The War with the French

Hanoi awoke to a festive day on September 2, 1945. Young Vietnamese had worked overnight, bedecking drab build¬ings with lanterns and flowers, red flags and banners bear¬ing nationalist slogans. Shops, offices and schools had closed for the occasion as hundreds of thousands of people converged throughout the morning on Ba Dinh Square, a large grassy field that lay beyond the handsome French residential district. Peasants in black pajamas and conic straw hats had flowed in from nearby villages to mingle with merchants and mandarins; Vietminh guerrillas, some armed with spears and machetes or primitive flintlocks, marched to the cadence of gongs and drums. Children scurried everywhere, and even Buddhist monks in saffron robes and black-gowned Catholic priests appeared, all for a single purpose—to see the mysterious Ho Chi Minh.
A week earlier, feeble with disease, Ho had been carried on a stretcher from his jungle headquarters to a small house in the city. He set his portable typewriter on the dining room table and began drafting a statement, chain-smoking as he tapped the keys and stopping pe¬riodically to nap on a canvas cot in the corner. Comrades bustled in and out, peering over his shoulder to offer suggestions as he polished sentences. Then, on the appointed afternoon, he donned a threadbare khaki tunic and white rubber sandals and was driven to Ba Dinh Square, his little black car wheezing its way through the cheering crowd. There he climbed onto a wooden platform and, speaking into a simple microphone in his reedy rural accent, he asserted Vietnam’s independence with phrases unknown to most of his audience: “We hold the truth that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Ho had deliberately borrowed the passage from the American Dec¬laration of Independence. Although he had made a futile appeal to Woodrow Wilson a generation before, he believed that he could try again to persuade the United States to underwrite his cause. It seems odd in retrospect that a convinced Communist deeply involved in the global Soviet network should have hoped for American support. But Ho was essentially a pragmatist, principally preoccupied with Viet¬nam’s salvation. While never forgetting that ultimate goal, he con¬stantly shifted tactics to suit changing circumstances. At that time, too, the cold war had not yet polarized the world between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The United States might have plausibly encouraged Ho to emulate Marshal Tito, the Yugoslav Communist leader who was soon to defy Moscow. But American strategists during World War II viewed In¬dochina only marginally, a minor sideshow to the main Asian theaters in China and the Pacific. Later, as official American political attitudes toward the region matured, they were dictated by two other factors: the U.S. alliance with France, whose fate was deemed vital to the uncertain future of Western Europe; and the fall of China to the Com¬munists, which spurred the foreign policy of “containment,” con¬trived to block what then appeared to be Communist expansion. Within the context of the period, the United States was disinclined to underwrite Ho, a veteran Communist opposed to France. Thus it was that two decades before its commitment of combat troops there, the United States began to sink in the Vietnam quagmire.
Ho had been inspired by the Atlantic Charter, issued during the summer of 1941, in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Win¬ston Churchill, the British prime minister, pledged “to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” Churchill, dedicated to the preservation of the British empire, undoubtedly considered the pronouncement to be idealistic rhetoric. Nor was Roosevelt’s position entirely plain, despite his anticolonial reputation. To the extent that he focused on Indochina at all, he was ambivalent.
In 1942, hoping to animate General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French in the battle against the Germans, Roosevelt promised them all of France’s overseas dominions after the war. The next year, he told his son Elliott that he would work “with all my might and main” against any plan to “further France’s imperialistic ambitions.” A year after that, he proposed an international trusteeship for postwar Indochina, saying that France had “milked it for one hundred years” and left its people “worse off than they were at the beginning.” He amended that idea later, suggesting that the French could repossess the territory by pledging its eventual independence. And in 1945, he offered Indochina to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Nationalist leader, who politely declined the gift on the grounds that the Indochinese “would not assimilate into the Chinese people.”
Roosevelt’s apparent inconsistencies stemmed in part from his prac¬tice of thinking aloud in the presence of visitors, a device he used to test his ideas. But he was basically too concerned with bigger matters during World War II to concentrate on remote Indochina. On January 1, 1945, three months before his death, he told Edward R. Stettinius, his secretary of state, “I still do not want to get mixed up in any Indochina decision. . . . Action at this time is premature.”
At the State Department, memorandums flew in opposite direc¬tions. Criticizing French colonial rule as the “least satisfactory” in Asia, the Far East division urged that pressure be put on France to grant Indochina “true autonomous self-government”—or else there would be “bloodshed and unrest for many years, threatening the eco¬nomic and social progress and peace and stability” of the area. Pre-dictably defending their turf, European specialists in the department favored France and cautioned against any steps that would have a “harmful effect on American relations with the French government and people.”
The European faction won. In May 1945, soon after President Harry Truman took office on the death of Roosevelt, Stettinius assured Georges Bidault, then French foreign minister, that the United States recognized France’s claim to Indochina. Truman hoped that the French would liberalize their rule, and Americans were to repeat that hope in the years ahead. But the French never created more than a flimsy facade of autonomy in their possession. By 1954, seeing the Indochina War as a struggle against global Communism, the United States had spent $2.5 billion to finance the futile French military effort—more assistance than France received in the Marshall Plan aid from America to rebuild its shattered postwar economy.

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