The Light That Failed 3

A comic sequence followed. Trying to escape his commitment to resume his imperial duties, Bao Dai fled to Europe, where he shifted from one city to another, hiding in cinemas by day and cabarets by night as Bollaert chased him like a process server. Bollaert eventually won, and they returned to the Bay of Along on June 8, 1948. There, in Bao Dai’s presence, Bollaert signed an accord with General Nguyen Van Xuan, former head of the “Republic of Cochinchina” and now chief of a new Vietnamese national government. France “solemnly” recognized Vietnam’s independence but would keep control of its army, finances and foreign affairs. Bao Dai was dissatisfied with this small “step in the negotiations between Vietnam and France” and went back to Europe, asserting that he would not wear the crown until “true unity and real independence” had been attained. The French-sponsored Vietnamese regime lacked credibility from the start.
Nguyen Van Xuan, its prime minister, was a ludicrous choice for the job. Educated at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, he was an exaggerated product of the mission civilisatrice. A naturalized French citizen who had spent most of his life in France, he barely spoke Vietnamese. The French had promoted him to general, the first Vietnamese ever elevated to that grade, and as head of Admiral d’Ar- genlieu’s pet project, the “Republic of Cochinchina,” he had been an active foe of Vietnamese unity. Even in Vietnam, a nation known for its intrigue and political plots, he was famous for being almost totally untrustworthy. Superficially affable, smooth and cheerful, he devoted nearly all his time to conniving. Soon after concluding the Bay of Along agreement, for example, he confided to the French that the Bao Dai “experiment” would fail.
If the Communists branded Xuan a “puppet,” he was also anathema to the colonial French, who feared that he might double-cross them and concede to a united Vietnam that would eliminate their privileges in Cochinchina. In Paris, successive Christian Democratic and Radical Socialist coalitions stalled on granting autonomy to Vietnam. General de Gaulle, pontificating on the sidelines, predicted that “the French solution will be accepted sooner or later.”
In late 1948, a new French high commissioner for Indochina took over. Leon Pignon, formerly political aide to Admiral d’Argenlieu, favored firmness. But he foresaw that the Communists, advancing across China, would soon arrive at the Vietnamese frontier to bulwark the Vietminh. He also reckoned that the United States would help France more readily if a seemingly liberal French policy were adopted. Thus he carried a set of fresh proposals to Bao Dai, who was lolling at a chateau on the Cote d’Azur. Bao Dai went to Switzerland to consult with his main American promoter, William Bullitt, who coun¬seled him that he could count on U.S. support if he extracted real concessions from the French. Though Bullitt had no authority to speak for the United States, both Bao Dai and Pignon were swayed by the belief that he represented the official American view.
On March 8, 1949, Vietnam’s figurehead emperor Bao Dai and France’s figurehead president Vincent Auriol signed the Elysee Agree¬ment, so called for the lavish presidential palace in Paris at which the ceremony took place. The French reconfirmed Vietnam’s independ¬ence and, going beyond mere promises, outlined measures to incor¬porate Cochinchina in a unified Vietnamese state. But France still retained control of Vietnam’s defense, diplomacy and finances. Help¬less and frustrated, Bao Dai remarked soon afterward: “What they call a Bao Dai solution turns out to be just a French solution.”
Ho Chi Minh issued a last appeal for compromise and promised that in the growing conflict between the West and the Communist bloc he would guarantee Vietnam’s neutrality. The appeal, which coincided with Mao Zedong’s victory in China, evoked no response. In early 1950, abandoning hope of a, reconciliation with France, he persuaded Moscow and Beijing to recognize his regime, the Demo¬cratic Republic of Vietnam, and his status changed overnight. The West now viewed his government as a satellite in a monolithic Soviet empire. The Soviet endorsement, Dean Acheson said, “should remove any illusions as to the ‘nationalist’ nature of Ho Chi Minh’s aims, and reveals Ho in his true colors as the mortal enemy of native independ¬ence in Indochina.”
George Kennan had suggested that mainland Asia be omitted from his “containment” concept, since the United States was “greatly over¬extended in its whole thinking about what we can accomplish and should try to accomplish” in the region. Instead, he recommended that Japan and the Philippines be “the cornerstone of a Pacific security system.” The proposal was supported by both Dean Acheson and the joint chiefs Of staff, who had originally excluded the Asian continent from the U. S. “ defense perimeter’ ’—as did General Mac Arthur during World War II, when he hopped from island to island in the Pacific rather than risk stupendous casualties by fighting on a vast landmass.
By 1949, however, some State Department specialists were warning that “we shall have suffered a major political rout” if Communism “swept” across Southeast Asia. They agreed that the United States “should not put itself in a forward position” in the area, whose pros¬pects were “very discouraging,” but they displayed a distinct tone of hostility toward the French for having pursued so archaic a colonial policy in Indochina.
On January 17, 1949, for example, the State Department officials felt that while the United States ought to favor Bao Dai, it could not “irretrievably” support a local administration that “might become virtually a puppet government separated from the people and existing only by the presence of French military forces.” Six months later, on July 1, another State Department report acknowledged that the Viet¬namese Communists were making progress mainly because the French had been so “niggardly” in their concessions that they “have thus far failed to create an effective puppet regime capable of drawing nation¬alist elements away from Vietnam.” The French military effort had “dwindled to footling punitive campaigns,” and not only was this sapping France’s strength, but U.S. equipment sent to French troops in Europe was “being squandered in Indochina on a mission that can only be justified in terms of Gallic mystique.”

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