Forty years after the Vietnam phase of our eternal war ended we might want to go back another 30 years, to Saigon in September of 1945 when it all really began. What follows is from the diary of a war correspondent in French Indochina named Germaine Krull. The full diary ends with these words:
The Annamites [Vietnamese] will win their independence because they are ready to die for it … It may be too late already. We may never regain face, but if we do, it won’t be with the assistance of machine guns.
Mme Krull saw the future way back then, but the new American president didn’t. President Roosevelt had wanted to see the French colonies freed. Ho Chi Minh had even worked for the OSS during the war, and sought our friendship as it ended. But Harry Truman saw France as an ally in the struggle against communism, and so he chose the machine guns. Millions upon millions of people have paid the price ever since, as our insane eternal wars roll on.
I’m posting below the last few pages of Mme Krull’s fascinating accounts of Saigon in September of 1945. The full text is available here as a PDF.
Nothing in particular happened; there were still fewer Annamites to be seen on the streets and almost all of them had left their former jobs and masters. For the first time, French women were forced to do all their own work themselves, which did nothing to temper their feelings toward the Annamites. This mass desertion, reducing them temporarily to the rank of domestics themselves, was the one sin they could not forgive.
A few British officers and I went for lunch at the house of some wealthy colonials. It was a magnificent repast, complete with wines and champagne, pleasant conversation’ and immaculate service. The cooks and houseboys were Chinese. “Oh, we could not dream of employing Annamites. You can’t trust them. What a relief it will be finally to leave this wretched country. If only they would let us have a good, strong reprisal, everything would be over in a few days. This same sort of thing happened in 1942, but we put a swift end to it. The leaders were sentenced and most of the followers arrested — that was all. It is the only way to deal with people like that. Force is the only thing they understand. Everything else is useless.
“Colonel Cedil isn’t ruthless enough. We hear that General Gracey is worried because he doesn’t have enough troops. If so, why don’t they let us take over? We could muster enough arms and volunteers. We have ways of making them wish they had never started this. In 1942, I was in charge of re-establishing order at X. Well, we burned a few villages, jailed a few hundred natives, sentenced their leaders and that was all there was to that disturbance. Everything went back to order and the coolies went on working as before. They don’t want anything else. They expect that of us…”
An Australian journalist arrived by car from Hanoi with a permit from the Viet-Minh. He reported that: “Everything is all right in Hanoi. The people are well off and the French are safe. This movement is widespread, however, and the Annamites will fight for their freedom. Everything is in the hands of the Viet-Minh and is being well administered. There is no fighting or disorder. There are a few British there and one French correspondent who can’t do much. Ho Chi Minh is a wise and admirable old man. You should go there and see for yourself. There wasn’t a single incident on the road from Hanoi to Saigon. The whole way was clear and with a Viet-Minh permit, it was perfectly easy to get by the few Annamite posts.”
From time to time, an Annamite dwelling would burst into flame. Women and children were fleeing. That night, French soldiers strolled on the Rue Catinat, a gun on one arm, a woman on the other. I have never been so deeply ashamed as on that day of September 23rd. When I returned to the hotel the faces of the English were expressionless and conversations stopped as I went by. I remember the horror and shame I had felt in June of 1940 when Vichy was established, but never in my life had I felt such utter sadness and degradation as on this night.
These men, who were supposed to be the soldiers of France, this undisciplined horde whose laughing and singing I could hear from my window, corrupted by too many years in the tropics, too many women, too much opium and too many months of inactivity in camp, they were the ones to whom the task of re-establishing “order” I had been entrusted. That night I realized only too well what a serious mistake we had made and how grave the consequences would be. It was the beginning of a ruthless war. Instead of regaining our prestige we had lost it forever, and, worse still, we had lost the trust of the few remaining Annamites who believed in us. We had showed them that the new France was even more to be feared than the old one.
The last ten days in Saigon proved to me that the French population understood nothing of the situation and knew nothing of the outside world; that it consisted of people who would not tolerate the least infringement upon their comfort and who also were incredibly cowardly. Never have cause and effect been so closely linked. The events of the 22nd of September determined the issue of the conflict. Everything which happened thereafter can be directly traced to that date — women captured and mistreated, men and children assassinated, Dutch, English and American officers killed, shooting, burning factories, mysterious disappearances, all these and more happened. The French, terrorized by the lack of foresight and motivated by avarice, were unwilling to give up even one piaster. They are responsible for what happened.
The Annamites will win their independence because they are ready to die for it. We must recognize this inevitable fact — in a month, a year at the most, we will have to come to an agreement with them.
It may be too late already. We may never regain face, but if we do, it won’t be with the assistance of machine guns. The “good old days” are gone forever.