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THE NATIONS: The French MacArthur

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As the He de France, stately and beautiful, came up New York Bay, one of her prominent passengers,* a five-star general of France with a faint battle scar on his left cheek, had a particular wish. The general wanted a picture of himself with the Statue of Liberty as backdrop. The massed press photographers were glad to oblige. General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, impeccable from kepi to pigskin gloves, turned his hawklike profile to the lenses and pointed theatrically toward his country’s copper gift to the U.S.

It was a deliberately significant gesture: the general had freedom—and mutual aid—very much in mind. During the past nine months in Indo-China. as French

High Commissioner and commander in chief, he has been fighting one of freedom’s bloodiest and most crucial battles. He had left the front to come to the U.S. on an urgent mission: to see the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and get more U.S. aid for Indo-China, the rampart against the Communist surge toward Singapore and the Indies.

To Manhattan newsmen, General de Lattre read a statement in English: “The war in Indo-China is not a colonial war, it is a war against Red colonialism; as in Korea, it is a war against Communist dictatorship. France has assumed the burden of the war in Indo-China at a tremendous cost to her manpower and financial resources . . . We are fighting on a world battlefield, for liberty and for peace . . .”

De Lattre knows the cost of the fight and the weight of the burden: the band of mourning on his sleeve and his wife’s severe black dress testified to that. Only four months ago their only son, Bernard, 23, an infantry lieutenant, was killed on the Indo-China front.

The “Dirty” War. The Indo-China war has been dragging on for six years. It started as a slow guerrilla nuisance, with none of the dramatic shock of the Red attack in Korea, and at first the free world, including France herself, looked on it as a dubious cause. The Indo-Chinese Reds, led by a wily, veteran Communist, Ho Chi Minh, pretended with some success to be patriotic nationalists, rising against the yoke of French imperialism. In France itself, Communists and fellow travelers loudly berated “the dirty war,” sneered at their countrymen who returned from the Indo-China theater, and sabotaged arms shipments to the French forces —then only a few thousand professional soldiers defending blockhouses in a far-off jungle against an elusive, nearly invisible enemy. Frenchmen had little interest in Indo-China until De Lattre helped persuade them that it was important.

The war with Ho turned Indo-China into a ledger of death and liability. In six years the French army in Indo-China lost 31,000 killed and missing. Today, 240,000 men, amounting to a third of France’s armed forces, are tied down in the war against the Red Viet Minh—which means that, until that war is over, they are lost to Western Europe’s defense.

Ultimately, the U.S. foots the IndoChina bill: the war so far has cost France more than $2 billion—$71 million more than the total U.S. Marshall Plan aid to France. Whether the U.S. likes it or not, the U.S. is very much in the “dirty war” itself; while that war continues to drain from France what the U.S. puts in, France cannot be expected to pull her full weight in NATO. In Indo-China the battle lines of Asia and Europe merge. This is the crucial point which Douglas MacArthur fought to prove, i.e., that Communism cannot go unchecked in Asia and still be defeated in Europe.

General de Lattre de Tassigny, who has been called the MacArthur of France, and who is in Washington fighting to prove the same point, is himself one of the best reasons to hope that the West can win the worldwide battle.

“You Will Be Led . . .” Early last December, about the time the Chinese Communists were sweeping down through North Korea from the Yalu, Indo-China seemed all but lost. Ho Chi Minh’s forces, newly equipped by Red China, drove the French into a pocket on the Red River delta around Hanoi and Haiphong, were shifting from guerrilla raids to frontal attack, and boasting that they would take

Christmas dinner in the French strongholds. The French commanders themselves had given up hope of victory. At this nadir, De Lattre was sent from France. Within weeks he worked a change of spirit, and reversed the tide of war. Frenchmen could only compare it to the miracle of the Marne.

“From now on,” cried De Lattre to his demoralized troops, “you will be led!” He was 62, a veteran of two World Wars and a colonial war (in North Africa), eight times wounded, 46 times decorated, the pre-NATO commander of West Europe’s common defense—but the next 30 days in Indo-China carried his career to its pinnacle.

Brusquely he stopped the panic in Hanoi, canceled the order for evacuation of women & children, brought his own wife from France to his side. Like a burst from a Tommy gun, he cut down and broke incompetent and sluggard officers, cleared the goldbrickers out of the saloons and brothels, conferred on the worst of them what his soldiers came to call “the order of the steamship ticket,” i.e., packed them off to France.

When a guard of honor at Haiphong seemed slovenly, De Lattre tongue-lashed the general and colonel in charge, a terrifying treatment known in French slang as the “shampoo.” He ordered 25 days’ confinement for the pilot of his plane, because the pilot had neglected to put the new commander’s insignia on the fuselage. To a bearded copilot, De Lattre snapped: “And you’ve got five minutes to shave yourself clean!” Later, to an aide, the martinet confided: “I have terrible obligations. I have to abuse those I like the best. These air force men are genuine heroes, but they behave too badly.”

To the U.S. liaison officer in Indo-China, Brigadier General Francis Brink, De Lattre handed a list of urgently needed weapons and supplies. He grasped at once the importance of a U.S. weapon ideal for jungle fighting: napalm. His predecessors had never used it.

De Lattre shuttled over the front in a small plane, with a display of energy that left aides ashen-faced with fatigue. Everywhere he touched dormant chords of national pride and restored to his soldiers the will to fight.

The Big Gamble. In mid-January the big test came. In their first frontal maneuver, the Viet Minh, 40,000 strong, stormed the French lines in the Vinhyen area northwest of Hanoi, striking for the rich, rice-growing delta.

Badly outnumbered, De Lattre made a strategic gamble: he stripped the garrisons of southern Indo-China, flying eleven battalions up to Vinhyen in a ramshackle armada of military and civilian aircraft. The defense of the south was left to a handful of regulars and native auxiliaries under able General Charles Chanson, later murdered by Viet Minh terrorists.

Then, with his forces skillfully supported by fire bombing and artillery, De Lattre cut the Viet Minh assault to pieces.

He followed up that victory with others at Dongtriéu, Ninhbinh and the Day River. By the time the rains began last June, bringing major military operations to a halt until the fall, the Communists had taken a severe drubbing. Ho Chi Minh no longer thought of dinner in Hanoi; instead, he ordered a return to guerrilla action.

Uhlans to Panzers. De Lattre and the Americans have been allies in three wars. He was born (1889) in Mouilleron-en-Pareds, the Vendee village which is also the birthplace of Georges Clemenceau, and where De Lattre’s 96-year-old father has been mayor for four decades. Young Jean went to St. Cyr, France’s West Point, and marched from the classroom into World War I. A lieutenant of dragoons, he won his first citation after a lance-v.-saber encounter with German Uhlans. Though unhorsed and wounded in the chest, he cut down two of the enemy with his sword. Shifted to the infantry, he survived four more wounds before the Armistice.

Between World Wars, he served under France’s famed Marshal Lyautey against the Riffs of Morocco. In 1939 he became the youngest (50) French general. In the debacle of 1940, he and his 14th Infantry Division showed up well, holding the German Panzers near Rheims until the line on his left flank disintegrated. Until the Germans marched into unoccupied France, he served the Vichy regime as a military instructor. Then, in a rage, he defied Vichy’s orders to keep his troops in barracks (“Never will I receive the Germans at my headquarters!”), and led his men out to resist in a brief, futile battle.

The Vichy regime sentenced him to ten years in jail, but he soon escaped, with the help of his wife, who smuggled into his cell a small metal saw tucked in a bouquet of flowers and a ten-yard rope hidden in a bag of laundry. He made his way to the Free French in London and then Algiers. In 1944 and 1945 he led the French First Army in its landing in the south of France and its proud march northward to the Rhine and Danube. At one time his command included 125,000 U.S. troops. It was in this campaign that American officers got firsthand acquaintance, often startling, with the De Lattre temperament and technique.

Springtime’s Victory. Like MacArthur, De Lattre is often impatient with his superiors’ recommendations; like MacArthur, he has a flair for the intense dramatic (colleagues have nicknamed him “General de Théátre”), and a precise sense of history. In Germany, De Lattre successfully attacked Ulm against instructions, because he knew that in 1805 Napoleon had executed a similar maneuver.

De Lattre can be moody, and he is touchy about honor—both France’s and General de Lattre’s. During the Battle of the Colmar pocket, De Lattre’s superior, U.S. General Jacob Devers, peppered him with suggestions over the field telephone. The badgered Frenchman finally exploded: “If you want me to run this battle, leave me alone! If you want to run it, come here and take over!” A firm admirer of De Lattre’s talents, Devers hung up and remarked: “I was wondering how soon he would say that.”

Once, at an Allied banquet, De Lattre refused to eat or drink because Russia’s Marshal Georgi Zhukov failed to mention France in a toast praising Allied armies. Informed of his oversight, Zhukov proposed a special toast to France. De Lattre, appeased, began to eat and drink.

General Charles de Gaulle sent De Lattre to Berlin to sign the Armistice, although France had not been invited to the ceremonies. De Lattre signed as a witness, then issued a lyrical order of the day: “Victory has arrived . . . radiant victory of springtime, which gives back to our France her youth, her strength and her hope . . .”

Toward Resurrection. De Lattre belongs to a France that long ago dropped out of the headlines. His is not the France of falling cabinets and rising black-marketeers, nor an envious France, nor a timid France. But to drop from the headlines is not to die. De Lattre’s France is, perhaps, more deeply alive than the France that twitches uncertainly through the news. To De Lattre’s France belongs a great military tradition in which the word Patrie means as much today as it did at Marengo and Verdun.

De Lattre uses grand words, because they are the words that match his feelings. The rhetoric of the dedicated French soldier is as genuine and essential a part of his military character as General McAuliffe’s cry, “Nuts!” is a part of the American military character. Men like

De Lattre talk big because they feel the bigness of the France that for generations has been hidden, more often than not, beneath the coattails of little men. When De Lattre speaks of la France he means a country so large that all the men of Western civilization have a home there.

De Lattre’s first big postwar job was to revive the moribund French army. As chief of staff, he called the country’s youth to “a national resurrection.” He scrapped the old training methods, which had centered around the dank barracks known as the caserne, parade-ground drill and obsolete maneuvers, and set up the camp léger (light camp), which gave the recruit realistic and toughening field exercises.

Late in 1948, De Lattre got his second big postwar job: commander in chief of Western Union land forces. Created by the Brussels pact of 1948, which brought Britain, France and the Benelux powers into a defensive alliance, Western Union was the prelude to the broader North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The boldest voice in the debate over Europe’s proper strategy was raised by De Lattre; he favored “offensive defense,” i.e., a highly mobile and mechanized army that would tear around an invader’s columns, carry the battle to his flanks and rear.

“Stand Up Like Men.” In Indo-China, De Lattre has practiced the dynamic defense he preached for Europe. Not only has he transformed a whipped, dispirited French army into a resurgent, confident fighting force, he has also shaken up the leaders and the people of Viet Nam.* From their chief of state, Emperor Bao Dai, down to the peasant masses, the

Vietnamese were pretty skeptical onlookers in the French struggle against Ho Chi Minh; they doubted whether that struggle had much to do with their own freedom. The Communist record in China and Korea shook their doubts, but still it seemed to them that the French cause in Indo-China was, at best, the lesser of two evils; proud Viet Nam nationalism could not forget the arrogant French colonialism of the past. Some of the bitterest criticism of France came from the native intelligentsia who spoke the purest French. Many joined Ho Chi Minh’s camp. Many more played the game the French called attentisme—fence-sitting—waiting to see which side would win.

De Lattre boldly attacked this Vietnamese doubt. He won over the distrustful Bao Dai and other leaders with his intense assurances that the old colonialism was dead. He exhorted village elders: “Attentisme, the double game, treason, are at an end . . . You are at war, and in war to compromise is treason . . .” He told the nation’s youth: “Stand up like men . . . If you are Communists, join the Viet Minh . . . But if you are patriots, fight for your country, because this war is your war . . .”

Despite De Lattre’s political progress, U.S. observers in Indo-China estimate that, in free elections, half the Indo-Chinese would still vote for Ho rather than French-supported Bao.

Victory by ’52? In July, impelled by De Lattre’s drive, the Viet Nam government decreed total mobilization. All men between 20 and 45 were subject to military draft. The machinery to train a national army was already in operation. De Lattre proposed to use the 60,000 Vietnamese who have been fighting in the French army, as a seasoned nucleus. He set up schools for Viet Nam officers (good Vietnamese officers are rare). By year’s end, he hopes the Viet Nam army will be 120,000 strong; how good it will be is another question.

De Lattre runs his war in Indo-China in his usual grand manner. When not at the front, at his headquarters in Hanoi or Saigon, the routine is about the same. He sits at a huge, black-lacquered desk in Saigon’s Norodom Palace; a map of the front stands behind him, and a grandfather clock ticks away. He stays up till 3 or 4 a.m. reading field reports, then issues his orders for the next day and turns in. He is up again at 10 or 11, after receiving advisers while still in bed. He is a meticulous dresser (his clothes come from Lanvin in Paris), and he has been known to fire a stenographer with the remark: “You don’t know how to dress, Miss, and your hair is dirty.” Says one newsman who has seen him at work in Indo-China: “Around him all women must be beautiful, all men handsome and intelligent, all motorcars sleek and fast, all public appearances impressive.”

When he returns to his headquarters next month, he will find IndoChina’s war machine waiting for him (little gets done while the boss is away) and for the end of the rainy season, when the Communists are likely to attack again. De Lattre is confident that he can crush the attacks as before—always provided that the Chinese Communists do not directly intervene. His plan, which he is expounding in Washington this week, calls for decisive defeat of Ho’s forces by 1952.

What Does De Lattre Want? To help him carry out his plan, De Lattre wants, first of all, old pledges fulfilled. He has already got upwards of 100 American fighter planes, 50 bombers and transports, ground arms for 30 battalions, artillery and naval craft; but other promised deliveries—trucks and tanks—are seven months behind schedule. He also needs additional arms of every kind.

But De Lattre wants even more. A scornful opponent of bits-&-pieces warfare, De Lattre burningly wants the U.S., Britain and France to agree on a unified strategy against Communism in Southeast Asia. He insists that Korea, Indo-China and Malaya (where 32,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers are still fighting Red guerrillas) are only different battles of the same war; they should all be fought within an overall plan.

As he spoke for his program in Washington, De Lattre was impressive and persuasive. He speaks a fluent, heavily accented English, in words that sometimes trip over an English idiom. (Once, meaning to say “I point upward.” he came out with, “I point my finger through the ceiling.”)

Washington gave him the No. 1 treatment—honor guard, military band, howitzer salute, receptions, dinners. At the White House he talked with President Harry Truman. He prayed at George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon, went to Mass on Sunday. At the Pentagon he lunched with General of the Army George Marshall and his successor as Defense Secretary, Robert Lovett. At the State Department, he briefed Dean Acheson on Indo-China. “Very interesting . . . I got a clear picture for the first time,” said the Secretary. “We shall do all that is possible for you.”

Intense and indefatigable though he was, De Lattre seemed, to U.S. friends who knew him in the past, a subdued man in contrast to World War II days, when he used to play host at lavish parties and declaim his own poetry at the dinner table. The death of his son has hit him very hard. Sometimes a sudden memory will wring from him an uncontrollable sob. He is, like MacArthur, essentially an old-fashioned man who believes unbendingly in the old-fashioned virtues—but also in the new-fashioned ways of waging war. “The only thing,” says De Lattre, “that matters any more is duty—duty to France, duty to end all this killing, duty to end all this chaos in the world.”

*The old Indo-China is now divided into the three Associated States of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, of which Viet Nam is the largest (its 23 million people comprise more than 80% of all Indo-Chinese).

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