The War with the French 11

D’Argenlieu went through the motions of further talks with the Vietminh at Dalat, a lovely hill town in the south. But he parried the big issues, like Cochinchina’s status and Vietnam’s sovereignty, con¬tending that they could only be discussed at a higher level meeting, scheduled to take place in France. On May 31, 1946, Ho departed for Paris—the city of his youth.
No sooner had Ho left Hanoi than d’Argenlieu resorted to the old fait accompli ploy. In violation of the March agreement and without informing Paris, he proclaimed a Republic of Cochinchina in the name of France. Ho, arriving in Paris, suffered further humiliation when the French shunted him and his comrades off to Biarritz, in southwest France, ostensibly because an election campaign had delayed the con¬ference, but actually to isolate him from his sympathizers in the capital. The French then switched the meeting site to a palace in the forest of Fontainebleau, outside Paris, to remove it from the spotlight. Even worse, from Ho’s viewpoint, the French delegation contained not a single prominent figure, merely colonial officials and three obscure politicians—one of whom, a Socialist, quit at the start on the grounds that the whole exercise had been rigged in advance to discredit the Vietnamese. A French Communist on the delegation did not resign, however. Years later, in Hanoi, a Vietnamese aide to Ho at Fontaine¬bleau admitted to me that Ho was mistaken to have counted on the French Communists to help him; they were more nationalistic than ideological.
The conference coincided with a French political shift to the right, as Georges Bidault, the Christian Democratic leader, became prime minister of a new coalition government. An earnest defender of France’s grandeur, Bidault had shaped the idea of the French Union as a cohesive group of states “closely linked by common institutions.” Ho understandably favored a looser arrangement, like the British Commonwealth, comprised of independent countries connected by treaties respectful of their “right to self-determination.” The concep¬tual difference was crucial, but the tough practical problem was Coch- inchina, a question that moved Ho at a press conference to an emotional outburst: “It is Vietnamese soil. It is the flesh of our flesh, the blood of our blood.”
The Cochinchina issue also aroused the French in Saigon, who inundated the government in Paris with telegrams and petitions, some even protesting against the presence in France of Ho and his “agitators and troublemakers.” At the same time, d’Argenlieu tried to subvert the negotiations by convening his own counterconference in Dalat, to which he invited selected Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and a delegate from the “Republic of Cochinchina” to discuss Indochina’s future. The French government did nothing to disavow him—and may have even secretly approved his machinations.
After eight weeks of haggling, the Fontainebleau conference yielded only a draft accord that reinforced France’s economic prerogatives in northern Vietnam without resolving the Cochinchina problem. Ho sent his delegation home and stayed on in Paris alone in a last anguished effort to settle what he publicly glossed over as a “family dispute.”
At midnight on September 19, dressed in a thin tunic, he slipped out of his hotel accompanied by a French bodyguard and drove to a building not far away. He took the cage elevator up to the apartment of Marius Moutet, minister of Overseas France, another new name for the postwar French empire. In Moutet’s study, he initialed a partial agreement, which they entitled a modus vivendi, an interim understand¬ing. As he left, Ho murmured to his bodyguard, “I’ve just signed my death warrant.”
Ho’s decision to defer to the French on the Cochinchina issue was to obsess him for the rest of his life and made his ambition to reunify Vietnam almost compulsive during his last years. Communist troops were told that the Tet offensive of 1968 was a campaign to “liberate” the south before Ho’s death. Similarly, the final Communist drive to take Saigon in 1975 was officially dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Offen¬sive—and Saigon afterward became Ho Chi Minh City.
In October 1946, when Ho returned to Hanoi, his concessions upset the Vietminh’s hard-core militants, some of whom accused him of selling out to the enemy, but the population acclaimed him. Despite his calls for moderation, however, he must have known that peace would not last. General Etienne Valluy, the French commander who replaced Leclerc, circulated a secret memorandum to his officers pro¬posing a coup d’etat against Ho, and Giap was girding his forces for a showdown.
French and Vietminh troops, skirmishing against each other in var¬ious places, were particularly restive in the port of Haiphong, where they controlled different zones of the city. Their dispute there hinged on the right to collect customs duties, a matter left unclear in the Fontainebleau agreement. When a French patrol boat seized some Chinese smugglers on the morning of November 20, Vietminh militia intercepted the French craft and arrested its three crew members. At that, the volatile French commander, a Colonel Debes, assaulted the Vietminh. By afternoon, fighting lashed the town as French tanks rolled over street barricades and the Vietminh replied with mortars. At the opera house, facing the main square, a troupe of Vietnamese actors held off the French with antique muskets.
A commission of French and Vietnamese officers, assigned to mon¬itor truce violations, managed to impose a cease-fire the next day. That might have ended the flare-up—except for a decision made in Paris by Prime Minister Bidault.
Typical of the Fourth Republic, in which prime ministers rose and fell with tedious regularity, Bidault was teetering. He needed a pa¬triotic pretext to prevent his ouster. Thus he agreed when Admiral d’Argenlieu flew home to remind him that the rising tension in Hai¬phong offered an excuse to punish the Vietminh. “Can we even use artillery?” asked d’Argenlieu. Bidault answered tersely: “Even that.”
D’Argenlieu flashed Bidault’s response to Saigon, where General Valluy in turn ordered General Morliere, his representative in Hanoi, to insist that Ho pull all the Vietminh forces out of Haiphong and accede to French control of the city. Morliere, anxious to avert an explosion, reassured Valluy that the ultimatum was unnecessary, since hostilities had stopped. But Valluy, eager to strike, also telegraphed the hawkish Colonel Debes: “It appears that we are confronted by premeditated aggression. . . . The moment has come for you to teach a severe lesson to those who have treacherously attacked you. Employ all means at your disposal to master Haiphong completely, and thereby bring the Vietnamese military leaders to a better understanding of the situation.”

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