One of America's leading scholars on the Vietnam War talks about how France and the US clashed during the Cold War, largely over Indochina.
Hello everyone. This is your host Gary. Today’s special episode is an interview with Dr. Robert Buzzanco about France in the Cold War. Before we dive into that I would like to recommend another podcast that compliments this episode, Assassinations Podcast. Each series of Assassinations Podcast deals with a different famous assassination. There are already episodes on Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba, two victims of high level Cold War politics. But if you want something farther in the past there’s an episode on Mary Queen of Scots who was married in the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral and briefly was Queen of France, and all of the intrigue she faced due to religious tensions in Europe can be found in their series. Every era has its high profile murder and none tells them better than Assassinations Podcast. So be sure to check them out.
Today’s episode is a conversation I had with Dr. Robert Buzzanco. Since graduating from Ohio State University. He has written or edited three books on the Vietnam War and the American home front. During this period his book Masters of War Military Descent and Politics in the Vietnam Era was published by Cambridge University Press and won the Steward L. Burnath prize awarded by the Society of Historians of American Foreign relations. I can personally vouch for the book as Masters of War is one of the finest books I have ever read on Vietnam as it is fantastically detailed yet written so clearly that anyone can understand it. Dr. Buzzanco,s companion book Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life is another fantastic work and one of the best books available on the American home front during the war. Today we talk about France and its role in the Cold War. The Cold War is often depicted as a struggle between the democratic capitalist West led by the United States, against the totalitarian communist Soviet Union led by Russia. The truth is that the Cold War was far more nuanced. Probably the most important internal problem the U.S. led coalition faced was France. After World War II Britain, Italy, West Germany, Canada and much of the Western world accepted that the United States was their leader due to its enormous economy military and technological supremacy. France especially under Charles de Gaulle refused to accept that they were a secondary power unlike the British who gave up their colonies with relatively little bloodshed. The French government would fight bloody wars in Indo-China and Algeria that claimed the lives of millions as France refused to give up its empire. Furthermore, France routinely rebuked U.S. led policies to create a global economic and political unit to counter the Soviet bloc. Just as Russia and China had their own internal struggle, so too did the United States and France who vehemently struggled against each other as France refused to be subordinate to the new global superpower. I hope you enjoy this informative and highly entertaining conversation I had with one of America’s leading scholars on the topic.
Hello and welcome to the French History podcast. My name is Gary Girod. France and America’s Cold War. With Dr. Robert Buzzanco
First of all I want to say thank you very much Professor Buzzanco for offering your time for this podcast. So today we’re going to be talking about the United States and France during the Cold War. And I think one thing which our listeners may not be aware of, at least for those who are more casually into history, is that France and the United States were not one cohesive unit during the Cold War, is that right to say.
Oh absolutely. The U.S. French relations during the war weren’t great. During the occupation of Germany the United States had way more issues, many more issues with the French than they did with even the Soviet Union. I mean, it’s obviously very controversial to give France an occupation zone anyway in Germany. And so the U.S. and the French were quite often at loggerheads over the kind of the administration of the Germans on there and eventually they unified it but, and then, you know, France was important to the United States because France and Italy both, all over Europe actually, but France and Italy in particular had legitimate leftist political parties which were doing quite well in democratic elections. And that really terrified the Americans, so you had like, who was it Blum, I think, in France; with a socialist and ( 5:24 ) in Italy. And so immediately the United States was really kind of, you know, kind of alarmed that this Democratic Left had emerged and was doing quite well in elections. So very early on with regard to France the United States began sending like CIA teams later, and then actually American unions because, you know, the French left was so strongly centered in the CTT. American unions began to send representatives with a lot of money, briefcase of money over to create alternatives to the Communist Unions and did quite an effective job of it. I mean, so the Americans and the French yes started off because of the fear of the left on bad terms and then after that had a lot of promise with de Gaulle because the U.S. thought France’s days were passed. And I think that they thought the French were acting like they were still, you know had this grandeur and they were a global power and America didn’t think that and then obviously in Vietnam that became a huge issue. So yeah there was always a great deal of acrimony. You know the key point to what were too obvious was defeating the Germans. You know obviously everybody agreed to that, After that, secondarily but very very crucially important not really that far behind was breaking up all these European empires. The British and the French in particular so that these places would now be part of this kind of global capitalist market because you know these these are strictly old fashioned empires which are closed off and they have their own trading system. They trade in different currencies and things like that.
So let’s talk about that a moment because before World War II even ended the United States held numerous meetings on how the world would be run. Meetings such as Bretton Woods obviously being an important one. So what post-war plans would eventually lead to tensions between the United States and France.
I mean, this is clearly, one could argue after WWIthe United States had obtained global power because it had loaned so much money out, but the American role in WWI wasn’t that great. WWII was a different story. So the Americans saw this as the ultimate transit final transition of power from old Europe to this new America. And and obviously the Europeans had a different conception of it. Americans want to create this new global world with institutions like Bretton Woods, which will include Britain and France. Britain and France is still incredibly important to the United States economically as America’s main partner for trade and for investment. And there’s obviously very close cultural bonds that have existed for centuries already. So it wasn’t like they were trying to cut the British and the French out or anything like that. But clearly the United States saw itself as a global leader and these institutions now expected everybody to kind of follow American lead. So when they created these institutions they were based on, you know, kind of certain specific American criteria, you know, private ownership of public utilities and you know, rules for investment and things like that. And Europe was organized differently. There were still kind of relics of the old kind of bourgeois economy, There’s a great book by Charles Mayor called Recasting Bourgeois Europe which talked about the interwar period and how a lot of these new capitalists who were involved in things like finance and global trade were trying to change all these European countries and speak about France as well. So this has already been, you know, kind of taking place in France where these new people who are involved in these global things like finance and investment and trade, you know, kind of global commerce and currency and things like that are starting to take power inside France away from the older elite who tended to be based on things like land or national industries or things like that. So it’s already going on.
Yeah. There is a really fascinating point how, you know, first the Americans came in to France with troops and then you had what was fifty thousand technicians related to French factories that came in and tried to revolutionize France with the washing machine.
Yeah yeah. Actually there’s a good book on that with Victoria de Grazia’s, Irresistible Empire. Well you’ve heard me talk about that before, you know, where you use dollars instead of coercion. And clearly that was the case with France. Now the American version of it is the French saw these Americans the way they made cars, the way they made washing machines and all that and they were like, you know what we are so far behind we need to start doing it like this the American version. You often hear that the French were just grateful for the U.S. to come in and show them this new way of having this kind of global economy. But that’s really important there. There’s kind of transition away. And so the United States sees itself as as the global leader.
And it is, it’s the biggest economy by far. WW II is just immense. And the United States as in WW I wasn’t affected the way Europe was during the war or wasn’t fought in United States. The U.S. didn’t have the kind of physical destruction. So it created these institutions like the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank and it created the dollar as a global currency which is really going to be an issue with France intermittently for the next 20 or 30 years at a level that I’m not I’m not an economist so I can kind of understand a fairly simplistic level but it’s a major problem because the French were always thought the Americans were trying to use that dollar to kind of gain control over French industry by not not allowing the French to change rates that just rates or anything like that because it was a fixed system so yeah there’s there’s a great deal of tension there. There’s a good deal of tension over NATO forces obviously. De Gaulle pulls the military out of NATO in 1966. De Gaulle didn’t want Britain joining the European market. So yeah, the Americans and the French had always had an acrimonious relationship. So you know, in more contemporary times when you like the attack after the Iraq war you know freedom fries and all that kind of stuff fits into a much larger pattern, you know. And the Americans are really aware of France and yes have been long term allies from it from the time of the war for independence where France the French navy played a huge role.
So we mentioned a couple of these the IMF and NATO and essentially what America’s plan was which was to create this western capitalist bloc ostensibly democratic as well. Absolutely. So how then did France resist that.
I mean to some extent you can only read it so much because France received Marshall Plan Aid France got money from the Bretton Woods institutions. And you didn’t have to pay back you know the United States canceled some WWI loans it made new loans and things like that.
So the Americans were able to use this this financial power to kind of make France malleable. You know I think, you know, the United States had created this kind of new system for Europe and the European countries kind of had to go along they had no choice. I don’t think the British were terribly happy about it but clearly publicly there was more formal resistance from from Paris than from London, especially on issues like Colonial issues, like Vietnam, especially where Suez which is obviously a major point of contention.
The Americans thought that the French were just kind of stuck in this old way of thinking this old imperial regime and you just couldn’t do that anymore. And so there was a great deal of disdain and I mean Vietnam is particularly acute because the Americans did not want the French to go back in and they just thought you know you’re wasting your time there we need your help in Europe. You know the Soviet Union is the only problem we want to deal with right now. We we don’t really care about some small country in Indo-China until the Americans and the French we’re at loggerheads. But I mean in terms of the economic penetration of France there’s not a whole lot they can do I don’t know what the trade data is and how many American companies went there or anything like that. But I do know that you know the American terms of those aid programs France got like 2.8 billion from the Marshall Plan which was a grant. And you know those always came attached with caveats like offset programs where you have to kind of put dollars away to kind of create a reserve or you have to purchase goods back from the United States. And nobody was terribly happy about that but they understood those were the rules of the game the way it was being played. Now in this new world. But I think, you know, the biggest thing was the United States had clearly superseded Britain and France especially Germany was defeated. But I think that superseded Europe now as its kind of global power and was going to tell people what to do in this new system. And, you know, that’s going to really, I think the biggest issues I think are colonial issues because you know breaking up these empires is critical. Breaking up these blocks where you have exclusive trading rights to, you know, India or Egypt if you’re Britain or China. If you’re France it’s really crucial. You know they need to have these places open so that other countries like Japan and Asia can can get in there and rebuild their own economies too.
So on that note let’s get into Indo-China since that is your specialty.
Well Vietnam I suppose but in any case. So on the surface I think people have a basic understanding that it was a conflict between an imperial power and a colonized people. Would you like to give our listeners any more nuance.
Yeah I mean the French initially I think the first French expedition came there in 1858 or something like that and within five or ten years the French were in control not just of all the regions of Vietnam but Cambodia and Laos as well which they called French Indo-China. It’s kind of funny.
They went in there and these are kind of old monarchical systems and they’re really not developed. So even though you have a monarch at the village level people really don’t know what the monarchy tells them to do because there’s really no communication. So these people are kind of living this very traditional society. The French came in and thought, oh we need to bring you all these great liberal values, you know, like democracy and this and that.
And essentially by doing that they created even more state control because these folks were just kind of do their own thing, the king left them alone and they paid taxes maybe, maybe they didn’t. The Vietnamese resisted. I mean we just didn’t want the French there. There’s resistance very early on from from, you know, the the late 1800’s.
You start to see attacks on, you know, the French who are invested heavily in things like rubber. And so there are, you know, you start to see that the French instituted a very brutal labor regime where people were kind of I hate using the slavery metaphor but it was really a horrible labor system. And then a lot of people—the work came out of the working from covee labor. So, you know, you’re arrested or you can’t pay your taxes or something, that you got to work on public utilities. There was an elaborate tax system that the French imposed. There’s a famous story by a Vietnamese writer called Neo Tatin and the title was When the Lights Put Out, but it’s just this like kind of labyrinth where you have to pay a tax.
Her husband was a jailer, her brother in law was in jail, I can’t remember what if he attacks then the guy died in jail so he’d pay death tax. And then because she did she only had coins and paper she had to pay a transfer fee. And so that’s kind of the way the Vietnamese looked at the French they heard the taxes and make us work in the rubber plantations. In 1925 Michelin Bill bought and created the biggest rubber plantation in Indochina. So there’s a great deal of animosity in this kind of patriotic fervor.
In the early 1990’s the kind of the most famous Vietnamese was a poet named ( fanboy chow ) and he wrote about that. I love this is kind of a poem but it’s really telling because he wrote this like in 1904. Ten thousand Vietnamese can kill at least one hundred Frenchmen one thousand Vietnamese can kill ten Frenchmen. One hundred Vietnamese can kill one Frenchman. In this way four to five hundred thousand Vietnamese can wipe out four to five thousand Frenchmen. Those grey eyed heavily bearded people cannot live if Vietnam is to live. So they’re already talking about this kind of advanced resistance which is, you know, is gonna involve warfare. And then people like (Ho Chi Minh) who is very famous ,you know, the kind of George Washington of Vietnam study found ( 17:34 ) a new found ( ) a bunch of them actually went to Paris during World War 1. So there’s this huge expat community allegedly, I don’t know if anybody’s, I think it’s probably true but allegedly Ho Chi Minh rented a tuxedo and went to Versailles and knocked on the door to try to get a meeting with Woodrow Wilson. You know, he would’ve been under 30 still at the time but then you know living in Paris then he and a bunch of people who would become famous in the 60s from ( a gong and a trunk in legal 18:05 on violence zap ) form the Chinese Communist Party. And that was formed actually in Paris. These guys were members of PCI and before that the French Communist Party. So there’s this long legacy of resentment and anger. The Americans had no clue and didn’t really care. You know, I don’t think anyone in America ,10 people in America knew about French Indo-China and about around the early 30s that the French forces the Viet Minh was kind of the military wing of it began kind of as a war of resistance against the French and the French we responded pretty harshly, The best military general in Vietnam( 18;47 Von wakes up )was a history teacher ,actually and his wife was arrested during one of these sweeps in the early 30s and put in jail, she died in jail. And that’s really what turned him into a revolutionary. And a lot of people had similar stories where, you know, somebody they knew was picked up in one of these sweeps and maybe been tortured. Maybe jail, maybe even died in jail or something like that. So inside Vietnam there’s a great deal turmoil. And then when the war came the resistance against the French, you know, kind of increased because, you know, France had fallen to Vichy so, you know, the Vietnamese could now go to the free countries or the Soviet Union of course because of the Chinese Communist movement. And so they began to kind of get some support as resistance fighters. You know there are Americans actually who were there later on in the war like in 1945 who were working with the Viet Minh. Yeah the Viet Minh were rescuing like down pilots and things like that because they knew their way around. And so France is still in control but then the Japanese came in and removed the French in 1945. And so the Vietnamese put forth I think so the Vietnamese now under the occupation of the Japanese rather than the French is very brutal a million or two million people dying from from famine in the next couple of years. But in the minds of the Vietnamese the French are gone you know. And so and then you know with the atomic bomb and all that stuff the Japanese are gone too so in September of 1945 (Ho Chi Minh 20:13 went to about Dong about 10 square in Hanoi )five hundred thousand people and any any declares independence quoting from the American independence, American Declaration we hold these rights to be self-evident all men are created equal but wide allegedly rights a couple letters to Harry Truman saying you know we have this independence movement you know we are communist we’re nationalist movement we want to have good relations with the United States no one ever acknowledge them.
Right. That seems to be semi common theme because I believe the Philippines as well had their first president copy the Declaration of American independence but then things took a turn.
Yeah, I mean nowadays, you know, for decades now you know America’s reputation in the world is not all that great but after WWII These are the guys who beat the Nazis right. And so a lot of countries especially these emerging countries saw that as the tablet as the model we want to be like the Americans. And so a lot of them reached out and won and had really kind of high opinions of the United States not so much of the French but France even after ho declared this independence.
The French came back in.
And this is apparently a time of great animosity between the Americans and the French of a lot of anger and resentment. The Americans wanted France to just help them in Europe. You know they have they had a communist movement in their own country a socialist movement their own country. They don’t need to be going into Vietnam. It’s not that important. You know I don’t know the French side of it as well. The stuff that people write in English basically it’s about the French Indo-China War and the military aspects of it. So inside France I’m not sure if there were other considerations in going why you know why go back to Indo-China. Was it to to reclaim you know things like rubber plantations or was it kind of, you know, this sense of grandeur. You know, we don’t want to give up our empire.
Yeah if I can weigh in as well, I have some of my own French expertise. I mean I’m sure they tried to justify it with ( 22:09 ) Right. Right. Yeah. Which for those who don’t know the ( ) it was the French idea that they were going to civilize the world.
So like manifest destiny of the United States kind of but yeah. But it supposedly has a nicer face. But I think that was part of the justification. I think the other justification is economics.
But personally I think it was almost certainly about grandeur.
That was all it was and maintaining their position as a world power because from my own studies and my own knowledge of the French in Vietnam essentially they only wanted to use Vietnam originally as a staging point to get access to the markets in China. And they tried to build numerous railroads to get from Vietnam into China but the British were having none of that. And so after WWII when there was the communist revolution then that door finally got shot.
So to a very large extent Vietnam was not very profitable and
that’s where the United States to because you know a lot of times you talk about these kind of economic incentives or imperatives. Vietnam you some rubber plantations and some tungsten but no there’s nothing it’s not oil or or or anything like that, copper, you know, some of the places where you know like United Fruit Company or Aramco nothing like that at all.
And the Americans actually saw Vietnam in the same way to them being almost crucial to the restoration of Japan after WWII. The Americans wanted Japan to be this kind of solid rebuilt industrial country. And especially after the Chinese revolution, you know, when China went communist Vietnam became very important I think for that reason.
But again it almost as a staging point whereas as a partner with Japan, In Vietnam itself didn’t really mean that much. So when the French back in the Americas we’re just kind of perplexed and apoplectic and there’s a radio debate in the United States over what to do. I mean there were Americans who wanted to essentially say, you know, kind of give France an ultimatum like you know we’ll cut aid or you know use leverage against them but that didn’t happen.
Essentially they thought, you know, we don’t want to piss them off we don’t want to get the French more angry because then they may not be so helpful in Europe and that’s really what we care about. And so with with some reluctance actually the Americans saw the French go back in in 1946 and initially the French and Ho Chi Minh actually we’re negotiating. I think it was Paul LeClerc, I think Leclerc, was the commander in charge of forces in Indochina at the time. And he and Ho actually got along pretty well. Ho was being attacked from other members of the Indo chinese left as a sellout because he wanted to make a deal with France essentially, you know, will take autonomous status within the French Union with an eventual promise of actual liberation. And he was being attacked for that. It is a great quote, excuse my profanity, but he was afraid the Chinese were going to come in which traditionally has been on the greatest enemy said “I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the next thousand.” So basically he said we can deal with them. He said the White Man’s days in Asia are dying out anyway. They’re not going to be here that long. So he and Leclerc in the French had an agreement in early 1942
( 25:25 the 14th blue agreement )which would allow the Vietnamese still in the French Union but it would have this kind of eventual liberation. The Vietnamese themselves weren’t real happy about it. They thought Ho is a sell out and then you know a lot of the French didn’t really carry out the treaty that way either so you had a renewal of hostilities and then I can’t remember the precise date but later in 1946 the French shelled Haiphong.
So I think it’s in August of 1946 the French shelled Haiphong and I can’t remember what the justification for that, I think it had anything to do with trade or maybe the Viet Minh we’re getting a, I think that might have been because Haiphong was a major port so maybe they said the Vietnamese were getting aid from the Russians, I don’t remember.
So they showed Haiphong and killed like 6000 Vietnamese and that’s generally what we consider the start of the the first Indochina war in 1946. And it’s kind of the classical, you know, it’s guerrilla warfare versus these French forces. The French had a massive military structure there. I think they had I mean all told something like over a million forces in various. Oh here we go. The French union forces which are French and Vietnamese were over 500000 by the early 50s it started about 70000 in the early 1940s. The French expeditionary corps was up to over 15000 in 1947 and then later the French created something called the Vietnamese National Army which had almost 400000 troops in it. So the French and they’re the Vietnamese who work with them generally in the south and the Vietnam has three different regions.( 27:29 Tonkin and I’m in Kochi China in the French Quarter China where Saigon is.) So that’s where the French were strong and that’s where they had the most Vietnamese support collaboration. And so you know if you look at all those units anybody almost a million guys in uniform a million combatants and zap and the Viet Minh have like four hundred thousand.
So it is this classical guerrilla war against this major European power.
And, you know, I’ve read a bit on it and I don’t think that the the French really gave much thought to the perils of that fighting in this environment against these guerrillas and really despise you and one national liberation and thought you know when they made that pronouncement for declaration of independence that they thought they were free. The First Indochina War broke out in 1946 and the French just , I don’t want to make a joke about the French military, and no it’s really striking because you know on the surface and the chapter in my book that I showed you about it is why. And then in parentheses I’ve not Vietnam because I once said why Vietnam and why not Vietnam.
You know it’s, I mean, this is happening all over the world. The stuff is going on. Vietnam is happening everywhere. I mean the British are in the process of trying to subdue India and the Americans are dealing in Iran. You know there is a big confrontation in 1946 and then not long after that you have Iran again and you have you know all these places got him on Venezuela there’s an oil crisis with Venezuela late 40s. So this stuff’s going on all over the world. Where these these countries want liberation they want to end their colonial colonial status and the Europeans are fighting back. The Americans are actually in that sense into colonial not really for any altruistic reasons although they use kind of the civilizing mission rhetoric as well of Manifest Destiny want to bring them democracy and all that. But it’s basically because these places have some value and I think a larger global system of investment in trade and commerce and manufacturing and things like that.
So let’s talk about that for a moment because we’ve mentioned how the United States was in theory opposed to French involvement in Indo-China.
And yet as you note in your book the United States was funneling money to France which was being put into the war. Do you want to explain why.
Yeah, I mean ,the amounts are really striking because the United States never cared about Vietnam Indochina never gave any thought to that and starting in 1950 I mean it is a significant amount of money.
One hundred and thirty million dollars from Truman which would be one point thirty seven billion today. Not only that but 1953 after they gave France a slap on the wrist. They approved an additional seven hundred eighty five million or seven point forty seven billion in today’s money.
Yeah. No it’s massive. And I mean it’s even more striking because that’s going to an area that was utterly inconsequential just a few years earlier. I mean, it isn’t like you know we’re going to keep sending more money in because the problem problems getting worse. It was like going from zero to 60 in three seconds, you know. And you know American historians, American scholars have still debate why the United States did it. And I do think to some degree it was because Vietnam was important in this kind of idea of restoring Japan. You know, as this kind of frame but a bulwark in Asia. But a lot of it which isn’t terribly satisfying because you can’t really put your hands on is the idea of American credibility, you know, right after World War 2 the U.S. is flying high, right. You know despite the fact that the Red Army took the brunt of the German attack the Americans were kind of seen as the victors in World War 2. And so, you know, the Americans and with these institutions like Bretton Woods and NATO the Americans thought they could kind of just kind of get their way. And so it becomes important within that context to stand up to somebody who challenges it even if it’s a small independence movement. And the same thing is happening in Malaysia. So the Americans they’re just kind of credibility is on the line. You know, we can’t allow our ally in Paris to to be kind of bogged down by this small inconsequential country. So we’re going to do whatever we can in order to show the world, you know, don’t mess with us. We will take action against our enemies and we will help our friends. And so I think to a large degree America’s support of France comes from that kind of concept which isn’t terribly satisfying. But like I say, you know, people talk about oil and this that you know there’s, that was kind of, there’s a potential there they’re still talking about oil and Vietnam is still potential. You know, in the end the rubber, the tin and the tungsten, there’s stuff there. You know, I’m sure that’s of some import but it’s real hard to make the case that the United States was trying to protect these economic interests that French economic interests. So I mean, in a sense I think it is. You know, the Americans just especially in this early years after the Cold War. And a lot of this takes place you know with with Korea going on to and you do see the Americans, actually Americans would often make the case not to get involved in Vietnam because of Korea. So they took kind of the opposite message from it that the American, you know, a lot of the Americans, the French did love the American military people are saying we need to deal with Korea. We can’t be messing with Vietnam. And so I think that’s another reason why mostly with money trickling trickle of advisers and things like that but nothing significant here. But that’s a hundred eighty five million in 1953 in Russia. That’s a staggering amount of money. You know it may not sound like it but what you said was 7 billion today. That’s a staggering amount of money for a country that was a very of little consequence, very small country. And so and it didn’t help, it didn’t work.
So on that note I think there’s so much to unpack there, one thing that I was just going to add that I didn’t get a chance to earlier is that I think one of the main reasons tying into why France wanted to maintain Indo-China has to do with the fact that if they gave up Indo-China then the entire rest of the empire could look at that and say Oh France is weak. They’re a paper tiger we can get out too. Most notably of course being Algeria. Yeah. And then so in the case of the United States perhaps this ties into what you are thinking that the United States has to exert its influence everywhere because if a country, I mean obviously Vietnam was not a rich country but it was a very populous country and so if you can have this one country going its own way then that suddenly breaks up American hegemony.
You’re absolutely right. I mean again I think it speaks that his credibility both in Paris and in Washington D.C. You know, we have to show these these little colonials that they’re not going to mess with us. In France, I mean, they have three major things going on you know pretty much almost simultaneously. Indo-China and Suez and, you know, the bigger issue Egypt and Algeria and, so yeah, I think that does, you know we you know become a very important point. You know if the Vietnamese if you know if the world sees that the Vietnamese can do this both to France and the United States then all of these other small countries are going to be emboldened to take us on. And I mean they’re getting aid from the Soviet Union after 1945 from China. The amount for instance that the Vietnamese communist nationalist, you know, it’s a French movement it really is a coalition movement. So I have no problem calling up communist because most people use that in the rest of way. I mean they just to me they just are as though Chinese Communist Party.
But, the amount of aid they got from the Soviet Union in China was really minimal compared to what the Americans were doing first for the French and then for for the Vietnamese government they created after that.
So I mean yeah, I think it clearly is this issue of credibility. We don’t want these people in not just in Algeria but really all over Guatemala, Iran, Egypt you name it we don’t want them getting the idea that they can do what the Vietnamese did. And you know I think that’s going to be one of the main reasons Americans take over. They just assume the entire role. And it is, you know, when you keep looking back and especially the first stuff I wrote about was about the U.S. military in Vietnam, you know, the guys who were actually, like have the task of fighting the war. I mean, nobody was eager to do that. No Americans thought it was of great value. They thought that strategically it was a mistake. They didn’t like the idea of fighting in a jungle environment against the Viet Minh who they respected a great deal. Actually they respected Ho Chi Minh a great deal. You know, all the studies that the Americans did, all the intelligence studies, all came back and said you know he was a popular guy. If there’s an election here he’ll win. So we are you know and the French I mean nobody likes an empire especially after WWII. So obviously the Vietnamese, you know, didn’t have a great deal of affection for the French.
Now there is a dynamic that’s going to become important later because the the Vietnamese is mostly Buddhist.
But there was a minority of Vietnmese Catholics and the Vietnamese Catholics almost all were part of the French government French administration and so it also created this kind of ethnic kind of conflict as well. If you were pro France, if you were a collaborator, there’s a good chance you may be Catholic too. A majority Buddhist country. So there’s that dynamic is going on as well.
And so, you know, people are and the Viet Minh we’re fighting a traditional guerrilla war. They were, you know, I mean, it was kind of small scale attacks but there were targeted assassinations of people who were part of the French administration. They went after Vietnamese officials more than French officials because, you know, that’s the message you want to send right to the Vietnamese don’t collaborate with these guys.
But yeah, I think a lot of it is just like you know, the French fear what you know the abandonment of Vietnam could do, the message it could send.
So, I wanted to talk about something that you had touched on earlier which is, how to phrase it.
So, I think there’s been a good talk about the differing American motives, but essentially, to cue in our viewers.
So, as we have different parties of Americans related to this, you note in your book quite powerfully that there were a lot of American military advisers who were opposed to Vietnam. Who said this would be a debacle. And yet even as military advisors were saying this the actual politicians were pushing to go into Vietnam. So whereas the military advisers would look at Korea and say look at how much this cost. Look at all the bloodshed on the other hand there were politicians who were aiming to go in and probably taking the exact opposite message from the past few decades, particularly I think the idea of what was that famous slogan, who lost China?
Yeah yeah. Who lost China. Yeah exactly
Lyndon Johnson later said that he is a hyperbole, but he said “Harry Truman’s problems regarding China will be chicken shit compared to what I have to deal with in Vietnam.” So that’s I mean that throughout the war that remained an issue.
So do you want to talk a little bit about the divide then between the military advice.
It’s interesting because early on it’s really kind of hard to find any Americans who are really all that kind of enthused about Vietnam.
And it’s always in the larger Cold War context it has nothing to do with Vietnam because nobody cares. You know I’ve heard before and I never checked this out but I’ve heard that in 1960 there were about a dozen Americans who could speak in Vietnamese, I don’t know if that’s true, you know, it doesn’t matter if the numbers are correct, it’s clear that that’s that’s not a terribly important issue. But in the early 50s there are a lot of American military advisers( 39:24 ) In the 40s, and many of them work closely with Ho Chi Minh and essentially said you know we’re fine with that. There were a lot of Americans who said Ho is not this dogmatic communist you’re portraying him. The funniest part is a lot of these civilians, and you’re talking about like Dulles and Nixon and people like that are saying well, you know, he’s just gonna be a puppet of the Chinese after the Chinese revolution which is if you know any history of Vietnam at all that’s insane. I mean, today in Vietnam if the government wants to get people riled up they just say China did something, you know, that’s their go to thing. You know, in China it’s like you know in the 1930s the United States talked about John Bull. The British are going to go into Texas. So we’ve got to go down there. We had to take Texas from Mexico. There’s a big big thing you know like in the eighteen forties. They got people all terrified that the British were going to go in and occupy Texas. So, in the same way China was always kind of the way to get people off so the idea that the Chinese were going to come in there and tell the Vietnamese what they do take a job was ridiculous. And the military officials you know who kind of analyze this and studied it, you know, we’re we’re really, you know, adamantly against it. The American ambassador in Saigon in the early 50s was a general Jalen Collins who was constantly going back to Eisenhower and telling him this is a horrible situation. Eisenhower wasn’t terribly enthused about it. You had a couple of people, I think, John Foster Dulles especially, was secretary of state at the time who had this massive insane view of the Communist conspiracy there everywhere. After things like the Truman Doctrine and NSC 68, I mean, that really does universal allies. So if there is an alleged communist anywhere in the world, you know, that the United States has a duty to do something and I mean Vietnam that’s not a hard call to make as the Chinese Communist Party, you know, they had a politburo, a lot of people when the war was fought wanted to sanitize the Vietnamese. Oh it’s a national symbol, it was and it was a front, it absolutely was. And in the early days communist were minority in it. But it was communist movement, was kind of more deliberate of national liberation calling for revolution.
So you think that it was set in stone from Truman. You don’t think that was Kennedy and Johnson making.
No. I mean by that time there’s so much momentum going on. I mean, at any point yes anybody theoretically anybody can step back.
But that’s not really the way it’s done. In the early 50s. You know the United States is pouring all this money into the French effort and in 1953 the French commander ( 41:45 )of grand theory to end the war of our concept which involves taking a bunch of French troops into a valley. And I mean it’s easy to make fun of because it’s it’s a dumb idea. But if you know what the Vietnamese did to get to the top of that valley till they shoot is really amazing because it’s actually really a tortuous hill and, you know, I mean, they were like you know, breaking trees and they’re pulling cannons up with pulleys and things like that but it was clearly a huge blunder. And so the Vietnamese laid siege to the ( 42:20 )and the French surrender in May of 1954. And again you know the Vietnamese were independent much like in 1945 and there was an international meeting established set up was already convened in Geneva to deal with issues including Vietnam especially Vietnam. And and this is when the Americans opposed the triumph of the Viet Minh but the communist countries kind of went along with it too. So that’s when they cut Vietnam in half. The French I think to their credit actually realized that there they were dying. And so they began immediately to kind of decelerate and de-escalate and start to get troops out of there I suspect because they understood that like places like Algeria where a bigger issue at this point you know they lost what are you going to do. So to that degree I think they’re way smarter than the Americans in understanding you know they made it a much more decisive move and decided to get out.
But you have to ( 43:21 )me clearly French credibility was I’m sure probably in a post-war low post-Cold War.
Yeah, but I think, I mean, I don’t I just I don’t know what my sense was always that Algeria was much worse. I think the loss of Algeria was the worst in a lot of Indo-China.
Right and then not to get too much to Algeria although I suppose we could. But the fact that there was state sanctioned frequent torture.
So I’m not, I think after WWII people just kind of accepted that some atrocities would go on.
But with Algeria going on in the 60s that caused such an uproar. But in any case so now we’re actually getting to the point where France is out of the picture. America comes in.
So one question which I think should be very obvious and perhaps this is my naïveté kicking in but didn’t the Americans realize that they would be seen as an imperialistic force if they took over and did
not as much as you think.
There was clearly a sense just kind of in the abstract that, you know, they’re going to look upon us as this hostile foreign power, direct reference to the French were few and far between. There were a couple of reports like in the later 50s which said, you know, the French forget one of the Marine commandant or not said, you know, look at what the French did. There’s a good chance that will happen to us but, you know other than any of these kind of grand schematic ideas about, you know, like how, you know, colonialists look upon conquering countries, coming in not as much as you’d think. I mean, there was very little sense that, you know, we’re just replacing the French. I saw it a few times but not much actually. The one thing that I still, you know, gets to me today, and in 1965, I’m jumping way ahead. William Westmoreland who’s considered the biggest hawk of the war, you know, but even with more understood that you write this amazing memo in early 1965 before the U.S. combat troops in and he was basically against it, he said, you know, if we do this we’re going to be bogged down, in this great line was almost verbatim, like the French. We will be occupying an essentially hostile foreign country. So in 1965 William Westmoreland, the architect of the war, the guy whose historic reputation is like horrible, even understood that. But I think by that time even the military guys and the critics, there were still plenty of them, understood the decision had been made. You know, people you know above them on the food chain we’re going to go and not allow Vietnam to be communist and at this point, I mean, Eisenhower was on board, Dulles really I think is a stronger character. But within the diplomatic community there’s a general idea and within the business there’s a general idea OK. We can’t let, it’s not even Vietnam. We can’t let these countries do this. Right. It just so happens to be Vietnam in this particular case. But I mean, you know, a year before the NBN to the United States had overthrown must attack the same year the ( NBN for ) the United States was overthrown Arbenz. And you know, in the end the British and the French are trying to hold onto whatever vestiges of their their colonies they have left. So there is a great deal of arguments in the United States. Another thing I’d mentioned a little bit earlier about the French collaboration being Catholic, when in 1954, Geneva the United States cut Vietnam in half. The northern half is essentially ( 46:45 ). That’s where his strength is. That’s where he was born. It’s more industrialized too. I call it inventing a country. One of my students wrote a book called Inventing Vietnam, in a sense like they physically had to invent it. And they did it, looking for somebody to run the place because every Vietnamese who had any kind of national credibility or national popularity was either part of the Indo-Chinese Communist Party or part of this front, The Viet Minh front. So even if they weren’t communist they didn’t qualify for the U.S. because they were part of this front which was clearly led by the communists. So they found this guy on the DNC arm and one of the things is striking about (GM) is that he was devout Catholic and he came to the United States and the reason he became well known is because he buddied up with people like Francis Cardinal Spellman and Mike Mansfield and John Kennedy and various Catholic officials and one of his brothers was like the emissary to the Vatican from ( 47:45 ). So because of that, the United States uses this guy because he’s a known product. He has this reputation with the French, while the French couldn’t stand him, he couldn’t stand France and he’s Catholic. So, you know, they’re not really concerned, so the United States puts this guy in and his family in charge. And I mean it barely survived because a lot of American officials including the ambassador wanted to get rid of him from the start but he kind of pulled it together and defeated his various rivals. And so the United States is kind of stuck with him. New York Times reported that American policy was sink or swim with no desire. So France by that time, I mean, made a fairly quick getaway. You know, they I think, by 1956 they had everything was gone. You know they wash their hands of it. And like I said, the Americans too surprising that we never really kind of brought that up. I think you know, and again there’s still this euphoria of WWII. I mean if you defeat the Nazis why are you worried about this ragtag Viet Minh group right. You know, the French a lot of it is a disdain. Yeah. Well the French out front but they’re the French and what do you expect. And you know blah, blah, blah and all that kind of stuff. So the Americans kind of assume the mantle. I mean, they were aware clearly aware that, you know, they were not popular, they were not welcome there, and that they would have to use some type of coercion until at least they got this government together, which really never happened.
So on that note then did the United States learn anything from the French occupation aside from maybe don’t go into a valley?
It’s funny because the U.S. military has a very profound sense of history. They do historical studies more than any government group, anybody I’ve ever seen actually. And after action reports, I mean, everything a big issue like that. Surprisingly not really. There really wasn’t this sense of let’s study what they did or, I mean I, don’t think I ever saw a report like making a comparison or anything like that. I mean there was clearly contact and communication during the war, during the first Indo-Chinese war between Americans the French but after 1955 I don’t see any evidence of that or even talking to these folks. I think the French wanted to get out. The Americans thought, you know what you guys, you know, we can’t trust you to do this anyway. No wonder you’ve failed. We’ll take it we’ll take it from here. And then it kind of went their own way, did pretty much a lot of the same stuff the French did too. It kind of took this thing that had failed. And I think the assumption was we’ll fail because it was the French not the Americans. We know how to do these things and in fact the outcome was virtually identical.
So you made the point both in your book and now that before the United States took over the war that the fact that France was fighting this war was a point of contention between the United States and France because the United States wanted France out but then the script gets flipped then it’s France that wants the United States out. Can you talk about how that led to a rupture.
Yeah I mean it’s kind of, it is this great phrase to flip the script because now the French think the Americans are wasting their time there when there are bigger issues to deal with including Europe.
So yeah, the Americans, you know, assume this mantle and, I mean, the U.S. there is a huge difference because, you know, the French had, I forget whatever those numbers, I just thought that there are a lot of French expeditionary forces French troops that the Americans didn’t do that. They just pumping money into create all these Vietnamese institutions. I mean by the mid 60s the Southern Vietnamese army the army and was like the third or fourth biggest army in the world well over a million way over a million troops.
So the Americans we’re very different in that regard.
They thought well we can do it by proxy. We don’t need to send our own people in there, you know, when I think, I don’t know, what I know French opinion had turned against Indo-China I’ve read a little bit about that but I don’t know if that’s just because, you know, it to a lot quite often at least in the United States people turn against the war because Americans will be killed. And if that’s the case in France where they could kind of personalize it, are our boys are being killed in Vietnam. French left actually for a long time kind of supported it and they thought Algeria as well various segments I’m not an expert at that so I can’t, I don’t have any more than that. But, you know, I don’t know if you know once the French were out if they just kind of washed it from their memory. Indo-China did they do that then it was there did it come on much after that or…
I don’t. If I did take a guess based on what I’ve read it seems like as soon as Indo-China was out.
Now you have this crisis of Algeria and that’s so much more important because you have a million civilians that live in Algeria that pretty much all had to flee the ( 52:38 new war). Not only that but of course you have torture. There is FLN terrorism within France itself. Bombings that take place. So I think, you know, one war just got overshadowed the other, it’s good. It kind of feels a little bit like today with the United States. Here you have Iraq versus Afghanistan where Iraq is just feel so much bigger, you know, the people for a long time just forgot about Afghanistan. You know, not to talk too much about contemporary Islam.
I mean, you know, I’ve read like, you know, just kind of generic general stuff about France and the U.S. in the Cold War, and yeah, really after the mid 50s, you know, if you look at the index that’s where Vietnam stops and then they start talking about Algeria and these other issues you know in the 60s especially with things like you know the multilateral force and nuclear weapons which is becoming the, you know, Eisenhower doesn’t want France to develop its own nuclear weapons and so he and de Gaulle are butting heads when they wanted to come back in 1958 I think.
He and Eisenhower, I mean immediately, de Gaulle wanted independent French nuclear force the Americans was like oh hell no. You know, and then when the Americans want to create a multilateral force on multilateral NATO force because De Gaulle again was leading this critique of the, you know, Americans have, you know, they’re taking over Europe it’s their troops as their airplanes, you know, we want control of it. And so he proposed a multilateral force including Germany so you can imagine how well that went over there. And so, you know, when there was always this bickering over Germany, you know. The United States saw Germany as the linchpin of Europe because, kind of was right. Yeah. And rebuilding Germany was absolutely essential, you know, to the entire European economy. And there was always bickering between the Americans the French over that. I mean, France, I don’t think it was quite as bad as Versailles where they wanted to just destroy Germany. But I mean it was clearly. And so we use the same way. I mean, there is a very healthy concern about what Germany might do going forward. Right. They both have endured 1871, 1914, you know, 1941.
So the Americans, you know, clearly had issues with the French. I don’t have any sense the French really cared about Vietnam. These kind of, sort of, the rearview mirror and then like you said they were dealing with well, Suez, Algeria and then these bigger Europe European issues the common market, nuclear weapon,s NATO, multilateral force, all this kind of stuff.
And essentially De Gaulle and Kennedy and Johnson they’re butting heads the whole time. There’s not a great deal of love between them as you can imagine.
So I should note you were very close. It was 1959. OK, 1969, although I guess you could say that you were right because he won the election in 1958. So we’ll give you that.
But on that note I did want to ask you how much of tensions between the U.S. and France was solely due to the personality of Charles de Gaulle. Now I’m not necessarily an expert on De Gaulle one thing I know though is that obviously de Gaulle had this sense of France as this great power that he wanted to restore. And he was also personally slighted pretty often during WWII.
In fact the Americans and the British didn’t want to invite France to the table when they were signing the peace treaty with Germany and essentially de Gaulle had to kick his way through the door. Symbolically in order to get there.
So how much of this tension between the U.S. and France was just de Gaulle do you think?
Yeah, I mean, I’m not a psychologist. I’ve read some stuff on that. I mean, clearly he has this view of France and its glory, restoring it to it’s glory and, you know, the Americans just think that’s nuts. You know the world has changed. And, you know, Kennedy is not exactly a modest guy and then LBJ and de Gaulle, I’ve often laughed about that because they, you know, you talk about a kind of doppelganger. Right. Right. I mean they’re both incredibly egotistical guys who, you know, don’t hesitate to look you in the face and tell you what they think. And so, I mean I think that clearly, you know made it more difficult because you have two people who have this vision of grandeur right.
And I think, you know, the U.S. was a lot more at that time the least credible because they had come out of WWII. And, you know, I’m sure De Gaulle was just appalled by this kind of American condescension. Right. You know, you guys, you know, you had your day but, you know, I never heard any specific reference tell, you know, what about Vichy.
But I’m sure that everybody, you know, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that’s hanging over everybody’s head. So yeah, there was clearly a great deal of tension I know.
You know, Eisenhower didn’t always get along either. And I don’t know what, I mean, and WWII I’m sure they had contact so it could be, you know, why it was a heavy European theater so it could’ve been a vestige of that. I don’t know that much about that relationship. But you know, as soon as de Gaulle talked about you know developing nuclear force and stuff the U.S. shut it down immediately. Absolutely not. You know and there was a great deal of tension over kind of rebuilding Germany you know allowing Germany into NATO and letting Germany have its own nuclear, non-nuclear force but its own army, its own weapon, and army and France, United States were always at loggerheads over that. And you know with Britain I think the issue were more economic. Know the pound versus the franc and stuff like that or European in the car or Britain and bread into the European market.
But you had de Gaulle and Johnson clearly didn’t get along and as the 60s went on, I mean, that as the 60s went on the French became a lot more critical of the U.S. in Vietnam. Essentially like you’re taking the global, I think was more the economy than Europe. I think you know that the Cold War in Europe basically reached with equilibrium nobody was really concerned the Soviet were going to come in and try to take over Italy and France and Greece or anything like that. But, I think was more that the American commitment to Vietnam was really kind of causing immense problem in the global economy. And the Bretton Woods system and de Gaulle early on wanted to get out. I mean especially that, you know, the fixed dollar, you know, everything’s pegged to the dollar this fixed rate and you all hated that. I mean, at various times where you wanted to devalue the franc and just get out of Bretton Woods altogether at one point he said the Americans were trying to take over French industry take over the French economy because I don’t want to go into the detail of it’s as boring as hell. But, you know, because there was a fixed system, you know, the dollar was always pegged to all these other currencies at the price of gold. So, in the United States was great deal of inflation. So, you know, the when the French and everybody else are buying stuff they’re paying a lot more for it because the dollars aren’t worth much anymore. So basically de Gaulle said, you know, American inflation, you know, Americans are using inflation to take over French industry. There’s a great deal of stress and pressure there. And that really blows up around 1967-1968. I have here, I showed you, earlier this Time Magazine cover from what is it November 29, 1968. War, money crisis and there’s a picture of de Gaulle with this kind of broken Franc on the cover. And so yeah, that becomes a real issue in that period. And I, you know, I don’t know how much personality plays into it but it’s clear at that time that I think both Johnson and de Gaulle really can’t stand each other. By that time and it’s certainly not making things easier.
So was there ever a point of, if not reconciliation at least where things improved between the United States and France during the Cold War?
Yeah, I think you know. even though ( 1:00:26 )there was a socialist and Reagan was obviously very I mean you know there was kind of I think a stability in French relations.
I mean, I would say you know the more recent period, you know, Bill Clinton and Obama where, you know, they portrayed, they presented themselves as different types of Americans. Right. Nixon was considered, you know, people in France like Nixon like people in America would get Nixon at the end. And Reagan was kind of looked upon with great suspicion because he had these kind of, he’s reckless with nuclear weapons and things like that. But I think, you know, especially when he started talking to Gorbachev and you had these these agreements on intermediate missiles and stuff like that. I think the U.S. relationship with all of Europe including ( French name 1:01 ) on who I believe was still in power and that in the late 80s did approve.
And, you know, it was actually, I think in my memory may be fading, but it seems to me that you know before 9/11 before, you know, France wouldn’t, you know, agree to the the American attack on Iraq. Things were fairly solid. You know, the first Gulf War went to the U.N. and they got the votes. So France voted to 1991. But, you know after, I mean after Vietnam. Yeah. Clearly clearly wasn’t great. And then in 1971 Nixon just wiped out the entire Bretton Woods system. De Gaulle is gone by then anyway. But you know, it was funny because in the 70s Henry Kissinger basically said, you know, our goal now is to restore Europe. I think he said, 1971 is gonna be the year of Europe so, you know, he made a lot of trips to London, to Bonn and to Paris to try to kind of start to repair these relationships which Vietnam had really doesn’t mean Vietnam. You know, i it’s bad for a lot of reasons right. You know, the United States, it creates this, you know, this turmoil internally 58,000 Americans were killed but it had a massive economic impact and the entire global stage because the Vietnam War began at a time where the global economy was going gangbusters. It was heated up. Everything was great. And then all of a sudden, boom, you take all this money away from these other projects and you start spending on Vietnam and then because of that you start running up these deficits and people start to cash in their gold and, you know, the famous thought because during the, there was a gold crisis in early 1968 de Gaulle sent an air France. You know usually when you make transactions they’re just like de Gaulle sent an Air France plane to the United States to literally get the physical gold and bring it back.
So I think that was when you talked about the personal stuff, it was a way of, you know, kind of, flipping them off. So he actually wanted you think he wanted the gold, you know, when he cashed into dollars not just a credit, but after that I do think things kind of improved an, you know, I don’t know.
I mean, my sense of French politics is that especially after the Soviet Union fell apart, I mean, that affected the goal the left, you know, everywhere. I mean, did it in Italy, it did it in France. So you know, my assumption there is that the left became less, kind of, left, you know, after the Soviet Union fell apart. And so you had these governments now which, you know, whether Socialist or Republican or Centrist or whatever. Were actually pretty similar. And the Americans, you know, seem to get along. It’s an age of globalization, there was plenty of profit and money to be made. There was, you know, 2003 the whole kind of freedom fries, you know. You know it was surrender monkeys or whatever.
You know people call she’s eating surrender monkeys. Yeah another Simpsons referee. Yeah.
But I think after that, you know, I think once Iraq started going badly the Americans kind of, you know, kind of, bailed out on the whole French thing you know, and they’re still like, you know, not Notre Dame this outpouring in the United States is still a huge area for American tourism.
And so yeah, I think there’s generally a fairly decent rapport. But Vietnam clearly was a huge problem, massive problem even after the French got out because, you know, like you said the tables were turned and now it’s France telling the U.S., get the hell out of there. It’s not that important you’re just growing up the global economy. Right.
Thank you very much Professor Buzzanco. This has been incredibly enlightening. Do you have any final words for our listeners.
Thank you and congratulations on, you know, kind of getting this going and getting more and more people interested in it. And, you know, I don’t know if knowing more about history ultimately is going to help us but it can’t make things worse because we clearly live in a global system now where people say everything is fake news and people can be shown evidence and they just dismiss it way. So, you know, talking about these things is really important, to kind of, let people know that there are people out there who study this and who analyze it and it’s not just a meme on Facebook so I know what you’re doing is really great. And so, you know, congratulations on taking off.
Fantastic I’ll make that as my tag line. This podcast, at least can’t do any worse. Thank you. Take care.
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