751G.00/1–2151: Telegram

The Minister at Saigon (Heath) to the Secretary of State

secret

1287. With General Brink I visited General De Lattre in Tonkin January 18 and 19. First day De Lattre flew us over the “redoubt” he is constructing around Hanoi which has circumference of about 50 miles. He is constructing some 300 cement block houses where he will place machine and anti-tank guns and 2 reserve airfields. Work is being pushed rapidly but it will not be entirely completed before June. This “redoubt”, De Lattre insists, is not for defense against VM but against possible Chinese invasion which he still believes to be at least several months off. Following day flew and jeeped over recent battle area of Vinh Yen and Phuoc Yen. Very obviously French Union troops had fought with supreme gallantry but it was their superiority in aviation and artillery that threw back VM. According French accounts, VM attacked in this area with 21 battalions French defenders only numbering 6 or 7 battalions. French losses were extremely high. In case of a mobile reserve unit of 3 battalions totalling around 2,000 men, there were 540 casualties.

A supplétif battalion made up of Muongs Thais from the tiger hunting country fought with great success and minimum losses. VM losses were undoubtedly much heavier and the estimate of at least thousand VM killed is probably not excessive. Several hundred prisoners were taken and total wounded is doubtless still higher. Use of napalm furnishd by MDAP was one decisive factor in French holding. French Union troops and officers I saw looked battle-weary but apparently morale was high. De Lattre told me his first public declarations that French Union forces would not yield an inch of terrain and his action in stopping evacuation of Hanoi was to strengthen morale; he had not then been sure the French forces could hold against VM. Now he insists that he is certain of being able withstand VM attacks but he must receive promptly necessary reinforcements from French. Contrary his statement few days ago that he would ask only for few battalions, he now insists that having observed the fanatic fighting spirit and seeing the excellent tactical direction of VM troops, he will need at least division and half. If French Government will not furnish them then he would resign his command. These reinforcements would only be temporary. Within year he would expect to have built up [Page 353]Viets national army to point where certain Viet units at least could take place of French troops.

De Lattre said he had no plans for counteroffensive at this time. For the moment he could only hope repel VM attacks. Furthermore, it would be great mistake for him to talk about counteroffensive measures such as the retaking of Langson. The French Parliament would refuse him any reinforcements if they thought he was indulging: in what they regarded as risky counteroffensive. There was opposition to the war in Indochina in France. Moreover, he did not want to do anything that would give Chinese pretext of invasion. For that reason he was against use of American training units. The moment, however, a Chinese battalion was identified as being on Viets soil he would ask for American instructors and troops too if he could get them.

According his intelligence, VM had withdrawn all their battalions to north for 10 day period of regrouping. They were extremely surprised and disheartened over their failure break the French lines. VM had been confident their last attack would be successful. His post commanders told me that the initial assault waves of VM were composed of recruits armed with grenades and machine pistols. They attacked in relatively close order and were followed by first class battalions of VM forces.

Governor Tri expressed the prevailing local estimate when he said to me “thanks to De Lattre it seems probable VM will not be able drive French from Tonkin. Had their been no change in command, VM would probably have been successful”.

Sent Department 1287, repeated information Paris 571.

Heath