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INDO-CHINA: The New Frontier
TIME. Monday, May. 29, 1950
The U.S. now has a new frontier and a new ally in the cold war. The place is Indo-China, a Southeast Asian jungle, mountain and delta land that includes the Republic of Viet Nam and the smaller neighboring Kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia, all parts of the French Union.
For more than three years this land, in prewar times the rich French colony of Indo-China, has been suffering, on a lesser scale, the ruinous kind of civil war which won China for Communism. The Mao Tse-tung of the Indo-Chinese is a frail, but enduring comrade, who looks like a shriveled wizard; his nom de guerre is Ho Chi Minh (or One Who Shines). Chiang Kai-shek has no counterpart in Indo-China. The initial brunt of the Red attack has been borne by French soldiers. Meanwhile, the job of rallying native anti-Communist forces falls mainly on the meaty shoulders of the Emperor Bao Dai (or Guardian of Greatness), who now bears the official title of Chief of State of Viet Nam.
While the dust of the Chinese civil war was settling before the bemused eyes of the State Department, the U.S. paid scant attention to the Indo-Chinese struggle. It seemed largely a local affair between the French and their subjects. Since the dust has settled in China, Asia’s Communism is thrusting southward. Indo-China stands first on the path to Singapore, Manila and the Indies (see map).
Last January, led by Peking and Moscow, the world’s Communist bloc recognized Ho Chi Minh’s “Democratic Republic.” It was more than the Kremlin had ever done for the Communist rebels of Greece. Over the past several weeks, arms and other supplies were reported passing from Russia and China to the comrades in Indo-China. The stakes in Southeast Asia were big—as big as the global struggle between Communism and freedom.
A fortnight ago in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson drew a line in the dust that has so long beclouded U.S. diplomacy. He implicitly recognized that the war in Indo-China is no local shooting match. He pledged U.S. military and economic aid to the French and Vietnamese. The U.S. thus picked up the Russian gauntlet.
What kind of frontier and what kind of ally had history chosen for the U.S.?
A Golden Asset. Unlike China, where U.S. traders and missionaries began a fruitful acquaintance more than a century ago, Indo-China has had little contact with Americans, either commercial, cultural or diplomatic.* The last comprehensive U.S. book on the country was published in 1937. Among other things, its author observed: “IndoChina lies too far off the main scene of action to play any but a secondary role in the Pacific drama.”
In the pre-French past, most of Indo-China had been conquered by the Chinese, who had left their culture indelibly behind.† Through the last half of the 19th. Century, the French converted Indo-China into a tight, profitable colonial monopoly. They explored its fever-laden jungles, lofty ranges, great river valleys. They discovered its antiquities, including the majestic loth Century towers of Angkor Wat in northern Cambodia. They wrote about its mandarins, its Buddhist temples and Confucian family life.
The French invested $2 billion, built up Indo-China’s rice and rubber production; before World War II, the colony, along with Siam and Burma, was one of the world’s three leading rice exporters. Its surplus went to rice-short China, a fact of great significance these days in Communist China’s support of Communist Ho Chi Minh. All the raw rubber France needed came from Indo-China. There were other lucrative items: coal, wolfram, pepper, opium (which, to French shame, was sold to the natives through a state monopoly) and many jobs for a white bureaucracy. French politicians called the colony “our marvelous balcony on the Pacific.”
A Dangerous Liability. Indo-China is no longer a golden asset for France. As everywhere in the East, the old colonialism has died beneath the impact of Western nationalist, egalitarian ideas, a process greatly hastened by the Japanese march in World War II under the slogan “Asia for the Asiatics.” The French have bowed grudgingly to the times.
In an agreement signed March 8, 1949 with Bao Dai, they promised limited freedom for Viet Nam within the French Union. Under its terms, a Viet Nam cabinet has charge of internal affairs, the right to a national army. Paris keeps direct control of foreign policy, maintains military bases and special courts for Frenchmen, retains a special place for French advisers and the French language.
By that time the French were up to their necks in a costly campaign to crush Ho Chi Minh and his Communist bid for power. The civil war has cut rice production in half and disrupted the rest of Indo-China’s economy. It has tied down 130,000 French troops, about half of the Fourth Republic’s army, and thereby weakened the contribution France might make to Western Europe’s defense. In lives, the Indo-China war has cost the French 50,000 casualties. In money, it has cost $2 billion—just about the sum of ECAid to France.
Indo-China, in brief, has become a dangerous liability for France— nor does any realistic Frenchman think it can ever again be an asset. Why, therefore, spend more blood and treasure in thankless jungle strife? Why not pull out?
The answer is: more than French war weariness and prestige are at stake. If Indo-China falls to Communism, so, in all probability”, will all of Southeast Asia.
For U.S. citizens, the first fact about their new frontier is that it will cost money to hold—much more than the French can pay alone, much more than the $15 million in arms and $23 million in economic aid thus far promised by Washington. The second fact is more compelling : the new frontier, if it is not to crumble, may need U.S. troops as well as French.
Otherwise, the U.S. might surfer another catastrophic defeat in the Far East.
A Question of Sympathy. The French have made more than the usual colonial mistakes. All too often, especially since they put the Foreign Legion and its German mercenaries to the work of restoring order after World War II, they have been arrogant and brutal toward the Indo-Chinese. They are paying for it now, for the bulk of Communist Ho Chi Minh’s support comes from anti- French, or anti-colonial Indo-Chinese. A sign over an Indo-Chinese village street tells the story; it reads “Communism, No. Colonialism, Never.”
But the issue of native sympathy is complex. The vast majority of the people are simple rice farmers, who want peace and order so they may tend their paddy-fields. Ho Chi Minh himself does not now preach Communism openly: his explanation is that his people have no understanding of the word. Besides a crude, hate-the-French appeal (including atrocity propaganda—see cut), he has another effective persuasion: terror. His guerrillas and underground operators stalk the countryside; his assassins and bomb-throwers terrorize the cities. Indefatigably he spreads the word that he is winning, as his comrades have won in China.
The result is that many are cowed into helping him, or at least staying out of the anti-Communist effort. Others, especially among the intelligentsia, sit on the fence, waiting to jump on the winning side. This is where Bao Dai comes in.
A Display of Strength. It is Bao Dai’s mission, and the U.S.-French hope, to rally his countrymen to the anti-Communist camp of the West. In this undertaking he needs time. “Nothing can be done overnight,” he says. He needs time to organize an effective native government, train an army and militia that can restore order in the villages, win over the doubting fence-sitters among the intelligentsia. Besides a military shield, he also needs a display of winning strength and patient understanding by his Western allies.
As a national leader, Bao Dai has his weaknesses, and largely because of them he does not enjoy the kind of popularity achieved by India’s Jawaharlal Nehru. But, as the lineal heir of the old monarchs of Annam, he is his nation’s traditional “father & mother,” its first priest (Buddhist) and judge. The French say that Bao Dai should act more decisively; whenever he does, there is impressive popular response.
Nehru’s government of India, trailed by Burma’s Thakin Nu, Indonesia’s Soekarno and even by the Philippines’ Elpidio Quirino, has so far refused to follow the major Western democracies in recognizing Bao Dai’s Viet Nam Republic. They look on him as a French puppet. But Bao Dai has shown a judgment on the crucial ideological conflict of his time that compares strikingly and favorably with the petulant, third-force position of Pandit Nehru.
Recently, for example, Bao Dai told a TIME correspondent about his impressions of Ho Chi Minh in 1946, when both leaders were cooperating with the French to establish a new Viet Nam regime.
“At first,” recalled Bao Dai, “we all believed the Ho government was really a nationalistic regime . . . I called Ho ‘Elder Brother’ and he called me ‘Younger Brother.’ . . .
“Then, I saw he was fighting a battle within himself. He realized that Communism was not best for our country. But it was too late. He could not overcome his own allegiance to Communism.”
A Royal Notion. Bao Dai is essentially a product of the old French colonialism—the best of it thwarted by some of the worst.
Born in 1913, the only son of the ailing Emperor Khai Dinh, he studied under Chinese tutors until nine. Then his father’s French advisers decided he should go to France for a Western education.
The emperor put on a parasol-shaped red velvet hat and a golden-dragon robe, accompanied his son on the first trip abroad for any of their dynasty. In Paris he put the prince under the tutelage of former Annam Governor Eugene Charles. “I bring you a schoolboy,” said Khai Dinh. “Make of him what you will.” Three years later, Khai Dinh died. He was buried in a splendid mausoleum, at Hué; at the foot of his tomb lay his prized French decorations, toothbrush, Thermos bottles and “Big Ben” alarm clock. Bao Dai, who had come ‘home for the funeral, was crowned the 13th sovereign of the Nguyen (pronounced New Inn) dynasty. He turned the throne over to a regent, and hurried back to Paris.
The young Emperor continued his Chinese lessons, studied Annamite chronicles, browsed through French history, literature and economics. He was especially fond of books on Henry IV, the dynast from Navarre who began the Bourbon rule in France with the cynical remark, “Paris is worth a Mass,” and the demagogic slogan, “Every family should have a fowl in the pot on Sunday.” Bao Dai put his money in Swiss banks (and thereby saved it from World War II’s reverses), collected stamps, practiced tennis with Champion Henri Cochet, learned ping-pong, dressed in tweeds and flannels, vacationed in the Pyrenees, scented himself heavily with Coty and Chanel perfumes.
Up to this point the Emperor had absorbed a good deal of the education of an intelligent, progressive French adolescent. He had high notions of applying what he had learned back home.
In 1932, at 19, Bao Dai formally took over the Dragon Throne at Hué; two years later he married beautiful Mariette-Jeanne Nguyen Huu Thi Lan, the daughter of a wealthy Cochin-Chinese merchant. The Empress Nam Phuong was a Roman Catholic, educated at Paris’ Convent “Aux Oiseaux.”
Bao Dai reigned but he did not rule. The French (Third Republic and Vichy) shrugged off his earnest pleas for social and economic reforms and more native political autonomy. Cleverly, as they thought, they encouraged the Emperor to devote himself to sport and pleasure.
Bao Dai was hunting tigers near his summer villa at Dalat when the Japanese, early in 1945, made their 1940 control of the colony official and complete. They surprised his party, took him prisoner, installed him as a puppet emperor—until their own capitulation to the Allies a few months later.
Agitator Ho. At this point, the lines of Bao Dai’s destiny first crossed those of his fellow Annamite Ho Chi Minh.
The two men made a dramatic contrast. The Emperor was young (then 32), plump, clean-shaven, bland-faced, fond of snappy Western sport clothes. Ho was aging (55), slight (hardly 5 ft. tall), goat-bearded, steelyeyed, usually seen in a frayed khaki tunic and cloth slippers. Ho Chi Minh, too, had gone to France for education. As a young man, he had been sent into exile by the French police of Indo-China because of his family’s nationalist agitation. His father and a brother went to political prison for life. A sister received nine years of hard labor.
In Paris, Ho (then known as Nguyen Ai Quoc) became a photographer’s assistant, wrote anti-imperialist articles. He also joined the French Communist Party. He was sent to Moscow for training, became a Comintern functionary, re-emerged in 1925 at Canton, where he helped Russian Agent Borodin in Communism’s first attempt to seize China.
From Hong Kong in 1931 Ho Chi Minh organized the first Indo-Chinese Communist Party. The British clapped him into jail for a year. When he came out, he continued organizing Red cells in his country. Japan and World War II gave him his big chance.
Using popular front-tactics, Ho established the Viet Minh—League for the Independence of Viet Nam. It directed guerrilla war against both Vichy French and Japanese, enlisted the support of many Indo-Chinese nationalists. American OSS agents and arms were parachuted to Ho’s side.
“Uncle Ho.” By the time the French were ready to pick up the postwar strings again in Indo-China, Communist Ho was very much a popular hero, better known as “Uncle Ho.” He spoke a “soft” Communist line, talked more about freedom, democracy and reform. Bao Dai was in a different position. He had suffered in reputation because he had “gotten along” with Vichy French and Japanese.
The returning French began negotiations with the Viet Minh leader. There were polite hints that Bao Dai must go—he was too “unpopular.” Bao abdicated, and Ho was in the saddle.
Bao Dai stayed on in Indo-China for a while, as plain citizen Nguyen Vinh Thuy and Honorary Councilor to the Republic. Nobody had much use for him. He went abroad and flung himself into a reckless round of pleasure and sport.
Playboy. Most of his time he spent at Cannes, on the French Riviera, where he had bought the palatial Château de Thorenc (reported purchase price: $250,000). In his garage were a pale blue Lincoln convertible, a black Citroen limousine, a blue Simca “Gordoni” one-seat racer, a sleek Italian two-seater, a Simca-8 sports model. He also kept several motorcycles. He insisted that every engine run “as accurately as a watch.”
He dallied in the bars and casinos, chain-smoked cheap Gauloise cigarettes, treated hangers-on to champagne and caviar, played roulette for 10,000-franc chips (“His Majesty’s losses,” remarked a croupier, “befitted his rank”), sometimes conducted jazz bands, sent his secretary to open negotiations with the many women who caught his eye. (“My grandfather had 125 wives and 300 children,” Bao Dai once remarked to a journalist. “I have a few mistresses. What then?”) He played golf capably and bridge like a master. A crack shot with rifle or revolver, he often arranged target competitions with the château’s servants.
Meanwhile the French, back in Indo-China, had broken with Ho Chi Minh, were floundering in a Communist-led nationalist uprising. They appealed to Bao Dai to come home again and help rally his people against the Red menace. They promised to grant Viet Nam gradual independence within the new French Union. Bao was persuaded. On March 8, 1949, he signed the document creating the new Indo-Chinese Republic which he would head as chief of state. As he left the gaudy safety of the Riviera for the hazards of a country torn by civil war, he grinned and said: “I risk my skin.” French Communists snarled: “Cet empereur des boites de nuit [this nightclub emperor].”
Behind him, at the Château de Thorenc, he left Empress Nam Phuong and their family of two boys and three girls.
Statesman. Bao Dai has been back in Indo-China about a year. He has made some progress, but it is slow and the difficulties are enormous. The French have promised his government more authority, but they are vague in making good and sometimes stupidly petty. One point of friction between Bao Dai and French High Commissioner Léon Pignon concerns the high commissioner’s residence in Saigon. It is the old imperial palace, and the symbol, in native eyes, of paramount place. Bao Dai wants it for his own use, and he stays away from the city lest he lose face by residing elsewhere. The French, with bureaucratic pigheadedness, have refused to part with it, though there are reports that they will soon do so.
Another disappointment has been Bao Dai’s effort to enlist capable ministers and lower-echelon administrators. Partly this is because so many Vietnamese are fence-sitters or fear the terror of Viet Minh agents. Partly it is a consequence of French failure, in the past and at present, to train enough natives to take over the government. Bao Dai seems to be counting on U.S. pressure to loosen up the French in this respect.
Most serious failure is the sluggish pace in recruiting a Viet Nam army. Bao Dai’s government has thus far assembled only four battalions, about 4,000 men.
Field of Decision. Though Ho Chi Minh’s forces (70,000 regulars with equipment as good as the French, plus 70,000 well-trained guerrillas and an unknown number of poorly equipped village militia) have been pushed back from such centers as Hanoi in northern Viet Nam, French officers report that “the situation steadily grows no better.”
French Commander in Chief Marcel Carpentier aims to sweep Ho Chi Minh’s men from the lower, heavily populated Mekong and Red River valleys. These are the best rice-producing areas and consequently the best source of rebel supply. By airlift and truck convoy, the French maintain a line of forts at the Chinese border, where aid could flow in for Ho.
It is rugged hit & run fighting in forest and swamp terrain well suited for guerrilla tactics. By day the French control about half the countryside; and if they want to, they can penetrate where they will, though ambush takes its toll. At night, however, the French draw into their forts and garrisoned centers. Then Ho Chi Minh’s men steal forth, terrorize peasants, collect taxes (two-fifths of a farmer’s rice harvest), and run the countryside almost everywhere
The French insist that the military problem is the No.. i problem, and that Western men and arms must lick it. Given sufficient U.S. equipment, up to $150 million a year or more, they think they can crush Ho Chi Minh within three years. Lacking such support, they may be facing a debacle within one year; and, of course, down in the wreckage would go Bao Dai.
The Piecemeal Approach. All in all, the new U.S. ally in Southeast Asia is a weak reed. And the alliance is as ironic as anything in history. For the same U.S. Government which abandoned the Chinese Nationalists because they were not good enough was committed by last fortnight’s decision to defend a playboy emperor and the worst and almost the last example of white man’s armed imperialism in Asia.
Nevertheless, Indo-China had to be defended—if it could be defended. So had Formosa, last stand of China’s Nationalists, which has advantages not to be found in Indo-China—a strong government, a well-trained defending fighting force, and easily defensible tactical position. The U.S. decision to go into such a doubtful project as the defense of Indo-China was the result of an idea that it ought to do something, somehow, to stop the Communists in Southeast Asia. But the U.S. policy in Indo-China was a piecemeal operation. Not until it saw the Southeast Asia problem whole, until it went to the help of all threatened governments, would the U.S. be making soldier’s or statesman’s sense.
* There was one abortive attempt to get acquainted in the 18305, when President Andrew Jackson sent Envoy Edmund Roberts of New Hampshire to draw up a treaty with Emperor Ming Mang. Reported Roberts: “The insulting formalities required as preliminaries to the treaty . . . left me no alternative save that of terminating a protracted correspondence marked . . . by duplicity and prevarication in the official servant of the Emperor.” Roberts was told to 1) make five kowtows, 2) beg for “deep condescension,” 3) change a sentence in President Jackson’s letter to the Emperor from “I pray to God” to “I pray to the gods of heaven.” He refused.
† The Chinese invasions took place between 213 B.C. and 186 A.D. From the latter date until the loth Century the Chinese governed the country. Then the Annamites threw off the Chinese yoke; it was clapped on again for a brief span in the 15th Century. French missionaries and traders (preceded by the Portuguese and Dutch) came to Indo-China in the 17th Century. In 1802, a French East India Company expedition helped establish Nguye


Written by Kham

21/09/2010 at 6:53 am

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