End of Empire100 days in 1945 that changed Asia and the world.

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  • France restored

    Pierre Grosser

    French Indochina policies from 1945 cannot be understood without taking into account the enduring legacies of the Second World War. France had to overcome the monumental trauma of defeat in 1940. Nonetheless, the country had previously demonstrated its resilience and capacity to rebound after every dark episode in its long history. Once again, French power and status around the world had to be restored. This was De Gaulle’s obsession, and in this aim he was largely successful.

    Firmness was the only option to restore French prestige – both within the Great Alliance, not least the United States and China, who were not in favour of France’s return to Indochina until 1945, and in the eyes of the colonized peoples, mostly in Indochina where an Asiatic power, Japan, had humiliated the former masters. Britain and the United States were in the same position; they had to restore their prestige after the humiliating losses of Singapore and the Philippines. Recovering Indochina was the only way for France to remain an Asian power, and therefore a world power. The war had taught that the required attributes of great power were huge territories and resources. Forgetting that in the 1930s Indochina was a strategic liability more than an asset, De Gaulle saw the French Empire (especially its African possessions) as an asset for reengaging France in the war and restoring French status in the world. Gaullists also aimed to be rid of the collaborationist and Vichy legacies in Indochina. Therefore, a kind of Franco–French war took place in Indochina in 1943–

    1. Numerous French ‘colons’ and public servants jailed after the March 9th Japanese takeover believed that this coup was a response to the Gaullists’ ill-conceived resistance in Indochina, and that they were the main targets of the Gaullists’ ire.

    Like the Dutch in Indonesia, the French faced a self-proclaimed indigenous government when they tried to restore their rights in Indochina. Indeed, they knew that some reforms had to be implemented in a world transformed by the war. On March 24th, just days after the Japanese coup, a programme was thus issued for a future Indochinese federation of five states (Tonkin, Annam, Cochinchina, Cambodia and Laos) within a French Union to be created at the end of the war. Independence was not on the agenda. France remained stuck within this anachronistic road map until 1946.

    It hardly helped here that, at the war’s end, France lacked the means to implement its goals; it relied on other powers for the materials, transport and even troops it lacked. Nor was a frustrated De Gaulle allowed to attend the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. There, Truman, Stalin and Attlee decided that, for waging war against Japan after the German surrender, Britain would be in charge of operations in Indochina south of the 16th Parallel, and China to the north. France could be part of the global fight, however, and De Gaulle despatched an Expeditionary Corps to Indochina. But Japan surrendered quickly, long before French forces arrived.

    Britain and China were expected to quickly move their forces in on the ground to disarm the Japanese forces, while members of the American OSS already had an active role there. When finally the British and Chinese arrived, they were not necessarily interested in French concerns, though Jean Sainteny in Hanoi and Jean Cédile in Saigon tried to make France’s voice heard. General Leclerc’s French forces did not arrive until the beginning of October. The inflexible Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu, appointed by De Gaulle as High Commissioner for Indochina on August 14th, only set foot on Vietnamese soil in November.

    Recapturing Indochina by negotiating, showing off and ultimately fighting was a big challenge at this time. Restoring French credibility as a great power thus triggered wars that devastated Indochina for 35 years and in fact downgraded French credibility in the 1950s.

    Pierre Grosser is Professor of International Relations and History, Centre d'historie de Sciences Po


     0824.7An awkward wartime relationship between the British and Free French, not least between Churchill and De Gaulle, had postwar consequences (Imperial War Museum #HU 60057)

    0824.8We have made an oath to reconquer Indochina
    just as Alsace
    René Pleven, French Minister of Colonies, October 1944





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