From Charles Penyvesi in Paris PRESIDENT de Gaulle has
stepped into the Vietnamese conflict. No longer content with occasionally voicing his dissatisfaction with American policies in Vietnam, the General has now entered the battlefield by condemning the U.S. war effort as "regretful and useless," and by exchanging letters, described as friendly in tone, with North Vietnamese President Ho Chi-minh.
Franco-American relations have reached an all time low, with a further deterioration in view. It is rumoured in Paris that France may upgrade its commercial mission in Hanoi and accord full diplomatic recognition to the Communist regime. It is moreover believed here that this may be a prelude —or perhaps a condition set by the North Vietnamese—to France's assuming the role of a mediator in the conflict.
Unless listened to, De Gaulle predicts for the U.S. blood. sweat and toil—as well as an inevitable defeat. The sole solution, he asserts, is a political settlement along the lines of the Geneva Agreement of 1954: withdrawal of all foreign troops, and a reunification and neutralisation of the two Vietnams.
De Gaulle advises Washington to leave Asia to the Asians. He says that the Vietnamese war is furthermore driving Russia closer to Red China and it excludes any possibility of a rapprochemeni between the West and Moscow. He advocates the idea of negotiations with the Viet Cong and Communist China and calls the State Department's stand of non-recognition "folly".
Observers here believe that it is for several reasons that De Gaulle has now decided to take an active role in the Vietnamese crisis.
Internally, he needs to repair the damages his prestige suffered recently. His reelection in December was by a surprisingly narrow margin44 per cent of the votes in the first round, 55 per cent in the second. His victory is generally considered as meagre and disappointing.
His criticism of the U.S. position in Vietnam earns him popularity. His outspoken opposition is regarded here as "courageous" and it is approved by a broad coalition of French public opinion, extending from the far left to the centre and including significant elements on the right as well.
De Gaulle's decision to publicise his • disagreement with Washington is interpreted here as another demonstration of France's independence from the U.S. "He's got the guts to do it," comments the Frenchnran-in-the-bistro, "the General knows how to show it to the Americans."
Others, who ordinarily dismiss De Gaulle's need to exhibit his independence as "adolescent" or "useless," assert that in the Vietnamese question his opposition has its merits. "Somebody has to tell the Americans that they are wrong," they say. It is also remarked that no other member of the Atlantic Alliance has dared come out in the open to voice his disapproval.
Then, searching for De Gaulle's motives, let us not forget that not-so-distant fact that Vietnam was French until 1954 and plenty of French effort and blood were invested in it. "Vietnam is in a region where France preserves influence and interests," commented Le Monde recently, in welcoming De Gaulle's stepping into the conflict. "Was it not the U.S. that eased us out of there?"— rightist and leftist intellectuals alike remark.
Whatever their point of reference—the glory of the empire or the rationality of the withdrawal — Frenchmen feel that they know much more about Vietnam and are more competent to tackle its problems than the newcomer Americans. They accuse Americans of heavy handedness and of ignorance of local conditions.
The General can claim for France a fair amount of experience in putting an end to costly, unpopular wars. De Gaulle may take personal pride in the withdrawal from Algeria, which perhaps nobody could have carried out in a fashion more gracious and intelligent than his. Today, Frenchmen are fond of pointing out, relations are excellent between the two countries, despite the years of bloody fighting.
Then, there is, of course, the French experience in Vietnam itself. The war between the French Army and the Communist guerrillas ended in 1954 in what many people consider the costliest defeat France suffered since Napoleon. In nearly ten years of fighting, the flower of the French army perished and the economy was near to exhaustion.
There are certain littleknown facts about that first Vietnamese war which De Gaulle is likely to have in mind when he attacks U.S. policy: "Americans have an aversion for all colonial enterprises which are not their own . . . and the very natural desire of such a powerful people is to establish themselves in new places."
The General refers here to a period which most people would consider history but which he finds relevant in the present situation. This was the fast years of World War II, when it became clear that the U.S. was against the continuation of colonial rule in Asia. This meant that no American aid was given to French resistance groups fighting the Japanese in Indo-China.
There was one particularly tragic case : French units operating in a place called Lang Son in North Vietnam were surrounded by vastly superior Japanese forces. The French, under heavy fire, called for help. The Americans, under General Claire Chennault, were a mere 150 miles away and capable of decisive intervention. Yet they did not help. Later Chennault explained that he received orders not to supply arms or ammunition to the French troops under any circumstances.
The Japanese closed in, killing thousands of French soldiers and massacring others as they were fleeing to China. One of the survivors, who was liberated at the war's end from a Japanese concentration camp, was Pierre Messmer, who is
today the highly respected Defence Minister of Gaullist France.
Another link with the present is the fact that before the U.S. came to recognise Ho Chi-minh as a Communist, American equipment in American planes was flown into supply his troops fighting the French.
Much of this is recalled now with rancour. Frenchmen do not have to be Gaullists in order to sympathise with the General's "paying it back to the Americans in their own coin". But even those who disapprove of De Gaulle's "politics of spite" ask the question: why did the U.S. refuse between 1946 and 1954 to help France beat the Communists and then why did it decide on a large-scale intervention in 1962? .
To most Frenchmen and not only to De Gaulle, the war in Vietnam appears more and more like a desperate last-ditch stand by the U.S. The best solution is to come to terms with Communist China, it is argued. This will entail sacrifices, perhaps loss of prestige as well as some political concessions, but it is the only way out.