- De Gaulle et le Vietnam, 1945–1969: La réconciliation by Pierre Journoud
Pierre Journoud has produced a splendid account of the Vietnam policies of President Charles de Gaulle and of France more generally in the period 1945–1969. Although much has been made of the role that ideological considerations—la grandeur de la France and anti-Americanism—played in conditioning French foreign policy in the postwar era, Journoud maintains that under Le général at least, pragmatic, realist concerns dominated.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, de Gaulle supported the resumption of French colonial authority in Indochina to contain Communist influence and protect French interests. He endorsed the resort to war in late 1946—by which time he had stepped down as head of France’s provisional government—until his “virage” (p. 11), or about-face, of 1953, which was prompted by the “international détente resulting from Stalin’s death” (p. 47). De Gaulle favored ending hostilities by negotiations thereafter, and he welcomed the Geneva accords of July 1954 as “the best [Paris] could hope for” (p. 48) under the circumstances. Following the attendant partition of Vietnam, de Gaulle and French decision-makers grew increasingly concerned about U.S. interference in Indochina. Especially objectionable to them was Washington’s support for the staunchly anti-Communist and fiercely nationalistic Ngo Dinh Diem regime in Saigon, which they saw as part of a ploy to edge France out of the region.
After returning to power in the spring of 1958, de Gaulle committed himself to protecting what was left of France’s interests in Indochina and even attempted to reassert French political influence. A golden opportunity to do just that occurred in 1961 when Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu approached Paris with a view to [End Page 154] improving bilateral relations to lessen their dependency on Washington. As France’s fortunes in South Vietnam improved, French relations with Communist authorities in the North worsened. “The priority given from 1954 to the South Vietnamese republic vis-à-vis its northern counterpart,” Journoud argues, “was the fundamental reason France had a poor relationship with its former adversary” (p. 90); namely, Ho Chi Minh and the rest of the Communist regime in Hanoi. To avert “losing” the North while currying favor with the South, de Gaulle developed the “central thesis” (p. 94) of his regional policy—support for political neutralization—and urged U.S. decision-makers to abjure military intervention in Laos and Vietnam. President John F. Kennedy was “not insensible” (p. 102) to these entreaties, supporting Laotian neutralization but refusing to entertain a similar solution for South Vietnam.
The triumph of Algerian revolutionaries in 1962 convinced de Gaulle that the Vietnamese crisis could not be solved militarily. After failing to establish a secret channel between Hanoi and Saigon in the summer of 1963, the French government publicly professed its support for a diplomatic solution providing for Vietnam’s reunification, even if under Communist rule. The Vietnamese had “already suffered a great deal” (p. 179), de Gaulle thought, and did not deserve being subjected to another war. The declaration portended France’s partial “disengagement” (p. 119) from the Atlantic alliance and its concomitant rapprochement with Hanoi and the nonaligned and Communist camps. The coup against and assassination of Diem later that year plus persistent instability below the 17th parallel vindicated, in de Gaulle’s eyes, his government’s stance on Vietnam.
This stance dismayed some of de Gaulle’s own advisers as well as, predictably, the Kennedy administration and its allies in Saigon. France soon became the “scapegoat” (p. 137) for all U.S. shortcomings in the South. Unfazed, de Gaulle dropped another bombshell, recognizing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in January 1964. Normalizing relations with Beijing, he believed, could expedite the “return” (p. 145) of France in Asia and would also enhance the prospects for peace in Vietnam. As Franco-American relations deteriorated “inexorably” (p. 149) thereafter, Saigon severed relations with Paris. In discussing this and other matters, Journoud stresses the active role...