751G.00/2–2652: Despatch

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

No. 416


  • Legation Telegram No. 1670 of February 23 [24], 1952 repeated Paris as 587 and pouched Hanoi.


  • Military Briefing by General Salan

At a special briefing held on the evening of February 22nd at the High Commissariat for me, General Francis G. Brink, Chief, MAAG, and Mr. John Tobler, Acting Director, STEM, General Salan, Acting Commander-in-Chief of the French Union Forces in the Associated States, reviewed the military situation in Indochina. Immediately following General Salan’s presentation, Minister for the Associated States Letourneau gave an estimate of the overall situation in Indochina. Letourneau’s comments were summarized in the Legation’s referenced telegram.

The substance of General Salan’s briefing is as follows:

The Viet Minh forces sustained very heavy casualties in the Hoa Binh campaign, resulting in an appreciable lowering of fighting spirit. The high casualty rate and profound battle weariness were substantiated by captured Viet Minh documents and by Viet Minh prisoners of war, a larger number than usual, including officers, having been taken in the Hoa Binh operation. The enemy has broken off action with indications that his best elements have been severely mutilated and that Viet Minh manpower is not inexhaustible. General Salan did not specify the number of Viet Minh casualties. He did state, however, that French Union casualties had been in the neighborhood of 5,000 of which 1,800 were killed. Of the wounded about 75% would be able to return to duty after two months. General Salan implied that the French Union losses during the period of the two months fighting were not considered excessively heavy and compared favorably with casualties sustained in last year’s battles which lasted three to four days each.

Viet Minh infiltration into the Delta is well in hand. The 320th Viet Minh Division, which had infiltrated northeastward from the southeast corner of the Delta, and had constituted the most serious threat, had been dispersed in the general vicinity of Thai Binh by General De Linares.1 General de Linares’ forces included troops secretly withdrawn from the Hoa Binh area and an attack in force had come as a surprise to the Viet Minh. Remnants of the 320th Viet Minh Division were fleeing to the south and west and French units at river crossings were expected to exact additional toll on the retreating Viet Minh forces. Artillery had accounted for heavy Viet Minh casualties; United States provided “alligators” had proved especially helpful in the Delta operations. There are also Viet Minh units Northeast of [Page 41] Hanoi but these are being compressed and do not constitute a serious threat.

The Vietnamese battalions showed up well in the North Vietnam battles; there were no defections. All but one of the battalions saw very heavy fighting.

Local populations were advised not to oppose superior Viet Minh strength. According to instructions, they evacuated villages but did not flee and returned to their homes when the area was reoccupied by the French. There was no appreciable accrual of manpower to the Viet Minh as a result of the Delta operations, the French counteraction having forced hasty and surreptitious Viet Minh withdrawals. Small quantities of arms, however, had been taken by the Viet Minh from Vietnamese militia stocks.

Indications are that the Viet Minh had a well formed plan for the North Vietnam action and had excellent capabilities as a result of substantial material aid received from China. For the first time the Viet Minh employed heavy mortars to demolish French Union posts and the evidence points to receipt by the Viet Minh of an increasing supply of heavy weapons.

The Viet Minh used thousands of coolies for pack transport, producing considerable dissatisfaction among those impressed for this work.

The Tonkin operation had been a hard battle but at no time was the situation critical. French Union Forces are presently tired from sustained fighting but morale has been raised in contrast to the fall in Viet Minh morale.

In Southern Vietnam the military situation was good. About 8,000 Viet Minh have come over. There is little activity in Central Vietnam; one Viet Minh attack was successfully repulsed on the Plateau. Laos and Cambodia are quiet. Despite one instance of railway sabotage in the latter state there appears to be no cause for alarm over reported infiltrations of Viet Minh.

Comment: General Salan’s presentation was essentially optimistic: the Viet Minh had been beaten back with crippling losses at Hoa Binh and operations to clear the Delta are progressing satisfactorily. As a military leader it is fitting and understandable that the General should demonstrate self-confidence and enthusiasm. It is suggested, therefore, that in appraisal of General Salan’s comments note be taken of the report of the U.S. Army Attaché at Saigon (Weeka No. 8, February 23, 1952)2 which takes a slightly more reserved view of the situation, particularly with respect to the capabilities of the Viet Minh to reconstitute its units and launch further assaults and the difficulties which may be anticipated in operations to clear the Delta. Moreover, while the evacuation of Hoa Binh on the evening of February 22nd (officially announced by the French High Command on February 24)3 appears to be a militarily sound decision and to have been accomplished, [Page 42] according to French military sources, with eminent success, the withdrawal would nevertheless seem to be susceptible to considerable psychological exploitation by the Viet Minh.

Donald R. Heath
  1. Major General François Gonzales de Linares, Commander of French Union forces in North Vietnam.
  2. Not printed.
  3. In despatch 435 from Saigon, Mar. 7, not printed, the Legation transmitted in translation form a précis of the press conference given by General Salan on Feb. 24, announcing the withdrawal from Hoa Binh. (751G.00/3–752)