USAF base just outside this city; today it is Clark International Airport.

Butterfly knives were a popular souvenir for American servicemen. They are also called Balisong knives, named after a barangay of Taal which is the main center of their manufacture. They are still available; see Taal#Balisong_knives.


Singapore also served as a R&R destination for American troops headed to Vietnam, though the main entertainment area, Bugis, has been completely sanitized into a wholesome shopping experience for the entire family, and little trace remains of its former role as a red light district. The port at Sembawang also continues to regularly host visits by warships from the American, British, Australian and New Zealand navies, and these countries maintain small logistics bases on the facility.


  • 9 Bangkok. Capital of the United States' most important ally during the Indochina Wars. Bangkok was designated a destination for rest and recreation (R&R), bringing a boom to the city's nightlife and a strong American influence in pop culture during the 1960s. Numerous former GIs returned to Thailand, settling permanently after their retirement. The era is documented by a few remaining former GI hotels, the Patpong (redlight district) Museum, National Memorial and Royal Thai Air Force Museum.    
  • 10 Pattaya. Merely a fishing village before the war, Pattaya owes its growth and reputation as a (sex) tourism destination to the R&R leaves of American soldiers. The city's U-Tapao International Airport was also previously a base housing U.S. bombers carrying out strategic bombing missions in the wars.    

United StatesEdit

See alsoEdit

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