In 1950, France experienced two parallel but different outcomes in its Indochina war. While the conflict in the north ended with a disastrous defeat for the French at Dien Bien Phu, in southern Vietnam, or Cochinchina, France emerged victorious in a series of violent but now largely forgotten actions. In the Year of the Tiger tells the story of this critical southern campaign, revealing in dramatic detail how the French war for Cochinchina set the stage for the American war in Vietnam.
In northern Vietnam, the French troops had focused on destroying Viet Minh main force units. A dearth of resources in the south dictated a different strategy. William M. Waddell III describes how, by avoiding costly attempts to defeat the Viet Minh in the traditional military sense, the southern French command was able to secure key economic and political strongholds. Consulting both French and Vietnamese sources, Waddell examines the principal commanders on both sides, their competing strategies, and the hard-fought military campaign that they waged for control of the south. The author’s deft analysis suggests that counter to widely accepted views, the Viet Minh were not invincible, and the outcome of the conflict in Indochina was not inevitable.
A challenge to historical orthodoxy, In the Year of the Tiger presents a more balanced interpretation of the French war for Indochina. At the same time, the book alters and expands our understanding of the precedents and the dynamics of America’s Vietnam War.
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"LES ARMES PARLERONT ..." THE WAR FOR TONKIN
Though it had simmered in Cochinchina for more than a year, the war for Tonkin began in earnest on 19 December 1946 in the early hours of the evening. Explosions from mortars and grenades rocked Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. Moments later the city went black; the Viet Minh had blown the power plant. Giap's troops, backed by local forces (tu ve), departed their barricades to batter the isolated French military positions and storm the European civilian quarter. Similar and simultaneous combats broke out elsewhere across Tonkin.
Back in Hanoi the reluctant General Louis Morlière, commander in and around Hanoi/Haiphong, sent his meager but hard-hitting troops to strike back. Companies of the 6th and 21st RICs (Régiment d'infanterie coloniale) seconded by tanks of the 2nd DB (Division Blindée, or Armored Division) pushed into the downtown area to relieve the Viet Minh siege. By morning the counterattack had cleared out the European quarter and the center of the city, but the Viet Minh still clung to the outlying areas. With dawn's light it was clear that Giap's coup de force had failed. His opportunity for a quick victory to demoralize the shaky Fourth Republic was lost. It was now up to the French to seek a decision in Tonkin.
The war that developed in the north was rife with paradox. It was an established fact among the French command that they did not have the forces available to occupy more than the "vital points" in Tonkin. General Alphonse Juin, chief of the État-Major de la Defense Nationale, who had served as commander of French forces in the Italian theater in World War II as well as being a long-service veteran of France's colonial army, had noted that there really was no choice between Tonkin or Cochinchina; the latter was the "centerpiece" of France's position in Indochina. Moreover, to engage in a war in Tonkin "exceed[ed] the possibilities of the French army." And yet, by dint of circumstance and a slowly unrolling volition, France would seek to retain Tonkin despite in that instant knowing better. It was an old conundrum. In his memoirs of the former century's war for that country, Louis de Grandmaison asked reflectively how France had come to possess this place that it had "never coveted." His own answer was that "most of the time the will of men is violated by events."
Circumstances certainly seem to have overtaken most of the principal actors in the later portion of 1946, well before the commencement of open hostilities in December. The accords of 6 March 1946, agreed to by a coalition of Vietnamese nationalists under heavy pressure from the occupying Chinese and the French, had provided for an uneasy reintroduction of limited French forces to Tonkin in order to share in the burden of security and to assist with the management of customs duties collection, particularly in Haiphong. It became apparent early on, however, that the Communists had no intention of maintaining the broad-based nationalist coalition foisted upon them. Almost immediately the Viet Minh began the process of eliminating their political opponents. Arrests and assassinations assured the Viet Minh-ICP (Indochinese Communist Party) control over government administration, the police, and the militias. In view of these actions, continued claims that the Vietnamese government represented nationalists of all stripes looked ever more farcical.
Meanwhile, at the Chateau Fontainebleau in France negotiations between the Vietnamese delegation led by Ho Chi Minh and the French broke down. In order to at least have a temporary cease-fire in the south, both parties agreed to a barely workable modus vivendi in September of 1946, with talks to resume by early 1947. Tensions, nevertheless, heightened in Tonkin. French troops moved in to occupy key areas among Tonkin's ethnic minorities, effectively surrounding the Vietnamese.
Clashes between French and Vietnamese forces flared up throughout the fall, each diffused with a corresponding decline in goodwill. Then an apparently minor incident on 20 November in which French forces seized a Chinese ship carrying "contraband" in Haiphong harbor resulted in a shooting match between the two groups. It gave French leadership in Indochina the pretext it desired to take sterner action. Several days prior to the incident the French high commissioner for Indochina, Admiral Georges Thierry d'Argenlieu, had informed his commander of ground forces in Tonkin, General Jean Etienne Valluy, that he should prepare his men to undertake a "forceful action looking to politically and morally neutralize the Hanoi government."
Valluy was quick to act. After one further incident, Valluy cabled the commander of French forces in Haiphong, Colonel Jean Debès, bypassing Debès hesitant superior, General Morlière. "The moment has come to give a hard lesson," Valluy wrote. "With all the means at your disposal you should make yourself the complete master of Haiphong and bring the Vietnamese government and army to understand their mistake." With relatively small forces Debès assaulted Haiphong, prepping his attack with a powerful artillery barrage as well as naval gunfire from French vessels in the harbor. Several days of intense combat followed, but by 28 November the French were indeed the masters of Haiphong at the cost of twentysix dead and eighty-six wounded. Vietnamese casualties, both military and civilian, were considerably higher.
The Haiphong incident highlighted two features of the war for Tonkin that would become perennial issues for the French. In the first place, decision-making of a clearly political nature had devolved to the men on the ground in Indochina. Not for the last time, a leadership vacuum had developed in Paris. The Fourth Republic remained a tottering amalgam of parties incapable of robust governance or long-term vision. For much of the Fourth Republic, decision-making in all fields, including strategy, would be a function of whatever option all involved disliked least. In late 1946, for instance, Léon Blum would not form a new government until 16 December, too late to affect the outbreak of war. His cabinet would last exactly one month.
Of course, the policy of retaking Indochina was de Gaulle's; but, disgusted with the reemergence of party politics, the leader of Free France had retired from official life in January 1946. With the general gone, French policy toward Indochina drifted, subject to its last impulse like a deistic world absent any further guidance from its creator. Unfortunately for France, the various regimes of the Fourth Republic could not bring themselves to seriously reevaluate their priorities in Vietnam. Neither could subsequent governments resolve themselves to prosecute the war with anything approaching the necessary resources.
The war would not be, as in Algeria, one fought by the large metropolitan conscript occupation army. Instead, in Indochina France deployed a professional, colonial force, even mercenary in character, as exemplified by the Foreign Legion. This faraway war, fought by stoic professionals and their indigenous allies did not register with the French public, a fact that suited the many regimes of the Fourth Republic. It also meant a relatively small army pursuing rather grandiose ends, at least for a while. Military commanders from Valluy forward would look to square this circle by recourse to battle. Only battle offered the prospect for success. Barring a few attempts at deviation or modification this idea perforce marked the way forward.
Toward the end of December 1946, the French in Hanoi found dislodging the remaining tu ve from the Chinese quarter of the city more difficult than expected. Valluy instructed Morlière to blow them out with artillery and air-strikes. Morlière demurred. He preferred to cordon off the area and thus prevent greater civilian casualties. With this respite, however, much of the Viet Minh in the area were able to filter out of the city and take to the Viet Bac, the rural and rugged hinterland north of Hanoi from which they would direct their war for the next several years. Not until the end of February could Valluy consider Hanoi captured.
In Paris the outbreak of violence presented the fractious government with a fait accompli. Socialist representatives, previously desirous of a negotiated settlement, saw no alternative but to support the course already adopted in Southeast Asia. The French National Assembly took up debate on Indochina in March 1947. Communist delegates walked out of the assembly at least three times, and once their altercations with the other representatives came to actual fisticuffs. Apart from the far Left — still a sizable portion of the Assembly — many delegates began to sense the force of international Communism lurking behind events in Indochina. The French conception of their opponent changed as, for the first time, members of the Assembly argued that the Third International was to blame for the revolt in Indochina. Maurice Viollette, a Radical Socialist, identified the enemy, arguing that "[n]ationalism in Indochina [was] a means" with the goal being "Soviet imperialism." Simply acknowledging what was already the case, the French Assembly authorized military action against the Viet Minh on 18 March 1947.
This was all done without a clear strategic appraisal of the situation. The relatively new French government, not particularly keen on an expansion of the conflict, felt it had no choice. A timid policy, or so they reasoned, would result in the fall of the government. But neither did they adopt a hard stance or adequately evaluate the overall situation of the French Union. In March the French had approximately 94,000 soldiers in Indochina. Eleven thousand more were en route, but a new revolt resulted in these men being diverted to Madagascar. In short, the French government had decided on war and then almost immediately stripped their commander in Indochina of the means to carry it out.
In the meantime Valluy, now commander-in-chief after Leclerc's departure, believed he should resume pacification in Cochinchina before tackling his problems in the north. To this end, a zone de pacification was established in the west of Cochinchina. Civilian and military leadership differed on the method, however, and after two months of operations, the results were meager. Pacification in the western portion of Cochinchina was supposed to proceed by the classic "tache d'huile" (oil slick) method, but Valluy was unwilling to give it serious time and was certainly concerned about the demands put on his troop strength. More than that, however, the high command maintained a persistent belief that the war in Cochinchina could be most effectively won by defeating the main Communist cadres in the north. In early February 1947 d'Argenlieu argued for the essential unity of the two fights, noting "every blow to the opponent in the north weakens him in the south." Valluy concurred. The Viet Minh were, in his estimation, a more rigid organization than the colonial rebels of the previous century. They held power covetously at the top. To defeat such an enemy one needed to "strike at the head," that is, defeat the main Viet Minh organization in its redoubt in Tonkin.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1947, while quasi-pacification operations occurred in the south, the French corps in Tonkin engaged in shaping operations meant to set the stage for the decisive stroke in the fall. Operation Georges re-secured the route between Hanoi and Haiphong; Operation Papillon temporarily established French contact with the principal seat of the Mu?ng Federation in Hoa Binh. Other localized actions aimed at opening major roadways, forcing Viet Minh regular units to fall back and largely abandon the urban centers. Provincial forces were left to resume guerrilla warfare.
By October, Valluy was prepared to unleash his coup de main. From Cochinchina he had pulled four battalions of infantry, two armored squadrons, a mountain artillery group, and engineers, as well as significant aerial and riverine assets. Together with the forces already in Tonkin, Valluy formed three tactical groupements: S, C, and B. The foremost mission was to "destroy the hostile pyramid" of the enemy's military and political organization, rendering it senseless both in Tonkin and beyond. Secondly, Valluy intended to sever any possible lines of communication between the Viet Minh and China, particularly across Route Coloniale 4 (RC 4) that wound its way precariously through the rugged mountains along the border. French intelligence had accurately determined that the main body of the Viet Minh resistance, including its organs of government, had retired to a rough quadrilateral north of Hanoi. This area was then linked to China by two main arteries: one running through Lao Cai, the other passing by Cao Bang along the border and connecting the temporary Viet Minh command post at B?c K?n with China.
Operation Lea began on 7 October 1947. In total it was a testament to French military skill perfected in the heat of World War II. Ad hoc groupings with little or no time to train together conducted a variegated tactical maneuver with airborne, motorized, and riverine assets all moving in concert. As with many other operations to come, it began with the paras (French paratroopers). The Demi-brigade de marche parachutiste (DBMP), twelve-hundred strong and designated Groupement S, dropped on Bac Kan on the 7th and 8th. An additional battalion jumped into Cao Bang a day later. It was a very near-run thing. At Bac Kan the paras came within a hair's breadth of capturing both Ho Chi Minh and Giap; they found fresh correspondence still lying on Ho's field desk.
To reinforce the paratroopers, two great pincers (Groupements B and C) moved out to encircle the hopefully disoriented Communists near Bac Kan. Groupement B under Colonel André Beaufre — later the architect of the 1956 Suez campaign and France's most notable strategic theoretician — moved along RC 4 from Lang Son in trucks, but soon had to dismount much of its Moroccan infantry due to tough going. Upon reaching Cao Bang, its first objective, Beaufre dispatched elements south to link up with the DBMP. Unfortunately for Valluy, after the initial shock the tenacious Viet Minh had regrouped and now fought the paras tooth and nail around Bac Kan.
The southern arm of the pincer movement (Groupement C) proceeded north by way of the Clear River. Difficulties in navigating the sandy water forced it to disembark after only thirty kilometers. Placing commandos in front, the remainder of the operation was conducted on foot "en pleine forêt" (in the heart of the forest). With great physical exertion Groupement C broke into the Viet Minh redoubt on 17 October. The enemy was already gone.
Over the next few weeks the Troupes françaises de l'Indochine du Nord (TFIN) launched a number of small operations meant to destroy Viet Minh depots and to secure the various lines of communication, particularly RCs 3 and 4 and the waterways. Taken together, these measures were intended to shore up the various "mooring points" that were now in French hands, of which Cao Bang and Bac Kan were the most significant. By late October the French had established convoy traffic along RC 4 and pushed forces up the Clear River to the vicinity of Phu Doãn.
Having failed to bring the main Viet Minh units to battle, Valluy initiated Operation Ceinture on 19 November. He tripled the number of tactical groupements and planned a massive concentric operation to surround and destroy the Viet Minh position centered in the vicinity of Thaï Nguyen. Two groupements proceeded by boat, while seven more stepped off from various locations on the periphery of the Communist enclave. As before, a paratroop drop on the principal objective inaugurated the maneuver. Proceeding by stages, with night marches, raids, and additional airborne operations, the French cleared out the region in a month's time.
In material terms the Viet Minh losses were significant. The French destroyed numerous arms fabrication sites and captured more than a thousand rifles and assorted machine guns, in addition to a thousand tons of munitions and a variety of artillery pieces. For an army not yet receiving serious external aid, these losses represented a costly blow to developing Viet Minh combat power. Furthermore, at a cost of 242 killed, the French claimed to have dispatched 7,200 Viet Minh. This figure, however, is highly suspect. In all likelihood, while some Viet Minh units were probably badly damaged, Valluy's autumn offensive failed to destroy the core of Giap's regulars, nor did it succeed in bringing them to decisive battle. Lea and Ceinture not only demonstrated the tactical proclivities of the French military, they also made manifest the inherent difficulties in importing European-style warfare to the poor roads and vast forests of Vietnam. Indeed, as Leclerc had foreseen, arms had spoken, but their utterances proved mumblings, incoherent and indecisive. The only clear bequest of Valluy's autumn offensive was the maintenance of the tenuous line of strong points along the stony path masquerading under the auspicious name RC 4.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In the Year of the Tiger"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
1 "Les armes parleront…": The War for Tonkin 20
1 A "Land for Heroes": Cochinchinese Land and People 45
3 Traces de sang: The War for Cochinchina, 1945-1947 57
4 L'ossature solide: Latour's War, 1947-1949 83
5 "All for the General Counteroffensive": Viet Minh Strategy and Tactics 116
6 La Geste de Chanson: The Battles of 1950 146
Appendix A Commanders of the CEFEO 181
Appendix B Commanders of the TFIS/FFVS 182
Appendix C French Military Acronyms 183
Appendix D Vietnamese Glossary 185