Chapter Three

The Indo-China War (1946-54)

The Indo-China War lasted eight years, from 1946 to 1954. It was the first phase of what might come to be known as the “Second Thirty Years War”. 1 In 1946 in Paris Hô Chí Minh predicted to American correspondent David Schoenbrun how the war would be fought and how it would end. It would be, he said, “a war between an elephant and a tiger”. If the tiger were to stand still the elephant would crush him with his tusks, but the tiger would not stand still. It would hide in the jungle and at night drop on the elephant and tear huge hunks from its hide; eventually the elephant would bleed to death. “That”, Hô confidently predicted, “will be the war of Indochina.” 2 Indeed, it played out very much along those lines.

The French did not fight the Indo-China War so much for economic reasons; indeed, by 1950 French military expenditures surpassed the total value of all French investments there. Political and psychological factors provided the chief reasons. Perhaps only with her empire could France be counted a great power, and colonial advocates argued that concessions in Indo-China would have an impact on the rest of France’s overseas possessions and that further losses would soon follow. One author has noted that for leading French politicians the fear of disturbing the status quo in Morocco and Tunisia discouraged changes in Indo-China. French leaders also launched the “domino theory”. As General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny phrased it in condensed form in Washington in September 1951, “Once Tongking [sic] is lost, there is no barrier until Suez.” During the Vietnam War the United States employed a version of this same “domino theory”. 3

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