INDO-CHINA began to attract the attention of most Westerners only last year, after the nationalist revolution there against French rule had already been oriented toward the Soviet bloc. The area--two vast river delta plains linked by a mountainous spine with a total population of about 28,000,000--is strategically more important than Korea, for it is the bridge over which Communist China hopes to penetrate unstable and restless South Asia.

The struggle in Viet-Nam is between the French-sponsored Bao Dai Government, supported by an army of 150,000 troops, part French and part native, and the Ho Chi Minh Government, representing a Communist-led nationalist movement, known as Viet-Minh (League for the Independence of Viet-Nam), supported by Moscow and Peiping. When the victorious Chinese Communist forces reached the Indo-Chinese border in December 1949, the French garrison was ordered to seal off the frontier. The French hoped the Viet-Nam army would remain a guerrilla force that could be contained in the mountains. But by as early as March 1950, when the writer visited the frontier, French officers there acknowledged that large-scale infiltration over the long border could not be blocked. Several months later, French, American and Chinese Nationalist intelligence estimated that up to 30,000 Viet-Nam troops were being trained and equipped within Communist China.

Having failed to prevent Viet-Minh traffic with China, the French posts astride the main communications routes across the frontier lost their usefulness and, in fact, became dangerous liabilities. The striking power of the Viet-Minh forces was steadily augmented by Chinese aid. They intensified their raids from bases on both sides of the border and soon made the position of the posts precarious. After a delay that was to prove fatal, the French decided to evacuate the most exposed post, Caobang, 110 miles northeast of Hanoï. The results of the attempt were disastrous. Attacked by an overwhelming force of well trained and equipped Viet-Minh troops, seven French battalions were shattered in a series of ambushes along the withdrawal route.

The French defeat was the severest in the four-year war, and revealed that the Viet-Minh had an army that could pass to the offensive. For most Viet-Namese, the Chinese Communist commitment to aid Ho Chi Minh now seemed a guarantee of victory. Any immediate prospect of a political solution through a significant swing of popular support from Ho Chi Minh to Bao Dai disappeared. The Viet-Namese who had considered joining the Bao Dai camp now waited to see whether the French army could restore the military balance.

L'Affaire de Caobang also had strong political repercussions in France. In December, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny was appointed French High Commissioner to replace Léon Pignon, who has been architect of the policy of fitting the "Associated States of Indo-China" into the French Union. Pignon acknowledged upon his departure that France had reached an impasse in her search for political means of resolving the Indo-Chinese conflict, and said that it was time for a soldier to take command. De Lattre, an able and distinguished soldier of great energy and flamboyant personality, proved to be the tonic needed to brace French forces to meet the Viet-Minh offensive. His spirit and initial defensive victories served to restore the confidence of the French and some of the respect and prestige that France had lost at Caobang.

When General de Lattre took command almost the entire north Indo-Chinese frontier was controlled by the Viet-Minh, and Ho Chi Minh's principal army was entrenched in a mountainous region with good communication to supply and training centers in China. The French in north Indo-China (Tonkin) are now holding a 375-mile beachhead that has the Hanoï-Hai Phong area as its core. Hanoï, the northern military and administrative center, is linked by a vulnerable 60-mile communications corridor to the seaport of Hai Phong. The beachhead embraces the delta of the Red and Black Rivers, the rice-bowl of the north and the home of most of Tonkin's 9,000,000 inhabitants. Viet-Minh guerrillas operate within the perimeter and the French claim firm control of only about one-third of its villages. A line of posts, or small forts, form the outer defenses of the perimeter and, like the interior posts, exercise local control. When a post comes under attack, its mission is to hold until a mobile task force is moved from a concentration point to the menaced sector. Some 80,000 French and Viet-Namese auxiliary troops, including the cream of the Indo-China garrison--Foreign Legionnaires, North Africans, French paratroopers--hold the northern line.

The garrison is confronted by a regular Viet-Minh army roughly estimated at 90,000 troops, backed by guerrillas. The Viet-Minh troops are thoroughly indoctrinated, fanatical fighters, as well equipped as the French in light infantry weapons. As this is being written, they are descending from their mountain base to the delta to engage French troops on the northern approaches to Hanoï in the initial phase of what may be a decisive campaign for north Indo-China. If forced to abandon Tonkin, the French will probably fall back to a new line in the narrow waist of central Viet-Nam (Annam) north of Hué, the provincial capital. Except for a 200-mile sliver of territory hinged on Hué, the greater part of the Annamese coastal plain is occupied by the Viet-Minh. The strategy of the French has always been to consolidate the hold on the northern delta, and on south Viet-Nam (Cochin China), before attempting to pacify Annam.

In Cochin China, which comprises the greater part of the Mekong River delta, an estimated 25,000 Viet-Minh regular troops operate from five major base areas in conjunction with strong guerrilla activity throughout the province. Viet-Minh strength in the south is steadily augmented by newly formed units, armed by weapons manufactured locally or smuggled in from Siam (Thailand). More than 50,000 French and Viet-Namese auxiliary troops police Cochin China, the wealthiest region in Indo-China. In normal times it produces Viet-Nam's only exportable surplus of rice, about 1,500,000 tons, as well as other commodities such as rubber, timber and copra.

The Viet-Minh strategy is apparently to wear down French forces through attrition, on the assumption that they can afford heavier losses because of their large manpower reserves. The Indo-Chinese war has already cost France more than 2 billion dollars and perhaps as many as 100,000 casualities, including 25,000 dead or captured. When the French have been sufficiently weakened, the Viet-Minh plan to launch a final general counter-offensive intended to sweep them from Indo-China. Since the victory at Caobang, and the arrival of substantial aid from Communist China, the date for the opening of this final stage seems to have been advanced. When the general offensive is ordered, the main effort will be made in north Indo-China, but secondary attacks elsewhere will attempt to prevent the transfer of French troops to meet the northern blow. Viet-Minh propaganda has left no doubt that invasion of Cambodia and Laos would follow victory in Viet-Nam. Guerrilla infiltration of both countries is already well advanced. The weak French-sponsored Governments of Cambodia and Laos are also harassed by native dissidents, some of whom are coöperating with the Viet-Minh. Conquest of Laos and Cambodia would bring the Communists to the border of Siam, the next objective of Communist penetration in Southeast Asia.

If the Western Powers commit large enough military resources to enable the French to fight a successful holding action, the Viet-Minh may invite a "volunteer" Chinese Communist invasion, despite the strong nationalist sentiment against this. According to some estimates, 25,000 Chinese Communist troops could turn the tide decisively.

The French objective in coming months will be to hold on to their present positions, which dominate the main population and production centers of Viet-Nam. Since they are outnumbered, they are depending upon their superiority in artillery, and the effectiveness of their air force and armored units. American military aid in the form of planes, tanks and artillery and other matériel is now arriving in quantity; but the French air force in the north still possesses only about 125 fighters and bombers, and the inadequate road network limits the manœuvrability of armored units. Unless the Indo-Chinese garrison receives substantial troop reinforcements, the French northern line will probably collapse eventually before the growing weight of the adversary. France has few troops to spare from other parts of the French Union for duty in Indo-China, and before more French soldiers can be subtracted from the Western European defense pool some understanding about it will probably have to be reached by the Western Powers.

If the French are to move beyond the holding stage and reëstablish a military equilibrium that would open an avenue to a political compromise with Viet-Namese nationalism, and hence make possible the pacification of the guerrilla-infested countryside, they will have to build an effective Viet-Namese national army. The greatest obstacle is now a lack of trained officers. In part the delay in building a national army is a result of the political problem. The French have grave doubts of the reliability of such an army when confronted by a popularly supported native revolutionary movement. The recent American experience in China with Chiang Kai-shek's troops illustrates the danger for the French. They have had fair success with the Indo-Chinese colonials that make up perhaps one-third of their Indo-China garrison, and with the Indo-Chinese auxiliaries; but for the most part these are officered by the French. However, a national army under direct Viet-Namese command seems indispensable for a solution of the guerrilla problem.

II

Gauging public opinion in Western countries is difficult enough; the job is infinitely more baffling in Asia. As nearly as the writer can determine, a majority of the politically conscious Viet-Namese are in sympathy with the Ho Chi Minh régime. The political consciousness of the Viet-Namese population has steadily broadened during the last four years under the influence of Viet-Minh propaganda. Whatever the political character and intentions of the Communist leadership, the popular appeal of the Viet-Minh is purely nationalistic. Unlike the Chinese revolution, which was generated essentially by social and economic factors, the insurgent movement in Viet-Nam is almost solely an expression of nationalism. It has, of course, social and economic roots; but the present-day political temper of the Viet-Namese is a product of the experience of 90 years of French colonial domination, allowed to find expression in the past decade of world upheaval. The nationalist revolution in Viet-Nam is similar to the Chinese revolution in that the Communists are exploiting it as a useful vehicle upon which they can ride to power.

The nationalist movement did not begin to attract mass support until after World War II. It had been accelerated by the Japanese conquest of Indo-China, and the consequent lowering of French prestige, and the wartime experience of native administrations. When France attempted to reimpose her colonial authority at the war's end, the balance sheet of the years of French rule was not an easy one for the Viet-Namese people to read. The French had begun their colonization of Cochin China in 1858, and after consolidating that rich region extended their hegemony to Annam, Tonkin, Laos and Cambodia. They built roads, railways and ports, and constructed towns and cities modeled on their own. They mined coal, opened rubber and coffee plantations and expanded the profitable rice culture. Prewar exports from Indo-China totalled annually about $100,000,000, and in return about $50,000,000 in almost exclusively French products entered the country. The French instituted a limited program of education and founded a university at Hanoï and a number of lycées and technical schools. Some Viet-Namese went to France to study. The written Viet-Namese language was romanized, and French became the second tongue, as had English in India. Missionaries made Catholics of about 2,000,000 Viet-Namese. And the French administration brought order to the country.

Frenchmen point to these things with pride in Indo-China; but there are other things which the Viet-Namese recall more vividly. The French permitted no self-government; Viet-Namese held only minor or honorary official posts. French colonial capital developed almost exclusively extractive enterprises to exploit Viet-Namese resources; except for mills to process agricultural products, few factories were built. The Indo-Chinese were shut off from the rest of the world by a French cultural and economic monopoly that was nearly complete. Probably 80 percent of the population was illiterate. Civil liberties were harshly restricted. In the light of this experience, and impelled by the aspiration for national freedom stirring all Asians, the Viet-Namese rose to fight for their independence.

In late September 1945, shortly after the Viet-Minh had proclaimed their "Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam" with Ho Chi Minh as President, the French moved to retake possession of their colony. French troops released from Japanese internment by the British drove the Viet-Minh out of Saïgon, and the fighting continued until the following year, when peace talks were initiated. Ho Chi Minh was welcomed to France to carry on negotiations, but they broke down. The Viet-Minh explanation was that the French refused to meet demands for qualified independence. The French point out that an agreement had in fact been signed recognizing the "Republic of Viet-Nam" as a free state with its own government, parliament, army and finance within the Indo-Chinese Federation and the French Union; and that negotiations to give it effect failed for the same reason that other attempts by Westerners to negotiate with Communists failed after the war. In any event, as it turned out, the Viet-Minh troops attacked in Hanoï on December 19, 1946, and the war was on in full fury.

By 1948, the French began to search again for a political solution to the problem of Viet-Namese nationalism. Bao Dai, the 36-year-old French-educated heir to the "Dragon Throne" of Annam, was brought out of exile in Hong Kong. He had served as the nominal Emperor of Annam under the French, was continued on the throne under the Japanese and abdicated to serve as "High Councilor" to the Ho Chi Minh Government before escaping to an indolent existence in Hong Kong. On March 8, 1949, the French signed an agreement with Bao Dai which granted limited autonomy to Viet-Nam within the French Union. Bao Dai became the provisional Chief of State pending resoration of peace and the election of a constituent assembly to frame a constitution. The French retained direction of Viet-Nam's diplomacy and national defense. Viet-Nam, Cambodia and Laos were to be incorporated into an economic federation and their currency tied to the French franc. French business and cultural interests were assured special prerogatives. Frenchmen were to be tried before mixed courts according to French law and were to be given preference in the appointment of foreign advisors and technicians. The Viet-Namese were given no official promise that the agreement would lead to full independence and no provision was made for the withdrawal of French troops from the country after the attainment of peace.

The Agreement fell far short of the dramatic act of liberal statemanship that might have placed Bao Dai's government on a solid political foundation and enabled him to attract support away from Ho Chi Minh. By failing to meet Viet-Namese demands for a place in the French Union equivalent to that of a Dominion in the British Commonwealth, France lost, perhaps irrevocably, a chance to ally herself with strong Viet-Namese nationalist elements. In November 1950, at the International Conference at Pau, the French made further economic concessions under the pressure of military reverses. Although these concessions were within the framework of the March 8 Agreement, they were substantial and, made earlier, might have been applauded by the Viet-Namese. Coming as they did on the heels of L'Affaire de Caobang, their effect on Viet-Namese public opinion was negligible.

The Bao Dai Government is generally looked upon as a "puppet régime," although many of its members have shown considerable courage in criticizing French policy and in urging a more liberal revision of the March 8 Agreement. Bao Dai has won the nominal allegiance of several special groups, such as the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao--political-religious sects in Cochin China which number about 2,000,000 and 50,000 respectively. Both of these sects, and several other smaller groups in Cochin China backing Bao Dai, possess private armies and enjoy semi-autonomous status in the territories under their control. However, the bulk of Viet-Nam's 2,000,000 Catholics, chiefly those living in autonomous dioceses in Tonkin, have refused to rally to Bao Dai, though they oppose the Viet-Minh's Communist leadership. Bao Dai has been unable to recruit adequate senior personnel for his government from among the few influential leaders who are not actively in the opposition. Some have refused to join because they believe the government lacks the fundamental attributes of sovereignty, others are awaiting developments before taking sides.

A major weakness of the government is Bao Dai himself. By subordinating affairs of state to pleasure seeking, he has disappointed not only his French sponsors and American supporters, but also the Viet-Namese coterie surrounding him which is trying to place Viet-Nam under the Annamese imperial dynasty. To the rather impressionable Viet-Namese, Bao Dai's deficiencies appear particularly striking when he is compared to the ascetic professional Communist revolutionary, "Uncle Ho."

Ho Chi Minh ("The One Who Shines") was born 57 years ago in Annam, the son of a petty official. As a student in France in 1921 he was already an active Communist and a leading opponent of French colonial policies. He went to Moscow in 1923 as a delegate to the "Peasants International Congress" and remained to work at the School of Asiatic Peoples. He reappeared two years later in Canton, deep in Indo-Chinese revolutionary activity. In 1931 he organized the Indo-Chinese Communist Party and in the same year directed an unsuccessful rebellion against the French. French Sûreté files state that he became the chief Comintern agent for Southeast Asia. It was during this period that his underground work landed him in a Hong Kong prison for 18 months. In 1940 Ho Chi Minh organized the Viet-Minh, and with Allied support based himself in the north Indo-Chinese mountains to stage guerrilla raids against the Japanese. The Viet-Minh entered Hanoï triumphantly in August 1945 and proclaimed the "Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam."

In October 1945, the Indo-Chinese Communist Party was transformed into the "Marxist Cultural Group," in line with Party tactics after the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943. Now it is sometimes said that Ho Chi Minh is no more than titular head of the movement, and that the real power in the Viet-Minh resides with younger and more trustworthy Stalinists. The secrecy blanketing the activities of the Party makes it impossible to obtain answers to such questions. It seems probable that though Ho Chi Minh remains the respected leader of the Viet-Minh he is no longer indispensable to the movement.

We can at any rate be sure of the political line pursued by the Viet-Minh ruling clique. Propaganda is securely in the hands of the Communists and carefully parrots the Moscow line. To preserve the national character of the Viet-Minh front, the Communist leadership, employing orthodox Communist tactics, has avoided advocating any revolutionary social program that might alienate any of the different factions. Social reform has been mainly confined to some reduction in land rents and other improvements of agricultural conditions, readjustment of the tax scale, and an educational drive that serves the double purpose of indoctrinating the masses and wiping out illiteracy.

The Communists are a minority in the Viet-Minh, probably not exceeding 30 percent of those engaged in the movement. The non-Communist faction believes that the country would not fall under Communist control if the French were ousted, a confidence which seems rather naïve in light of the fact that the Communists already dominate the Viet-Minh army, police, political machinery and propaganda apparatus. In part this willingness to take a chance with the Communists is due to lack of experience of the ruthlessness of Communist revolutionary technique; but it is also a product of disillusionment with colonialism.

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  • SEYMOUR TOPPING, staff correspondent of the Associated Press in Saigon; previously stationed in Nanking and Hong Kong
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