French Indochina

Relief map of French Indochina

During the 19th century, the French gained control of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. These were collectively known as French Indochina, which the French regarded as "from all points of view, the most important, the most developed and the most prosperous of our colonies" with total investments of $384,200,000 (Hammer 1966.)  The total area was 287,000 square miles (924,000 km2) with a prewar population estimated at 23 million persons. Of these, some 40,000 were Europeans. Annual exports before the war averaged about 1.6 million tons of coal (much of it high-quality anthracite), 1.4 million tons of rice, half a million tons of corn, 140,000 tons of cement, and 60,000 tons of rubber.

Vietnam, which was the most heavily populated of the three colonies (about 19 million persons), was further subdivided into Tonkin in the north, Annam in the center, and Cochin China in the south. However, all three regions share a common language and culture, which is closely related to that of southern China. The predominant religion was Mahayana Buddhism. The country was ruled by the Chinese for over a thousand years before breaking away in 938 C.E. with the establishment of an imperial dynasty at Hue in Annam. The Mekong River delta in Cochin China and the Red River delta in Tonkin are both major rice-producing regions, and the Red River delta was one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Vietnam is separated from Laos and Cambodia by rugged highlands infested with malaria, and the three million Khmers of Cambodia and the one million Laotians were culturally closer to India than China. Ethnically they resembled the Siamese, and the predominant religion was Hinayana Buddhism.

The French moved into the area gradually, and the result was that French Indochina was an administrative patchwork. Cochin China was seized beginning in 1862 and was a French colony. Annam and Tonkin were not taken over until 1884 and were considered protectorates, although Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai exercised only ceremonial duties and had no real power. There was considerable animosity between the Khmer and Laotians and the Vietnamese, and the Khmer and Laotian rulers had voluntarily turned to the French for protection against the Vietnamese. Cambodia became a protectorate in 1863 and the kingdom of Luang Prabang in 1893, with the rest of Laos subject to direct French rule.

The Japanese Occupation. Japanese pressure on French Indochina began in 1939 with the seizure of Hainan and the Spratly Islands. The Japanese press denounced the French for permitting military supplies to reach the Chinese over the railroad from Hanoi to Kunming, and the railroad was bombed in April. When France capitulated to the Germans in 1940, the governor general of French Indochina, General Catroux, was sympathetic towards the Free French. However, on June 19, Catroux was presented with an ultimatum by the Japanese demanding that the border be closed to all shipments of war material. The colony was militarily weak and neither the British nor the Americans could offer any assistance, and Catroux felt compelled to bow to the ultimatum.

On 20 July 1940, Catroux was replaced by Vice Admiral Jean Decoux, who was loyal to Vichy. In August 1940 the Japanese began to pressure Vichy to permit Japanese troops to be stationed in northern Indochina. Diplomatic pressure was accompanied by military pressure in the form of 5 Division (Ando), which began massing along the northern Indochina border. Although a preliminary agreement had been signed by Nishimura Issaku and General Maurice Martin on 5 September 1940, a Japanese battalion commander led his force across the boundary on 6 September, which ended negotiations. Japanese intelligence decrypted British diplomatic cables indicating the British were unprepared to intervene to help the French, and on 23 September the Japanese crossed the border in force. The French, whose positions at Lang Son and Dong Dang crumbled under attack by Japanese tanks and infantry, asked for a cease fire and a reopening of negotiations. They submitted to Japanese demands in October, allowing 6000 Japanese troops to be stationed at three bases, while the Emperor issued a rescript describing the attack on Lang Son as an unfortunate but unimportant error. The United States responded to the Nishimura-Martin Agreement by embargoing scrap metal to Japan and loaning $25 million to the Kuomintang, and the British reopened the Burma Road.

The French position in Indochina continued to become more precarious. Some of the French colonial troops who had deserted at Lang Son joined a brief guerrilla insurrection, which ended with the capture and execution of guerrilla leader Tran Tung Lap. Guerrilla activities in the Tonkin highlands never really ceased thereafter. Thailand, encouraged by French weakness, attacked French Indochina in early 1941 to recover ethnically Thai regions on the west bank of the Mekong River and three rich rice-growing provinces in western Cambodia. Japan again pressured the French to yield up the disputed border regions in spite of a French naval victory at the Battle of the Gulf of Siam on 17 January 1941.

On 21 July 1941, Japan occupied southern Indochina. Though the Vichy administration had agreed to allow 40,000 troops into the region, the Japanese sent in about 125,000 men. Ten days later American intelligence intercepted and decoded a message from the Japanese Foreign Ministry to diplomats abroad stating that (Prange 1981):

Commercial and economic relations between Japan and third countries, led by England and the United States, are gradually becoming so horribly strained that we cannot endure it much longer. Consequently, our Empire, to save its very life, must take measures to secure the raw materials of the South Seas. Our Empire must immediately take steps to break asunder this ever-strengthening chain of encirclement which is being woven under the guidance and with the participation of England and the United States, acting like a cunning dragon seemingly asleep. This is why we decided to obtain military bases in French Indo-China and to have our troops occupy that territory....

This proved to American leaders that Japan's assurances that the occupation of French Indochina was not as a springboard for further conquests were false. The United States, Britain, and the Netherlands had already responded with an oil embargo two days after the occupation. This was one of the immediate causes of the Pacific War. By the time war broke out in the Pacific, Japan was in thorough control of French Indochina, though the French administration was left in place. Bases in French Indochina played a key role in the early Japanese offensives. In fact, the availability of air bases in French Indochina to cover the Malaya operation meant that the Japanese carrier force was freed to carry out the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

French Indochina during the Pacific War. Although the Japanese left the French in nominal control of the countryside, they targeted the population with propaganda meant to promote the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The French responded with their own propaganda, as well as such concessions as increasing the use of Vietnamese in schools, a program of public works, and grants of greater ceremonial powers to Emperor Bao Dai of Vietnam and the kings of Cambodia and Luang Pradang. The French also began a youth movement, but this backfired, becoming a hotbed of Vietnamese nationalism.

The Allies recruited a small number of agents in French Indochina, including a crewman on the liner Maréchal Joffre who reported on Japanese activities in Saigon to the U.S. Navy and at least one other agent who reported the movement of Japanese paratroops to French Indochina in early 1942 to the Dutch.

Japanese abuses included the seizure of the rice crop in 1944-1945, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated one to two millions by starvation. Some villages in Tonkin, where Japanese demands for cultivation of jute and hemp had already reduced the rice harvest, lost 40% of their population. Meanwhile some 30,000 tons of requisitioned rice rotted in storage for lack of shipping. This catastrophe led to an insurrection by Communist guerrillas under Ho Chi Minh. The guerrillas, some 5000 strong, received some aid from the United States through the OSS, which identified with the Viet Minh to the point where there was some question whether the liberation they were seeking was from the Japanese or the French. The OSS attitude reflected that of President Roosevelt, who regarded the French as little better than Axis collaborators and had no intention of letting them return to Indochina. However, Roosevelt's attitude eventually softened slightly as he lost faith in the ability of China to act as a great power in the region after the war was over.

The Coup of March 1945. With the liberation of metropolitan France in 1944, de Gaulle began pressuring Decoux to to turn on the Japanese. de Gaulle feared that the Viet Minh would take control of the colony if the French were not seen to be contributing to its liberation. The French began a resistance movement, whose leaders proved astonishingly indiscreet. Japanese intelligence carefully tracked the covert flow of supplies into the area, the stockpiling of arms, and the efforts of the French military to disperse its forces in the countryside, where they could be less easily isolated by any sudden Japanese actions. These activities merely prompted the Japanese to act suddenly and forcefully.

Already distrustful of the French colonial administration, and anxious to move troops from northern French Indochina into China proper to assist with the Ichi-go offensive, the Japanese acted first. On 9 March 1945 they arrested most of the French civil and military leaders in the colony, massacred any that resisted (such the 450-man garrison of Long San, who were machine gunned after surrendering and the survivors bayoneted), and installed a puppet government under Bao Dai. French casualties were about 1000 killed and another 8500 taken prisoner. There had been some warning of the coup, and General Sabattier, commanding French troops in Tonkin, quietly left for his mountain headquarters the day before the coup. Troops led by General Alessandri attempted to escape across country to China. The British were eager to help, but the Americans were reluctant to offer any assistance, leading to one of the most bitter disagreements between the two allies during the war. de Gaulle raged at the American ambassador: "What are you driving at? Do you want us to become, for example, one of the federated states under the Russian aegis?" Roosevelt seemed so eager to end French control of Indochina that he was willing to let them be ejected by the Japanese. In the end, Wedemeyer cited lack of logistical capability to justify the lack of American assistance to the French. Sabattier was abandoned to the Japanese, while some 5000 of Alessandri's troops made it to China without Allied assistance.

Bao Dai declared the independence of Vietnam on 10 March 1945, and was imitated by King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia on 13 March and King Sisavang Vong of Luang Pradang in April. However, the Japanese remained firmly in control, and they denied Bao Dai control of Cochin China. The Japanese encouraged the intensely nationalistic Cao Dai religious movement in Cochin China but found it difficult to control. The Japanese finally turned Cochin China over to Bao Dai in the final days of the war.

The Americans blocked efforts by de Gaulle to deploy additional troops to Asia, and French agents dropped by parachute were murdered by the Viet Minh. The turf war between Wedemeyer and Mountbatten over who had responsibility for Allied activities in French Indochina was resolved by dividing the colonies at the 16th parallel. Esler Dening, Mountbatten's political adviser, prophetically noted that "The division of French Indochina by the parallel of 16 degrees north ... is going to cause a lot of trouble."

With the Japanese surrender, the puppet government of Bao Dai collapsed. North of the 16th parallel, the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh quickly organized an offensive against the Japanese and took control of Hanoi on 2 September 1945, which is now celebrated as Vietnamese Independence Day. Bao Dai formally abdicated his throne in favor of the Viet Minh government on 26 August. The area south of the 16th parallel was controlled by a United Front of Caodaists and other nationalists that had only a small Communist element and was reluctant to relinquish authority to Ho Chi Minh. The arrival of the British on 12 September, with orders to disarm the Japanese but avoid becoming entangled in local affairs, took a different turn when General Gracey decided that his troops must make some effort to keep order. This helped pave the way for the return of the French and the First Indo-China War.


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