Memorandum by the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Allison) to the Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Matthews)

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  • Indochina: Recent military and other developments which have added to our concern.

Following the French Union withdrawal from Hoa Binh on February 22 there has been a renewed wave of concern in both official and unofficial circles concerning the seriousness of the present loyalist position in the Associated States. Statements made by responsible French officials, including Mr. Letourneau, have not stemmed the hysterical outpourings of both the US and French press and have led to certain misconceptions which it is important be clarified.

The French engaged in a military offensive against Hoa Binh approximately three months ago in order to seize control of this strategically important town through which traffic on the only road in the area linking Viet Minh forces in the north with those in the south of the delta had to pass. Supplies from Communist China, including Soviet-made vehicles had been moving south in increasing amounts until Hoa Binh was captured. The Franco-Viet forces held their position there under constant fire until February 22 when they put a carefully planned withdrawal operation into effect. During the course of their three-months tenure they eliminated approximately 55% of the Viet Minh attacking force of 40,000 odd, killing an estimated 7,000 and wounding or capturing an estimated 15,000. During the same period they lost 1,588 men of whom 349 were killed in action. The Franco-Viet forces decided to withdraw from Hoa Binh for two excellent reasons: first, because the Viet Minh had succeeded in developing a parallel route bypassing Hoa Binh and secondly, the number of forces pinned down in Hoa Binh jeopardized loyalist control of other more important parts of the Red River delta into which the Viet Minh had already begun to infiltrate. The decision to withdraw was a free and studied one. It was not a forced withdrawal and does not represent a military defeat. It was, in our opinion and that of our observers on the spot, a wise move.

It was nevertheless a withdrawal and has served to bring the nervousness [Page 43] concerning Indochina which has been simmering in all quarters since de Lattre’s death to the surface and has resulted in a certain amount of public and private self-indulgence. The importance of the operation has in our opinion been grossly exaggerated by the press in both France and the US. The French press has reemphasized the hopelessness of France’s position in Indochina and the need for internationalization of the problem. The US press has gone so far as to presume that the withdrawal from Hoa Binh portends a withdrawal from all of the north of Indochina. This is an entirely unwarranted conclusion.

In our opinion the justifiable conclusion is that although the overall French military potential has increased steadily Chinese aid to the enemy is abreast. It is now clear that the prospect of any offensive to clear out the Viet Minh in Tonkin as had been optimistically predicted by General de Lattre does not exist. On the other hand, there is no reason to suspect that the Viet Minh is capable of launching a major offensive either. The military stalemate therefore continues as heretofore and the major consideration continues to be what will be the extent and nature of Chinese aid to the Viet Minh, including the possibility of an invasion.

Mr. Letourneau’s ill advised press interview of February 24 in which he was reported to have hinted that negotiations with the Viet Minh were a possibility but that the French could not take the initiative has not contributed to calming the hysteria. We expect that Letourneau was guilty of carelessness and that upon his arrival in Paris today he will make a statement that will nullify any impression that the French Government was seeking a way out through negotiation.1

In sum, militarily things are just about where they stood a month ago except that we now know that the stalemate is even more apparent than before. It may at least be concluded that if the Chinese are unprepared or unwilling to commit overt aggression at the moment they are at least determined to supply the Viet Minh with sufficient matériel and advice to keep the French Union forces on the defensive.

  1. In a memorandum of Feb. 29, Allison provided Matthews with the text of a statement released by Letourneau upon his arrival in Paris from Saigon on Feb. 28. The statement read as follows:

    “My dominant impression following my trip to Indochina is of the considerable improvement which I have noted in all sectors as a result of the great work inaugurated by Marshal de Lattre de Tassigny.

    “I admit that I have been very sorry to note emotion felt in certain quarters, particularly in certain foreign milieux, by the Hoa Binh maneuver. It was accomplished at a time chosen by us, as planned by us and was, in its most minute details, carried out successfully. We have recouped 19 battalions which are now placed in a better position to protect the delta effectively.

    “It would be the greatest stupidity to withdraw from Hanoi and Tonkin. We do not intend in any event to leave the delta.” (FE files, lot 55 D 282, “1952”)