"Street Without Joy: the French Debacle in Indochina"
by Bernard Fall (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1961)
George C. Herring
Lexington, Kentucky (June 1993)
“Bernard Fall's Street Without Joy is one of a handful of truly classic accounts of the wars [note the plural] in Indochina. Originally published in 1961, just as the Kennedy administration was escalating the war in Vietnam. It attracted little initial notice in the United States. By 1967, however, when the United States was engaged in full-scale war and Fall himself had been killed reporting combat in the very area he had written about, it had become stardard reading for the U.S. officer corps in Vietnam. It remains today perhaps the best English account of France's frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful effort to subdue the Vietminh insurgency." p. 3
"... Like Fall, Gates notes that the United States has learned nothing from its failure in Vietnam because it has refused to recognize the true nature of the war that was fought there. Street Without Joy thus remains not only a splendid account of a conflict often forgotten in the aftermath of America's war in Vietnam, but it also speaks directly to a debate that continues to rage among military experts on the nature of the two wars in Indochina and the "proper" ways to fight them." [in other words: How to do a wrong thing and do it "the right way" (i.e., "correctly")] p. 8
“ … war is a political act. … war conducted in a political vacuum is not war at all but slaughter. In the end, war becomes the last resort of the politician, who must turn over its conduct, though not its ultimate objectives, to soldiers.” p. 9
B. B. F.
Howard University, Washington, D.C.
"This is not a history of the two "Indochina Wars" — that fought by the French from 1946 to 1954 with their Vietnamese allies, and that fought by the South Vietnamese and their American allies since 1957 — but a historical sketch of certain key developments in both wars, and of the men who fought on both sides. As a battlefield, Indochina is unlike any other fought over by Western forces previously, for warfare there assumes the aspect of what the French called "la guerre sans fronts" — a war without fronts — and, therefore, without secure rear areas. The term "Indochina" is used advisedly, for the war again involves all of Viet-Nam and Laos and the border areas of Cambodia; and the outcome of combat operations in South Vietnam will, of course, affect the whole of the Indochinese peninsula, Thailand included.
No Western combat operations in recent decades quite resemble those fought for eight years from the Tonkin highlands to the swamps of Ca Mau. They are, in any case wholly out of the range of American past experience. In sheer size alone, Indochina, with its 285,000 square miles, is larger than New Guinea, Burma, or the puny 85,000 square miles of Korea. In contrast to the treeless spaces of Korea, Indochina is covered to the extent of eighty-six percent with dense spontaneous growth and to the extent of forty-seven percent with outright jungle.
While New Guinea or Burma, or the smaller Pacific Islands, offered similar terrain features to American troops during World War II, the whole tactical situation was so different as to make any valid comparison quite difficult. ..." p. 15
How War Came
War came to Indochina in the wake of the crumbling of the European colonial empires in Asia during World War II. When France lost the first round of that war in June of 1940, Japan found the moment ripe to take over additional real estate in Asia in preparation for her own further conquests. ..." p. 22
. . .
A French expeditionary force of less than two divisions was allowed to enter North Viet-Nam in February 1946 under the terms of an agreement negotiated by the French with the Viet-Minh (which, in the meantime, had proclaimed a republic on September 2, 1945) and the Chinese Nationalists. But the Viet-Minh had had about ten months in which to establish their administration, train their forces with Japanese and American weapons (and Japanese and Chinese instructors), and kill or terrorize into submission the genuine [!! fails to credit Viet-Minh with nationalism] Vietnamese nationalists who wanted to a Vietnam independent from France but equally free of Communist rule. The first round of the war for Indochina already had been lost for the West before it had even begun.
The French managed to lose the second round — that of political negotiations — through their own stubbornness and their unwillingness to see the situation as it was: they had been defeated, through their own fault and that of their allies; and they did not have the overwhelming military force needed to make a military test of strength between themselves and the Viet-Minh which would be so obviously hopeless for the latter that they would not attempt it. And France, in 1946, seemed a likely bet for Communist domination herself. [De Gaul's blackmail]. The French forces sent to Indochina were too strong for France to resist the temptation of using them; yet not strong enough to keep the Viet-Mihn from trying to solve the whole political problem by throwing the French into the sea." p. 27
Chapter 12: Why Dien Bien Phu?
"The [First] Indochina war ended July 20, 1954 after a conference at Geneva attended by most major powers, including Communist China and the United States. The conference began May 8, 1954 under the shattering impact of the fall ["liberation") of Dien Bien Phu the day before, and resulted in the loss of all of Viet-Nam north of the 17th Parallel to the Communist government of Ho Chi Minh." p. 312
Chapter 13: The Loss of Laos
"In retrospect, the three-year-old Laotian conflict which was temporarily resolved by the neutralization of Laos on July 23, 1962 under a coalition government, was probably one of the most avoidable conflicts on record, and onethat was beyond a doubt one of the most misreported in recent American history." p. 330
"A part of the blame for the sad state of the Laotian Army must inescapably fall on the French training mission which had a training monopoly in Laos until late 1958 but had not helped the Laotian Army to adapt itself to the realities of its own chaotic terrain and communications. The French reply to that accusation was that, as advisers in an independent country, it was hard to make the Laotians do something they were reluctant to do (i.e., field training), and, after three years of similarly frustrating experiences, the U.S. military advisers who succeeded the French between 1959 and 1962, tended largley to agree with them. ... the Royal Laotian Army was structurally ill suited to come to grips with a fluid guerrilla force." pp. 330-331
"It did have its own guerrilla groups, inherited in good part from the French GCMA's, but they were miserably underpaid for the considerable risks they had to assume. Their families lived in villages where the Communists could carry out reprisal raids while the families of the regular forces lived in the large cities of the plains.
The result of this situation was that, in the "Laos War" of 1959, the Laotian forces were at a considerable disadvantage in relation to the rebel groups. But here again, as in the cse of many events in Asia, it is necessary first to eliminate some of the misinformation spread about the matter by incredibly sloppy press reporting for the sake of pure sensationalism. ..." p. 331
Chapter 14: The Second Indochina War
"But the Communists once more refused to do things by the book of Western rules. Sometime late in 1957, they began a new terror offensive directed almost entirely against the village mayors and administrators who, in a rural country, are the backbone of the government. ... Also Viet-Nam felt strong enough to attack regular Vietnamese Army posts, such as the one at Trang-sup, where a whole Vietnamese battalion was destroyed and all its equipment fell into rebel hands. And, as a few years ago under the French, heavy Vietnamese units set out in a clatter of armor and a roar of trucks to chase after small black-clad figures stealthily operating in small groups — and found nothing.
The regular forces, bogged down with their heavy equipment, were used time and time again for anti-guerrilla missions for which they were neither trained nor psychologically suited. ... the fact remains that the paratroopers' revolt had been one of frustration the frustration of crack troops being misused for a mission which they cannot possibly hope to accomplish successfully." p. 345
Combatting the Insurgency
“Throughout the first half of 1961, the situation in South Vietnam simply went from bad to worse. A special study mission, sent to Viet-Nam to make recommendations on suitable reform, came forth with little else but some minor military improvements and an eighteen-month “counter-insurgency plan” which was outrun by events by the time it left the mimeograph machine.” p. 345-346
“The creation of a U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (USMACV) under General Paul D. Harkins on February 9, 1962, marked the opening date of America’s direct involvement in the new Indochina war. Although the word “adviser” is carefully added to the name of every American operating in the country, it soon acquired the quotation marks usually reserved for assertions no one takes quite seriously any longer. Since 1961 Americans die in Viet-Nam, and in American uniforms. And they die fighting.” [emphasis added] p. 346
“Not that total jugulation of the South Vietnamese border area would by now guarantee eventual victory any more than the successful closing of the Algero-Tunisian border brought the French victory in the Algerian war: the hard fact is that, save for a few specialized antiaircraft and antitank weapons and cadre personnel not exceeding perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 a year or less, the VC operation inside South Viet-Nam has become self-sustaining. In fact, the worst guerrilla areas are not even abutting on any of Viet-Nam’s foreign borders. And while the complete closing of the South Vietnamese border to infiltrators certainly remains a worthwhile objective [?!], to achieve it along 700 miles of jungle-covered mountains and swamp would just about absorb the totality of South Viet-Nam’s 1964 forces of 250,000 regulars and 250,000 paramilitary troops of various kinds. That should be made clear before undue official optimism in high places – the bane, thus far, of all reporting on Viet-Nam – again produced a situation from which there can be no exit but a general feeling of mutual recrimination and letdown.” [emphasis added] pp. 347-348
“The point needs to be made, and made clearly before a new mythology becomes accredited which blames the military setbacks of 1963-64 not upon the military and civilian bunglers who are responsible for them, but on the Buddhist monks or the American press corps in Saigon. The hard and brutal fact is that, for a variety of reasons which can be as coldly analyzed as the French defeats described earlier in this book, the strictly military aspect of the Vietnamese insurgency was being as rapidly lost in 1961-62 as its socio-political aspects were. [emphasis added] It is the highly respected chief of the Tokyo bureau of The New York Times, Robert Trumbull, who in his recently published work The Scrutable East, makes a point which needed saying much earlier and still might do some good even at this late date:
“We are told now that the war [in Viet-Nam was being lost in 1961 but the Washington version at the time was quite different. The conclusion has to be that someone, somewhere along the line, was guilty of gross incompetence or of lying. [emphasis added] – The Scrutable East (New York: David McKay, 1964, p. 249)
Facing the Facts
"This problem of having to live with and face up to unpleasant facts is probably one of the most difficult which threatens the peace of mind of the contemporary politician, military planner, or historical analyst. p. 362
"And thus, the Second Indochina War goes on — from action to counteraction; from new devices which fail (such as "defoliation" of forests and fields with chamicals) to older devices which work [?!](small reiver craft and sea-going junk forces); from Vietnamese and French casualties in 1946-1954 to Vietnamese and American casutualties as of 1961. In South Vietnam, the West is still battling an ideology with technology, and the successful end of that Revolutionary War is neither near nor is its outcome certain." p. 368
Chapter 15: The Future of Revolutionary War
“Why is it that we must use top-notch elite forces, the cream of the crop of American, British, French, or Australian commando and special warfare schools; armed with the very best that advanced technology can provide; to defeat the Viet-Minh, Algerians, or Malay “CT’s” [Chinese Terrorists], almost none of whom can lay claim to similar expert training and only in the rarest of cases to equality in fire power?
The answer is very simple: It takes all the technical proficiency our system can provide to make up for the woeful lack of popular support and political savvy of most of the regimes that the West has thus far sought to prop up. The Americans who are now fighting in South Vietnam have come to appreciate this fact out of first-hand experience.”
“… just about anybody can start a “little war” (which the Spanish word guerrilla literally means), even a New York street gang. Almost anybody can raid somebody else’s territory, even American territory, as Pancho Villa did in 1916 or the Nazi saboteurs in 1942. No dictator has ever been totally safe from an assassin’s bullet. But all this has only rarely produced the kind of revolutionary ground swell which simply swept away the existing system of government.
Conversely, once such a revolutionary movement exists, whether fanned from the outside or created out of internal pressures alone, it is difficult to suppress with the help of military specialists alone – particularly foreign specialists.”
“… guerrilla warfare is nothing but a tactical appendage of a far vaster political contest and that, no matter how expertly it is fought by competent and dedicated professionals, it cannot possibly make up for the absence of a political rationale. A dead Special Forces sergeant is not spontaneously replaced by his own social environment. A dead revolutionary usually is.”
“International vandalism” in the form of Revolutionary War is going to be with us for a long time to come.