The Light That Failed 8

De Lattre was a Gallic version of Mac Arthur. Handsome and stylish, he wore uniforms tailored by Lanvin, the fashionable Paris couturier. Sometimes charming, he could also be egocentric to the point of megalomania. His flash of glory in Indochina ended abruptly and tragically: his only son, Bernard, was killed in action, and he died of cancer less than a year after assuming his new command. But, for a few months, de Lattre infused his troops with the conviction that they might redress the dismal situation.
The spark of hope was largely rekindled by Giap’s blunders, how¬ever. By late 1950, Giap perceived that his gains in the sparsely in¬habited zone adjacent to China left him with two principal problems: to assert the Vietminh’s political authority, he had to conquer the main population centers around Hanoi and Saigon; and to get the food his men desperately needed, he had to take over the rich rice fields of the Red river valley in the north and the Mekong Delta in the south. The French dominated both areas, and they could protect them better with their armor and artillery than they had the Chinese border sector. Nevertheless, Giap planned a big campaign against the Red River valley, ambitiously forecasting Ho Chi Minh’s arrival in Hanoi for Tet, the lunar New Year, beginning in February 1951.
Giap’s plan may have been influenced by General Lo Guipo, a Chinese Communist veteran whom Mao had assigned to the Vietminh as diplomatic representative and military adviser. Years later, the Viet¬namese blamed the Chinese for exerting pressure on them to escalate too soon from guerrilla warfare to larger offensives. But Giap was himself a gambler.
Anticipating the attacks, de Lattre had strengthened the Red River valley with hundreds of cement blockhouses and new airfields. He was prepared in January 1951 when two Vietminh divisions, com¬prising twenty thousand men, swept down from the Tam Dao moun¬tains and stormed Vinhyen, a town situated amid flooded rice fields thirty miles northwest of Hanoi. Outnumbered, the French defenders initially fell back. But de Lattre, personally taking charge, flew in reinforcements and mustered every available aircraft to bomb the mas¬sive Vietminh formations. Giap retreated after three days of fierce combat, leaving six thousand Vietminh dead and carrying off another eight thousand wounded. He was determined to try again.
Late in March, he focused on the port of Haiphong, through which the French brought in supplies, and once more he miscalculated, underestimating the ability of the French to deploy naval guns and move troops aboard assault boats through the region’s estuaries and canals. When he launched an initial attack against Maokhe, northwest of Haiphong, the French again fought him off.
In late May, in yet another attempt, Giap attacked with three di¬visions along the Day River, southeast of Hanoi, aiming to dramatize his supremacy over the French and thereby sway Vietnamese inclined to lean toward the victor. Heavy rains complicated his supply move¬ments, and he encountered stiff resistance from Vietnamese Catholic communities in the area, which had organized their own militia. The French also defended their positions stubbornly, especially at the town of Nam Dinh, where Bernard de Lattre died obeying his father’s orders to hold at all costs. After three weeks, Giap pulled back his force, his initiative blunted. Both the Vietminh and the French were exhausted.
De Lattre, now eager to go on the offensive, flew to Washington to request more American aid, and there he portrayed the importance of Indochina in lurid geopolitical terms. Speaking at the Pentagon on September 20, 1951, he warned that the loss of northern Vietnam would open the rest of Southeast Asia to the advance of Communism, which would then engulf the Middle East and Africa, and eventually “outflank” Europe. But the United States, by now committed to the Korean war and other responsibilities abroad, could only partially help. De Lattre got more American transport airplanes, trucks and other equipment—a significant contribution to his arsenal—but it was scarcely enough to turn the tide for France. Five months later, he died in a Paris hospital, raised to the dignity of Marshal on his last day. The war was deadlocked for the next two years.
Just as President Nixon began a “Vietnamization” program in 1969 to lend credibility to the Saigon government, so the French in 1952 strengthened the Vietnamese units serving with their forces, to counter the Vietminh’s claim to represent true nationalism. They termed the policy jaunissement, or “yellowing. ” But, like the Bao Dai regime itself, the “yellowed” army lacked credibility. Its commander, General Ngu¬yen Van Hinh, the son of Bao Dai’s former prime minister, Nguyen Van Xuan, was a French army officer, a French citizen, married to a French woman. In any event, the French distrusted these Vietnamese soldiers, fearing they might defect to the Vietminh, and assigned most of them to static defense duties. The innovation of transferring re¬sponsibility to an indigenous anti-Communist corps had been started too late. Recruiting and training its leaders would require time and effort, as General Hinh estimated, saying that it would be seven years before his battalions were ready to relieve the French and participate on their own in offensive operations.
Nor had Bao Dai’s administration made much progress in winning over the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese. Composed principally of urban elite and wealthy landowners, it resembled the French bu¬reaucracy it was supposed to replace. Or, as a senior American aid official, R. Allen Griffith, observed in late 1951: It is in no sense the servant of the people. It has no grass roots. It therefore has no appeal whatsoever to the masses. It evokes no popular support because the nature of its leaders tends to an attitude that this would be a “concession.” . . . Revolution will continue and Ho Chi Minh will remain a popular hero so long as “inde¬pendence” leaders with French support are simply native mandarins who are succeeding foreign mandarins. . . . The present type of government in Vietnam is a relic of the past as much as French colonialism.

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