French Colonial Vietnam: Americas informal Empire ?

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Did America Let the French back into Vietnam to gain there own quasi imperial needs, lets discuss.

The American policy towards French Indochina fluctuated from the midpoint of the Second World War till the later part of 1945. Why was it then France was allowed back into Vietnam under Truman? This can be seen as a complete policy reversal under what Franklin Roosevelt envisaged through his trustee scheme. This would be worked through the United Nations and his so called Four Policemen, United States, Britain, China and the Soviet Union.  These changes are much brought around due to Truman having to trust foreign policy advisers in the state department. This is due to no real experience on the world stage, plus a developing Cold War in its infancy.

The Original policy of anti colonialism comes strongly across from a conversation Roosevelt had with his son just after American entry into the war. “That Americans would be dying in the Pacific tonight, if it hadn’t been for the shortsighted greed if the French and British and the Dutch.”[1] This would in a way pave the way for American policy of Trusteeship and de colonization. This would be regulated by a body under a United Nations Mandate to effectively look after the colonial procession until it is seen fit to become an independent state in itself. This would give Roosevelt a lot of political backing in Indochina especially. Ironically though we need to consider the greater political spectrum this needs to play a part in the understanding of the issue. By this we will see later the need in 1945 that France was needed to play a part on the world stage. In this case in 1942 with the invasion of North Africa, a letter from the State department to General Henri Giraud stated that “The restoration of France to full independence, in all the greatness and vastness which it possessed before the war in Europe as well as overseas, is one of the war aims of the United Nations. It is thoroughly understood that French sovereignty will be re-established as soon as possible throughout all the territory, metropolitan or colonial, over which flew the French flag in 1939.” [2] The French government would have interpreted that they would regain their North African colonies and Indochina. Some in the state department could see the problem of not letting the French back in control of its colonies. George Blakeslee of the State department warned FDR that “If France is to be denied her position in Indochina she will be to that extent a weakened as a world power,”[3]  Roosevelt would not in some respect ignore this issue as much; he would be remarked later that “The case of Indochina is perfectly clear. France has milked it for one hundred years. The people of Indo-China are entitled to something better than that.”[4]  Roosevelt through his idea of trusteeship would worry Churchill especially, as these rules could effectively be transferred onto parts of the British Empire most notably India.  Churchill would try to play a big role in trying to bring Roosevelt on to his side.  Roosevelt even stated to an aid that with Churchill and his interference “I see no reason to play in with the British Foreign Office in this matter. The only reason they seem to oppose it is that they fear the effect it would have on their own possessions and those of the Dutch. They have never liked the idea of trusteeship because it is, in some instances, aimed at future independence. This is true in the case of Indo-China.”[5] From that we can ascertain that Roosevelt and his policies towards Indochina are solid but the idea would change slowly, much due to influence from the US State Department.

At the Dumbarton Oaks conference we begin to see a slight change, and this can mainly be attributed to Churchill and his persistence. From this point onwards you can say that Roosevelt and his resolve for trusteeship plan would begin to change. The principles would be the same but it would revolve around the United Nations but of a colonial nation’s eventual right to independence after a certain period.  “The blueprint for the post war international system was negotiated, skirted the colonial issue, and avoided trusteeships altogether. F.D.R. in fact assigned to Indochina a status correlative to Burma, Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia: free territory to be reconquered and returned to its former owners.”  This is quite important maybe we can see a softening of Roosevelt and his policy stance, this was re affirmed by Secretary of State Stettinius  on April 3rd  1945 just after the Yalta conference said that any territory taken by the enemy will be returned to its original owner but could be placed under voluntary trusteeship. The term voluntary is vital, in some sense it could be seen as the green light for the events to come. John Hickerson, working in the state department would state that these changes to a British diplomat at the United Nations conference in San Francisco. It was so that Roosevelt could “permit a climb-down from the position that President Roosevelt had taken in conversation as regards Indochina.” [6] Why has the United States position changed though?

The major change is the global political situation at the time and deep divisions in the State Department. With the death of Roosevelt and Truman ascendency to the Presidency you would have the beginning of the Cold War and the breakdown of East and West relations. One of the most important changes to take place during the 1944 to 1945 was the replacement of Cordell Hull with Edward Stettinius, this would fundamentally change US policy. George Herring would even go as far as saying that “With the retirement of Hull in November 1944 and his replacement by the inexperienced Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., the “Europeanists” took command in the State Department. They contended that the United States could not impose its views on unwilling allies, and warned that an extended impasse on the colonial question could endanger allied agreement on an international organization.”[7] With Truman having to decide cold war policy through the use of the State Department, because of his lack of experience, would cause infighting between the two spheres of Europe and the Asiatic departments. The Europeanists would eventually win out much due to the need for the United States need to keep strong European allied base on side to combat any Soviet threat in Western Europe, a Europe first policy was put into place. Also in a sense it would seem hypercritical of the United States as in effect the Philippines and Japan were ad hoc American dependences.

This policy change was very quick to be taken into effect Mark Bradley mentions in making sense of Vietnam that “Secretary of State Edward Stettinius told French foreign minister Georges Bidault on the 8th May 1945 that ‘Washington has no intention-and’, incredibly, ‘had never had any intention- of challenging French sovereignty in Indochina’.”[8]  This can be seen as a very much and exercise in pleasing the French government into joining the new United Nations and to in a sense keep them in the American sphere.  From this we can add that James Clement who was a leading Europeanist in the state department confirms this idea to Secretary of State Stettinius stating that “We have no right to dictate to France nor to take away her territory. We can only use our influence….to improve the Government of Indochina and conditions there but we should not interfere.”[9]  This policy of no interference would be put to the test during the initial months of the Allied move into Indochina. Truman would in effect turn a blind eye to the fact that Sir Douglas Gracey was using French troops that were part of the South East Asia Command, in American trucks to effectively put French civil service and control structure back into Indochina. Truman would even approve the movement of over eight hundred Lend Lease Jeeps on the pretext it would be impossible to remove them. To this effect we could say that the British and French in a way played the Americans hand.  John Springhall stated that “once martial law had been declared in Saigon, Gracey, with only three infantry battalions of British, Indian and Gurkha troops at his disposal, lacked the muscle to enforce his proclamation. Hence the subsequent and infamous coup engineered to restore French colonial rule in the city was the outcome of a combined Anglo-French operation.”[10]  The United States government would turn a blind eye to this issue to a point. Office of Strategic service agents were fighting alongside British and French troops to keep control of the country side from the Vietminh. Britain in itself played a part in allowing the French back into Vietnam for their colonial interests.

From what we can see is that the softening of American attitude during the late period of Roosevelt’s Presidency. This is partly due to the change of the head of the US State Department, where the infighting over policy would be changed mainly due to the balance of power moving towards the Europeanists. More ever we can see this taking effect as the fledgling Cold War begins to take shape and the need for the US government to keep its strong Colonial Powers Allies on side to combat and threat from the Soviet Union in Europe. The Trustee policy originally set out would be dwarfed by American need in this early period of the Cold War, the Americans would have to please French interests but also not to seem hypercritical about their undisclosed “Imperial” possessions in Japan and the Philippines. With this taken into account it can be said Truman did let the French back into Indochina, but only on the grounds of the advice given and the global political issue

Bibliography

Bradley P. Mark and Young B. Marilyn. Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2008)

Ferrell H. Robert. Off the Record The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (University of Missouri Press, 1997)

Gardner C. Lloyd. Approaching Vietnam From World War II Through Dienbienphu 1941-1954 ( London: W.W.Norton & Company Ltd, 1988)

George C. Herring, “The Truman Administration and the Restoration of French Sovereignty in Indochina”, Diplomatic History, 1/2, 1977, pp.97-117

Martin Thomas, review of Mark Lawrence, Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), H-Diplo, 2006.

Schulzinger D. Robert. A Time for War The United States and Vietnam 1941-1975 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)

Springhall John. ‘Kicking out the Vietminh’: How Britain Allowed France to Reoccupy South Indochina, 1945–46, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol 40(1), pp.115–130

The Pentagon Papers Gravel Edition Volume 1 Chapter I, “Background to the Crisis, 1940-50,” pp. 1-52. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971) http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pentagon/pent1.html

Footnotes


[1] Schulzinger D. Robert. A Time for War The United States and Vietnam 1941-1975 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).,pg13

[2] The Pentagon Papers Gravel Edition Volume 1 Chapter I, “Background to the Crisis, 1940-50,” pp. 1-52. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971) http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pentagon/pent1.html

[3] Schulzinger D. Robert. A Time for War The United States and Vietnam 1941-1975 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).,pg16

[4] The Pentagon Papers Gravel Edition Volume 1 Chapter I, “Background to the Crisis, 1940-50,” pp. 1-52. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971) http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pentagon/pent1.html

[5] The Pentagon Papers Gravel Edition Volume 1 Chapter I, “Background to the Crisis, 1940-50,” pp. 1-52. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971) http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pentagon/pent1.html

[6] George C. Herring, “The Truman Administration and the Restoration of French Sovereignty in Indochina”, Diplomatic History, 1/2, 1977.,pg100

[7] George C. Herring, “The Truman Administration and the Restoration of French Sovereignty in Indochina”, Diplomatic History, 1/2, 1977.,pg99

[8] Bradley P. Mark and Young B. Marilyn. Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).,pg27

[9] Gardner C. Lloyd. Approaching Vietnam From World War II Through Dienbienphu 1941-1954 ( London: W.W.Norton & Company Ltd, 1988).,pg58

[10]Springhall John. ‘Kicking out the Vietminh’: How Britain Allowed France to Reoccupy South Indochina,.,pg7