The War with the French 9

Until then, the Vietminh leaders had calculated that temperance would win them Allied favor. But that prospect had dimmed. More important, they feared losing their militants unless they showed strength. Responding to the French frenzy, therefore, they launched a general strike on September 24. If any one date marks the start of the first Indochina war, it might be that day. For the strike and its aftermath initiated a momentum of conflict that, despite periodic ne¬gotiating attempts, could not be stopped.
By morning, Saigon was paralyzed. Electricity and water supplies had halted. Shops were shut and offices closed, trams stood still and even rickshaws had disappeared from the deserted streets. Anticipating the worst, the city’s twenty thousand French civilians barricaded their houses or fled in panic to the security of the rambling old Continental Palace hotel, the billet for French and British officers. The crackle of gunfire and the thud of mortars soon resonated through the city, as armed Vietminh squads attacked the airport, burned the central market and stormed the local prison to liberate hundreds of Vietnamese in¬mates.
But the most brutal episode occurred at the Cite Herault, a resi¬dential suburb. At dawn, Binh Xuyen terrorists led by Vietminh agents slipped past Japanese soldiers supposedly guarding the district. Smashing doors and windows, they broke into bedrooms and mas¬sacred one hundred and fifty French and Eurasian civilians, sparing neither women nor children. They dragged more than a hundred others away as hostages, mutilating many before freeing them later. Predictably, Communist historians omit any mention of this atrocity in their accounts of the period.
In London, a senior Foreign Office expert outlined Britain’s di¬lemma in a confidential memorandum. The British could not continue to back the French in Vietnam without alienating China and anti¬colonial American opinion. But a straightforward retreat from Saigon would dismay the French and perhaps also spur dissidence in British possessions. The London official therefore proposed “to get French troops into southern Indochina with the utmost dispatch, and, after turning it over to them, to withdraw our forces as soon as possible”— which is exactly what happened. The United States, while hesitant to get directly involved in Indochina, raised no objections as the British gave their American military equipment to French units and trans¬ported them by ship to Indochina.
General de Gaulle, meanwhile, made two appointments that illus¬trated his determination to reimpose French rule. As high commissioner for Indochina, the equivalent of governor, he selected Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu, an almost medieval figure who had retired from the navy after World War I to become a Carmelite monk, then shed his robes temporarily to join the Free French. Arrogant and inflexible, d’Argenlieu shared de Gaulle’s absolute faith in the grandeur of France, a conviction that set him on a collision course against the Vietminh, whose chauvinistic fervor matched his. As his chief military commander, de Gaulle chose General Jacques Philippe Leclerc, a su¬perb soldier whose tank division had liberated Paris in 1944. Leclerc soon recognized the necessity for a political solution to the chaos in Indochina, but he started out heeding the advice he had solicited from General Douglas MacArthur: “Bring troops, more troops, as many as you can.”
Leclerc’s forces set forth in October, first cracking a Vietminh block¬ade around Saigon, then driving through the Mekong delta and up into the highlands. They were constantly harassed by enemy guerrillas: the Vietminh, retreating everywhere, burned villages, destroyed bridges and terrorized the local population. The ruthless Vietminh leader for the region, Tran Van Giau, weakened his movement by liquidating sympathizers who failed to meet his sectarian standards. Within five months, Leclerc announced victory in the south, but his claim was illusory. The French, like the Americans later, could con¬quer Vietnamese territory but could not hold it. The French historian Philippe Devillers, who served in Leclerc’s army, described the phe¬nomenon: “If we departed, believing a region pacified, the Vietminh would arrive on our heels. . . . There was only one possible defense, to multiply our posts, fortify them, arm and train the villagers, co¬ordinate intelligence and police. What was required was not Leclerc’s thirty-five thousand troops but a hundred thousand—and Cochin- china was not the only pr’oblem.”
On the political side, d’Argenlieu created a new administration in Saigon. No racist, he appointed Vietnamese to positions of authority. But, like the admirals who had governed southern Vietnam in the nineteenth century, his kind of Vietnamese were landowners, doctors, lawyers and other evolues, as the French called them, models of re¬spectability who had an investment in France’s presence. An advisory council for Cochinchina, which he formed in early 1946, contained eight Vietnamese and four French citizens. Their attachment to a sep¬arate Cochinchina, calculated to offset the Vietminh’s efforts to reunify Vietnam, was to poison further attempts to avert war.
The situation differed in the north, where Ho Chi Minh’s influence was largely uncontested and his popularity widespread. To project a nationalist rather than ideological image, he had placed Catholics and Socialists in his cabinet alongside Communists, and he initiated re¬formist rather than revolutionary programs. He abolished onerous taxes and puritanically banned prostitution, opium, gambling, even liquor. He left landowners unmolested and instructed local govern¬ment committees to make room for the “middle classes.” But all was not benign. Vietminh bands in many villages abducted and murdered mandarins, often after staging phony “people’s trials,” while crimi¬nals, indiscriminately released from jails, terrorized the countryside. Like the south, however, the north was soon to be further disrupted by outside intervention.

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