Contesting Indochina: French Remembrance between Decolonization and Cold War

Contesting Indochina: French Remembrance between Decolonization and Cold War

by M. Kathryn Edwards

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How does a nation come to terms with losing a war—especially an overseas war whose purpose is fervently contested? In the years after the war, how does such a nation construct and reconstruct its identity and values? For the French in Indochina, the stunning defeat at Dien Bien Phu ushered in the violent process of decolonization and a fraught reckoning with a colonial past. Contesting Indochina is the first in-depth study of the competing and intertwined narratives of the Indochina War. It analyzes the layers of French remembrance, focusing on state-sponsored commemoration, veterans’ associations, special-interest groups, intellectuals, films, and heated public disputes. These narratives constitute the ideological battleground for contesting the legacies of colonialism, decolonization, the Cold War, and France’s changing global status.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520963467
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/14/2016
Series: From Indochina to Vietnam: Revolution and War in a Global Perspective , #8
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

M. Kathryn Edwards is assistant professor of modern French history at Tulane University.

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Contesting Indochina

French Remembrance Between Decolonization and Cold War

By M. Kathryn Edwards


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96346-7


French Indochina from Conquest to Commemoration

IN 1924 THE GOVERNOR GENERAL OF INDOCHINA, Martial Merlin, proclaimed that French Indochina "is increasingly active, its influence grows, and its role as a Second Metropole, an outpost of France in Asia [...] grows stronger." This "Pearl of Empire," as French Indochina was known, occupied an important place in the colonial imaginary. With its lush tropical landscapes, its temples, and its opium, it served as the exotic setting for novels by Pierre Loti, André Malraux, and Marguerite Duras. Like the rest of the French empire it was also the focus of modernization projects, often under the guise of the humanitarian ideals of the civilizing mission. As another governor general, Paul Doumer, wrote in 1905, "The new Indo-China can attain a level of prosperity and glory that the ancestors of our colonial subjects would never even have dared to dream of." In fact this "new Indochina" had only formally come into being eighteen years earlier in 1887. The consolidation of French control over the territories had been a slow process: French forces had first arrived in southern Vietnam in 1858 and Laos was not incorporated until 1893. The federation of French Indochina lasted until 1945, when the region erupted into a full-scale war of independence that would evolve into a hot spot of the Cold War. The war came to an end in 1954 with the stunning defeat of French Union forces at Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva Accords confirmed the independence of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam (divided at the 17th parallel), all of which would face further domestic upheaval, civil war, and foreign intervention in subsequent decades. France too would continue to face turmoil as decolonization gained momentum; barely three months after the Geneva Accords, the French would be embroiled in a second colonial war, this time in Algeria.

This chapter provides an overview of French Indochina from the first French forays into the region to the conclusion of the Indochina War, for those readers who are less familiar with these events. This is followed by a chronological overview of the evolution of the remembrance of the war, which will provide a framework in which to situate the thematically oriented chapters of this study.


In September 1858 French troops landed in Da Nang (known as Tourane to the French), ostensibly to protect Catholic missionaries and Vietnamese converts from persecution. In reality this intervention was guided as much by Napoleon III's desire to reassert French power on the global stage as it was by any desire to protect Catholics abroad. This was not the first French or European involvement in Southeast Asia: French and Portuguese missionaries had established themselves in the region since the early seventeenth century. Despite this long history of Catholic involvement in Southeast Asia, Catholicism in Vietnam has often erroneously been identified as a product of the French colonial period. Above and beyond the missionary connection, the French strengthened their relationship with the Vietnamese through the 1787 Treaty of Versailles, according to which Louis XVI promised support to the beleaguered Nguyen Phuc Anh, who would later rule a unified Dai Viet as Gia Long (1802–20) in exchange for trade rights and a concession over Da Nang. Diplomatic relations evolved little over the next half century, although the missionary presence remained strong.

The French "protection" that arrived in central Vietnam in the fall of 1858 was quickly transformed into a force of outright conquest, beginning with the southernmost tip of the country. By 1862, following intense combat, Emperor Tu Duc was forced to cede three provinces to the French, which became the colony of Cochinchina. This was followed by the establishment of a protectorate over Cambodia (1863); successive campaigns, which met with varying degrees of resistance, resulted in the expansion of French control throughout much of the peninsula. A brief war with China in 1884–85 resulted in the Chinese recognition of French protectorates over Annam and Tonkin. Finally in 1887 the Indochinese Union was formally established. Territorial expansion was essentially completed with the consolidation of control of Laos in 1893 following the Franco-Siamese war, although French and Siamese authorities continued to quarrel over borderlands. Despite the common reference to Indochina as a single entity, union, or federation, it was anything but that; rather, it was characterized by a patchwork of governing statutes ranging from formal colonies and protectorates to mixed regimes. A French governor general oversaw the administration of the union, and a resident superior was in charge of each region, with a lieutenant governor presiding over Cochinchina. The administration was rounded out by French civil servants and a significant number of indigenous subordinates.

In their foundational study of colonial Indochina, Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery characterize the French colonization as decidedly "ambiguous"; that is, it was pursued with a mix of nominally good intentions and exploitative agendas. French colonial society in Indochina, much like that in other European colonies, was characterized by entrenched inequalities and abuses. The so-called civilizing mission deemed necessary for improving the "backward" and "stagnant" Asian societies dictated the introduction of Western theories and infrastructure in the spheres of politics, economy, medicine, industry, and education, among others. Proponents of imperialism lauded the building of schools, hospitals, and roads. The conviction that France brought progress to Indochina and to the rest of its colonies has been sustained long past the era of decolonization, and defenders of the colonial project have tended to emphasize these same areas.

It is true that French modernization projects contributed to an increase in production output, led to decreased infant mortality rates in some urban areas, and expanded the number of public schools. Most scholars acknowledge, however, that these developments were rooted in a system that was at best fundamentally unequal and at worst brutally exploitative. From quotidian harassment and mistreatment, to the harsh working conditions on plantations and in mines, to heavy prison sentences in the infamous Poulo Condore prison — sometimes for minor infractions — many French colonial subjects were relegated to second-class status. As Tran Tu Binh wrote of his experience on the Phu Rieng rubber plantation (owned by Michelin), "not only were rubber workers exploited and repressed in the extreme on the rubber plantations, but they were even exploited and repressed while they were on the road to those hells on earth." Such disparate perceptions of the impact of French colonization have weighed heavily on postcolonial debates over the legacy of the colonial era.

The Second World War brought a new dimension to colonial rule in Indochina with the fall of France in 1940 and the establishment of the Vichy regime. A power-sharing agreement was reached with imperial Japan, which by 1942 wielded control over much of Southeast Asia. In fact French Indochina soon became the only Western colonial regime left in East and Southeast Asia — in the Dutch Indies, Hong Kong, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and elsewhere, the Japanese removed the ruling powers. This unique situation lasted only a few years: on 9 March 1945 the Japanese regime staged a coup against the French colonial government led by Admiral Jean Decoux. The French population, both military and civilian, faced internment camps or restricted living quarters, brutal attacks, and even execution; this period is recalled as one of senseless violence and even martyrdom by many former settlers. Nor were victims of the Japanese limited to the French: hundreds of thousands of northern Vietnamese died as the result of a famine provoked by a poor rice harvest and Japanese requisitions of the dietary staple. In April Japanese officials granted nominal independence to Cambodia, Laos, and Annam-Tonkin, leaving Cochinchina's fate to be decided at a future date. Barely five months later the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan's capitulation. This created a unique situation in Indochina, particularly in Vietnam: the French and the Japanese had been knocked out of power, but the presumed successor in Vietnam — Emperor Bao Dai — was seen as having compromised himself by working with both foreign powers.

Taking advantage of this power vacuum, the Viet Minh (an abbreviation of Viet Nam Doc Lac Dong Minh, or League for the Independence of Viet Nam) under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh established a new government on 16 August 1945. Unlike Bao Dai, the Viet Minh was backed by considerable popular support, gained in part by the group's actions to mitigate the impact of the famine of 1945. Bao Dai abdicated on 25 August, transferring his authority to the new government. Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnamese independence on 2 September 1945, the same day that the Japanese formally surrendered. Chinese nationalist and British forces were dispatched to the northern and southern regions, respectively, to oversee the transition from Japanese control. Viewing the French as the legitimate authority over Indochina, the British forces in the south under the command of General Douglas Gracey released the French prisoners of the Japanese and re-armed some one thousand French, many of whom attacked and terrorized Vietnamese at random. Acting partly out of retaliation, "Vietnamese bands of various political stripes" initiated an attack on the Cité Hérault in Saigon, massacring French civilians. The French Far East Expeditionary Corps (CEFEO; Corps expéditionnaire français en Extrême-Orient), led by General Philippe Leclerc, arrived in October 1945 to the relief of the French population. The CEFEO had been sent to defeat the Japanese, but given the evolving situation in September was instead entrusted with eliminating the Viet Minh threat. With British support the CEFEO was able to reestablish control over Cochinchina with relative ease, though not, as the above incidents indicate, without bloodshed.

In the meantime the French provisional government under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle had outlined the postwar plan for Indochina in the declaration of 24 March 1945. This statement called for the creation of an Indochinese Federation, which would be part of the new French Union, all of which fell in line with the policies presented at the conference convened in Brazzaville in 1944 to discuss imperial reform. The Lao and Cambodian monarchies initially agreed to work with the French, though both countries would press for greater independence subsequently. Ho Chi Minh and other representatives of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), however, proved less enthusiastic.

Negotiations between Ho Chi Minh and French delegate Jean Sainteny began in September 1945, resulting in an agreement on 6 March 1946. This agreement established the French government's recognition of the DRV as a free state (état libre) within the context of the Indochinese Federation and the French Union, and the DRV's acceptance of the replacement of Chinese troops with French soldiers as required by international agreements. Finally the agreement required that both parties agree to pursue future negotiations. The agreement was plagued with ambiguities: what was meant by "free state"? What were the territorial boundaries of the DRV? Furthermore the DRV was committed to the reunification of all three ky (the regions of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina), which was out of the question for the French. These ambiguities were to be resolved through negotiations at Dalat (beginning in April 1946) and Fontainebleau (beginning in July the same year), but no firm conclusions were reached despite the signing of a partial agreement in the form of a modus vivendi in September. For many contemporaries (and several historians), the failure of these negotiations represented a missed opportunity for peace.


Tensions between the French and the DRV were thus escalating rapidly in 1946 and were complicated by the differences in opinion of French leaders; while Leclerc and Sainteny favored negotiation, High Commissioner Admiral Georges Thierry d'Argenlieu maintained that force was necessary. The French conviction that the Viet Minh was preparing an attack and the Viet Minh conviction that the French intended to reestablish colonial authority left little room for maneuver. Pinpointing the actual beginning of the war is, as Alain Ruscio states, "not so easy." The first incident to cause a significant escalation of tensions was the French bombing of Haiphong on 23 November 1946, which caused extensive damage to the port city and killed between 1,500 and 3,000 Vietnamese. Barely a month later on 19 December the Viet Minh launched attacks on French civilians and soldiers in Hanoi. Each of these events has been identified as constituting the "true" beginning of the war, though most historians recognize that a sequence of events rather than a single incident led to its outbreak. Other scholars, like Michel Bodin, argue that while these events were critical, the war really began with the first skirmishes between the Viet Minh and French parachutists in August 1945, or with the arrival of Leclerc's forces on 5 October. Fredrik Logevall suggests that the September 1945 Cité Hérault massacre is "as plausible a start date as any." Naturally the debate over the war's origins is anything but neutral: the choice fuels the debates over the very nature of the war either as a process of colonial reconquest (and thus a war instigated by the imperialist French) or as a rebellion instigated by the Viet Minh, who were intent on imposing a communist society. More than thirty years after the end of the conflict the question still hung in the air: in a 1990 discussion of the national memorial under construction in Fréjus, Socialist deputy Jean-Louis Dumont asked his peers in the National Assembly "which date to use as the starting point of the aforementioned Indochina War." Ultimately the complexity of the situation is such that regardless of which date one accepts, it is still difficult to assign firm responsibility to one side or the other.

The war itself can be divided into two major phases: 1945 to late 1949, and early 1950 to 1954. The first phase is best characterized as a war of colonial reconquest, which pitted the French expeditionary corps against the guerilla tactics of the Viet Minh. Fighting an enemy who relied on terrorist tactics and ambushes and who blended into the civilian population — a situation the French would encounter again in Algeria, as would the Dutch in Indonesia and the Americans in Vietnam — presented extraordinary logistical challenges and took a serious psychological toll on combatants, many of whom were trained for traditional combat. What we now call counterinsurgency measures were used to combat Viet Minh tactics, including "gridding" (quadrillage) and "cleaning" (nettoyage) operations intended to break support networks supplying "rebel" forces with food and weapons. As is often the case in such circumstances, it was Vietnamese civilians who paid the highest price, as they were torn between the demands of the Viet Minh and the demands of French forces. Both sides used harsh interrogation methods, torture, and the torching of villages (among other tactics) to acquire information and intimidate combatants and civilians. Moreover the difficulty of distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants led some French Union soldiers to use violence indiscriminately. The need to weed out foe from friend using whatever tactics were necessary was deemed all the more important in those regions where control shifted frequently from the CEFEO to the Viet Minh; one of the most entrenched images of the Indochina War is the French control of rural areas by day and Viet Minh control by night.

By 1948 the objective of reestablishing French control over the peninsula had been largely abandoned as impractical and the war was increasingly being defined in Cold War terms. The second phase (1950–54) was heavily influenced by the internationalization of the conflict and was characterized by more traditional military engagements. The victory of the Communists in neighboring China in October 1949 had a significant impact on international power politics in general and on the parameters of the Indochina War in particular. The DRV gained not only military and ideological support, but the new Chinese government also officially recognized the DRV on 19 January 1950, followed by the Soviet government on the thirty-first. Barely a week later the United States recognized the new State of Vietnam (État du Viet-Nam) under Bao Dai's leadership, which was created as the result of years of negotiations between the former sovereign and the French authorities. What had been primarily a colonial war thus entered firmly into the sphere of the Cold War.


Excerpted from Contesting Indochina by M. Kathryn Edwards. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, ix,
Institutional Acronyms, xi,
Acknowledgments, xv,
Map of France, xviii,
Introduction, 1,
1 French Indochina from Conquest to Commemoration, 12,
2 Remembrance and Rehabilitation: The ANAI and the Anticommunist Narrative, 34,
3 From Activism to Remembrance: The Anticolonial Narrative, 54,
4 Morts pour la France? Official Commemoration of the Indochina War, 88,
5 "The Forgotten of Vietnam-sur-Lot": Repatriate Camps as Sites of Colonial Memory, 116,
6 "La sale affaire": Collaboration, Resistance, and the Georges Boudarel Affair, 145,
7 Missing in Action: The Indochina War and French Film, 167,
Conclusion, 208,
Notes, 215,
Bibliography, 277,
Index, 297,

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