During World War II, Japan seized much of Southeast Asia from the European colonial powers that ruled the region. After Japan's defeat, local nationalists rejected European efforts to reclaim their colonial empires. Some Southeast Asian nations won freedom without much violence. Others, like Vietnam, faced long wars of liberation.
Vietnam became the focus of Cold War tensions when communist guerrillas fighters fought against French rule. Here, Viet Minh troops enter Hanoi on October 14, 1954.
Cold War tensions complicated the drive for freedom. The United States supported independence for colonial people in principle. But the West was anxious to stop the spread of communism. As a result, the United States helped anti-communist leaders win power, even if they had little popular support.
In mainland Southeast Asia, an agonizing liberation struggle tore apart the region once known as French Indochina. It affected the emerging nations of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The 30-year conflict was a key event of the Cold War and had two major phases: the battle against the French from 1946 to 1954, and the Cold War conflict that involved the United States and lasted from 1955 to 1975.
In 1946, the French set out to reestablish their authority over Indochina. In Vietnam, the French faced opposition forces led by Ho Chi Minh (hoh chee min). Ho, a nationalist and a communist, had waged warfare against Japanese occupying forces using guerrillas, or small groups of loosely organized soldiers making surprise raids.