Outbreak of a new war

01

Dec
2021

Outbreak of a new war

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The central issue in subsequent Franco-Vietnamese negotiations was the status of Cochinchina. D’Argenlieu was determined to deny Ho Chi Minh’s government any claim to the south. At a conference held during April and May in Dalat, a  colonial resort in the Central Highlands, d’Argenlieu made it clear to the Viet- namese representatives from Hanoi that there would be no referendum. He was  busy setting up a Republic of Cochinchina with Nguyen Van Thinh (1888– 1946), a former Constitutionalist politician and a French citizen, as president. Many Vietnamese who had adapted to French colonialism and nurtured political ambitions gathered around Nguyen Van Thinh. In August, d’Argenlieu convened another conference at Dalat with pliant representatives from all five regions of Indochina. This conference denounced the Hanoi government and made plans for an Indochinese Federation. From d’Argenlieu’s perspective, Ho Chi Minh’s government was a temporary annoyance. The scheme for a Republic of Cochinchina united virtually all of the southern groups, including the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao, in opposition. The fighting between French and Vietnamese in Cochinchina that had begun the previous autumn intensified. Tran Van Giau was called back to the north and replaced by Nguyen Binh (1906–1951), a former Nationalist Party activist from near Hanoi who had meanwhile joined the communists. Nguyen Binh turned the Viet Minh into a military alliance against the threat of Cochinchinese separatism. He made extensive use of terror, including the detonation of bombs in public places, to discredit French authority. The fighting in Cochinchina continued through the summer and into the autumn of 1946. Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh and Pham Van Dong had traveled to France to negotiate directly with the government in Paris. This was a time of transition between the immediate post-war government of Charles de Gaulle, who had abruptly resigned in January 1946, and the constitution of the Fourth Republic, which would go into effect in January 1947. The dominant politician during this  year was Georges Augustin Bidault (1899–1983), a former history teacher, pre- war Catholic anti-fascist youth leader, veteran of the wartime resistance, and  Minister of Foreign Affairs since August 1944. He had supported de Gaulle but  believed that de Gaulle’s preference for a presidential, rather than a parliamen- tary, constitution was not plausible in the existing political situation. Bidault led  one of the three main political parties at that time, the Mouvement Républicain Populaire (commonly referred to as the MRP), the other two being the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. The election of June 1946 resulted in Bidault forming a government that included socialists and communists. He served as both Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs in this government. Ho Chi Minh was personally acquainted with some of the socialist and communist politicians because he had been a member of both parties during his residence in Paris a quarter-century before. Although he was welcomed  warmly, there was no political will in France, even among socialists and com- munists, to support his negotiating agenda. In the uncertain political situation of  1946, no French politician was prepared to gainsay the Indochina policy estab- lished by de Gaulle and continued by Bidault, the main points of which were  maintenance of the Tonkin–Annam–Cochinchina division and no recognition of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as an “independent” state. Furthermore, with d’Argenlieu and Leclerc in Indochina actively implementing this policy, a more robust government than Bidault’s ephemeral five-month coalition turned out to be would have been required to implement a change of course. Neverthe- less, d’Argenlieu was able to pursue this policy because French politicians over- whelming agreed with it, regardless of any supposed weakness of the Paris  government. In mid September, after two months of failed negotiations at the Paris suburb of Fontainebleau, the Vietnamese negotiator, Pham Van Dong, departed. At that  moment, the last of the Chinese were leaving Tonkin. The Chinese had pro- longed their departure to enable thousands of troops from Yunnan and Guangxi  to be shipped by rail to Hai Phong for embarkation to the civil war battlefields in northern China. Now, without their presence, the possibility of war breaking out between the Vietnamese and the French increased day by day. Even as the  Chinese presence had produced the Franco-Vietnamese agreement of the previ- ous March, the Chinese absence led to another Franco-Vietnamese agreement  designed to prolong the prospect of settling matters peacefully. One day after Pham Van Dong’s departure and three days before the last Chinese troops were scheduled to depart Hai Phong, Ho Chi Minh, who had been vainly trying to rally political support for his government among Paris politicians, signed a modus vivendi with the Minister for Overseas France, Marius Moutet (1876–1968). Moutet, a socialist, agreed in principle with the established Indochina policy, but, perhaps under the pressure of time, he was not alert to the practical effects of the modus vivendi. This agreement guaranteed the safety of French citizens and their property and established committees and commissions to address outstanding questions. The most important item in this modus vivendi, however, was the provision for a ceasefire in Cochinchina effective October 30. This ceasefire provision had far-reaching implications and results, for it diminished d’Argenlieu’s scheme for a Republic of Cochinchina. With this modus vivendi, the French government recognized the Vietnamese resistance in Cochinchina as a legitimate party to a ceasefire and not simply as terrorists beyond the law. The French government also acknowledged that Ho Chi Minh was competent to deal on behalf of the Cochinchina resistance. The modus vivendi undermined both d’Argenlieu’s Republic of Cochinchina and the French doctrine of regional separation. Furthermore, when in fact Nguyen Binh and his Cochinchinese allies honored the ceasefire on October 30, it was obvious that Ho Chi Minh spoke for them. Nguyen Van Thinh, president of the Republic of Cochinchina, committed suicide ten days after the ceasefire went into effect. Just as his Cochinchina policy suffered this setback, the November 10  election in France posed a further challenge to d’Argenlieu. Gains by the social- ists and communists brought the Bidault cabinet to an end. The new constitution of the Fourth Republic had been approved and would go into effect at the beginning of 1947. Meanwhile, socialists, some of whom had expressed criticism of d’Argenlieu, formed caretaker governments. D’Argenlieu departed for France three days after the election to ensure that political change in Paris did not  disturb his Indochina policy. He left local matters in the hands of trusted subor- dinates, most important of whom was General Jean Etienne Valluy (1899–1970),  who had replaced Leclerc the previous summer. Since October, Valluy and d’Argenlieu had been making plans to initiate hostilities in the north in order to remove the Vietnamese government in Hanoi,  thereby disposing of the main obstacle to the Indochinese Federation and invali- dating the Cochinchinese implications of the modus vivendi ceasefire. Before  departing for France, d’Argenlieu instructed Valluy to implement these plans. This was done without delay. The situation in the north had greatly changed during the preceding months while Ho Chi Minh was in France. Most Chinese occupying forces had departed by June and with them went many of the anti-communist Vietnamese politicians who had sheltered under their protection, including Nguyen Hai Than, Nguyen Tuong Tam, and Vu Hong Khanh. The government consequently became more homogeneous and compliant with the communist leadership. Some groups, particularly members of the Nationalist Party, resisted the turn of events, but Vo Nguyen Giap attacked them, killing or arresting many hundreds. The French  cooperated with this campaign because the Nationalist Party was more implac- ably anti-French than the Viet Minh. At the same time, a new front was assem- bled to bring several groups that had previously had a separate organizational  existence into alliance with the Viet Minh, in particular unions and associations representing women, workers, and youth. This was known as the Lien Viet (Hoi Lien Hiep Quoc Dan Viet Nam, Vietnamese People’s National United Association).  Meanwhile, Viet Minh agents were purchasing arms in various Asian coun- tries, mainly China and Thailand, and stockpiling supplies in the mountains.  Franco-Vietnamese tensions escalated in the seaport of Hai Phong, the main point of access for the Vietnamese to the outside world and for the French to Tonkin. Vietnamese and French military units coexisted in a volatile state of restrained antagonism with control of the docks being the focus of contention. After d’Argenlieu’s departure for France in mid November, Valluy instructed his subordinates in Tonkin to escalate provocations. Open warfare eventually broke out on November 23 when the French seized Hai Phong after heavy fighting and a bombardment that killed thousands of civilians. At the same time, French  forces seized Lang Son, where the railroad connected with Guangxi. The Viet- namese began to evacuate Hanoi, and, less than a month later, on December 19, fighting broke out there as the Vietnamese government and army shifted to the mountains. In accepting this war, the French anticipated a short campaign that would be over long before 1950 when their calculations indicated that they would no longer be able to financially sustain a war in Indochina. Even French leaders who believed that French interests in Indochina could have been arranged without resorting to war were confident of a quick military solution. Leclerc, d’Argenlieu, and Valluy had implemented a policy that was widely supported by the French political establishment and the French people. That the war would last so long and that it would eventually become part of a global confrontation beyond the national interests of France were unforeseen.

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