Fredrik Logevall is John S. Knight Professor of International Studies and professor of history at Cornell University. He has written a very fine book about France’s vicious colonial war against Vietnam.
From the start, the US government backed the French. President Eisenhower always refused to entertain even the idea of negotiations to end the war. He wanted the French to persist, even after it was clear to all that they were losing.
Luu Doan Huynh, a veteran of both the French and American wars, recalled, “We were never happy slaves under the colons, and yet when I went into the jungle in 1946 I carried with me a book of French poetry! I believed in the eternal truths: liberté, égalité, fraternité.”
Towards the end of the battle at Dien Bien Phu in April 1954, the French government, desperately trying to avoid defeat, begged the Eisenhower government to intervene with a huge bombing raid on the Vietminh forces. Eisenhower said that the USA would only intervene if the Churchill government did too.
To their eternal credit, Churchill and Eden refused. They rejected Eisenhower’s absurd domino theory. They pointed out, correctly, that ‘losing’ Indochina would not seriously make them lose their war against Malaya.
On 21 June, Churchill wrote to Eisenhower, “in no foreseeable circumstances, except possibly a local rescue, could British troops be used in Indochina, and if we were asked our opinion we should advise against US local intervention except for rescue.”
Eisenhower then tried to get the Australian government to intervene. It too refused. Its allies forced the US government not to intervene.
Logevall sums up, “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was over. The Viet Minh had won. Vo Nguyen Giap had overturned history, had accomplished the unprecedented, had beaten the West at its own game. For the first time in the annals of colonial warfare, Asian troops had defeated a European army in fixed battle.”
After their defeat, as Logevall observes, “the departing French had dismantled post offices and hospitals and stripped factories of tools and machinery, even lightbulbs in some cases.”
The CIA’s Saigon Military Mission at once started to conduct sabotage operations in the DRV. When, in the 1950s, the DRV distributed land to more than half of all families, some cadres broke the government’s guidelines.
When a people’s tribunal had a woman landlord executed, Ho Chi Minh said, “The French say that one should never hit a woman, even with a flower, and you, you allowed her to be shot!” On 8 February 1955, at a conference on land reform, Ho Chi Minh said, “Some cadres are using the same methods to crush the masses as the imperialists, capitalists, and feudalists did. These methods are barbaric. … It is absolutely forbidden to use physical punishment.”