History Files

Far East Kingdoms

South East Asia


South Vietnam
AD 1946 - 1976
Incorporating the Autonomous Republic of Cochinchina (1946-1947), South Vietnam (1947-1948), Vietnam (1948-1949), & French Associated State of Vietnam (AD 1949-1954)

Mainland South-East Asia is otherwise known as Indochina or the Indochinese peninsula (these two largely being outdated terms in the twenty-first century). Framed by East Asia to the north (which is largely dominated by China) and South Asia to the west (generally Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, amongst others), it provides the gateway to 'Maritime South-East Asia' and its thousands of islands.

In terms of Vietnam's history, the kingdom of Dai Viet (or 'Great Viet') was the strongest survivor from the break-up of the ancient and restored medieval kingdom of Nam Viet. This eventually conquered other, more minor kingdoms to form the basis of a modern state. The Vietnamese warlords of the Nguyễn family finally displaced the Cham and Khmer and, in the eighteenth century, completed their 'southern advance' in the region to the south of Saigon.

The expanding Vietnamese empire had long been divided between the Nguyễn in the south and the Trịnh lords in the north, but Nguyen Emperor Gia Long unified Vietnam in 1802. Unfortunately for him and his descendants, this took place less than sixty years before the French gradually subdued the country in the second half of the nineteenth century. They did it in stages, creating three regions as they progressed: the protectorates of Tonkin in the north, Annam in the centre, and the colony of Cochinchina in the south. In 1887 these were merged to create part of French Indochina.

Following the end of the Second World War, Japanese occupation of Annam was replaced by an attempt to re-establish the French protectorate in 1945. After fighting the Japanese for five years, this was certainly not part of the plans of the country's communist forces. They were encouraged by newly-communist China to attempt to take control of the country. They did so in North Vietnam, with a capital at Hanoi.

The First Indochina War was the result of this opposition, with outside forces becoming involved because this battleground was seen as being a key piece of the Cold War struggle between democracy and communism. French-occupied South Vietnam went through a rapid series of renamings, from Cochinchina to South Vietnam to Vietnam to the 'French Associated State of Vietnam', still part of Indochina.

With France having withdrawn from Indochina by 1954, the USA had to involve itself directly, no longer simply supplying arms. In the end, such was the determination and ingenuity of the communist forces, even the USA couldn't change the outcome. In 1975-1976 a fully-united country was created under a communist government, and modern Vietnam was now its own master after almost a century of outside involvement.

The country's monarchy, which removed itself from commanding the country as a whole in 1945, was also deposed in South Vietnam in 1955 by President Ngo Dinh Diem. Since then the emperor and his descendants have maintained their use of the appropriate titles while living in exile (usually in France and Monaco). They have not overtly pursued a policy of having the monarchy restored. All such hereditary claimants to the throne are shown below with a shaded background.

Traditional House, Vietnam

(Information by Peter Kessler and the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information from The State of The World's Refugees 2000 - Chapter 4: Flight from Indochina, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, from Encyclopaedia of European and Asian Regional Geology, E M Moores & Rhodes W Fairbridge (Springer Netherlands, 1997), from Vietnam: A New History, Christopher Goscha, from A History of the Vietnamese, Keith W Taylor (Cambridge University Press, 2013), from Washington Post (1 October 2001), and from External Links: Lonely Planet, and BBC Country Profiles, and Vietnam (Countrystudies), and Vietnam from the 10th century AD to the mid-20th century AD (Vietnam National Museum of History).)

1945 - 1954

The French protectorate of Vietnam is re-established but communist forces in the north refuse to submit. On  2 September 1945 a democratic republic is proclaimed there, with a capital at Hanoi. On 1 June 1946, Vietnam becomes a de facto divided country when the French establish the autonomous republic of Cochinchina as part of its French Indochinese holdings.

Japanese troops in Vietnam
Japanese troops enter Haiphong in Vietnam as part of the empire's wartime expansion across the Pacific region until 1945

Having been provided with arms and supplies from China, those communist forces in North Vietnam attempt to take control of the country. France is provided with supplies and arms by the USA, which is highly concerned about the 'domino effect' of country after country falling to communism, but it is French soldiers who fight on the ground in a war which is largely overshadowed by the USA's subsequent involvement in the region.

The First Indochina War between North Vietnam and Cochinchina and their respective supporters becomes a key battleground in the Cold War. Vietnam suffers enormously by being the focus of this particular theatre of operations.

1947 - 1948

Nguyn Van Xuan

President of the provisional government of South Vietnam.

1947 - 1948

Perhaps in relation to a realisation that the autonomous republic of Cochinchina is now South Vietnam in all but name, the French Indochinese authorities rename it accordingly. On 28 May 1948, 'South Vietnam' is reduced to 'Vietnam' even though it is still based in the south alone.

French Indochina
French colonial holdings in South-East Asia were generally referred to as French Indochina, but officially they were the Indochinese Union until 1947, and then the Indochinese Federation

1948 - 1949

Nguyn Van Xuan

President of the central government of Vietnam.


On 14 June 1949, the state of Vietnam is renamed again, this time as the 'French Associated State of Vietnam', still part of French Indochina. The Dai Viet emperor, Bao Dai, who had abdicated in 1945 when Japanese Occupation Vietnam had been liberated by the forces of Ho Chi Minh, is now restored as the country's head of state.

1949 - 1955

Bao Dai

Dai Viet emperor. Restored in south only. Deposed.

1954 - 1955

On 7 May 1954 the Viet Minh defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu, effectively ending French involvement in Indochina. The democratic republic of Vietnam is confirmed in the north of the country (North Vietnam), but this does nothing to end the fighting.

Even so, the newly-declared republic is recognised internationally by the Geneva Accords, with Hanoi as its capital. South Vietnam is also recognised, officially dividing the country in two.

In the three hundred-day period of open borders which now takes place, more than a million Vietnamese move south along with anti-communist forces, while a much smaller number move north. Perhaps two million more people are prevented from migrating south by the Viet Minh.

French colonial residence in Laos
The French colonial presence in Laos built the Bureau de la Residence in 1915 (today it serves as the offices of the country's Ministry of Information and Culture)

The communist leader is Ho Chi Minh, the sixty-four year-old leader of the Viet Minh independence movement (from 1941), and now the 'president' of the north. The leader in South Vietnam, once he has 'won' a fraudulent campaign to create a republic and remove the king from office, is President Ngo Dinh Diem.

1955 - 1963

Ngo Dinh Diem

President of South Vietnam after deposing king. Overthrown.

1955 - 1976

Bao Dai

Deposed in 1955. King of Vietnam in exile (until 1977).

1956 - 1960

President Diem of South Vietnam begins to campaign against political dissidents, but all this does is trigger a communist insurgency in the south in 1957, supported by North Vietnam. Within two years weapons and men from the north are infiltrating the south.

In 1960 the USA increases its aid to President Diem, eager to halt the 'domino effect' of states falling under communist leaderships. Although it remains undeclared, this is the start of the Vietnam War, or Second Indochina War which, locally, is also referred to as the American War or, in full, the War Against the Americans to Save the Nation.

Nikita Kruschev and John F Kennedy
Photographed together here, John F Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev would, in 1962, play the world's biggest game of brinkmanship as the USA and Soviet Union vied for supremacy


The communist guerrillas which are operating in South Vietnam are known as the Viet Cong. Now they defeat units of the ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army. President Diem is overthrown and then killed in a US-backed military coup.


Dương Van Minh / Big Minh

Chairman, revolutionary military committee (Nov only).

1963 - 1964

Dương Van Minh / Big Minh

Head of state (to Jan). Deposed.


Nguyn Khanh

President (Jan-Feb only).


Dương Van Minh / Big Minh

President (Feb-16 Aug only).


The US congress approves the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, increasing American military involvement in Vietnam and officially bringing it into the conflict. This is a response to the eponymous firefight on 2 August 1964 between US naval forces which have been engaged in clandestine attacks on North Vietnamese installations and three Vietnamese gunboats which fail utterly to scare them off.

Otherwise known as the 'South-East Asia Resolution', the political spin for the incident is enough to win almost universal backing for increased US action in what is now a war in all but name.

North Vietnamese army
Not to be confused with the Viet Cong guerrilla forces in the south which were supported by North Vietnam, the North Vietnamese armed forces themselves often came into contact with South Vietnamese and American forces, especially towards the end of the conflict when the south had been partially occupied


Nguyn Khanh

President (16-27 Aug only).


Beginning on 27 August 1964 and ending in September, Nguyn Khanh and Big Minh share power with Trân Thiêu Khiêm as part of a ruling military junta. It seems likely that Khanh is the true power in the state.


Dương Van Minh / Big Minh

Chairman, provisional leadership cmte (Sep-Oct only).

1964 - 1965

Phan Khác Sưu

President (from Oct). Ousted in a coup.

1965 - 1967

Air Force commander Nguyn Cao Ky overthrows and exiles Khanh. Nguyn Van Thiêu also participates in this coup in February 1965 (although the Washington Post of 1 October 2001 states (late) 1964). In June, Nguyn Van Thiêu becomes the figurehead chief of state as chairman of a junta until he is elected president in September 1967.

1965 - 1967

Nguyn Van Thiêu

Chairman, national leadership cmte.

1967 - 1975

Nguyn Van Thiêu

President (to 21 Apr). Resigned & fled.


After building up the number of its military forces in South Vietnam over the previous three years, the US now has half a million men in the country. The north launches the Tet Offensive - a combined assault by Viet Cong guerrillas and the North Vietnamese army on US positions.

Kim Phuc injured during Vietnam War
Many of the residents of the small village of Trang Bang were killed or wounded during heavy fighting there against the Viet Cong on 8 June 1972, with the nine year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc becoming the face of all that was wrong with the war

Morale in the US forces drops as the number of US casualties mounts by the day. During the campaign, and during an apparent moment of madness, more than five hundred civilians die in the US massacre at My Lai. Thousands more are killed by communist forces during their occupation of the city of Hue.


Ho Chi Minh dies in 1969, removing North Vietnam's powerful figurehead (although he had officially retired in 1965), and President Nixon begins to reduce US ground troops in Vietnam as domestic public opposition to the war grows. Despite this, Laos is dragged into the chaos thanks to US bombing of North Vietnamese in its territory.

1970 - 1973

Nixon's national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, and Le Duc Tho of the Hanoi government start talks in Paris in 1970, but in the same year Cambodia finds itself being dragged into the widening conflict when Prime Minister Lon Nol mounts a successful coup against King Sihanouk.

Kim Phuc injured during Vietnam War
King Sihanouk visited Paris in 1946, and is pictured here with a bevy of French generals, but his reign came at a turbulent time in South-East Asian history

The king organises a guerrilla movement from exile, and with US forces in Vietnam also becoming involved, Cambodia quickly becomes mired in a civil war against the Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces.


US troops pull out of South Vietnam in March 1975 under the terms of the 1973 ceasefire agreement in Paris. As a result the North Vietnamese forces begin to advance quite rapidly, taking the cities of South Vietnam one by one. The South Vietnamese president resigns on 21 April and flees the country.


Trân Van Hương

Acting president (Apr 21-28 only).


Dương Van Minh / Big Minh

Acting president, elected to surrender the country.


The South Vietnamese government surrenders unconditionally to the North Vietnamese on 30 April 1975, ending the Vietnam War. A communist republic is declared in the south with a puppet regime to govern the chaotic captured territory.

Vietnam War
As the Vietnam War took hold in the 1960s, North Vietnamese troops started using Laos as a way of getting past US and South Vietnamese defences, thereby bringing the war to Laos itself

1975 - 1976

Hùynh Tân Phát

President of provisional gvt. Gave way to united Vietnam.


North Vietnam and South Vietnam are fully reunified under a single leadership which consists of a largely ceremonial presidency, a ruling secretary-general of the communist party - the real power - and a prime minister. The socialist republic of Vietnam is born.

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