751G.00/12–854: Telegram

The Chargé in Vietnam (Kidder) to the Department of State1


2165. Repeated information Paris 678, Hanoi 427. From Collins. At Ely’s invitation I met with him and Jean Sainteny eighth. Résumé of conversation, which consisted principally of questions asked by me and answers given by Sainteny, as follows:

Initial reaction of lower classes to advent of Viet Minh in general favorable, but attitude appears be shifting now to one of uneasiness. Middle classes have tried from beginning remain unobtrusive as possible.
Attitude of local population to French, at first reticent, now appears to be warming. Vietnamese servants who remained with French at beginning were shunned by other Vietnamese. Attitude of latter toward servants of French now seems be changing to envy owing to better living conditions of such employees.
Economic conditions of Viet Minh zone are not good and unemployment constitutes major problem for regime. Moral pressures have been brought to reduce wages and prices “voluntarily and by unanimous consent”. No machinery has been set up however to handle controls.
There is no evidence of Chinese or Russian technicians in Hanoi, although there may be Chinese advisees in Thai Nguyen. Viet Minh [Page 2353] Government accordingly is making show of independence of Communist mentors, contrary to their practice of eight or ten years ago as observed by Sainteny.
Most French technicians who remained Hanoi for two months after city passed to Viet Minh have now departed. Three are still with tramways and one each with water and electric plants; all will have left by end of month. Sainteny said with emphasis they had not been replaced by Chinese, Russian, Polish, or Czech technicians.
Method of extending Communist rule in Hanoi different from that employed in provinces. In Hanoi, at least at government level, there is considerable flexibility, while in provinces methods have been rigid and directed to reach roots of society.
In reply to specific question, Sainteny said as long as six weeks ago he had begun prepare Viet Minh officials (Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Commerce and Industry) for removal of American aid financed equipment from Charbonnages du Tonkin. Answering question why it was necessary gain Viet Minh consent for removal such privately owned materials, Sainteny said there was no question of gaining consent but rather of preparing way so that Viet Minh would not block removal of equipment by fomenting disorders, as they could do at any time if they wished. I urged removal be got under way soon as possible. Ely intervened to say one steam shovel has been disassembled and that he has assigned one regiment to stay with task of equipment removal until completed.
Asked to define his mission in north, Sainteny said he was charged with maintaining French cultural and economic interests. I said that Viet Minh zone is deficit area and economy can be sustained only by means of outside help. Such help can come only from China, Russia or France. Is it French intent make aid available to Viet Minh regime? Sainteny said press had misrepresented his views this matter. On other hand, Viet Minh could be rendered more dangerous and induced undertake action against south if cruelly pinched economically.
Continuing in this vein, Sainteny said objective for 1956 must be to have free, secret elections in which people living in Viet Minh zone can show their displeasure with regime by voting against it. Therefore it is mistake encourage northerners leave Viet Minh zone as refugees; persons who leave are precisely those who would be most inclined vote against Viet Minh. I asked Sainteny what precedent there was for free elections under Communist regime. He admitted he knew of none.
With further reference his mission, Sainteny said by maintaining presence in north, France is conducting experiment in “co-habitation or co-existence”, at little cost and with little risk, which may be value to all western nations. Chinese and Russians seem be pushing [Page 2354] Viet Minh to be conciliatory with French and Viet Minh have assured Sainteny that French business and industry will be welcome on equal terms with Viet Minh firms and will be allowed transfer their net profits. Sainteny sees here possible model for eventual operation of western capitalist firms in other Communist countries. I asked Sainteny if policy he was attempting develop in north would be extended to all Vietnam when and if Communists succeed in taking over. He protested his experiment was general in character and not intended for specific application elsewhere should it work out in Tonkin. Ely intervened this point to remark interpretation Sainteny set on his mission was his own and did not represent policy of French Government.
When Sainteny had left room, Ely said Sainteny had apparently not created good impression on me. He went on to say that when he knew Sainteny had been assigned Tonkin he, Ely, very nearly decided against returning Vietnam. Thereafter Sainteny’s mission was more precisely defined and his present terms of reference are very narrow.
Conclusion. Sainteny creates in fact very equivocal impression. He is distinguished in appearance and handles himself in such manner as to suggest he may have first-class intelligence. However most of his reasoning was so fuzzy in character that I can only conclude he has misled himself, or was attempting to mislead me, with respect to the nature and prospects of his mission in North Vietnam.2

  1. This telegram was transmitted in two parts.
  2. In telegram 2179 of Dec. 9, Collins added the following:

    Ely reverted to subject of Sainteny interview evening 8th, saying latter had put on poor show. Normally Sainteny gives better account of himself, Ely said, and could have made better case if he had represented his mission as being one of series of attempts to avoid major war and had pointed out that lessons learned in course of experiment might prove to be variable tool in treating with Communists elsewhere, to end that cold war not evolve into active hostilities.

    “It seems clear that Ely fears impression I may have gained of and from Sainteny might compromise our working relations, in sense that interview may have led me to wonder whether Ely does in fact represent all of French policy re Indochina and whether commitments he gives will be fully underwritten by French Government.” (751G.00/12–954)