105. Message From the Ambassador in France (Bohlen) to the President1

I spent approximately forty-five minutes this afternoon endeavoring to persuade General De Gaulle to make a statement which would clarify French policy on neutrality as a long-term policy and policy applicable in the actual situation of warfare in Vietnam. De Gaulle told me frankly that he did not think he could make any such statement since he believed in the policy of neutrality even under present conditions. The most I could get him to do was to say that if “he returned” to the subject he would state that France was against anything that would lead to the Communist takeover but he said he would probably add that this was the reason why they favored the policy of neutrality.

I began the conversation by outlining in detail your message (Deptel 4793)2 I then outlined the four possible courses of action which the US could follow: 1) withdrawal, which we had rejected; 2) enlargement of the war, which we did not seek; 3) a continuance of the present course of action and to assist the Government of Vietnam; and 4) we had even considered the policy of neutrality but had rejected it because of total inapplicability to warfare such as existed in Vietnam.

I mentioned that in effect current US policy was that of number 3, to continue our assistance to the Vietnamese Government with certain variations dictated by circumstances emphasizing that this assistance would involve political as well as military factors. I also told him that [Page 217] in the opinion of Secretary McNamara General Khanh had made an excellent impression upon the Americans there. He seemed to be intelligent, able, energetic, and with a clear understanding of the necessities of the situation.

I then asked General De Gaulle if he had any comments to make in regard to what I had told him. General De Gaulle said that France did not agree with the US in its analysis of the situation in that it did not consider that there was any real government in Vietnam. He pointed out that Diem, who had had a real government, had lost the support of his people and had been “eliminated”. He was succeeded by someone whose name he could not remember (presumably Big Minh), and now they had “this Khanh”. He said the war in essence was the same one that the French had been fighting since the end of World War II; that the Vietnamese had no taste for this war and that the anti-Communist forces in Vietnam were not up to the task.

I interrupted him to tell him this was quite contrary to our analysis of the situation. We felt it was quite different, one was a colonial war which came out as colonial wars always do and the other was a war against aggression directed and maintained from without. I said that I assumed that France did not wish to see the Communists take over Vietnam nor for this reason did they wish to see the US withdraw under present circumstances. De Gaulle agreed with these two statements and said they were correct. I then said that I thought France could assist the Vietnamese Government in this difficult task if it were possible to find a formulation of words which, without denying the validity of an eventual policy of neutrality, could state that neutrality is obviously not applicable under present conditions and that the first task in Vietnam is military stabilization.

De Gaulle at this point asked what would be our policy if and when a military stabilization—which he doubted—was achieved. I told him that then we could certainly have no objection to a consideration of neutrality if the military situation was stabilized to the point where the government really controlled its own territory and if it was the desire of the government. I pointed out that the US had in effect agreed to the neutralization of Laos and Cambodia but not Vietnam where circumstances were entirely different.

De Gaulle then said it was his considered judgment that the US could not possibly succeed in the course that we were on. He felt we would merely repeat the experience the French had earlier; that the Vietnamese had no stomach for the war; that in his opinion the quicker we came out for neutralization in Vietnam, possibly through the mechanism of a Geneva-type conference including the Chinese, the better it would be. He said it was conceivable that the situation might not get much worse but saw no prospect of it getting better. He [Page 218] said it was either this neutralization as an announced policy or a willingness of the US to really carry the war to the North and if necessary against China.

I interrupted to ask him if the French would be in favor of our extending the war. He said no, that France would not wish to see this but at least it was a clear and definite policy.

De Gaulle then in a rather reminiscent mood mentioned that the US and France had never coordinated their policies towards Southeast Asia, referring to the period during the war when we seemed to be working against France in Indochina. I told him that while this may have had some truth towards the end of the war it was not true since I was in the Embassy here (1949–1951) when we shifted over to full assistance to the French in order to help them win the war. I also reminded him that at one point in 1954 we had given serious consideration to the atomic bomb in order to help relieve the situation in Dien Bien Phu. I took advantage of the opening and said that if we could get now some moral assistance from the French Government we would be satisfied and repeated arguments in favor of clarifying statement in regard to neutrality as a long-term and not an immediate policy. De Gaulle countered by saying in effect he considered that the neutrality policy offered the only way out to the US other than to engage in a major hostility against North Vietnam and China.

He said that he felt that any military stabilization would only come about with Chinese consent and that with Chinese consent there could be genuine neutrality. He also mentioned that once China had decided in favor of neutrality he felt some time in the future the two parts of Vietnam would then come together.

I countered this by telling him our experience with Communists had shown that neutrality was a policy which the Communists would adopt only if they were avoiding something worse, mentioning in this connection the case of Laos.

I asked De Gaulle what form of pressure or inducement could be used on the Chinese for them to accept neutrality when according to his statement they were on the winning side. De Gaulle shrugged his shoulders and said this would have to be seen, mentioning parenthetically that this was one of the reasons why they had recognized China when they did in order to be in a position to ascertain Chinese views.

With further reference to his statement that we had never concerted our policies in this area I told him that I was sure the US would be more than anxious to concert with France in the present situation in Southeast Asia and if he could find it possible to make the declaration that I had referred to this would rapidly lead to a close consultation in regard to Vietnam. De Gaulle said flatly it was too late for any such concerting and repeated his view that the sooner the US went for neutralization in Vietnam the better off they would be.

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He then said that the most he could do at the present time would be that if he reverted to the subject to say that France was against the Communization of Vietnam and it was for this reason that they were in favor of neutralization.

Since it was apparent that no further argumentation would be of any avail with De Gaulle I terminated the conversation with the statement that there would be a considerable degree of disappointment in Washington over his position on this matter and that I feared a good opportunity had been lost to really work closely together with France on a specific situation.


I think that the above narrative speaks for itself. De Gaulle was courteous and affable throughout and did not appear to be irritated by my rather frank and direct comments, but showed no sign whatsoever of changing his attitude. It seems to me that what this adds up to is his firm belief that the course we are on, i.e., supporting the Vietnamese Government, is one that will only end in failure and that the best policy for the US was to opt for an immediate policy of neutralization. The only other alternative he could see would be one in which the US would enlarge the war by an attack on North Vietnam and probably China.

It was not clear to me to what extent De Gaulle was operating on genuine conviction or whether past failure and humiliation in Vietnam played a large part in determining his current attitude.

I shall merely tell press that I had not seen General De Gaulle since January and was just having a “tour d’horizon”.

I will send a further analytical message and a few more minor details tomorrow.3

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, McGeorge Bundy, Vol. III. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Transmitted as telegram 4615 from Paris, which is the source text. Passed to the White House on receipt in the Department of State. The Department of State also summarized this telegram as an item for the President’s evening reading, April 2. (Department of State, S/S Files: Lot 64 D 164, President’s Evening Reading File. 1964)
  2. Document 96.
  3. Document 106.
  4. Telegram 4615 bears this typed signature.