The War with the French 13

Another familiar pattern emerged as Vietnam refracted domestic French politics. The revolving doors of the Fourth Republic spun again in January 1947, and Paul Ramadier, also a Socialist, supplanted Blum in a coalition government composed of Socialists, Christian Demo¬crats and Communists. Voicing hope for peace, Ramadier dismissed d’Argenlieu and replaced him as high commissioner in Saigon with Emile Bollaert, a respected civil servant who appointed as his personal adviser Paul Mus, a scholar of Asian affairs who was sympathetic to the Vietnamese. Ho sensed that reconciliation was possible and pro¬posed an immediate cease-fire to avert a war that, he warned, would “only end in hatred and bitterness between our two peoples.” But Ramadier’s government was falling apart. In March, the Communists dropped their support over an internal economic matter—though they voted the appropriations to fund the French army in Vietnam. The shift strengthened the Christian Democrats, whose leader, Bidault, had consistently favored a tough approach on Vietnam. So, while Ramadier tried to steer a moderate course, Christian Democrats in his cabinet, like Bidault and Paul Coste-Flores, the defense minister, were maneuvering to prevent negotiations. Other officials with different views were also subverting them.
In May 1947, instructed to present Ho with a set of suggestions, Paul Mus traveled some sixty miles from Hanoi to the Vietminh’s jungle headquarters. He informed Ho that France would agree to a cease-fire on condition that the Vietminh lay down a part of its arms, permit French troops to circulate freely inside its zone and turn over several German and Austrian deserters from the Foreign Legion. “Would you accept if you were in my place?” Ho asked Mus. “No,” replied Mus. Ho thereupon rejected the offer—which was, in any case, a demand for surrender.
Other pressures were meanwhile building up against Ramadier. General de Gaulle had just put his enormous prestige behind a new political party, the Rally of the French People, which strongly opposed retreat from Vietnam. At the time, French public opinion favored toughness to regain the national pride they had lost to the Germans in 1940. The French Communists shared that sentiment, and Maurice Thorez, a deputy prime minister in Ramadier’s cabinet, countersigned a directive ordering military action against the Vietminh. Not only did Ho Chi Minh seem to be defiant, but French rule was being tested as well by dissident movements in other French possessions—Mad-agascar, Morocco and Algeria. Few French, whatever their ideology, could face the rebuff to France’s great mission civilisatrice. France was thus propelled toward war in Vietnam by a shaky, timid Socialist regime that, despite its misgivings, could not withstand the challenge of its right-wing adversaries. A similar pattern was to emerge during the American war in Vietnam, when Lyndon Johnson feared that any sign of weakness would enrage his conservative critics.
General Leclerc, returned to Paris from Vietnam, now warned that “anti-Communism will be a useless tool unless the problem of na¬tionalism is resolved. ” But his wisdom was ignored. The French Com¬munists, after breaking with Ramadier, triggered a series of strikes and other disorders that plunged France into civil strife. Though the Soviet Union then showed little interest in Ho Chi Minh, his Com¬munist record could plausibly be said to link him to a worldwide Soviet plan to dominate the world—or so many French politicians began to assert as they equated his resistance against France with Moscow’s ambitions elsewhere in the world. And, as the Soviet dic¬tator Joseph Stalin seemed to intensify his threats against the West, the United States gradually accepted the thesis.
In 1947, Truman administration officials conceded that Ho’s Com¬munist “connections” might serve the Kremlin’s purposes. Two years later, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had no doubts. The question of whether Ho was “as much nationalist as Commie,” he said, was “irrelevant,” since “all Stalinists in colonial areas are nationalists.” France’s desperate effort to cling to its Asian possession escalated into an international crisis—and the American commitment gradually took shape.

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