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Leadership Against Insurgency
ClarenceM. Sonn&Jr.

J UST 17 years ago, shortly after his

return to France from Indochina,
General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny
uation or a fortuitous shift in the
international politieel picture, but,
rather, almost solely to the ekill of
died of cancer. By this time, his stra- this individual commander, a distin-
tegic plan for defeating the Vietmhdi guished veteran of two World Wars
was in shamhlee. But for a brief time and the Moroccan campaign. Through
in 1951, he had turned back the en- a combination of energy, devotion to
emy and kd given France new hope. duty, and cheer military genius, de
Credit for halting the advance of Lattre in the one year before his un-
the Vietminh at a critical moment in fortunate death demonstrated that in-
1951 was due not to any eudden im- dividual greatnees can etill prevail
provement in the French logistic sit- over the forces of history and pro-

72 MiliblyReview
tided lessons in strategy againet in- not only possessed, but also inspired,
surgency which merit restudy today. confidence and assurance. He bed a
Thle future Marehal of France wee etrict eenee of discipline and a 8hort
born on 2 February 1889. There is temper for those guilty of negligence
no indication that hle parents intended or transgreesione. Above all, he felt
him for a military career, but young a eense of patriotism which be euc-
Jean de Lsttre wae a vigorous youth cesefully instilled in others. He raised
for whom any other choice would have the morale of those under him to a
been inconceivable. Aside from a scat- high pitch.
tering of military officers among hls
Transfer te Infantry “
anceetore, it was apparently a boyhood
Rwdizing that the old cavalry bad
love for horsee which led him to Saint-
eerved ite ueefulnees, de Lettre, in
Cyr and the French cavalry.
1916, transferred to the infantry. In
St3rt of C3reer the trench warfare of the period, he
Ae a young lieutenant, de Lettre chereeteristieelly served at the out-
was stationed within sight of the Ger- poste of the battlefield and ended
man border at the time World War I World War I with further wounds and
broke out. He and his troop of horse- decorations. After come duty in the
men distinguished themselves in those peacetime army, he eerved in Morocco
firet few months hefore the conflict from 1921 until 1926. With the re-
devolved into trench warfare. By the bellion of Mohammed ben Abd-el-
end of 1914, he had become a Chevalier Krim, de Lsttre gained his first ex-
of the Legion of Honor and had suf- perience in the guerrilla warfare
fered a chest wound which nearly cost which was to require his expert at-
him his life. tention in Indochina 25 years later.
Even at this early stage, it was He returned to France to attend the
clear that de Lsttre was a leader of 13cole de Gnerre, sewed several years
men. Somewhat stocky and only mod- as a regimental commander, and was
erately tall, he was not handeome, but appointed in 1933 te the staff of the
his erect stature, an aquiline nose, and Coneeil Superieur de la Gwrre under
penetrating gray-blue eyes created a General Maxime W. Weygand. In Sep-
striking appearance. He dressed faulti tember 1936, he returned to a regi-
lessly, and his actions and demeanor mental command at Metz, not far from
were often theatrical, although they where he had been etationed at the
reflected the character of a man who outbreak of World War I.
By 1939, de Lattre, at the age of
Cfmwwe M. Somw, Jr., ie the
Prkipal Eemwmic O@er with the 50, had achieved the rank of brigadier
American Emba#8y, Jidda, Saudi Av* general. Despite brief interludes of
bia. He 8erved with the 20th Air Fume staff work he was clearly at hh best
during Werld War II, and joined the ae a field commander, strategist, and
Department of State as a Foreign leader of men. Shortly after World
Se*-ce Oficer in 1947. H8 woe 08- War II started, he wae given com-
eigned to the Amet+can Conmdat8 in mand of the French 14th Infantry
Hanoi in 1950-51, and woa a ot”vilian
Divieion. In the German invseion of
m8mber of the 1966 clns8 at the US
Arnqt War College prior to his present 1940, he did his utmost to stave off
aam”gnment. French defat. For his services, he

lmualy1*9 13

was made a grand officer of the Legion forces in Indeehina late in 1950.
of Honor and later promoted to major Frenchmen, in 1950, were at least aa
general. concerned about the course of events
In July 1941, de Lettre joined in Southeast Asia se Americans were
Weygand in North Africa as com- to become 15 years later. Although de-
mander of the French forces in Tunis. bate waa colored by the desire to main-
At this point, he seems not to have tain the French Union, there was real
seriously considered leaving French concern over how to stem the advance
territory to join the Allies. Instead, of communism with less-than-adequate
recalled to France early in 1942, he resources and the absence of a rep-
sought to maintain the troops at hie resentative Vietnamese Government.
disposal in reediness for a possible Militarily, time began to run out for
Allied landing in southern France and the French when the Communists com-
the feared German occupation of tbe pleted their conquest of China, offer-
Vichy territory. When the latter came, ing the .Vietminh a convenient base .
de Lattre was found guilty of “aban- of foreign support. To meet thie chal-
doning his post” and was sentenced to lenge, no other Frenchman seemed bet-
10 years’ imprisonment. ter qualified than Jean de Lsttre.
By the fall of 1950, the French had
Fame Spreads
Ioat their principal outposts along the
De Lettre served only 10 months of
Chhmse frontier, and the enemy under
this sentence by escaping on 4 Sep-
General Vo Nguyen Giap was prepar-
tember 1943. Evacuated clandestinely
ing for the first time to make a frontal
to England, he soon joined the French
attack on the Tonk]nese capital of Ifa-
forces in North Africa. In mid-1944,
noi and the port city of Haiphong. The
he moved on to Italy, from where he
French forces seemed unable to rally,
led the French contingent in the Al-
and morale was poor. French civilians,
lied landing in southern France. The
who had long since transferred their
successes he achieved there and in the
liquid asseta to safer ground, were
subsequent drive northward and then
now evacuating their families.
across southern Germany to the Aus-
trian border were to eetablish de Lat- Command Differs
tre’s international reputation as a mil- De Lattre’s assumption of command,
itary leader. effective 17 December 1950, differed
De Lattre commanded the French fundamentally from that of his pred-
occupation forces for a year before ecessors in that he wee named not
returning to France where he served only commander in chief of French
as inspector general of the army and forces in the Far Eeat, but also high
chief of the general etaff. With the commissioner for Indochina. Charac-
signing of the Treaty of Bruesels, he teristically, he tarried only two days
became commander in chief of the in Saigon before proceeding to the
land forces of Western Europe and front in Tonkin.
subsequently served in the same ca- Not only the troops, but aleo the
pacity in the formative etagce of the local populace were to be impressed.
North Atlantic Treaty Organiaetion. De Lattre used his magnetic personal-
De Lattre did not heeitate when he ity and well-chosen words to encourage
was called to command the French the officers and men, and the effect

74 Military Rwiaw

was not lost on the civilian population. By this time, the Chinese support-
On Christmas Eve, the midnight mass ers of the Vietminh had become en-
at Hanoi’s cathedral was delayed un- gaged in the Korean Contlict. The
til de Lattre and hia staff made a dra- effect of this development on subse-
matic entrance. The evacuation of ci- quent events in Indochina is difficult
viliane was halted, and General de to aseees, but from a broad viewpoint,
Lattre himself summoned his wife to the Korean struggle so taxed Chinese
preside over their household in Ha- resources that the ultimate expansion
noi. The fact that his only eon, Ber-
nard, had already been eerving in
Indeehina for over a year, he allowed
to speak for itself.
General de Lattre was soon visiting
the outposts of the battlefield, inepir-
ing the troops with hle confidence and
courage. Hie efforte to turn the tide
of the war, however, consisted of
more than theatrical appearances. He
purged many officers whom he consid-
ered derelict in their performance.
Nevertheless, the greater alertness
which he instilled throughout the
army came juet in time. On 15 Jan-
uary 1961, the Vietmhh launched a
major attack against Vlnh Yen, only
25 miles northwest of Hanoi, for the
first time concentrating their forcee A -“ A#aOmat


and ricking battle in open country. The helicopter wse used exteacively hy
Recognizing the seriousness of the the Frenehin Inderhina
situation, de Lattre not only took the of the Vietminh into the south of
rick of withdrawing troops from other Vietnam was delayed.
portions of Tonkin, hut also requisi- In any event, de Lettre realized that
tioned commercial aircraft to organize hie initial victory merely restored the
an airlift from Saigon to the north. status quo ante under which the hill
The battle lasted four days during country remained in enemy bands, and
which the attackers lost an eetimated large poWlons of the Red River Delta
5,000 dead and nncounted wounded. were unsafe after nightfall. He insti-
On 19 January, they withdrew to tuted a crash program for the con-
the hille. General Giap, bimeelf, pub- struction of new fortifications and re-
licly acknowledged the mistakes of hie organized hie troeps to provide lighter
campaign. Victory for the French, and more mobile units. Communiee-
however, would ecarcely have been pos- tions for the latter were improved and,
sible had General de Lattre not uti- to the extant of available resources,
lized hls first month so effectively in air support was increased.
restoring morale and personally con- De Lattre ordered the reinforce-
dncted such a vigorous defense. ment and holding of Mao-Khe, a key

Jmusry 1969 75

post in holding off a new enemy drive again able to throw in reinforcements
toward Haiphong at the end of March and to harass the enemy with aircraft
1951. He realized, however, that the and riverhorne firepower. On 18 June,
deployment of available troopz and the Vietminh retired after heavy
military action alone could not win losses on both sides.
the Indochinese czmpaign. In mid- The successful outcome of this bat-
March, General de Lattre had re- tle, however, held scant satisfaction
turned to Paris to demand extensive for General de Lattre, for, on 30 May,
reinforcement, emphasizing that the near the banks of the Day River, his
loss of Tonkin would mean the 10SS eon wae killed. Although earlier he
of Indochina and of Southeast Asia. had never emphasized the fact that
This was contrary to the views of the hie own son was sharing the burden
Chiefs of Staff who wished to concen- of the Indeehinese action, his subse-
trate the French efforts in South quent appeals for greeter effort and
Vietnam. sacrifice could not fail to be more
solemn and carry greater weight. Only
Forces Withdrawn
briefly did his personal tragedy de-
While the French Government
prive h]m of the force to carry on his
agreed with de Lettre on his strategy,
mission in Indochina.
it faced the dilemma of reneging on
simultaneous commitment for a ViatnamesaArmy Formed
greater French contribution to Euro- Meanwhile, General de Lettre had
pean defenee or instituting a polit- commenced another creditable project
ically unpopular increase in the length —the formation of an independent
of compulsory military service. Rather Vietnamese ArrnY. Early in the year,
than face either possibility, the gov- Vietnamese troops commenced service
ernment decided to withdraw forces under French officers, and training
from North Africa on 20 March 1951. continued during the summer months.
The fateful long-range consequences Since the Vietminh were reassessing
of this deeieion were not ordy that their strength and strategy, and the
French control in Africa was dimin- rainy seeeon made action difficult,
ished by the number of battalions there were to be no other major en-
withdrawn, but also many African counters until fall.
troops were to have their first contact Despite his initial successes, de Lat-
with an anticolonial revolt and learn tre aIso realized that France could not
methods which they could later apply win the war in Vietnam without in-
against the French. Nevertheless, de ternational supPort. In May, he at-
Lattre received his reinforcements. tended a conference with the British
During de Lettre’s tenure, General in Singapore. He was in close contact
Giap made a third try to drive the with the American Embassy in Saigon
French from the Red River Delta. This and the American Consulate in Hanoi.
commenced on 29 May with attacks In September, he accepted an invita-
across the Day River combined with tion from the US Joint Chiefs of Staff
diversionary guerrilla attacks on to visit the United States.
French positions within the delta. A In Washington, General de Lattre
number of the smaller French outposts met President Harry S Truman, Sec-
were wiped out, but the French were retary of State Dean G. Acheson, and

76 MMRaryReview
ism, but one to prevent the epread of River at Yen Bay in order to capture
communism in Southeast Asia, and Nghia Lo, a peet which wae essential
that it was a conflict comparable in to the French if they were to hold the
importance to that in Korea. Hie ap- northern mountain area and protect
peals for greeter aid, emphasizing the northern Laos. Again, through tbeex-
needs of the Vietnamese ArmY, were ercise of mobility, including the land-
to bear fruit in due course, although ing of three paratroop battalions, the
de Lattre, himself, never benefited assault was stopped by 5 October.
from the increeeed support he helped During the brief respite which fol-
to obtain. lowed, de Lsttre decided to take the
De Lattre and his party returned to offensive. The new campaign was dic-
Paris on 26 September. A few daye tatedpa~lally bypoliticel motivee. A
later, he wae told by his doctor that conspicuous victory wae needed both
he had cancer. Nevertheless, he spent to get the Indochinese budget through
several daye in England at the invita- the French National Aesembly and to

January 1969 77
encourage greatly increased support decided to evacuate the post, even the
from the United States who at the retreat could be accomplished only
moment facsd a stalemate in Korea. againet heavy enemy resistance. At
With considerable foresight, de Lat- the end of tbe operation, on 24 Feb-
tre had decided not to attack the en- ruary 1952, Vietminhlossea hadprob-
emy’s main centers of strength, but ably exceeded tboseof the French, but
to strike to the west of Hanoi which tbe damage to the French strategic
offered a bypass for the Vietminh to plan and to the will to fight which de
funnel suppliee tO Communists incen. Lattre had so carefully cultivated was
tral and South Vietnam. On 11 No- beyond recall.
vember, he launched an attack on Cho It ie difficult to believe that, if de
Ben, 30 miles southwest of Hanoi. It Lattre had retained charge, he would
fell within tbree days. On 14 Novem- have overlooked the need to clear the
ber, the attack was shifted to Hoa land route to Hoa Binh or failed to
Binh, due weat of Hanoi on the Black find some other means of rescuing tbe
River, where the rapid tranefer of operation. De Lattre, however, had
troops from Cho Ben created an ele- nndergone eurgery ’in December, and
ment of snrprise and resulted in the died on 11 January 1952. The nation
capture of tbe post with small losses. honored ita hero posthumously by
naming him a Marshal of France.
Final Journey
At thie point, General de Lattre Masterful improvisation
wae already in the process of trans- What de Lattre had proved during
ferring his command to General Raoul bie brief tenure as commander in In-
SaIan, and, on 20 November, he left dochina was, first of all, that counter-
for bis final journey to France. The ing the insurgents required nothing
Hoa Binh campaign, nevertheless, re- less than the ablest of fighting men
maine of interest in any evaluation of imbued with the will to win. He com-
de Lattre’e methods. While hk baeic menced, and, indeed, continued, his
strategy seemed sound, the successful campaign with Iese materiel than
capture of tbe town was, unfortu- seemed necessary to achieve victory,
nately, hut the prelude to an intense making up for bis lack through mas-
battle. The French could supPly the terful inprovieation. Probably he wae
poet ordy bya winding river route or fortunate in encountering errors on
by a narrow road which was less than the part of his enemy—in this case,
half the length, but badly damaged General Giap’a premature decieion to
from earlier action and highly vulner- engage in frontal combat—but his
able to attack. ability to take advantage of such mis-
River operations were euccese~ulfor takes merely confirmed his etature ae
a time, but ended when the enemy, a military leader.
after fierce fighting, gained control of De Lattre also was outstanding not
both banke. Theueeof the land route only in his ability to command the
was then attempted, but at an unsup- respect and beat efforts of his men,
portable cost, partially becanse the but also in his skill in winning the
French had failed to clear out the outside support which be saw was
underbrush which provided cover for neceseary if tbe war was to be won.
the guerrillae. When General Salan He convinced the French that a


greater effort was required to win and could not contiln the<enemy expand-
that it was worth eacritlces elsewhere ing within this circle. There wea never
to hold the line. He also contributed time to learn whether General de Lat-
much to the French effort to win SUP. tre appreciated that the enemy, too,
port from the United States. It is in- had gained invaluable lessons from the
teresting to speculate to what extent defeata he administered in 1951, and
de Lsttre, had he lived, might have that subsequent French strategy
succeeded not only in pursuing the would have to remain tdghly flexible.
military campaign more effectively,
De Lattre’s steps tocreateaninde-
hut also in persuading later French
and US Governments to be more forth- pendent Vietnamese Army ended an
right in taking political decisions es- inexcusable delay, but there is no in-
sential to forestall Vietnam’s later dication that be foresaw the danger
drift into chaos. of Freuch bureaucratic slowness in
While it is certain that de Lattre transferring other powers to an in-
would have missed no step which digenous government. what he offered
might have led to his basic goal, his was an early demonstration that sutli-
genius lay in war and not in politics. cient resources, effectively applied,
Even his military decisions in Indo- could overcome many of the military
china reflected an uncertain apprecia- advantages of insurgency, but that,
tion of the political situation. The without correspondingly effective po-
great string of fortifications he con- litical action, the price of victory
structed around the Red River Delta might prove too great.

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January 1969 79