Made in North Korea @ the House of Illustration

The House of Illustration

The House of Illustration is the UK’s only public gallery dedicated solely to illustration and graphic art. It’s a charity, and was set up by a group of illustrators led by Quentin Blake, in 2002.

In July 2014 they opened their permanent home in a converted warehouse just north of King’s Cross train station, an area which has been comprehensively regenerated and filled with shops, boutiques and the new campus of Central St Martin’s Art school – all bisected by the cleaned-up Regent’s Canal.

The House of Illustration’s aim is to explore historic and contemporary illustration and to promote the work of emerging illustrators. It hosts frequent talks and events, and runs a learning programme for children, young people, adults and families, delivered by professional illustrators.

North Korea

As anyone who reads the papers or listens to the news should know by now, North Korea is probably the most secretive and closed society on earth, dominated by the Cult of the Great Leader, tubby Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea since 17 December 2011

Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of North Korea since 17 December 2011

A hundred years of Korean history

The exhibition offers a free A3 handout packed with information – among other things explaining the iconography used on North Korean products, miniature reproductions of all the posters and comic book covers featured in the exhibition, And it also includes a handy timeline of the troubled history of North Korea:

1910-45 – The Korean peninsula is occupied by Japan. Various resistance movements.

1945 – Japan, defeated by America, withdraws its troops from Korea leaving a potential power vacuum. Russia and the U.S.A. (still wartime allies) agree to administer the northern half and southern half of the peninsula, respectively. They set the border at the 38th parallel i.e. 38 degrees north of the equator. This decision is the basis for the division of Korea which lasts to this day.

1948 – Separate governments are formed in each half of partitioned Korea – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north, the Republic of Korea in the south. The Workers’ Party becomes the ruling party of North Korea, led by Kim il Sung.

1949 Communists finally seize control of China at the end of a prolonged civil war with nationalists. Naturally, they form supportive relations with communist Korea on their border.

1950 North Korea launches a surprise attack on South Korea and succeeds in pushing the South Korean Army and American troops deep into the south. At which point General MacArthur launches a surprise amphibious invasion at Incheon, half way up the peninsula, threatening to cut North Korean supply lines. The North Koreans are pushed right back up to the border with China, at which point China intervenes, sending 200,000 troops to support the North Koreans. They push the allies, by now fighting under the flag of the United Nations, back towards the original border, and fighting then continues around the 38th parallel for a further grisly two years, until an armistice is signed in 1953. Technically, the war has never ended.

1953 to 1994 Kim Il Sung rules North Korea as a communist dictator.

1994 Kim Il Sung dies and his son, Kim Jong Il takes leadership of the DPRK.

2011 Kim Jong Il dies and his son Kim Jong-un takes leadership of the DPRK.

Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK

This is the UK’s first ever exhibition of graphic design from North Korea. It brings together a fascinating cross-section of commercial products and ephemera from this most secretive of societies – over 100 common objects including food packaging, ticket stubs and stamps together with stunning hand-painted posters and comics.

This wealth of objects is all part of the collection of Nicholas Bonner, who has been visiting North Korea and leading tours of the country for over 20 years. Bonner has also been involved in three documentaries and a feature film about the country.

The Main Gallery of the House of Illustration is made up of three rooms of the size you might expect to find in an average house, and a fourth much smaller one, a sort of annex.

Room 1 – Posters

Room one is covered with about 30 wonderfully bright, clear propaganda posters showing happy, healthy, smiling North Korean men and women promoting their country’s fabulously successful economy and wealth of goods and products. Look! Look how rich we are!

Hand-painted poster saying 'More consumer goods for the people' - collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Hand-painted poster saying ‘More consumer goods for the people’ – collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Since there is no private enterprise in this communist country, all posters – indeed all objects whatsoever – are state-designed and state-approved. These posters are made in state-run collective studios. The largest is the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, which employs over 1,000 artists.

It’s surprising to learn that almost all of these posters are hand painted. Difficult to believe, but the proof is there – if you look close enough, you can see brushstrokes and flaking paint.

I learned one big thing: In the West we make posters to promote consumption; in communist countries public art is designed to promote production. Hence almost all the posters in this room show a smiling Korean worker gesturing towards huge piles of cotton, medicines, fish, food, straw, coal, milk, meat – you name it, North Korea is overflowing with it!

Hand-painted poster saying 'Everything for the full achievement of the 1979 People's economic plan'. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Hand-painted poster saying ‘Everything for the full achievement of the 1979 People’s economic plan’. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph by Justin Piperger

Key features of the posters include:

– Outstretched arms and open hands are a vital part of the image’s dynamic impact. Reaching, stretching, showing, betokening optimism and energy.

– So is the Korean script. This is itself pretty geometric and so lends itself to being incorporated into images which are basically naturalistic, but stylised, hyped-up, super-realistic, and which often feature straight lines and idealised shapes. In the poster, above, the converging lines of the coal conveyor, the rails, the quayside and the ship have an almost Art Deco quality.

– And, of course, there is the actual contents of the messages – these are mostly abstract design elements to us, but to Koreans they blare encouragements and exhortations. Here are some of the texts from the 30 or so posters on display:

  • Let’s do more sheltered-water aqua cultivation!
  • Let’s build more factories to produce more consumer goods!
  • Let’s innovate the fish industry!
  • Let’s fully carry out the Party’s foreign trade policy!

and my favourite:

  • Let’s all rear more goats!

– And, my goodness, all these happy people have perfect teeth, as stylised as blocks of dazzling white marble! There’s a chair in this first room which I needed to sit in to soak up all the bright colours, the wealth of consumer products – and the dazzling dental perfection!

Installation view of the poster room at Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration

Installation view of the poster room at Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration

Room 2 – consumer goods and movie

This is a fairly small space, which contains a display case holding 22 small consumer products and a screen showing a short time-lapse movie about Pyongyang.

Kind of makes you want to go, doesn’t it? After all the scare stories you hear, the people look remarkably like us and their underground, roads and buildings pretty similar. Only much, much cleaner.

The products in the display case are things like fizzy drinks cans, water bottles, packets of boiled sweets or noodles, packs of chewing gum, a biscuit tin. The commentary says that all these common or garden products feature the ‘flat block colour and smooth vector graphics’ seen in other Asian countries, and it’s true that I associate these violent acidic colours with products in India, which I’ve visited a few times.

Box of biscuits from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

Box of biscuits from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

To really understand  the uniqueness of the coloration and design of the objects on display, I imagine you’d have to be a graphic designer. Clearly the posters in particular are a combination of:

  • Russian Socialist Realism as filtered through Chinese Socialist Realism
  • with added Korean motifs
  • and a distinctive Korean colour palette

Room 3 – Public performances

Colour is explored a bit more in the next room where there’s a all label explaining the existence of a distinctive Korean colour palette. Apparently the main colours are white, black, yellow and red, with secondary colours green, turquoise, light pink, sulphur yellow and violet.

I think it’s these secondary colours which make all these products look so distinctive. Not blue, turquoise. Not just green, but a bright acid green. And pink, lots of pink.

The main subject of this room is public entertainments, namely the state-run cinema, theatre, circus and gymnastic – lots of gymnastics. Large-scale, state-sponsored gymnastics. Apparently the 2007 ‘Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance’ was the biggest gymnastic display every held anywhere in the world.

There’s also a display case explaining North Korean opera. Apparently there are five major revolutionary operas, which were written during the Japanese invasion and then the Korean War. Korean opera incorporates traditional folk dance and an entire wall of the room has been covered with a blown-up image of a chorus of women folk dancers.

Installation view of Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK at the House of Illustration

Installation view of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ at the House of Illustration

Next to it (visible in the photo above, on the left) is a display case showing no fewer than 82 lenticular postcards. New word to me, ‘lenticular’ is the term to describe that kind of postcard which looks oddly pixilated and when you turn it, you get a slight three dimensional effect, as bits of background emerge from behind foreground objects, as some of the objects appear to ‘move’.

A little tacky to our taste, these are apparently very popular in the Democratic People’s Republic. Subjects included dancers, both folk and ballet, horses realistic or leaping into the sky, landscapes and notable buildings in Pyongyang, flowers and birds – all done with the bright-to-garish coloration which the note on palette had made me appreciate more. Only one was remotely warlike, a poster-like cartoon figure of a wounded Korean soldier heroically attacking an American tank armed only with a grenade.

Room 4 – Comic books and ephemera

Room four makes a bigger impact than all the others because all four walls are covered in wallpaper made up of repeated iterations of some of the ephemera on display, namely the gaudy wrappers of canned food, bottles of water, packets of all sorts of consumer products.

'Installation view of room four of 'Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK' at the House of Illustration

Installation view of room four of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ at the House of Illustration

This room is really a car boot sale of all kinds of bric-a-brac from North Korean everyday life, a veritable ‘cabinet of Korean curiosities’. There are display cases devoted to:

  • tourist maps, tickets and souvenirs
  • labels of food products
  • New Year cards
  • pin badges
  • stationery and stamps
  • cigarette packs
  • sweet boxes
  • beer, water and fizzy pop bottles and cans

In among lots of North Korean trivia I learned that Juche is the Korean word for ‘Self Reliance’, which has been official state policy since the communist party came to power, i.e. having little or no contact or trade with the outside world. Official propaganda at every level drums home the idea that they don’t need it because North Korea is, quite simply, the most perfect, happiest society on earth. Hence all the dazzling smiles!

The New Year’s cards are a traditional Korean tradition, but given a communist twist ever since the state introduced the notion of redating the entire calendar from the birth of the first Great Leader, Kim Il Sung in 1912 – or Juche 1.

I liked the lapel badges or pins, with a variety of logos symbolising North Korea’s sporting prowess in – well, you name it, they’re the best at it – football, gymnastics, even cricket. All adults wear two lapel pins showing the two Kims (as you can see Kim Jong-Un doing, in the photo at the top of this review).

I particularly liked the way the food labels of meat products show not just the finished food product, but the animal it came from. Just to be clear.

Tinned food label for pork from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

Tinned food label for pork from North Korea. Collection of Nicholas Bonner. Photograph courtesy of Phaidon

And note the use of English in this, as in many, labels. Apparently, this implies class and quality.

Being a boy, I also enjoyed the massive display of pocket comic books, mostly war and spy stories, the North Korean equivalent of the Commando war comics which I grew up with 40 years ago.

That free A3 handout I mentioned earlier, includes thumbnails of all 97 of these comic book covers. Some have generic titles which could come from any culture, such as ‘The Star of Glory’ or ‘No Turning Back’. Others are more comically communist like ‘Taking up the torch of our comrade’s will’ and ‘The heart of a member of the young communist league’ and, my favourite: ‘He was very intelligent and courageous in every battle’.

I was struck by the number of covers which featured snow, and heroes wearing winter uniforms, reminding me that Korea has bitter winters, something which features in many memoirs of the Korean War.

Installation view of North Korean comic books in room four of 'Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK' at the house of Illustration

Installation view of North Korean comic books in room four of ‘Made in North Korea: Everyday Graphics from the DPRK’ at the House of Illustration

Images and society

One of the wall labels in this room makes the simple but profound point that all of these artefacts, objects, products and ephemera, superficially bright and varied though they seem, in fact use a relatively limited set of images and icons.

This iconography of agricultural and industrial plenty, accompanied by stylised bodily gestures (the outstretched arm and hand demonstrating the bounty of communism) and smiling faces, is obvious in the big posters.

Less obvious, until it’s pointed out to you, is the use of a standardised set of official icons. That A3 handout I keep mentioning also includes a guide to 32 of these icons, which range from symbols of the party (red star, red flag, hammer and sickle) to images of Pyongyang’s enormous, iconic buildings (the May Stadium, Arc de Triomphe, Koryo Hotel, Juche Tower and so on) to sanitised versions of Korean national icons (the pine tree representing longevity, the white tiger a symbol of Korean history, the crane representing good fortune, and so on).

The point is the sheer repetition of this finite set of symbols on everything. Seeing images of the Grand People’s Study House or the Worker’s Party emblem on fag packets, tin cans, fizzy drinks, water bottles, stamps and postcards, is designed to ram home the fact that North Korea is the whole world – its buildings and food and technology and athletes and sports, its national symbols and, above all, the communist party which rules over it, is the best in the world, is all the country needs; reinforcing the fundamental idea of North Korea’s glorious self-sufficiency or Juche.

Living in Western societies which are super-saturated with a bewildering array of constantly changing imagery, it is difficult to imagine what it must be like to live in a society where there is a very limited amount of visual imagery, and what there is, is tightly controlled by the state.

Who knows what the North Korean graphic designers who made all these posters and designed all the other objects in the show think about their own society or the wider world. But the exhibition makes you come to admire the inventiveness and sheer skill of artists forced to work within an extremely tight set of parameters, who still manage to infuse their work with colour and life.

Peace

If we want to stop killing each other we have to realise the other side are people just like us. Shame we can’t make Donald Trump visit this exhibition. We mustn’t underestimate our differences and think the population of Syria or Burma can be changed into Hampstead liberals overnight by a free election or a handful of tweets – but you have to start somewhere.

This exhibition provides the immense public service of taking us out of our Western comfort zones, away from Western media and art – and introducing us to a completely different visual, political and cultural world. It’s also great fun. Go see it.


Related links

Related reviews

Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

‘Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of imperialist warmongers.’
(Stalinist slogan quoted on page 426)

The full title is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and that’s what the book narrates in grim detail. Applebaum is already well known for her magisterial account of the Soviet network of prison camps or ‘gulags’. This account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe builds on her expertise, and benefits from the opening up of archives in both the Soviet Union and the countries which it subjugated.

There were eight countries in ‘the Eastern Bloc’ (if you accept that the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were simply swallowed whole by Russia and ceased to exist as separate entities): East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania. Applebaum’s account focuses in detail on just three – East Germany, Poland and Hungary. I was a little disappointed by this, as I feel I’ve read lots of books and seen plenty of movies about East Germany whereas I know next to nothing about Bulgaria or Romania. But she’s right to say these three provide a selection of types of country which demonstrate the way different histories and experiences were subjected to the same murderous Soviet approach.

Each of the chapters then takes a topic or aspect of the crushing of Eastern Europe and describes its application in each of the three chosen countries:

Zero Hour

Paints the devastation of a continent after the war. Her account supplements Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. We’ve all seen photos of the ruined cities. It’s the scale of human displacement which is difficult to grasp. Between 1939 and 1943 some 30 million Europeans were dispersed, transplanted or deported. Between 1943 and 1948 a further 20 million were moved (p.11) Levels of theft, looting, violence and murder were orders of magnitude greater than they had been before the war. In many places civil society had completely collapsed.

Victors

The path of the Red Army across Eastern Europe was marked by wanton destruction and mass rape, especially once they’d crossed into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of German women were gang-raped, many then murdered. Alongside individual acts of looting, the Soviet apparatus systematically denuded European countries of their industrial infrastructure. Tens of thousand of factories, trains and railway line, were ripped up and shipped back to Russia. They packed up Leipzig Zoo and sent it East.

Communists

Applebaum profiles the men who were to become the leaders of communist Poland, Hungary and East Germany – Boleslaw Bierut, Matyas Rakkosi and Walter Ulbricht, respectively. They were uniformly from poor backgrounds and badly educated.

Ulbricht was the son of a poor tailor who left school early to work as a cabinet maker before being drafted into the Army. In 1918 he was galvanised when he discovered communist texts which explained the world in simple terms and he never lost his faith. Like the other leaders, he benefited from the way the between-the-wars communist parties, as Stalin’s influence grew, purged many of their brightest and best members. Only the less bright, the more dogged, the more unquestioningly devoted, remained. (Of the thirty-seven original members of the Polish Communist Party’s central committee, no fewer than 30 were arrested in Moscow and shot or sent to labour camps.) This explains the poor intellectual calibre of the leaders of the communist bloc; the clever ones had been liquidated.

Moreover, these ‘leaders’ implemented a social, political and policing model straight from the Soviet template. They all copied the Soviet hierarchy of Politburo, Central Committee, regional committees, and local party cells. In all the countries, regardless of local political or economic conditions, they tried to apply the same political and economic straitjacket.

Because all were ‘Moscow communists’. This meant that during the troubled years of the 1930s and the war, they had all fled to Russia where they were soundly indoctrinated in the One True Way by the Comintern. The Soviets were deeply suspicious of any communists who’d spent any time anywhere else, especially any who had been based in the West. Once the communist regimes were in place, many of these non-Moscow communists were themselves arrested and sent to prison or labour camps – just in case they had divisive or alternative views. About anything. Only the most faithful of the faithful were allowed to take power.

Applebaum points out that, quite apart from notions of social justice or ideological convictions, membership of this small, élite band held two kinds of more tangible rewards: psychologically, it made you feel part of a chosen elite; and in practical terms, both in Moscow and back in their home countries, they lived an elite lifestyle, able to shop at party shops, stay in party hotels, relax in party dachas and send their children to party schools.

Policemen

The most obvious area where the European communist parties simply copied Soviet model was in the creation of their own versions of the Soviet secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD).

Applebaum portrays the chillingly efficient way that communist secret police apparatuses, which had been preparing and training for years, were flown in ready-made as each Eastern country was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army, to become the Polish UB, the Hungarian AVO, the East German Stasi.

For a few years most of the liberated countries were allowed to have a facade of democratic politics, with a number of political parties and even free elections. This was because the Soviets knew from experience that democratic politics is a sham: real power lies in the secret police and the prisons. Given complete control of these instruments the political system can be seized overnight simply by arresting everyone.

Applebaum shows how the secret police mentality had been shaped by intense ideological training in the USSR to believe that everyone not in the communist party was a potential enemy spy or saboteur, who consequently had no rights. Anyone could be arrested and she shows how, in the early months of Hungary’s liberation, the new security police was under instructions to deliver fixed quotas of ‘traitors’ and so quite literally arrested anyone they could find in the streets, including children.

And often, of course, even people inside the communist party turned out to be traitors. Absolutely everyone had to be watched, and as far as possible, everyone had to be made a collaborator of the secret police. Hence the extraordinary size and depth of the Stasi’s files when they were revealed to the public in 1990, and the dismaying discovery that a huge percentage of the population routinely reported on their neighbours, friends, and even wives and partners.

Violence

The Comintern knew exactly what they were doing. The liberated countries were to be slowly strangled. Other parties could be included in initial elections and be given various government departments – but the communists always and everywhere controlled the ministries of the Interior, of Defence and the secret police – i.e. all the mechanisms of violence. From the word go they ruled through arrests, beatings, executions and labour camps.

Between January and April 1945 the NKVD arrested 215,540 people in Poland. Most were in fact ethnic Germans who were deported to Germany. The 40,000 Poles were all sent to prison camps in Russia, where some 5,000 died. Between 1945 and 1953 some 150,000 people were incarcerated in NKVD camps in Eastern Germany. A third died due to appalling conditions. There was no heating, no medicines, no doctors, often no food. After the ‘liberation’ of 1945 between 140,000 and 200,000 Hungarians were deported to Russian labour camps.

The arbitrariness of many of these arrests, combined with the careful targeting of specific voices of dissent, worked exactly as the Soviets intended – terrifying entire populations into silence and acquiescence.

It is particularly chilling to learn that, such was the need of the new communist regimes for prison camps, that wherever possible they started reusing the Nazi death camps. Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and even Auschwitz, became prison camps for the ever-multiplying categories of traitors, spies and saboteurs which the communists quickly detected everywhere.

Ethnic Cleaning

The years after the Second World War were marked by the truly epic relocation of peoples. The largest group were Germans, with over 12 million Germans being expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. Admittedly this was partly because many had moved to those countries during the war, as part of Nazi settlement plans, and also because the borders of Poland were drastically moved westwards by Stalin, effectively engulfing a large part of East Germany. But ethnic groups who now found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country were kicked out of all the EE nations. Applebaum’s account of the savage civil war between Ukrainians and Poles in south-east Poland is particularly shocking.

She also explains that anti-Semitism, although part of the hated Nazi ideology, was always liable to be revived in Eastern Europe. Many of the communist leaders were self-conscious about either being Jews themselves or that the party contained lots of Jews and tried at various points to recruit more Volkisch members. The whole issue was revived in the last 1940s as Stalin himself became clinically paranoid about Jews and in particular Jewish doctors, who he thought were trying to poison him, which led to many Jews being rounded up in the purges and arrests of 1949.

As usual, Applebaum conveys the infamy of all of this by telling the heart-breaking stories of individuals caught up in the madness. While all the nations of Eastern Europe set about ethnically cleansing themselves, expelling non-local-speaking languages back to their new ‘homelands’ – Czechs being kicked out of Hungary, Poles kicked out of Ukraine, Germans kicked out of Poland and so on – all these peoples could at least travel to a nominal home country. So this vast panorama of ethnic cleansing adds a kind of fateful inevitability to the increasingly urgent efforts made by Jews all across the East, and in Russia, to travel to their homeland, the newly-founded state of Israel.

Youth

I didn’t know that the Boy Scouts movement was as widespread and popular in Eastern Europe as Applebaum shows. It is just one of the many independent organisations which the communist parties all across the East slowly strangled and co-opted into official party organisations. For example in July 1946 the communist Interior Minister of Hungary, László Rajk, banned over 1,500 organisations.

Why? In the introduction Applebaum has several pages discussing the nature of totalitarianism, invoking the quote associated with Mussolini, that it can be summarised –

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

This chapter shows what nothing outside the state means in practice and it really is terrifying. Absolutely everything which we refer to nowadays as civil society – all charities, church groups, youth groups, hobbies and associations – every single way in which people got together had to be either banned or subject to communist control.

The relentless horror of this was brought home by the story of the 17-year-old Polish girl from Lublin who invited members of her old scouts group to get together to form a discussion group. She and seven friends were arrested and sentenced to between two and five years in prison. Nobody was allowed to associate together in any way lest even the slightest form of association create the germ of oppositional politics.

Applebaum points out that the focus on youth movements reflected Soviet and Marxist belief that human beings are blank sheets to be moulded and created at will, in this case to produce a new species, Homo sovieticus.

This is the background to Stalin’s expression that writers and artists should be ‘engineers of the human soul’, the human soul being something which can literally be redesigned and rebuilt to suit the needs of the proletarian revolution. Hence also Stalin’s rejection of modern genetics – because it appears to assert the profoundly fixed basis of human nature – and his promotion of the crackpot Lamarckism of Russian geneticist Lysenko, an apparently academic dispute which in fact had catastrophic consequences when it was applied to Soviet agriculture.

My ears pricked up when Applebaum points out that this view of human nature was prevalent in left-wing circles across Europe, because I have just been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre whose fundamental position is our utter freedom to create and shape ourselves. This contrasts sharply with his ‘frenemy’, Albert Camus’s position, that there is a human nature, its core element being revolt against our condition, against destiny and fate.

Which made me reflect that this is one axis along which to draw the divide between fundamentally left wing and right wing mentalities: on one side the belief that human beings can be changed and improved; on the other the knowledge that human nature is fixed, fallen and must be policed.

Radio

Newspapers were important and had to be controlled, but the easy way to do that was ration or cut off the supply of paper. Radio, however, was a potentially universal disrupting factor, and this explains why the political apparats parachuted in from Moscow already had training in how to use the radio for propaganda purposes. In many cases the Red Army was told not to damage the radio buildings of the enemy, notably the big radio studios on the outskirts of Berlin, virtually the only building left standing, as the Red Army was under strict orders to seize it intact, so that communist propaganda broadcasts could begin even during the last days of the war.

But – in line with the communist clampdown on absolutely every aspect of private life – woe betide anyone who had an unauthorised radio. In October 1944, Bolesław Bierut who would become the president of communist Poland, declared that anyone who owned a radio without a licence would be sentenced to death.

Politics

Detailed account of the way the communist regimes inched their way to power. At first they allowed other parties to exist, organise and publicise but the plan was always to persuade and then bully them into coalitions, where they could be controlled and then strangled.

It is striking to learn that in all the liberated nations the communist parties expected to win free and fair elections. They thought the populations would naturally be grateful to the Red Army for liberating them from the Nazis, and – indoctrinated with Soviet ideology – they also believed the working class would awaken to its historical destiny and realise the future was communist. But it didn’t.

Typical was the Hungarian General Election of November 1945, which was won by the Smallholders Party with 57%, followed by the Socialist Party with 17.4% and the Communist Party with 16.9%. The Soviet commander in Hungary, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, refused to allow the Smallholders to form a government. Instead Voroshilov established a coalition government with the communists holding all the key posts while the communists set to work to undermine and eventually abolish the Smallholders Party. In February 1946 its General Secretary, Béla Kovács, was arrested, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia for the usual trumped-up charges of treachery and counter-revolutionary activity i.e. anything which in any way could remotely damage communist domination (p.224).

In all the EE countries the same thing happened: the communists were beaten into third place in the only free elections they ever held, promptly cancelled any further elections, and set about intimidating their opponents. Opposition meetings were broken up, newspapers banned or prevented from printing, leaders were threatened and, in some cases, arrested, tried and executed. In Bulgaria the leader of the Agrarian Party, Nikola Petkov, was arrested, tried and executed in the summer of 1947 (p.219). Many of them fled their countries.

The hoped-for democratic gaining of power turned into violent coups.

Economics

The most notable thing about communist economics is that they don’t work. This chapter deals with land and business. Land reform was popular across the East after the war, partly in response to the amazing inequities of landholding, much of which dated back centuries. Still there was surprising resistance to wholesale land redistribution and it was carried out with characteristic inefficiency and inequity and, to the communists’ dismay, even after being given land, most peasants refused to vote for the communists, but preferred the parties set up precisely to represent peasants and small landholders. Until they were abolished.

As to ‘the market’ communists had been taught to abolish it and crack down wherever it appeared. This meant banning privately owned businesses and shops. In Poland between 1947 and 1949 the number of private trading and distribution firms was cut by half (p.248). But the communist apparatus was not able to fill the gap. The result was predictable: a vast increase in the black market and a general shortage of goods. These were to characterise all the communist economies, including the mother economy of the USSR, for the rest of their existence.

What the 45 year experiment showed is that central planning a) is not as responsive to consumer wishes as a free market b) because its monolithic nationalised industries and departments are top-heavy, bureaucratic, slow and inefficient and c) manned by the dimmest, most conformists sections of society. She explains how the cult of ‘shock workers’, i.e. super workers who heroically over-delivered on their quotas (the most famous example being the Russian coal miner and Hero of Socialist Labour, Alexey Stakhanov) paradoxically undermined efficiency, because so many workers were incentivised to copy their examples that quality across all products plummeted.

Pricing is also related to quality. If the factory can only charge one price whether its goods are designed by a team of top designers and engineers, or are the most basic product imaginable, it will opt for the basic model.

The result: empty shops and furtive bargaining down back streets, the permanent shortages and crap quality of all the so-called consumer goods produced in the USSR and all its European satellites. And the typically bleak Soviet jokes:

What is the definition of Socialist Amnesia?
Standing outside a bread shop with an empty bag, not knowing whether you’re in the queue or have just been served.

(In an interesting aside, Applebaum points out that, once an industry is nationalised, for workers to complain about working conditions or pay, is to protest directly against the state. This gives background to my boyhood in the 1970s which were marked by an endless stream of mass strikes in the nationalised iron, steel, rail, coal and car industries, and makes Mrs Thatcher’s move to privatise them seem not only part of her ideological return to free market capitalism, but also an elementary form of political protection. A government which nationalises an industry makes itself directly vulnerable to criticism by the very people it sets out to help)

High Stalinism

This is a brief summary of the topics discussed in part one of the book. The second part looks at the period between the communists’ full establishment of power, around 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953 – the era of High Stalinism. It is even more shattering and terrifying than part one and covers topics like the rise of Socialist Realism in art and architecture, the creation of Ideal Communist Cities, and the ongoing crushing of internal dissent, among the opposition but also within the communist parties themselves, with waves of purges and executions.

1948 was a swing year. After four years the communist authorities had for the most part established a stranglehold on political structures and civic society, and yet the economies of the Eastern bloc were visibly failing. To anyone with contact with the West, it was obvious the East was falling behind, and fast. 1948 saw the commencement of the Marshall Plan to give American aid to any European countries who requested it, and the foundation, in May, of the state of Israel. As a result of these events, Stalin:

  • embarked on another round of purges and show trials, designed to create scapegoats for the failings of the communist economy
  • embarked on a round of anti-Semitic purges
  • launched the blockade of Berlin on June 1948, which led to the year-long Berlin Airlift by the Allies

In 1949 China went communist and Russia detonated its first H-bomb. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. It was in incredibly fast-moving environment.

I read books, watch TV documentaries and go to all the main art exhibitions in London and regularly feel overloaded with information and nostalgia about the 1960s – about 60s pop, the 60s social revolution, 60s fashion, design, art and all the rest of fit.

But the more I consume these cultural products, the more I feel they amount to an almost deliberate neglect of the far more important and decisive years after the Second War and on into the grey 1950s when much more of vital historical importance took place, and when the freedom of the West, which we all take for granted, was secured in the face of terrifying opposition.

Conclusions

1. By trying to control every conceivable aspect of society, totalitarian regimes turn every conceivable aspect of society into potential points of revolt. Thus the logic of ever-increasing repression, to crack down on every form of expression. But hence also, eventually, a society completely riddled with cracks and fissures. Which explains what history has in fact shown us – that apparently monolithic totalitarian regimes can disintegrate with surprising speed.

2. At bottom the Soviet and East European communist regimes based their entire legitimacy on the promise of future prosperity and higher living standards which were to be guaranteed by ‘scientific’ Marxism. In this one central aim they failed spectacularly. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 it was plain to the Soviets and to informed citizens of Eastern Europe that the West was pulling away in terms of technology, consumer goods and living standards at amazing speed. It’s not even that totalitarian communism is morally wrong or artistically repressive or psychologically damaging or violent and cruel, although it was all these – it just didn’t work.

All the issues discussed in Applebaum’s text are vividly illustrated where possible by the fate and experiences of named individuals – so many of them individuals, both communist and non-communist, who thought they could change, influence or improve their countries and who, without exception, were arrested, tortured, sent for long sentences to sub-Arctic camps in Russia, or simply executed. So many worthy people, so cruelly snuffed out by such evil scum.

Indeed, for the book she conducted extensive interviews in person with survivors of each of the three regimes, who are named in an appendix, I counted 90 of them, whose stories and quotes thread through the narrative giving a real sense of what it was like to try to live and think under these suffocating regimes. It’s this detail, this working through of exactly how the communists clamped down on every aspect of human life which we consider valuable, which chills the blood.

On the back cover biographer A.N. Wilson comments that this is the best work of modern history he has ever read. It is certainly among the most important. How many thousands of histories, school textbooks, movies and TV documentaries are devoted to the Nazis and ensuring that never again can such a maelstrom of racial hatred and state violence begin to rear its head in any civilised country?

But there are still legal communist parties all over Europe and communist intellectuals who are listened to. My daughter is being taught Marxism in her Sociology A-Level and I know it is still taught on countless Literature and Humanities courses.

In this respect, for showing what life in a communist state really involves, and the slow but steady way all our civic freedoms can be undermined, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a vital and outstanding achievement.


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The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre (2)

Never again, never, will I think about what I am – but only about what I do.
(Mathieu in his diary – p.134)

The Last Chance brings together all the fragments published during his lifetime and found among his papers, of what was intended to be the fourth volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy (1945-49). I read the first three books (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Iron in The Soul) when I was at school in the 1970s and they made a profound impression on me.

This scholarly edition – which brings together all the known fragments for the intended fourth book in the series, along with a number of essays about it and the tetralogy as a whole – was published in France in 1981, but only translated into English in 2009.

I’ve decided to discuss the numerous points made in the introductory material and essays in a separate blog post, The Last Chance (1). In this blog post I am commenting on the two major fragments of fictional text itself, which are titled A Strange Friendship and The Last Chance.


1. A Strange Friendship (68 pages)

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in the village of Padoux, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, first in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D. (Wikipedia)

In Iron In the Soul we followed the activities of Mathieu, the ineffectual philosophy teacher – a sort of self-portrait by the author – and Brunet, the tough-minded Communist organiser, both retreating in June 1940 before the German advance in France and ending up in a small French village.

Here Mathieu finds himself volunteering to quit his pack of demoralised men and throw in his lot with a lieutenant and his platoon who arrive in the village having carried out a fighting retreat. Almost before he knows it, Mathieu has accompanied them to the top of the village church tower where they wait anxiously for the first German scouts to arrive. They begin shooting at the Germans, which leads into a fierce firefight, which is ended when the Germans bring up a field gun and blow the tower to pieces. The reader assumes that Mathieu was killed.

Not so Brunet. Without realising the closeness of his boyhood friend, Mathieu, tough Communist Brunet has also ended up in the same village, where he makes the strategic decision to surrender to the Germans in the hope of recruiting and organising the French prisoners of war into a communist cell. The final part of Iron in the Soul follows Brunet’s journey, along with thousands of other POWs, to a holding camp in France, where there is no food and his condition deteriorates along with all the others; before feeding arrangements are finally made and, after a long period of lassitude, the prisoners are marched to a train station, loaded into cattle trucks and shipped off to the Fatherland.

In other words, both Mathieu and Brunet’s stories rely very heavily on Sartre’s own experiences of capture and prisonhood.

Throughout the long second section of Iron in the Soul, Brunet finds himself in conflict with a fellow prisoner, Schneider, who declares himself broadly sympathetic to Brunet’s communist intentions, but is much more a genuine man of the people – in contrast with Brunet’s well-educated background – and at key moments points out flaws in Brunet’s approach, in the way he’s handling the men and so on.

A Strange Friendship opens with Brunet, Schneider and thousands of other French POWs imprisoned in a German prison camp in freezing winter conditions in January 1941. Because it’s based so closely on Sartre’s own identical experiences, we can be confident the descriptions of the camp and the conditions are accurate.

What happens in A Strange Friendship is there is a bunch of new arrivals at the camp and one of them is Chalais, a former Communist Party deputy. He turns Brunet’s world upside down by revealing:

a) that Schneider is none other than ‘Vicarios’, a French Communist Party official who denounced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and was expelled from the Party
b) Brunet’s entire strategy within the camp, organising to undermine the Germans, is wrong

Chalais is a mouthpiece for the French Communist Party (which was, of course, a mouthpiece for Soviet Foreign policy). He tells Brunet that the views he’s been putting about – that the war isn’t over, the USSR will crush Germany, the workers should reject the armistice, the defeat of the Axis will be a victory for the proletariat, the prisoners should consider themselves as soldiers (p.55) – are wrong.

Chalais ridicules de Gaulle’s broadcast saying the USSR and USA will enter the war, the Vichy government is illegitimate, the armistice was treason. (He is, of course, dead wrong – all these things came to pass and be accepted as orthodoxy.) With typical bullying insults, in his ‘loudspeaker voice’, Chalais says that Brunet has been dead wrong. He has, ‘objectively’, i.e. in the eyes of the inflexible Party, been merely a streetwalker for Churchill and British imperialism.

Chalais tells him that he and his ‘guys’ must not oppose the Germans; the Germans are allies of our heroic Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will never enter the war. (Indeed, at this point and until it was invaded in June 1941, the Soviet Union for nearly two years supported the Nazi regime with food, oil and raw materials). The Soviet Union will wait until Europe has fought itself to a standstill and then dictate the peace in the interests of the proletariat.

So, instead of subverting the ‘Krauts’, the party should cosy up to the Nazis in a bid to become officially recognised and get a foot into the National Assembly again. To Brunet’s astonishment Chalais says they must work to attack the imperialism of the bourgeois ‘democracies’ (i.e. Britain), attack de Gaulle who is a mouthpiece for British imperialism, and direct the workers towards pacifism (p.63).

Brunet listens, obeys, tries to quell his misgivings, makes himself a servant of the Party. Maybe this is Sartre depicting how a man – Brunet – denies his absolute freedom, represses his own thoughts and feelings, in the name of Obedience to External Law.

The second section of A Strange Friendship jumps to a month later. The result of Brunet following Chalais’s instructions is that the camaraderie Brunet had carefully built up over the previous 6 months in the camp has evaporated, and Brunet is now regarded shiftily by the ‘guys’ he has deserted. They no longer trust him.

In another one-on-one scene Chalais confronts Brunet with the fact that the ‘guys’ don’t trust him and the possibility emerges that Brunet should co-host a Party meeting and stand up, validate Chalais and the Party line, and then humiliate and implicate himself – just as in the Stalin Show Trials of the late 1930s (as explored in Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler).

Brunet refuses. His unquavering faith is for the first time broken. For the first time he sees that the Party might be wrong, that the USSR might be wrong. If it loses the war, if the Party is abolished, Man will continue. Here is Brunet explaining (to himself) his previous attitude to free thought i.e. ruthlessly repress it.

So much for ideas. He’d always had them, like everyone, they’re just mildew, leftovers from brain activity; but he never used to pay them any mind, just let them sprout like mushrooms in the basement. So let’s just put them back in their place and everything will be alright: he’ll toe the line, follow orders, and carry his ideas around inside him without saying a word, like a shameful disease. This will go no further, this can go no further: we do not think in opposition to the Party, thoughts are words, words belong to the Party, the Party defines them, the Party controls them; Truth and the Party are one and the same. (p78)

(Worth remembering that Sartre was writing these passages just as George Orwell’s terrifying vision of totalitarian thought control, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published [June 1949]. Orwell’s book now stands alone like an isolated mesa in the desert; but once it was part of the vast ocean of discourse about communism, for and against, which washed over European culture after the war.)

And here is Brunet, moments later, for the first time in his life considering what it would mean if the USSR did lose the war, and the communist cause was defeated.

He blows through the roof, flying in the dark, explodes, the Party is below him, a living jelly covering the globe, I never saw it, I was inside it: he turns above this imperishable jelly: the Party can die. He’s cold, he turns: if the Party is right, then I am more alone than a madman [to oppose it]; if it’s wrong, we’re all on our own, and the world is fucked. (p.79)

It seems to me he is undergoing the classic Sartrean awakening to his abandonment, to his complete aloneness, to the shocking reality of his freedom.

Back in the plot, Brunet realises some men have been despatched from a Party meeting chaired by Chalais to go and beat up Schneider. Brunet comes to the latter’s rescue, but the ‘guys’ he interrupts hitting Schneider don’t get it: Chalais has explained that Schneider is a traitor, why is Brunet defending him? Is Brunet a traitor too? In the childlike simple-mindedness of the Communist Party, well, yes, Brunet is a traitor. Sticking up for a bad guy makes you a bad guy. Brunet smashes one of the guys in the face and the pair slope off, at which point Brunet realises he has burned all his bridges. Now the ‘guys’ belong to Chalais, everything he and Schneider achieved is destroyed, in fact his entire life to date has been negated. The Party has decreed he is a traitor and so he is a traitor. He must get away.

Brunet makes plans for him and Schneider to escape and in the face of a blasting howling January gale, they lay planks over the barbed wire fence surrounding the POW camp and escape – only for the floodlights to come on and them to be shot at from all sides. Brunet realises they’ve been betrayed, probably by ‘the comrades’, who want them more dead than the Germans. As they run for the woodline Schneider is hit. Brunet helps him on and they fall down a wooded slope, coming to rest against a tree which is where Schneider dies in Brunet’s arms, not at all romantically, vomiting and blaming Brunet for his death. Brunet stands up and walks back towards the guards. His death is only just starting.

Commentary

1. I can see why Sartre ran into problems trying to finish this. The more it plunges into the minutiae of the argument between communists loyal to the Soviet-Comintern party line, and every other non-communist brand of leftist, the more obscure this story becomes. Not least because, as the notes point out, the official Party line was itself changing and would, of course, undergo a complete volte-face when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

In addition, so much had happened between spring 1941 and the post-war, Cold War era of the early 1950s when Sartre was writing. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, increasing general hysteria that the Cold War might escalate into a nuclear apocalypse. Why write about the arcane disputes ot his increasingly remote period of time, when your own times are so pressing and urgent? And so Sartre gave up struggling with The Last Chance and switched to writing political commentary on the very fraught times he found himself in.

2. Looked at from this distance of time, they all seem like idiots – Brunet and Schneider and Chalais, all obsessively blindly defending the Soviet Union which a) they should already have realised was one of the most repressive regimes in human history b) went on to prove it in the brutal repression of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s c) collapsed in 1990 and is now remote, dusty, ancient history.

3. The entire plot exemplifies the way that the Communists’ main talent appears to have been carrying out witch hunts against all other leftists, and then among themselves. This is the central theme of George Orwell’s terrifying memoir of the Spanish Civil war, Homage to Catalonia, which shows how the Communist Party systematically suppressed, arrested, tortured and executed all its opponents on the same side in the civil war – in the opinion of historian Antony Beevor, a major contributory factor to why the Republican side lost The Battle for Spain. And the war of the Communist Party against itself is the subject of Arthur Koeslter’s fictional recreation of the interrogation of an old Bolshevik in readiness for his show trial, Darkness At Noon.

4. Looked at in its broader historical context, the entire sequence is more evidence to add to the 680-page analysis by historian Alistair Horne in his classic account, To Lose a Battle, that France’s defeat by Germany was entirely her own fault and overwhelmingly due to the ruinous divisions in her political culture. At one point Chalais, the hard-line Communist Deputy, actually says out loud that he prefers the Nazis to so-called ‘radicals’ i.e. to left-wingers operating outside the Communist Party (p.64) who he despises and calls dogs. (It is important to remember that the PCF called on workers to sabotage the war effort against Germany – to sabotage their own country’s war effort.) He prefers the Nazis to non-communist left-wingers. Wow.

And this exactly mirrors the attitude of many right-wingers in pre-war France who declared ‘Better Hitler than the reds’. Taken together it is a picture of a country in which nearly all sides wanted Hitler to beat them. I can see how this section was intended as an ‘analysis’ of the Communist Party line at a particular historical moment, and as a portrait of how it undermines and preys on Brunet who wants to be a loyal Party servant but is aware of the cost to himself and his ‘guys’. I can see how it carries out Sartre’s mission to show his ‘heroes’ emerging from various types of ‘bad faith’ into the desolate realisation of their inescapable freedom etc – as Brunet realises that his ongoing presence is undermining Chalais’ Communist Party mission, that his own elimination is called for by strict Party logic — but refuses, in the end, to give up – insists on living.

But at this distance of time, the entire sequence seems just a further example of the complete moral and political bankruptcy of mid-twentieth century French culture.

5. From a literary point of view, more interesting for me is the almost complete absence of any of the prose poetry which characterised the earlier books (and which I quote liberally in my reviews of them). The text is almost completely functional. It often reads like directions for a play: ‘X looks at Y. Y Says Z. X Gets up, leaves through the door.’  This suggests that a lot of the impressionistic poetry, the floods of feeling, the great waves of death and night and futility and emptiness which wash over the characters in the earlier books, that all this was put in later, once the scaffold was in place.

This text consists almost entirely of this very basic scaffold, bare present tense prose use to convey the dry-as-dust theological squabbles of a discredited belief-system and the toxic power struggles it led to. Only at the end, in the final few pages, when the scales fall from Brunet’s eyes, does his mind then entertain some of the delirious hallucinations so common to the other characters in the series; and only in the escape over the wire and through the howling gale does Sartre let rip with some impressionistic prose. I’m guessing this is deliberate. Maybe the grindingly boring, factual prose of most of the section enacts and embodies the grindingly boring nature of revolutionary politics and its squalid betrayals. Whereas the moments of high delirium Brunet experiences in the last few pages, and then the intensely impressionistic description of the escape in the snow storm, represent the return of Freedom, the flooding into Brunet’s consciousness of the confusions, the overwhelming and bewildering sense of finally throwing off his disciplined devotion to The Party, and his arrival in the bewildering abandonment of his human Freedom.

To be free, in Sartre’s fiction, is to be overwhelmed with sensations and thoughts.

6. The whole thing is written as a tragedy but, to an Anglo-Saxon eye it has a certain grim humour. It is notable the way no Germans feature at all anywhere in the story: sure, they’re referred to a lot as the people who run the camp, but there’s

a) no analysis of Nazi strategy, no mention of Hitler’s likely plans and intentions for Europe (which, though interesting, I can see is extraneous to the core subject, which is the drama of Brunet’s disillusionment)
b) no individual Germans appear, even right at the end when they’re pursuing Schneider and Brunet in their escape, they are just disembodied shouts and bullets.

Again, to the sceptical outsider this is partly because – comically – after all, the Germans don’t need to do anything: they know they can leave the French to carry on fighting among themselves, the right-wingers against the radicals, the communists against the Catholics – the French can be relied on to display not a shred of solidarity or patriotism.

Sartre is inside the French political world and so he takes endless internecine fighting for granted: I come from the Anglo-Saxon countries which had a bit more backbone and where patriotism really did unite the country against the potential invader: from where Canadians, Australians, Poles and other European exiles came together to fight the Nazis; not, as the French did, to betray each other to the Nazis.

For Sartre this squalid little squabble among communists can be represented as a kind of noble tragedy – but for the reader outside the snake pit of French culture, it’s just another example of the Communist talent for eliminating each other, and the French talent for ruinous infighting. Vive la France! Vive la Revolution!


2.The Last Chance (76 pages)

We all thought Mathieu Delarue, the most obviously autobiographical character in the series, an ineffectual philosophy teacher, had been blown to smithereens at the end of part one of Iron in the Soul -but no, folks, he’s back and more plagued by philosophical doubts than ever!

Nothing is explained. The segment just starts with Mathieu in a German prisoner of war hospital, from which he’s transferred out into the wider camp. The section opens with him helping a young man who has lost both his legs, amputated after being hit by a shell, put on his ‘pants’ (all the way through the text are reminders that this is a translation into American prose). Apparently, Mathieu was shot through the lungs and still feels weak, but survived otherwise unscathed.

As usual, two things happen immediately: Mathieu is nervous around other human beings, over-sensitively noticing all aspects about them, and his reactions to them, and their reactions to his reactions to them, and so on. And his consciousness is, as usual, susceptible to being flooded with overwhelming, uncontrollable perceptions and sensations. His perceptions flood his mind. This is the Sartre of his first novel, Nausea, and was also a feature of almost all the characters in the first two novels in the sequence.

He opened his eyes, and saw nothing. He was nowhere. Between two wooden frames with rectangular holes, there were a table and benches, but it was nothing, not even furniture, not even utensils, not even things; the inert underside of a few simple gestures; suspended in emptiness. The emptiness enveloped Mathieu with a glassy dissolving look, penetrating his eyes, gnawing at his flesh, all there was was a skeleton: ‘I’ll be living in emptiness.’ The skeleton took a seated position. (p.110)

This is just the latest in a long line of occasions when Sartrean characters cease to even perceive themselves as human, become perceiving objects, lose all their personality, are suffused with grand abstractions like death, night, freedom and so on. I like them. I like this way of thinking and writing. The world, very obviously, is far far weirder than official discourse permits, and Sartre is a great poet of this weirdness, the weirdness of being a walking, sentient nervous system adrift in a sea of things. Just as characteristically, Mathieu then hallucinates that the dour defeated inhabitants of the wider POW camp are sub-human, insets, crustaceans.

Even though they filled him with a slight repulsion, and even fear, like the crazies he had seen in Rouen in 1936, he knew perfectly well that he was not in an insane asylum: rather, he was in a breeding ground of crabs and lobsters. he was fascinated by these prehistoric crustaceans who crawled around on the tormented ground of an unknown planet, suddenly his heart sank and he thought: in a few days, I’ll be one of them. He would have these same eyes, airs and gestures, he would understand these incomprehensible creatures from inside, he would be a crab. (p.113)

Weird, huh? And reminds me of the notion I developed in reading The Reprieve that there is something distinctly science fiction-y about much of the altered states Sartre describes.

He was most certainly not in Africa, not even anywhere on a human planet. He was walking dry and crisp, between the glass panes of an aquarium. The horror was not in him yet, he could still defend himself against it: it was in things, and in the eyes of those who saw what he didn’t see. But soon, because of the water pressure and the great sea-spiders, these panes would break. (p.121)

The contrast between the histrionic, science fiction prose poetry of the Mathieu section and the spare functional prose of most of the Brunet section clinches the idea that Sartre alters his prose style to match the subject/character. I am genuinely impressed by the range of styles and rhetorical effects Sartre can pull off.

As to the plot, all we have is fragments. In the notes Vasey explains that the structure of the entire book appears to have been something like:

  • Novel opens with Mathieu in the infirmary. He helps the amputee put on his ‘pants’.
  • Mathieu transfers to the camp where he thinks the defeated soldiers look like undersea crabs.
  • Cut to Brunet smoothly running  his circle of comrades, until Chalais arrives and turns everything upside down.
  • Back to Mathieu: through his eyes we see fragmentary descriptions of camp life and mentality.
    • Ramard: someone has stolen a fur coat from the German stores, Mathieu helps a fellow inmate hide some stolen champagne.
    • The only first person narrative anywhere in the series, apparently from Mathieu’s diary, as he meets the disconsolate architect Longin.
    • One of the guys gets hold of a newspaper from a new inmate and reads it out to Mathieu’s room-mates, with Mathieu interpolating his usual philosophic ruminations. The
    • The Dream of killing: Mathieu has a recurrent waking dream of killing his room-mates. A form of post traumatic stress triggered by his shooting German soldiers back in the church tower. Interestingly, there are seven fragments on this one theme which are obviously reworkings of the same scene: Mathieu is sitting in a prison office watching his colleague, Chomat, doing paperwork and imagining killing him with a knife slipped into the nape of  his neck. Over and over.
  • Cut back to Brunet. It’s 40 days after he was captured trying to escape. Surprisingly, he wasn’t shot but put in the punishment block. Now, released, he returns to his old barrack with trepidation only to discover that Chalais and the cohort of comrades who had it in for him have all been shipped out. Gone as if they never were. Then gets wind of an escape committee, is taken to see it and discovers…
  • It is run by his childhood friend, Mathieu. The book seems to have been intended to climax with the encounter between Mathieu and Brunet, each assessing the road the other has travelled. They don’t particularly like each other. In fact the main tone is boredom and mild dislike. climaxes with a dramatic and philosophical encounter between Brunet and Mathieu.

The encounter between Brunet and Mathieu should triumphantly complete the circle. They met in the first book, The Age of Reason, where the manly convinced communist Brunet tried to persuade the ineffectual philosopher Mathieu to join him. Now Brunet has been disowned by the communist party and discovered how tough life is on the ‘outside’, whereas Mathieu not only ‘became free’ by shooting German soldiers from that church tower, but also – we now learn – runs the team that organises escapes from the camp. He has become the man of action while Brunet has become the man of uncertainty.

And, in a final rather melodramatic twist, it is revealed that the snitch who betrayed Brunet and Schneider’s escape attempt wasn’t Chalais the Commissar, it was the fat, thieving prole Moûlu. And in fact, while they’ve been chatting, Mathieu now reveals that his fellow escape committee members have just tried and executed Moûlu by strangling him. Brunet is more angry than shocked. But the reader is shocked.

Mathieu says Brunet will be suspected by the Germans when Moûlu’s body is found, so they’ll arrange for his escape early the next morning. And it’s here that this long, fragmented section ends.


American translation

The translation is by an American, Craig Vasey, Professor of Philosophy at the Mary Washington University, Virginia. This is a shame because Sartre’s demotic French is translated into demotic American, which jars with the English reader. ‘Mad’ means angry’; ‘pants’ mean ‘trousers’; the Germans become ‘the Krauts’, so that it feels like we’re in a U.S. war movie. Worst of all the men or blokes become ‘the guys’. Innocuous though this trivial translation choice may sound, it has major ramifications because the word appears numerous times on every page. For me it dominated the whole reading experience and its continual repetition has the effect of making it seem like we’re in a movie about the mafia.

  • Twenty guys are washing quickly under a shelter.
  • The guys are putting on their coats; they are heading off for work.
  • Brunet looks at his guys with satisfaction.
  • ‘This guy’s name is Schneider.’
  • ‘Our guys in Algiers have the proof.’
  • ‘My guys can’t stand him.’
  • ‘He’s not that kind of guy.’
  • ‘Don’t say anything to the guys.’
  • ‘I’m going to send you up one of my guys.’
  • ‘These Dutch guys don’t speak a word of French.’
  • ‘Hey,’ say the guys, ‘it’s Brunet.’
  • ‘What do you guys want?’
  • All the guys are there, all the guys looking at him…
  • ‘Don’t think about it too much guys…’
  • ‘You guys are assholes…’

Credit

This edition of The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1981. This English translation by Craig Vasey was published by Continuum International Publishing in 2009. All references are to the CIP paperback edition.

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Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of related books

Embers of War by Frederik Logevall (2012)

This is a staggeringly good book. The main text is a hefty 714 pages long, with another 76 pages of endnotes, a comprehensive list of further reading, and a thorough index. It is beautifully printed on good quality paper. It is in every way an immaculate book to own and read and reread (in fact I found it so addictive I read the first 500 pages twice over).

Vietnam before the war

Most histories of the Vietnam War focus on ‘the American War’ of the mid- and late-1960s. Logevall’s epic account comes to an end in 1959, when there were still only a few hundred U.S. troops in the country, before the American war of the movies and popular legend had even started (the Gulf of Tonklin Resolution in the U.S. Congress which gave President Johnson full power to prosecute a war was passed in August 1964.)

Instead, Logevall’s focus is on everything which preceded the full-blown American involvement. It is a masterly, incredibly detailed, superbly intelligent account of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule over Indochina, which has its roots way back before the First World War, but whose major and fateful decisions were made in the years immediately after the Second World War. For the core of the book covers the twenty years between 1940 and 1960 which saw the First Indochina War of Independence and the bitter defeat of the French imperial army. Logevall’s intricate and comprehensive account for the first time makes fully comprehensible the circumstances in which the Americans would find themselves slowly dragged into the quagmire in the decade that followed.

Above all this is a political and diplomatic history of the events, with a great deal of space devoted to the personalities of the key political players – Ho Chi Minh, Viet Minh General Giap, U.S. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, French president Charles de Gaulle – along with exhaustive explanations of their differing aims and goals, and thorough analyses of the diplomatic and political negotiations which were constantly taking place between a dizzying and continually changing array of politicians, statesmen and military leaders.

The attractiveness of the book is the tremendous intelligence with which Logevall dissects and lays bare the conflicting political goals and shifting negotiating positions of all these players. Time and again he puts you in the room as Truman and his team discuss the impact of China going communist (in 1949) on the countries of the Far East, or Eisenhower and his team assessing the French forces’ chances of winning, or the debates in the Viet Minh high command about how best to proceed against the French army at Dien Bien Phu. In every one of these myriad of meetings and decision-points, Logevall recaptures the cut and thrust of argument and paints the key players so deftly and vividly that it is like reading a really immense novel, a 20th century War and Peace only far more complex and far more tragic.

Ho Chi Minh

A central thread is the remarkable story of Ho Chi Minh, who could have been a sort of Vietnamese Mahatma Gandhi, who could have led his country to peaceful independence if the French had let him – and who certainly emerges as the dominating figure of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence, from 1918 to 1975.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung in 1889. In his long life of subterfuge and underground travel he used over 50 pseudonyms. The text skips through his education to his travels from Asia to Europe via the States (as a cook on merchant navy vessels, seeing the major American cities, establishing himself as a freelance journalist in Paris), and then the story really begins with Ho’s presence at the peace conference which followed the Great War.

Vietnam had been colonised by the French in the 1850s and their imperial grip solidified around the turn of the century. The French divided Vietnam into three units, Tonkin in the north (capital Hanoi), the narrow central strip of Annam, and Cochin China in the south (capital Saigon). Logevall eloquently evokes the atmosphere and beauty of these two cities, with their wide boulevards, French cathedrals and opera houses. The French also colonised Laos, which borders Vietnam to the central west, and Cambodia, which borders it to the south-west. These three countries were collectively known as French Indochina.

Between the wars

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Versailles peace conference which followed World War One brandishing his much-publicised Fourteen Points, the noble principles he hoped would underpin the peace, the fourteenth of which explicitly called for the self-determination of free peoples.

As Logevall points out, in practice the Americans were thinking about the self-determination of the peoples in Europe, whose multicultural empires had collapsed as a result of the war e.g. the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; the principle wasn’t really addressed at the inhabitants of Europe’s overseas empires.

In a typically vivid snapshot, Logevall describes how the young optimistic Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who had already gained a reputation as a journalist advocating independence for his country, hired a morning coat and travelled to Versailles hoping to secure an interview with President Wilson to put the case for Vietnamese independence. But his requests were rebuffed, his letters went unanswered, nobody replied or took any notice. It was the start of a long sequence of tragically lost opportunities to avert war.

Instead the ‘victorious’ European empires (Britain and France) were allowed to continue untroubled by American interferences and French colonial administration of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with all its snobbery and exploitation, strode on into the fragile 1920s and troubled 1930s.

Dispirited by the complete lack of interest from the Allies at Versailles, Ho traveled to Soviet Moscow in the early 1920s, where he received training from the infant Communist International (or Comintern) before returning to Vietnam to help organise a Vietnamese nationalist and communist movement.

But according to Logevall’s account, Ho continued to have a soft spot for America – not least because it was itself a country which had thrown off colonial shackles – and continued for decades to hope for help & support in Vietnam’s bid to escape from French control. In vain. Maybe the central, tragic theme of the book is how the American government went in the space of a decade (1940 to 1950) from potential liberator of the world’s colonial subjects, to neo-imperial oppressor.

The impact of the Second World War

In the West, and particularly in Britain, we think of the Second World War as starting with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which prompted Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. But the war in the East had its own timeframes and geography, and is really marked by the step-by-step aggression of Japan through the 1930s. For the highly authoritarian, militaristic Japanese government was the rising power in the East. Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China 1931 and then, in 1937, invaded the rest of coastal China, penetrating south. China was already embroiled in a chaotic civil war between various regional warlords, the nationalist movement of Chiang Kai-Shek and the nascent communist forces of Mao Zedong, which had been raging since the late 1920s. The border between north Vietnam and China is 800 miles long and the French colonial administrators watched developments in their huge northern neighbour with growing trepidation.

Meanwhile, in faraway Europe, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime successfully intimidated the western democracies (i.e. Britain and France) into allowing him to reoccupy the Rhine (March 1936), occupy Austria (March 1938) and seize the Czech Sudetenland (September 1938). But it was the surprise Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and then Hitler’s September 1939 invasion of Poland which plunged the continent into war.

None of this affected distant Indochina until the Germans’ six-week Blitzkrieg campaign in May 1940 against France. The victorious Nazis allowed a puppet right-wing government to be created in France, under the 84-year-old Marshall Petain and based in the spa town of Vichy. As a result of their defeat, the colonial administrations around the French Empire – in West and North Africa, in the Middle East and in Indochina – found themselves obliged to choose between the ‘legitimate’ new Vichy administration, which soon began persecuting socialists, freemasons and Jews (Logevall makes the ironic point that there were only 80 Jews in all Indochina and most of them were in the army) or the initially small group of followers of the self-appointed leader of the ‘Free French’, Charles de Gaulle.

When the highly armed and aggressive Japanese continued their expansion into northern Vietnam in September 1940, the Vichy French briefly resisted and then found themselves forced to co-operate with their supposed ‘allies’ – or the allies of their Nazi masters back in Europe. The Japanese wanted to cut off supply lines to the Chinese nationalists opposing them in China and also needed the rice, rubber and other raw materials Indochina could offer. In an uneasy understanding, the Japanese allowed the Vichy officials to administer the country at a civil service level – but they were the real masters.

Pearl Harbour

By setting it in its full historical context, Logevall for the first time made clear to me the reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour (on 7 December 1941) and the central role played in this cataclysmic event by Indochina.

From 1940 U.S. President Roosevelt and his advisers were concerned about Japan’s push southwards and especially their seizure of Vietnam. If they continued, the Japs would be in a position to carry on down the Malay peninsula, taking Singapore and threatening the Philippines in the East and Burma to the West.

When, in July 1941, Japanese troopships were sighted off Cam Ranh Bay on the south coast of Vietnam, it set American alarm bells jangling and, after much discussion, the President imposed a goods blockade on Japan, including oil and rubber, insisting the Japanese withdrew from China. Negotiations with the moderate Japanese Prime Minister Konoye continued through the summer but neither side would back down and, in October 1941, Konoye was replaced by General Hideki Tojo, who represented the aggressive stance of the armed forces. His government decided the only way Japan could continue to expand was by eliminating the American threat and forcibly seizing required raw materials from an expanded Japanese empire. Hence the plan was formulated to eliminate the American Pacific fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, and it was in this context that the Japanese Fleet launched the notorious attack on 7 December 1941.

Logevall describes this tortuous process and its consequences with great clarity and it is absolutely fascinating to read about. He introduces us to all the key personnel during this period, giving the main players two or three page biographies and explaining with wonderful clarity the motives of all the conflicting interests: The Vichy French reluctant to cede control to the Japanese and scared of them; the Japanese busy with conflicts elsewhere and content to rule Indochina via the compliant French; the Americans reeling from Pearl Harbour but already making long-term plans to regain Asia; and in Vietnam, alongside Ho’s communists, the activities of the other groups of Vietnamese nationalists, as well as numerous ‘native’ tribes and ethnic minorities. And far away in embattled London, the distant but adamantine wish of General de Gaulle and the ‘Free French’ to return Indochina to French rule.

Roosevelt and Truman

For most of the war the key factor for Asia was President Roosevelt, a lifelong anti-colonialist, who condemned and opposed the European empires. Admittedly, he had to tread carefully around key ally Winston Churchill, who was doggedly committed to the preservation of the British Empire, but he had no such qualms about France, which he despised for collapsing so abjectly to the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Roosevelt was only reluctantly persuaded to support the haughty, pompous General de Gaulle as representative of the so-called ‘Free French’ – he preferred some of the other leaders in exile – but took a particular interest in Indochina. Roosevelt gave strong indications in speeches that – after the Germans and Japanese were defeated – he would not let the French restore their empire there. Instead, the president got his State Department officials to develop the idea of awarding ‘trusteeship status’ to post-colonial countries – getting them to be administered by the United Nations while they were helped and guided towards full political and economic independence.

Alas for Vietnam and for all the Vietnamese, French and Americans who were to lose their lives there, Roosevelt died just as the Second World War drew to a close, in April 1945, and his fervent anti-imperialism died with him.

He was replaced by his unassuming Vice-President, plain-speaking Harry S. Truman from Missouri. (In the kind of telling aside which illuminates the book throughout, Logevall points out that Truman was only selected as Vice-President because he was so non-descript that when all the competing factions in the Democratic Party cancelled out each other’s nominations, Truman was the only one bland enough to be left acceptable to all parties.)

Vietnam’s first independence and partition

The atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki crystallised Japan’s defeat and she surrendered on 2 September 1945. Within days of Japan’s fall, Ho and his party were organising major celebrations of Vietnam’s independence. In a historic moment Ho spoke to a crowd of 300,000 cheering compatriots in Ba Dinh Square, central Hanoi, on 2 September 1945, formally declaring Vietnam’s independence. Logevall quotes American eye witnesses who were startled when Ho quoted extensively from the American Declaration of Independence, as part of his ongoing attempt to curry favour with the emerging world superpower.

But alas, back in Washington, unlike his predecessor Roosevelt, President Truman had little or no interest in Indochina and all talk of ‘trusteeship’ leading to eventual independence disappeared. Instead the victorious allies had to make practical arrangements to manage Indochina now Japan had surrendered. It was agreed that the north of the country would be taken over by an army of the nationalist Chinese (at this stage receiving huge aid from America) while the British Indian Army would take over temporary running of the south, in a temporary partition of the country while both forces waited for the full French forces to arrive and restore imperial rule.

Riven by political infighting and a spirit of defeatism, the French had rolled over and given up their country in 1940. Then a good number of them spent five years collaborating with the Nazis and shipping Jews off to concentration camps. Now they expected the Americans to give them huge amounts of money and military resources to help them return to their colonies, and they expected the colonial peoples to bow down to the old yoke as if nothing had happened.

General de Gaulle typified the militaristic, imperial French view that ‘metropolitan’ France was nothing without its ‘magnificent’ Empire; that France had a unique ‘civilising mission’ to bring the glories of French culture to the peoples of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia (and Algeria and Syria and Mali and so on). Of course, the Empire provided cheap raw materials and labour for France to exploit.

The tragedy is that the Rooseveltian anti-imperial America which Ho and his followers placed so much hope on, betrayed them. Why? Two main practical reasons emerge:

  1. Restoring France Almost immediately after the end of the Second World War Stalin set about consolidating his grip on the Russian-occupied nations of Eastern Europe by establishing puppet communist regimes in them. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the start of the Berlin Airlift, both in 1948, epitomise the quick collapse of the wartime alliance between Russia and America into a Cold War stand-off. In this context, the Americans thought it was vital to build up Western Europe‘s capitalist economies to provide economic and military counterweight to the Soviet threat. Hence the enormous sums of money America poured into Europe via the Marshall Plan (which came into force in June 1948). A glance at the map of post-war Europe shows that, with Germany divided, Italy in ruins, Spain neutral, and the Benelux countries small and exposed, France emerges as the central country in Western Europe. If France’s empire contributed economically (through its raw materials), militarily (through colonial soldiers) and psychologically to France’s rebuilding, then so be it. The nationalist aspirations of Algeria, Tunisia and the other African colonies, along with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were sacrificed on the altar of building up a strong France in Europe to act as a bulwark against the Soviet threat.
  2. The domino theory It was only later, after China fell to communist control in October 1949, that Cold War hawks began to see (not unjustifiably) evidence of a worldwide communist conspiracy intent on seizing more and more territory. This received further shocking confirmation when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. It is from the communist victory in China and the start of the 1950s that the Americans began to talk about a ‘domino effect’ – seeing non-communist countries as dominoes lined up in a row, so that if one fell to communism all the others would automatically follow. As the map below shows, the fear was that i) communist victory in Korea would directly threaten Japan ii) communist forces in central China would threaten the island of Formosa and the other western Pacific islands, and iii) most crucial of all – the collapse of Vietnam would allow communist forces a forward base to attack the Philippines to the east, open the way to the invasion of Thailand to the west, and threaten south down the long peninsula into Malaya and Indonesia.

Cast of characters

Logevall introduces us to a number of Americans on the ground – diplomats, analysts and journalists – who all strongly disagreed with the new American line, but were powerless to change it. Against their better judgement the Americans allowed the French to return to run Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Logevall explains the arguments among the French themselves, and accompanies his account of the next nine years (1945-1954) with a running commentary on the changing patterns of the very fractured French political system (19 governments in just 8 years), and the conflicting priorities of the French communist party, the Socialists, the centre and the Gaullist right.

In contrast to French perfidy and inconsistency, Ho emerges as very much the hero of this account for the patience and mildness of his demands. Ho was in communication with both the French and American authorities – the French ignored all requests for independence, but he had some hopes the Americans would listen. Ho guaranteed that his independent Vietnam would allow for capitalism -for private property, a market economy. He said American firms would receive preferential treatment in rebuilding the post-war economy.

All on deaf ears. The same crowds who had greeted Ho’s historic declaration of independence in September 1945, stayed away from the pathetic French re-entry into Saigon the next year. On their first night of freedom, French troops who had been interned by the Japanese were released and went on a drunken rampage, beating up Vietnamese in the streets for being collaborators. Photo journalist Germaine Krull saw Vietnamese nationalists paraded through the streets with ropes tied round their necks while French women spat on them. Krull realised, right there and then, that the French had lost all respect and deference – instead of befriending the Vietnamese and creating a genuine partnership with promises of ultimate nationhood, the French hardliners had insisted nothing must question the ‘Glory’ and ‘Honour’ and ‘Prestige’ of La Belle France.

And so the quixotic quest for gloire and grandeur and prestige condemned France to nine years of bitter war, hundreds of thousands of death and, ultimately, to crushing humiliation. It feels like a grim poetic justice for the arrogance and stupidity of the French.

Dien Bien Phu

Almost immediately armed clashes between French soldiers and small guerrilla units or individuals began in all the cities and towns. Various nationalist groups claimed responsibility for the attacks but slowly Ho Chi Minh’s communists emerged as the best disciplined and most effective insurgent forces. The communists made up the core and most effective part of the coalition of nationalist forces christened the Viet Minh. Saigon became a twitchy nervous place to be, with an irregular drumbeat of gunshots, the occasional hand grenade lobbed into a cafe, assassinations of French officials in the street.

Logevall gives a detailed narrative of the slow descent of the country into guerilla war, with the dismal attempts of successive generals to try and quell the insurgency, by creating a defensive line of forts around Hanoi in the north, or sending search and destroy missions into the remote countryside.

The diplomatic and political emphasis of the book comes to the fore in the long and incredibly detailed account of the manoeuvring which surrounded the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu, from the beginning of its inception in 1953.

I have just reviewed a classic account of this battle, Martin Windrow’s epic military history, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, so won’t repeat the story here. Suffice to say the French had the bright idea of creating a defensive stronghold in an isolated valley in remote north-west Vietnam which could only be supplied from the air. Why? a) They intended to use it as a base to undertake offensive actions against Viet Minh supply lines running from China past Dien Bien Phu southwards into neighbouring Laos and b) they planned to lure the Viet Minh into a set piece battle where they would be crushed by overwhelming French artillery and airborne power.

The plan failed on both counts, as the Viet Minh surrounded the fort in such numbers that ‘offensive’ missions became suicidal; and with regard to luring the Viet Minh to their destruction, the French a) badly underestimated the ability of the Viets to haul large-calibre cannon up to the heights commanding the shallow valley and b) the battle took place as the monsoon season started and so air cover was seriously hampered (and in any case the Viet Minh were masters of camouflage, who only manoeuvred at night, making them very difficult to locate from the air).

The result was that the series of strongholds which comprised the French position were surrounded and picked off one by one over the course of a gruelling and epic 56-day battle.

Logevall devotes no fewer than 168 pages to the battle (pp.378 to 546) but relatively little of this describes the actual fighting. Instead, he chronicles in dazzling detail the intensity of the political and diplomatic manoeuvring among all the interested powers, particularly the Americans, the British and the French. Each of these governments was under domestic political pressure from conflicting parties in their parliaments and congresses, and even the governments themselves were riven by debate and disagreement about how to manage the deteriorating situation. Press reports of the French Army’s ‘heroic’ stand against the surrounding forces for the first time caught the public imagination, in France and beyond and the battle began to become a symbols of the West’s resolve.

It is mind-boggling to read that the Americans repeatedly mooted the possibility of using atom bombs against the Chinese (who were by now openly supporting the Viet Minh forces) or of giving the French some atom bombs to deploy as they wanted. The generals and politicians rejected dropping atom bombs directly onto Dien Bien Phu since they would obviously wipe out the French garrison as well as the attacking forces. Extra peril was added to the international scene when the Americans detonated their first hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in March 1954, intensifying the sense of Cold War superpower rivalry.

But it is in his running account of the minute by minute, phone call by phone call, hurried meetings between ambassadors and Foreign secretaries and Prime Ministers, that Logevall conveys the extraordinary complexity of political and strategic manouevring during these key months. The central issue was: Should the Americans directly intervene in the war to help the French? The French pleaded for more, much more, American supplies and munitions; for American troops on the ground; or for a diversionary attack on mainland China; or for more, many more bombing raids over Viet Minh positions.

Republican President Eisenhower was himself a supremely experienced military leader and had come to power (in January 1953) by attacking the (Democrat) Truman administration’s ‘capitulation’ in letting China fall to communism – and then for letting the Korean War to break out on Truman’s watch.

Logevall’s account is so long because it chronicles every important meeting of Eisenhower’s cabinet, examining the minutes of the meeting and analysing the points of view of his political and military advisers. And then analysing the way decisions were discussed with other governments, especially the British Foreign secretary (Anthony Eden) and Prime Minister (an ageing Winston Churchill).

Basically, Eisenhower found himself forced into a position of issuing fiercer and fiercer threats against the growing communist threat. In a keynote speech delivered on 7 April 1954, he warned of the perils of the Domino Effect (the first time the phrase entered the public domain) but hedged his bets by insisting that America wouldn’t go to war in South-East Asia unless:

a) the decision was ratified by Congress (one of the Republican criticisms of Truman was that he took the Americans into the Korean War by Presidential Decree alone, without consulting the Congress)
b) it was a ‘United Action’ along with key allies, namely the British

The focus then moves to the British and to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Would he agree to U.S. demands to form a coalition, and thus give the Americans the fig leaf they needed to go in and help the French, whose situation at Dien Bien Phu was becoming more desperate each day.

But Logevall explains the pressure Eden was under, because he knew that any British intervention to prop up the ailing French imperial position in Indochina would be roundly criticised by India and other members of the newly-founded Commonwealth at an upcoming meeting of Commonwealth heads of state, and the British very much wanted to ensure the continuation of this legacy of their Empire.

Moreover, British government opinion was that the French were losing and that the Americans, if they intervened, would quickly find themselves being sucked into bigger and bigger commitments in Vietnam in a war which the British thought was doomed to failure. The risk would then be that the Americans would be tempted to ‘internationalise’ the conflict by directly attacking the Viet Minh’s arms supplier – China – possibly, God forbid, with atomic weapons – which would inevitably bring the Russians in on the Chinese side – and we would have World War Three!

Hence the British refusal to commit.

American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles flew to Britain several times but failed, in one-on-one meetings, to change Eden’s position. And it was this failure to secure British (and thence Australian and New Zealand) support to create a ‘United Action’ coalition which meant that Eisenhower wouldn’t be able to win round key members of Congress, which meant that – he couldn’t give the French the vital military support they were begging for – which, ultimately, meant that Dien Bien Phu was doomed.

It has been thrilling to read Martin Windrow’s bullet-by-bullet account of the battle (The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam) alongside Logevall’s meeting-by-meeting account of the diplomacy. Logevall gives you a sense of just how fraught and complex international politics can be and there is a horrible tragic inevitability about the way that, despite the French paratroopers fighting on bravely, hoping against hope that the Americans would lay on some kind of miracle, a massive air campaign, or a relief force sent overland from Laos – none of this was ever to materialise.

Instead, as the battle drew towards its grizzly end, all the parties were forced to kick the can down the road towards a five-power international conference due to start in Geneva in May 1954. This had been suggested at a meeting of the Soviets, British and Americans in Berlin late the previous year, to address a whole range of Cold War issues, from the status of West Germany and a final peace treaty with Austria, through to the unfinished aspects of the Korean War Armistice, and only partly to the ongoing Indochina crisis.

Dien Bien Phu had begun as only one among several operations carried out by General Navarre, head of French forces in Indochina, but it had steamrollered out of control and its air of a heroic last stand had caught the imagination of the French population and, indeed, people around the world, and had come to symbolise all kinds of things for different players – for the West a last ditch stand against wicked communism, but for many third-world populations, the heroic overthrow of imperial oppressors. And so the military result came to have a symbolic and political power out of all proportion to the wretched little valley’s strategic importance.

In the event, the central stronghold of Dien Bien Phu was finally overrun by the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954, the Viet Minh taking some 10,000 French and colonial troops (Algerian, West African, Vietnamese) prisoner. About two-thirds of these then died on the long marches to POW camps, and of disease and malnutrition when they got there. Only a little over 3,000 prisoners were released four months later.

The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954)

Meanwhile, Logevall works through the geopolitical implications of this titanic military disaster with characteristic thoroughness. Briefly, these were that the French quit Indochina. News of the French defeat galvanised the Geneva Conference which proceeded to tortuously negotiate its way to an agreement that a) the French would completely quit the country; b) Vietnam would be partitioned at the 17th parallel with the North to be run by an internationally-recognised Viet Minh government, while the South would be ruled by the (ineffectual playboy) emperor Bao Dai (who owned a number of residences in the South of France and was a connoisseur of high class call girls).

The negotiations to reach this point are described with mind-boggling thoroughness in part five of the book (pages 549 to 613), which give a full explanation of the conflicting views within each national camp (Americans, Russians, French, Chinese, British, Viet Minh) and the key moments when positions shifted and new lines of discussion became possible. Maybe the key breakthrough was the election of a new French Prime Minister, the left-of-centre Pierre Mendès France, who broke the diplomatic stalemate and set himself the deadline of one month to negotiate an end to the whole wasteful, crippling war.

Why did the Viet Minh in the end accept less than total independence for their country? Because they were leant on by the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, himself carrying out the orders of his master, Mao Zedong. Mao didn’t want to give the Americans any excuse to intervene in the war, with the risk of attacks on mainland communist China. In fact the Russians and Chinese partly agreed to this temporary partition because they secured agreement from everyone that full and free elections would be held across the entire country in 1956 to decide its future.

The Americans, meanwhile, held aloof from the final agreement, didn’t sign it, and now – with the French definitively leaving – felt that the old colonial stigma was gone and so they were free to support the newly ‘independent’ nation of South Vietnam by any means necessary. When July 1956 – the date set for the elections – rolled around, the elections were never held – because the communist North had already in two years become very unpopular with its people, and because the Americans knew that, despite everything, Ho Chi Minh’s nationalists would still win. So both sides conspired to forget about elections and the partition solidified into a permanent state.

This then, forms the backdrop to the Vietnam War – explaining the long tortuous history behind the creation of a communist north Vietnam and a free capitalist South Vietnam, why the Americans came to feel that the ongoing survival of the south was so very important, but also the depth of nationalist feeling among the Vietnamese which was, eventually, twenty years later, to lead to the failure of the American war and the final unification of the country.

The volta

A high-level way of looking at the entire period is to divide it in two, with a transition phase:

  • In part one America under Roosevelt is trenchantly against European empires and in favour of independence for former colonies.
  • Under Truman there is growing anxiety about Russian intentions in Europe, which crystallise with China going red in 1949 and the North Korean attack in 1950 into paranoia about the communist threat so that –
  • In part two, America under Eisenhower (president for the key eight years from January 1953 to January 1961) reverses its strategy and now offers support to Imperial powers in combating communist insurgencies in Indochina, Malaya, Indonesia, as well as in Africa and South America.

What I found particularly rewarding and instructive was the detail on the earlier, wartime Roosevelt period, which I knew nothing about -and then Logevall’s wonderfully thorough explanation of what caused the change of attitude to the European empires, and how it was embodied in anti-communists like Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959 John Foster Dulles, and Eisenhower’s clever Vice-President, Richard Nixon.

Dien Bien Phu as symbol of French occupation of Indochina

Ngo Dinh Diem

The last hundred pages of the book cover the six and a half years from the end of the Geneva Conference (July 1954) to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the youngest ever U.S President in January 1961.

Titled ‘Seizing the Torch 1954 – 59’, this final section deals relatively briefly with the French withdrawal from Tonkin and northern Annam i.e. from the new territory of ‘North of Vietnam’ which was now handed over to the control of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (There is a good description of this difficult and potentially dangerous operation in Martin Windrow’s book).

The partition triggered the flight of an estimated 900,000 Vietnamese refugees from the North to the South – shipped to the South in a fleet of American passenger ships in what was titled Operation ‘Passage to Freedom’.

And in the North, the communists began to implement a foolishly harsh and cruel regime copied direct from the communist tyrannies of Russia and China. Most disastrous was their ‘land reform’, based on the categorisation of rural dwellers into different types – landlord, rich peasant, middle peasant, poor peasant etc – made with a view to rounding up and executing, or torturing or sending to labour camps everyone arbitrarily put in the ‘rich’ categories.

All this led swiftly to the predictable collapse of rural markets and the threat – yet again – of famine. There are records of Ho himself berating his top comrades for the brutality and foolishness of this brutal policy, but he doesn’t seem to have done much to stop it: the cadres had learned it from the masters; this was how Stalin and Mao had led their ‘revolutions’.

But Logevall’s real focus, as always, is not so much on these domestic social changes but on the continuing  international diplomatic and political jockeying, now focusing on the supposedly ‘independent’ and ‘democratic’ regime in the new territory of South Vietnam. With the French withdrawing all colonial forces and administration during 1955, the path was for the first time clear for the Americans to act with a free hand. As usual Logevall explicates the complex discussions which took place in Washington of the various options, and shows how policy eventually settled on installing the peculiar figure of Ngo Dinh Diem as President, under the aegis of the docile emperor Bao Dai.

Logevall first paints a thorough picture of Diem’s personality – a devout Catholic who went into self-imposed exile in Europe at various Catholic retreats in between cultivating American opinion-formers in his perfect English -and who, upon taking power in South Vietnam, began to immediately display authoritarian traits, namely confining power to a small clique of  his own direct family, and launching harsh persecutions of suspected communists and ‘traitors’.

In parallel, Logevall shows the tremendous efforts made by the American government to justify his corrupt and inefficient rule. The fundamental problem in Vietnam, as in so many other U.S. puppet states, would turn out to be that the Americans’ candidate was wildly unpopular: everyone knew that if a genuinely democratic election were held, Ho Chi Minh would win a decisive victory, even in the capitalist south. Thus the Americans, in the name of Democracy, found themselves defending a leader who would lose a democratic vote and showed clear dictatorial behaviour.

Diem wasn’t the representative of ‘democracy’ – he was the front man for free-market capitalism. As such he was enthusiastically supported by Eisenhower, Dulles and – as Logevall shows in some fascinating passages – by the stranglehold that mid-twentieth century U.S. media had on public opinion. Logevall lists the activities of a well-connected organisation called the ‘American Friends of Vietnam’, which included all the main publications of the day, most notably Time magazine, which ran glowing tributes to Diem in every edition.

Logevall introduces us to the born-again anti-communist doctor, Tom Dooley, whose account of working as a medic among refugees from the North – Deliver Us From Evil – was filled with the most appalling atrocity stories and became a highly influential bestseller, serialised in Reader’s Digest, which had a circulation of 20 million. Only decades later was it revealed to be a preposterous fake – with none of the atrocities Dooley recorded having any basis in fact.

It was ordinary American families who consumed this barrage of pro-Diem propaganda through the press and radio and TV from the mid-1950s onwards, with kids who in eight years time (when the States escalated the war in 1965) would be old enough to be drafted to go and give their lives to support the Diem regime.

But the reality in South Vietnam was much different from this shiny propaganda. Almost none of the huge amounts of American aid, soon rising to $300 million a year, went on health or education. Over 90% went on arming and training the South Vietnam Army which, however, continued to suffer from low morale and motivation.

America’s ‘support’ ignored much-needed social reform and was incapable of controlling Diem’s regime which passed increasingly repressive laws, randomly arresting intellectuals, closing down the free press, and implementing a regime of terror in the countryside.

More and more peasants and villagers found themselves forced to resist the blackmailing corruption of the Diem’s rural administrators, and revolt arose spontaneously in numerous locations around the country. This is a historical crux – many commentators and historians insist that the communist agitation in the South was created by the North; Logevall demurs and calls in contemporary analysts as evidence and witnesses. In his opinion, revolt against Diem’s repressive regime grew spontaneously and was a natural result of its harshness.

Indeed, newly opened archives in the North now reveal that the Hanoi leadership in fact agonised about whether, and how much, to support this groundswell of opposition. In fact, they were restrained by China and, more distantly, Russia, neither of whom wanted to spark renewed confrontation with America.

Nonetheless Hanoi found itself drawn, discreetly, into supporting revolutionary activity in the South, beginning in the late 1950s to create an administrative framework and a cadre of military advisers. These were infiltrated into the South via Laos, along what would become known as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. In response the Diem regime used a nickname for the communist forces, calling them the Viet Cong, or VC, a name which was to become horribly well-known around the world.

While the American press and President awarded Diem red carpet treatment, a tickertape parade in New York, and fawning press coverage when he visited the States in 1956, back home things were growing darker. As 1957 turned into 1958, Diem reinstituted the use of the guillotine as punishment for anyone who resisted his regime, and his roving tribunals travelling through the countryside used this threat to extort even more money from disaffected peasants. But simultaneously, the communist apparatus in the south began to take shape and to receive advice about structure and tactics from the North.

The beginning

The book ends with an at-the-time almost unnoticed event. On the evening of 8 July 1959 eight U.S. military advisers in a base 20 miles north of Saigon enjoyed a cordial dinner and then settled down to watch a movie. It was then that a squad of six Viet Cong guerrillas who had cut through the flimsy surrounding barbed wire, crept up to the staff quarters and opened fire with machine guns. Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand and Major Dale Buis died almost immediately, before armed help arrived from elsewhere in the camp to fight off the intruders. Ovnand and Buis’s names are the first of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam and whose names are all carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Conclusion

Embers of War won many prizes and it really deserves them – it sheds light not only on the long, tortured death of French imperialism in Indochina, and gives incredible detail on the way the Americans inch-by-inch found themselves being drawn deeper into the Vietnam quagmire – it also shows any attentive reader how international affairs actually work, how great ‘decisions’ are ground out by the exceedingly complex meshing of a welter of complex and ever-shifting forces – at international, national, domestic, military, political and personal levels. On every level a stunningly informative and intelligent work of history.

Related links

The Last Valley by Martin Windrow (2004)

‘While an increasing flow of American dollars, weapons, vehicles and aircraft in the early 1950s did improve the fire and mobility of the CEFEO, they could not offset the fundamental disadvantages of a roadbound army facing a hill and forest army in a country which had few roads but a great many hills and forests.’ (p.129)

This is a really epic book about an epic battle. Its full title is The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam and it does what it says on the tin at immense length and in fascinating detail, clocking in at a whopping 734 pages, including detailed endnotes, bibliography, list of acronyms, no fewer than 21 maps, and a thorough index. It clearly sets out to be the definitive account of this debacle.

1. Background

The first hundred or so pages take us through the origins and early stages of the First Indochina War (1946-1954). Vietnam had been part of French colonial Indochina since the 1850s, colonial rule which was consolidated at the turn of the century. The higher education the French offered the natives ironically educated a generation to demand greater freedom and independence.

The most notable of these nationalists Ho Chi Minh (born 1890) travelled to France after World War One and tried to contact the American delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference, hoping President Woodrow Wilson would apply his Fourteen Points to Europe’s colonies – particularly French Indochina – and secure their independence. But his letters went unanswered.

Rebuffed, Ho set about educating himself in communist doctrine and guerrilla tactics, traveling to Soviet Moscow to study, then returning to Vietnam where he helped set up the Indochina Communist Party in 1930 and then helped weld the various disparate nationalist groups into a united front, the Viet Minh, in 1941.

After the Fall of France to the Nazis in June 1940, the French authorities in Indochina (as in France’s other colonies) switched allegiance to the new Vichy government, a puppet state which the Nazis allowed to administer the south of France and the French Empire.

On September 27, 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, which became known as the Axis alliance. Japanese forces entered French Indochina and took over all important administrative powers from the Vichy French. The native Vietnamese (and Laotians and Cambodians) watched in wonder as their European imperial masters were humiliated by fellow Asians. In a culture based on ‘face’, the French empire in the East (like the British one) never recovered from the loss of face involved in their feeble surrender to the Japanese.

France was finally liberated by the Allies in late 1944 and the Vichy regime was overthrown. This put the Vichy administrators in Indochina in a tricky position vis-a-vis their Japanese masters and the growing tension came to a head in March 1945 when the Japanese rounded up the Vichy forces, locking them up in Japanese prison camps and executing anyone who resisted (‘In Saigon the senior military and civil prisoners, General Lemonnier and Resident Auphalle, were beheaded after being forced to dig their own graves.’ p.81)

In the six months between Japan’s seizure of power and the final Japanese defeat in September 1945, the Japanese left the Viet Minh to their own devices, allowing them to organise and set up cells throughout the country. The Japanese concentrated their efforts on pillaging Vietnam’s food resources to feed Japan, leading to the catastrophic famine of45 in which well over one million Vietnamese starved to death.

When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the Viet Minh, led by Ho, their by-now veteran organiser, immediately declared Vietnamese independence to cheering crowds and amid nationwide rejoicing. Frederick Logevall’s epic account of the period, Embers of War, includes eyewitness accounts by the handful of Americans on the scene who were amazed and impressed when Ho quoted the American declaration of Independence. Like the Americans, the Vietnamese just wanted to be free from an imperial oppressor.

Which makes the tragedy all the more bitter, which makes you want to weep tears of frustration to read of the way the Americans under President Truman abandoned their wartime commitment to liberate colonial peoples, and instead stood behind General de Gaulle’s arrogant insistence that all of Indochina must be returned to French Imperial rule.

As per the agreement made between the Big Three powers (the USA, Britain, USSR) at Potsdam earlier in 1945, a ragtag army from nationalist China was allowed to occupy the north of the country, and a division of the British Indian army occupied the south, both of them holding the ring until the French returned.

Thus, through into spring 1946 the French armed forces arrived from Europe, determined to restore the status quo ante, immediately rounding up any nationalists foolish enough to trust them, amid an atmosphere of mistrust and tension. Scattered moments of resistance quickly grew into a guerrilla insurgency across the country, in the north and south, which was crystallised in a dispute over customs dues in the port of Haiphong. On November 26 1946 the French navy bombarded the city, seriously damaging it and killing over 6,000 civilians, in just one afternoon. After such massacre, there was no going back (p.90).

2. The first Indochina war

So by 1947 France found itself drawn into an unwinnable guerrilla war against an enemy who mostly refused open battle in preference for urban terrorist attacks and hit-and-run guerrilla operations in the steamy jungles of northern Vietnam. In a way the 8 years of war, from 1946 to 1954, are footnotes to, or simply the logical consequence of, the fatal initial French decision to reoccupy the country against the express wishes of the majority of the population.

The French military struggled to contain an insurgency which was so unpredictable and where the terrain and the people were so much on the side of the insurgents. French generals arrived in Indochina full of enthusiasm and confidence, slowly grasped the hopelessness of the situation, and ended up writing bleak reports back to Paris, while all the time little convoys and isolated outposts were ambushed and annihilated.

Back in Paris the governments of the Fourth Republic proved themselves as addicted to bickering and posturing as the French governments before the war, lacking – in a neat formulation of Windrow’s – either the strength to prosecute the war with conviction (to implement conscription and triple the number of French troops in Vietnam) or the political courage to face the facts and concede to talks with the Viet Minh.

The situation underwent a sea change in October 1949 when Mao Zedong’s communist forces finally secured power in war-torn China. Mao immediately set about sending supplies to the Viet Minh and Windrow describes how military training camps were set up in south China for cohorts of Viet Minh forces to attend – learning skills of organisation, rifle, machine gun, mortar and artillery technique.

Reading the history of this period has taught me that the fall of China to communism caused massive recriminations in American politics, with a wave of republicans queueing up to accuse President Truman’s Democrat government of being ‘soft on communism’. The American political atmosphere was paranoid even before communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, precipitating America into a bloody three-year struggle in support of the beleaguered south.

All this turned the independence struggle in Vietnam into a cauldron of the Cold War and, especially after the Korean War ground to a long-delayed armistice in summer 1953, the two sides (Viet Minh and French) were supplied ever increasing amounts of arms and matériel by their respective backers (China and America – by the time it ended in 1954, the United States was paying three-quarters of the cost of the war.)

3. Dien Bien Phu

In 1951 and 1952 there were larger scale engagements as the Vietnam Army’s self-taught general, Vo Ngyen Giáp, experimented with larger attacks on French positions around Hanoi. Windrow describes each of these in meticulous detail, with precise maps showing troops dispositions in staggering detail and there are very precise maps for each of them, so that you can follow the night’s or day’s events with great precision.

November and December 1952 saw the Battle of Nà Sản. Giáp attacked the French outpost at Nà Sản, an isolated fortified camp in Tonkin supplied only by air. Giáp sent wave after wave of Viet Minh infantry in direct attack, but these either failed, or seized territory was immediately retaken by aggressive French paratroop units. Ultimately Giáp failed, with the Viet Minh suffering very heavy losses.

In May 1953 General Henri Navarre was dispatched to Vietnam with orders to bring the situation to some kind of resolution favourable for possible negotiations. He based himself in Hanoi in the north of the country, where the Viet Minh were strongest. His first priority was maintaining security in the corridor from Hanoi down to the port of Haiphong and in the broader delta of the Red River. Late in the year he launched an anti-insurgency operation in the middle of the country known as Annam. But the idea slowly took shape of deliberately recreating the Nà Sản experience on an even larger scale with the aim of drawing Giáp into committing the bulk of the Viet Minh forces – alternately known as the Vietnam Liberation Army – into a massed assault. This would allow superior French artillery, armour and air support to decimate the exposed VPA.

Given the French total domination of the air, the base would be supplied by air and air forces would also help decimate all VPA units brought against it. Windrow charts the process whereby various factors led to the decision to locate this ‘air-land base’ at the remote settlement of Dien Bien Phu. This was actually a straggle of small villages in a long narrow valley far in the north-west of the country. It was given strategic value by being a kind of crossroads for Viet Minh forces coming from China or heading south-west to threaten French-occupied Laos.

Plans were drawn up to parachute in over 10,000 men, mainly crack paratroop regiments and Foreign Legionaries, along with vast amounts of equipment, including 10 Chaffee tanks, bulldozers to create a working airstrip – Operation Castor, as it was called, commenced on 20 November 1953.

Once the airstrip was laid, old Dakota transport planes from the war began flying in scores of artillery guns, hundreds of mortars, vast amounts of ammunition and everything required to build a vast military encampment in the long narrow valley. During this set-up phase there was little or no sight of the enemy and countless politicians and journalists flew in to be impressed by the might and power of the French Army. In actual fact, right from the start a lot of the planes, crews and equipment were supplied by the Americans.

4. Catastrophe

The entire project rested on a number of assumptions or propositions:

  • Dominance in the air would prove decisive:
    1. supplies could be dropped indefinitely
    2. wounded taken out
    3. new men brought in
    4. Vietnam Liberation Army forces would be identified from the air and wiped out
    5. VLA artillery would be identified from the air and wiped out
  • The VLA would not be able to get their artillery over the high ridges surrounding the valley, and if they did they’d be wiped out from the air
  • The base could be used for offensive attacks on VLA supply lines

In the event every single one of these assumptions proved false. The few attempts to go out on offensive patrol were beaten back by the encircling VLA with heavy French losses. As January changed to February the early monsoon brought fog and mist, drastically reducing flights in and out of the airstrip. The VLA went to extraordinary lengths to camouflage their supply tracks, bending trees over to be tied in the middle above jungle paths, meticulously camouflaging each other’s uniforms and helmets and, most effectively, only moving at night. The VLA did manage to haul their heavy guns over the ridges, in heroic efforts which Windrow describes at length. This took the French completely by surprise. And then the VLA dug them into deeply embedded fissures and caves with huge overhangs of solid rock. For the entire battle the French struggled to locate the attacking guns and, despite dropping hundreds of tons of explosives, didn’t destroy a single one.

French intelligence knew that Giáp was building up large forces around the base and expected an attack on 25 January. By 31 January they were completely surrounded. The battle proper started on 13 March 1954 with a devastating barrage of one of the most remote outposts of the base. (In a hilariously French touch, it is alleged that the nine or so outcrops, based on small hillocks scattered over the valley, were named after mistresses of the womanising camp commander, Colonel Christian de Castries – Eliane, Beatrice, Gabriele etc.)

That first evening’s barrage destroyed lots of French illusions. It was as intense as a Great War artillery attack and ranged freely from the intended target (the most isolated stronghold, ‘Beatrice’) across the entire camp, damaging the airstrip, threatening command HQ deep in the compound, and killing key commanders at Beatrice within half an hour. De Castries’ chief of staff had a nervous breakdown on that first night from which he never recovered. It took only a few more days of such intense barrage for the French artillery commander, Charles Piroth, to realise that a) the VLA had brought their artillery over the mountains b) they had hidden them so effectively they couldn’t even be located let alone pummeled by the French c) air attacks were similarly ineffective. Plunging into a depression, after only a week he withdrew to his hut and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Windrow then describes the 56 day-long ordeal of the French forces as they are then slowly, systematically reduced, the VLA targeting one stronghold after another, softening them up with overwhelming artillery attacks and then sending wave after wave of fanatical VLA troops against the French forces who showed episodes of tremendous courage but time and again were borne down by sheer numbers. (In one of the countless insights the book provides, Windrow points out the narrowness and inflexibility of Gap’s tactics which were, in essence, exactly the same as First World War tactics – dig trenches close up to the enemy positions – fire a devastating bombardment – then pour endless troops into the breach, regardless of horrendous losses.)

Windrow

What makes Windrow’s account distinctive is the immense detailed attention he pays to every aspect of the military side of the battle. For example,

  • He devotes pages to a minute breakdown of the exact structure of the Viet Minh forces (named the Vietnam Liberation Army), giving the names and numbers of each division, brigade, along with the respective generals and senior officers.
  • He explains the threefold division of the Viet Minh forces, into local irregulars based in villages who provided support; militia based in villages who were organised to carry out small scale engagements; and regular army who were fully trained and lived in jungle ‘barracks’ high up in the inaccessible hill and jungle territory of North Tonkin, near the Chinese border.
  • He gives comprehensive histories of all the French divisions, regiments and battalions involved in the battle, down to platoon and squad level of all the French forces.

I have never read such an exhaustive account of a sustained military operation, such a precise breakdown of the forces involved, nor such a minute-by-minute narrative of almost every parachute that opens, every canon that fires, every machine gun blockhouse which fights on to the death.

Hundreds of pages are filled with comprehensive blow-by-blow descriptions of every units involved in the battle, clotted with division or regimental or battalion numbers, commanders and personnel, sometimes amounting to lists of acronyms and locations which can get quite confusing. This is a typical paragraph from thousands like it:

The withdrawing Group East consisted of Colonel Barrou’s GM 100, the Vietnamese light infantry unit TDKQ 520, and irregular scouts. Although much harried over the past five months this motorised brigade had a fine reputation; its infantry were the two-battalion Régiment de Corée – the former French UN battalion from the Korean War, expanded by local recruitment – and BM/43 RIC, a good unit enlisted mainly from ethnic Khmers from western Cochinchina. Coming to meet them in Lieutenant Colonel Sockeel’s Group West were GM 42, built on three montagnard battalions recruited among Rhadés from around Ban Me Thuot; each brigade had the usual 105mm artillery battalion and a few Stuart tanks from the 5th Cuirassiers. Group West also had a small airborne brigade: GAP 1, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Romain-Defossés, with 7 BPC (Major Balbin) and 3 BPVN (Major Mollo). (p.634)

Learnings

It is a profoundly instructive book because it takes you so deeply and exhaustively into every aspect of the battle – not only into the experience of the men fighting in the trenches and front line of each stronghold, but giving a complete account of all the orders issued, signals sent and plans devised both by General Navarre and his staff in Hanoi, and de Castries and his in the camp, as well as insights into the challenges faced by the different air forces which were involved in the non-stop drop and resupply of the base. We get to know many of the officers, including the legendary Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel Bigeard and Colonel Pierre Langlais.

It is fascinating to have such an epic battle so firmly located within the larger French strategy, for Navarre had also to defend the Delta and provision his campaign in Annam.

It is a major revelation to learn that most of the French forces fighting in the battle were not strictly French, for they included a large number of native forces, both Vietnamese and Thai regiments recruited from the locality; as well as a large number of Algerian forces, and colonial troops from West African countries such as Senegal. A significant number of battalions were from the French Foreign Legion, none of whose men were French and a frisson goes through the reader to learn that many of these men were former Wehrmacht soldiers who had various reasons to flee Europe with no questions asked.

At regular intervals Windrow stops his narrative to explain aspects of warfare, always writing with clarity and common sense.

  • He gives a detailed technical explanation of artillery shell fire, how it works, what it feels like, the kind of wounds it inflicts (pp.371-374)
  • what it’s like inside a tank (hot, cramped, blind, poisoned by fume) (pp.448-449)
  • how a flamethrower works and what the flame looked like and did (p.504)

One of these digressions is the best description of what motivates men to fight I think I’ve ever read.

The section were the soldier’s closest comrades- his copains, mates or buddies; he marched, fought, ate and slept beside them, and came to know them as well as he had known his childhood brothers. It would be absurd to imagine that every soldier likes and trusts all the men in his squad; nevertheless, every serious study of human motivation among combat soldiers confirms that the key to a man’s behaviour in battle is his feeling of mutual dependence and obligation towards these immediate comrades. Today many veterans of serious and prolonged combat are not embarrassed to use the word love. This unique sense of unselfish fellowship forged in shared ordeals is the principal reward of soldiering, and its rupture by the death of friends is the most painful price. (p.176)

This put me in mind of all those accounts of British officers in the First World War who came to love their men, and were upset to be separated from them, by different postings or injury. The war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon write eloquently of this soldierly love, and only a force this powerful and primeval can explain why right up to the end French troops were being parachuted into Dien Bien Phu to fight alongside their fellow Legionnaires or Parachute divisions, in a cause which was obviously hopelessly lost.

The Geneva Conference

As the battle grew more intense, preparations began for a major conference of diplomats and politicians to be held in Geneva, designed to bring together all the interested parties in South-East Asia (China, Russia, America, Britain, France) in order to address the aftermath of the Korean War as well as the situation in Indochina. Though it hadn’t been planned this way, political and military commanders on both sides (Ho and Giap, Navarre and de Castries) now realised that the outcome of the Battle at Dien Bien Phu could well determine the outcome of the conference, and thus the entire fate of the French Empire in Asia.

Also the open access given to journalists early on ensured the battle had more, and more graphic, coverage on French radio, in newspapers and magazines, than previous confrontations. The struggle against overpowering odds of their brave boys in the jungle seized the French imagination more powerfully than any previous engagement in the eight-year-old war. As the situation became progressively more grim so did the mood of the French public.

I hadn’t really grasped how fragile France was after the Second World War. There were some 19 different governments between 1945 and 1954, many lasting only months, as the relentless backbiting of a host of extreme parties, including a powerful communist party, stymied the ability to govern.

Amid a welter of parliamentary backstabbing, and recriminations among the generals and between military and politicians, Dien Bien Phu eventually fell to the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954.

In fact, as Windrow harrowingly shows, the misery for many was only just starting because around half of the prisoners of war taken by the Viet Minh died on the long jungle marches to POW camps, or in the camps themselves, due to malnutrition and disease, a process he describes with characteristic grim thoroughness.

A thoroughly demoralised French government announced its intention to quit Indochina, despite the readiness of many, including General Navarre to fight on. The Geneva Conference agreed to partition Vietnam along the 17th parallel, handing the north – Tonkin – to the Viet Minh, while the south was to be under the ‘democratic’ rule of the puppet emperor Bao Dai. Even before the French had left Americans were appearing in numbers to give political, strategic and material aid to the southern regime, a further decisive step towards their entanglement in what became known as the Vietnam War, a decade later.

Right to the end Windrow’s book is full of fascinating insights. The final pages explain how many of the survivors of Indochina found themselves redeployed to French Algeria, where the first attacks by the Front for National Liberation took place in October 1954, just a few weeks after the French evacuated Hanoi. He goes on to describe how many French soldiers felt betrayed by lack of political and military support at Dien Bien Phu. The suffering was on such a scale that for the whole cause they were fighting for – to preserve the French Empire in the Far East – to be overthrown within weeks seemed like a grotesque betrayal. This laid the seeds of the growing alienation of the French Army in Algeria, which saw a similar betrayal by politicians beginning to take place and led to the creation of the Organisation armée secrète which waged a terrorist campaign against French politicians and tried to mount a military coup in 1962.

For France herself, that was to be one legacy of Dien Bien Phu. For America, it was to be dragged into a catastrophic war. For the poor Vietnamese it was to be another 20 years of war before they finally secured their independence.

Video

There’s no shortage of videos and documentaries about both the First Indochina War and Dien Bien Phu in particular. This is the pithiest one I’ve watched.

Credit

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow was published in 2004 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Cassell Military Paperback edition.

Related links

The Vietnam War by Mitchell Hall (2000)

This is one of the Seminar Studies series produced by academic publisher Longman, a set of short introductions to historical topics.

This one on the Vietnam War features an 87-page overview of the war’s long and tangled history, with 23 pages of original source documents, a 6-page chronology, a 2-page list of the main characters, a 3-page glossary, and an 8-page bibliography. Designed for A-level students this is still a very useful short overview and reference book.

Vietnam geography

Vietnam is a 1,000-kilometer-long sliver of land along the east coast of the fat peninsular once known as Indochina. It widens in the north to form a kind of flowerhead shape around the northern city of Hanoi in the delta of the Red River, which is less than 50 miles from the border with China. Along the central belt which borders Laos in the west, it is sometimes as little as 30 miles wide. In the south it broadens out again before arriving at the southern city, formerly known as Saigon, on the big delta of the River Mekong.

Map of Vietnam

From 100 BC to 950 AD Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese. In the Middle Ages various dynasties tried to unite the long coastal strip and in the 1700s successfully seized the southern tip, the Mekong Delta, from the decaying Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

European explorers arrived in the 1500s, the French bringing Catholic missionaries, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that serious exploration and missionary work began. By the 1850s the French had established military control over most of Indochina, which they divided into administrative provinces and ran in the usual patronising, exploitative style.

The disastrous 20th century

World War Two was a catastrophe for European Empires all through Asia, which were overthrown by the triumphant Japanese Empire. The Japanese allowed Vietnam to continue to be run by the new Axis-friendly Vichy French regime. But when the Nazi regime in Europe collapsed in 1945, the Japanese briefly took direct rule, before their own defeat in August 1945.

Throughout the 1920s various Vietnamese nationalist movements had arisen, only to be suppressed by the French authorities. The most enduring was to be the communist one, led by Ho Chi Minh, who had trained in Bolshevik Moscow in the 1920s, and helped form the Vietnamese communist party in 1930. In 1941 Ho helped establish a broad-based nationalist movement, including moderates and radicals, which became known as the Viet Minh (full name ‘Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh Hội’, meaning ‘League for the Independence of Vietnam’). The communists were helped by Moscow to organise during the Vichy years and were given arms and advice by the American OSS during Japan’s brief period of direct rule.

This last year of the war saw a disastrous famine in Vietnam in which as many as two million starved to death. It had been inadvertently begun by Vichy French switch of agriculture from food crops to cash crops, and was exacerbated by Japanese rule, which was focused solely on feeding Japan’s home population. The collapse of civil authority and widespread hatred of the oppressor meant that, the moment Japan surrendered in August 1945, Ho Chi Minh’s call for a general uprising was met with enthusiasm in the northern and central provinces. This ‘August Revolution’ consolidated Viet Minh rule in the north and Ho called for Allied recognition of a united independent Vietnam.

What a world of pain would have been avoided if the Americans had simply agreed. Imagine if Truman had continued to supply arms and support to Ho, helped to establish a united nationalist government, and gained the eternal gratitude of the Vietnamese people.

Instead, as in Korea, the Allies i.e. America, designated a geographic division of the country: China to accept Japanese surrender in the north and Britain to accept it in the south. British soldiers occupied Saigon and put down nationalist and communist elements, pending the return of the French.

The French returned to find that: Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh organisation effectively controlled the north of the country; and the south included large pockets of Viet Minh and communist sympathisers, alongside competing nationalist interests, for example the Buddhist, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects, which made it very difficult to rule.

Dienbienphu

The French struggled to restore peace in the south and enforce their somewhat optimistic claim to be able to control the north. As sporadic outbreaks of violence dragged on, a French general, Henri Navarre, decided to draw the Viet Minh into an open set-piece battle such as his forebears had fought in Europe and set up a massive stronghold at Dienbienphu, far in the north and west towards the border with Laos, in the spring of 1954. The Vietminh’s leading strategist, General Vo Nguyen Giap, surrounded the 13,000 French with 50,000 Vietminh troops and after a grinding two-month conflict, took Dienbienphu.

This catastrophic defeat coincided with peace talks in Geneva about the entire region, and a deal was brokered whereby Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel into a Vietminh-held north and the French-controlled south, with a promise to hold elections throughout the country in 1956. The French began withdrawing from South Vietnam, handing authority over to the ’emperor’ Bao Dai, who appointed Ngo Dinh Diem Prime Minister in June 1954.

American involvement

Immediately after the Second World War America, true to its vehemently anti-colonial principles, had sought to undermine and hamper the return of the French to Indochina. However, within a few short years Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance in Europe had driven a wedge between the wartime allies and changed US policy. Now US policy around the world was subordinated to the idea of ‘containment’: the fear that Russia would back or impose communist governments in every country it was able to, in an aggressive strategy to spread communism throughout the world – unless actively halted by the West.

This paranoid view of the world was strongly reinforced when Mao Zedong’s communists finally won the Chinese Civil War in October 1949, and then Kim Il-sung’s North Korean communists invaded South Korea in June 1950. It was easy to see this as a concerted effort to make all Asia communist, an outcome which would ultimately threaten pro-western Japan, and then the American West Coast.

And so the Americans switched from criticising the French to supporting them with supplies and advisers. Dienbienphu was a turning point. From then onwards hawks within the US administration began to win the argument. Thus, as the French withdrew their forces and administrators, the Americans found themselves getting drawn into supporting Diem’s southern government. This was despite Diem’s unsavoury policies. Himself a member of Vietnam’s Catholic minority, Diem forcefully repressed other religious groups and kept key positions of power within his family or clan. As with the unsavoury Syngman Rhee in South Korea, America found that the logic of its anti-communist position drew it into supporting a repressive dictator who breached every principle of human rights and good governance Americans supposedly believed in, solely on the basis that he wasn’t a communist.

The French leave Vietnam

In 1955 the last French troops left the country. In 1956 Diem instituted a fierce anti-communist drive. In 1957 fighting broke out between the Republic of Vietnam Army and anti-regime opponents, who Diem referred to as the Viet Cong – a name which would catch on. (The original phrase was Việt Nam Cộng-sản which means ‘Vietnamese communist’. It was abbreviated to Viet Cong, then just VC. In the NATO phonetic alphabet V and C are conveyed by ‘Victor’ and ‘Charlie’ – hence the widespread use of ‘Charlie’ by American troops to refer to the enemy.)

Hanoi, effective capital of the communist North, was able to recruit a wide range of anti-Diem forces in the name of overthrowing the dictator and reuniting the country. In 1959 Hanoi sent the first shipments of men and supplies to their forces in the south to fuel what had, in effect, become a civil war. The various nationalist forces were organised into the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, supplied and directed by communists. By 1961 they controlled significant parts of the countryside and had sympathisers in every southern city.

President Kennedy took office in January 1961 and walked straight into the Vietnam problem. Like his predecessors he saw it through a Cold War lens as a case of communist aggression. Kennedy authorised the despatch of US special forces to Vietnam to train and support the South Vietnam army. By 1962 advisers estimated that Diem held only 49% of South Vietnam – but instead of recognising historical reality, this only spurred the Americans to redouble their support for the losing side. In 1963 the North commissioned isolated attacks on southern military targets, in which growing numbers of Americans were killed. It was a red rag to a bull.

Why America lost the Vietnam War

1. Civil war or Cold War ‘invasion’ The Americans saw the Vietnam conflict solely in terms of the global Cold War, and solely as a communist conspiracy. They failed to acknowledge the nationalist motivation of many of their opponents, who simply wanted to see their country reunited and all foreign oppressors thrown out.

Thus the Americans persisted in thinking about the war as an ‘invasion’ from the communist North, which could be put down by bombing the North, as if this conflict resembled Germany invading France. But this book makes clear that as much as 40% of the population of the south were opposed to Diem’s regime and, after he was assassinated in a coup, his numerous successors were even less popular.

The Americans manoeuvred themselves into the hopeless position of propping up the unpopular side in a civil war.

2. The failure of ‘attrition’ The American military adopted a policy of ‘attrition’. They thought they could wear down the enemy through constant conflict in which America’s vastly larger weaponry would inevitably triumph. It would become a contest of wills. Victory was measured by body count. If more VC died than US troops died then, eventually, finally, in the end, America would win.

But in the event the American willpower cracked first. Why? To this day the military men and their supporters blame the tremendous anti-war movement which grew up back in the States for undermining the war effort. But politicians have to represent the will of the people and by the end of the 1960s the people of America had had enough.

At a deeper level the whole sorry saga recalls the parable of the fox chasing the rabbit: the fox is quicker, cleverer and stronger than the rabbit; but the fox is only running for its dinner whereas the rabbit is running for its life. The Americans were only fighting yet another war for not very clear aims, with a manifestly failing strategy, in defensof a corrupt and unpopular government. The Vietnamese were fighting for a free, united country. The Americans could go home anytime; the Vietnamese had to live there. Which side would you bet on?

American involvement

Hundreds of thousands of books, articles, movies, newspaper and magazine pieces, academic studies and websites are devoted to the American part of the Vietnam War, from roughly 1964 to 1973. Suffice to say that when President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were about 16,000 US troops in Vietnam, helping Diem’s government against Viet Cong insurgents. Six years later there were as many as 550,000 US military personnel in country.

Diem was himself assassinated a few weeks before Kennedy, and south Vietnam then suffered a series of coups by military men, rendering the southern government ever-more illegitimate and precarious. In 1965, after half a dozen military coups, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu became president and was the figurehead of the Southern regime the Americans were supposedly fighting for, for the rest of the conflict.

1964 was the key year when America could still have walked away with some dignity, and we now know it was filled with fraught debates at senior levels in the administration of President Johnson, who replaced the assassinated Kennedy.

The central event came on 2nd August when a US destroyer high up in the Gulf of Tonkin (aiding commando attacks against the North Korean coast) was attacked by some North Vietnamese boats. Two days later the same ship reported being under attack again. There is now consensus that the second attack never took place and, apparently, the first one resulted in precisely one bullet hole in the ship’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, this ‘attack’ gave Johnson administration the fig leaf it needed to go to Congress and force through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, which allowed the president ‘to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate and to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.’ It was the legal fig leaf to take America into a full-blown war.

Rolling Thunder

Further North Vietnam-inspired attacks on southern targets, which killed some US servicemen, persuaded a dubious President Johnson that a bombing campaign against the North would bring them to the negotiating table. Having just read accounts of the bombing campaign of the Second World War and the Korean War, I share the President’s doubts – but the American air force won the argument and Operation Rolling Thunder – a sustained bombing campaign against Northern military targets – commenced in March 1965. Two things happened:

  • this stepping-up of the war sparked the first public protests, especially on university campuses, which formed the seeds of what would grow into a massive nationwide anti-war campaign
  • selective bombing didn’t either bolster the regime in the south or force the North to the negotiating table and so, as always happens, the generals insisted that the campaign be broadened to take in vital infrastructure, and then towns and then cities

Tim Page’s photo of the US air force man with a helmet with a set of stickers on it reading, ‘Bomb Hanoi’, ‘Bomb Saigon’, ‘Bomb Disneyland’, ‘Bomb Everything’, captures the horribly inevitable logic of all bombing campaigns. They never work and then their proponents say that’s because we’re not bombing enough.

That’s what the Luftwaffe told Hitler to get him to authorise the bombing British cities: did it bring Churchill to the negotiating table? No. Then Bomber Harris persuaded Churchill to allow indiscriminate ‘area’ bombing of German cities: did that bring Hitler to the negotiating table? No. the Americans fire-bombed Japanese cities for a year, reducing many to rubble, killing 100,000 civilians in the great firebombing of Tokyo alone: did that bring Japan to the negotiating table? No. The American Air Force bombed North Korean targets for years: did that hasten the negotiations to a conclusion? No.

But once again, the USAF persuaded a doubtful civilian leader to allow mass bombing of an enemy: did it bolster the South Vietnamese regime? No. Did it bring a defeated North Vietnam to the negotiating table? No. An estimated 50,000 North Vietnamese died.

The realisation that the (ever-expanding) bombing campaign wasn’t working, drove demands from the military authority on the ground, General Westmoreland, for more ground troops. Slowly, reluctantly, lacking a clear end-goal, Johnson authorised increasing US troops, 23,000 by the end of 1964, 385,000 during 1966, a massive 535,000 by early 1968.

The Tet Offensive

1968 was the decisive year. In January, taking the Americans completely by surprise, the North launched the Tet Offensive, striking a host of military sites all over South Vietnam, even attacking the US Embassy in Saigon.

Map of Tet Offensive targets

Although the Viet Cong lost at least 10 times the number of American dead in the Tet Offensive (45,267 to 4,124) the graphic TV images and newspaper reports, combined with the vigorous anti-war campaigns led by students back in the States, undermined American determination. It was a contributory factor to Lyndon Johnson deciding not to stand for re-election as president and to the election victory of his successor, Republican Richard Nixon, who became president in January 1969. Nixon had campaigned to bring the war to an end and tried to implement a policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ i.e. handing the war back to the South Vietnamese to fight.

Even with this determination it still took four years to get to the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, during which time plenty more pacification campaigns were carried out, plenty of programmes to bolster the South Vietnam government’s position and popularity – in fact bombing was actually increased.

In March 1969 Nixon took the fateful decision to extend the ongoing bombing into neighbouring Cambodia, through which the Viet Minh had been sending arms and supplies. This had the effect of destabilising the pro-American government there and bolstering the fierce local communist party, the Khmer Rouge, with catastrophic results.

The Americans also led a predominantly South Vietnamese Army campaign into Laos, to destroy Viet Minh bases, but the Southern army was badly worsted, abandoning much of its equipment on the field of battle. This augured badly for the whole ‘Vietnamisation’ strategy and, sure enough, once the Americans had withdrawn, the South was to ultimately lose the war. The Viet Minh knew they only had to sit tight and watch the American war effort collapse.

Decay and collapse

The biggest revelation to me in this short, punchy account, is the state of decay the American army reached during the war.

  • Drugs A Department of Defense study indicated that 60% of US military personnel in Vietnam used drugs in 1970.
  • Desertion The desertion rate hit an all-time high in 1971 – from 1963 to 1973 about half a million US soldiers deserted, nearly 20% of the total.

In 1972 the North launched the ‘Easter Offensive’, but were surprised at the solidity of the Southern fightback and the violence of the American response (this included the largest bombing campaign of the entire war, which devastated Northern supplies). As many as 100,000 Northern soldiers died and around 25,000 from the South. Even as it withdrew its troops, and transferred vast sums to President Thieu’s regime to train the southern army, America was still capable of lashing out.

Peace talks

Not only was their victory on the battlefield not as assured as they had assumed, but the international situation was shifting against the interests of the communist North. In February 1972 President Nixon made a historic state visit to China, and Hanoi could see that, ultimately, friendship with the U.S. was more important to Beijing than a never-ending war. At the same time Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were pursuing a policy of détente with the Russians. Stymied on the battlefield and sensing that either Russia or China might start to cut off supplies and force an unfavourable settlement, Hanoi finally agreed to come to the negotiating table, where all modern wars end. In fact Kissinger had been having secret talks with Le Duc Tho, a member of North Vietnamese politburo, from as far back as August 1969. Now there was movement.

A draft peace agreement had been hammered out by October 1972. But President Thieu refused to sign it without significant concessions by the North which thereupon withdrew from discussion. This led Nixon to agree to a final mass bombing of the North – the so-called Christmas Bombing campaign – in December 1972, inflicting huge damage and bringing condemnation from at home and abroad. But it brought Hanoi back to the table and Peace Accords were finally signed in Paris in January 1973. They provided for:

  • A ceasefire to begin on January 28, 1973
  • US troops had sixty days to withdraw all of their forces
  • both side to release all their war prisoners
  • South Vietnam and People’s Revolutionary Government to negotiate a political settlement which would allow South Vietnamese people to decide their own political future
  • Reunification of Vietnam was to be ‘carried out step by step through peaceful means’

The Americans withdrew their last forces but continued to send vast sums to Thieu’s administration. All prisoners were released, including some 591 U.S. prisoners of war. Only 159 Marines remained to guard the U.S. Embassy.

Final defeat

In spring 1974 the North launched a military campaign against the central highlands. In August President Nixon chose to resign rather than face impeachment over the Watergate affair. His successor, President Ford ignored Nixon’s secret promises to the southern regime. Emboldened by their success in the midlands, VC forces attacked towns and cities. Their strategists had thought it might take as long as two years to wear down the Southern army, particularly in light of the billions of dollars of munitions the Americans had sent them. In the event the entire campaign to conquer South Vietnam took 55 days.

Right up to the last week, U.S. officials avowed confidence in the South, which explains the final, panic-stricken scenes of helicopters landing on the Embassy roof as communist forces closed in on Saigon. Saigon fell to the North on 30 April 1975, and Vietnam was finally, after thirty years of hugely destructive conflict, reunited.

Related links

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter (2013)

People were encouraged to transform themselves into what the communists called ‘New People’. Everywhere, in government offices, factories, workshops, schools and universities, they were ‘re-educated’ and made to study newspapers and textbooks, learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans. While the violence abated after a few years, thought reform never ended, as people were compelled to scrutinise their every belief, suppressing the transitory impressions that might reveal hidden bourgeois thoughts behind a mask of social conformity. Again and again, in front of assembled crowds or in study sessions under strict supervision, they had to write confessions, denounce their friends, justify their past activities and answer questions about their political reliability. (p.xiii)

For three-quarters of the twentieth century China was the site of enormous turmoil, war, famine, tyranny and suffering. Frank Dikötter is a Dutch historian, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, formerly of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the last twenty years China has become easier to visit and has opened many of its historical archives to academics for the first time. Dikötter has taken advantage of this to spend years researching provincial records and archives hitherto unseen by western historians. This research has resulted in a trilogy of books detailing the first three decades of communist party rule in China:

  1. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution, 1945–1957 (2013)
  2. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (2010)
  3. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (2016)

The general drift of all three books is that communist rule in China was much, much more repressive, bungling and catastrophic for the people of China than previously thought. The centrepiece is the book about the great famine of 1958-62, which charges that it was much more consciously and deliberately engineered by the communist leadership (i.e. Mao) lasted longer (1958-62), and resulted in more deaths from starvation, than previously estimated. Dikötter gives the figure of 45 million premature deaths, of which between two and three million were victims of political repression, beaten or tortured to death or executed for political reasons.

The famine book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011 and was widely praised for the originality of its research, though it is not without its critics who considered the numbers inflated. No-one doubts, however, that Mao’s communist party oversaw the greatest mass death event in human history.

The Tragedy of Liberation is the second to be published in the trilogy, but covers the earlier period, setting the scene for the famine story by recounting the end of the War in the Pacific (1945), the eruption of civil war between China’s Nationalists and Communists (1946), and the eventual victory of the latter, announced in 1949.

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Timeline of the Chinese civil war

  • 6 and 9 August 1945 – the United States drops atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • 8 August – Stalin declares war on Japan and Soviet troops invade Manchuria. America sends hundreds of shiploads of lend-lease material and food to Siberia to support the Russians, including 500 Sherman tanks.
  • 21 August 1945 – A formal surrender between China and Japan ends the Second World War in the Pacific. Japan’s 1 million soldiers in China lay down their arms. The American army undertakes a massive airlift of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops to all China’s main cities to take over from them, before the communists get there.
  • April 1946 – Soviet troops withdraw from Manchuria, having stripped it bare down to the last lightbulb and bath plug (p.15), and having helped Mao’s communist army take control of most of Manchuria.
  • June 1946 – Nationalists undertake a massive military campaign against the communists in Manchuria. The communists are saved by George Marshall, President Truman’s envoy, who insists on a ceasefire, allowing the communists to regroup and get more training and supplies from the Soviets (p.16).
  • September 1946 – July 1947 – US President Harry Truman, disillusioned with the corruption and maladministration of Chiang’s nationalists, imposes an arms embargo which – since the communists are receiving ample supplies and training from Russia – has the effect of boosting the communist army.
  • December 1946 to December 1947 – Nationalists pump their forces into Manchuria in a bid to crush the communists who, better armed and trained than before, turn Manchuria into a killing field wiping out repeated waves of Nationalist forces.
  • November 1948 – The communists succeed in capturing all of Manchuria after blockading and starving several major cities. Civilian deaths due to starvation run into the hundreds of thousands.
  • January 1949 – The communist army, now known as the People’s Liberation Army, much reinforced and battle-hardened, heads south out of Manchuria. On 22 January Beijing surrenders to the PLA. In the same month the nationalists lose the battle of Xizhou in central China, exposing the huge Yangtse valley to communist takeover.
  • May 1949 – Nanjing, the nationalist capital of the south bank of the Yangzi, falls to the PLA. After a lengthy siege Shanghai, financial capital of China, falls to the communists.
  • October 1 1949 – Mao declares the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square.
  • December 1949 – Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his forces flee to the island of Taiwan, to this day an independent nation which China refuses to recognise. Realising their man had failed, the Americans were resigned to the eventual fall of Taiwan as well, but the situation was transformed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, when Chinese-backed North Korean forces invaded American-backed South Korea. America rallied the United Nations in a bid to create a coalition to repel the North Koreans and this spilled over into supporting Chiang, so that Taiwan’s nationalists were ensured of survival.

Mass deaths

The civil war involved a number of sieges of nationalist cities during which large number of civilians were deliberately starved to death. The six-month siege of Changchun resulted in between 150,000 and 300,000 civilian deaths. The massive Huaihai campaign resulted in at least 500,000 deaths on the nationalist side.

Dikötter’s text is larded (rather like Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis) with eyewitness and first-hand accounts from all sources, civilians, peasants, students, soldiers on both sides and politicians. The overall impression is of death and destruction on a grand scale.

The communists in power

Dikötter’s book is a remorseless catalogue of the horrors of the civil war interspersed with the tyrannical policies of the narrow-minded, economically illiterate dictatorship. One of the clearest themes is that the communists achieved and maintained power through HATE at all levels. Categories of enemies were invented and then ‘discovered’ lurking at all levels of society.

An example he explains in detail is persecution of landlords. In Chinese the word landlord itself is an import from the Japanese language, because the thing itself was relatively rare. Dikötter shows that land in China was alienable i.e sellable, and was held by peasants and families under complex and highly detailed traditional contracts which also varied across the regions of China. But landlords, who owned land and raked off a profit by renting it to peasants, were relatively rare. Serfdom, on the Russian model, didn’t exist at all. But this didn’t stop Mao’s campaign to eradicate ‘landlords’ and so each province, region and local area was given quotas of landlords to identify and eradicate. With a gun in their hand and the ability to do whatever they liked, communist cadres across the country listened to the venomous vendettas which infest all rural communities, dragging unpopular villagers and their families in front of hurried kangaroo courts, where victims were abused and insulted before being showered in filth and, variously, shot immediately, beheaded, or flayed with knives, buried alive in sand or mud, hanged upside down or burned to death. Hundreds of thousands of peasants died this way and their – generally pitifully small – stocks of goods redistributed among the villagers. Obviously this didn’t lead to any particular improvement in agricultural production, in fact the disorder across the country disrupted resources, plans and distribution, so led to a drop in agricultural production.

But this is only one thread in the great tapestry of destruction. Another was the campaign against the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the cities, namely Nanjing and Shanghai. Once secure in the hands of the communists a curfew was imposed. Bars and nightclubs closed down. Decadent shops were closed down. Banks were nationalised. Capital could only be allotted by communist party cadres who were economically illiterate. Stocks and supplies ran short and so factories switched to part time work before closing down. Thousands of workers saw pay cuts and then were made unemployed. Convinced this was a conspiracy of reactionaries to discredit the party, the communist authorities took tighter control of the population, issuing identity cards and other papers, classifying every citizen into a series of categories e.g. student, professional, worker, peasant, with the workers and peasants in theory being the most advantaged. As the economic situation worsened, the communist authorities reacted with the only tool at their disposal, fear and terror, with increasing sweeps rounding up members of suspect professions and taking them for interrogation and torture and often execution.

In this and numerous other ways Dikötter’s book relentlessly catalogues the way the economically illiterate communists, blinded by the purity of their utopian doctrine, were forced to use the only strategy and language they understood, fear which was achieved by whipping up hysterical hatred of traitors, saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries, landlords, the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and so on. These categories covered just about everyone, thus allowing the authorities to arrest and torture anyone into making confessions implicating strings of other people who were themselves tortured to confess, and so on.

‘You dare not speak with others about what was on your mind, even with those close to you, because it was very likely that they would denounce you. Everybody was denouncing others and was denounced by others. Everybody was living in fear.’ (Liu Xiayou, quoted on page 183)

Dikötter presents the evidence and estimates that the number of people killed in the first Great Terror, from 1950 to 1952, might be around 2 million. There were to be more waves of terror, many more. Two striking features of them are that:

  1. Mao’s orders which triggered these waves were always deliberately vague – this meant that cadres trying to carry them out tended to give them the broadest interpretation and arrest everyone, just in case.
  2. This was exacerbated by the use of quotas. Mao casually estimated that 1 in a 1,000 of each populated area should probably be executed. Once these orders were distributed to the cadres, they vied to gain the Chairman’s favour by exceeding the quota. Like quotas for steel or wheat production these were just more statistics to be reached and exceeded, the quicker the better. Authorities in different regions interpreted the lax definitions to suit themselves, and executed whichever groups were easily available and/or disliked, including ethnic minorities, petty criminals, anyone with any mark of suspicion against them.

Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis, is made bearable because, amid all the unspeakable Japanese atrocities, we meet Americans and English who are, basically, humane and kindly. There are moments of light, reason and humanity. Dikötter’s book is almost impossible to read because of the stifling sense that the reader is trapped in a totally repressed society, where absolutely everyone lives in fear all the time that the slightest remark, look, or even thought could lead to their arbitrary arrest, torture and execution – where brutality is ubiquitous. There are no reports of anyone being forgiving, kind or generous. It is a landscape of unrelenting tyranny, fear and violence.

In the campaign against ‘corruption’ in the early 1950s, suspects had their hair pulled, heads forced into toilets, forced to squat with kettles of boiling water on their head, forced to strip, were beaten and whipped, were made to stand naked in snow, were paraded through the streets to be jeered and spat at, forced to kneel in hot ashes, beaten with ropes (p.162), forced to kneel on benches or to remain bent over for hours, stripped and forced into vats of freezing water, bound with leg irons, beaten with bamboo sticks, tied hand and foot and forced to make confessions in front of mass rallies,

‘Denunciation boxes’ were placed in every office so citizens could denounce each other. Lorries patrolled the streets with loudspeakers insulting the corrupt bourgeoisie and enemies of the workers.

During this period up to 4 million government employees were hounded like this, many committing suicide. Dikötter devotes some pages to describing the suicide techniques of those hounded beyond endurance. Again, Mao came up with a scientific quota: 1% of suspects should be shot, 1% sent to labour camps for life, 2-3% sentenced to ten years hard labour.

Speak Bitterness Meetings

Timeline of communist repression

‘Socialism must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it.’
(Mao Zedong, quoted page 237)

  • 1942 – With the war far from won, and the communists facing a far stronger nationalist enemy, behind the lines Mao institutes a purge of his own communist party, named the ‘Rectification campaign’. Every member of the communist party, including the highest leadership, had to write an autobiography, produce self-criticisms, confess to past errors and ask the party’s forgiveness. By 1944 15,000 spies and traitors had been unmasked, tortured and executed.
  • 1950-52 – The communists implement land reform in the south.
  • October 1950 – October 1951 – The Great Terror, known as the ‘Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries’ leads, apart from the murder and intimidation of millions, to an explosion in the prison population and the creation of a chain of forced labour camps (pp.243-254).
  • 1951-53 – Land having been redistributed, peasants are organised into ‘mutual aid teams’.
  • October 1951 – the campaign to purge the civil service begins, alongside a thought-reform campaign to indoctrinate the educated elite into communist ideology.
  • 1952 – Mao declares war on the private sector in the ‘Five Anti Campaign’.
  • 5 March 1953 – Josef Stalin dies.
  • Spring 1953 – As a result of state-imposed communalisation of agriculture, productivity plummets and large swathes of the country experience famine, people resort to eating grass, leaves and bark, with case of children being sold for food.
  • 27 July 1953 – Ceasefire halts the Korean War.
  • November 1953 – The communist state imposes a state monopoly on grain. The state set the amount to be grown in each region (often wildly optimistic), confiscated it all, returned a fraction (a starvation rations) to the farmers, while confiscating the rest to a) feed the cities b) export to Russia in exchange for industrial goods and weapons. The result was starvation across the country, mixed with open rebellion which was put down with maximum violence.
  • 1953-55 – Peasant mutual aid teams are transformed into fully fledged communes which share all tool, animals and labour. In effect, country workers become serfs in bondage to local communist leaders.
  • 1954 – Senior communist leaders are purged for treachery and splittism. More than 770,000 people are arrested in a campaign against counter-revolutionaries.
  • June 1955 – For the third spring in a row famine struck the collectivised countryside and millions of starving peasants flocked to the cities as beggars. So Premier Zhou Enlai announced the extension of the urban system of ‘household registration’ to the countryside, to tie rural workers to their villages.
  • 1955-56 – The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign accelerates collectivisation in the countryside and nationalisation of industry in towns. In July 1955 about 14% of China’s 120 million rural families were members of a co-operative; by May 1956, more than 90% were members. Dikötter sees this as the final step in the systematic reduction of China’s rural population to landless serfs tied to the state. It is accompanied by widespread violence, terror and intimidation. In the cities 800,000 owners of businesses, large or small, were deprived of their property and overnight became dependent on the whim of local party officials.
  • February 1956 – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives his famous speech denouncing Stalin and the ‘cult of the leader’. This bolsters Mao’s critics in the Chinese communist leadership. The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign is abandoned.
  • October 1956 – Encouraged by Kruschev’s speech and resulting deStalinisation, the people of Hungary revolt against the communist government. After some hesitation, the Soviets invade, crush all opposition, and impose a new, tougher regime, sending hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to labour camps.
  • Winter 1956-spring 1957 – In a response to Kruschev’s speech and deStalinisation, Mao institutes the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, a more open political climate designed to avoid the overflow of protest seen in Hungary. But it goes too far, leading to a wave of student protest and strikes across the country, at which point, in the summer of 1957, Mao reverses the policy and puts Deng Xiaoping in charge of an anti-rightist campaign. This reaction persecutes up to half a million students and intellectuals, many of them packed off to gulags in the countryside to do hard labour for the rest of their lives.
  • 1957 – The communist party re-establishes its authority and rallies around the Great Leader. He prepares to declare the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which will lead to four years of famine and the greatest man-made disaster in human history, and which is the subject of the second book in the trilogy.
A peasant 'landlord' confesses all before a People's Tribunal moments before being shot (July 1952)

A peasant ‘landlord’ confesses before a People’s Tribunal moments before being executed (July 1952)

How to run a Maoist hate campaign

The first step is to declare that there is a ‘struggle’ or ‘war’ in society between the virtuous and the wicked. We must all be vigilant and watch each other and report anti-social actions or words, or even funny looks. Children must report their parents. Culprits must be ‘called out’ on their anti-social activity and brought before a mass meeting where they must confess their crimes and beg for mercy. They must reflect on their past behaviour and pledge to become a ‘New Person’, promising to dress, think and talk like everyone else, and be unstinting in their praise of the New World and the Wise Leader. The correct climate of fear has been established when everyone is nervous of being ‘named and shamed’ for the slightest slip or error. And anyone speaking up for a bourgeois deviant and enemy of the people will, of course, themselves immediately be proved guilty by association: why else would they defend the guilty?

Thus is a society atomised, making everyone fearful of everyone else, restricting conversation to the blandest generalities. It is important to have a large vocabulary of hate but to be vague about definitions, so that the maximum number of people can be caught by one term of abuse or another. Thus the Chinese communists castigated ‘the enemy’ as, among other terms, a:

  • backward element, bourgeois, bourgeois idealist, bourgeois sentimentalist, capitalist, Chiang Kai-shek roader, counter-revolutionary, degenerate, decadent, deviant element, exploiter, go-it-aloner, hoarder, hooligan, humanist, hypocrite, individualist, kulak, lackey, landlord, middle-of-the-roader, reactionary, rightist, right deviationist, running dog of imperialism, saboteur, schemer, servant of imperialism, speculator, spy and swindler.

Dikötter’s conclusion

‘The first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.’ (p.xv)


Credit

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter was published by Bloomsbury Books in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2014 paperback edition.

Related links

Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.

Summary

Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.

***

When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Credit

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

Related links

M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker (1968)

16 January 2012

Read M*A*S*H (1968) in a day. Bubble gum, a kind of Catch-22 lite, though written out of the author’s own experience as a MASH surgeon in Korea, so based on real horrors. Reviews said it was significantly different from the TV series but I was struck by how similar it is.

The Altman movie and then the long-running TV series profited form the rising tide of anti-Vietnam sentiment in the US. Ironically, its author, Richard Hooker (pseudonym of Richard Hornberger), was a conservative and disliked the liberalism Alan Alda brought to the TV series. Despite success with the book and a run of cheap sequels, Hornberger carried on practicing medicine in Maine, USA, till his death. The book’s detailed descriptions of anatomy, wounds and operations stick out like shrapnel in the otherwise sitcommy, wisecracking style.

M*A*S*H on Amazon

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