21. Vietnam and Algeria

21. Vietnam and Algeria


Professor John Merriman:
Okay, by the way there was big trouble over the weekend in
a suburb. Next week, the last day,
I’m going to talk about the problem, so-called problem of
the suburbs. There was a big problem the
other night and when a policeman ran down two kids on a scooter,
a scooter, and they were both killed
apparently. And, so, there’s a lot of riots
again going on. So, you can–again you can
follow this, if you know French, on France 2 or TFN,
or in Libération; but this will probably be in
the newspapers. Anyway, so what I want to talk
about today–it’s hard to do both of them in one day,
but let’s go–is to complement your reading on de-colonization,
and talk about Vietnam and Algeria,
and the subtext, obviously–it’s not text that’s
intended in this course, but is that the Americans never
learned the mistakes from which the French finally learned.
Next week, or next Wednesday, I’ll talk about Charles de
Gaulle, but mostly about after he comes to power in 1958.
But he’s obviously important in this.
You know from the beginning that it’s after World War Two
that most of the colonies in the world became independent,
in a process that took decades, and of course the 1960s,
particularly the beginning of the 1960s,
is very, very crucial in the case of Africa.
And this, despite the insistence of Winston Churchill,
for one, that the British Empire would not be dismembered.
In Britain this transition from colony to independent state
stays often replete and full of problems,
came without violence, came generally without
insurrection. This was not the case with
France nor, as you know, some of you,
not the case in Portuguese, for Portuguese colonies as
well. The Netherlands and Britain
both resisted independence movements before caving in.
And by 1980, a year that I can even
remember–that was a pleasure because I was married that
year–more than half of the 154 members of the United Nations
had been admitted to membership since 1956.
Now, one obvious point is that part of the dismantling of
empires, one important theme in this is that Britain and France
in the post-war period became less important powers than they
had before; is that, as you know,
France–and this was essential in de Gaulle’s view of himself
and view of the world–seeks to retain its role as a great
power, but the world had basically
been divided up in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the
United States, and both of those powers were
competing aggressively for these newly independent states in
Africa, in Asia and indeed in North
Africa as well. And, so, World War Two
accentuated the independence movements that developed after
World War One. The case of Vietnam is of
course just classic in that, and you had a well-organized
nationalist communist movement ready to assume the mantle of
the movement for Vietnamese independence.
And as you’ll know, Woodrow Wilson espoused
nationalism as a way to determining the existence or the
creation of states. And, so, Wilson and his
American successors were kind of caught in a trap because on the
one hand they were saying, “oh yes, we need to recognize
independence movements and people that see themselves as a
single nation ought to have the right to have their own state,”
but then because of the domain of the Cold War the Americans
often found themselves acting in ways that they did not match
their rhetoric. The French left Syria and
Lebanon by agreement made with the United States and Britain
after the war, but the problem of Vietnam and
the problem of North Africa, as you know where the French
had been since 1830, would be much thornier.
Now, Ho Chi Minh–I can remember this;
and so it’s sort of time warp for someone like me because I
can remember all the marches, and was in all the marches
against the war, back when I was your age,
and the chants of “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh,
NLF is gonna win.” He’d become president of the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam after the war.
Ho Chi Minh’s father was an official under the French,
under French rule, and he had resigned from his
position because he had become a Vietnamese nationalist.
And there were other nationalists by the way.
One has a tendency to say, well, the Communist Party
represented Vietnamese nationalism,
but there were other nationalists who weren’t
communists, but the war–because the war ends–the way the war
comes out one ends up talking a lot about communist nationalism.
But he had been working, a kitchen helper,
on a French passenger liner, crossing the oceans,
before becoming a communist activist.
And he founded in 1929 the Indochinese Communist Party,
which he founded in Hong Kong in 1929.
In 1930 he unified three groups of Vietnamese Communists around
his leadership. He was condemned to death in
absentia by the French government and he was saved by
the refusal of the British government in Hong Kong to turn
him over to the French, because he would’ve been
executed, without any question. But he was arrested by the
British in 1931 and he remained in prison in Hong Kong until
1933. And during World War Two he led
the Vietminh–viet, and then m-i-n-h–an
organization of Vietnamese nationalists,
some of whom, but as I said before not all of
whom, were communists. Now, the French attacked the
port of Haiphong–God, these are names out of my past;
I did not know about Haiphong, I was a couple of years old
then, not even that, I guess– killing 6,000
Vietnamese, and they captured Hanoi, the Vietnamese
capital–and this is after the war.
And, so, France restored the nominal authority of a playboy
emperor, but Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese Army held most of the
countryside, rather like Mao Tse-tung’s army
in China, had begun during the war against Kuomintang to carve
out huge sections of Chinese territory as well.
And Ho was supported by the Chinese communists,
and he prophesized, “you will kill ten of our men
but we will kill one of yours, and in the end we will end up
by wearing you out.” Now, these were the origins of,
at least in the modern era, of guerrilla warfare.
A French intellectual who’s still living called Regis Debray
wrote a very important book that I remember I had to read in the
seminar on revolutionary elites, with Arthur Mendel at the
University of Michigan, called Revolution dans la
Revolution, Revolution in the Revolution,
about guerrilla fighting. Now, if you go back,
those that go back to before 1871–’70/’71–remember what the
Spanish patriots were able to do in Spain against Napoleon’s
occupying forces, which was to pick them off one
by one, and the French retaliated by shooting down
civilians, as they did in Calabria in the
south of Italy and other places. But, “you will kill ten of ours
and we will kill one of yours,” and eventually what happens in
the Vietnam case is that–as in Algerian the case–is that the
pressure to pull out of the war becomes so enormous that that
strategy wins, and that the costs of
continuing to fight, to battle, to repress,
depending on your view of the matter,
will affect the home front, and the home front will demand
the end of the fighting and indeed of the empire.
Early in 1954 the French Army suffered a major defeat at the
hands of the Vietnamese at a place called Dien Bien
Phu–p-h-u at end–which is now a tourist site,
lots of French go there. I’ve never been there.
Just as Vietnam has become the major sort of tourist center,
and for–oddly, not oddly enough,
but I suppose it’s good in bringing these things to an
end–for lots of Americans who fought over there,
and some of whom lost limbs over there, to go back and to
put at least closure on all of that.
Pierre Mendès-France, who was the new socialist
premier, succeeded in taking France out of the war in
Vietnam; and as you know he would be
less successful in trying to convince the French to drink
milk as opposed to wine, a hopeless task,
and he without question became the most eminent French
politician not to hold power as president in France.
The Geneva Convention that year, France agreed to divide
Vietnam into two states. North Vietnam became a
communist regime, led by Ho Chi Minh,
the capital of Hanoi; and South Vietnam became a
republic run by a succession, I think it’s fair to say,
of pretty corrupt leaders who carried out U.S.
policy in exchange for a free hand in all of that.
Now, one thing that was going on behind all of that is the
dissatisfaction of the army with what happened in Vietnam.
Now, because the army, which had emerged from World
War One victorious–but ultimately France was less
powerful than Germany had been in defeat;
France in victory was less powerful–had been defeated and
many officers argued that it was the collapse of the home front
that had brought this about, and that they had been
supported actively by–over the long run;
if enough resources had been thrown in then victory could be
achieved. Now, if that doesn’t sound like
Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time that nobody
in this room except two of us remember,
because that’s exactly the same scenario;
and it’s exactly the same scenario now,
but that’s another matter. And, so, therefore France gets
out of Vietnam, and one of the things that
happened–by the way, my friend Mark Lawrence has an
excellent book on this–is that already the French and the
British in the late 1940s were getting the Americans to kind of
do what they wanted. But what happens then is that
when the French are gone, then the communist insurgency
in the north and the Vietcong in the south lead to this bloody
series of just horrible years in which so many Americans and so
many Vietnamese died, and they are commemorated by
Maya Lin’s wall in Washington, with their names on it.
And you can remember those scenes of the frantic end when
the helicopters are pulling off the well-heeled and the
well-connected from Saigon, in the very end,
and it was a lesson that was not learned;
and sometimes that’s the way that things go.
But that was nothing compared to Algeria, that was nothing at
all. And one of the big differences
why what happened in North Africa, but above all in
Algeria, occurred is that Vietnam,
for all of the residuals of French architecture,
building cathedrals and opera houses along French
architectural lines–there’s a wonderful book by a woman called
Gwendolyn Wright about imperial architecture–and there were a
good number of French living in Vietnam.
But Vietnam was not a settlement colony the way that,
for example, Australia and New Zealand had
been in the British Empire. But Algeria was,
and so was Morocco, and Tunisia,
were settlement colonies. All sorts of people lived
there, from France, and they were called
colons, or settlers,
basically, and their nicknames were the pieds-noirs,
the black feet. And there’s several
interpretations– maybe Brian can illuminate us–but sometimes
they were called black feet because of the boots that the
army soldiers wore, or because it was thought that
if they walked over the burning sands of the Sahara that their
feet would be burned and therefore become noir.
But they were settlers, they were people who had been
there, in many cases, for generations and
generations. Now Algeria,
as Charles told you and you already know,
was first conquered in 1830; Algiers falls in June,
the end of June or early July, I can’t remember which,
1830, and it’s “pacified”; that is, lots of people are
slaughtered over the next decades.
In 1851, after the insurgency to defend the democratic and
social republic against–this is before this course but it’s
still important–against the coup d’état of Louis
Napoleon Bonaparte who became Napoleon III,
many of the people who were arrested and put on trial,
court-martialed essentially before what they called mixed
commissions, were sent to Algeria,
either as prisoners in Algeria, or just simply kicked out,
and then in a whole variety of ways were essentially allowed to
take lands that belonged to the Arab and Berber populations,
and therefore they are there. And one of the things about
imperialism is that this sort of social imperialism,
that Algeria was sort of a safety valve,
that people who couldn’t find work or couldn’t survive often
went to Algeria, because it was sort of like the
far west, the image of the far west in the U.S.–there’s a
place you can get land, you can plant vineyards,
you can plant fruit and you’ll have a life;
you could buy a café and you will have a life.
And, so, it was much easier to get out of Vietnam because you
didn’t have a lot of French people living in Vietnam,
and many of the people in Algeria did not want the French
to pull out. They associated the empire with
their lives. They were French,
and Algeria as you know from reading Chip’s book,
Sauwerwein’s book–who’s retiring,
he’s just retiring, there’s a party for him I think
today at the University of Melbourne–that they were–I
lost my sentence there–but they were there and their empire was
their lives, the French Empire was their
lives. And, so, you’ve got one million
French, originally French people living in Algeria;
you have 200,000 in Tunisia; and you have 300,000 in Morocco.
And, so, they poured money into their cafés in
Algiers, in Algiers,
into their farms, into their economic activities,
and they were there. Some of them were very wealthy,
big landowners; they were called the gros
patrons, the big guys sort of, and they were determined
that France would stay in Algeria, Algeria was French.
They were opposed by the FLN, the Front de Libération
Nationale, which was very similar to the Vietminh in
Vietnam. And the resistance was also
very, as one would reasonably expect, with Islam,
with the Muslim world. Three events in 1956 hardened
the lines between the colons,
that is the settlers, and Algerians fighting for
independence. On February 6th a mob in
Algiers greeted the French premier, who was called Mollet,
m-o-l-l-e-t, and his choice for governor
general who was considered by the colons to be too
pro-Arab, and they greeted him with
rotten eggs and with tomatoes. And it’s a very nasty scene and
Mollet capitulates and appoints a socialist,
a more strident on the issue of holding onto Algeria,
as governor general. In October 1956 there’s a
conference between the Sultan of Morocco and a leader of the FLN
in Tunisia. There is outrage in the French
rightwing press. And, so, French authorities had
the most important delegate at this meeting,
a guy called Ben Bella who is still alive–b-e-n,
b-e-l-l-a. I just looked the other day to
see, and I think he’s still alive;
he was born in something like 1919, if I remember correctly.
They have him kidnapped and put in a jail near Paris.
They begin to repress critics of this rather bold and totally
illegal act, and seize books that are against this movement.
And then in November, as some of you know,
the French government participates in the whole Suez
Canal mess, in part because Egypt–and
we’ll see this in a minute, at least briefly–was an
important part of generating sympathy for the Algerian
national resistance movements. And the British and the French
invade, there’s a ceasefire that’s forced by Russia,
the Soviet Union, with the aid of the United
States. And this seems to be another
humiliation, and what this does as it begins to harden the
lines. Now, the problem with all of
this again is the army, is that now it looks again from
the point of view of the high command in the army that again
the civilians are going to capitulate and there’ll be some
humiliating withdrawal from Algeria,
as there had been from Vietnam. But it’s a very different cost,
isn’t it, because you’ve got a million “Frenchmen,”
in quotes, as they see themselves–they didn’t accept
the Frenchness of the Other, as they unfortunately saw the
Arab population. Is the army going to be
disgraced again? Now, again World War Two and
the defeat in 1940, and people could remember that,
has to be seen as a background; and the defeat in Vietnam.
In 1958 the average military officer had spent at least one
thirty-month tour of duty in Indochina and the average
military officer had spent two to four years in Algeria,
along with a small tour of the occupying garrisons in West
Germany. But support was wavering for
the war. Citations for wounded soldiers
stopped appearing in the official journal,
the Journal Officiel. 20,000 French soldiers had died
in Vietnam–that’s a lot; 9,000 had died by 1958 in
Algeria. And, so, there are charges of
abandonment and hatred of the officers of the French Communist
Party, which seemed to be
orchestrating, among other people
orchestrating it, along with the intellectuals,
opposition to the war. And then there was the issue of
torture–how topical again in the world in which we lived.
The army had revived an old concept of what they considered
to be the real country, the true country,
the true France, if you will,
representing the real interests of France,
that is the army, and the legal country,
which included some of those people who opposed them.
And, so, within the army there begins to be not only discord
but attempts to organize rightwing groups–they became
known as the OAS, the secret army,
that eventually tries to kill Charles de Gaulle himself,
and launches a campaign of terror in France,
and things that you can read about.
They try a putsch in 1961. Sometimes–I used to show this
film in here, but the torture scene is too
hard to see and people used to leave;
it’s horrible but it’s one of the great movies made in our
lifetimes, it’s The Battle of Algiers;
The Battle of Algiers, absolutely fantastic.
The scene where the woman with a bomb goes into a café
and places the bomb and looks at families,
who personally she has nothing against, and she knows that
they’re going to blow up and be killed–it’s one of the great
scenes in film. And you think it’s a
documentary but it’s not, and it’s about the French war
against the Kasbah, against the Algerian quarters,
and these two worlds, the French colon worlds
and the cafés of the colons–their extension
would be the port of Marseilles, the old port of Marseilles–and
the world of people in the Kasbah.
And, so, what the military wants to do is they want to
break the political military organization of the insurgents,
and they want to do this through state terror.
So, you have the terror of those who are accused of being
terrorists, who are blowing up cafés,
as the independence movement did in Vietnam,
and the state terror involving the systematic torture,
the murder, the slaughter of very ordinary people,
many of whom had nothing to do with anything.
And their response is repression, first;
second–this is from a book by Chalmer, I think,
I can’t remember who lists these things,
on the army–a totalitarian technique of organization
promising some reform but basically just organizing
basically a military state; the political activism of the
army, thus the OAS, and working on the French
population as a whole to argue that those who are against these
measures being taken by the French Army in the name of
France are disloyal, and do not represent the true
France, the real France, as they see it.
And, so, the cycle of violence is totally untenable.
And the intellectuals get involved– Camus,
Albert Camus, and lots of others organize
opposition to the torture, to this repression,
to these mass murders, and the stakes increase
dramatically, and it is a total chaos.
Camus, who was born in Algeria, described the difficult choices
for French families who lived in Algeria–the vast majority were
not in favor of mass murder and torture.
He said that if he was given the choice between justice and
his mother he would take his mother. But lots of people there were
again these café owners, were people of modest
of means who were simply caught in the middle of all of this.
Now, on March 13th, 1958, a protest demonstration
by French settlers, the colons,
in Algiers, turned into a military led insurrection
against the French government. A committee of public safety,
but not a leftwing one but a rightwing one,
of rightists seized power–this is in Algeria–and there was a
distinct possibility of a military coup d’état in
France. I have a friend called Maurice
Gardin who’s been in the ministry, he’s now retired,
but is an academic, and when he was in the army
back in those days he was in Dijon,
and they had–or he was in the air force–and he had–they were
told to park planes on the runways in Dijon–and this
happened in very many places in France because it seemed quite
likely that the paras, that is the French
paratroopers, were going to be landing and
that there would be civil war in France between the army and
those army elements that didn’t go along with all of this,
and those intellectuals, and the communists,
and the socialists, and all these other people;
though a lot of the socialists were quite ambivalent about all
this. Now, Charles de Gaulle,
who had gone off to his small house in a place called
Colombey-les-Deu x-Églises,
after he didn’t get his way, as you know,
right after World War Two, announced that he was ready to
serve France again. Many politicians who had real
reasons to fear a seizure of power by the military,
they believed that only the towering figure of Charles de
Gaulle could save France. And on May 29th,
1958, President René Coty, c-o-t-y,
perfume, appointed de Gaulle premier,
a move approved by the National Assembly in early June.
He accepted on condition that he could rule by emergency
decree for six months, and then asked the nation to
approve a new constitution. Now, de Gaulle had always
insisted that France needed a stronger executive authority,
that the Third Republic had fallen, basically,
because no there weren’t any strong leaders to make what he
considered the right decisions in the 1930s,
but because of the fear of Caesarism, of Napoleons,
of Boulanger and of these kind of strong types,
or of Vichy, for that matter,
of Pétain, the President of France had
very little power; power remained in the Chamber
of Deputies. Now, the Right,
including the army, was delighted to have de
Gaulle, the big guy, serving in what they assumed
would be a more or less permanent or lengthy capacity
until a new constitution with a strong executive authority could
be written. He was one of theirs.
He was wounded on a bridge in Dinant, not the two French
Dinan, but the Dinant in–with a t, Belgium, at the very
beginning of World War Two. He was born,
had been born in the fortress town of Lille,
not too far away from the big garrisons and the big fort
there, and surely de Gaulle would want
Algeria to remain French–wouldn’t he?
Now, the new constitution increased the authority of the
president. It was written by Michel
Debré, by the way, whose son is a very
important Gaullist–well it’s not called Gaullist anymore,
but UMP leader in France now. What it did is it set the term
of the presidency at seven years–it’s gone back to five
now–and ended the revolving-door ministries.
And presidents under the Fifth Republic could now conduct
foreign policy, they appoint prime ministers
and they can dissolve parliament.
In September 1958 eighty percent of the population
approved the constitution of the Fifth Republic.
But what about Algeria? Now, the Algerian situation was
different than any other war of independence that had been
fought before, and there was an
internationalization of that war.
There’s a brilliant book on this by a guy called Matthew
Connolly, who teaches at Columbia,
who was a graduate student here, and what the National
Liberation Front in Algeria was able to do was to mobilize
newspapers of the Left and of the Center,
and to use this sort of publicity machine to excite
worldwide attention against torture,
against the abuses of civilians. There was an
internationalization of that war, and this goes a long way to
try to help the situation of the rebels, of the insurgents,
in Algeria. Now, so, what’s he going to do?
So, on the 4th of June, 1958, he goes to Algiers,
and he’s welcomed by the throngs;
not the Algerians but the colons.
By the way, the harkis–two names I need
to explain–the harkis were the Algerians who fought
for the French, and if they stayed in Algeria
after the war they are toast, and so they–and then the
French, what they did is they brought
them back and put them in not really internment camps,
but sort of; they put them into areas,
kind of reserved areas for them, and of course their
relations with other Algerians are not very good,
and it’s a very awkward situation.
The other name up here is Massu, who is one of the chief
torturers, who just died a couple of years ago,
in the army. So, he goes to Algeria and he
says, he gives this classic speech of non-committal.
He told the settlers on the 4th of June, 1958,
“I have understood you, I know what you have tried to
do here.” But he’d already decided that
the costs of France continuing the war were too great,
that the war was too decisive, and he removed many of the
generals responsible for the coup d’état in Algeria
from their post. For somebody for whom
nationalism, as we’ll see on Wednesday, underlay his basic
philosophy of life this seemed to be an astonishing turnaround,
a stab in the back by a military man.
And as the Dreyfus Affair had revealed in the 1890s,
and the Vichy years had confirmed,
a rightwing anti-democratic tradition survived in the
officer corps, and so they felt absolutely
betrayed. And, so, the OAS,
which had already existed, in reality they tried to kill
de Gaulle. The closest they get is at a
place called Clamart, outside of Paris,
where they machinegun his big limousine,
and there’s twenty or thirty bullet holes in there;
and it’s hard to miss a guy who’s sort of power-forward
size, 6’7, a huge, huge man, but he emerges
unscathed–it was absolutely incredible.
And they plant bombs in Paris–this is terrorism–to
blow up and to terrorize the population.
De Gaulle assumes emergency powers again,
this time for a year, but not in the interests of the
army. His interest is to pull
France–this is the ultimate in realpolitik–is to pull
France out of Algeria. And there’s a vote for Algerian
independence held in 1961, in July, and fifteen million
vote oui and five million vote non.
And there’s a new attempt in Algeria by army officers to
organize an insurrection and is soon put down,
and Algeria becomes free. Now, in the last minute that
remains to me, that I have left,
one of the things that is interesting now in the last,
well, twenty years, is that when the National
Front, the rightwing party of Jean-Marie Le Pen,
who had dismissed, by the way the death camps and
the Holocaust as a “minor detail”–I’m quoting him
exactly–and who applauded the drowning of immigrants in the
Seine River by his thugs, when he first came to the
attention of the world with a series of astonishing electoral
victories, or at least good showings in
various places in France, one of the things that people
first, who followed it,
first noted is that he didn’t do that well in the–any more
than anywhere else–in the more traditionally Catholic parts of
France, that is Brittany or one of the
departments where he had his first big success,
near Chartres, in a place called Dru;
but the places that he did astoundingly well were on the
Mediterranean and in the Vaucluse, that is where Avignon
is, and Orange. Why?
It’s not the large immigrant populations from North Africa
who are voting for somebody that wants to drown them or send them
back to where they came from– they’re not voting for him.
The people that voted for him massively are the colons,
the pieds-noirs–not all of them,
but it was they who had to leave, in 1960,
and ’61, and ’62, in many cases getting out
quick, packing up photos,
whatever they could take with them, in some cases,
extreme cases, and going to France where they
bought cafés, orange groves,
et cetera. And they remembered and they
hated. And that’s what changed in a
dramatic way an area that had always been leftwing,
at least since the middle of the nineteenth century,
and turns it into the bastion of,
for awhile, of the National Front.
And then things got more complicated, but it went back to
these events in Algeria and what happened there,
that shaped not only France, but movements in other
countries. See you on Wednesday.

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