Remembering the Indochina War

Ronald Bruce St John

The second half of the 19th century was the high tide of Western colonialism in Africa and Asia. In 1859, French forces occupied Saigon, and in 1862, they expanded their occupation to include the three eastern provinces of what would become known as Cochinchina. France was now fully engaged in its most significant war of colonial conquest since Algeria (1830-47). Over the next 20 years, French forces seized the remainder of Vietnam in stages. They acquired the three western provinces of Cochinchina in 1867, and in 1882-85, they expanded colonial control to include central and northern Vietnam. French administrators divided the country into three separate territories – the colony of Cochinchina in the south; the protectorates of Annam in the center; and Tonkin in the north. French forces also imposed protectorate status on Cambodia in 1863 and on Laos in 1893. The Indochinese Union was formally established in 1887, and by 1897, French authorities had completed the construction of the new colonial state of French Indochina.

Almost six decades later, in the wake of the early May 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the great powers agreed at the Geneva Conference (April-July 1954) to grant Cambodia, Laos, and a divided Vietnam independence with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in control of the north and the State of Vietnam struggling to govern the south. As part of the agreement, DRV troops and personnel in Cambodia, Laos, and southern Vietnam, were to regroup to northern Vietnam, and those of the Associated State of Vietnam together with French Union forces were to regroup to the south. At the time, some 150,000 members of the French expeditionary corps remained in the State of Vietnam; however the Geneva Accords mandated their full withdrawal by the spring of 1956, and they had fully withdrawn by April of that year.

M. Kathryn Edwards, an assistant professor of modern French history at Tulane University, is a student of historical memory, and she brings together years of research in a penetrating analysis of the Indochina War (1946-54) as a case study of historical remembrance. As she notes in the introduction, recent scholarship has tended to refocus attention on the conflict as a turning point in the histories of France, decolonization, and the emergence of the Cold War; consequently, renewed study of the Indochina War offers fresh opportunities to develop ‘new perspectives on the politics of remembrance of both French decolonization and the Cold War’ (p. 2), as well as the overlap between the two. With scholarship on the remembrance of French colonization dominated by the Algerian War and only limited scholarship completed on remembrance of the Cold War in Western Europe, her study of the ongoing cultural and social impacts of the Indochina War on French society helps redress the balance.

Structured thematically, Contesting Indochina: French Remembrance between Decolonization and Cold War explores established categories in the field of historical remembrance, like official memory and popular memory, but also demonstrates the overlap of these categories, exploring the specific narratives or myths shaped by veterans, scholars, politicians, and so forth. As the author emphasizes, the remembrance of the Indochina War has not been characterized by a single story or myth but by two distinct, competing narratives which reflect the dual context of the Cold War and decolonization. The first of these narratives, which argues the Indochina War was first and foremost a struggle against communism, emphasizes ‘the partnership between nationalist groups (primarily Vietnamese) and the French expeditionary corps in the struggle against communist forces’ (p. 52), downplaying or ignoring the colonial dimension of the conflict. In stark contrast to the anti-communist narrative, the anti-colonial narrative argues the Indochina War was a war of colonial reconquest on the French side and a war for Indochinese independence on the other side.

Complex and multidimensional, these two opposing narratives are fundamentally at odds with each other, and the groups examined here, civilian groups, veterans’organizations, scholars, film makers, and others concerned with the Indochina War, have spent much of the last six decades in a futile attempt to reconcile them. As the author points out, it has proved very difficult for the proponents of the two narratives to discuss the issues, let alone reach a consensus on them, because a study of these groups ‘reveals the complexities of the politics of remembrance concerning a conflict that was both a war of decolonization and a front of the Cold War’ (p. 87). Interest in the Indochina War snowballed in the decade after 1984; however, the period following the 2004 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war marked a clear decline in commemorative activities, and the celebration of the 60th anniversary in 2014 passed with almost no public or media attention.

Based on a doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Toronto, followed by extensive additional research, lecturing, and publication, Contesting Indochina provides a compelling account of what has been termed France’s most forgotten twentieth century conflict. Edwards writes with great fluency and timing in an elegant and original work, and the extensive notes she has provided complement and supplement the text to a notable extent. In addition to scholars of French history, colonialization, and the Cold War, this book is recommended to anyone who simply enjoys a good read.