Excerpts for Embers of War : The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam


chapter 1

"The Empire Is with Us!"

In the late afternoon of june 18, 1940, the tall, stiff-backed Frenchman walked into the BBC studios in London. His country stood on the brink of defeat. German columns were sweeping through France and had entered Paris. The French government under Marshal Philippe Pétain had fled for Bordeaux and had asked the Germans to state their terms for an armistice. These were the darkest days in the country's history, but General Charles de Gaulle, who had arrived in London the day before, was convinced that France could rise again--provided that her people did not lose heart. De Gaulle had met earlier in the day with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and had secured permission to make a broadcast to France.

He was pale, recalled one of those present, with a brown forelock stuck to his forehead. "He stared at the microphone as though it were France and as though he wanted to hypnotize it. His voice was clear, firm, and rather loud, the voice of a man speaking to his troops before battle. He did not seem nervous but extremely tense, as though he were concentrating all his power in one single moment."

De Gaulle's thoughts that day were on the French Empire, whose resources, he sensed, could keep France in the war and fighting. And they were with Britain and the United States, great powers with whom he could ally. "Believe what I tell you," de Gaulle intoned into the microphone, "for I know of what I speak, and I say that nothing is lost for France." Then, like a cleric chanting a litany, he declared: "For France is not alone. She is not alone. She is not alone. She has a vast Empire behind her. She can unite with the British Empire that rules the seas and is continuing the fight. Like Britain, she can make unlimited use of the immense industrial resources of the United States."

The broadcast, which lasted barely four minutes, has gone down in French history as L'Appel du 18 Juin. At the time, however, few heard it and few knew who de Gaulle was. Alexander Cadogan, the permanent undersecretary at the British Foreign Office, knew only that de Gaulle had a "head like a pineapple and hips like a woman's." Robert Murphy, the counselor at the U.S. embassy in Paris, could not recall ever having heard of him before that day. The same was true of most of de Gaulle's compatriots. Although he was notorious within French military circles for his advocacy of the mechanization of the army and the offensive deployment of tanks, few outside that select group would have recognized his name, much less known the essentials of his biography: the birth in Lille in 1890; the diploma from the military academy at Saint-Cyr; the five failed (in part because of his conspicuous height) escape attempts from German prison camps in World War I; the postwar military career initially under the wing of Pétain.

De Gaulle had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general only a few weeks before, in the midst of the Battle of France (thus making him, at forty-nine, the youngest general in the army). He then joined Premier Paul Reynaud's government on June 5 as undersecretary of state for war. Reynaud sought to carry on the fight, but twelve days later, with the French war effort collapsing wholesale, as German armies were well south of Dijon and pressing down the Atlantic coast, he resigned. De Gaulle, certain that Pétain would seek an armistice, escaped to London, determined to continue the resistance from there.

The basis for de Gaulle's speech that fateful day was his conviction that the conflict was not limited to Europe. It was a "world war," he declared, one "not bound by the Battle of France." He would be proven correct. Likewise, Britain and the United States would become critical to the ultimate victory of de Gaulle's "Free French" organization, though not in the way he imagined. Even his deep faith in the empire's importance to his cause would in time find a certain degree of vindication.

A vast empire it was. In 1940, it ranked in size second only to the British, extending some six million square miles and with an overseas population of eighty million. The island of Madagascar alone was bigger than metropolitan France. The colonies of Equatorial and West Africa together were as large as the United States. In the Middle East, the French were a major presence, and they had holdings as well in the Caribbean and the Pacific. And of course, there was Indochina, the Pearl of the Empire, rich in rubber plantations and rice fields. As the farthest-flung of the key French possessions, it along with Algeria (administered as part of France proper) conferred great power status on France and, it was thought, gave her an important voice in global affairs. As a whole, the empire took more than a third of all French trade in the 1930s (a figure inflated by the fact that the Depression caused business leaders to fall back on colonial markets); colonial troops made up 11 percent of mobilized men in 1939.

In his memoirs of the war, de Gaulle recalled his feelings as he sat in London in 1940 and watched the deterioration of the French position in the Far East, at the expense of the encroaching Japanese. "To me, steering a very small boat on the ocean of war, Indochina seemed like a great ship out of control, to which I could give no aid until I had slowly got together the means of rescue," he wrote. "As I saw her move away into the mist, I swore to myself that I would one day bring her back."

It was an immense task, de Gaulle knew. The journey would be as long as it was treacherous. It would take time to win French loyalty and French territory and so to establish his legitimacy as the authentic representative of the French nation. In those early days, hardly anyone answered his call. Not only did few people come from France to join him, but most leading French figures already in London decided to return home to support the Pétain government, which negotiated an armistice with Germany on June 22 and set up a collaborationist regime in Vichy, a damp, gloomy spa town best known for its foul-smelling waters. Even many of those who wanted to go on fighting rejected de Gaulle's call. Some went instead to the United States, while others, including the imperial proconsuls in North Africa and other territories (under the terms of the armistice, the empire was left in French hands), were unprepared to reject the authority of the eighty-four-year-old Pétain, savior of France at Verdun in 1916. The only exceptions in the early months were French Equatorial Africa (Chad, French Congo, and Oubangui-Chari, but not Gabon) and the Cameroons, which declared for de Gaulle in August 1940. That same month a French military court sentenced de Gaulle to death in absentia, for treason against the Vichy regime.

"You are alone," Churchill told de Gaulle, "I shall recognize you alone." On June 28, the British government voiced its backing of de Gaulle as "leader of all the Free French, wherever they are to be found, who rally to him in support of the Allied cause."

The phrasing was important: The British were endorsing de Gaulle the man rather than his organization. Whereas the general saw his outfit as a proto-government rivaling that in Vichy, most London officials hoped Free France could be restricted to the role of a légion combattante, a group of French citizens fighting as a unit within the Allied armies. For them, the only French government was that headed by Marshal Pétain. Still, limited though it was, the British pronouncement was a critical early endorsement of de Gaulle, arguably as important as any he would ever receive. His bold action on June 18 made an impression on Churchill, one that would never quite dissipate even during the tensest moments--and there would be many in the years to come--in their relationship. The romantic in Churchill admired de Gaulle's epic adventure, his self-importance, his claim to speak for la France éternelle. He saw a certain nobility in the Frenchman's bravado and shared with him a love of drama and a deep sense of history. When in September the two men joined together in a scheme to try to win French West Africa away from Vichy with an operation against Dakar, de Gaulle rose in Churchill's esteem despite the fact that the plan ended in humiliating failure. To the House of Commons, the prime minister extolled de Gaulle's calm and authoritative bearing throughout the engagement and said he had more confidence in the general than ever.

"I had continuous difficulties and many sharp antagonisms with him," Churchill would write of his relationship with de Gaulle. "I knew he was no friend of England. But I always recognized in him the spirit and conception which, across the pages of history, the word ‘France' would ever proclaim. I understood and admired, while I resented, his arrogant demeanor. Here he was--a refugee, an exile from his country under sentence of death, in a position entirely dependent upon the good will of Britain, and now of the United States. The Germans had conquered his country. He had no real foothold anywhere. Never mind; he defied all."

A very different attitude prevailed in Washington, where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his advisers from the start kept their distance from de Gaulle and his cause. Shocked and appalled by France's swift collapse against the Germans, despite having what on paper was arguably Europe's strongest army, Roosevelt concluded that France had essentially ceased to exist. Thenceforth, during moments of pessimism (and not infrequently in happier times as well), he believed the worst about France and concluded she would never again regain her status as a leading power. Investing military might and diplomatic aid in trying to defend her was therefore pointless. Following the armistice, Washington chose a policy of expedience, maintaining diplomatic relations with Vichy in the hope that the French fleet and the Pétain government would not be driven totally into the arms of the Nazis. As for de Gaulle, he was as yet largely a nonentity for Roosevelt. In time, as we shall see, the American president would adopt toward the general an attitude of unremitting hostility.

II

in indochina, word of the french defeat hit like a bolt from the blue. Already in 1939, after Germany's attack on Poland, there had been murmurings in Saigon and Hanoi, among colons as well as literate Vietnamese, about whether Hitler could be stopped, and if he couldn't, what it would mean for them. A 1938 French film shown on local screens asked Are We Defended? and left the answer disconcertingly open. Still, no one had imagined that the defeat of la belle France could ever occur so swiftly, so completely. The turn of events may have seemed especially dizzying in Indochina and elsewhere in the empire, for certain key details--that French forces fought hard and suffered huge losses at Sedan and elsewhere along the river Meuse, for example, or that the greater part of the French army was taken prisoner--emerged only slowly in the colonies.

"Overnight, our world had changed," recalled Bui Diem, a young French-educated Vietnamese in Hanoi who had breathlessly followed news accounts of the fighting. "Mine was the third generation for whom the universe had been bounded by France, her language, her culture, and her stultifying colonial apparatus. Now, in a moment, the larger world had intruded itself on our perceptions. Our ears were opened wide, straining to pick up signals from the outside that would give us some hint as to what this might mean."

In the governor-general's residence in Hanoi, speculation was rife. General Georges Catroux, only a year into the job, was devoted to the empire and to keeping France in the fight against Hitler; for both reasons he was drawn immediately to de Gaulle's cause. The two men went way back, having been prisoners of war together in a high-security camp in Ingolstadt, Germany, in World War I, and they maintained deep mutual respect. But Catroux, an intelligent and highly literate five-star general who as a young man had been an aide-de-camp in Hanoi but whose recent postings had been in North Africa, was powerless; his Indochina, isolated from the metropole by thousands of miles of ocean, faced growing pressure from Japan. For Tokyo authorities, the fall of France represented a perfect opportunity to remove several obstacles to their New Order in East Asia. Three years into a war with Chiang Kai-shek's Republican China, the Japanese had long been bothered about American weapons and other Western supplies reaching beleaguered Chinese armies via the railway that ran from Haiphong to Kunming. The amounts were significant: An estimated 48 percent of all supplies came by this route. Catroux succumbed to Japanese pressure to sharply limit shipments of weapons, but food and other supplies continued to arrive, and the Japanese began to think that only by seizing Indochina could they stop the flow. Moreover, Indochina could provide imperial Japan with significant supplies of rubber, tin, coal, and rice--all important in ending her dependence upon foreign sources of vital strategic raw materials. Geostrategically, meanwhile, Indochina could serve as an advanced base for operations against the Far Eastern possessions of the other Western colonial powers. For senior Japanese leaders, in short, the events in Europe opened up glorious new possibilities. Hitler's victories, American ambassador to Tokyo Joseph Grew noted, "like strong wine, have gone to their heads."

In Hanoi, Catroux moved cautiously, aware that he had few cards to play. In previous months, as Japanese gains in China brought them ever closer to Indochina, he realized how inadequate Indochina's defenses were. He had only about 50,000 troops at his disposal, of which some 38,000 were native forces of suspect loyalty. The air force had only twenty-five modern aircraft in all of Indochina, while the navy possessed only a light cruiser, two gunboats, two sloops, and two auxiliary patrol craft. Munitions and other military supplies were negligently low. The Paris government, reeling under the Nazi onslaught, could offer no tangible assistance, he knew, and neither could Britain, focused as she was on the German menace and the defense of Singapore and Malaya. In April and again in May and June, British officials cautioned Catroux against taking any action that might risk war with Japan. Even if His Majesty's government wanted to provide military assistance, Sir Percy Noble, commander of the British Far Eastern Fleet, told Catroux in late April, it could not; it had no resources to give. The same message was reiterated repeatedly in the weeks thereafter.

The United States was Catroux's last hope. On June 19, the day after de Gaulle's speech, René de Saint-Quentin, the French ambassador in Washington, put two questions to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles. What would the United States do if Indochina came under Japanese attack? And in the meantime, would Washington provide immediate military assistance to Indochina, in the form of 120 aircraft as well as antiaircraft guns? Welles's reply echoed that of the British. The United States, he said, would do nothing that might provoke the outbreak of hostilities with Japan and therefore would not act to thwart an attack on Indochina. She would provide no planes or weapons. In that case, asked Saint-Quentin, what choice did Saigon have but to accept the Japanese demands? "I will not answer you officially," Welles said, "but that is what I would do in your place."

Saint-Quentin and Welles didn't know it, but hours earlier Japan had issued an ultimatum to Catroux. The Tokyo government demanded an end to the shipment through Tonkin of trucks, gasoline, or other goods of military use to China, as well as the establishment of a Japanese control commission in Indochina to supervise the implementation of the agreement. Catroux ordered Saint-Quentin to make one more appeal to the Americans; when that too failed, he decided to accept the Japanese terms, hoping to forestall a Japanese invasion and preserve French control over Indochina. Already by June 29, Japanese checkpoints had been established in Tonkin at Haiphong, Ha Giang, Lao Cai, Cao Bang, and Lang Son. Perhaps, Catroux reasoned, Tokyo leaders hoped to avoid a costly--in yen and men--occupation of Indochina; perhaps he could temporize and hold on, waiting for a more favorable turn in the war. He cabled his government on June 26: "When one is beaten, when one has few planes and little anti-aircraft defense, no submarines, one tries to keep one's property without having to fight and one negotiates. That is what I have done."

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