The War with the French 10

Under the Potsdam plan, the Chinese Nationalists had been dele¬gated to disarm the Japanese in the north—and the first of their two hundred thousand troops, commanded by General Lu Han, arrived in Hanoi in September. They resembled a horde of human locusts. Hungry, tattered and even barefoot, many racked with scurvy and other diseases, they included poor peasant boys and ragged soldiers dragging along their wives and children. Having plundered villages during their march down from China, they carried baskets filled with ducks and chickens, or herded cattle before them. Once in Hanoi, they continued to pillage promiscuously. They barged into private homes and public buildings, stealing light bulbs and unscrewing door¬knobs, and they pushed through markets, filching fruit and vegetables, even biting into bars of soap that they mistook for food. Their officers, though more sophisticated, were equally rapacious. They cut them¬selves into Vietnamese and local Chinese business deals, confiscated French property and, among other scams, legalized their theft by making the worthless Chinese currency legitimate tender in the area. Ho placated them. Having persuaded the Hanoi population to donate its hidden gold to his regime’s depleted treasury, he gave a percentage to the Chinese—and, as a special gift, presented Lu Han with an extravagant set of gilt opium pipes and lamps.
Intricate political maneuvers absorbed Ho and Lu Han. Both wanted to prevent the French, now installed in the south, from regaining the north. But Lu Han sought to promote the VNQDD, his favorite Vietnamese faction. However, he respected Ho’s influence as much as Ho respected his power. So they sealed a bargain. In November 1945, Ho dissolved the Communist party as a gesture of appeasement to Lu Han, who in turn conceded to elections that would yield a coalition government comprising both VNQDD and Vietminh mem¬bers.
The VNQDD leaders, outraged by Lu Han’s betrayal, sent out gangs to kidnap and kill their rivals, and Giap barely escaped with his life. Ho now perceived that Lu Han, who had set no time limit on his occupation, might use the disorder as a pretense to keep his forces in northern Vietnam indefinitely. He also learned that Chiang Kai- shek, on a different course, was prepared to withdraw the Chinese troops and allow the French to return to Tonkin in exchange for France’s relinquishing its old concessions in Shanghai and other Chinese ports—a pact in fact signed in February 1946.
Ho was trapped. The United States, despite his repeated pleas, had decided to support France. The Soviet Union had neither endorsed his regime nor, he remarked ruefully, even assigned an observer to Hanoi. Nor could he count on the French Communist party, whose boss, Maurice Thorez, then vice-president of General de Gaulle’s gov¬ernment, later said that he “did not intend to liquidate the French position in Indochina.” In December 1945, Ho confessed to his failures in a remarkable statement:
Though five months have passed since we declared independence, no foreign countries have recognized us. Though our soldiers have fought gloriously, we are still far from victory. Though our admin– istration is honest and efficient, corruption has not been eliminated. Though we have introduced reforms, disorder disturbs several areas. We could ascribe these setbacks to the fact that our regime is young, or make other excuses. But no. Our successes are due to the efforts of our citizens, and our shortcomings are our own fault.
Ho’s only alternative at this juncture, he felt, was an accommodation under which the French could come back—on condition that they recognized Vietnam’s independence. He signaled his receptivity to such a settlement in interviews with Western correspondents, telling one in early 1946 that “we admire France and have no desire to sever the bonds that unite our two peoples” but that the French should take “a first and sincere step.” That invitation and others like it sounded hopeful to Jean Sainteny, who had talked with Ho since his arrival in Hanoi in August as de Gaulle’s representative. Sainteny, a former Hanoi banker and son-in-law of Albert Sarraut, the retired governor of Indochina, flew to Saigon to consult with General Leclerc, then acting as high commissioner during Admiral d’Argenlieu’s absence. Leclerc preferred a diplomatic solution to a larger conflict. He ap-proved Sainteny’s proposal to negotiate.
Leclerc, resorting to something like gunboat diplomacy, dispatched shiploads of French troops to northern Vietnam, ready to attack if the talks failed. Ho and Sainteny argued strenuously, both aware that deadlocked negotiations could spark a war neither of them wanted. Sainteny, under pressure from vested French interests in Saigon, insisted on a separate Cochinchina. Ho, committed to Vietnam’s national unity, refused. At the last minute, as Leclerc’s flotilla steamed into the Gulf of Tonkin, they compromised: the fate of Cochinchina would await a referendum. So, on March 6, 1946, a clash had been prevented. France would recognize Vietnam as a free state within the French Union—the new name for the old French empire—and Ho would permit the presence of twenty-five thousand French troops in Vietnam for the next five years. But the final confirmation of this accord never came.
Ho’s balance sheet was mixed. Though no deadline had been set for a plebiscite on Cochinchina, he had allowed the French army to reenter the north. But France had confirmed his legitimacy, he had bought time to strengthen the Vietminh and had contrived to expel the Chinese—the achievement he considered most important, as he vigorously told his critics at a meeting in Hanoi: “You fools! Don’t you realize what it means if the Chinese remain? Don’t you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”
Ho’s immense prestige silenced his disappointed followers. But the agreement split the French. Saigon businessmen, planters and officials were indignant at the possibility that they might lose their colonial privileges, and Admiral d’Argenlieu bluntly denounced Leclerc: “I am amazed—yes, that is the word, amazed—that France’s fine expedi¬tionary corps in Indochina is commanded by officers who would rather negotiate than fight.”

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