Stein Tønnesson: Counterfactual History: Could War in Vietnam Have Been Avoided?

In this post, Stein Tønnesson, author of Vietnam 1946: How the War Began, recalls a debate he had with a colleague about events leading up to war between France and Vietnam, and whether or not war was inevitable. __________________________________________________________

Last year I shocked my colleague David G. Marr, who is working on a monumental study of Vietnam 1945-50, by stating that if the war between France and Vietnam had not broken out on December 19, 1946, it would have broken out in 1947 instead, in October at the latest.

“Why?” he asked:  “What about Barjot et al warning about the costs in money and manpower?” He knew from reading Philippe Devillers’ and my books that Admiral Pierre Barjot and others had been warnings that France could not afford a drawn-out war, but they were disavowed by Chief-of-Staff General Alphonse Juin, and the mood in French politics was not such that it would let money decide in a question of national prestige.

On the Vietnamese side, Marr continued, “it’s possible that Ho Chi Minh and Giap would have lost authority over local militia who became fed up with talks dragging on for months and months, and started shooting Frenchmen of their own volition.” But if this happened only in the south, Ho Chi Minh might have washed his hands of the troublemakers and signed a settlement for northern Vietnam, plus a clause promising a referendum on union with Nam Bo [the southern region] in an unspecified future. Marr asked: “Could the French government of the day have proceeded on that basis?” I did not answer then, but I answer now that the French would have insisted on maintaining full control of the northern port city Haiphong as well, and I doubt that Ho Chi Minh was prepared to give up the south even temporarily in exchange for an agreement covering only the north. This was what he had resisted in 1946.

If December 19 had not happened, then France and Vietnam would probably have maintained a kind of uneasy modus vivendi for a few months longer with a series of unsuccessful talks, while both parties prepared for war. And once the French communists had been forced to leave the French government in May, and the position of the Socialist Minister of Overseas France Marius Moutet was so much weakened that he had to give up his portfolio to the more bellicose Christian Democrat Paul Coste-Floret in October, the French government would have decided to strike out. It was only then that the French government excluded any prospect of resuming talks with Ho Chi Minh and launched Operation Lea on October 7 in an attempt to capture the Vietnamese president and his government.

After I had presented my arguments, it was my turn to be shocked when Marr asked: “If war would have occurred in 1947 anyway, what’s the point of your exquisite analysis of Nov-December 1946?” Ahem! It’s true that I’ve spent much of my adult life researching the circumstances of the outbreak of the First Indochina War in 1946. Why have I prioritized my life in such a silly way if I don’t think the war could have been avoided?

Well. First, the story of how it happened is a fascinating tragedy. I’ve been consumed by it the way you can be consumed by a tragic novel. Second, it does provide a case study of how lower level bureaucrats and commanders can obstruct a government’s decision-making; this is useful political science. Third, the hesitations on both sides before the prospect of a drawn-out war are interesting in themselves, especially for peace researchers who would like to see more such hesitation. Fourth, even if the war could not probably have been avoided, it would have made a difference if the fragile peace of 1946 had lasted half a year longer. This would have given President Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap more time to strengthen their forces, institutions and support both nationally and internationally.

Yet it would of course have been neat if I could have said in my book Vietnam 1946 that if war had not broken out on December 19, 1946, there would not have been any Indochina War, no Dien Bien Phu, no Diem murder, no Tonkin Gulf incident, no Vietnam War, no Tet offensive, no Kissinger sideshow, no Cambodian genocide, no need for Deng Xiao-ping to teach a lesson—just a peacefully decolonizing Southeast Asian Yugoslavia with Ho Chi Minh as Asia’s Tito. Neat, but not honest.

Oslo, February 28, 2010
Stein Tønnesson