French Indo-China: 1624-1954 (2)

ON 7 May 1954 the fortified camp of Dien Bien Phu fell, and the French Republic hastened to abandon to the Communist Vietminh the northern part of what had been the “pearl of our empire”. In order to understand the underlying reasons for such a setback, we must go back nine years to 9 March 1945, the date of the Japanese offensive. On that day, after having enjoyed a surprising, miraculous peace for five years in the context of a South-East Asia submerged by the Japanese tsunami, French Indo China plunged into war.

It was General de Gaulle himself who was principally responsible for the scourge that would devastate this Christian land of the Far East. « Decoux-de Gaulle », was not « a fatal misunderstanding », as Philippe Grandjean wrote in a book that is otherwise remarkable (L’Indochine face au Japon, L’Harmattan, 2004), but truly the Rebel’s premeditated crime against the representative of France’s legitimate government between 1940 and 1944.


Admiral Decoux, the commander of the Far East naval forces, was invested by Marshal Pétain with the powers of Governor General of Indo China on 20 July 1940. The situation at that time was very comfortable. The Empire of the Rising Sun would have occupied without qualm our protectorates and colonies, if the Admiral had not put an obstacle in the way by negotiating an agreement with Tokyo on 30 August 1940, whereby Japan committed itself to respecting French sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Indo China, in exchange for a few compensations, all in all rather insignificant.

The stopping of the Japanese barbarians at the gates of Indo China is incomprehensible if the saving sacrifice of Marshal Pétain in France is not taken into account. A Gaullist, Claude de Boisanger, the Governor General’s diplomatic advisor as of November 1941, admits that « the task [of Admiral Decoux] was to maintain French sovereignty over Indo China and that he could not succeed without remaining openly, publicly, faithful to Marshal Pétain’s government ». This fidelity was, in the eyes of the Japanese, the guarantee « of the Governor General’s neutrality in the War of the Pacific ». If the admiral had adopted a tone markedly more reserved towards Vichy, more restrained towards the Allies and “Free France”, « the Japanese, suspecting him of playing a double game and faced with the prospect of a rupture, would not have tergiversated for four years » (On pouvait éviter la guerre d’Indochine, Souvenir 1941-1945, Paris 1977, p. 34).

The Indo Chinese peninsula conserved a relative peace throughout the war. When Siam, present-day Thailand, sought to swipe a piece of territory from us, the French navy allowed itself the satisfaction of sending its fleet to the bottom. It was at Koh-Chang on 17 January 1941. This success was the only victory won by the French Navy during the entire twentieth century.

How can one be the protective shield of 24 million Indo Chinese and 40,000 Europeans, when one only has a small, poorly equipped army facing 90,000 determined and battle-trained Japanese soldiers if not through negotiations? Admiral Decoux conducted them with prudence and a remarkable determination, in allegiance to the Marshal, his legitimate leader, recognised as such by the entire world. By acting in this way he did not lose face, which is essential in the Far East, and kept what the Indo Chinese called “the Mandate of Heaven”. To lose face or the Mandate of Heaven, would have been to lose all legitimacy.


Allegiance to the government of Vichy was not only a diplomatic necessity of the moment. It expressed the adhesion of the entire historical community, Annamese and Europeans joined by the same destiny, to a programme of unity and civilisation, « in order that on the day of Japan’s defeat, France would not lose Indo China » (Grandjean, p. 70).

On the political level, the admiral consolidated the unity of the Peninsula. He created the “Indo Chinese Federation”, emphasising the federating role that France had to play among the five States forming this Federation (Cochin China, Annam, Tonkin, Laos and Cambodia), fortifying local patriotisms in order to supplant any anti-French “nationalism”. The French of Indo China, moreover, had the duty of forgetting their personal preferences in order to oppose the Japanese as an undivided group. The Legion of Veterans was the sign of their discipline, of their cohesion.

The admiral also applied himself to renovating the colonial system. He imposed equality of salaries and consideration for French and Indo Chinese civil servants. From 1940 to 1944, the number of Vietnamese holding jobs in the French administration doubled. The climate of relations between the French and the Indo Chinese improved remarkably. The French were obliged to be exemplary in the exercise of their functions. Civil servants who were too old, dishonest or incapable were dismissed. Vexations such as the use of the word “native” were forbidden. Thus the Native Guard, composed of autochthons responsible for territorial security, became the Indo Chinese Guard.

Composed of twenty thousand civilian guards, supervised by French officers and placed under the command of the admiral governor, it proved itself to be very effective, in particular against the Communists – the “Vietminh” who behaved as true barbarians. « When the population saw that in every encounter with the troops, the Vietminh hastily retreated, when it saw that it was now quite well protected against terrorism, the Vietminh was gradually eliminated from entire districts, cut off from all supplies and from their sources of information without being able to react other than by sporadic reprisals. Among the population, France gained new prestige. » (Philippe Devillers, Histoire du Vietnam, Le Seuil, 1952, p. 108)

Yes, only the Marshal’s colonial policy, relayed by Admiral Decoux, was able not only to oppose the Japanese occupiers but also to overcome the Communist peril. Nevertheless, to do this it was necessary to be able to « hold out » until the Allied victory, remaining united against external and internal enemies.


All serious historians admit that the policy followed by Admiral Decoux was by far the most realistic. Indeed, this policy was nothing other than that of the Marshal. That proves that it was the only effective one.

In his paranoia, de Gaulle refused this realistic policy. « It was essential, he wrote in his Memoirs, that the conflict not come to an end without us becoming belligerents there as well. If we took part in the fight, albeit at the end, the blood shed on the soil of Indo China would be an imposing claim in our favour. » François de Langlade, a planter from Malaysia who was catapulted to major in the FFL (Forces françaises libre – the Free French forces), goes even further: « France, who lost a hundred thousand of her own in the Resistance, would not tolerate that Indo China be liberated without the sacrifice of ten thousand of her own. » (Grandjean, p. 209)

At Algiers, in 1943, the CFLN (Comité français de Liberation National – French Committee for National Liberation) fostered the myth of guerrilla Resistance fighters who would welcome the French Expeditionary Forces in Indo China. 65,000 men of whom 15,000, it was said, would be ready as of autumn 1944, and would intervene as part of a massive landing on the Indo Chinese Peninsula with the aerial support of the 14th US Air Force stationed at Kunming in the Yunnan (China). The Indo Chinese “Resistance” was to apply the same schema as in metropolitan France: a Service Action to collect intelligence and create a climate of insecurity in the rear of the adversary, by destruction, sabotage, raids and ambushes, executed from refuge zones in Annam or from the mountainous regions of Laos or China. To equip our apprentice “resistance fighters” it was necessary to parachute radio transmission sets, weapons, munitions, explosives, and also instructors, radio operators, military officers… The five hundred-strong Indo Chinese section of the FFL, based in Ceylon under the orders of Langlade, in collaboration with the British of Calcutta, were to form the “spearhead of the Resistance in Asia”. This is how the myth of an “Indo Chinese resistance” was built on sand.

From the last quarter of 1944, parachuting of materials increased. On 4 March 1945 they had reached more that two hundred and twenty parachute drops per day. Everyone knew about it, the Japanese included… Resistance fighters from the exterior attempted to rally soldiers. Several let themselves be taken in, in particular intelligence officers posted on the Chinese border, who communicated intelligence to the Allies, in formal disobedience to Decoux’s orders.

The resistance fighters made use of active propaganda among civilians, in particular among secondary and post secondary students. « On the terrace of the Continental in Saigon, Grandjean wrote, there is not a single white man, simple clerk or rich planter, who does not have a weapon, a network, intelligence, a channel – whatever is needed to settle his score, once and for all, with these Japanese brutes. Young people began to play resistance fighter – submachine guns, cigarettes, a buffoonish resistance. » Only three hundred of the two thousand volunteers joined in the fighting…

French language programmes on the BBC or the All India Radio exalted the resistance. It consisted, wrote Grandjean, of « laying tooth and nail into Vichy and Decoux, who was called “Darlan’s lackey”, and of spreading messages of this type: “Cochin Chinese, French of Indo China, Europeans, your leaders have betrayed you. Solemnly they promised you to defend you against all foreign invasion, and they capitulated at the first challenge. They have handed you over, they have sold you out.” »

This same radio announced the imminence of a US landing, which was all that was needed to throw people into a panic.


Admiral Decoux, fearing that the status quo that Indo China enjoyed would be called into question, dealt ruthlessly, until the summer of 1944, with Gaullists who were prosecuted for treason, incitement to desertion and breach of national security. After 25 August 1944, when de Gaulle took power at Paris, the Admiral was forced to make a public declaration to affirm « his will to maintain, in all circumstances, the state of allegiance of the Indo Chinese Federation to France ». This was a discrete way of recognising the new government of France without arousing the suspicion of Japan, against which de Gaulle and his “Free France” had entered into war as early as 1941.

On 31 August, Admiral Decoux, Roland de Margerie, our chargé d’affaires at Peking and Henri Cosme, the ambassador of France to Tokyo, addressed to the provisional Government a telegram, called “telegram of the three”, in which they recalled that Indo China did not need to be reconquered since French sovereignty was respected there. They insisted on the grave perils that any absence of authority, even temporary, would risk causing, principally in Tonkin, in the case of Chinese interferenceThis telegram never received a reply. The delegate of the GPRF (Gouvernement provisoire de la Républic française – Provisional Government of the French Republic), however, made the following remarks: « We cannot accept the policy of the Governor General such as it is defined in the telegram of the three. The conception, in keeping with that of the Vichy government, according to which the evacuation of Indo China can be negotiated peaceably with the Japanese is a myth. Furthermore, even if it were not, given the conditions in which the Union has been occupied, we must reconquer its territory from the enemy […]. Decoux, Cosme and, to a lesser extent, Margerie are, whether they like it or not, compromised by a policy of collaboration with the Japanese. »

Without even informing Decoux, de Gaulle named General Mordant the General Delegate of the GPRF. It was common knowledge, however, that this Mordant was incompetent. Admiral Decoux, wanting to avoid any weakening of French authority while faced with the enemy, resolved to cover Mordant by naming him general inspector of land, sea and air forces. This reshuffling did not contribute to calming the Japanese, who became more and more nervous.


On 9 March 1945, at 9:15 pm, the Japanese launched a savage offensive, which brought down the French administration in a few hours. The Admiral Governor and his entourage were imprisoned or confined to residence. From the North to the South, all our posts, barracks and administrative services were attacked by surprise by 65,000 Japanese. Most of our troops were unable to hold out more than twenty-four hours. Fort Brière-de-l’Ile, for example, close to Langson in Tonkin, surrendered on 10 March. The next day, its defenders were attached to one another by the wrists with the signal halyard, then led on to the superstructure of the fort, where they were savagely massacred. General Lemonnier, the commander of the fortified town, was decapitated with a sabre.

Other groups succeeded in escaping into the forest, such as the Alessandri brigade, and they attempted to resist in collaboration with the Vietminh, as de Gaulle had ordered, but since the attitude of the Communists became more hostile, they had no other option than to take refuge in China after being despoiled and disarmed at border posts, at the request of the American commander!

Out of the two thousand civilian “resistance fighters”, only a few dozen participated in the fighting. The others got rid of their weapons in the four lakes of Hanoi. « It is not surprising that the Japanese army crushed the Indo Chinese army, Grandjean wrote. For, it is precisely the obvious fact of its superiority that had determined France’s Indo Chinese policy for five years. All the soldiers were conscious of this situation. Their leaders [not all!] naïvely thought that on the day of the collision with the Japanese, the Allies were going to land troops, or in any case, crush the enemy with their aerial superiority. » The disillusion was cruel.

For the French colony, it was tragic. All who held authority in the Government General, the administration, the army, the police and the Church were arrested, interned or executed. On that day, the first martyrs of the Indo Chinese war shed their blood. In Laos, Mgr Ange Gouin, a Breton, was massacred with all the French of Thakhek. At Langson, in Tonkin, Mgr Hedd was thrown into prison. In this same city, Mother Mary of St. Joan of Arc, her sisters and other women who had taken refuge with them, escaped rape thanks to a miraculous protection of the Blessed Virgin. Mother prioress related:

« All night long, the army rabble paced up and down the corridor in the hope of succeeding when the strength of resistance abandoned us. We then decided to form a barricade at the entrance to our room; we invited the ladies to rest and we placed three chairs in front of the entrance. All night, while the prisoners slept, we were on watch, reciting one chaplet after the other […]. In the morning, at sunrise, we were quite tired but also very happy about this night of guard duty in the company of our Mother of Heaven. » (quoted by the Bulletin de l’A. N. A. I., October 2004, p. 24)

In 1947, the staff of the French Expeditionary Corps established the death toll of the victims of the offensive of 9 March 1945: 2119 of the 12,000 soldiers were killed, that is 20 % of the numbers engaged, without counting the wounded, the refugees in China, the prisoners in death camps, or the hundreds of civilians who fell into the hands of the ferocious Kempetaï, the “Japanese Gestapo”.

De Gaulle could be satisfied; blood had flowed in Indo China… and would not cease to do so.


How can such a reversal on the part of the Imperial Japanese headquarters be explained? The works of two Japanese academics (quoted by Grandjean, p. 240) permit us to analyse the stages of the Japanese decision:

1° From 1941 to 1944, the Japanese were favourable to the status quo. Let us dismiss the simplistic interpretation of the Gaullists according to which this status quo, serving the interests of Japan, betrayed, by this very fact, French interests.

2° On 14 September 1944, de Gaulle having taken power at Paris the previous month, Tokyo continued to envisage the status quo, but on the condition that the French respect it loyally. Otherwise, Indochina would be placed under Japanese military administration.

3° In December 1944 and January 1945, the Japanese were defeated in the Philippines by the Americans. At the same time, in Indo China, airdrops and radio messages intensified; finally on 12 January, forty Japanese ships were destroyed by the US aviation, guided by intelligence officers who had rallied to de Gaulle. This was the last straw.

4° On 1 February 1945, the supreme Conference at Tokyo decided in favour of the offensive for the following 9 March.

This timetable shows that the Japanese general staff believed only very late in the possibility of an Allied landing on the Indo Chinese peninsula. The Gaullist thesis according to which it was the Allies’ approach that triggered the aggression is false. « It suffices for a layman, Grandjean wrote, to look at the map of the Pacific to understand that, master of the Philippines in the beginning of 1945, Mac Arthur, the Commander in Chief of the US forces in the Pacific, had no need of diversion to the West and he could only head straight to the North, to Japan, in order to settle directly the destiny of the war. We know that in reality, this is what he did, without ever considering Indo China. » (p. 245)

It took all the agitation created by de Gaulle in Indo China to make the Japanese believe, more and more feverishly, that the Americans were going to land. In reality, neither de Gaulle nor his government ever knew the Allies’ strategic intentions in the Pacific: in what sector, Chinese or American, Indo China had been placed, and consequently, whom it was necessary to address to prepare a landing. When de Gaulle went to Washington in July 1944, he believed that he would demean himself by questioning the Americans on this point. Thus, plans were made at Paris on a false hypothesis.

If the sacrifice of our soldiers was so necessary for future negotiations, why was France not invited to the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, where the question of the Far East was dealt with by the “Big Three”, Stalin, Truman and Churchill?

The meeting that General Sabattier, upon his return from Indo China, had with de Gaulle in June 1945 reveals the state of mind of the latter: « The head of the GPFR smokes one cigarette after the other. He listens to the account of what took place in Indo China without showing the slightest reaction […]. Asking for details on the pogroms of the aggression of 9 March, de Gaulle casually says that he had been advised of the attack. At the time, Sabattier did not take notice. A little later on, however, as the experienced intelligence officer that he was, he cross-checked: on 5 March, the radio monitoring of the Australian general staff picked up a Japanese message announcing the attack. The French military attaché in Australia, Colonel Renucci, immediately transmitted the information to Paris, which did not retransmit it. Yet General Juin claims to have transmitted the message “to the proper authorities”. Thus de Gaulle knew! »

« When Sabattier elaborated on the errors of the resistance in Indo China, the head of the GPRF invited him smilingly, with a slight gesture, of the hand not to dwell on these “details”. He had no word of gratitude for the men who had fought and suffered, nor for those who died massacred or killed by the Japanese… » (quoted by Pierre Quatrepoint, De Gaulle face à l’Indochine, Perrin, 2004, p. 57)

De Gaulle is guilty not only of having stirred up minds in order to impose his myth of the resistance, but also of having provoked a bloody aggression, leading to the death of thousands of men, and of having, in this manner, paved the way for the Revolution. This should have sufficed for him to have been taken to the High Court for treason and conspiracy against the security of the State and territorial integrity!


Although the situation in Indo China was totally beyond de Gaulle’s control, he unfortunately did not leave it at that. On 24 March 1945, in Paris, he launched his project of the French Union that was to replace what already existed under the name of the French Empire. This “declaration of 24 March” would never be called into question. It is a contradiction in terms – you cannot, on the one hand, exalt the principle of “democratic liberties” and on the other, maintain French authority – it would only aggravate the regime’s incapacity to deal with the colonial question in a French manner.

De Gaulle was in complete support of the idea of the independence of peoples. Carried away by the myth of the “Liberation”, he wanted to become its enlightened guide. During a trip to the USA in August 1945, he confided to President Truman: « The twentieth century will be that of the independence of the formerly colonised peoples of the world. This, however, must not be, or appear to have been achieved, against the West. »

Already, on 30 January 1944, he had declared at Brazzaville: « There would be no progress, if men, on their native land, did not profit from it morally and materially, if they were unable to raise themselves little by little to the level at which they would be able to participate, in their own land, in the management of their own affairs. It is the duty of France to see to it that this comes about. »

This emphatic style permitted our over-seas subjects to anticipate independence in a future, more or less imminent, in any case negotiable. Hô Chi Minh was not mistaken. On 3 September 1945, he declared to a Gaullist, François Missoffe: « You are the new French, the French who understand us, and you are Gaullists, and there was Brazzaville. »


Who was Hô Chi Minh? Born in 1890 in North Annam, this printing house worker, whose true name was Nguyen Ai Quoc, learned Communist ideas in France. In 1941, pursued by the Sûreté (the French criminal investigation department) he created in China a “League for the Independence of Vietnam”, Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh, abbreviated Vietminh, the programme of which was to drive out imperialist France and to establish a Stalinist type democracy.

After 9 March 1945, since France had lost face, Indo China suddenly found itself free of all French tutelage. This was a tremendous opportunity for the Vietminh. The Japanese tried to leave power in the hands of Bao-Daï, the Emperor of Annam, but his authority over his people was almost nonexistent. Understanding that Japan would soon capitulate, Hô Chi Minh wanted to impose on his compatriots the idea of independence, through persuasion or through terror. He appropriated the weapons of the French to equip “the army of national salvation” commanded by his lieutenant, Vô Nguyen Giap. Then, turning to the Americans, he presented himself as the only man capable of unifying his country. Very few people at the time understood Hô Chi Minh’s real intentions.

After one year of collaboration with the rebel leader, Bao-Daï painted this striking picture of him:

« Hô Chi Minh is a militant Marxist, hardened by more than thirty years of fighting, bound by his party, capable of all kinds of patience and all kinds of duplicity, with a good knowledge of men and their weaknesses, and despising them. Persevering beyond all measure. Pursuing relentlessly the realisation of his objectives. Capable of all sorts of feints, implacable at the hour of decision. Full of finesse, and intelligence, and cynically inhuman. Always ready to embrace, the better to smother. »

In the spring of 1945, Hô Chi Minh established himself in Hanoi and proclaimed the end of the French period. At his side, agents of the OSS (Office of Strategic Service), the US intelligence service, indulged in shady dealing. Roosevelt, who wished for Indo Chinese independence, provided it with advisors, submachine guns, radio transmitters, things that at the same time he refused to the French army! The Vietminh also benefited from the assistance of the Japanese, who allowed disorder to become established by supplying the rebels with weapons taken from the French.

Cunning, Hô Chi Minh even sent to Sainteny, delegated there by de Gaulle, a memorandum on “the Future French Indo China”, advocating the election of a parliament and the forming of a cabinet directed until independence by a French governor.

When Japan, brought to its knees by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, capitulated on 14 August 1945, Hô Chi Minh understood that the time had come for him to act. On 17 August, the Vietminh assembled twenty thousand demonstrators on Hanoi’s theatre square. With the complicity of the Japanese Kempetaï and American officers, the Vietminh leaders appeared on the balcony, hoisting a red flag with a gold star. Within ten days, they took command of everything.

On 2 September, the day of the commemoration of the martyrs of Annam – Hô Chi Minh chose this date in order to rally the Catholics to his cause – the Vietminh leader proclaimed at Hanoi the independence of Vietnam, with, at his side, always the same Major Patti. His speech began by two quotations: one from the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America of 1776, the other from the Rights of Man of 1789. Then he indulged in a violent indictment of French colonisation, in particular during the Decoux period. The radio of London had used no different language from 1940 to 1944! Hô Chi Minh took the succession and in turn entered into dissidence. It was his own 18 June. 1


The purge followed shortly after the “liberation”. In Indo China, the Vietminh and Gaullists vied with each other to purge their fellow citizens. Hô Chi Minh, without neglecting the cities, acted above all in the “village communities”. The order was made to eliminate Francophile Indo Chinese and to exterminate all the leading citizens of the villages, the irreplaceable co-operators of the French. During 1948 alone, more than twelve thousand assassinations were perpetrated. On 21 August 1949, the Viet radio congratulated their soldiers for having eliminated 95 % of the leading citizens of the country! Terrorised, the rest of the population rallied to the Vietminh, while conserving the secret hope that the French would prove stronger than the strong.

In September 1945, Frenchmen from Metropolitan France arrived at Saigon. These “new French”, haughty and intolerant, were ignorant of everything concerning the country. They only learned upon their arrival that the Conference of Potsdam, held during the previous month of July, had entrusted the disarming of the Japanese to the British in the South and to the Chinese in the North. In these conditions, how could French sovereignty be re-established in Indo China?

Another major difficulty for these “resistance fighters” from France, explains Rodolphe-André Benon, a lieutenant in Indo China from 1941 to 1946, was that « the Indo Chinese problem became identified with the metropolitan concept of “collaboration-resistance” and was interpreted as the struggle of the people against fascism and oppression. Here, the Japanese occupants had laid down their arms. The French “collaborators”, represented by Admiral Decoux and his close relations, were rendered harmless under the guard of the Japanese. Thus there was nothing to do other than to contact the representatives of the Indo Chinese people who, after having suffered the Japanese occupation, the propaganda and the authoritarianism of a Government General subservient to the Government of Vichy, could only welcome as brothers the “resistance fighters” coming from France to “liberate” them. This was their way of thinking! » This was the lie imported from metropolitan France.

At Saigon, Cédile, the Prefect, left the 5000 French soldiers judged to be too much in support of the government of Vichy confined to their barracks. On 23 September, on the other hand, he freed 1200 Annamese criminals arrested by the Sûreté, under Admiral Decoux’s government. What followed was foreseeable: during the night from 24 to 25 September an atrocious massacre of 276 French took place at Cité-Héraud… This is what the “liberation” was: the freeing of criminals, of fiends!

In this dreadful climate, the “old French” waited for nothing other than the arrival of an army that would restore order. It landed at last, commanded by General Leclerc, accompanied by Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu, who had been appointed High Commissioner by the head of the provisional government. De Gaulle had stated: « We need to revamp things. » D’Argenlieu and Leclerc applied the instructions to the letter and purged with a vengeance.

Lieutenant Benon observed the immediate effect on the population: « In an Asia where the Japanese succeeded in awakening racial feelings at the same time as nationalism, to treat Indo China’s former leaders and executives as culprits and incompetents amounts to justifying the Japanese enemy who dismissed them and the Vietminh who rose up against them. The executives and administrative employees, and the native servicemen who loyally served under the Decoux regime understand that they can no longer trust France. From now on they are susceptible to Vietminh propaganda. » This is the fine work of the “purgers”!

The shameful dismissal of Admiral Decoux, sent back to Metropolitan France, was considered by the Indo Chinese population as a disapproval of the confidence that it had shown him. After passing before a purge commission, the French of Indo China were repatriated, often in a brutal and humiliating manner, by planeloads and boatfuls. Our entire network of friendships was destroyed; we no longer had any contact with the population, therefore no more intelligence for identifying terrorists. Hô Chi Minh could act without difficulty. This purge was the military cause of our future failure.


Hô Chi Minh tried to kill the soul of Indo Chinese Christianity by playing a double game. Officially, it was the policy of the outstretched hand, but the instructions given to his propaganda agents were clear:

« The number 1 enemy of Communism is Christianity; but we must be adroit. First, the separation of the foreign missionaries from the Vietnamese clergy is not difficult: colonialism, spying. It will then be necessary to separate the Christians from the Vietnamese clergy by presenting the former as foreign agents. Finally, the assimilation of the Christians, which will then be quite simple. »

The red flag was seen flying on the towers of the cathedral of Hanoi. In certain churches, the statues of “French saints” were removed: St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, St. Joan of Arc… All the old calumnies from the times of persecution were perfidiously brought out again. Churches were destroyed, Hosts scattered on the ground and sullied, crucifixes pierced with arrows, nuns driven out of their schools or hospitals and forbidden to wear the religious habit…

At Nam Dinh, Fr. Vacquier (cf. He is Risen n° 41, p. 16) saw his collaborators turn against him with hatred. As he had been the chaplain of a regiment of Tonkinese infantrymen he was accused of having been involved « in politics »; people spoke of « deportation » concerning the coolies who had been moved with their families. He was arrested in September 1945, and disappeared. Only his breviary was found, in which he had underlined the phrase of St. Paul to the Colossians: « Remember my fetters… »

At Saigon, Mgr Cassaigne also had to confront the Kempetaï, the terrible Japanese police, then the Vietminh. There was a price put on his head, the first time 5000 piastres, and a few days later 20,000: « The stakes are rising », he remarked with a smile, without changing his habits. Several of his collaborators were assassinated, including Fr. Tricoire, the curate of the cathedral of Saigon. What was most distressing for Mgr Cassaigne, however, was to see certain members of the Vietnamese clergy and numerous Catholic Action leaders take advantage of the political disorder in order to back independence passionately and support the Vietminh! Young people joined the ranks of the Vietminh, at the sole magic word of Dôc lâp, independence! A group of priests even grouped themselves around Hô Chi Minh, with the backing of the disturbing Bishop of Phat-Diem, Mgr Lê Hüu Tü, who thought he was the St. Remi of modern times « going over to the barbarians », the founding bishop of a Vietnam « relieved of the yoke of the dreadful French colonialists ».

This deplorable disorientation of minds, which divided the Christian communities of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China, was the poisoned fruits of the new missionary spirit imposed by Benedict XV and Catholic Action of Pius XI, who had wanted to disassociate mission and colonisation, contrary to Church’s age-old tradition. Pius XII himself followed the doctrine of his immediate predecessors. When, on 23 September 1945, the Vietnamese bishops sent him a petition (dictated by the Vietminh Minister of the Interior) in favour of independence, he ignored it… In October 1947, receiving Mgr Cassaigne in a private audience at Castel Gandolfo, he questioned him on the situation of the Vietnamese priests who had embraced the nationalist cause, and was careful not to condemn them, contenting himself with advising the missionary bishop to have confidence (cf. L. and M. Raillon, Jean Cassaigne, La Lèpre et Dieu, 1993, p. 212)


In 1950, during the stay of Mgr Le Hüu Tü in France, our Father stigmatised the revolutionary madness of the new Vietnamese clergy and its Parisian accomplices:

These people would never have ventured so far to drag the Church into the degrading revolutionary demagogy. The theologians of the “resistance” will never be forgiven for having thrown the Christians of Indochina against colonising France in the name of the independence of the country... To call a people to revolt against its educators and masters is to hand it over in advance to its worst leaders and to the doctrines of absolute insubordination. We only passed over to the barbarians once: when their Catholicism was purer than the heresy of the former decadent Roman or Visigothic masters. It would have been better to be a martyr in order to galvanise the resistance in fidelity (Amicus, 10 November 1950).

Let us add that during his trip in France, Mgr Cassaigne had to justify his attitude in favour of the government of Vichy before a purge committee. Nevertheless, he denied nothing.

At this stage in the war, which was not yet officially declared, but which Hô Chi Minh was resolved to wage, the Vietminh leader had morally vanquished France because the pillars of Indo Chinese Christianity had been undermined: no longer the traditional colonial administration but the “new French”, who were in complete support of the liberation of peoples, no longer French missionaries to recall the interests and the doctrine of the Church, but a native clergy who aspired to national independence.


In Paris, the Indo Chinese tragedy was far from being the essential preoccupation of the government. On 20 January 1946, de Gaulle resigned on the occasion of a dispute concerning the Constitution and thus handed France over to a three-party government, with a Communist Party majority.

Since Thierry d’Argenlieu did not receive any governmental instructions, he remained committed to the Declaration of 24 March stipulating the French Union. In the meantime, Leclerc was furious about not being able to forge ahead to liberate Hanoi and to be finished with this Indo China that he did not like. Taking advantage of his rival’s absence, he signed on February 1946 on his own initiative an agreement with the Chinese army. Then, reckoning that he could not land in Tonkin without Hô Chi Minh’s consent, he accepted him as a “recognised negotiator” and concluded a new agreement with him on 6 March: in exchange for a landing of our troops in Haïphong, France recognised the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” and promised to withdraw within five years!

On that day, Hô Chi Minh achieved one of his main objectives: the official recognition of his own government by republican France, something that no other country had done until then, not even the ussr. This legitimised his revolt a posteriori.

After his return, d’Argenlieu wanted to orient this insane agreement in the line of the “Declaration of 24 March”. On 25 March he offered Hô Chi Minh a meeting on the cruiser Émile-Bertin in the Bay of Along. After having left his host, the head of the Vietminh confided to Leclerc in an aside: « He tried to get me; I’ll get him! » Understanding that he now had to act from Paris, “Uncle Hô” as he was known, accepted the invitation of his old friend Marius Moulet, the Socialist Minister for French overseas territories and a long-time militant anticolonialist (!), in order to negotiate directly with the French government.

Received in France with all honours in June 1946, he closely monitored the works of the conference held at Fontainebleau to settle the question of Indo China. Our missionaries waxed indignant that such trust should be granted to the Communist leader. « As soon as he was treated with deference by the French government, all hope for our missionaries to return soon to their posts was lost. In this same month of June, Fr. Canilhac of Thanh-Hoa, wanting to give it a try, was assassinated at his post. » (Bulletin des Missions étrangères de Paris, 1948)

The Fontainebleau conference was a failure, although Moutet succeeded in having the Vietminh leader sign a modus vivendi that left him a certain respite. In Indo China, the most lucid expected the worst. On 19 December 1946, at 8 pm, Hanoi was suddenly plunged into darkness. Soon the rattle of weapons and the cries of people having their throats slit could be heard. This bloody night marked the official beginning of the Indo China war…


Thanks to the French army, the Vietminh failed in its attempt to seize power in December 1946, and it then dispersed itself throughout the country, mainly in the countryside. The Delta of the Tonkin, corresponding to the triangle Hanoï-Haïphong-Nam Dinh, was its abiding source of men and supplies of rice. There also were grouped the most flourishing Catholic missions of Indo China. By their organisation and their great moral force, these missions were a powerful spearhead against Communism, provided that the clergy wanted it to be so… Hô Chi Minh decided to attack the clergy first. When the missions were won over or annihilated, the way would be clear.

Fr. Seitz (1906-1984), nicknamed the “Don Bosco” of Hanoi, founded in 1943 a shelter for abandoned children, which he placed under the patronage of St. Thérèse. In 1945, the Japanese requisitions and the American blockade having provoked a famine that caused almost two millions deaths in Northern and Central Vietnam, orphans flowed by hundreds to Fr. Seitz’s orphanage. He then revealed his full capabilities as apostle and organiser. He grouped the children into families composed of about thirty boys from ten to eighteen years of age, under the leadership of an “eldest brother”. Many of these teenagers who had no religion asked for baptism. Repeatedly, Fr. Seitz had to call on the French army to protect the orphanage (photo Archives MEP).

The years 1947, 1948 and 1949 were marked by three successive attempts by the French command to gain the advantage over the Vietminh. « This enterprise could have been crowned with success, General Navarre wrote, if a clear-cut political line had been followed, if the stability and unity of command had been assured, and above all, if sufficient military means had been had been brought into play from the outset. None of these conditions was met, because the French political atmosphere was absolutely opposed to it. Juridically speaking, we were not at war and the Communists, who had then taken up the cudgels for the Vietminh, were a party in the government, and who were not to be upset in any way. » (L’Agonis de l’Indochine, Plon, 1956, p. 17)

1947. General Valluy, is a true leader : strong personality, close to his men who had a high regard for him;he was among the officers who landed with Leclerc. He understood from the first months that it was necessary to « strike at the head », that is to say to get rid of Hô Chi Minh without conceding anything to him. Thus, he ordered Salan, the commander of the Tonkin forces and a fine expert on the country, to prepare a plan for the month of October. Salan proposed to encircle the Vietminh bases in the mountains of North-East Tonkin and capture them by launching airborne troops against them.

Bollaërt, the new High Commissioner, approved this plan, but this radical-socialist was rather inclined to negotiate with Hô Chi Minh. Without even informing Valluy, he was preparing to make an official proposition of independence! Warned in time, the commander-in-chief flew to Paris in order to submit the question to the new President of the Republic, Vincent Auriol. As usual a half-measure was adopted by the State: Bollaërt could make his speech, in which he would invite « all political, spiritual and social families » to conclude a truce and come to an agreement for the building of a new Vietnam; for their part, the soldiers could carry out their operations, but at the same time « the government reduced its military effort and no longer proposed any strategic objective to the expeditionary corps » (General Y. Gras, Histoire de la guerre d’Indochine, Plon, 1979, p. 213).

The result of these operations was disappointing. Hô Chi Minh succeeded in slipping out of the ambush. This was the first occasion lost by the French army.

1948. To replace Valluy and Salan, disowned for having complained to the government about the lack of strength, General Blaizot was named commander-in-chief. Like his predecessors, he considered that the crux of the problem was found in Tonkin.

A new operation was conceived, which consisted in moving towards the west and the south of the Delta in such a manner as to cut the relations that the Vietminh maintained with the south of the country. On the eve of the launching of the operation, however, Bollaërt, returning to Paris at the end of his term declared to President Auriol: « Our situation is excellent. We are nearing our goal if Bao-Daï returns. » The result of this boasting was that the very next day, Ramadier, the Minister of Defence, invited the commander-in-chief to limit the operations, given « our excellent situation ».

To claim that the situation was excellent was a lie: those who were there knew that the Vietminh proved themselves to be progressively more enterprising. In consequence of the ministerial intervention, the operations “Ondine” and “Pegasus” had no impact on the Vietminh and were limited to extending our control over the Delta. This was the second lost opportunity for winning the war.


In July 1948, Colonel Leroy († 2005), « a French, Eurasian and Catholic officer », created, in agreement with General Boyer de La Tour, Mobile Units of Defence of Christendom, with which he pacified his native island of An Hoa, as well as the rich Cochin Chinese province of Bentré. « I gave them as an insignia the cross and the sword surmounted by the Latin motto PRO DEO ET PATRIA, and threw them into battle under the name of Catholic Brigades. » This child of the rice field with the soul of a Crusader organised a very effective counter-guerrilla warfare against the Vietminh and, during almost the whole time of the war, Bentré remained the only province of Vietnam where the population knew the joy of living and working in peace.

1949. In the meantime, the enemy reorganised its troops and adopted a long-war strategy: guerrilla warfare in the countyside, harassing our troops that were separated in small isolated posts. Furthermore, the French command knew that time was short, for in China, Mao Tse Tung was soon going to prevail over the nationalist Chang Kai Shek; if it were the Communists that prevailed, the Chinese masses would sweep down to assist the Vietminh. In this disheartening perspective, General Blaizot prepared an operation, which could be considered “a last chance”, for the month of October 1949.

Three events, however, would bring it to naught.


First of all, on the political scene: after negotiations broke down with Hô Chi Minh in 1946, France turned toward the former emperor Bao-Daï. Negotiations were laborious again, since his demands regarding independence were not less than those of the Vietminh! Nevertheless, in April 1949, Bao-Daï agreed to become the leader of a “National State of Vietnam”, created out of nothing, the political and military sovereignty of which we recognised without, however, pronouncing the word independence. This illustrates once again the ambiguity of the “French Union” imagined by De Gaulle.

To establish this politics, Auriol appointed Léon Pignon to the post of High Commissioner. He was the promoter of the Bao-Daï solution in Thierry d’Argenlieu’s entourage. Pignon wanted to offer a pacified Cochin China to Bao-Daï; he ordered General Blaizot to transfer his military effort to the South.

More seriously: it was thought that Mao would only gain the upper hand at the end of 1949. Yet on 23 January 1949, Peking fell to the Communists, who charged to the South by forced marches. It could then be feared that Mao’s victory would galvanise the Vietminh and allow it to train and equip itself in the nearby Chinese territory.

Finally, a mission of inspection was confided to General Revers, the chief of staff of the armies, with a view to reorganising our defence operation. In his report, Revers estimated that to correct the situation, it was necessary to transfer our whole effort to Tonkin, abandoning the Highlands (Cao-Bang, RC 4), and basing our defence system on the Delta.

This report, printed in a few copies, should have remained confidential. It happened, however, that a copy of the report of the general Chief of Staff was found it in the briefcase of a Vietnamese man in Lyon. The scandal was enormous. It was the beginning of what would be called the “affair of the generals”, or the “affair of the leaks”. An investigation replete with developments revealed that Revers confided a copy of his “confidential” report to his friend General Mast, a former plotter against Vichy in Algiers in November 1942. He gave it to a certain Peyré, a suspicious dealer and notorious Freemason. Peyré then sold it to a Vietnamese who was connected with the delegate of Hô Chi Minh in Paris.

All these acts of negligence and corruption were set against the backdrop of money. Since 1945, the year of de Gaulle’s overvaluation of the piastre, – for what reason, it may be wondered –, Saigon became a sort of a financial no-man’s-land. Petty crooks and important French, American and British capitalists, and of course the Vietminh, engaged in colossal dealings, at nearly 250 % appreciation on transactions! It is pointless to elaborate on these scandals, but the consequences were there: Hô Chi Minh knew exactly what the French command was considering for the end of 1949 and for 1950.


The illness affecting the national organism had even deeper roots. As our Father demonstrated, « in 1944 we entered into a false world, where not only the ideologies of the parties were misleading, but also, but above all, the analysis of events and the description of facts were untrue. The aggressive forces of revolution were adorned with all beauties and, with all hopes, while the defensive forces of the social order and of the traditional historic communities were always retrograde, criminal and devoid of any ideal [...]. In order to abandon Indo China, it was necessary even so to brandish law as much as to appeal to force, and it was at Paris that Dien Bien Phu was lost. » (Letter to my Friends, no 114, July 22, 1962).

The Communist newspapers took the lead and influenced the others: the socialist, Christian Democrat or Gaullist ones. The “errors of Russia” were accepted and they spread in all levels of society through freedom of the press. The French stopped being frightened by a Communism with which they had gotten used to mingling. The consequence was that our soldiers were systematically defamed. L’Humanité (the Communist newspaper) gave accounts of the “victories” of the democratic army of Vietnam. The issue of 6 March 1952 reproduced on the front page a message of Ho Chi Minh praising the successes of his soldiers over ours!

A certain Tran Noc Danh launched the Revue du Vietnam, a sort of official newspaper of the Vietminh that was sent to all parliamentarians and distributed all over the world, informing the readers of France’s defeats but not of her successes, as well as of the evolution of French opinion in favour of peace.

Témoignage chrétien was not to be outdone. One day, a report signed by Chegaray affirmed having discovered in a French army post in Tonkin, « a machine to makes witnesses speak ». Good consciences were indignant: the French army was using torture in Indo China, just like the Gestapo during the Occupation in France! Some deputies asked for an investigation. This investigation revealed that the incriminated post existed... solely in the imagination of the journalist. This was not “Christian” testimony, but false testimony!

After the press campaigns, the French Communists came to direct insults, to attacks on trains of injured soldiers coming back from Indo China and to downright acts of sabotage. in Annex XIII of General Revers’ report, of 29 June 1949, one may read:

« Sabotage at the factory or during shipping. The motors of Hotchkiss tanks were found to contain fine sand; the Stuekscars that arrived on 15 May 1949 on the Nikky steamship had bolts in the gearboxes, and sabotaged bearings had to be disassembled. It can be estimated that sabotage to the packaging of the batteries sometimes led to the loss of 30 to 40 % of the equipment sent. »

One day during a search, documents were found which seriously implicated some Communist deputies, in particular Duclos, who had given this watchword: « Work towards the defeat of the French army in Vietnam, Korea and Tunisia. » Pleven, who was Minister of National Defence at that time, asked the assembly to remove the parliamentary immunity of these deputies, for involvement in the crime of demoralisation of the army and nation, as provided for in article 79 of the penal code. All the parties of the Chamber, however, refused the removal of immunity.


Philippe Le Pivain, a sergeant in the 9th Moroccan tabor (three mentions in dispatches in Indochina). « You know how much I deplore this absence of Faith that assures us a royal defeat in the short or the long term. » In Algeria, he was standard-bearer of the Legion. (Family photo)

Books have been written concerning this treason of the rear. In one of them, “Soldats de la boue”, Roger Delpey wrote: « One must have a soul of iron in order not to disown a homeland that sacrifices its children after having allowed them to be insulted. Yet, if France survives tomorrow overseas, it will once again be thanks to a handful of defenders... »

Sergeant Yves Gignac, future president of the non-commissioned officer veterans of Indochina, described the soul of these defenders of the empire: « One can never say enough about the poverty, the great misery even, of the expeditionary corps. We are very far from the mercenary and the traffic in piastres!... This army of knights stood firm. Even better, it attempted the impossible. Indeed, very quickly after the first relief operations, we realised that it was not only necessary to hold the land but also to conquer the population. This was the long history of “pacification” [...]. Then, another miracle took place. This young soldier naturally rediscovered the great tradition of colonial France. In this war of pacification where the conquest of souls is more important than the conquest of land, the role of the post is essential. For by its in-depth action, its task is to rally the villagers to us and, by strengthening our influence, deprive the rebels of their natural support. It is in this tutelary role that our twenty-year-old boys are working wonders. Alone and left to their own devices, they rediscover the greatness of their mission and exercise it with a love and an understanding that is most often lacking in those who are directing the war. »

To know that our soldiers knew how to die, we only have to open the travel diary of Paratrooper Chaplain Jégo. He related how he assisted Chief Warrant Officer Courrier, severely wounded in Cho-Moï, in his last moments: « Supported by two chasseurs, he was evacuated to the rear. “You will hold out, mate? With a smile?” the Father asked him. Courrier answered in a breath: “Yes, I think so, I hope so.” After walking three hours, he arrived at the ambulance, but the end had come. “Gabriel, the Father said to him, you have to get ready. – Yes, Father, for my country, with a smile.” This smile stayed frozen on his bloodless face after he expired. » (quoted by the Journal de Genève, 11 February 1949)

Another example: This last cry of an agonising twenty- year-old boy: « Oh! my beloved France! above all, if my life is worth it, I give it to you. »


The presence of chaplains and missionaries gave the true meaning to all these sacrifices. It is their work that Hô Chi Minh wanted to destroy. Everywhere they went, his bands persecuted Christians, and calumniated, arrested or killed the missionaries and catechists. Most missions ascended a painful Calvary. In five years, nineteen missionaries died as martyrs and thirty-five were reported “missing”.

Was there no one to be found in the French clergy to support these defenders of Christendom? Yes! There was one. The Abbé Georges de Nantes, ordained a priest in 1948, was starting out as a journalist when he wrote in Aspects de la France on 3 November 1949, an article signed « a priest of France », the conclusion of which is reprinted below.

This combat was first of all that of the Virgin Mary, who also went to “the front line” during the summer of 1950. Disembarked at Haïphong on 9 July, the statue of Our Lady of Fatima, Queen of Peace, « Nu Vuong Hoa Binh » in Vietnamese, travelled up and down the whole Delta, before arriving in Hanoi on 15 August, where a procession was organised in Her honour. Among the people crowding round Her, there were not only Catholics but also many pagans attracted by the splendour of the ceremony. Many members of the expeditionary corps, soldiers of all ranks, were dispersed throughout the crowd. Some were amazed and others enthusiastic to find themselves in Christendom thousands of kilometres from the homeland. Many of them discovered on that day this young Church, the work of the missionaries, their compatriots.

Our Lady warned in 1917 that « the errors of Russia would be spread throughout the world » if people did not convert and if the Pope did not respond to the demands of Her Immaculate Heart. The fate of Indochina was in the hands of the Immaculate.

(to be continued)

Brother Michael of the Immaculate Triumphant


Far from the fanfare of a corrupt world, I will extol for you, little children, the glory of the soldiers of the Empire; of those who bore the peace, order and blessings of France and its evangelical truth. I will tell you that you are the heirs of Father de Foucauld if you swear, near the paternal tombs, to serve these peoples where we have planted the flag of France, not for money, but for honour and to give of our own riches. You will then know that this is true: you will not be ashamed of your country and of the people from which you come; still today, it gives to the world a wisdom, a truth that others are too quickly forgetting. You, however, will know that those who fall betrayed and abandoned by all, in a badly defended land, are in distant out-posts the advanced sentries, the elite troops of the true France.

Children, do not believe the abominable words of the powerful men of the day: your parents did not torture anyone; try to forget that they were tortured, thrown without weapons into a unknown country, forming a small army duped by the foreigners of all races and religions who congratulate themselves and sell their souls in the palaces of Luxemburg or Versailles... You will forget or, devoutly, you will beseech God that their sacrifice not be unrecognised; in the far-off bastion on the confines of the lands where soldiers and missionaries, colonists and doctors died, they planted a cross that can no longer be overturned. They died in order that a sign of love and Redemption might stay in the world, in order that that your sons in turn might keep the cult of the dead and the peace of the living...

Remember though, near these tombs, that their sacrifices were not useless. Their death bears its fruits, because they imposed upon the governments that wanted to sell out and give up everything, the respect for the land and its borders, as far as soldiers went to defend and honour the name of the French.

A priest of France,
3 November 1949.


This is an allusion to 18 June 1940, the date on which the rebel, General de Gaulle, made a broadcast from London on the BBC, in which he declared his opposition to Marshal Pétain and his legitimate government.