Letter: Letter mischaracterized France’s Vietnam defeat

To the Editor,

Clifford Jackson’s letter in your July 18 edition notes the 60th anniversary of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and highlights Vietnam as a “victim of the west.” While I’ll agree with that broad overall description, there are way too many misstatements of fact in his letter to ignore.

After Japanese forces left Vietnam in 1945, France was not trying to “make Vietnam a so-called protectorate” with the “support of the U.S. and western allies.” France, in fact, had governed Vietnam and its neighbors Laos and Cambodia since the 1880s in one form or another. And, in fact, while the Japanese were the ones really running Vietnam during World War II, they actually left the French Vichy government—puppets of Germany—nominally in charge.

The U.S., both before and after WWII, were not fans of European colonial empires because they shut out potential U.S. trade and investment, but, in 1945, the U.S. had its resources tied down occupying and rebuilding Japan and parts of Germany and Austria and was hardly in a position to tell its wartime allies—England, the Free French and the Dutch government in exile—they could not return to governing Indochina/Malaya/Burma/Indonesia as they had before the war.

Plus, recall that, at this time, the Chinese civil war was re-starting after a seven-or-eight-year hiatus, and the U.S. was terrified of similar chaos, and possible communist insurgencies, in the European territories in Asia.

Yes, the U.S. funded most of France’s disastrous nine-year conflict in Vietnam, but it was more because the U.S. was in some way or another funding almost everything related to governments in western Europe in those years, and hardly because the U.S. or U.S. businesses were benefitting in some way. They were not.

Ultimately, the French lost at Dien Bien Phu because it was a strategically disastrous location surrounded by hills, but also partly because the U.S. refused to get engaged further and provide air cover or high-intensity bombing.

The irony is we got to that the following decade and helped turn the Vietnam disaster into a 30-year story instead of a much shorter one.


Christopher Bourdain,