The War with the French 8

Bao Dai, isolated and confused in his palace in Hue, had received a message from the Vietminh demanding his resignation. He com¬plied—remembering, as he later put it, that King Louis XVI had lost his head for resisting the French Revolution. On August 25, a Viet¬minh delegation appeared in Hue, claiming to speak for Ho Chi Minh, a name then unknown to Bao Dai. He donned his elaborately brocaded court costume and, at an improvised ceremony, read a statement hand¬ing over “sovereign power” to the Vietminh, which now proclaimed itself the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He also relinquished the royal seal and sword, emblems of the monarchy, and he dropped his regal title and became plain Nguyen Vinh Thuy, so that he could “live as a simple citizen in an independent country rather than king of a subjugated nation.” He felt relieved and unburdened, he recalled afterward: “I almost wanted to shout—finally free!”
Bao Dai went to Hanoi, where Ho appointed him “supreme ad¬viser” to the new government. He asked to be treated as a “simple citizen,” but the Vietminh leaders addressed him as “Sire,” and he respectfully referred to Ho as “Venerable.” Their modesty impressed him, but they were naive and inexperienced—as if they were running a town council rather than a national government. Even so, he realized that the Vietminh, despite its flaws, reflected Vietnamese aspirations, and he transmitted a warning to General de Gaulle:
You would understand better if you could see what is happening here, if you could feel this yearning for independence that is in everyone’s heart, and which no human force can any longer restrain. Should you reestablish a French administration here, it will not be obeyed. Every village will be a nest of resistance, each former col¬laborator an enemy, and your officials and colonists will themselves seek to leave this atmosphere, which will choke them.
Ho Chi Minh, hoping for U.S. support, confided to an OSS agent that he would welcome “a million American soldiers . . . but no French.” Giap echoed that theme, telling a Hanoi crowd to regard the United States as a ‘‘good friend” because “it is a democracy without territorial ambitions.” In early September, U.S. intelligence agents in Hanoi reported to Truman’s secretary of state, James Byrnes, that the Vietnamese were “determined to maintain their independence even at the cost of their lives,” since “they have nothing to lose and all to gain.” But the United States and its wartime partners, inexorably if not deliberately, proceeded to restore French rule.
In July, a month before Japan capitulated, the Allied leaders had met in Potsdam, a Berlin suburb, to plan the future. There they had devised a scheme to disarm the Japanese in Vietnam—a minor item on their agenda—by dividing the country at the sixteenth parallel. The British would take the south, the Chinese Nationalists the north. It was a formula for catastrophe.
The British commander, General Douglas Gracey, was miscast. A colonial officer with limited political experience but a genuine affection for his Indian troops, he held the paternalistic view that “natives” should not defy Europeans. Officially, his was not to reason why. He had been plainly told by Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Allied com¬mander for Southeast Asia, to avoid Vietnam’s internal problems and merely handle the Japanese. But Gracey, guided by his prejudices, violated instructions. Despite Ho’s assertion of Vietnam’s independ¬ence in Hanoi on September 2, he publicly affirmed even before leaving India for Saigon several weeks later that “civil and military control by the French is only a question of weeks.”
Saigon was in chaos. The discredited French administration had crum¬bled, devastated by the defeat of Japan, whose troops in Vietnam were waiting for repatriation. A Vietminh committee set up to govern was wrangling with Jean Cedile, whom de Gaulle had sent to Indochina as France’s representative. French residents, afraid to lose their colonial privileges, were bracing for a fight. The Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Trot- skyites and others, all striving to outbid the Vietminh, had taken an extremist tack. And tensions spiraled with the emergence of the Binh Xuyen, a gang of guns for hire, which, until its elimination by Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955, would serve the Vietminh and other factions— and even police the south for the French in exchange for the franchise to manage bordellos, casinos and opium dens.
The violence grew as rival Vietnamese fought each other or clashed with the French. The chances of an accommodation also faded, since Cedile had been ordered to reject the Vietminh’s demands for sov¬ereignty, and the Vietminh refused to accept nothing less. Cedile had also succumbed to the spell of veteran French merchants, planters and officials, who were anxious to safeguard their interests. They urged him to be tough toward the “Viets,” as they derisively dubbed the Vietminh, terming them “agitators” and “bandits” who “only under¬stood force.” Cedile, originally a moderate, now denounced the Viet¬minh publicly, claiming that it “did not represent public opinion” and must bow to French control.
Britain’s new Labour government’was then contemplating inde¬pendence for India, but Gracey ironically embarked on a different path in Saigon, where he reiterated his desire for the French to return. On September 21, he exceeded his instructions by proclaiming martial law. He banned public meetings, imposed a curfew and closed down Vietnamese newspapers—though he permitted the French press and radio to function. But with only eighteen hundred British, Indian and Gurkha soldiers at his disposal, he lacked the muscle to enforce his decree. So, encouraged by Cedile, he released and armed fourteen hundred French army troops, most of them Foreign Legionnaires who had been interned by the Japanese.
The desperate Vietminh leaders thereupon mobilized a massive pro¬test demonstration deliberately designed to provoke British and French reprisals and “cause many casualties and attract world attention,” as one of them cynically explained. But a French orgy of violence preempted them.
On September 22, a day after their release, French soldiers went on a rampage. Shooting sentries, they poured into the Saigon city hall and ousted the Vietminh’s so-called Provisional Executive Commit¬tee. They took over police stations and other public buildings, raising the French flag from the rooftops. Then, their ranks swelled by angry French civilians, they coursed through the city, broke into Vietnamese homes and shops, and indiscriminately clubbed men, women and even children. Gracey and Cedile, appalled by the spectacle that they them¬selves had inspired, pleaded for calm. But it was too late.

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