19.4 War in Southeast Asia

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.

Photo of jubilant soldiers marching on a path, holding their helmets over their heads and cheering.

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.


  • Describe events in Indochina after World War II.
  • Explain how the United States became involved in the Vietnam War.
  • Explore the end of the Vietnam War.
  • Summarize the impact of the war on Vietnam and Cambodia.

Key Terms

  • guerrilla
  • Ho Chi Minh
  • Dien Bien Phu
  • domino theory
  • Viet Cong
  • Tet Offensive
  • Khmer Rouge
  • Pol Pot

The Road to War in Southeast Asia

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.

The Long War Begins

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.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments