Minutes of the First Meeting With General de Lattre de Tassigny, at the Department of State, September 17, 1951, 10:30 a.m.

top secret
de Lattre Talks Min–1
U.S. Participants French Participants
Mr. Merchant, FE, Chairman General de Lattre de Tassigny
Mr. Bonbright, EUR Brig. General Cogny3
Minister Heath General Allard4
Mr. Lacy, PSA M. Dannaud
Mr. Bingham, S/ISA Ambassador Bonnet
General Roberts, White House1 M. Daridan
Mr. Young, Defense M. du Montcol
Mr. Martin, RA2 M. Valentin5
Mr. Gibson, PSA M. Janot6
Mr. Godley, WE M. Fequant7
Mr. Hoey, PSA

Departmental Discussions With General de Lattre de Tassigny

1. Mr. Merchant said that there should be no doubt that the U.S. wholeheartedly recognized the vital importance of Indochina and strongly supported the efforts of the French and the Associated States in that area. U.S. policy remained what it was in May, 1950, when M. Schuman and Mr. Acheson first agreed to a military assistance program for Indochina and for a high priority on the materiel sent there. He felt that the discussion should emphasize several points: (1) there was no desire on the part of the U.S. to supplant the French in Indochina, either politically, economically or culturally, or to loosen the ties of the French Union; (2) the U.S. would be interested to receive an explanation of the relationship between the French Union and the Free States and of the degree of freedom that the three Associated States exercise within the French Union. Since it was the desire of the U.S. that the Associated States should gain the active support of the people, the U.S. would like to know the present views of the French Government regarding the French Union concept; (3) the U.S. would also like an assessment of the present position of the National Armies, and (4) it is necessary to perfect existing liaison [Page 507]arrangements because it is in the direct interest of both countries to keep General de Lattre and his staff informed of any mutual problems which may arise.8

Priorities for Indochina

2. General de Lattre said that he was aware that the question of Franco-US relations in Indochina had been fully discussed and, since there was mutual agreement that colonialism was a dead issue, there was no reason to discuss this question further. He would prefer that the U.S. take up the other issues on an individual basis. The real problem, the General continued, was that of guaranteeing priorities on delivery of military equipment to Indochina. Indochina followed in the wake of Korea—Korea received practically everything. Indochina what was left. Both President and Secretary Acheson had reaffirmed the priority now being granted Indochina but this priority was effective only after Korean needs had been met. General de Lattre pointed out that when General Allard had discussed this problem at the Pentagon on Saturday, he had been informed that many items scheduled for delivery in June, 1951 would not be delivered until June, 1952, and, in some cases, not until 1953 or 1954. The purpose of the General de Lattre trip to the U.S. was to discuss the technical aspects of the Indochinese situation with the Pentagon and the other aspects with the State Department and the American people. The main point was that the priorities must be effective in actuality rather than simply in terms of diplomatic language. Deliveries were not coming through on time, and unless this issue were resolved, there was no point in further discussion.

3. General de Lattre stressed the need for matériel and equipment, planes and ammunition, stating that the U.S. was urging him to make a greater fight to help Vietnam but that he could not give them necessary equipment, and without equipment there could be no war. The Vietnam troops should have 51 battalions, instead there are only 37. Indochina’s needs were small compared with the needs of war in Korea, yet Indochina was the only area outside of Korea presently at war and every delay in delivery increased the danger. As an example of this delay in the delivery of infantry supplies, the General cited the following statistics, as of August 1951: jeeps—promised 1363, received 0; large trucks (GMC)—promised 2673, received 143; small [Page 508] trucks (Dodge)—promised 1156, received 62; radio sets—promised 832, received 20; 50 cal. machine guns—promised 512, received 117.

4. Mr. Merchant replied that the details of delivery were under the jurisdiction of the military, pointing out that the U.S. faced the basic problem of the demand on its resources for its own troops, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff must make this choice. He thought it incorrect to imply that the General had received nothing because, in fact he had received substantial aid.

5. In the opinion of General de Lattre, it was the responsibility of the State Department to inform the Pentagon that if Indochina were lost, the results would be catastrophic. If settlement came in Korea, he felt that Mao, in order to save face, would immediately release his troops in an effort to gain a quick victory in the South, and at that moment all Chinese troops would fall on his shoulders. If he had the Chinese Communists on his shoulders in two weeks, 6 weeks or 6 months, he would be unable to hold the front. The question could be answered Yes or No; did the U.S. admit that Indochina was the keystone in Southeast Asia? If the answer was No, nothing more could be accomplished; if Yes, the U.S. must provide the weapons to make continued resistance possible.

6. Mr. Merchant emphasized that the State Department and the military services realized that Indochina was the keystone of Southeast Asia and were most anxious to increase deliveries wherever possible, but the State Department members were not in a position to decide the allocation of material between Korea and Indochina, since such decisions rested with the highest military authorities. Mr. Young assured the General that his 10,000-mile visit to Washington could only have a most helpful and positive effect, not only on those around the table, but also on other individuals in the Capital. Everyone was in agreement on the broad question, but the immediate task was to find ways to attack the various parts of that question.

7. General de Lattre expressed great admiration for the military ability of General Ridgway,9 both as a tactician and strategist, and admitted that if he were in General Ridgway’s position he would do just what General Ridgway did, viz., if he needed one hundred military items, he would ask for one thousand. But, he pointed out that on a comparable basis he himself needed only 20 and was not receiving an adequate supply. He thought that he should be given a small share of the matériel furnished to General Ridgway, either on the same priority scale, or on whatever basis was necessary to assure simultaneous delivery with Korean equipment. It was his responsibility [Page 509]to stay on the job in Indochina because it was his duty, but it must be remembered that it was the American battlefield as well as the French. Mr. Merchant reiterated that the State Department understood the importance of the struggle in Indochina and sympathized with the General’s needs, but that the delivery problems were solely matters for military decision.

Chinese Communist Support

8. Mr. Young asked the General to estimate how much time would be required to move the Chinese forces from the North to Indochina if a Korean settlement took place, or even if no settlement occurred, if the Chinese decided to launch a full-scale attack in Indochina. General de Lattre replied that there were three aspects to the question of Chinese assistance in Indochina:

Increased troop strength—at present, the Chinese were in the process of helping to form five, and perhaps six, divisions within the Viet Minh.
Advisers and training—many advisers were being supplied to provide technical and strategic advice for the Viet Minh forces, and a large number of young officers were being trained in Chinese training schools, the number being estimated at between two and four thousand. This influx of Chinese trainees was now on the increase, having in no way been reduced by the Korean war.
Volunteer troops—in South China there were between 80,000 and 150,000 well-trained, well-armed troops who, within two to three weeks could invade Indochina by way of the new roads which were being built by the Chinese.

9. If six to twelve Chinese divisions could be diverted from South China to arrive in Indochina in two to three weeks, the General warned, French forces would have absolutely no protection against such an assault; on the other hand, it would require from four to six weeks to transfer troops from the North because of the logistic problems involved. After the French victories in Indochina in January, he had undertaken to provide better means of protection against future Chinese attacks by planning the construction of 1,240 bunkers of the Siegfried Line-type, able to withstand 155 mm. shells; of this number, approximately 700 had been completed and armored. Mr. Merchant asked whether, when the projected fortresses were completed and the necessary materials delivered, the French forces could hold out against the volunteers. General de Lattre replied that if the promised material was forthcoming and the planned Vietnam forces were fully manned, he could probably hold out for a few weeks.

Singapore Conference

10. General de Lattre recalled that at the Singapore Conference in May, 1950 [1951], the chiefs of the three allied delegations were in full agreement on the following essential points: [Page 510]

that Tonkin was the keystone to the security of Southeast Asia, and that the forces of the French Union controlled the situation in Indochina;
that the invasion of Indochina by the Chinese Communists could not be halted unless inter-allied assistance and cooperation were given to the forces of the French Union, particularly for the defense of Tonkin;
that it was necessary to organize improved liaison techniques in order to provide more adequate logistic support to the French forces through the allocation of available inter-allied resources in Southeast Asia. Moreover, immediate steps should be taken to extend existing logistic support in order to be prepared in case of a Chinese invasion.

Nature of Enemy Forces

11. General de Lattre reported that there are approximately the same number of troops on both sides—about 350,000 Viet Minh forces against 360,000 in the French Union. Although numerically the troops were equal and although the French Union forces possessed greater fire-power, the Viet Minh possessed several important advantages: Their regular army was composed of light infantry troops, extremely mobile, who were able to disperse themselves at the first sign of danger, thus making it extremely difficult to engage them in open combat. Also, the enemy was not burdened by many stationary troops, while it was necessary that his own forces include a considerable number of such immobile troops in order to guard bridges, railroads, factories, etc. Finally, the Viet Minh did not require a large number of rearguard troops since their real reserves were retained in Communist China.

French Union

12. In response to a question from Mr. Merchant regarding the nature of the French Union, General de Lattre said that every type of integration, as every type of alliance, presupposes mutual accommodation and common agreement on basic principles. This theory underlay the U.S. Federal Government as well as the British Commonwealth and was also the driving force behind the present efforts at European salvation. The time for spheres of influence was passed, he commented, and despite the fears of many Americans that the French Union would limit the independence of the Associated States, it was actually attempting to provide member countries an opportunity to develop fully through mutual assistance. The contractual relationship between the French Union and the Associated States had primarily favored the latter, since France was carrying most of the burden in an effort to permit the Associated States to keep their independence. France has not only given independence—she has guaranteed it, thus assuming definite obligations. It was difficult for the French people to realize that, after granting independence, [Page 511]they still had to bear obligations, but it was the duty of French leaders to emphasize the nature of the obligations which they had been called upon to bear. Perhaps never in French history had she made such a generous offer, since today only between one and two billion dollars were invested in French Indochina, yet she was expending one billion dollars annually for war. Furthermore, French losses amounted to 98,000, of whom 30,000 had been killed. It had been a hard war but the Government had the spirit and the duty to make the people understand that it was their responsibility. There was no doubt that the French Government was in full support of the war, realizing that it was not a conflict for material gain but rather a fight against communist aggression. He agreed, in answer to a question from Mr. Merchant, that greater stress should be laid upon the question of psychological warfare in order to drive home to world opinion, to the French people, and to those within the Associated States, the purposes for which the war was being fought. The French Union, he concluded, was a partnership that could be compared to a fire brigade, with one member always ready to put out the fire, yet at the same time obliged to pay the fire insurance.

Vietnam Army

13. General de Lattre estimated that there was a grand total of 240,000 men in the Vietnam forces, composed of 120,000 in the National army and 120,000 in the French Union army. Of these there were 60,000 men in the regular Vietnam National army in which there was no French representation. Continued efforts were being made to remove French troops from other Vietnam units because, from the morale viewpoint, the Vietnam troops wished to be lead by native officers.

  1. Chief of Military Cabinet for General de Lattre de Tassigny.
  2. Chief of Staff to General de Lattre de Tassigny.
  3. Brig. Gen. Frank N. Roberts, Military Adviser to the Special Assistant to the President.
  4. Edwin M. Martin, Director of the Office of European Regional Affairs.
  5. François Valentin, Political Adviser from the Paris office of General de Lattre de Tassigny.
  6. Raymond Janot, Financial and Economic Adviser to General de Lattre de Tassigny.
  7. Albert Fequant, Second Secretary, French Embassy in the United States.
  8. A corrigendum dated September 27 which accompanied the source text indicated that the following subparagraph 5 should be added:

    “Although the United States recognized the need for perfecting existing liaison arrangements, we attached particular importance to the fact that our relations, with regard to our economic aid programs, be held directly with the Governments of the Associated States. It was our intention to keep the French authorities informed through liaison arrangements which had already been established.”

  9. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan; Commander in Chief, Far East; Commander in Chief, United Nations Command.