In the distance of time historians look at the French experience of 1945-54 as a lead-in to the American experience in what would become Vietnam. This merging has become a shorthand for academics in and out of the United States, like slavery has become the prime issue for the American Civil War (when it was only one of the most visible), and the Moro rebellion has been called a struggle for independence for the Philippines after the Spanish-American War (submerging the religious aspects completely beneath nascent nationalism). But the issues in the colony were much deeper than simple nationalism, and began a path to yet another French revolution that would bring down the Fifth Republic.
France has had a fractious history. Since it became a unified state under Louis XIV the various regions have shown non-national sentiments every other generation or so, bursting out into full rebellion against the Bourbons in 1789. The revolution began with the spirit of “strangle the last noble with the guts of the last priest,” seeking to remake French society separate from the landed and imposed hierarchy that put Church and King above all else. As the revolution compromised just to keep society itself from spiraling into chaos, it ultimately just made things worse, especially for future colonies. The conflict with Europe from 1794 to 1815 provided the external threat that the forces of “revolutionary” nationalism used to forge a new kind of state: a representative republic. Under Napoleon Bonaparte the ideals of liberty-equality-brotherhood were extended to all those who would embrace French suzerainty. By 1804 the new-style state had an old name: empire; new wine in old bottles. The Church still dictated who would have a voice, but after the Terror, bureaucrats made the desired voice heard, and Napoleon recreated his own aristocracy whole cloth, to the resentment of many.
In 1809 France won its last war, negotiating a treaty with Austria after Wagram. Though Napoleon would fight many more battles, no other conflicts would go his way. By 1815 Europe was exhausted and the French emperor banished to a water stop in the South Atlantic. France had restored the Bourbons briefly in 1814, but wasn’t interested in the royal institution as it had been and went through a number of constitutional monarchies. The Second Republic lasted until 1852, when a Second Empire under Napoleon’s nephew, Louis (Napoleon III) was declared. Under Louis, Algeria became a colony in 1830, and in 1861, Indochina. France was growing her empire as a counterweight to Britain, Germany and Russia, but treated the indigenous peoples to modified forms of citizenship. As long as they adhered to French revolutionary principles they were treated as philosophical and moral (but not social, legal or economic) equals.
French adventures in Mexico 1862-66 taxed France’s treasury and the patience of her military establishment. Ongoing insurgencies in North Africa, Senegal, and Caribbean colonies magnified the multiple-tiered nature of French society, even while the “equality” of the revolution was being used as a bedrock of French polity. The disastrous 1870-71 war with Germany cost France little territory but great prestige at home. The Second Empire (technically) blew away with the smoke of the Paris Commune.
Meanwhile French law and law enforcement developed a multi-tentacle law enforcement structure that made future revolutions within France practically impossible. Layer after layer of information-gathering apparatus joined separate security agencies, each responding in secession to every riot and disturbance in metropolitan France. The Third Republic was practically a fortress of security organizations.
All this insulated the French from any thought that some of their “citizens” in the distant parts of their empire might be unhappy, but, in that remote event, France created a military structure to ensure that Frenchmen would never know of any unrest. The French Foreign Legion, created in 1831 to protect France’s overseas colonies, was unique for a time in that no French citizen could join directly, but where French officers gained rank quickly. They fought in every war and campaign France engaged i in every corner of the earth from Mozambique to Mexico, and from the Sahara to Saigon. In the 1914-18 war Frenchmen marched against German invasion, auxiliaries from all over were brought to the Western Front, primarily as laborers. One of these, present at the Versailles conference in 1919 with a list of grievances for his people that were never heard, became known later as Ho Chi Minh.
World War I frightened France. Though she declared herself a “winner” of the conflict, she was more a survivor than a winner. Her industrial heart had been gutted by German occupation, her best farmland blasted and gassed into muddy abattoirs, and one in five of her military age men killed or injured. The next 20 years saw her military primarily become fortress troops within France, and the brutal mercenaries of the Legion labored under a veneer of military law abroad. Heavy handed policies suppressed labor unrest with tear gas in the Caribbean and New Caledonia, machine guns were used on protesters in Senegal and Saigon. Legionaries, primarily Russians and Germans by 1930, had no idea that the very structure of French society made the French administrators of their colonies blind to the protests of their charges.
World War II devastated France, and completely destroyed her military establishment. Re-equipped by the Americans and British, only the Legion survived anywhere near intact as an organization. Other French Army units were rebuilt using whatever manpower could be had, but a fundamental rift in French military policy stayed. Those who obeyed the Vichy government’s orders to stop fighting in 1940 were labeled traitors and collaborators by 1944; those who ignored those orders were hailed as heroes, including the Legion. The French Pacific colonies never surrendered but were small; the African colonies split, but the North Africans eventually started fighting the British, then the Americans, then the Germans and Italians–following the loudest orders. Physically reconstructed after 1945, France’s military was a long time in recovery.
The Legion filled up with men from all over the world whose lives had been displaced and their countries destroyed, giving them a home and an income; all they had to do was fight France’s wars. These desperate men were sent to Southeast Asia under French officers who barely understood where they were, and were told to fight Vietnamese farmers, students, agitators and guerrillas under a flag that had proclaimed liberty, equality and brotherhood for over a century.
The depth and gravity of the disconnect between France’s desires to hold onto its overseas territory that did not want to be held onto was played out in a long agony from 1945 through 1954. Militarizing two essentially civil conflicts, playing for time, enjoying successes rarely and ambiguous or disappointing results normally, support for the conflict in Southeast Asia waned as the Cold War warmed up, Korea and China became hot spots, and Algeria became troublesome in stages. By Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the French were so weak in comparison to the Viet Minh that every draw was a Vietnamese victory. After months of preparation and weeks of horrific and one-sided fighting, the last French stronghold in Asia fell to the Viet Minh, who had been armed with the weapons of the Germans and Japanese who had humiliated her before. France finally found peace only after another republic fell and the disobedient hero of the 1940-45 war, Charles deGaulle, took charge.
The “first Vietnam War” was less a “war of liberation” from European oppressors than it was a symptom of the failure of French society to realize and appreciate that its high-sounding philosophy had to be evenly and consistently applied. Noble social philosophies forcibly applied by desperate men with nowhere else to go will likely fail, and military organizations with strategic direction at odds with social policy will always fail.