216. Telegram From the Ambassador in Vietnam (Reinhardt) to the Department of State1

597A. Reference: Paris 5256 to Department, repeated Saigon 751.2

General Guillaume has just completed four day inspection French military establishment Vietnam. Before his departure today for Singapore, he lunched with me alone and discussed at length the French military problem in area.
He said purpose his visit was to obtain information on which to base military recommendation to French Govt. He reviewed situation in France where one school of thought called for immediate and complete evacuation of French military from Indochina and other favored retention of at least sufficient numbers to protect French colony Saigon, preserve remnants of French face, and make modest contribution to defense against Communism in area. He said former school was now strengthened by serious requirements in North Africa which obviously took first priority French thinking. Apart from military recommendation, probably most important factor which would affect eventual govt decision was financial one. He feared that, in new situation created by termination German occupation support costs and ever-increasing burden of North African problem, it might be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to obtain budgetary support for continued French military presence Indochina on any appreciable scale.
In reply to his inquiry, I told him that, in my personal view, presence of French military forces here was for several reasons apart from purely French ones desirable for immediate future. These were the requirements for their assistance in training VN National Army, Navy and Air Force; need to avoid sudden creation of vacuum pending build-up of Vietnamese forces; and importance, from an overall strategic point of view, of retaining operative naval and air bases in area, a responsibility which VN could not possibly take over for some time. Finally, I said it seemed to me that it also would be quite awhile before Vietnamese army would be capable of assuming full responsibility for its own administrative and logistic support. I [Page 469] added, however, that I considered basic condition to the success of the foregoing were bilateral Franco-Vietnamese arrangements which defined status and mission of French forces in mutually acceptable manner which no way impaired sovereign independence of Vietnam. Guillaume took no exception to this but seemed to doubt whether sufficient budgetary support would be forthcoming to finance initial force of about 50,000 which would be required for this mission.
He insisted more than once that there were two fundamental elements of French policy which could be accepted as absolute, namely:
France would under no circumstances, permit herself to become engaged again in ground combat in Indochina; and
Whatever military policy was decided for this area, it must be one that did not involve a large measure of risk.
Guillaume divided French military picture in VN into three parts:
Tourane area and 17th parallel. He said large munitions depot at Tourane posed a problem for French, but they were determined to pass it to Vietnamese and equally determined that they would not keep more than symbolic forces, say a maximum of 5,000 in area of Tourane and 17th parallel. He asserted that local political situation there was troubled and difficult for them, and they were determined, as a matter of policy, to avoid any involvement in internal politics.
Saigon area. He realized that, for political reasons, Vietnamese would prefer French to withdraw from Saigon area. He thought that, as far as mission of protecting European colony Saigon was concerned, this might be accomplished by basing certain units at reasonable distance from city, such as in area of Bien Hoa Air Base. More difficult problem was posed on navy side. French naval base was only large and important French repair installation in Far East and was capable of handling vessels up to cruiser size. If this base were to be retained, it would require some territorial defense, and that involved stationing of some French forces in city. French navy was understandably reluctant to abandon this base which they would feel compelled to do in the absence of provision for its preservation.
Cap St. Jacques. He did not know whether concept of well fortified naval and air base at Cap St. Jacques would be acceptable to Vietnamese. From French point of view, it had obvious advantages. The materially improved and enlarged air strip was virtually complete, and the utilization of Cap St. Jacques as the major French military base for all three services in Vietnam would involve little additional financial burden on French Govt. French navy was still hankering after Cam Ranh Bay, but apart from questionable strategic value, expense of developing facilities and area defense there would be prohibitive.
Although it was apparent that Guillaume had reached no firm conclusion, I was left with impression that, for the moment at least, [Page 470] he was inclining toward recommending retention of French military establishment here for the next eighteen months of about 50,000 men but was not at all sure that this would be approved by French Govt. In this connection, he stated that level of French forces was now down to 55,000 and that there was leeway of only 5,000 before decision would have to be reached if reduction were to be stopped at 50,000 level. As a limiting factor on timing of a possible total evacuation of French forces, Guillaume mentioned that his colleagues estimated a minimum of six months would be required to deal with and distribute mass of military material in their possession.
Guillaume expressed earnest conviction that only unified and cooperative US-UK-French approach to problem of VN would have chance of saving area. He recognized, however, that British were not prepared to give any material support. Recently in London, British COS had stated to him quite clearly that Singapore and Malayan Peninsula were their maximum commitment in SEA.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751G.551/6–2455. Secret. Repeated for information to Paris and Phnom Penh and passed to the Department of Defense and CINCPAC.
  2. In this telegram, May 31, Dillon informed the Department that General Guillaume was planning an information-gathering trip to the Far East and would be in Saigon, June 19–24. The purpose of the Saigon visit, according to Guillaume, was to decide how rapidly repatriation of the FEC from Vietnam could proceed. (Ibid., 751.551/5–3155)