The Battered Kite
A short conversation on the origins of the French Indo-China.
( Annam, Tonkin, Laos and Cambodia)
French Indo-China was by far the most prosperous possession of the French Empire. It contained valuable rice and mineral deposits, with close borders to potential trading partners. France was compelled to give control of the Indo-China region to the Japanese after its western defeat. The British were in no position to help and America was still in isolation. To the French this simply, meant, if the Japanese won the eastern war it would belong to them and if the Allies were successful the French would take it back.
When America did become involved they were determined not to give Indo-China back to the French as part of their decolonisation policy. President Roosevelt then curiously offered it to Chain Kai-shek, who refused as he thought the Vietnamese had a different identity to the Chinese.
This episode was to prove unhelpful to French aspirations after the war.
Defending its coast line proved impossible to the 50,000 French garrison, with only 25 good aircraft, a Cruiser and 4 cutters, and no help on the way. Logically, General Catroux arrange a surrender. Vichy responded by having him replaced by Vice-Admiral Deoux who duly surrendered to Japanese demands under extreme duress.
Vietnam was now under Vichy law allowed the incarceration of politicians who disagreed with them. When the news of the Normandy Landings and the liberation of Paris reached Deoux, he immediately contacted de Gaulle. Between them they devised a plan to deceive the Japanese into thinking France had lost interest in Indo-China. But, this did not work. In March 1945 the Japanese forces took full control brutally butchering those who resisted. The weak ,drinking, womaniser, Emperor Boa Dai surprisingly declared the country independent under its old name of Vietnam. His new government was left with an impossible task of moving rice from the south to feed the starving people in the north. This was because the Japanese retained control over the south of the country. The result was starvation on a large scale. It is said that one person in five died in the summer famine of 1945 the dead lay in heaps, while those still alive ate rats and discarded food. Starving people were compelled to attack French and Japanese posts in the hope of finding provisions. The communist party under Ho Ch Minh had been antagonistic to both the French and Japanese alike, he knew the time had come to advance his political aims.
The Viet Minh who helped the Americans in Kunming had been supplied with new weapons to attack the forces of Japan. Ho Chi Minh carefully ensured his troops would still be intact to fight the French under General Gaip. Gaip had been a history teacher and a law graduate. By the time of the surrender in August Ho Chi Minh moved his troops into Hanoi, from the Republic of Vietnam.
Total Command of the area after the Japans capitulation fell to a reluctant Mountbatten. He had discovered after the Potsdam agreements, and without his knowledge, the powers had divided Vietnam from the 16th parallel. China would govern the north region near its border. Mountbatten considered the partition under Chiang Kai- Shek as a lousy division under a mediocre general.
Chinese troops left after the French handed over their concessions including Shanghai.
General Gracey of the 20th Indian division was now commander south of the parallel and was responsible for maintaining law and order in a very difficult situation. Gracey reminded his troops of the North West Frontier, always use maximum force available to ensure wiping out any hostility. If one uses too small a force and it has to extricated we will suffer casualties and encourage the enemy. Some American officials did not agree with Gracey but he had the legal mandate after the riots of September 1945.
The Vietnamese celebrated Independence day on the 17th of September and the French returned on the 23rd of that month taking over important installations. Two days later the Vietnamese retaliated against French oppression and Japanese troops under Gracey’s command refused to come to the aid of those in trouble.
Ho Chi Minh had considered it better to eat French shit for five years than Chinese shit for the rest of his life.
While Ernest Bevin signed an agreement recognising French administrative powers south of the 16th Parallel in October. Guerrilla warfare began to grow in that area despite all the efforts to prevent it.
An ex monk Thierry d’ Argenlieu who had left the Monastery to serve in the free French Navy became the high commissioner of Vietnam. He was as arrogant as de Gaulle and a believer in the grandeur of Frances past, invariably appointed Vietnamese sympathisers to his new administration. On the 32nd of October
He announced Vietnam would be allowed autonomy in the French Empire, but it was way too late as they had tasted the real thing.
By the beginning of 1946, the British packed up and left it to the confident French.
Jean Sainteny the shrewd and brave resistance fighter tried to make contact with the French in northern Tonkin but was opposed by the Chinese and Americans. Flags and banners flew in the streets of Hanoi signifying Independence or death. The French Commissioner had been thrown in prison.
The Chinese had looted the towns and villages and imprisoned the French troops in Hanoi citadel, demanding the French pay for their occupation of the northern provinces.
Leclerc the post war Commander was beginning to suppress guerrilla activities in the south, but his 20,000 troops could not cope with northern guerrilla forces, who could hid in the mountain country.
Ho Chi Minh made an agreement with Leclerc to unload his armour at Haiphong for the retaking of Hanoi. Among the crowd watching the disembarkation was General Giap.
Ho Chi Minh later that year visited France to sign a new agreement. Strangely, he had already expressed a hope of a continuous bond with France and was known as an admirer of America. It may be, Ho had expected the French Communist party to take power one day. He did not know they had very different views and opinions to his brand of communism.
While flying over the middle east Ho Chi Minh received news that he had been declared absent from the Fontainebleau Conference. Cochin-China had been declared a free republic in contradiction to a previous agreement, and the French government would binds itself to the decision of a referendum of the people, which had never taken place. Ho, begged not to have to return to Vietnam empty handed. In a speech to Vietnamese workers he declared ’If you must fight, we will fight. You may kill ten of our men for every one of your own, but in the end it will be you who will give in.’
In the port of Haiphong the French sized a Chinese boat that contained contraband. This led to the Vietnamese militia opening fire on the French, who retaliated by shelling and occupying the city. The total dead in Haiphong reached 6,000.
On December the 19th 1946 open warfare began and one of the first casualties was Sainteny, when his armour car struck a mine.
The fight between the Elephant and the Grasshopper had began.
In a prophetic statement by an American Raymond Fosdick, he emphasised, “Whether the French liked it or not independence was coming to Indochina, why therefore tie ourselves to the tail of a battered kite.”
John Ohley, an American Defence official recognised French requirements in the east were having an impact on Americas ability to supply other countries. That America was gradually increasing its stake in the outcome of the conflict and close to the point of intervention.
We must not forget the effects of appeasement on those involved in the second world war. Many important American politicians believed doing nothing brought catastrophe, and as many believed Indochina was part of an international war by communism.
Acknowledgements to The 10,000 Day War: Vietnam by Michael MacLear, and VIETNAM a history by Stanley Karnow. And mostly Louis Allen’s biography