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Vietnam 1946: How the War Began.

Vietnam 1946: How the War Began. By Stein Tonnesson, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 388 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

How did war break out between France and the Viet Minh on December 19, 1946? Who was responsible and could it have been averted? These are central questions addressed in Stein Tonnesson's new historical reflection on the events of 1946. Given the tremendous suffering endured by the Vietnamese, French, and later Americans in Indochina, understanding how the first of these conflicts unfolded is of profound interest.

On one hand, it seemed possible that fighting could be averted once France and the Viet Minh signed an agreement on March 6, 1946. Under this agreement the French recognized the Vietnamese Republic ruled by the Viet Minh as a free state within the French Union. The French also promised to allow a referendum to resolve the question as to whether the three administrative units comprising present-day Vietnam--Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina--should be allowed to unite. Finally, and most consequentially, the agreement limited the number of French troops north of the sixteenth parallel to fewer than 15,000 (pp. 39-40). This agreement appeared to set the stage for a more lasting peace.

On the other hand, throughout the remainder of 1946, the Vietnamese and the French were unable to come to firmer agreements that would quell the insurgency in Cochinchina, where the French were in control. As the year wore on, France engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior and made further demands. When the Viet Minh resisted, French ships bombarded Vietnamese-held areas, resulting in a significant number of civilian and military casualties.

Tonnesson's book aims to revise two pieces of conventional wisdom leading up to the outbreak of war on December 19. First, he challenges the conventional account that the March 6 agreement was the result of any "temporary pragmatic, liberal, or moderate ascendency among French colonial decision-makers" (p. 234). Second, he hopes to challenge the idea that the outbreak was a "premeditated and well-coordinated Vietnamese act of aggression" (p. 235). In this way, he hopes to overturn the notion that war was the inevitable result of an early attempt to extend an olive branch between the two sides that failed due to increasing French demands met with an organized Vietnamese resistance.

In challenging these points, the book meticulously follows the events from March until December, detailing all of the important twists and turns. In his account, he convincingly suggests that the agreement of March 6 was not the result of any liberal intentions on the side of the French. Rather, the concessions made by the French were the result of a blunder, whereby the French exposed themselves by sending a seaborne expedition to Tonkin with not enough fresh water to return to Saigon. This turned out to be a problem, when Chiang Kai-shek's forces, then in control of Tonkin, refused to allow French ships to dock in Haiphong. Therefore, the agreement was forced upon the French and Vietnamese by the Chinese forces despite the intention of the French to essentially invade Tonkin and impose an agreement more preferential to the French on the Viet Minh from a position of strength.

The book also darkens the image of Vietnamese war hero Vo Nguyen Giap by replaying the series of events leading up to Vietnamese militias' turning off the electricity and water in Hanoi on December 19 and taking some French civilians prisoner while brutally killing others. This event precipitated a costly war that although it eventually resulted in Vietnamese victory, lasted almost a decade and led to hundreds of thousands of casualties. Tonnesson questions the level to which Giap's and Ho Chi Minh's hands were at best forced by radical elements within their camp or more damningly a result of a blunder. In any case, Tonnesson argues that the attack was the result of a trap laid by hawkish colonial administrators in Saigon eager to start a war with the Viet Minh in order to avoid concessions. Tonnesson also suggests that the decision to allow the attack was not beneficial to the Viet Minh because a more anticolonial government under Leon Blum in France was just establishing itself and seemed willing to grant concessions to Ho Chi Minh's forces.

While the book is convincing on many of these points, it will be of most use to historians already well versed in the history of the first Indochina war. It will be a difficult read for scholars of international relations who are only broadly familiar with these episodes. The major events, including the bombardment of Haiphong and the attack of December 19, 1946, which may not be familiar to those other than Vietnam scholars or experts on French colonialism, are only described in passing. While depth and accessibility always lie in tension in such historical accounts, this book could potentially have broadened its audience with a reorganization of some of the chapters and a broad overview of conventional wisdom and established facts at the beginning of the chapters.

Broadening the appeal would also serve Tonnesson's intentions, as he desires to do more than simply recast our understanding of two events leading up to the conflict. In this work, he also wishes to engage the larger question of the inevitability of war and whether the series of conflicts in Indochina could have been averted. More interesting, from a political science perspective, his work also shows how agency loss between hawkish colonial administrators can lead more dovish politicians into war. These points would no doubt be of great interest to a wider audience outside of those familiar with the established facts of 1946. With more context for the uninitiated, Tonnesson could have engaged a wider audience into his fascinating and well-researched account. Nonetheless, the book remains an important resource for those interested in the unfolding of conflict in Indochina.

Paul Schuler

Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center

Stanford University
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Author:Schuler, Paul
Publication:Journal of East Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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