751G.00/2–2952: Telegram

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


1689. Rptd info Paris 592, Hanoi unn. The withdrawal from Hoa Binh while not unexpected (see Legtel 1556)1 brought to humiliating [Page 47] close the over-publicized first Fr attempt move out of their Tonkin beachhead in forces; yet within this defeat there were some positive tactical gains.

The whole operation, altho costly to Fr, enabled them inflict heavy casualties on enemy; retreat was skillfully executed with minimum loss men and matériel; the reconcentration of some 10 to 15 battalions in delta area will strengthen that essential position and permit Fr begin cleaning up VM infiltrations which the Hoa Binh over-extension has made possible in last two months; and VM 320th Division which has deeply penetrated southeast delta is directly threatened.

When this much has been said it must be conceded that a Hoa Binh withdrawal was a reverse, and not least so, in psychological and political fields. Perhaps latter will be felt more keenly in France and outside world than in Vietnam where those who have had some clue to recent operations are now rather relieved that Hoa Binh salient has been successfully withdrawn. Fr command now has to answer, before public opinion and Fr Assembly, for inflated propaganda claims for this so-called “offensive.”

De Lattre undertook this operation despite some misgivings in high command chiefly in order produce “victory” on eve of Fr budget conferences and to impress the Vietnamese Fr and Amer people with his ability to resume initiative. He hoped trap some VM in Cho Ben and Hoa Binh but his blow fell in air. It was planned to cut VM L of C between north and center but Commies made effective use of coolies on another road farther to west.

With death De Lattre the Hoa Binh operation acquired special sanctity as his legacy. The Fr press began refer to RG 6 as “la voie sacree.” Salan himself altho careful to establish that De Lattre was responsible for operation declared he was in Hoa Binh and had no intention getting out. These pronouncements made it peculiarly difficult for Fr to announce their retreat. The press conf of Feb 24 in which Gen Salan attempted to do so made a bad impression, his three quarter hour long explanation of motives, promises of future victories, and confused claims of casualties inflicted had an effect on listeners opposite that intended and did not advance commander in chief’s own prestige. He claimed 20,000 casualties for VM but only a week ago he stipulated 45,000. He had put three VM divisions out of action but yet claimed new VM attacks were imminent.

Not the least of propaganda blunders was bringing on Bao Dai to make his first visit to a Franco-Viet front at Hoa Binh in country of Muongs, minority tribe under special protection of crown. The Muongs asked him whether this was “the last or only next-to-last time Fr wld liberate Hoa Binh.” Bao Dai told me he had lost face. Bao Dai observed, however, withdrawal was mil necessity.

Altho Viet Govt circles seem generally calm about Hoa Binh natl [Page 48] and opposition groups display deep pessimism. For example, Colonel Le Van Vien, head of Binh Xuyen, sought out Bao Dai to broach a plan for taking to the brush to form the nucleus of a new resistance. “Nationalists” who have been ever ready to see signs of Fr weakening and readiness to parley have had their fears restimulated. The VM has not ceased to trumpet “the most beautiful victory since resistance began.”

In sum, while Hoa Binh was by no means a disaster and may even be turned to good account, it is not a bright milestone of two years of mil and polit effort. Taken with the bankruptcy of the economy and lack decisive effectiveness to date of Huu Govt, it may encourage Fr pessimists in their effort to force re-examination whole Fr commitment in IC.

  1. In telegram 1556 from Saigon, Feb. 6, not printed, Minister Heath had reported that in the view of the staff and military attachés of the Legation, it would not be advisable for French forces to remain in Hoa Binh indefinitely. (751G.00/2–652)