Free France, the British Government and the Future of French Indo-China, 1940-45

By Thomas, Martin | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Free France, the British Government and the Future of French Indo-China, 1940-45


Thomas, Martin, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


During the abortive US-Japanese negotiations of 1941, Japan's penetration of Indo-China was a decisive issue in the descent to Pearl Harbour. Yet once America entered the conflict, for the Allies, the federation of French Indo-China quickly receded into relative obscurity, there being little prospect of any decisive action against the Japanese occupation forces until 1944.(1) Though both overt and covert US-British military interventions in Indo-China were limited before the closing stages of the Pacific war, in the light of the Vietnam tragedy, it is little surprise that several, principally American, historians have been drawn to the Allies' wartime discussions over the future status of the federation.(2) As is well known, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw in Indo-China, particularly in the three Vietnamese territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin-China, the worst excesses of European colonial rule. From May 1942, Roosevelt cited financial neglect, pre-war political repression and a near-feudal system of agriculture to condemn the French presence in South East Asia.(3)

The stark contrast between Roosevelt's principled criticism and the later American effort to prop up French authority in the Cold War struggle against Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh coalition forces has nurtured the image of an opportunity lost. Far from becoming the destroyer of Vietnam, the United States might have been its saviour. The British and Americans were, of course, instrumental in returning French forces to Indo-China in 1944-45, both to assist in the final defeat of Japan and to oust the Democratic Republic of Vietnam announced by Ho, with his famous emulation of the US declaration of independence on 2 September 1945. But, while American motives in Indo-China have been heavily scrutinized by English-speaking scholars, those of Charles de Gaulle's Free French movement, and of the British government, deserve closer scrutiny in their own right. Thus far, only Peter Dennis and John Dreifort have undertaken this task using a combination of British and French archival sources.(4)

There remain several common historical assumptions regarding the Anglo-Free French approach to Indo-China. First among these is that de Gaulle was determined to restore the French empire intact in order to utilize a reconstructed imperial prestige in his quest for status among the victorious allied powers. The General's wartime rhetoric certainly lends weight to such a conclusion.(5) Secondly, it is widely recognized that Britain needed an imperial Ally in Southeast Asia in order to strengthen its own case for retention of colonies. In addition, British officials could draw favourable comparisons between British rule in India, Burma, Ceylon and Malaya and the rigidities of French colonial control in the Indo-Chinese peninsula. In both cases, policy was driven by narrow calculations of self-interest by the metropolitan power. Though these characterizations may be partially true, they leave little room for any considered evolution of Free French and British plans for Indo-China. This article traces the development of these Gaullist and British policies from the fall of France in 1940 to the end of the Far Eastern war five years later. The purpose is to indicate that Gaullist and British policies were more sophisticated and complex than might first appear.

Until recently, in France, detailed accounts of Free French plans for Indo-China tended to draw upon personal recollection rather than the archival record. Concerned by limited French domestic interest in the objectives of France's war in Indo-China between 1946 and 1954, three of the key wartime figures in French policy published accounts which derived from personal experience. The former Vichyite Governor of Indo-China, Admiral Jean Decoux, completed his war memoirs in 1949.(6) While revealing about Vichy policies and his relations with the Japanese military missions in Hanoi and Saigon, Decoux, perhaps inevitably, made little comment about Free French plans. …

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