U.S. Marines watch explosions of bombs dropped by Marine Vought F4U Corsairs during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Korea, in December 1950.
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THE glow from the Korean battlefields lights up the whole Asiatic front from Manchuria to Malaya. On certain sections of this front calm reigns--in appearance at least. On others, for example in the Philippines and in Burma, guerrilla warfare is endemic between the native governments and rebel forces. Finally, along two portions of this immense arc, the cold or tepid war has given place to, simply, war. There two Western Powers have engaged their armies. The United States has been fighting in Korea since June 26, 1950, and France has been fighting in Indo-China since December 19, 1946.

The two conflicts differ from each other in many ways. However, each clearly has a place in the same strategic and political complex. They share a basic common factor. Each results from the expansion of Soviet power toward the sea, pushing its satellites ahead, and exploiting against the West the nationalism, even xenophobia, of the Asiatic masses. There is another common factor also. The Government of President Syngman Rhee can no more withstand the assault without external aid than can the Government of Emperor Bao Dai.

It is not by chance that France was the first to have to resort to force in Asia. The United States emerged from the Second World War with formidable military strength and unprecedented prestige. Great Britain, even after such terrible reverses as the fall of Singapore, nevertheless had appreciable forces in the Far East at the time the Japanese Empire collapsed. France, however, had barely regained possession of her own country and was absent from Asia in 1945. Today we know that at Yalta Stalin made strenuous efforts to bring President Roosevelt to eliminate France from the concert of the Big Five. General de Gaulle, then head of the French Government, asked America for ships in order to transport French troops for the occupation of Indo-China after the Japanese surrender, but he was unable to get them. Thus a vacuum was created in Southeast Asia which, it became evident, was favorable to Russia's long-term plans. When the Japanese capitulated there were no French forces in the Far Eastern theatre. The task of disarming the Japanese was turned over to the British in the southern part of Indo-China and to the Chinese in the north.

After the fall of France the French administration in Indo-China had remained on the side of the Vichy Government, and with more or less difficulty had endured the Japanese occupation for four years. However, French and Eurasian[i] patriots had formed secret anti-Japanese organizations--for instance the "Bocquet" network--which were in radio communication, via Calcutta and Kunming, with the Provisional Government of General de Gaulle. Free French "missionaries" were parachuted clandestinely into Indo-China, among them the Governor of Langlade. At the beginning of 1945 a large number of French military and administrative cadres rallied to the government of liberation set up in Paris. Unfortunately the Japanese suspected this clandestine activity and decided to crush it at its very inception. This was the origin of the coup de force of March 9, 1945. The French were all arrested by the Kempeitai, some were tortured and massacred, others thrown into concentration camps. Thus it came about that when the Japanese themselves were forced to acknowledge their defeat, there were no more French cadres, no organized French force, either in Asia (near Indo-China) or in the interior of Indo-China itself.

This combination of circumstances accounts for the importance suddenly assumed by the Viet-Minh. Under this name, and under the leadership of an Annamite chieftain named Ho Chi Minh, a political movement of Communist inspiration, strong especially in Tonkin, in the north, had been set up during the Japanese occupation. Its attitude toward the Japanese was wavering. Indeed, not one act of resistance on the part of the Viet-Minh during the occupation can be cited. However, it succeeded in forming contact with certain American services then in China and obtained arms from them. The Viet-Minh also received arms, and in large quantity, from the Japanese when the latter realized that they had lost. Many Japanese officers and non-commissioned officers joined the Viet-Minh armed forces after the imperial proclamation of capitulation.

In the southern part of the peninsula the French quickly succeeded in assembling certain civil and military elements and were able after not too long a time to take the place of the British forces. In the north the Chinese troops of General Lu Han were less occupied with administration than with extensive profiteering. At this point the Viet-Minh made its appearance, proclaimed the "Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam"[ii] and set about intrenching

itself and digging in at Tonkin before the French should return. This operation was effected in the chaotic situation produced by the disappearance of all the French cadres, the collapse of the Japanese and the presence of the Chinese. Hundreds of thousands of peasants perished by drowning or through starvation when the abandoned Tonkinese dikes gave way to the flood that ravaged the overpopulated delta.

Further, the government of Ho Chi Minh was scarcely installed at Hanoï when, launching a policy of armed expansion at the expense of the non-Annamites (the Thais) of the peninsula, it invaded Laos and forced its king to flee the capital, Luang-Prabang. The nationalist reaction of the mountain-dwelling Laos took the form of guerrilla warfare against the Viet-Minh. As a result of this policy of aggression the Thais of Laos and Cambodia turned towards their former protector. They concluded treaties with France according to which the two states "associated themselves" with France within the French Union.

Such was the situation at the end of 1945. In the south, Cochin China had again become French territory. In the north, Tonkin and Annam had fallen under the domination of the Viet-Minh during the period of the Chinese occupation. In the west, Laos and Cambodia were proceeding toward the status of associated states.

Before continuing further, we must give a brief résumé of France's rôle in Indo-China for the preceding 80 years, and show what kind of policy the French Government of 1945 intended to follow. Too often there is a tendency to believe that France had done little or nothing for Indo-China and the Indo-Chinese. In fact, the economic development of Indo-China had made great progress since the beginning of the century. A few figures will give an idea of this development. There were constructed 3,053 kilometers of railroads, 3,000 kilometers of canals, 32,000 kilometers of roads and 16,000 kilometers of telephone lines. Rice production in Cochin China went from 300,000 tons in 1865 to 3,180,000 tons in 1945. The figure for the whole of Indo-China was 7,000,000 tons. (Indo-China is one of the rice granaries of the Far East; she exported 480,000 tons a year in 1885, 1,570,000 tons in 1935.) Rubber went from 200 tons in 1911 to 76,000 tons in 1941; coal, from 250,000 tons in 1900 to 2,500,000 million tons in 1940. Production of electricity rose to 80,000,000 kwh. in 1941. Traffic in the port of Saïgon went from a million tons in 1900 to 2,854,000 tons in 1939; that of Hai Phong, from 250,000 tons to 1,679,000. And private capital investment in Indo-China rose from 40,000,000 piasters in 1935 to 286,000,000 in 1940.

The real problem is to determine whether these achievements benefited only a few French promoters and local favorites or whether they produced helpful results for the indigenous population as a whole. It is a grave problem, moral as well as political, and I do not intend to evade it. My reply will be in three parts.

II

If we compare the material and intellectual status of the peoples of Indo-China in 1887, the date of the creation of the Indo-Chinese Union, and in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, no impartial observer can deny the progress which had been accomplished. The suppression of civil strife; the guaranty of free movement for people and things; vast public works (43,000,000 piasters in 1940) mainly for irrigation and the dredging and channeling of rivers; the creation of 1,000 hospitals and sanitary centers, which in 1938 provided nearly 14,000,000 consultations for 23,000,000 inhabitants; the replacement of the traditional usury, ruinous to the Annamite peasant, by a system of farm credit under state guaranty; the establishment of a responsible administration and regular courts of justice in place of the arbitrary measures of the old régime; the adoption of progressive social legislation under which industrial enterprises and plantation owners were obliged to construct decent living quarters, infirmaries and schools for laborers--such, among others, have been the concrete improvements that marked the transition of Indo-China from the archaic state in which she still existed 50 years ago to the level of a modernized country. It cannot fairly be denied that this progress has benefited the many, and not only an oligarchy of French origin. In this connection, one more figure of considerable significance must be quoted: out of a total of 2,261,500 hectares of land granted by the French administration after clearing, 1,299,500 hectares were allotted to indigenous farmers.

France did not neglect her duties toward the Indo-Chinese in the cultural field. The routine, oral Chinese teaching was replaced by a method of modern teaching based on the written Annamite language, in Latin characters, the quôc ngu. The budget for education was raised from 5,500,000 piasters in 1923 to over 29,000,000 in 1944. This program aimed to improve all levels of teaching, from the primary and elementary schools (666,000 pupils in 1943) to the higher groups. The Indo-Chinese University at Hanoï, the École Française d'Extrême-Orient, the school of medicine and pharmacy, the fine arts school, the Pasteur institutes, the geophysical observatory at Phu-Lien, the oceanographic institute at Nha Trang, are only a few examples of the vital scientific and educational activities of French Indo-China. In the field of what is called in France "secondary" education, there were seven large French and French-Indo-Chinese lycées (at Saïgon, Hanoï, Hué, Dalat, Pnom-Penh) and ten colleges in less important cities. Technical schools were open to young people of 14-18 years. Nothing, therefore, could be more incorrect than to suppose that the French abandoned the natives to ignorance. And it is to be remarked that these French educational activities gave large scope to primarily Indo-Chinese subjects, such as the Annamite or Cambodian language, the history of the country and Buddhist civilization and religion.

Where, then, is the dark side of the picture? In my opinion it is not to be found in the administrative or cultural fields but in the field of politics. France did all that was in her power for the people of Indo-China, often more than she did for her own people--all except to open to them the road to self-government. Every year the universities of Indo-China and France conferred diplomas upon Viet-Namese doctors, engineers and lawyers. These members of a new enlightened class who wanted to exercise leadership discovered that they were caught between the family and the traditional communal cell on the one hand (scrupulously respected by the French) and the higher administration on the other. It is paradoxical but true to say that the French carried their respect for the historical and local structure to excess. What they should have done, before the war, was to modernize not only the administration (which they did) but also the methods of government, which were stamped more with Asiatic paternalism than European democracy.

To sum up, I believe that no one, even the Indo-Chinese themselves, could have done for Indo-China what France has done. But a tragic inadequacy in the growth of the political structure of the country created discontent within the new native élite. This Communism has been able to exploit.

It is not generally known that General de Gaulle's Government understood this perfectly and defined a new policy based upon it. On March 24, 1945, the Provisional Government of France published a declaration, of which I was one of the authors. This declaration was comprehensive. It laid down the following principles:

1. Indo-Chinese citizens shall be citizens of the French Union and shall have access to all positions and work in Indo-China and in the Union, "without discrimination of race, religion or origin."

2. Indo-China shall have a federal government composed of ministers who may be Indo-Chinese or French residents of Indo-China.

3. "Freedom of thought and of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and democratic liberties in general, shall form the basis of Indo-Chinese laws."

4. Each of the countries of Indo-China shall have its local government.

5. Indo-Chinese military forces shall be created in which all ranks shall be open to Indo-Chinese.

6. The Indo-Chinese Federation shall enjoy economic autonomy.

Such were the principal provisions envisaged at that time by the Provisional Government of France. I am firmly convinced that only the irruption of Communism into the void which was created by France's absence from Indo-China during the crucial months of 1945 prevented this peaceful and legal revolution from going into effect.

Here an important question may be raised: Can the Viet-Minh be accurately described as a Communist movement? Communist propaganda, aided by various fellow travelers, had made considerable efforts to deny it. It has been claimed that Ho Chi Minh is really a nationalist and not a Communist. His personal history completely refutes this. Under his real name--N'Guyen Ai Quôc --the head of the Viet-Minh has always been a Communist, whether in Indo-China, in Paris, or in Moscow, where he was trained at the famous School of Asiatic Peoples. In one sense he is even more "orthodox" than Mao Tse-tung, who at times seems to have had whims of ideological independence from Russian doctrine.

The objection will be made that even if Ho Chi Minh is a Communist, the Viet-Minh is a coalition containing non-Communist nationalities. This is true only in so far as it concerns the troops. But to believe that the direction of the Viet-Minh is not entirely in the hands of the orthodox leadership is to fail totally to recognize Communist methods. The Viet-Minh is similar to those popular or national "fronts" which have been seen at work in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Rumania, and even in France during a short period in 1944. Under a nationalist camouflage, all the levers of command are in the hands of the Communists. In particular they control the instruments of political domination, ideological indoctrination, the armed forces and propaganda. This is exactly the case with the Viet-Minh. One of their foremost endeavors since 1945 has been to exterminate the parties (V.N.Q.D.D. and Dong Minh Hoi) which were truly nationalist and were not suspected of sympathy for France. The facts must be recognized. The Viet-Minh is the pawn which the Kremlin is moving up on the Indo-Chinese chessboard.

To recall how the present war in Indo-China broke out is to make plain Ho Chi Minh's intentions and methods. In March 1946 an initial agreement was concluded between the representative of the Republic of France and Ho Chi Minh. This agreement recognized the "Republic of Viet-Nam" as "a free state, having its government, its parliament, its army and its finance, belonging to the Indo-Chinese Federation and to the French Union." A few months later Ho Chi Minh was received officially in Paris as a Chief of State, and in September he signed a modus vivendi intended to complete the agreement and implement it.

On December 19, his armed forces nevertheless attacked the French troops at Hanoï. This coup had been carefully arranged. For days secret passages had been prepared between houses so that the Viet-Minh elements could move without passing through the streets; pseudo-invalids had succeeded in entering French hospitals; material for barricades had been prepared; railroad cars had been brought to grade crossings to obstruct them. Finally, at the very moment when their forces were ready to launch the attack and when their government had already left Hanoï, Ho Chi Minh and his minister of war, Giap, delivered conciliatory letters to the French authorities. In other words, having obtained what it demanded from France, the Viet-Minh took the initiative and, by a coup de force, broke the agreements it had made.

This action cannot be explained by any purely local motivation. Ho Chi Minh acted as an agent of a global policy, the double purpose of which was and remains, first, to weaken France in Europe by forcing her to deflect a large part of her forces and resources to the Asiatic theatre; and second, to open a first breach in the Pacific front.

III

At the time I write, the general situation in Indo-China may be summarized as follows:

1. The Indo-Chinese peninsula is divided into three states associated with France within the French Union: the Kingdom of Cambodia, the Kingdom of Laos and the State of Viet-Nam. The latter has as its head the Emperor Bao Dai, who was emperor of Annam until 1945. These three states are represented in Paris by their delegates to the Assembly of the French Union. An "interstate" conference is being held at Pau to regulate the relation between the three countries and to organize common services.

2. Laos and Cambodia as a whole enjoy fairly normal life. Representative institutions have been put into operation. Internal quiet is only slightly disturbed.

3. In Viet-Nam, on the other hand, the Emperor's authority and that of the central and local governments[iii] are still weak. The French authorities have transferred all available services to Viet-Nam, including police and security. But today's drama lies in this, that though Viet-Nam has recovered internal sovereignty, she cannot exercise it without the presence of French armed forces. The Viet-Nam army is still embryonic. Its strength probably is not more than a third of that of the Viet-Minh army. In other words, left to itself Viet-Nam would have difficulty in withstanding for long the assault of Ho Chi Minh's partisans.

4. The military situation remains extremely tense. It improved in Tonkin as a result of the winter campaign; it is good in the south of Annam and on the plateaus. But the Viet-Minh controls extensive territories from the Sino-Tonkinese frontier and in the anterior of Annam, and guerrilla activity continues without interruption in Cochin China. The Viet-Minh forces, estimated at 100 battalions, are inferior in number to the French and Viet-Nam troops, but they benefit by the tactical advantages of guerrilla warfare in a tropical country full of dense vegetation and marshes. Their armament (contraband from the Philippines, Indonesia and Siam) is constantly increasing.

5. The mass of Annamites, in reality, follow neither Ho Chi Minh nor Bao Dai. Tired of war and insecurity, in each zone they rally to whatever authority is in power. However, it should be noted that the villagers in zones recently recovered from the Viet-Minh, having undergone long months of that régime, are spontaneously organizing their own defense against a return offensive of the Communists. Ho Chi Minh appears not to have succeeded in winning over the population of the territories which he occupies; the activities of his political police create a reign of terror but do not result in securing adherents. Taking everything into account we can say that the rural masses will lean to the side where they find a promise of peace, security and an acceptable daily life. However, the results of the immense effort accomplished under French authority in the past--public works, dikes, irrigation, sanitation, rehabilitation of the soil--are certainly compromised for a long time to come. The very delicate balance between the needs of a growing population and the barely sufficient production of the agricultural districts has been broken.

During the past four years the war in Viet-Nam has cost France considerable losses in manpower and an enormous financial burden--200 billion francs in 1950. This unsettles French public opinion and seriously undermines the country's strength and influence in Europe. The Communist victory in China and now the Communist aggression in Korea have also complicated the problem. Mao Tse-tung may intervene to support Ho Chi Minh in ways that are not clearly visible but nevertheless very important. He may provide matériel, furnish air support, and even throw in Chinese units disguised as "volunteers." Such intervention could counterbalance the slow but real improvement in the military situation in Indo-China witnessed in recent months. The Korean affair has tied down all the American forces available in the Pacific, and this may continue for an unforeseeable length of time. It will bring its recompense, however, if it demonstrates that the entire strategy of the West in Asia must be conceived as a whole and that it would be foolish to consider Korea and Indo-China separately. President Truman understood this, and increased the aid promised to the French and Viet-Nam forces.

IV

However, further steps must, I think, be taken. If the front held by France in Indo-China were destroyed, the position of opponents of Communism in Malaya and the Philippines would quickly become untenable. The policy of the Communist Party in France shows how crucial Moscow considers that front to be. Through propaganda and sabotage of war material the Communists aim at bringing about the retreat of the French forces from Indo-China. Such an evacuation is in any case impossible, for it would be accomplished by the massacre of French and Eurasian civilians and of all the Indo-Chinese who recognized the authority of Bao Dai. Outside of Indo-China, it would sound the knell for all resistance to Communism in Asia. All the many "nationalists" who rallied to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor would rally to the new triumphant force in Asia. It would be an Asiatic Munich.

The conflict in Indo-China thus is not between France and the Viet-Minh. That is only a local manifestation of the resistance of peoples on the periphery of Asia to the Soviet expansion from the heart of the continent, directed toward the peninsulas of the Pacific. For four years France has made a major effort there. It strains her resources to the utmost. But it is vital to the United States and to the whole free world that this effort continue--and if it is to continue it must be supported. Great aid in matériel and credits is needed if the French soldiers who are battling in most difficult conditions are to deliver blows against the Communist forces and, if necessary, discourage Red China's intervention.

I have not concealed what I believe to have been errors and inadequacies in French policy in Indo-China. However, with the world in its present condition, I am certain that the threat to the independence and well-being of the peoples of Indo-China comes not from France but from Ho Chi Minh and the system which he represents. I believe that the Viet-Minh is exploiting legitimate national aspirations of the Indo-Chinese to the profit of a new crude imperialism which will in turn crush them as it has already crushed all national life in half of Europe. A chance to develop the policy of association with France as defined in 1945 by the de Gaulle Government seems to me both more realistic and more liberal than one which would deliver weak and defenseless nationalities to Communist rule and Russian domination.

It has turned out that France was the first in line on the new front in Asia. Some of her aims and actions in the past have been misunderstood. Now that the United States is engaged in the same conflict these misunderstandings must be cleared up. The undertakings of the two nations should be directed in concert and in a full and reciprocal assessment made of the results. It would be salutary if the common purposes were defined publicly before world opinion, above all in a way that the Asiatic people themselves will hear and understand them. The struggle will be won or lost depending on whether or not the West succeeds in coördinating its efforts and in mobilizing on its side all native resistance forces.

[i] The Eurasians, a mixture of French and Annamites, number about 150,000. Practically all of them have adopted French nationality.

[ii] "Viet-Minh" is an abbreviation of the Annamite expression meaning "League for the Independence of Viet-Nam."

[iii] There are four governments: a central government for the country as a whole, and local governments in Cochin China, Annam and Tonkin.

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  • JACQUES SOUSTELLE, a member of General de Gaulle's French Provisional Government, in charge of relations with Japanese-occupied Indo-China in 1944-45 and Minister of Overseas France in 1945-46; author of "Envers et Contre Tous"
  • More By Jacques Soustelle