751G.551/1–1752: Telegram

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


1442. Rptd info Paris 544, Hanoi unn. Death of Marshal De Lattre has been staggering for all sectors French Union opinion in IC. Although official western circles had rumors his illness more serious than had been admitted, French info policy had prepared neither Associated States govts nor public for this tragic possibility. Its entire unexpectedness has added greatly to public’s shocked dismay.

It difficult, perhaps premature, to assess effect De Lattre’s death. Past week has been spent in rituals of memorial. Periods mourning have been decreed by French and Associated States govts, Christian and Buddhist masses held throughout IC, press almost exclusively devoted to eulogies and panegyrics of one of France’s greatest soldiers, exchanges condolences among chiefs state and their reps have marked tribute of free world.

For moment all governmental activity has come to standstill. Previous appointments Gautier and Salan respectively as interim HICOM [Page 19] and C-in-C originally aroused little enthusiasm and now viewed with more misgivings and, in some quarters, with almost open opposition to this division auth and counsel.1 It generally realized new appointment must await reconstitution French Govt and most local observers seem pessimistic about length period required and character tenuous majority which will emerge. Names Catroux,2 Letourneau, and De Chevigne3 heard most frequently with French mil vocal on need for continuation combined command under mil.

We agree entirely with Paris tel 4176, Jan 14, effect of De Lattre’s death most important psychologically.4 There seems gen impression that with passing De Lattre period in Franco-Viet relations, perhaps even entire Mar 8 experiment,5 has come to close and an equally widespread fear that without De Lattre France will not be able or willing summon physical means and moral strength to continue struggle. In universal expression of sorrow the undercurrent mourning not only for De Lattre but for IC.

Only stabilizing factors in past few days have been ref to SEA in TrumanChurchill communiqué,6 President’s mention IC in his Congressional [Page 20] message,7 and Eden’s strong warning to Chinese Commies in his Columbia University address.8 Unfortunately these have not been matched by any similar expression from French side. General Juin’s statement at conclusion tripartite talks that he entirely satisfied but [garble] no statement has been excessively cryptic for local public demanding reassurance and encouragement. Letourneau’s announcement that he proceeding to IC9 to give assurance that work of De Lattre will be continued has seemed somewhat equivocal when set against background of twilight utterances of Pleven govt10 on negots and “internationalization.” Arrival of parliamentary natl defense investigation comite has further added to feeling uncertainty for its mission generally linked to expressions in French Parliament that IC war cld not be continued. Indeed it as much this French political background as IC mil situation that has made De Lattre’s death seem such an appalling loss to French forces here who looked to De Lattre as their protector against political merchandising and compromise. De Lattre’s promise to lead his men always in paths of honor frequently recalled in connection with possibility of one successor or another.

In this interim period best one can hope for perhaps is maintenance this depression of spirit. If French crisis prolonged or if third-rater named to IC mood of public may pass to active defeatism, possibility which will be rendered more acute if Tonkin mil operations become more critical. We fully appreciate slight latitude of discretion left Pleven cabinet; we must say that if psychological situation not to slip back to its Dec 1950 ebb what needed from somewhere in French Union apparatus is ringing reaffirmation of De Lattre’s own motto “ne pas [Page 21] l’subir” and program by France and her allies to make that resistance meaningful to IC peoples.

  1. Following the departure of Gen. de Lattre de Tassigny for France in November 1951, Georges Gautier, Secretary-General to the French High Commission in Indochina, was named Acting High Commissioner and Gen. Raoul Salan, Commander of French Union Forces in Southern Vietnam, was appointed Acting Commander in Chief.
  2. General Georges Catroux, French High Commissioner in Indochina, 1939–1940; Ambassador to the Soviet Union, 1945–1948.
  3. Pierre de Chevigné, French High Commissioner in Madagascar, 1948–1949; Secretary of State for Defense in various cabinets during the period 1951–1954.
  4. In the reference telegram, Ambassador Bruce stated the following: “Opinion most frequently expressed here in Fr official circles re consequences De Lattre’s death is that its effect will be most important psychologically on morale in IC among all circles. It is realized that De Lattre’s presence there had contributed more than anything else to restoration confidence and morale.” (751G.551/1–1452)
  5. Reference is to the agreement between France and Vietnam contained in an exchange of letters of Mar. 8, 1949, between Vincent Auriol, President of France, and Bao Dai, former Emperor of Annam (who became Chief of State of Vietnam). For the text of this agreement regulating relations between the two states, see France, Direction de la Documentation, Notes et Etudes Documentaires, No. 1147 (June 20, 1949), pp. 3–14, or Margaret Carlyle, ed., Documents on International Affairs, 1949–1950, Royal Institute of International Affairs (London, Oxford University Press, 1953), pp. 596–606. An English translation of the major portion of the agreement appears in Allan W. Cameron, ed., Viet-Nam Crisis: A Documentary History, vol. I: 1940–1956 (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1971), pp. 120–129.
  6. President Truman and British Prime Minister Churchill met in Washington during the period Jan. 5–18, 1952. No decisions were taken on Indochina pending the tripartite military discussions of Jan. 11. In their communiqué of Jan. 9, the two leaders stated: “We are glad that the Chiefs of Staff of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France will be meeting in the next few days to consider specific measures to strengthen the security of Southeast Asia.” For the full text of the communiqué, see Department of State Bulletin, Jan. 21, 1952, pp. 83–84. Documentation on the TrumanChurchill talks is printed in volume vi
  7. Reference is to President Truman’s State of the Union Message, Jan. 9. During the course of the address, the President twice mentioned the necessity for aid to Indochina to hold back Communist aggression. For text, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, 1952–1953 (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1966), pp. 9–17.
  8. In his address at Columbia University on Jan. 11, Anthony Eden, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stated the following: “In Indo-China the French have been fighting a defensive battle with utmost difficulty—at heavy cost and with a severe drain on their resources. Today we salute the memory of their great soldier-statesman General De Lattre. In Malaya, we, for our part, have been waging a long and bitter struggle against guerrilla forces. These positions must be held. It should be understood that the intervention by force by Chinese Communists in South-East Asia—even if they were called volunteers—would create a situation no less menacing than that which the United Nations met and faced in Korea. In any such event the United Nations should be equally solid to resist it.” (Extract from Eden Speech: Conference files, lot 59 D 95, CF 112) The full text of the speech is printed in the New York Times of Jan. 12.
  9. Jean Letourneau, French Minister for the Associated States, arrived in Saigon on Jan. 25.
  10. The government of René Pleven resigned on Jan. 7 following its defeat in the National Assembly on a vote of confidence in connection with the Finance Bill. Edgar Faure was elected Premier by the Assembly on Jan. 18. The new government, presented on Jan. 20, was very similar in composition to its predecessor.