ON APRIL 13, 1942, Acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles made a very important declaration in a letter to the French Ambassador, Gaston Henry Haye, to the effect that the United States "recognizes the sovereign jurisdiction of the people of France over the territories of France and over French possessions overseas" and "fervently hopes that it may see the reëstablishment of the independence of France and of the integrity of French territory." The meaning of this statement is crystal clear. It applies without ambiguity to French Indo-China, which both technically and in practice was, and is, considered a French possession.

But the people of Indo-China will certainly not be satisfied with a mere return to the old established forms of colonial government. How will France reestablish her jurisdiction once the Japanese are expelled from the country and Admiral Decoux's puppet government has been ousted? And in what way will she give the native people a fair chance to prepare themselves for self-government? These questions must be carefully examined.


French Indo-China, it is interesting to note, is unique among the colonies of southeast Asia in that it has remained under the administration of its prewar government even though the substance of power has passed to the Japanese invaders. The French community is largely anti-Vichy and anti-Japanese, as are most of the officials and certainly all the petty officials. We can therefore justifiably expect that the reconquest of this territory will be facilitated by the attitude and the actions of the French community and of the French officials and that they will be eager to collaborate with the forces of the United Nations.

It is generally said that Indo-China yielded readily to the Japanese in 1940-41, or even that the French handed over the colony to enable the Japanese to use it as a base of operations for their subsequent moves south. The facts are very far from corroborating such a supposition.

As a result of the increased tension in southeast Asia, a parley was held in Singapore in July 1939 between British and French officials, accompanied by military and naval staffs. A joint plan for the defense of Singapore, Hong Kong and French Indo-China was worked out. Unfortunately it was never put into practice. When the war broke out in Europe, Indo-China still was inadequately armed, as were Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila and the Netherlands East Indies.

The French at once mobilized all their nationals and a certain number of natives. The equipment available included light arms and some field artillery, but the supply of ammunition was very small. There were a few obsolete tanks and planes, no medium artillery and not a single modern plane. By the spring of 1940, approximately 18,000 French troops and 75,000 natives were under arms. Their artillery was composed solely of 75 mm. batteries, with at the most 70 to 80 rounds per gun. There still were no medium or heavy guns in Indo-China. There were one modern tank and five armored cars, three of them outmoded; nine modern fighters (Morane 406); six reconnaissance float-planes; one light cruiser (four 6-inch guns), two or three river gunboats, and one submarine. There was not a single bomber.

When France collapsed in June 1940, the Governor-General, Georges Catroux, already a supporter of General Charles de Gaulle, looked to the British for aid. He secretly sent his personal secretary and officier d'ordonnance to Singapore to plead for help. But in Singapore the military outlook was far from bright. As Andrew Roth puts it: "In the early summer of 1940, however, the British were in no position to extend the naval coöperation envisaged in the Singapore Agreement of July 1939," nor "in a position to support Hanoi's resistance to Japan, despite Indo-China's strategic position with regard to Burma, Hong Kong, Malaysia and other British possessions in that area." [i] Then on July 17, 1940, the British closed the Burma Road, hoping that this concession might keep Japan from joining the Axis. Governor-General Catroux saw that there was no chance of help from the outside and realized that it was impossible to fight the Japanese with his own forces. On July 20 he handed over his duties to the appointee of the Vichy Government, Admiral Decoux.

Admiral Decoux hoped to limit the scope of Japanese encroachments by surrendering on questions of minor importance but refusing to give in on any major issue. Through Vichy and directly through the French Ambassador in Washington, Count de Saint-Quentin, he appealed to the American Government for assistance, "but apparently American Far Eastern policy was in a somewhat hesitant stage." [ii] On July 26, 1940, the United States extended its export license system to include aviation gasoline and scrap iron, which was meant of course to handicap Japan; however, this license system did not apply either to ordinary gasoline or to high octane gasoline, which could be turned into aviation gasoline. No positive help was given to French Indo-China. A French mission, headed by Colonel H. Jacomy, had meanwhile been sent to the United States to purchase planes, guns and ammunition; it arrived in San Francisco on July 28, but ran into difficulties and was not allowed to buy a single plane or a single gun.

The struggle against the Japanese seemed more and more hopeless. Nevertheless, Decoux persisted in his appeals to America. In late August he is reported to have sent three telegrams to Washington requesting assistance. Apparently Washington was more receptive at this time, for it is said that on September 4 Secretary of State Cordell Hull declared that if reports were true that the Japanese Government had served a virtual ultimatum on Indo-China, the action would have an unfortunate effect on American public opinion.[iii] Despite this encouraging statement, the Jacomy mission got nowhere.

Meanwhile, on August 30, 1940, the Vichy Government, probably under German pressure, had signed an agreement in Tokyo. Up to now its clauses have remained secret. Allegedly the agreement was a pact of mutual assistance, allowing Japan to send troops to Indo-China to defend the integrity of the country against foreign aggression. Vichy is supposed to have allowed the stationing of 8,000 Japanese troops in Tongking and to have granted the Japanese the exclusive use of three of the Tongking airports. One of them was the Gia-Lâm airport, the main air base in Hanoi. The agreement is supposed also to have contained a clause providing for the development of commercial relations of the two countries.

Decoux was supposed to sign an agreement implementing the Tokyo arrangement, but he was doing his best to postpone this action. As Foreign Minister Matsuoka put it, in a conversation with Ambassador Grew, "the Governor General continued to be uncoöperative . . . and since the Governor General was evidently not acting in good faith and since the Japanese authorities were aware that to foreign consuls stationed in Indo-China the Governor had boasted that he was using obstructive tactics, the Japanese felt it necessary to present an ultimatum." [iv]

Decoux finally gave in on September 22. Events now moved fast. Though Decoux had accepted the ultimatum, the Japanese Canton Army crossed the Tongking border that same night. Fighting immediately broke out between French and Japanese troops, and for three days, 2,000 Frenchmen on the Chinese-Tongking border, at Lang-son, Dong-Dang, and Than-Moi, fought the 30,000 men of the Canton Army. But the struggle was too uneven to last long. On September 26, the Japanese landed trained shock troops in Haiphong and battle planes at Hanoi. The fighting ended and Decoux yielded to all the Japanese demands.

At present, the native people are reportedly in incipient revolt against the Japanese rule. Furthermore, despite the fact that Decoux and various high government officials are Japanese puppets, the petty French officials, as we have noted, can be counted upon to help overthrow the Japanese rule when the time of invasion comes.


French Indo-China is unique from another point of view. Unlike other colonies of southeast Asia -- the Philippines, Burma, Java and Malaysia, for example -- it is not a single, homogeneous country, but a federation of five countries in which at least three major races live side by side.

Before the arrival of the French, these five countries -- Cochin-China, Annam, Tongking, Cambodia, Laos -- had no relationship save that of constant warfare. At the beginning of the Christian era, the dominant race, the Annamite, was a savage and primitive tribe of farmers living in Tongking and northern Annam. In the first century A.D., the Chinese conquered Tongking, subjecting it to Chinese rule and to the authority of the Emperor. Not until a thousand years later did the Annamites shake off the Chinese yoke and live again as an independent people. Their lands were overcrowded, however, and they in turn pushed southward, attacking the powerful Empire of Champa. Little by little they conquered it, destroying its inhabitants, and thus came into contact with the Kingdom of Cambodia, whose inhabitants descended from the famous Khmers. Up to the fifteenth century, the Khmer kingdom was a strong and independent country, but later, with the decay of the Khmer civilization, Cambodia was attacked not only by the Annamites on her southern border but by the Siamese on her western border. These wars continued up to the second half of the nineteenth century, when Cambodia asked France to take her under her protection. The wars then ceased. Cochin-China, which had become a French colony, Cambodia, Annam and Tongking, which had become protectorates, lived together in peace under French rule. Laos, another French protectorate, also combines territories never before brought together under the same rule, such as the Kingdom of Luang-Prabang, and the Princedoms of Vientiane and Bassac.

France has thus established what the French call the Union Indochinoise. It is a country united politically and economically. Despite some past errors and failures, French rule has, on the whole, brought it peace and a certain degree of culture, health and prosperity. The abrupt ending of this rule would make new wars between the different Indo-Chinese peoples inevitable, with chaos the certain result.

The white man has lost face throughout the whole of Asia in the last few years; and in this respect the French in Indo-China are no exception. In the past, the white man's rule has rested largely on "prestige," and this prestige will have to be restored if the French are to pursue their policy of educating the natives and hastening their cultural, political and economic advancement. For this purpose it is essential that French troops participate in the expulsion of the Japanese from Indo-China, and certainly it is the intention and the desire of the Provisional Government of the French Republic in Algiers that they should do so. On December 8, 1943, the French Committee of National Liberation declared: "In conjunction with the United Nations, she [France] will fight at their side until complete defeat of the enemy [Japan] has been achieved and complete liberation of Indo-China accomplished."

French intentions for the period of guardianship during which the natives will be made ready to take over the government of Indo-China have also been made clear. On December 8, 1943, the French Committee of National Liberation referred to the future of the natives in the following terms: "France intends to give them in the bosom of the French community a new political status, in which the liberties of the different countries composing Indo-China will be extended and consecrated in the framework of a federal organization; in which the liberal character of the ways of living will be accentuated, without losing the original stamp of the Indo-Chinese civilization and traditions; in which, lastly, the Indo-Chinese will be able to occupy all ranks and functions in the government offices." At the Colonial Conference held at Brazzaville in January-February 1944, the late Governor-General Eboué of French Equatorial Africa, whose death is so much to be regretted, laid down certain principles to be applied to French African colonies. They likewise definitely describe the policy envisaged for Indo-China: "Treat the less progressive native not as an isolated and interchangeable individual, but as a human being, heavy with traditions, a member of a family, of a village, of a tribe, capable of progress in his own sphere, but probably lost if extracted from it." For the progressive natives, Governor-General Eboué outlined a status "by which they will become real citizens of the colony, and as such called upon to prove their worth in the administration of their community." And for those who no longer fit into the native society because they have progressed more rapidly than it did, and for those who feel ill at ease in it, this expert administrator, himself a Negro, pointed out that the granting of the right to French citizenship constitutes an avenue of access to a different level of civilization.

Traditionally the French have taken great pride in the fact that there has been little racial antagonism between them and the natives in their colonies. They also can be proud of the extent to which French thought and culture have stimulated brilliant students in Indo-China. Native painters, sculptors, writers and scientists have also had a rebirth of their own great traditions. France has welcomed and encouraged this new spirit in Indo-China, not only through her support of such institutions as the School of the Beaux Arts at Hanoi but through many technical, industrial and medical schools and schools of the applied arts. Many promising Indo-Chinese have also been brought to study in Metropolitan France. The interpenetration of French and Far Eastern ways of life is of great value to both.

The best proof of how attached the natives of Indo-China are to France is that in 1940, when France was defeated and her military strength in the Far East was practically non-existent, no insurrections occurred in the country. If the nearly 24,000,000 natives of Indo-China had really wanted to get rid of the 40,000 French, they had a splendid opportunity to do so. But though they were deluged with Japanese propaganda urging them to overthrow the French and take the government into their own hands they remained loyal.

France is aware that mistakes have been made in the past and that conditions, particularly of an economic nature, are seriously in need of improvement. There have been some bloody revolts. The Yen-bai revolt of 1930, for instance, and the repression which followed, left a general sense of dissatisfaction and uneasiness. All such outbursts have resulted from the poverty of the people in certain districts, and their low standard of living. Practically all the popular uprisings in Indo-China in the last 50 years have started in northern Annam and in the Tongkinese delta, the most closely populated, poorest and most backward parts of the country. The average density of population in those regions is 450 to the square kilometer, but in some it is much higher -- for instance, 2,300 per square kilometer in the Quang-Yen Province. Nearly all the uprisings took place in periods of world-wide depression.

France will have to change her economic policy in Indo-China drastically after the war. The only way to effect a permanent increase in the purchasing power of the people in the over-populated districts of Tongking and northern Annam is to introduce industrialization there on a large scale. French economic policy in the past has been directed mainly to the production of raw materials for use in France or for sale in other countries. Emphasis has been placed on agriculture and mining, and, with one or two exceptions, modern industrial developments have been devoted to the extractive type of industry or to the preliminary processing of raw materials for export. Steep tariffs have been applied to keep cheap products out of the country and to allow high-priced French products to be sold. In short, Indo-China has been tied to the French custom system.

This tie must be severed after the war. Indo-China must be given the right to fix and modify locally her custom tariffs and regulations, without having to take into account the French home tariffs. Preferential rates will have to be abolished. An Open Door policy must be adopted, permitting foreign as well as French capital to enter; and all possible encouragement must be given to the creation of the types of modern industrial enterprise which seem best adapted to the country. The existing modern textile industry is an example of the sort of enterprise that could be expanded, even though at present only 5 percent of the yarn used in the cotton mills of Tongking and Annam is of local origin while 95 percent is imported. The resulting stimulus to the cultivation of cotton, in Cambodia especially, would be of great and general benefit. The manufacture of tires, from rubber produced in Cochin-China and Cambodia, and of jute bags, necessary for the rice exports, the development of the paper industry, the manufacture of certain chemicals and of artificial fertilizers, and the processing and refining of all the mineral ores produced in the Indo-Chinese mines -- such are some of the other possibilities for industrialization. Later on can come the expansion of industrialization to include certain heavy industries.

Such a program will require large investments and French capital will not suffice. The Open Door policy for foreign capital will therefore have to be initiated immediately after the war.

Even so, industrialization will not be accomplished overnight. In the interval, the French will have to take provisional measures to help the overcrowded areas of Tongking and Annam. A certain number of families must be transferred from these districts each year to Cochin-China, and perhaps to certain parts of Cambodia, where they will find more decent living conditions and will also be able to increase the production of agricultural products such as cotton, hemp, jute, corn, copra and tobacco. At the same time, a program of public works must be undertaken in order to equip the whole country with modern facilities -- in transportation, for example -- as well as a development of the mining industry on a large scale, aimed at giving employment to the peoples of the Tongkinese Delta and northern Annam.


To summarize. Independence cannot be granted Indo-China in the country's present stage of development. France will have to continue her guardianship, but must change certain of her policies, notably her economic policy. In addition, however, it seems plain that some sort of international system will have to be devised to guarantee that the older forms of imperialism have been mitigated and that henceforth serious, consciously-directed and widely-progressive efforts will be made to advance the social and economic well-being of the native peoples and to prepare them for eventual self-government.

Such an international system might operate through a regional organization, perhaps in the form of a Coördinating Council of the Southwest Pacific.[v] Reports from Algiers indicate that the French Provisional Government is considering such an organization and that it is inclined to favor a system of collective security in the Pacific area. What nations should be the members of such a Council? What functions should it have? How should it carry them out?

The membership should include Australia, China, France, French Indo-China, Great Britain, Malaysia, the Netherlands, the Netherlands East Indies, New Zealand, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand and the United States.

The functions of the Council are less easily specified. First of all, the duties of the Council, apart from its police functions, should be strictly of a supervisory type. Under no condition should the Council be allowed to have executive functions. Government in the various areas of the southwest Pacific is sufficiently delicate and ticklish without being complicated still more by the direct interference of the Council. The country which has administrative jurisdiction over a colony must definitely have sovereign rights over that country; under no other conditions would normal government of that colony be possible.

The primary function of the Council should be to organize, among the member nations, collective security to avert war. This means that the member nations would have to be bound by a pact of non-aggression and mutual assistance. All disputes between two or more member nations would be arbitrated by a Judiciary Committee and all its decisions would be binding, although there would be the possibility of lodging an appeal directly with the Council in case one or more of the member nations should consider the judgment rendered by the Judiciary Committee unjust. To enforce its decisions, the Council should have at its disposal both economic and military sanctions. The economic sanctions would be applied to a nation which refused to abide by the decision taken by the Judiciary Committee. If they failed to produce the desired result, the Council would have to use force. For this purpose, each member nation should make the appropriate contribution -- some would put bases at the disposal of the Council, others would furnish ships, planes, matériel or men. All would share in the expenses of maintenance. Each member nation would have to allow its territories to be used for the establishment of the necessary international bases.

The Council should also have supervisory functions in certain specific fields, such as education, public health, labor regulations and economic relations. To exercise these functions properly it would have to set up a certain number of committees, each sufficiently large to enable at least one member to visit each of the different colonies annually. Once a year, the committees would receive reports from the member nations exercising administrative jurisdiction over a colony. At least once a year (and oftener in cases of emergency) one or two members of each Committee should visit each colonial area and make a report to the Council on the methods by which the member nations are exercising their rule over the colonies which they administer.

The principal function of the Council, in this respect, should be to coordinate the different ways and means by which the member nations are applying in the areas under their jurisdiction the different political, cultural and economic policies advocated by the Council. But the Council should not have the power to enforce directly the Committee's conclusions. This should be left to the member nation in charge of the particular area.

If a member nation refuses to follow the policies recommended by the Council, the latter would have to take measures to enforce acquiescence. However, this step would be taken only after the member nation had the opportunity of explaining its attitude at a general meeting of the Council. Should these explanations not be satisfactory, the Council would then take action. The first measure of enforcement would be the exclusion of the recalcitrant member nation from the Coördinating Council; next the Council would pronounce and put into effect financial and economic sanctions, which would last as long as the member nation refused to alter its policies.

Under such a system, France would have sovereign jurisdiction and administration over French Indo-China, under the supervision of the Coördinating Council of the Southwest Pacific. The machinery described would enable the Indo-Chinese people to move steadily in the direction of social and economic independence and ensure them of eventually achieving their ultimate goal, self-government.

[i] Andrew Roth, "Japan Strikes South." New York: Institute of Pacific Relations, 1941, p. 49 and 56.

[ii]Op. cit. p. 58.

[iii]Op. cit. p. 64.

[iv] Joseph C. Grew, "Ten Years in Japan." New York: Simon and Shuster, 1944, p. 331.

[v] In the opinion of the author, the Coördinating Council of the Southwest Pacific would be only one of the four Regional Councils (European, Pan American, African, Southwest Pacific) and would have to be linked to a World Council.

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  • GASTON RUEFF, member of the French Colonial Institute; a specialist in rubber production who has spent much time in Indo-China.
  • More By Gaston Rueff