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Vietnam Part 1 (aka the French Indochina War): Another French Revolution

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.

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The Malay Emergency 1948-1960:  An Assessment

The Cold War skirmish on the Malay Peninsula just after WWII has been said to have been a “post-colonial, nationalist struggle,” but there is evidence that it was somewhat more, and less, than that.  It was one of the first long-term modestly successful counterinsurgencies by Britain since the Act of Union in 1804, and used successful techniques known as “hearts and minds” to win popular support away from the insurgents.  However, there were several motives behind the conflict in the first place that went beyond the many post-1945 Third World struggles of  at nation building:  it was an extension of the generations-long Chinese civil conflict that ended a most important phase in 1949.  The Chinese communist-led Malay uprising pitted the Maoists and other crypto-Marxists against all those who would get in their way.

All insurgencies start from some grievance somewhere, so it is instructive to look at the situation in Malaya before the “emergency” was declared. Before 1941 the ground was ripe for rebellion, and some stirrings of rebellion.  European contact with the peninsula began with the first Portuguese contact in 1511.  By the end of the 18th Century the British East India Company gained control as a counterweight against the growing Dutch presence in the East Indies, and to prevent revolutionary France from exploiting the feuding sultanates that controlled the strategically vital Straits of Malacca.  The British found their new sources of latex and tin ores to be lucrative, and settled in for a stay by 1867.

The Malays apparently had little control over their own destiny.  While the colonial administration and the plantation and mine workers enjoyed a very high standard of living, most of the native workers were edging poverty.  By 1895 the last sultan of a major Malay state was no more than a figurehead, and the largest and most populous states accepted confederation status with Britain.  And just in time, because the British situation in the area was becoming desperate.  The lavish and powerful naval base at Singapore, built as an anchor against the growing German presence in the East Indies before WWI, was immune to seaward invasion but vulnerable to landward attack.  Worse, the British Army garrison troops were forbidden to train in the jungle-covered peninsula because it was so disease and hazard-infested for European troops.

By the end of the 1914-18 war European influence was restricted to Britain and the Netherlands, but China was beginning to affect events in the region.  Seeking external sources of support, both KMT and communist agents had infiltrated the large Chinese refugee population working in Malaya and Singapore.  The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was founded in 1920 by Maoists of the Nan Yang, also known as the South Seas Communist Party, a fairly obscure study-group-style movement with little power, and little heard of until the 1930s.  Both the KMT government and the Chinese communists encouraged various anti-colonial movements in the East Indies and Indochina, even while they were at each other’s throats.

When war with Germany began in 1939 the flow of German arms to China (the KMT government was Germany’s biggest overseas customer) came to an end, and with it the trickle of support to the Malay nationalist movements.  The two Chinese factions joined forces when Japan invaded China, but their influence was beginning to wane as Japanese agents fomented the ideals of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in 1940, and soon the Chinese were again at odds with each other in Malaya.

The Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 triggered open civil war between the factions, but the communists were getting help.  The MCP formed a front group called the Anti-Enemy Backing-Up Society (AEBUS) that received arms and training from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  In 1942 the MCP also formed the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Union and Forces (MPAJUF) that, with the AEBUS, fought the Japanese at the far end of a very long logistical tether.  With practically no supplies coming in the disparate groups did considerable damage to Japanese efforts, but Japan had no trouble recruiting sizable security forces from among the Malays.

In August 1942 the MCP leadership was arrested by Japanese authorities and large numbers executed, but Leninist party Secretary Lai Peck and his Stalinist assistant Chen Ping survived.   While the nationalist insurgency continued in a dispersed fashion, the communist effort was centrally and tightly controlled, not risking cadres in combat but exposing them occasionally to safer raids.  The MCP guerrillas also spent a great deal of resources in killing informers and reeducating recalcitrants who deviated from the party line.  When Japan surrendered and the SOE supplies ended, the MCP had some 7,000 highly trained and disciplined cadres.  Soon after the British returned to Malaya Lai Peck disappeared with the MCP treasury, and Chen Ping was left in the vacuum.

Taking advantage of the administrative confusion after the war, the MCP organized labor strikes and guerrilla raids to coordinate with the 100th anniversary of the 1848 revolutions that so inspired Marx and Engels.  They also introduced an organization called Min Yuen; a peacetime version of the Anti-Japanese Union, as a political front to coordinate a shadow government. The British reaction to the violence began with a conventional military response of large units in sweeps through unfamiliar territory that had practically no effect other than to embolden the guerrillas.  After ineffectively bungling up through 1950, the Korean conflict brought new prosperity to Malaya, and new attention to the insurgency as a communist Chinese effort to destabilize Asia.  While Chen Ping apparently wanted to liberate Malaya, there’s no evidence that Mao had a mind for a presence in the Straits of Malacca.

But no matter, because a distinct change in strategy was yielding results by late 1951.  While population control measures such as food rationing and strict curfews were imposed on the villages that supplied the guerrillas, the army turned to more auxiliaries, intelligence-gathering, police and small-unit operations that began to yield results by the end of 1951.  By 1953 MCP recruiting was less than half what it had been in 1950, and guerrilla casualties to starvation began to outnumber those to combat.   Local elections were held in 1955, when the combat phase of the British operation was at an end; a national government was in place by 1957; the consolidation of government control was complete by 1960.

Chen Ping, however, wasn’t done.  He and a few hundred of his followers retreated to the Malay-Thai border and operated an insurgency from there at least until the mid 1970s, concentrating his efforts on the 40% of Malaya’s ethnic Chinese population.  He was never captured, and the MCP still raids into Johore, mostly attacking the economic infrastructure of Malaysia.

While ultimately successful in keeping a communist-dominated group from controlling the Straits of Malacca, the British counterinsurgency was a mechanistic one that failed to address the root of the problem: discord among the ethnic Chinese and the refugees from the Chinese mainland that was about 40% of Malaya’s population, and that still boils over today.  While the MCP is a legal organization in modern Malaysia, its renegade counterpart is pirate band in the Straights, responsible for billions in shipping losses and a twenty-fold increase in insurance rates in forty years.  It boasts of control of large parts of the most rugged country close to Thailand, but exercises it only occasionally.  While the decentralized counterinsurgency approach the British used  to stabilize the country were effective, the problem of the large ethnic Chinese population remains..  Modern Malaysia may have to deal with a wider problem again soon.

Sources

Asprey, Robert, War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History, Volumes 1 and 2.  New York: Doubleday and Company, 1975.

Black, Jeremy, War Since 1945.  New York: Reaktion Books, 2006

Carver, Michael, War Since 1945.  New York: Prometheus Books, 1990

Kensington, Roger LTC (Ret) Special Air Service, British Army (Maintenance supervisor, MinePro Services Malaysia (a division of P&H Mining Equipment), personal interview with the author, July 2010.

Marston, Daniel, and Carter Malcasian (eds), Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare.  Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008.

Pye, Lucian W., Guerrilla Communism and Malaya–Its Social and Political Meaning.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956.