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BOOK REVIEW
The Progress of American Influence in South Vietnam
during the 1950s

Kathryn C. Statler. Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam.


Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007. 378 pp. Map, notes, bibliography,
index. $45.00.

Replacing France will surely become a reference work for the historiography of
the Indochina wars, not only for its undeniable scholarly contribution but for
the richness of its sources, which are drawn from France and Great Britain as
well as the United States. The work offers a perceptive analysis of the birth and
the disturbances of the Franco-American alliance, as well as of the origins of
the American commitment in Vietnam. Above all, Kathryn Statler has devel-
oped a long-neglected dimension—the economic and cultural field of the
relationship—one that has only recently become a subject of French histori-
ography of Indochina’s decolonization. The book, which is divided into three
sections, uses a chronological framework that allows the reader to follow the ten
years in which the United States managed to substitute its influence and trust-
eeship in place of the French in South Vietnam.
Statler begins her study by an examination of the years 1950–1954 (pp.
15–114), analyzing French efforts to attract the support and help of the United
States by exploiting—with a blend of sincerity and cynicism—the rhetoric of the
Cold War. Her research strengthens Mark Lawrence’s conclusions on the deci-
sive role French and British hawks played in the Truman administration’s
decision to provide political, military, and financial aid to the French war
effort in Indochina after the 1949 Elysée Accords (pp. 16–38).1 It shows the

*The author would like to thank Bethany Keenan and Christopher Goscha for their
read-through of this review.
1. Mark A. Lawrence, Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in
Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 283–84.
The Elysée Agreement was signed on March 8, 1949, by French President Vincent Auriol
and Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai. It recognized what the French had refused to Ho Chi Minh
in 1945–46—the unification of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina into the state of Vietnam—
and gave to the new state only a limited autonomy represented by the associate status within the
French Union.

Diplomatic History, Vol. 33, No. 2 (April 2009). © 2009 The Society for Historians of
American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street,
Malden, MA, 02148, USA and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.

361
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progression of the American influence in Vietnam through the proliferation of


agencies and personnel during the early fifties and the subsequent first French
expressions of the fear of being replaced by the Americans (pp. 39–44). Although
numerous studies have covered this subject,2 Statler’s work cleverly analyzes the
contradictions of the Franco-American alliance, linked with the dynamics of
decolonization, the Cold War, and European reconstruction (European Defense
Community–EDC), as well as the growing tensions that led to the failure to
establish a common strategy (pp. 44–84). The highly visible split between Paris
and Washington at the time of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the negotiating of
the Geneva Accords, and the EDC crisis is also developed with many interesting
details (pp. 85–114).
Statler’s second section (pp. 115–216) focuses on the “Franco-American
battle for control in Vietnam” between the signature of the Geneva Accords in
1954 and the so-called “non-elections” of 1956. Her approach emphasizes the
damaging impact of Diem’s nomination, and the subsequent French search for
an alternative to Diem, on Franco-American relations (pp. 117–144). Statler
highlights how the Vietnamese and Americans worked together to obtain the
discreet disengagement of Paris during the 1956 elections, which—as Saigon
and Washington had wanted—ended up indefinitely postponed. Statler shows
that the Americans attempted to influence Diem so that he would not be
criticized for violating the spirit of the Geneva Accords but that, regardless of
their actions, Diem eventually pursued an independent policy (pp. 155–81). She
also emphasizes the Vietnamese and American desire to eradicate all vestiges of
French colonialism and the means used to achieve this objective in the military,
economic, and cultural fields (pp. 183–216). Although not very new in itself, this
section of the book is carefully handled, with many important nuances on the
respective roles of French and Americans in South Vietnam. At this stage of the
study, the reader understands that the huge growth of the American presence
and influence made any future U.S. disengagement much more problematic.
Statler’s most innovative discoveries appear in the third section of the book,
wherein she explores the rivalries of influence between the French and Ameri-
cans in the fields of culture, propaganda, and economy (pp. 219–76). Developing
aspects much less well-known than the political and military dimensions of the
power switch, the author makes a stimulating demonstration that the “neo-
colonial” United States encouraged the building of “a colony, not a nation” (pp.

2. Kathryn Statler quotes several French authors in her bibliography and footnotes
(Philippe Devillers, Bernard Fall, Georges Chaffard, Jacques Dalloz, Laurent Cesari . . .),
but her bibliography could be enriched by other important historians—both published
(Georges Boudarel, Pierre Brocheux, and Daniel Hemery) or nonpublished, like Pierre
Grosser—“La France et l’Indochine (1953–1956). Une ‘carte de visite’ en ‘peau de chagrin’?”
Ph.D. thesis, Institut d’études politiques of Paris, 2002. In the field of the American literature, the
reference books of Marianna W. Sullivan (France’s Vietnam Policy: A Study in French-American
Relations (Westport, CT, 1973)—especially her chapter 2 which is devoted to “The Roots of
French-American Discord over Vietnam”) and the biography of Dean Acheson by Ronald L.
McGlothlen (New York, 1993) could have been useful.
The Progress of American Influence in South Vietnam : 363

249–74). Her comparison between the French colonial “mission civilisatrice” in


Indochina and the American “nation-building” in South Vietnam, of which
some Americans early perceived the pernicious effects, is quite convincing: both
shared a “colonial mentality” and, in particular, a feeling of cultural superiority
(p. 250). But in the case of the United States, the use of “soft power” tactics—
among them economic aid, land, administrative reform, and cultural activities—
facilitated the introduction of “hard power” ones (p. 286).
Statler additionally elaborates on the contradictions of French politics after
1954 (p. 222). By searching to maintain a presence in North Vietnam, even
reduced to its simplest terms, and while trying to defend and develop its interests
in South Vietnam, Paris satisfied nobody: neither the Vietnamese, northern or
southern, who reproached the French for not having made a clearer choice, nor
the Americans, who wanted the French out of Vietnam. But, as Statler rightly
points out, despite strong competition in this matter, the French succeeded to
save a bit of their past influence through the defense of their cultural interests,
as they established their continuing value to the Americans and the Vietnamese.
As part of the struggle against communism, the author shows that Americans in
Vietnam felt that an imposition of American values and culture on the Vietnam-
ese people was needed. However, attempts to enforce this new culture resulted
in the growth of an anti-American backlash among both the Vietnamese elites
and peasants. At the same time, Diem, who was not as anti-French as previously
proclaimed, began to see France as a possible counterbalance to an “excessive
American influence” (p. 237). Diem’s influence allowed the survival of impor-
tant French economic positions, as French business efforts depended on his
goodwill (p. 239). He could have forced the French to accept a total departure
from South Vietnam, but he did not. And as Statler rightly remarks, the Ameri-
cans also eventually realized that the French presence could be useful to their
own interests, thanks to its continuing importance and its contribution to
the stability of South Vietnam (pp. 241–43). For years after Geneva, France
succeeded in maintaining significant economic and cultural positions, which
allowed French diplomacy to relaunch its efforts to achieve influence again with
certain successes (p. 248).
Replacing France is indeed one of the first academic books to provide such an
exhaustive analysis of the early American commitment in Vietnam. However,
Statler could have qualified several points of her study by appealing more to
the French historiography. For example, the author appears to underestimate
French leaders’ particular desire to disengage from Vietnam. In a very stimu-
lating book on the financial aspects of the first Indochina War,3 Hugues Tertrais,
a French specialist on Southeast Asia, has shown that the French disengagement
from Vietnam started in 1953—not 1954—and that it was financial before it was
military. In order to fill the gap of its balance of payments—a very strong

3. Hugues Tertrais, La piastre et le fusil: Le coût de la guerre d’Indochine 1945–1954 (Paris,


2002), 134–69.
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constraint throughout the war—and preserve the independence of France in


Europe, Paris resolved in May 1953 to devaluate the piastre, whose parity was
reduced from seventeen to ten francs. By accepting this “financial Dien Bien
Phu” (one year before the famous battle), the French government was beginn-
ing in effect to “resell its war” to the United States. His conclusion calls into
question one of Statler’s hypotheses, which is based on the idea that the French
could have stayed in Vietnam without the pressure of their American allies. It
also points up the importance of the dynamics of decolonization and the internal
restraints—political, military, financial, and even psychological if one thinks
about the impact of the “Dien Bien Phu syndrome”—which pressed France to
withdraw from Vietnam.
In contrast, it seems to me that Statler overestimates the destructive role of
the Americans vis-à-vis the French presence in South Vietnam even as she
recognizes that American officials eventually realized the importance of this
presence. Of course, Diem’s benevolence was essential for the survival of French
influence. But quite a few French economic activities—plantations, industries,
and small businesses—survived only thanks to the American help given to the
South Vietnamese government. In the mid-sixties, looking back over the past
ten years, French diplomats themselves recognized that the procedure of the
“francs triangulaires” (which allowed the South Vietnamese government to pay
for importations from France with some francs deducted by the U.S. aid in
dollars) had avoided the total collapse of the commercial positions of some
French products.4 More generally, could the French presence have survived
without the huge American aid to South Vietnam? Without such American help,
would it not be possible to argue that South Vietnam would have collapsed and
that the French economic and cultural activities would have then been nation-
alized by the communist authorities, as would be the case in 1975?
Furthermore, U.S. diplomats played a moderating role, often urging the
Vietnamese not to expel the French immediately and to manage a transition,
especially in the military and economic fields. They tried to convince South
Vietnamese leaders—with some success until 1965—not to break off diplomatic
relations with France because it would not be useful or advantageous for South
Vietnam. In 1964, U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge had a very interesting
discussion with General Nguyen Khanh, who was in power in Saigon at the
time. As the South Vietnamese prime minister wanted to break with the French,
Lodge warned him—on the instructions of Dean Rusk—that the United States
could not replace French teachers, doctors, and businessmen. A little later, he
assured his Vietnamese counterpart that it was in their strategic interest to
present a united front in the face of the North Vietnamese enemy. French
economic and cultural interests, even reduced by the dynamics of decolonization

4. Pierre Journoud, “Franco-American Relations in the Crucible of Vietnam (1954–1975).


From Wartime Defiance to Cooperation in Time of Peace” (Ph.D. diss., Paris I Panthéon-
Sorbonne, 2007), 390–92.
The Progress of American Influence in South Vietnam : 365

and the Americanization of the war, had to be preserved. In other words, Saigon
had to deal with the French presence, in the name of the “Free World.”
As we have seen, the Franco-American rivalry in Vietnam—strongly empha-
sized in both French and American official and collective memories of the
Indochina wars—must be nuanced. One cannot contest that, in 1954 and 1955,
the Indochina policy of Eisenhower and Dulles ran against French interests and
that the dynamic of the American bellicose policy in Vietnam nourished the
South Vietnamese desire for rupture with France, whose policy of neutralization
was directly opposed to Washington and Saigon. Surely it was detrimental to the
French presence in general. However, it is also important to admit that not only
did some Americans work for good relations with the French in Vietnam, but
that the State Department also prevented the South Vietnamese from breaking
entirely with France between 1963 and 1964, and then strongly disapproved the
Franco-South Vietnamese rupture when it occurred in 1965. In the final analy-
sis, the American presence, by ensuring the survival of South Vietnam at such a
crucial a stage in its short life, certainly permitted the French presence, albeit
reduced, to last twenty years more in Vietnam.
These last remarks go beyond the chronological framework of Statler’s book,
and it should not alter the overall value of Replacing France nor the main
conclusion of its author: “To the extent that Americans aided in the forging of
a nation, it was on the northern side of the seventeenth parallel” (p. 11). In
attempting to save a Western-oriented Vietnam, the United States made the
same mistakes as France did, with the same catastrophic results.