INDO-CHINA began to attract the attention of most Westerners only last year, after the nationalist revolution there against French rule had already been oriented toward the Soviet bloc. The area--two vast river delta plains linked by a mountainous spine with a total population of about 28,000,000--is strategically more important than Korea, for it is the bridge over which Communist China hopes to penetrate unstable and restless South Asia.
The struggle in Viet-Nam is between the French-sponsored Bao Dai Government, supported by an army of 150,000 troops, part French and part native, and the Ho Chi Minh Government, representing a Communist-led nationalist movement, known as Viet-Minh (League for the Independence of Viet-Nam), supported by Moscow and Peiping. When the victorious Chinese Communist forces reached the Indo-Chinese border in December 1949, the French garrison was ordered to seal off the frontier. The French hoped the Viet-Nam army would remain a guerrilla force that could be contained in the mountains. But by as early as March 1950, when the writer visited the frontier, French officers there acknowledged that large-scale infiltration over the long border could not be blocked. Several months later, French, American and Chinese Nationalist intelligence estimated that up to 30,000 Viet-Nam troops were being trained and equipped within Communist China.
Having failed to prevent Viet-Minh traffic with China, the French posts astride the main communications routes across the frontier lost their usefulness and, in fact, became dangerous liabilities. The striking power of the Viet-Minh forces was steadily augmented by Chinese aid. They intensified their raids from bases on both sides of the border and soon made the position of the posts precarious. After a delay that was to prove fatal, the French decided to evacuate the most exposed post, Caobang, 110 miles northeast of Hanoï. The results of the attempt were disastrous. Attacked by an overwhelming force of well trained and equipped Viet-Minh troops, seven French battalions were shattered in a series of ambushes along the withdrawal route.
The French defeat was the severest in the four-year
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