In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Battle of Route Coloniale 4, 1950: France’s first devastating defeat in the Indochina War

  • Introduction
  • Overviews of Thirty Years of Fighting in Vietnam (1946–1975)
  • Archives and Bibliographies of the French Indochina War
  • The French Indochina War (1946–1954)
  • The Prelude before the French Disaster (1946–1949)
  • Legacies and Memories, a Defeat Announcing Ðiện Biên Phủ

Military History Battle of Route Coloniale 4, 1950: France’s first devastating defeat in the Indochina War
Jean-Jacques Arzalier
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0215


As soon as the Japanese surrender was formally signed (September 2, 1945), thus ending World War II, President Hồ Chí Minh (b. 1890–d. 1969), leader of the “Ligue for the Independence of Vietnam” (Việt-Minh) declared Vietnam’s independence. Due to the earlier Japanese occupation, at that time France did not control Vietnam, which was part of Indochina. During the French Indochina War (1946–1954), the Việt Minh fought against the colonial power of France, who never succeeded in restoring full mastery of the territory. In 1949 the French belatedly recognized the full independence of Vietnam, but supported a government opposed to the Việt Minh. The “Border Campaign” (“Chiến dịch biên giới 1950” in Vietnamese) at the Sino-Vietnamese frontier was a military turning point in the fall of 1950. This event is also named (in France) the defeat of Cao Bằng, or the “Colonial Road No. 4” (RC4). This road—more a track than a road—was the French logistical axis in North Vietnam (Tonkin) along the border. Its most vulnerable part stretched north from Lạng Sơn to Cao Bằng, between China and Viêt Bac, the latter controlled by the Việt Minh. In the absence of any political agreement with Hồ Chí Minh, the French strategy was faced with an alternative: evacuate this part of the RC4, or keep it to impair Chinese aid. As the French government had refused to increase military forces in Indochina, it was decided to evacuate, especially a major outpost in Cao Bằng. This operation was ordered in September 1950 by General Marcel Carpentier (b. 1895–d. 1977), commander-in-chief in Indochina, and Civil High-Commissioner Léon Pignon (b. 1908–d. 1976). Confronted with the brand-new forces of the Việt Minh engaged in the “Border Campaign,” and for many reasons, the result was a total disaster in October 1950. Therefore, firstly, the balance of morale forces was reversed after the destruction of about eight French battalions. General Võ Nguyên Giáp (b. 1911–d. 2013) claimed eight thousand men killed or captured; among the latter were the two lieutenant colonels in command in the field, Pierre Charton and Marcel Le Page. Secondly, the French had to evacuate most of the border, expressly Lạng Sơn, thus giving to the Việt Minh free access to useful logistical routes. This event was somewhat ignored in the United States (US), being overshadowed by the Korean War, which had just started in June 1950. Less than four years later, the First Vietnam War provisionally ended with the Geneva Accords (20 July 1954) resulting from the French defeat at Ðiện Biên Phủ—see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Battle of Dien Bien Phu.”

Overviews of Thirty Years of Fighting in Vietnam (1946–1975)

As the French Indochina War was the origin of the future Vietnam War, scores of books available in the United States have explored these thirty years of war. Choosing a handful out of all of them is a deliberate choice, thus manifestly unsatisfactory for many authors. Accordingly, the author has decided to target those that also evoke, even briefly, the Battle of Route Coloniale 4. Bao Daï 1980 is a memoir written by the last Emperor of Annam, who decided in 1949 to be the first head of state alongside the French, against the Việt Minh. Marchand 1954 tells the French story of the war, although published at an early stage. Jean Marchand (b. 1896–d. 1990) served in Indochina from 1931 to 1948. This general should not be confused with General René Marchand (b. 1894–d. 1985) who was second in command in North Vietnam in the fall of 1950. Davidson 1991 and Karnow 1997 are narratives of the two Vietnam Wars by authors who had personal experience of Southeast Asia. William J. Duiker, a former United States Foreign Service officer and academic historian, has published two books: Duiker 2018 and Duiker 2000. Both tell the story from a Vietnamese perspective, the issues of independence and communism being perfectly balanced. Lâm 2001, by an officer who fought in the National Army of Vietnam (Quân đội quốc Việt Nam) alongside France and then America, offers a firsthand account. The career of General Võ Nguyên Giáp, Supreme Commander of the People’s Army of Vietnam (Quân đội nhân dân Việt Nam) is studied by Currey 2005 and Warren 2013, and from a Vietnamese point of view in Vũ 2020.

  • Bao Daï, Sa Majesté. Le Dragon d’Annam. Paris: Plon, 1980.

    In 1945, Emperor Bảo Đại (Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy, b. 1913–d. 1997) abdicated under pressure from the Việt Minh in favor of a provisional government led by Hồ Chí Minh. Four years later, in 1949, he changed his mind and decided with the French to lead the brand-new Republic of Vietnam to total independence, thus clearly becoming an opponent of the Việt Minh. He was sacked in 1955 by Ngô Đình Diệm, the prime minister in South Vietnam.

  • Currey, Cecil B. Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2005.

    Beyond the Vietnamese people, the role played by General Võ Nguyên Giáp was essential. Therefore, this book—the third in a trilogy relevant to the American Vietnam War—is arguably the best account of Giáp’s career, based in part on Vietnamese sources and witnesses. The importance of the Cao Bằng province as the Việt Minh’s cradle is underlined. However, only its third part is devoted to the French Indochina War, although titled “Dien Bien Phu, 1946–1954.”

  • Davidson, Phillip B. Vietnam at War: The History 1946–1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

    Phillip Buford Davidson served two years in Vietnam as an intelligence officer. His book covers in depth the military history of the two Vietnam wars. Most of its first part is devoted to the French Indochina War. The twenty-page chapter 4, “Giap’s First Offensive Campaign, 1950,” tells the story of the Border Campaign.

  • Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. New York: Routledge, 2018.

    William J. Duiker served a few years at the United States Embassy in South Vietnam. The book covers the Vietnamese revolutionary struggle for independence from 1900 to 1975, with an emphasis on the Communist view. A strong point is the hundred pages telling the story before the outbreak of the French Indochina War in 1946. Chapter 7, “The Franco-Vietminh War (1947–1954),” contains a very short section titled “The 1950 Border Offensive.” First edition published 1981.

  • Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh: A Life. New York: Hyperion, 2000.

    Hồ Chí Minh was the most important Vietnamese leader during the French colonial period in Indochina. This balanced biography explains how his political actions resulted from strong independence and communist beliefs, in addition to his personal charisma. An interview with William J. Duiker (November 1st, 2000) is available online from C-SPAN.

  • Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam, a History. New York: Penguin, 1997.

    Stanley Karnow served in Southeast Asia during World War II, and worked as a journalist during the American Vietnam War. This second revised edition contains a short chapter (no. 4) devoted to the French Indochina War, titled “The War with the French.” The first edition was published in 1983 (New York: Viking Press), when Stanley Karnow and Richard Ellison were associated with the production by WGBH-TV (Boston) of the famous series called “Vietnam: A Television History.”

  • Lâm Quang Thi. The Twenty-Five Year Century: A South Vietnamese General Remembers the Indochina War to the Fall of Saigon. Denton: University of North Texas, 2001.

    Lâm Quang Thi (b. 1932–d. 2021) was a cadet in 1950, then fought briefly alongside the French, and ended his military career as a general in the Vietnamese National Army (South Vietnam). He left his country after the fall of Saigon, and emigrated to the United States. This personal autobiography offers the partisan perspective of a Vietnamese veteran who served twenty-five years in two wars. Chapters 2 to 4 deal with the French Indochina War.

  • Marchand, Général Jean. L’Indochine en guerre. Paris: Les Presses Modernes, 1954.

    In this book telling the French story from 1860 to 1954, chapters 14 and 15 describe the cooperation between Mao Zedong’s China and the Việt Minh, then the fighting along the Chinese border in 1950. The author is assertive on two disputed points: firstly, the evacuation would have been carried out months before, and secondly, at that time, the roads were not yet essential for the Vietminh logistics. Available online from Gallica by subscription.

  • Vũ Xuân Tửu. Võ Nguyên Giáp: Thiếu tuyết lịch sử. Hanoi: Bằng Hữu, 2020.

    Vũ Xuân Tửu, a police officer by training, is also a writer. The book is claimed by the author as historical fiction, although based on sources totalizing around 30,000 pages. Võ Nguyên Giáp was a patriot who followed the Communists, and was successful in most of his military tasks, albeit he was not error-free.

  • Warren, James A. Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

    This book was published the same year as the death of General Võ Nguyên Giáp. Giáp’s biography is a basis for exploring the military course of the Vietnam wars, in particular the French Indochina War. In fact, the Việt Minh—which had mobilized the Vietnam people for independence and social justice—defeated the French first. Chapter 4, “The Border Offensive of 1950: Giáp’s First Victories,” narrates the story of the Battle of the RC4.

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