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By Fredrik Logevall
Published by Presidio Press on 2014-01-14
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praise for EMBERS OF WAR 'A balanced, deeply researched history of how, as French colonial rule faltered, a succession of American leaders moved step by step down a road toward full-blown war.' '2013 Pulitzer Prize citation 'This extraordinary work of modern history combines powerful narrative thrust, deep scholarly authority, and quiet interpretive confidence.' '2013 Francis Parkman Prize citation 'Superb . . . penetrating . . . Embers of War is a product of formidable international research. It is lucidly and comprehensively composed. And it leverages a consistently potent analytical perspective. . . . Outstanding.' ? Gordon Goldstein, The Washington Post 'Fredrik Logevall's excellent book Choosing War (1999) chronicled the American escalation of the Vietnam War in the early 1960s. With Embers of War, he has written an even more impressive book about the French conflict in Vietnam and the beginning of the American one. . . . It is the most comprehensive history of that time. Logevall, a professor of history at Cornell University, has drawn from many years of previous scholarship as well as his own. And he has produced a powerful portrait of the terrible and futile French war from which Americans learned little as they moved toward their own engagement in Vietnam.' ? Alan Brinkley, The New York Times Book Review (Editor's Choice) 'The definitive history of the critical formative period from 1940 to 1960 [in Vietnam] . . . lucid and vivid . . . As American involvement escalated, Bernard Fall, the highly respected scholarjournalist of Vietnam's wars, wrote that Americans were 'dreaming different dreams than the French but walking in the same footsteps.' Fredrik Logevall brilliantly explains that legacy.' ? Gary R. Hess, San Francisco Chronicle 'The most comprehensive account available of the French Vietnamese war, America's involvement, and the beginning of the U.S.- directed struggle . . . Embers of War [tells] the deeply immoral story of the Vietnam wars convincingly and more fully than any other [books]. Since many of the others, some written over fifty years ago, are excellent, this is a considerable achievement.' ? Jonathan Mirsky, The New York Review of Books 'In Embers of War, Fredrik Logevall describes the tragedy of Vietnam in the twentieth century, from its invisibility at the 1919 Paris peace conference to its recapture by the French after 1945, and ultimately its sacrifice on the altar of the Cold War in the 1960s. This is an epic tale of missed opportunity, egotism and waste that makes the case for the role of dumbheadedness, more than evil, in the course of human affairs. Deeply detailed and dramatically powerful, Embers of War is a potent cautionary tale.' ? Jury citation, 2013 Lionel Gelber Prize Longlist 'No brief review can convey the many and various excellences of [Embers of War]. . . . No major bone of contention escapes [Logevall's] analysis, and while readers may disagree with some of the verdicts he hands down (I do), they cannot help but be impressed by the fair-
mindedness and cogency with which he tackles subjects so controversial that each has spawned its own cottage industry of dueling monographs. . . . [It] is not only essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the fall of France's Indochinese empire and the origins of America's long struggle in Vietnam it is also a literary treat.' 'Seth Jacobs, Diplomatic History 'Huge and engrossing . . . [Logevall] writes with an ambitious sweep and an instinct for pertinent detail. . . . If Logevall's earlier work stood up well in a crowded field, Embers of War stands alone. . . . What if [Embers] had been mandatory reading for Kennedy and his policy makers'? ? The National Interest 'An encompassing, lucid account of the fortyyear arc in which America's Southeast Asian adventure became inevitable . . . Logevall's prose is clean, his logic relentless, his tone unsparing, his vision broad and deep, his empathy expansive.' ? Vietnam magazine 'How easy it is to forget how it all started. The events pile on one another, new battles begin each day, demands for decisions encroach? and soon enough everything is incremental. Cornell historian Fredrik Logevall steps back from the edge and? parting from most Vietnam War studies that focus on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations? reaches back to World War II to give a fresh picture of America imagining itself into the Vietnam War. . . . [Embers of War puts] flesh on barebones assertions that occupy a few sentences or paragraphs in many Vietnam accounts. . . . Startling.' ? The VVA Veteran 'A superbly written and wellargued reinterpretation of our tragic experience in Vietnam.' ? Booklist '[Logevall] masterfully presents the war's roots in the U.S. reaction to the French colonial experience.' ? Publishers Weekly (starred review) 'Fredrik Logevall has gleaned from American, French, and Vietnamese sources a splendid account of France's nineyear war in Indochina and the story of how the American statesmen of the period allowed this country to be drawn into the quagmire.' ? Neil Sheehan, author of A Bright Shining Lie, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award 'In a world full of nascent, potentially protracted wars, Fredrik Logevall's Embers of War is manifestly an important book, illuminating the long, smallstep path we followed into the quagmire of Vietnam. But I was also struck by the quality of Logevall's writing. He has the eye of a novelist, the cadence of a splendid prose stylist, and a filmmaker's instinct for story. Embers of War is not just an important book of history, it is an utterly compelling read.' ? Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, winner of the Pulitzer Prize 'Fredrik Logevall is a wonderful writer and historian. In his new book on the origins of the American war in Vietnam, he gives a fascinating and dramatic account of the French war and its aftermath, from the perspectives of the French, the Vietnamese, and the Americans. Using previously untapped sources and a deep knowledge of diplomatic history, Logevall shows to devastating effect how America found itself on the road to Vietnam.' ? Frances FitzGerald, author of Fire in the Lake, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award
'Embers of War is a truly monumental achievement. With elegant prose, deft portraits of the many fascinating characters, and remarkable sensitivity to the aspirations and strategies of the various nations involved, Logevall skillfully guides us through the complexities of the First Indochina War and demonstrates how that conflict laid the basis for America's war in Vietnam.' ? George C. Herring, author of America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950'1975 'In this vividly written, richly textured history, Fredrik Logevall demolishes the fiction, too long indulged by too many Americans, that the Vietnam War appeared out of nowhere to besmirch the 1960s. Here we have the full backstory? the uneasy collaboration between France and the United States that paved the way for epic tragedy. Embers of War is a magisterial achievement.' ? Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War 'In this pathbreaking account of the making of America's Vietnam, Fredrik Logevall places the Indochina War, the crumbling of the French Empire, and American intervention in Vietnam at the center of his analysis. It's a revolutionary shift in perspective and periodization, based on impressive archival research, the careful mining of untapped memoirs, and an unparalleled mastery of the latest scholarship in the field. It is also a highly readable account of one of the most important yet poorly understood conflicts of the twentieth century. For those who want to understand this first war and how and why the United States became involved in it, there is no better place to start than with Logevall's magnificent Embers of War.' ? Christopher Goscha, professor of international relations, Universit? du Qu'bec ? Montr'al 'For too long, Americans have debated the Vietnam War as though it started in the 1960s. As Fredrik Logevall masterfully demonstrates in Embers of War, the American imbroglio has deep roots in the 1940s and 1950s. This is a deeply researched, elegantly written account that will instantly become the standard book on a poorly understood and decisively important event in world history.' ? Mark Lawrence, author of The Vietnam War: A Concise International History 'It is the most important question of America's past half century: Why did we go to war in Vietnam? The answers are all here in Fredrik Logevall's magnificent panoramic account of the longterm origins of our doomed conflict in Indochina. By going back to the early years, from World War II through the 1950s, Logevall shows that Americans were deeply engaged in France's 'twilight war? from its very beginning, but failed? tragically? to learn any lessons from France's miserable defeat. Instead, hubris, naivet', idealism, and expansive global ambitions led American leaders to believe they could succeed where others had failed. This sensitive, impeccably researched book is a true masterwork, written by one of our most imaginative and talented historians. And it is a mustread for anyone interested in America's continuing penchant for overseas interventions.' ? William I. Hitchcock, author of The Bitter Road to Freedom
EMBERS OF WAR EMBERS OF WAR T HE FA LL OF A N EMPIR E A ND T HE M A K ING OF A MER ICA'S V IET NA M F R E D R I K L O G E V A L L R A N D O M H O U S E T R A D E PA P E R B A C K S N E W Y O R K
2013 Random House Trade Paperback Edition copyright ? 2012 by Fredrik Logevall Maps copyright ? 2012 by Mapping Specialists, Ltd. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York. Random House and the House colophon are trademarks of Random House LLC. Illustration credits are located on page 802. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, in 2012. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGINGINPUBLICATION DATA Logevall, Fredrik Embers of war: the fall of an empire and the making of America's Vietnam / Fredrik Logevall. p.cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978- 0- 375- 75647- 4 ebook ISBN 978- 0- 679- 64519- 1 1. Indochinese War, 1946- 1954. 2. Indochinese War, 1946- 1954? Diplomatic history. 3. France? Colonies? Asia. 4. Vietnam? Colonization. 5. Vietnam? Politics and goverment? 1945- 1975. 6. United States? Foreign relations? France. 7. France? Foreign relations? United States. 8. United States? Foreign relations? Vietnam. 9. Vietnam? Foreign relations? United States. 10. Vietnam War, 1961- 1975? Causes. I. Title. DS553.1.L64 2012 959.704'1? dc23 Printed in the United States of America www.atrandom.com 2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1 Title page photos: Fox Photos/Gerry Images (left) and ECPAD (right) Book design by Barbara Bachman
CONTENTS P R E F A C E x i P R O L O G U E : A V I E T N A M E S E I N P A R I S 3 PA R T O N E LIBERATIONS, 1940'1945 1. 'The Empire Is with Us!' 23 2. The Anti-Imperialist 44 3. Crossroads 67 4. 'All Men Are Created Equal? 92 PA R T T W O COLONIAL STRUGGLE, 1946'1949 5. The Warrior Monk 123 6. The Spark 147 7. War Without Fronts 167 8. 'If I Accepted These Terms I'd Be a Coward? 189 PA R T T H R E E EAST MEETS WEST, 1949'1953 9. 'The Center of the Cold War? 217 10. Attack on the RC4 238 11. King Jean 260 12. The Quiet Englishman 293
vi | C O N T E N T S 13. The Turning Point That Didn't Turn 311 14. Eisenhower in Charge 334 15. Navarre's American Plan 353 PA R T F O U R THE CAULDRON, 1953'1954 16. Arena of the Gods 381 17. 'We Have the Impression They Are Going to Attack Tonight? 403 18. 'Vietnam Is a Part of the World? 426 19. America Wants In 454 20. Dulles Versus Eden 481 21. Valley of Tears 510 PA R T F I V E PEACE OF A KIND, 1954 22. With Friends Like These 549 23. 'We Must Go Fast? 577 24. 'I Have Seen Destiny Bend to That Will? 595 PA R T S I X SEIZING THE TORCH, 1954'1959 25. 'We Have No Other Choice but to Win Here? 617 26. Miracle Man 649 27. Things Fall Apart 674 E P I L O G U E : D I F F E R E N T D R E A M S , S A M E F O O T S T E P S 7 0 2 A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S 715 N O T E S 71 9 F U R T H E R R E A D I N G 7 9 7 P H O T O C R E D I T S 8 0 2 I N D E X 8 0 3
Hainan Plain of Jars Central Highlands Plain of Reeds M e k o n g R iv e r D e l t a R e d Ra i v e r D e l t A n n a m C o r d i l l e r a Haiphong Bac Ninh Thanh Hoa Vinh Hue Ban Me Thuot Dalat Bien Hoa Saigon Can Tho Ha Tien Dien Bien Phu Muong Khoua Qui Nhon Nha Trang Kontum Pleiku An Khe Tourane Quang Tri Tay Ninh Dong Hoi Lao Cai Lai Chau Cao Bang Lang Son Pakse Luang Prabang Thakhek Vientiane Siem Reap Phnom Penh Bangkok Hanoi Yen Bai My Tho Ca Mau 10? 15? 20? 105? 100? Tonle Sap Mekong R. Red R. M e k o ng R. M ek o n g R. Mun R. Bla ck R . South China Sea Gulf of Tonkin Gulf of Thailand Tonkin Cochin China Annam Laos Cambodia C H I N A BURMA THAILAND N S E W 0 150 miles 0 150 km French Indochina COR1 01 French Indochina Third Proof
Grand Lac Petit Lac R e d R i Hospital Market Governor-General's Palace Opera House Hotel Metropole St. Joseph's Cathedral Government Buildings Citadel Railroad Station Ru du Chanvre e R ue de la So ie Doumer Bridge Rue Paul Bert 0 1 mile 0 1 km Hanoi During the French Period COR1 11 Hanoi Third Proof S a ig o n R iver Radio Station Notre Dame Cathedral Continental Hotel H'tel de Ville Majestic Hotel T an Son Nhut Quang Pagoda Racetrack Y Bridge Government Buildings Railroad Station Market R u e d e L ? A v a l a n c h e Boul de la Somme Bou l No r o do m Rout e de Thuan Kieu Rue L e gr and d e la Lira y e Ru e Chasseloup-L aubat Boulev a rd Ga l li e n i B oulev a rd Pa vi s Ru e de la N othe Boul Fr e de ri c Dr ou h et Boul C ha rn er Ru e C atin at Rue M ac M aho n Rue des Marins Rue Paul B la n c h y RuedeCay-Mai Cholon COR1 12 Saigon Fifth Proof 0 1 mile 0 1 km Saigon During the French Period
Haiphong Hanoi Bac Ninh Hon Gai Sam Son Tien Yen Thai Nguyen Yen Bai Phu Tho Lao Cai Lang Son That Khe Bac Kan Dong Khe Dong Dang Cao Bang Mong Cai Hoa Binh Nghia Lo Son La Na San Lai Chau Dien Bien Phu Nam Dinh Thai Binh Phat Diem Black R. M a R. N a R . C h a y R . C l ea r R . G a m R . Ma R. R ed R . Gulf of Tonkin R e d Ri v e r D e l t a To n k i n A n n a m L a o s C H I N A N S E W 0 50 miles 0 50 km Tonkin and Red River Delta COR1 02 Tonkin and Red River Delta Third Proof 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Haiphong Hanoi Gulf of Tonkin Lai Chau Ha Giang Cao Bang Yen Bai Lang Son Hai Ninh Quang Yen Phu Lang Thuong Son La Phu Tho VinhPhuc Yen Thai Nguyen Thai Binh Hoa Binh Ha Tay Ha Nam Tuyen Quang Bac Kan Annam L a o s C H I N A Phong Tho and Lao Cai Bac Ninh and Gia Lam Hung Yen Hai Duong Kien An Ninh Binh Nam Dinh and Bui Chu 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. Provinces of Tonkin COR1 10 Provinces of Tonkin Second Proof
PREFACE It is saigon, in southern vietnam, in the heart of colonial French Indochina, on a brilliantly sunny autumn day in October 1951. A young congressman from Massachusetts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, age thirty-four, arrives by plane at the city's Tan Son Nhut airport, accompanied by his younger siblings Robert and Patricia. Pale and thin, and suffering from a secret illness? Addison's disease? that will almost kill him later in the trip, he is on a seven-week, twenty-five-thousand-mile tour of Asia and the Middle East designed to burnish his foreign-policy credentials in advance of a Senate run the following year.1 Besides Indochina, other stops include Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Thailand, Malaya, Korea, and Japan. Kennedy views this stop on the journey with special anticipation. Indochina, he knows, is in the midst of a violent struggle, pitting colonial France and her Indochinese allies, supported by the United States, against the Ho Chi Minh'led Viet Minh, who have the backing of China and the Soviet Union. For almost five years, the fighting has raged, with no end in sight. Originally it had been largely a Franco-Vietnamese affair, resulting from Paris leaders? attempt to rebuild the colonial state and international order that had existed before World War II, and Vietnamese nationalists? determination to redefine that state in a new postcolonial order. Now the crisis is moving steadily toward the epicenter of Asian Cold War politics, and the congressman understands it could loom ever larger in U.S. foreign policy and by extension in his own political career. Hardly have the Kennedys landed and disembarked when there is a sudden outburst of gunfire nearby. 'What was that'? asks JFK. 'Small-
xii | P R E F A C E arms fire,' comes the reply. 'Another attack by the Viet Minh.' The three siblings soon realize that the bustling facade that Saigon (the 'Paris of the Orient,' in the hoary clich? of travel writers) always presents to the visitor is a thin disguise for tension and insecurity. The caf's are packed, the bakeries loaded with French baguettes, and the shopkeepers along the fashionable rue Catinat do brisk business. But the restaurants have antigrenade netting over their terraces, and palpable nervousness hangs in the air. There's a war on, and though the main action is in Tonkin to the north, Saigon lies in a war-dominated countryside. The Viet Minh have base areas less than twenty-five miles away, and they conduct frequent? and often brazen? attacks on villages right next to the city.2 The Kennedys are told they cannot venture outside Saigon by car. Though the French rule the roads during daylight hours, at twilight control shifts to the insurgents, and there's always the danger of getting stuck in the countryside as the sun sets. So the siblings stay put, conscious of the fact that even in the heart of town, there are occasional grenade attacks, kidnappings, and assassinations. They spend the first evening on the fourth-floor rooftop bar of the waterfront Majestic Hotel, glimpsing gun flashes as French artillery fires across the Saigon River, hoping to hit Viet Minh mortar sites. (The novelist Graham Greene, who will immortalize the war with his classic work The Quiet American, and who will enter our narrative in due course, is also a guest at the hotel.) 'Cannot go outside city because of guerrillas,' the twentysixyearold Robert writes in his diary. 'Could hear shooting as evening wore on.'3 The next afternoon Jack ventures off alone, making for the small flat on the nearby Boulevard Charner occupied by Seymour Topping, the Associated Press bureau chief. 'I'll only be a few minutes,' Kennedy says at the door. He stays more than two hours, peppering the journalist with questions about every aspect of the war. The answers are sobering. The French are losing and likely can't recover, Topping tells him, for the simple reason that Ho Chi Minh has captured the leadership of the Vietnamese nationalist movement and has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of recruits for his army. He also controls the mountain passes to China, whose leader, Mao Zedong, is supplying the Viet Minh with weapons and training. Kennedy asks what the Vietnamese think of the United States. Not much, Topping replies. At the end of the Pacific War in 1945, Ameri-
| xiii cans had stood supreme, immensely popular throughout Southeast Asia for their vanquishing of Japan and for the steadfast anticolonialism of the just-deceased Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Their esteem grew when they followed through on a pledge to grant independence to the Philippines. But that was then. Now the United States is resented and even hated by many Vietnamese for her vigorous backing of the French colonial war effort.4 Topping's grim analysis impresses Kennedy, and he is further convinced after a conversation with Edmund Gullion, the young counselor at the American legation, who speaks in similar terms. Kennedy poses tough questions during briefings with the U.S. minister, Donald Heath, and the French high commissioner and military commander, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. Why, he asks Heath, should the mass of the Vietnamese people be expected to join the struggle to keep their country a part of the French empire? What would be their motivation? The questions irritate Heath, a Francophile of the first order, and de Lattre is no happier after his session with the lawmaker. The Frenchman, a blazingly charismatic figure who earlier in the year demonstrated his strategic and tactical sagacity in turning back three major Viet Minh offensives, has just returned from a triumphant visit to the United States, where journalists lauded him as the 'French MacArthur? and senior officials proclaimed the vital importance of his mission to the broader Cold War. He vows to take the fight to the enemy now that the rainy season is drawing to a close, and he assures Kennedy that France will see the struggle through to the end. The American is skeptical, having heard differently from both Topping and Gullion. De Lattre, sensing his guest's doubt, sends a formal letter of complaint to Heath but nevertheless arranges for the Kennedy brothers to visit Hanoi in the north and tour the fortifications guarding the Red River Delta approaches to the city.5 'We are more and more becoming colonialists in the minds of the people,' Kennedy writes in a trip diary. 'Because everyone believes that we control the U.N. [and] because our wealth is supposedly inexhaustible, we will be damned if we don't do what they [the emerging nations] want.' The United States should avoid the path trod by the declining British and French empires and instead show that the enemy is not merely Communism but 'poverty and want,' 'sickness and disease,' and 'in-
xiv | P R E F A C E justice and inequality,' all of which are the daily lot of millions of Asians and Arabs. Upon returning to Boston in late November, Kennedy continues the theme in a radio address and in a speech before the Boston Chamber of Commerce. 'In Indochina we have allied ourselves to the desperate effort of the French regime to hang on to the remnants of an empire,' he declares. 'There is no broad general support of the native Vietnam Government among the people of that area,' for it 'is a puppet government.' Every neutral observer believes 'a free election . . . would go in favor of Ho and his Communists.'6 Bobby Kennedy's perspective is much the same. The French, he writes to his father, are 'greatly hated,' and America's aid has made her unpopular by association. 'Our mistake has been not to insist on definite political reforms by the French toward the natives as prerequisites to any aid. As it stands now we are becoming more & more involved in the war to a point where we can't back out.' He concludes: 'It doesn't seem to be a picture with a very bright future.'7 Indeed. After the Kennedys? departure, despite ever-rising levels of U.S. assistance, France's fortunes continued to spiral downward, until by mid-1954 she had lost the war, following a spectacular defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, one of the great military engagements of modern times. The Eisenhower administration, by then far more committed to the war effort than were the French themselves, actively considered intervening with military force? perhaps with tactical nuclear weapons, in a heatedly debated secret plan ominously code-named Operation Vulture? to try to save the French position, and came closer to doing so than is generally believed. Neither President Dwight D. Eisenhower nor the U.S. Congress wanted to proceed without allied and especially British involvement, however, and the Winston Churchill government in London resisted strong administration pressure to go along. A peace agreement signed in Geneva divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel pending nationwide elections in 1956. Ho's Communist nationalist government took control north of the parallel, its capital in Hanoi, while the southern portion came under the rule of the Catholic nationalist Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem gradually solidified his authority in South Vietnam and, with Washington's staunch support, bypassed the elections. For
| xv a time he seemed to prosper, and U.S. officials? Senator John F. Kennedy among them? crowed about a 'Diem miracle.' But the appearances deceived. In the late 1950s, an insurgency, supported by Hanoi (at first hesitantly), took root in the south. By 1959, a new war for Vietnam had begun, a war the Vietnamese would come to call 'the American war.' That July, two American servicemen, Major Dale Buis and Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand, were killed in an insurgent attack on a base near Bien Hoa, twenty miles north of Saigon. Theirs would be the first of more than 58,000 names carved into the black granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. few topics in contemporary history have been studied and analyzed and debated more than the Vietnam War. The long and bloody struggle, which killed in excess of three million Vietnamese and wreaked destruction on huge portions of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, has inspired a vast outpouring of books, articles, television documentaries, and Hollywood movies, as well as scholarly conferences and college courses. Nor is there any reason to believe the torrent of words will slow anytime soon, given the war's immense human and material toll and given its deep? and persisting? resonance in American politics and culture. Yet remarkably, we still do not have a full-fledged international account of how the whole saga began, a book that takes us from the end of World War I, when the future of the European colonial empires still seemed secure, through World War II and then the Franco'Viet Minh War and its dramatic climax, to the fateful American decision to build up and defend South Vietnam.8 Embers of War is an attempt at such a history. It is the story of one Western power's demise in Indochina and the arrival of another, of a revolutionary army's stunning victory in 1954 in the face of immense challenges, and of the failure of that victory to bring lasting peace to Vietnam.9 To put it a different way, it is the story of how Dale Buis and Chester Ovnand came to be stationed and meet their fates in a far-off land that many of their compatriots barely knew existed. But it's not merely as a prelude to America's Vietnam debacle that the earlier period merits our attention. Straddling as it did the twentieth cen-
xvi | P R E F A C E tury's midpoint, the French Indochina War sat at the intersection of the grand political forces that drove world affairs during the century.10 Thus Indochina's experience between 1945 and 1954 is intimately bound up with the transformative effects of the Second World War and the outbreak and escalation of the Cold War, and in particular with the emergence of the United States as the predominant power in Asian and world affairs. And thus the struggle is also part of the story of European colonialism and its encounter with anticolonial nationalists? who drew their inspiration in part from European and American ideas and promises. In this way, the Franco'Viet Minh War was simultaneously an East-West and North-South conflict, pitting European imperialism in its autumn phase against the two main competitors that gained momentum by midcentury? Communist-inspired revolutionary nationalism and U.S.- backed liberal internationalism. If similar processes played out across much of the globe after 1945, Vietnam deserves special study because it was one of the first places where this destructive dynamic could be seen. It was also where the dynamic remained in place, decade after bloody decade.11 My goal in this book is to help a new generation of readers relive this extraordinary story: a twentieth-century epic featuring lifeanddeath decisions made under profound pressure, a vast mobilization of men and resources, and a remarkable cast of largerthanlife characters ranging from Ho Chi Minh to Charles de Gaulle to Dean Acheson to Zhou Enlai, from Bao Dai to Anthony Eden to Edward Lansdale to Ngo Dinh Diem, as well as half a dozen U.S. presidents. Throughout, the focus is on the political and diplomatic dimensions of the struggle, but I also devote considerable space to the military campaigns that, I maintain, were crucial to the outcome.12 Laos and Cambodia enter the narrative at various points, but I give pride of place to developments in Vietnam, far more populous and politically important than her Indochinese neighbors. In retrospect, given the broader historical context, there is an air of inevitability about the flow of events in this story, as there is about a great river. A prostrate France, having been overrun by Nazi Germany in a mere six weeks in 1940 and further humiliated in meekly ceding Indochina to the advancing Japanese, sought after 1945 to reestablish colonial control, at a time when the whole edifice of the European imperial system
| xvii was crumbling how could she possibly hope to succeed? Add to this the ruthless discipline, tenacity, and fighting skill of the Viet Minh, and the comparative weakness of non-Communist Vietnamese nationalists? before and after 1954? and it becomes seemingly all but impossible to imagine a different result than the one that occurred. Yet the story of the French Indochina War and its aftermath is a contingent one, full of alternative political choices, major and minor, considered and taken, reconsidered and altered, in Paris and Saigon, in Washington and Beijing, and in the Viet Minh's headquarters in the jungles of Tonkin. It's a reminder to us that to the decision makers of the past, the future was merely a set of possibilities. If the decolonization of Indochina was bound to occur, the process could have played out in a variety of ways, as the experience of European colonies in other parts of South and Southeast Asia shows.13 Moreover, difficult though it may be to remember now, in the early going the odds were against the Viet Minh. They were weak and vulnerable in military and diplomatic terms, a reality not lost on Ho Chi Minh, a political pragmatist who labored diligently and in vain both to head off war with France and to get official American backing for his cause. Nor could Ho get meaningful assistance from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who was preoccupied with European concerns and in any event deemed the Vietnamese leader too independent-minded to be trusted. Even the French Communist Party, anxious to appear patriotic and moderate before the metropolitan electorate, repeatedly refused his pleas for support, and indeed connived in the venture of reconquest. And so the Viet Minh for a long time fought alone, largely isolated in non-Asian world opinion. The French had a massive superiority in weapons and could take and hold any area they really wanted. Even after Chinese aid started to flow to the Viet Minh in early 1950, the outlook remained uncertain, as France could now claim a still-morepowerful patron of her own, in the form of the United States. Throughout the struggle, Vietnamese sources show, Viet Minh units under General Vo Nguyen Giap endured unfathomable hardships, including acute food shortages and logistical difficulties and, after 1950, the terrifying effects of a new U.S.-produced industrial weapon of the age: napalm. In May 1954, at the moment of the glorious Dien Bien Phu triumph, Giap's army
xviii | P R E F A C E was exhausted, a spent force with sagging morale, in desperate need of a respite. Politically too, Ho, for all his deep and broad popular support and charismatic appeal, always faced domestic challenges to his authority. Beginning in 1947, the French tried to rally to the anti'Viet Minh cause Vietnamese nationalists who so far had stayed neutral, and to peel away from Ho those anti-Communists who to that point had endorsed him. Ho himself saw the danger: What if Paris made far-reaching concessions to a rival Vietnamese regime, involving the transfer of genuine executive and legislative authority and a commitment to eventual independence? It could be a disaster. Later, after the partition in mid-1954, another worry: What if the South Vietnamese government? with a leader, Diem, whose nationalist credentials were almost as sterling as his own? could strengthen its authority to the point that it could doom forever his dream of a unified Vietnam under Viet Minh control? These were live possibilities, much discussed and debated in the Viet Minh inner councils and among informed analysts elsewhere. Which is not to say they were ever close to being realized. To argue for contingency and the inherent plausibility of alternative outcomes is not to say all were equally probable. This is the advantage that hindsight affords. Though many senior French officials understood that in Vietnamese nationalism they faced a very potent entity, one made immeasurably stronger by the nature and outcome of the Pacific War, they could never bring themselves to grant the concessions necessary to have a hope of mollifying this force. An independent Vietnamese nation-state wholly or even mostly free of French control remained outside their imaginations they could not make the mental leap required.14 Even Pierre Mend's France, a heroic figure to many for his longtime advocacy of negotiations with Ho and his key role as prime minister in ending the fighting in 1954, did not embrace decolonization, not fully, and not until after the game was up. American officials, who pressed Paris hard to grant full independence and continue the war against the Viet Minh, did not comprehend the basic problem: Why should France fight a dangerous, bloody, inconclusive war that would end in the abandonment of French interests in Asia? As for Diem's prospects after 1954, these were never as hopeless as most early histories claimed or as rosy as some later authors asserted.
| xix An intelligent and courageous patriot, Diem was the only major nonCommunist political figure to emerge in Vietnam from 1945 to 1975 even remotely able to think disinterestedly of his country's future, of constructing a political framework, or of challenging the Communist leadership in the north on something approaching competitive grounds. Given the indifference among the great powers? including North Vietnam's allies China and the Soviet Union? about following through with the elections for reunification called for at Geneva, it's not impossible to imagine a scenario in which Diem's South Vietnam survives, South Korea'style, into the indefinite future. But neither is it easy to imagine such an outcome. Over time, Diem's shortcomings as a leader? his rigidity, his limited conception of leadership, his easy resort to political repression? became more and more obvious. U.S. officials, well aware of these weaknesses but seeing no viable alternative leader on the horizon, stayed with him, their leverage declining with each passing year despite the regime's utter dependence on American aid. Contrary to common wisdom, it was Diem, not the United States, who possessed the dominant voice in South Vietnamese politics. Washington never had as much influence over Vietnamese affairs after 1954 as France had had before. The Saigon regime faced difficult odds for another reason too. Many thousands of Vietnamese who might otherwise have wanted no part of Communism joined the Viet Minh against the French, motivated by a deep desire to achieve national independence. Among them were many of the most able and dedicated patriots in the country. Other nationalist groups, meanwhile, had either withered because they refused to choose sides or had thrown in their lot with the French against the Communists, hoping to achieve independence through incremental political reform, but instead losing all credibility with their compatriots for partnering with the hated colonial overlord. As a result, the human resources available to build a viable state in southern Vietnam after 1954 constituted, in author Neil Sheehan's words, 'a mere residue,' diminished by years of vacillation, compromise, and collaboration, riven by dissension and intrigue.15 Readers familiar with the American war in Vietnam? and with the debates surrounding more recent U.S. military interventions? may experience feelings of d'j? vu at points in this book. The soldierly complaints
xx | P R E F A C E about the difficulty of telling friend from foe, and about the poor fighting spirit among 'our? as compared to 'their? indigenous troops the gripes by commanders about timorous and meddling politicians back home the solemn warnings against disengagement, as this would dishonor the soldiers who had already fallen (the 'sunk-cost fallacy,' social psychologists would call it) the stubborn insistence that 'premature? negotiations should be avoided? all these refrains, ubiquitous in 1966 and 1967 (and in 2004 and 2005), could be heard also in 1948 and 1949. The same was true of the tactical and strategic 'innovations? U.S. planners offered up most of these, including the concept of 'counterinsurgency? (as the Americans would call it), had been tried also under the French. And always, there were the promises of imminent success, of corners about to be turned. When U.S. commanding general William Westmoreland in late 1967 exulted that 'we have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view,' he was repeating a prediction made by French commander Henri Navarre a decade and a half earlier, in May 1953.16 Civilian leaders, meanwhile, in Paris as much as in Washington, boxed themselves in with their constant public affirmations of the conflict's importance and of the certainty of ultimate success. To order a halt and reverse course would be to call into question their own and their country's judgment and to threaten their careers, their reputations. Far better in the short term? always the term that matters most to the ambitious politician? to forge ahead and hope for the best, to ignore the warning signs and the contrary intelligence and diplomatic reports. With each passing year after 1949, the struggle for senior French policy makers became less about the future of Indochina, less about grand geopolitical concerns, and more about domestic political strategizing, careerism, and satiating powerful interest groups at home.17 The main objective now was to avoid embarrassment and hang on, to muddle through, to avoid outright defeat, at least until the next vote of confidence or the next election. 'The stalemate machine,' Daniel Ellsberg would call it with reference to the American war it was fully operational also during the French struggle.18 Sophistry and vapid argumentation became the order of the day, as leaders sought to save face? or, as they would put it, to achieve an 'honorable peace''while treasure and lives were being lost. That the general public was for a long time apathetic about the war? most French
| xxi voters, like most Americans later, were too preoccupied with their own lives to become interested in a small Asian country thousands of miles away? did not lessen this imperative, even if in theory it should have it merely made it easier for officials to offer rote affirmations in favor of the status quo. Journalist David Halberstam, asked by a British colleague to comment on his wartime reporting in Vietnam, remarked, 'The problem was trying to cover something every day as news when in fact the real key was that it was all derivative of the French Indochina war, which is history. So you really should have had a third paragraph in each story which should have said, 'All of this is shit and none of this means anything because we are in the same footsteps as the French and we are prisoners of their experience.' ? America's intervention, Halberstam said on a later occasion, occurred 'in the embers of another colonial war.'19 Somehow, American leaders for a long time convinced themselves that the remarkable similarities between the French experience and their own were not really there. What mattered, they maintained, was that the French were a decadent people trying vainly to prop up a colonial empire, their army a hidebound, intellectually bankrupt enterprise. They had fought badly in Indochina and deserved to lose. Americans, on the other hand, were the good guys, militarily invincible, who selflessly had come to help the Vietnamese in their hour of need and would then go home. 'We have a clean base there now, without a taint of colonialism,' Secretary of State John Foster Dulles crowed to a friend as France pulled the last of her soldiers out of Vietnam. 'Dien Bien Phu was a blessing in disguise.'20 It was, for the most part, self-delusion. For one thing, the French Expeditionary Corps usually fought with bravery and determination and skill, as we shall see. For another, France's war was also America's war? Washington footed much of the bill, supplied most of the weaponry, and pressed Paris leaders to hang tough when their will faltered. Well before the climax at Dien Bien Phu, Viet Minh leaders considered the United States, not France, their principal foe. Furthermore, what Dulles and other U.S. officials for a long time didn't fathom, and then refused to acknowledge after they did, was that colonialism is often in the eyes of the beholder: To a great many Vietnamese after 1954, the United States was
xxii | P R E F A C E just another big white Western power, as responsible as the French for the suffering of the first war and now there to impose her will on them, to tell them how to conduct their affairs, with guns at the ready.21 The other side, led by the venerable 'Uncle Ho,' had opposed the Japanese and driven out the French and thereby secured a nationalist legitimacy that was, in a fundamental way, fixed for all time? whatever their later governing misdeeds. They, much more than the succession of governments in South Vietnam, were the heirs of an anticolonial revolution. Ironically, Ho Chi Minh had been among those who for a long time resisted drawing this conclusion about America and her role. For thirty years, from the 1910s until 1948'49, he clung to the hope that the United States was different? a new kind of world power that had been born out of an anticolonial reaction and was an advocate of selfdetermination for all nations, large and small. Like many deeply held beliefs, this one had taken root early, when the twenty-something Ho visited Boston and New York in 1912'13 and a few years later read Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. The United States, he came fervently to believe, could be the champion of his cause. (In the French nightmare, he was right.)22 In 1919, at the end of the Great War, with Wilson due in Paris to negotiate a peace 'to end all wars,' the unknown young nationalist set out to make his case. It's here that our story begins.
VIETNAMESE IN PARIS In june 1919, as world leaders gathered in paris to shape the peace following 'the war to end all wars,' a young man from Vietnam set out to present them with a petition called 'The Demands of the Vietnamese People.' He hoped in particular to reach Woodrow Wilson, the American president who stood at center stage in Paris and whose Fourteen Points seemed to promise self-determination for all peoples. 'All subject peoples,' the petition read, 'are filled with hope by the prospect that an era of right and justice is opening to them . . . in the struggle of civilization against barbarism.' It then listed eight demands for the French overlords of Vietnam, including Vietnamese representation in the French parliament, freedom of the press and the right of free association in Vietnam, freedom of emigration and foreign travel, and the establishment of rule of law instead of rule by decree. The petition was signed, 'For the Group of Vietnamese Patriots, Nguyen Ai Quoc.'1 To better his chances of winning an audience with Wilson, Quoc had rented a morning coat for the occasion. But he never got anywhere near the American president? or any of the other principal players. Thin and frail, with gaunt facial features and piercing black eyes, his unimposing figure was lost among the other nationalist representatives from Asia and Africa who also clamored to meet the American president. Wilson probably never even saw the petition he certainly did not reply to it.2 Throughout the war, he had framed his principles in sweeping, universal terms, but it's clear that when he spoke of self-determination he had Europeans primarily in mind? in particular the peoples dominated by
| E M B E R S O F WA R the defeated Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. If he did not explicitly exclude non-European peoples from the right to self-rule, neither did he expect the peace conference to grapple with colonial questions beyond those arising from the war itself. Colonial peoples might achieve independence, Wilson evidently believed, but not right away and not without the tutelage of a 'civilized? power that would prepare them for self-government.3 One group that did pay attention to Nguyen Ai Quoc's appeal was the S'ret? G'n'rale, the French security police. They soon began tailing him and confiscating letters and articles he wrote, and they appealed for information to the colonial administration in Hanoi. Who was this mystery agitator? Where did he come from? Why did his name not show up in the immigration records for Indochinese entering into France? Gradually that autumn, a picture took form. He hailed from Nghe An province on the narrow and mountainous coast of north-central Vietnam, but had apparently been abroad for several years, spending much of his time in London. He had a wide circle of acquaintances among the disparate community of Vietnamese in Paris? intellectuals as well as workers and soldiers conscripted during the war? and appeared to have broad support among them. He maintained contacts with Irish and Korean nationalists who had come to Paris to lobby the great powers for independence. To pay the bills, he worked as a photo retoucher and took whatever freelance journalism assignments he could find. His age was uncertain, but S'ret? officials took him to be about thirty. By the start of 1920, they had staked out his apartment at 6 Villa des Gobelins, a quiet, residential culdesac in the thirteenth arrondissement in southeastern Paris.4 Little did anyone know that this wraithlike and penniless scribe would in time become one of the great revolutionaries of the twentieth century, his face more recognizable to more people than those of the great statesmen who snubbed him in 1919. He would lead his people into total war against not one but two Western powers, first France and then the United States, in a struggle lasting three decades and costing millions of lives. His name then would no longer be Nguyen Ai Quoc (He Who Loves His Country). It would be Ho Chi Minh (He Who Enlightens).5
| 5 II vietnam under french domination was all ho chi minh had ever known, but this was not saying a great deal: He was still a young man in 1919. Compared to the Dutch in the East Indies, or the British in India, the French were neophyte imperialists in this part of the world, having gained full colonial control of Vietnam only a few years before Ho's birth.6 Their initial arrival had come much earlier? already in the mid-seventeenth century Paris had established missionary and trade organizations in Vietnam? but only in 1850, under the pretext of protecting Vietnamese Catholics, did they begin their conquest. By 1884, they had achieved colonial domination of Vietnam, and in short order they added neighboring Cambodia and Laos to what now became the Indochinese fold. It was a long trip from home for the young Frenchmen sent to take up colonial posts. The journey covered some 8,500 miles and might take weeks, with stops along the way in places such as Port Said, Aden, and Singapore. Upon arrival in Vietnam? or Annam, as the French called it? some adjusted quickly, some did not, but a great many in both categories expressed stupefied wonder at the extraordinary biodiversity they encountered. Even those who saw only a part of the country witnessed so much that was new to them? the vast deltas, the astonishingly eroded limestone peaks, the sand-dune coastal forests, the forest mosaics and savannalike grassland. Many wrote home with vivid descriptions of the flora and fauna, the countless species they had never seen before. Many commented on the sheer luster of the place, of the seemingly infinite number of shades of green, in the rice paddies, the grasses, the palms, the rubber trees with their green oval leaves, the pine trees on faraway hills. And they wrote of the challenge of enduring the heavy rains of the monsoon (which were to have a profound impact on the fighting to come) and the soaring temperatures of the dry season. From early on, the lure of profit was the engine that drove French colonial policy. Commercial interests and government officials sought economic gain by exploiting the area's natural resources and opening up new markets for the manufactured goods of metropolitan France. Indo-
| E M B E R S O F WA R china, in this regard, held special appeal, offering an entry point into the (theoretically) immense market of China.7 But colonies were not merely a hedge against the vicissitudes of the capitalist economic cycle they were also a potential source of military strength, grandeur, and national security. The colonial venture in Southeast Asia would, so the argument went, enhance French power and increase its credibility on the world stage. It would also prevent rival world powers, notably Great Britain, from staking a claim on the territory. 'The political interest in this expedition,' the Commission de la Cochinchine (Special Commission for Indochina) noted in 1857, 'arises from the force of circumstances propelling the Western nations toward the Far East. Are we to be the only ones who possess nothing in the area, while the English, the Dutch, the Spanish, and even the Russians establish themselves there'? With the British holding a dominant position in eastern China along the coast, French planners turned their focus southward, to the Vietnamese shore of the South China Sea. In the words of the Marseille Chamber of Commerce in 1865, the goal was 'to make Saigon a French Singapore.'8 To the metropolitan populace, officials offered a different justification. France, they proclaimed, was engaged in a noble 'civilizing mission? (mission civilisatrice), dispensing the benefits of modern civilization to the primitive peoples of Asia and Africa: the 'white man's burden,' Rudyard Kipling had called it in his famous poem of 1899. In earlier times, this sentiment had usually been cloaked in religious terms? to bring the word of God to the heathen? but by the 1880s and 1890s, the civilizing mission of French colonialism could be couched in secular language: Commercial development would integrate Asian societies into the world market. This would lead not only to their economic development but to a modern society based on representative government, the rule of law, and individual freedom.9 There were contradictions in these objectives, as perceptive observers quickly saw. The publicized goal of the civilizing mission rested uneasily alongside the pragmatic objective of exploiting the economic resources of the colonial territories for the benefit of the home country. As a result, the colonial government was never prepared to support the development of an indigenous manufacturing and commercial sector in Indochina that
| 7 might compete against manufactured goods imported from France. The industrialization of colonial Indochina thus never occurred. Nor could Paris sincerely promote democratic institutions in Indochina when, in the end, such a society would inevitably wish to reclaim its independence. The first elected political entities in Indochina, which took the form of municipal councils in the larger cities and assemblies at the provincial level, lacked meaningful decision-making power and were composed mostly of Europeans or of wealthy local elites prepared to work within the colonial system. Unlike in India, where the emergence of the Indian Congress Party allowed nationalists to pursue their quest for independence partly through constitutional means, Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues were forced down revolutionary roads. All the while, the message of the mission civilisatrice continued to be preached and even to animate the private discussions of some colonial officials, who believed they were bringing modernity and civilization to the Indochinese people, even when their actions often suggested something else. This ambiguity at the heart of French colonial policy would never go away ultimately, it would bring the whole enterprise crashing down. Equally portentous for the future was the division of Vietnam into three separate regions: Cochin China in the south (Nam Bo), a formal colony, along with the 'protectorates? of Annam in the center (Trung Bo) and Tonkin in the north (Bac Bo). This division generated a welter of administrative arrangements that were in reality less complex than they seemed, for Annam and Tonkin were really colonies too. From 1887, a single ruler, the Paris-appointed governor-general of the 'French Indochinese Union,' dominated all three sections of Vietnam, along with Laos and Cambodia, from his palace in Hanoi.10 Yet the three sections of Vietnam developed differently, in part because the topography dictated as much. With her curved, hourglass shape, measuring some 127,000 square miles (about three-quarters the size of California, or slightly smaller than Japan), she bedeviled French administrators, and it didn't help that the two deltas where most of the population lived, one in the north and one in the south, were seven hundred miles apart, connected via a long and narrow central region that at one point tapered to just thirty miles in width. Annam and Tonkin, poor in natural resources, attracted relatively little direct French economic
| E M B E R S O F WA R penetration and were from the start somewhat peripheral in the colonial system. Cochin China, by contrast, experienced intensive efforts at economic exploitation and cultural transformation. Boasting a tropical climate and fertile soil, Cochin China became the principal base of French capitalism in Vietnam and the destination of choice for the French nationals who emigrated there. Many settled in the rich Mekong Delta, built up from a shallow marine bottom by alluvial deposits of the mighty Mekong River that terminates its meandering course here. Saigon, the colony's capital and commercial center, became known variously as the 'Pearl of the Far East? and the 'Paris of the Orient.' Early governors-general devoted much energy to economic development, using various forms of direct and indirect taxation to finance much of the work. These taxes placed a heavy burden on the majority-peasant populace, arousing widespread resentment, but the achievements were considerable: the creation of a road and railway network the development of rubber plantations, many of them along the Cambodian border, and mining operations the establishment of irrigation systems that vastly increased the area of cultivable rice paddies in the Mekong Delta the combating of malaria the construction of hospitals and schools and the creation of a Pasteur Institute in Hanoi, as well as a university. In relatively short order, there emerged an affluent Vietnamese bourgeoisie centered in Saigon, its wealth based on commerce and absentee landlordism. Frequently its members grew to admire French culture and institutions, eating the same food and wearing the same clothes as the settlers, or colons. (Sometimes more than admiration was at work: They hoped that by so doing, they could establish civilizational parity on the cultural front.) But they were often scorned by these same colons, and many of them resented the economic domination of the Europeans and the absence of genuine political autonomy. Nevertheless, when these Vietnamese agitated for increased political influence and economic benefits, they generally did so within the confines of the French colonial system. Others were not so constrained. Beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, the colonial system came under challenge from the first generation of nationalists, who were inspired in part by the very educational system that the French had imposed, which sought to elevate
| 9 French teachings and models over Confucian ones. Some of these teachings were, to say the least, unhelpful to the colonial enterprise. Voltaire's condemnation of tyranny, Rousseau's embrace of popular sovereignty, and Victor Hugo's advocacy of liberty and defense of workers? uprisings turned some Vietnamese into that curious creature found also elsewhere in the empire: the Francophile anticolonialist. These early nationalists also drew encouragement from Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904'5, which showed conclusively that Asians could triumph over European power. By 1907, alarmed colonial military officials could report the existence of 'revolutionary and subversive theories? among indigenous troops, and in the succeeding years exiled leaders, many of them in Japan, flooded their homeland with anti-French pamphlets and poems. In colonial prisons, meanwhile, squalid conditions and overcrowding in common rooms fueled nationalist agitation. For a time, French authorities kept a lid on the agitation, and by the outbreak of World War I in 1914 they felt sufficiently secure to leave only 2,500 European military personnel in Indochina.11 Scarcely did they realize that the war, a global struggle with an important colonial dimension, would be a major catalyst for nationalist movements throughout Asia and Africa. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, and Africans fought on the Western Front, with some 200,000 perishing on the French side alone. A new generation of Vietnamese expected something in return for this massive sacrifice and were not impressed by the sentimental imperialism that extolled the participation of people of all colors and religions in saving 'eternal France.' In particular, these Vietnamese counted on French authorities to adopt a reformist policy in Indochina, greatly increasing local autonomy, and they were emboldened by several powerful forces emerging at the same global conjuncture: Wilsonianism, with its promise of selfdetermination Bolshevism and the birth of the Third International (Comintern), created to support and guide Communists throughout the world and preaching anti-imperialism and the example of Sun Yat-sen's Nationalist Party in China, which preached a tripartite message of nationalism, democracy, and socialism.
10 | E M B E R S O F WA R III for ho chi minh, certainly, the great war would have this kind of transformative impact, even if his nationalist agitation predated the outbreak of hostilities. Christened Nguyen Sinh Cung at his birth in Nghe An in 1890, he took the name Nguyen Tat Thanh (Nguyen Who Will Succeed) at age ten.12 Under his father's tutelage, Ho studied classical Confucian texts but also the writings of leading Vietnamese nationalists such as Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh. These left a deep impression, and when Ho enrolled at the prestigious National Academy in Hue in 1907, he had already committed himself to the great task of reclaiming Vietnam for the Vietnamese people. The following year he was expelled for lending support to peasants protesting high agricultural taxes and corv'e labor. Pursued by the French secret police, Ho made his way south, taking jobs where he could. In early 1911, at age twenty-one, intent on saving his country and learning more about European civilization, he left Vietnam, signing on as an assistant cook on a steamer bound for France, under the pseudonym Van Ba? the first of some seventy aliases he would use. He would not see Vietnam again for thirty years. Ho Chi Minh's travels would take him over the next several years to ports in Asia and Africa, to Mexico and South America, to the United States and Britain. He first reached French soil in September 1911, disembarking in Marseille. His views were complex, mixing opposition to colonialism with a fascination with French culture and a respect for the French ideas of libert', 'galit', et fraternit? that he would never reject. France, he realized, was not exclusively a nation of policemen and colonial officials, and he hardly came off as radical in his first communication with the authorities, an application for admission to a government school training bureaucrats for service in the colonies. 'I am eager to learn and hope to serve France among my compatriots,' he wrote.13 Skeptics will say he was merely being careful with his words, and that he sought admission to this academy merely so he would learn from France how to fight France. Possibly, but there's no doubt he possessed in these years conflicting feelings about the colonial overlord and about how swiftly independence for Vietnam must come. Like many colonial subjects, Ho
| 11 then still believed, in that prewar moment, that the 'modernization? of his country might be best achieved working with the colonizers, not against them, and that Republican France would in fact live up to the ideals she professed to hold dear.14 In late 1912, he crossed the Atlantic aboard a French vessel, visiting Boston before taking a job as a laborer in New York City. Manhattan's skyline astonished him, and he was impressed that Chinese immigrants in the United States could claim legal protection even though they were ineligible for U.S. citizenship. He expressed admiration for Abraham Lincoln's leadership in ending slavery and preserving the Union. But Ho also saw the grim realities of America's current race relations as he mingled with blacks in Harlem. It dismayed him that America could espouse such idealistic principles yet subject blacks to segregation, to blatant discrimination in all areas of public life, to lynching. Ho Chi Minh stayed in the United States several months, whereupon he decamped for London, finding work as a pastry chef under the renowned chef Auguste Escoffier at the luxurious Carlton Hotel. Always thirsty for knowledge? it was one of his distinctive personal attributes? he spent his free time reading and writing and improving his English. (He eventually spoke it almost fluently, along with French, Russian, and Chinese.)15 The Irish struggle for independence moved him deeply, and he later wrote that he cried upon learning of the death in 1920 of the mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, who had been sentenced to two years in prison by the British and who suffered in anguish for seventy-four days during a hunger strike.16 Here again, as in New York, Ho witnessed the disconnect between theory and practice, saw the willingness of even liberal democracies to tolerate discrimination and colonialism. All the while, Paris beckoned. At the end of the Great War, Ho crossed the English Channel and immediately immersed himself in the political activities of anticolonial nationalists living in the French capital.17 Soon he became one of their leaders, working first from shabby apartments at 10 rue de Stockholm and 56 rue M. le Prince, then from the flat at Villa des Gobelins. In the spring of 1919, together with fellow nationalists Phan Chu Trinh and Phan Van Truong, he drafted the petition for the Allied leaders at the Paris Peace Conference. To be more precise, Ho and Trinh came up with the basic points, and Truong? the ablest styl-
12 | E M B E R S O F WA R ist of the three, at least in French? wrote them down, over the signature Nguyen Ai Quoc. As Ho himself perhaps understood, his appearance at the Peace Conference marked the start of a new chapter of his life, and it would have done so irrespective of how the Allied statesmen reacted to his modest plea. In the months thereafter, he became more radicalized, more certain that his cause must be the full independence of peoples subjected to colonialism of any sort. He couldn't count on Woodrow Wilson, he knew? he had read into Wilson's message a universal liberating agenda that the American never intended. Accordingly, Ho made connections with Koreans fighting for independence from Japan, and Irish activists who sought the same from Britain. When the governor-general of Indochina, Albert Sarraut, late in 1919 proposed a set of reforms to colonial policy in Indochina, Ho rejected them as inadequate. The reforms, he charged, would have little or no impact on ordinary Vietnamese, who lived lives of scorn and humiliation. His activism now drew the attention of French Socialists such as L'on Blum and Jean Longuet, who invited him to join them. He did, attending the party's congress in the provincial capital of Tours in December 1920. A striking photograph taken at the meeting shows a slender and intense Ho addressing a group of well-fed and mustachioed Frenchmen, appealing to them for support, 'in the name of all Socialists, right wing or left wing.' It is impossible for me in just a few minutes to demonstrate to you all the atrocities committed in Indochina by the bandits of capitalism. There are more prisons than schools and the prisons are always terribly overcrowded. . . . Freedom of the press and opinion does not exist for us, nor does the freedom to unite or associate. We don't have the right to emigrate or travel abroad. We live in the blackest ignorance because we don't have the freedom of instruction. In Indochina, they do their best to intoxicate us with opium and brutalize us with alcohol. They kill many thousands of [Vietnamese] and massacre thousands of others to defend interests that are not theirs. That, comrades, is how twenty million [Vietnam-
| 13 ese], who represent more than half the population of France, are treated.18 The speech, twelve minutes in length and delivered without notes, won warm applause but little more. Ho quickly realized that colonialism ranked low for a party focused on the struggle between capitalism and socialism within France. When a group of socialists broke off to form the French Communist Party, Ho went with them. He had read Lenin's 'Theses on the National and Colonial Questions,' a document that, in his own words, attracted him as a means of liberating Vietnam and other oppressed countries from colonial rule. Other Marxist writers whose work he knew seemed concerned only with how to achieve a classless utopia, a subject that left him cold. Only Lenin spoke powerfully about the connection between capitalism and imperialism and about the potential for nationalist movements in Africa and Asia. Only he offered a cogent explanation for colonialist rule and a viable blueprint for national liberation and for modernizing a poor agricultural society such as Vietnam's. Communism could be applied to Asia, Ho Chi Minh assured his HO CHI MINH AT THE CONGRESS OF THE FRENCH SOCIALIST PARTY, TOURS, DECEMBER 29, 1920.
14 | E M B E R S O F WA R Vietnamese allies in Paris more than that, it was in keeping with Asian traditions based on notions of social equality and community. Moreover, Lenin had pledged Soviet support, through the Comintern, for nationalist uprisings throughout the colonial world as a key first step in fomenting worldwide socialist revolution against the capitalist order. What could be more relevant to Indochina's situation'19 'What emotion, enthusiasm, clear-sightedness and confidence it instilled in me,' he recalled, years later, of reading Lenin's pamphlet. 'I was overjoyed to tears. Though sitting alone in my room, I shouted aloud as if addressing large crowds: 'Dear martyrs, compatriots! This is what we need, this is our path to liberation.' '20 One is tempted to draw a straight line between the failure of the great powers to address the colonial question seriously in 1919 and this decision by Ho Chi Minh? and many other Asian nationalists? to turn to more aggressive means to achieve independent nation-states. There's something to the notion. Lenin's position on colonialism and selfdetermination was substantially formed by the time the peace conference got under way, but he was very much in Wilson's shadow that year, his words far less influential in the colonial world. The American president had set the terms of the armistice and appeared ready to do the same for the peace settlement. Upon arrival in Europe, he was showered with adulation everywhere he went, greeted as a conquering hero, a savior of the world. Lenin's Bolsheviks, meanwhile, were struggling to maintain power in Russia, engaged in a bloody civil war whose outcome was anything but certain. Only later, after the collapse of what historian Erez Manela has aptly called 'the Wilsonian Moment? and the stabilization of Soviet rule in Russia, did Lenin's influence in the colonial world begin to surpass Wilson's. For Ho Chi Minh, the turn had been made by the early weeks of 1921.21 Thus began for Ho a frenetic period of writing and of attending conferences and lectures. He cofounded a journal, La Paria (The Outcast), and churned out articles for publications such as Le Journal du peuple, L'Humanit', and La revue communiste. He wrote and staged a play, Le Dragon de bambou, a scathing portrayal of an imaginary Asian king the audience response was apparently underwhelming, and the play closed after a brief run. He found time to attend art exhibitions and concerts, to
| 15 read Hugo and Voltaire and Shakespeare, and to hang out in the caf's of Montmartre, where everyone debated everything. In May 1922 he even wrote an article for the movie magazine Cin'graph that showed again his complex view of the colonial metropole. The French boxer Georges Carpentier had just defeated the British champion Ted Lewis, and Ho, writing under the pseudonym Guy N'Qua, waxed indignant that French sportswriters had resorted to Franglais in their coverage with phrases such as 'le manager,' 'le knockout,' 'le round.' He urged Prime Minister Raymond Poincar? to ban the use of foreign words by newspapers. France, he grandly proclaimed in a letter written during this period, was the land of Voltaire and Hugo, who personified 'the spirit of brotherhood and noble love of peace? that permeated French society.22 In these years, as he would all his life, Ho made a deep and winning impression on those he encountered. Many remarked on his humor, sensitivity, and sentimentality, on his extraordinary ability to charm. Recalled L'o Pold's, a member of the French Socialist Party who founded the Club de Faubourg, the setting for many debates Ho attended: It was at one of our weekly meetings that I noticed this thin, almost anemic indigene in the rear. He had a Chaplinesque aura about him? simultaneously sad and comic, vous savez. I was instantly struck by his piercing dark eyes. He posed a provocative question it eludes me now. I encouraged him to return. He did, and I grew more and more affectionate toward him. He was tr's sympathique? reserved but not shy, intense but not fanatical, and extremely clever. I especially liked his ironic way of deprecating everyone while, at the same time, deprecating himself.23 Later many of these traits would appear also in his public utterances and his diplomatic negotiations, which some interpreted as posturing intended merely to mislead his interlocutors and enemies. Perhaps, but if Ho was always a tactician, the evidence is strong that he also had his spontaneous side. A marvelous example of this comes from Jacques Sternel, a union organizer who offered words of support for Vietnamese workers in France. Ho came up to thank him. 'He asked my permission to kiss me on both cheeks,' Sternel remembered. 'And it was certainly
16 | E M B E R S O F WA R not an exceptional gesture on his part. There were only three of us there: him, my wife, and I. That's just the kind of emotional impulses he always had.'24 IV the charm and the clever debating points went only so far. Over the course of 1922 and the first part of 1923, Ho Chi Minh came to the depressing realization? and not for the last time? that the French Communist Party attached barely more priority to the colonial question than had the Socialists. For both parties, European issues were what truly mattered. No doubt this recognition played into Ho's decision in 1923 to leave Paris for Moscow. The move would put him closer to home, and he hoped also to meet Lenin and other Soviet leaders. On June 13, 1923, in an elaborately prepared plan to elude police surveillance, he made his way to Gare du Nord and boarded a train for Berlin, posing as a Chinese businessman. From there he continued to Hamburg, then by boat to Petrograd (later Leningrad, now St. Petersburg), finally reaching Moscow at the start of July. Here too there would be disappointment. Lenin was ill and dying, and passed away in January 1924. Ho Chi Minh took the news hard: 'Lenin was our father, our teacher, our comrade, our representative. Now, he is a shining star showing us the way to Socialism.' Ho joined the crowds waiting hours in '30'C temperatures to view the dead leader, and suffered frostbite to his fingers and nose. He participated in meetings of the Comintern, wrote articles for various publications, and, it seems, enrolled at the newly founded School for the Oppressed People of the East (also known as the Stalin School), which trained Communist cadres and helped organize revolutionary movements in Asia. But Ho found relatively little interest for his message? which he articulated in meetings both of the Comintern and of the Peasant International, or Cresintern? that the agrarian societies of Asia had nationalist aspirations and revolutionary potential that must be nurtured. Eurocentrism reigned supreme here just as it did in the French Communist Party, and just as it did among American champions of 'self-determination.' He was, he later said, a 'voice crying in the wilderness.'25
| 17 Still, the Moscow interlude must have been a heady time for Ho, as he communed with what he called 'the great Socialist family.' No longer did he have to fear that the French police were watching his every move, ready to arrest him and charge him with treason. He was seen in Red Square in the company of senior Soviet leaders Gregory Zinoviev and Kliment Voroshilov and became known as a specialist on colonial affairs and also on Asia. In the autumn of 1924, the Soviets sent him to southern China, ostensibly to act as an interpreter for the Comintern's advisory mission to Sun Yat-sen's Nationalist government in Canton but in reality to organize the first Marxist revolutionary organization in Indochina. To that end, he published a journal, created the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League in 1925, and set up a training institute that attracted students from all over Vietnam. Along with Marxism-Leninism, he taught his own brand of revolutionary ethics: thrift, prudence, respect for learning, modesty, and generosity? virtues that, as biographer William J. Duiker notes, had more to do with Confucian morality than with Leninism.26 In 1927, when Chiang Kai-shek began to crack down on the Chinese left, the institute was disbanded and Ho, pursued by the police, fled to Hong Kong and from there to Moscow. The Comintern sent him to France and then, at his request, to Thailand, where he spent two years organizing Vietnamese expatriates. Then, early in 1930, Ho Chi Minh presided over the creation of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Hong Kong. Eight months later, in October, on Moscow's instructions, it was renamed the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), with responsibility for spurring revolutionary activity throughout French Indochina. Initially, the ICP was but one of a plethora of entities within the Vietnamese nationalist movement. The more Francophile reformist groups advocated nonviolent reformism and were centered in Cochin China. Most sought to change colonial policy without alienating France and vowed to keep Vietnam firmly within the French Union. Of greater lasting significance, however, were more revolutionary approaches, especially in Annam and Tonkin. In the cities of Hanoi and Hue, and in provincial and district capitals scattered throughout Vietnam, anticolonial elements began to form clandestine political organizations dedicated to the eviction of the French and the restoration of national independence. The Vietnamese Nationalist Party? or VNQDD, the Viet Nam
18 | E M B E R S O F WA R Quoc Dan Dang? was the most important of these groups, and by 1929 it had some fifteen hundred members, most of them organized into small groups in the Red River Delta in Tonkin. Formed on the model of Sun Yat-sen's Nationalist Party, the VNQDD saw armed revolution as the lone means of gaining freedom for Vietnam, and in early 1930, it tried to foment a general uprising by Vietnamese serving in the French Army. On February 9, Vietnamese infantrymen massacred their French officers in Yen Bai. The French swiftly crushed the revolt, and the VNQDD's leaders were executed, were jailed, or fled to China. The party ceased to be a threat to colonial control.27 Other non-Communist nationalist groups fared no better. Despite the intensity of the Vietnamese national identity, these parties were plagued almost from the beginning with deep factional splits and the absence of a mass base. To be sure, internal divisions were a common feature in anticolonial movements throughout the Third World and had many causes, including personality clashes and disputes over strategy. In some places, such as India and Malaya, leaders overcame the differences and established a broad alliance against the colonial power. Not so in Vietnam. Here the regional and tactical differences proved too deep, or the personality disputes too severe, for nationalist parties to band together. To compound the problem, anti-Communist political parties in Vietnam showed scant interest in forming close ties with the mass of the population. With their urban roots and middle-class concerns, party leaders tended to adopt a nonchalant attitude toward the issues vital to Vietnamese peasants, such as land hunger, government corruption, and high taxes. All this created an opening for Ho Chi Minh and the ICP. French security services soon singled the party out as the most serious threat to colonial authority and devoted most of their resources to identifying the leadership. But Ho and his top lieutenants survived all French efforts to eliminate them? Ho kept constantly on the move in the 1930s, spending one year in Moscow, then in China, then in the USSR again, using different pseudonyms, his health often poor. In the mid-1930s, the party benefited from changes in the international scene. From 1936 to 1939, pressure from French authorities eased as a Popular Front government in Paris allowed Communist parties in the colonies an increased measure of freedom, the result of increased cooperation between the So-
| 19 viet Union and the Western democracies against the common threat of global fascism. In late 1939, however, after Moscow signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany, French authorities outlawed the ICP and forced its leaders into hiding. Other party members were arrested and sent to Poulo Condore (Con Dao), the notorious island prison camp in the South China Sea, where they endured wretched conditions and defiantly plotted for the future.28 The relative ease with which the French carried out this crackdown was a sign of the continuing weakness of nationalist opposition within Indochina? and by extension, of the continuing ability of the colonial master to have his way. A few thousand French officials could maintain effective control over some twenty-five million Indochinese, a reality that casts doubt on the claim by some historians that colonial control (not merely in Indochina but all over the empire) was in the interwar period already drastically undermined.29 Perhaps the seeds of the empire's ultimate collapse were already planted, its racist foundation more and more contrary to the spirit of the times, but as the 1930s drew to a close, only the most optimistic Vietnamese revolutionary? or pessimistic colonial administrator? could believe that France would soon be made to part with this Pearl of the Far East, this jewel of the imperial crown. But a tidal wave was coming, one that would sweep over Southeast Asia and leave behind a new configuration of power? and more than that, a crucial undermining of the legitimacy (and practicality) of the entire colonialist enterprise. In September 1939, a new war broke out, and by midJune 1940, France stood on the brink of defeat at the hands of invading Nazi German forces. Japan, on friendly terms with Germany and sensing an opportunity to expand southward, prepared to seize French Indochina. And Ho Chi Minh, meeting with associates in southern China, said he saw 'a very favorable opportunity for the Vietnamese revolution. We must seek every means to return home to take advantage of it.'30
AT I O N S, 1940'1945 P A R T O N E L I B E R AT I O N S, 1940'1945
'THE EMPIRE IS WITH US!' In the late afternoon of june 18, 1940, the tall, stiff-backed Frenchman walked into the BBC studios in London. His country stood on the brink of defeat. German columns were sweeping through France and had entered Paris. The French government under Marshal Philippe P'tain had fled for Bordeaux and had asked the Germans to state their terms for an armistice. These were the darkest days in the country's history, but General Charles de Gaulle, who had arrived in London the day before, was convinced that France could rise again? provided that her people did not lose heart. De Gaulle had met earlier in the day with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and had secured permission to make a broadcast to France.1 He was pale, recalled one of those present, with a brown forelock stuck to his forehead. 'He stared at the microphone as though it were France and as though he wanted to hypnotize it. His voice was clear, firm, and rather loud, the voice of a man speaking to his troops before battle. He did not seem nervous but extremely tense, as though he were concentrating all his power in one single moment.'2 De Gaulle's thoughts that day were on the French Empire, whose resources, he sensed, could keep France in the war and fighting. And they were with Britain and the United States, great powers with whom he could ally. 'Believe what I tell you,' de Gaulle intoned into the microphone, 'for I know of what I speak, and I say that nothing is lost for France.' Then, like a cleric chanting a litany, he declared: 'For France is not alone. She is not alone. She is not alone. She has a vast Empire
24 | E M B E R S O F WA R behind her. She can unite with the British Empire that rules the seas and is continuing the fight. Like Britain, she can make unlimited use of the immense industrial resources of the United States.'3 The broadcast, which lasted barely four minutes, has gone down in French history as L'Appel du 18 Juin. At the time, however, few heard it and few knew who de Gaulle was. Alexander Cadogan, the permanent undersecretary at the British Foreign Office, knew only that de Gaulle had a 'head like a pineapple and hips like a woman's.'4 Robert Murphy, the counselor at the U.S. embassy in Paris, could not recall ever having heard of him before that day. The same was true of most of de Gaulle's compatriots. Although he was notorious within French military circles for his advocacy of the mechanization of the army and the offensive deployment of tanks, few outside that select group would have recognized his name, much less known the essentials of his biography: the birth in Lille in 1890 the diploma from the military academy at Saint-Cyr the five failed (in part because of his conspicuous height) escape attempts from German prison camps in World War I the postwar military career initially under the wing of P'tain. De Gaulle had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general only a few weeks before, in the midst of the Battle of France (thus making him, at forty-nine, the youngest general in the army). He then joined Premier Paul Reynaud's government on June 5 as undersecretary of state for war. Reynaud sought to carry on the fight, but twelve days later, with the French war effort collapsing wholesale, as German armies were well south of Dijon and pressing down the Atlantic coast, he resigned. De Gaulle, certain that P'tain would seek an armistice, escaped to London, determined to continue the resistance from there. The basis for de Gaulle's speech that fateful day was his conviction that the conflict was not limited to Europe. It was a 'world war,' he declared, one 'not bound by the Battle of France.' He would be proven correct. Likewise, Britain and the United States would become critical to the ultimate victory of de Gaulle's 'Free French? organization, though not in the way he imagined. Even his deep faith in the empire's importance to his cause would in time find a certain degree of vindication.5 A vast empire it was. In 1940, it ranked in size second only to the British, extending some six million square miles and with an overseas
, 1 9 4 0 ? 1 9 4 5 | 25 population of eighty million. The island of Madagascar alone was bigger than metropolitan France. The colonies of Equatorial and West Africa together were as large as the United States. In the Middle East, the French were a major presence, and they had holdings as well in the Caribbean and the Pacific. And of course, there was Indochina, the Pearl of the Empire, rich in rubber plantations and rice fields. As the farthest-flung of the key French possessions, it along with Algeria (administered as part of France proper) conferred great power status on France and, it was thought, gave her an important voice in global affairs. As a whole, the empire took more than a third of all French trade in the 1930s (a figure inflated by the fact that the Depression caused business leaders to fall back on colonial markets) colonial troops made up 11 percent of mobilized men in 1939.6 In his memoirs of the war, de Gaulle recalled his feelings as he sat in London in 1940 and watched the deterioration of the French position in the Far East, at the expense of the encroaching Japanese. 'To me, steering a very small boat on the ocean of war, Indochina seemed like a great ship out of control, to which I could give no aid until I had slowly got together the means of rescue,' he wrote. 'As I saw her move away into the mist, I swore to myself that I would one day bring her back.'7 It was an immense task, de Gaulle knew. The journey would be as long as it was treacherous. It would take time to win French loyalty and French territory and so to establish his legitimacy as the authentic representative of the French nation. In those early days, hardly anyone answered his call. Not only did few people come from France to join him, but most leading French figures already in London decided to return home to support the P'tain government, which negotiated an armistice with Germany on June 22 and set up a collaborationist regime in Vichy, a damp, gloomy spa town best known for its foul-smelling waters.8 Even many of those who wanted to go on fighting rejected de Gaulle's call. Some went instead to the United States, while others, including the imperial proconsuls in North Africa and other territories (under the terms of the armistice, the empire was left in French hands), were unprepared to reject the authority of the eightyfouryearold P'tain, savior of France at Verdun in 1916. The only exceptions in the early months were French Equatorial Africa (Chad, French Congo, and Oubangui-Chari, but not Gabon) and the Cameroons, which declared for de Gaulle in August
26 | E M B E R S O F WA R 1940. That same month a French military court sentenced de Gaulle to death in absentia, for treason against the Vichy regime.9 'You are alone,' Churchill told de Gaulle, 'I shall recognize you alone.' On June 28, the British government voiced its backing of de Gaulle as 'leader of all the Free French, wherever they are to be found, who rally to him in support of the Allied cause.'10 The phrasing was important: The British were endorsing de Gaulle the man rather than his organization. Whereas the general saw his outfit as a proto-government rivaling that in Vichy, most London officials hoped Free France could be restricted to the role of a l'gion combattante, a group of French citizens fighting as a unit within the Allied armies. For them, the only French government was that headed by Marshal P'tain. Still, limited though it was, the British pronouncement was a critical early endorsement of de Gaulle, arguably as important as any he would ever receive. His bold action on June 18 made an impression on Churchill, one that would never quite dissipate even during the tensest moments? and there would be many in the years to come? in their relationship. The romantic in Churchill admired de Gaulle's epic adventure, his selfimportance, his claim to speak for la France 'ternelle. He saw a certain nobility in the Frenchman's bravado and shared with him a love of drama and a deep sense of history. When in September the two men joined together in a scheme to try to win French West Africa away from Vichy with an operation against Dakar, de Gaulle rose in Churchill's esteem despite the fact that the plan ended in humiliating failure. To the House of Commons, the prime minister extolled de Gaulle's calm and authoritative bearing throughout the engagement and said he had more confidence in the general than ever.11 'I had continuous difficulties and many sharp antagonisms with him,' Churchill would write of his relationship with de Gaulle. 'I knew he was no friend of England. But I always recognized in him the spirit and conception which, across the pages of history, the word 'France? would ever proclaim. I understood and admired, while I resented, his arrogant demeanor. Here he was? a refugee, an exile from his country under sentence of death, in a position entirely dependent upon the good will of Britain, and now of the United States. The Germans had conquered his country. He had no real foothold anywhere. Never mind he defied all.'12
, 1 9 4 0 ? 1 9 4 5 | 27 A very different attitude prevailed in Washington, where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his advisers from the start kept their distance from de Gaulle and his cause. Shocked and appalled by France's swift collapse against the Germans, despite having what on paper was arguably Europe's strongest army, Roosevelt concluded that France had essentially ceased to exist. Thenceforth, during moments of pessimism (and not infrequently in happier times as well), he believed the worst about France and concluded she would never again regain her status as a leading power. Investing military might and diplomatic aid in trying to defend her was therefore pointless. Following the armistice, Washington chose a policy of expedience, maintaining diplomatic relations with Vichy in the hope that the French fleet and the P'tain government would not be driven totally into the arms of the Nazis. As for de Gaulle, he was as yet largely a nonentity for Roosevelt. In time, as we shall see, the American president would adopt toward the general an attitude of unremitting hostility. II in indochina, word of the french defeat hit like a bolt from the blue. Already in 1939, after Germany's attack on Poland, there had been murmurings in Saigon and Hanoi, among colons as well as literate Vietnamese, about whether Hitler could be stopped, and if he couldn't, what it would mean for them. A 1938 French film shown on local screens asked Are We Defended? and left the answer disconcertingly open. Still, no one had imagined that the defeat of la belle France could ever occur so swiftly, so completely. The turn of events may have seemed especially dizzying in Indochina and elsewhere in the empire, for certain key details? that French forces fought hard and suffered huge losses at Sedan and elsewhere along the river Meuse, for example, or that the greater part of the French army was taken prisoner? emerged only slowly in the colonies.13 'Overnight, our world had changed,' recalled Bui Diem, a young French-educated Vietnamese in Hanoi who had breathlessly followed news accounts of the fighting. 'Mine was the third generation for whom the universe had been bounded by France, her language, her culture, and
28 | E M B E R S O F WA R her stultifying colonial apparatus. Now, in a moment, the larger world had intruded itself on our perceptions. Our ears were opened wide, straining to pick up signals from the outside that would give us some hint as to what this might mean.'14 In the governor-general's residence in Hanoi, speculation was rife. General Georges Catroux, only a year into the job, was devoted to the empire and to keeping France in the fight against Hitler for both reasons he was drawn immediately to de Gaulle's cause. The two men went way back, having been prisoners of war together in a high-security camp in Ingolstadt, Germany, in World War I, and they maintained deep mutual respect. But Catroux, an intelligent and highly literate five-star general who as a young man had been an aidedecamp in Hanoi but whose recent postings had been in North Africa, was powerless his Indochina, isolated from the metropole by thousands of miles of ocean, faced growing pressure from Japan.15 For Tokyo authorities, the fall of France represented a perfect opportunity to remove several obstacles to their New Order in East Asia. Three years into a war with Chiang Kai-shek's Republican China, the Japanese had long been bothered about American weapons and other Western supplies reaching beleaguered Chinese armies via the railway that ran from Haiphong to Kunming. The amounts were significant: An estimated 48 percent of all supplies came by this route. Catroux succumbed to Japanese pressure to sharply limit shipments of weapons, but food and other supplies continued to arrive, and the Japanese began to think that only by seizing Indochina could they stop the flow. Moreover, Indochina could provide imperial Japan with significant supplies of rubber, tin, coal, and rice? all important in ending her dependence upon foreign sources of vital strategic raw materials. Geostrategically, meanwhile, Indochina could serve as an advanced base for operations against the Far Eastern possessions of the other Western colonial powers. For senior Japanese leaders, in short, the events in Europe opened up glorious new possibilities. Hitler's victories, American ambassador to Tokyo Joseph Grew noted, 'like strong wine, have gone to their heads.'16 In Hanoi, Catroux moved cautiously, aware that he had few cards to play. In previous months, as Japanese gains in China brought them ever closer to Indochina, he realized how inadequate Indochina's defenses were. He had only about 50,000 troops at his disposal, of which
, 1 9 4 0 ? 1 9 4 5 | 29 some 38,000 were native forces of suspect loyalty. The air force had only twenty-five modern aircraft in all of Indochina, while the navy possessed only a light cruiser, two gunboats, two sloops, and two auxiliary patrol craft. Munitions and other military supplies were negligently low. The Paris government, reeling under the Nazi onslaught, could offer no tangible assistance, he knew, and neither could Britain, focused as she was on the German menace and the defense of Singapore and Malaya. In April and again in May and June, British officials cautioned Catroux against taking any action that might risk war with Japan. Even if His Majesty's government wanted to provide military assistance, Sir Percy Noble, commander of the British Far Eastern Fleet, told Catroux in late April, it could not it had no resources to give. The same message was reiterated repeatedly in the weeks thereafter.17 The United States was Catroux's last hope. On June 19, the day after de Gaulle's speech, Ren? de Saint-Quentin, the French ambassador in Washington, put two questions to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles. What would the United States do if Indochina came under Japanese attack? And in the meantime, would Washington provide immediate military assistance to Indochina, in the form of 120 aircraft as well as antiaircraft guns? Welles's reply echoed that of the British. The United States, he said, would do nothing that might provoke the outbreak of hostilities with Japan and therefore would not act to thwart an attack on Indochina. She would provide no planes or weapons. In that case, asked Saint-Quentin, what choice did Saigon have but to accept the Japanese demands? 'I will not answer you officially,' Welles said, 'but that is what I would do in your place.'18 Saint-Quentin and Welles didn't know it, but hours earlier Japan had issued an ultimatum to Catroux. The Tokyo government demanded an end to the shipment through Tonkin of trucks, gasoline, or other goods of military use to China, as well as the establishment of a Japanese control commission in Indochina to supervise the implementation of the agreement. Catroux ordered Saint-Quentin to make one more appeal to the Americans when that too failed, he decided to accept the Japanese terms, hoping to forestall a Japanese invasion and preserve French control over Indochina. Already by June 29, Japanese checkpoints had been established in Tonkin at Haiphong, Ha Giang, Lao Cai, Cao Bang, and
30 | E M B E R S O F WA R Lang Son. Perhaps, Catroux reasoned, Tokyo leaders hoped to avoid a costly? in yen and men? occupation of Indochina perhaps he could temporize and hold on, waiting for a more favorable turn in the war. He cabled his government on June 26: 'When one is beaten, when one has few planes and little anti-aircraft defense, no submarines, one tries to keep one's property without having to fight and one negotiates. That is what I have done.'19 Who could blame him? His regime was isolated, his defenses hopelessly inadequate. Moreover, Catroux's reading of the Japanese intentions proved correct, at least in the short term. Tokyo officials had a full-fledged colonial project, dating to the late nineteenth century and revived in the early 1930s, but in Indochina they were happy to practice the type of informal imperialism that the United States and other world powers had on occasion embraced? they were content, that is to say, to move patiently into Indochina with the consent of the French. Had the Japanese merely wanted to stop the transfer traffic to China, they could have conquered Tonkin, taken over railroad traffic, and used Vietnamese air bases to bomb transport routes like the Burma Road, linking Burma and China. Had they wanted to take outright colonial control over all of Indochina, they probably had the means to do that as well (though at the risk of a major depletion of manpower). But their chief aim was to use the country's installations for future military projects and to get at Indochina's coal, rubber, tin, and, above all, food supplies. These the Japanese could most easily and efficiently secure if they left the French nominally in charge and avoided taking on the complicated task of daytoday governing. 'The Japanese government,' foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka informed the Vichy ambassador to Tokyo, 'has every intention of respecting the rights and interests of France in the Far East, particularly the territorial integrity of Indochina and the sovereignty of France over the entire area of the Indochinese Union.'20 If Catroux thought he had little choice but to accept Japan's demand, his superiors in France felt differently. On their knees before Hitler, barely settled in Vichy amid extraordinary confusion, they were deeply attached to the empire as one remaining manifestation of French greatness, as proof positive that Vichy was more than a mouthpiece of a defeated nation. They frowned dismissively on Catroux's surrender and