The War with the French 12

On the morning of November 23, Debes demanded that the Viet- minh authorities evacuate their troops from Haiphong within two hours. The Vietnamese, protesting that they were observing the cease¬fire, telephoned Hanoi for instructions. Debes gave them an additional forty-five minutes, then issued the order.
French infantry and armored units raced through Haiphong, fight¬ing house to house against Vietminh squads. French aircraft zoomed in to bomb and strafe while the cruiser Sujffren, in the harbor, lobbed shells into the city, demolishing whole neighborhoods of flimsy struc¬tures. Refugees streamed into nearby provinces with their belongings in baskets and on bicycles, and the naval guns shelled them as well. Days passed before the French finally routed the last Vietminh snipers. The Vietnamese claimed twenty thousand deaths, but a French admiral later estimated “no more” than six thousand. Vu Quoc Uy, then chairman of the Haiphong municipal committee, told me in an inter¬view in 1981 that the Vietnamese toll had been between five hundred and a thousand.
D’Argenlieu, still in Paris, cabled congratulations to Valluy, assur¬ing him: “We will never retreat or surrender.” By now losing hope for an accommodation, Ho radioed an appeal to the French parliament to honor the accord he had signed. He also asserted to a French cor¬respondent that neither France nor Vietnam “can afford the luxury of a bloody war,” but he warned that the Vietnamese would endure an “atrocious struggle” rather than “renounce their liberty.” In mid- December, his old Socialist comrade Leon Blum had become prime minister, and he favored a “sincere reconciliation” with Vietnam “based on independence.” Ho sent Blum a set of concrete recom¬mendations for restoring calm. The telegram, transmitted through Saigon, was delayed by French officials there for nine days—during which time the conflict again escalated.
“If those gooks want a fight, they’ll get it,” said Valluy as he landed in Haiphong on December 17, his temper boiling over the slaughter of three French soldiers by Vietminh militia in Hanoi that day. Inci¬dents were now multiplying in Hanoi and, as they had in Haiphong, the French presented Ho with a demand to disarm the Vietminh and place security in their hands. Ho begged the French to rescind the order. Giap deployed some thirty thousand men at three locations in the suburbs, planning to invade Hanoi if trouble started.
The origin of the events is still murky, but the Vietminh militia probably struck first on the evening of December 19, sabotaging the municipal power plant, then breaking into French homes to murder or abduct their occupants. Alerted in advance by spies, the French counterattacked, and Hanoi became a battleground, its buildings aflame and its tree-lined avenues littered with corpses. Ho, in bed with fever at his modest bungalow behind the French governor’s mansion, fled before the French could capture him. At nine in the evening, Giap issued a virtual declaration of war: “I order all soldiers and militia in the center, south and north to stand together, go into battle, destroy the invaders, and save the nation. . . . The resistance will be long and arduous, but our cause is just and we will surely triumph.”
Except for a Christmas truce, the battle of Hanoi raged through December. Giap’s troops rushed into the city to join the Vietminh, their arms a hodgepodge of ancient French muskets, old American rifles, British bren automatics, Japanese carbines, spears, swords and machetes as well as homemade contrivances called Phan Dinh Phung grenades, after Vietnam’s nineteenth-century nationalist hero. They fought from street to street against French tanks, artillery and machine guns. Dr. Tran Duy Hung, then the Vietminh mayor, described the events to me thirty-five years later:
We were in Kham Thien Street, a French unit facing us from across the railway tracks. We built a barricade with railroad ties, piling it high with beds, dressers, chairs, tables, whatever. Not even a tank could get through it. Some of our boys—we called them “gentle¬men militia”—wore red and yellow shoulder braids captured from the French. People sang revolutionary songs when they charged. We were very optimistic, very romantic. . . .
We were ordered to divert the French until our forces could withdraw from the city. We could only get out by crawling under the Long Bien bridge, which the French controlled. We exploded all the firecrackers we could find. When the noise stopped, the French moved in on us. But we had escaped into the countryside to begin the long war. . . .
Ho had fled to Hadong, a town six miles south of Hanoi, where he echoed Giap’s call to arms—and also appealed to the Western Allies to restrain the French. In Paris, however, Blum had altered his stance. Stressing his commitment to Vietnam’s independence within the French Union, he now emphasized that “order must be restored” as a precondition to fresh discussions. He sent Marius Moutet to Vietnam to survey the situation, and Ho promptly offered to talk with the minister in whose apartment he had signed the modus vivendi four months earlier. But Moutet rejected the overture as “propaganda,” adding ambiguously that France would only deal with “authentic spokesmen for the Vietnamese people. ” D’Argenlieu, back in Saigon, went further. Conversations with Ho were “henceforth impossible,” he asserted, proposing instead that Vietnam return to its “traditional monarchy”—in short, enthrone Bao Dai again, who had by then left Hanoi for Hong Kong. A pattern was emerging that was to be repeated by France and later by the United States: negotiations with the Com¬munists could only be pursued if first the Communists capitulated.

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