Historical Dictionary



For colonizers, conquest and pacification are often two sides of the same coin. Once a territory and its population have been conquered, the conquering power must then secure its control over that territory and its population through a process of “pacification”. The term became increasingly used in France in the 19th century when the French had to pacify the peoples they had conquered violently in Algeria and Indochina. However, the French did not invent the term “pacification”. Other European colonial powers were using it, too. 19th-century French architects of colonial “pacification” programs in Asia and Africa, such as Joseph Galliéni and Hubert Lyautey, looked to the Roman Empire for models. In the French case, “pacification” came to mean, in the 19th century and again in the “re-pacification” of Indochina in 1945, the use of military and/or police forces to control a precise territory by dividing it into contiguous compartments or squares. During the Indochina War, this process was referred to as the quadrillage or carroyage of a territorial space, in short its “sectoring off”. Many French officers involved in pacification in Indochina had gained first hand experience of its methods during the interwar period in North Africa, especially during the Rif War in Morocco. General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny is a case in point. Several had worked under Lyautey or were inspired by him, such as Georges Spillmann, Alphonse Juin, and Jacques Massu.

The basic blueprint for pacification used during the Indochina war was the following. First, the delimiting of the space to be pacified was centered on main lines of communications and their intersections, controlled of course by the conquering power’s military forces. At the intersections of the spatial sectors, the French created small but fortified military posts, each of which theoretically possessed radios, ran agents, and interacted with surrounding villages in their respective sectors. The idea was to create an overall military quadrillage of the conquered territory in which all contiguous squares or compartments, usually no more than four or five kilometers square, were as closely linked together as possible. This skeleton (ossature) was for the French army the foundation upon which “pacification” rested. The French then organized self-defense militias (milices d’auto-défense) in the villages they controlled in order to prevent the “rebels” from penetrating their network of control. The French referred to these forces as the “conjunctive tissue” (tissu conjonctif) of the larger pacified body, linked to the skeleton via the French-controlled posts. The French drew upon their pacification experiences in the deserts of Algeria to deploy mobile troops across this quadrillage to attack “rebel” forces inside their territory. Together with the High Command, these reserves acted as the “nervous system”, as one major French pacification theorist explained it during the Indochina conflict. Indeed, once the Expeditionary Corps had re-conquered most of the cities and lines of communication in southern Vietnam in 1945–1946, they then began to apply this model to their re-pacification of Cochinchina and elsewhere.

However, during the Indochina War, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the Indo-chinese Communist Party developed and extended their own territorial state and party administration and means of controlling the population and space, something which anti-colonialists of the 19th century had never truly been able to do. The DRV also infiltrated the French network through agents, propaganda, its own police forces, and then full-scale battle. By 1953, General Fernand Gambiez conceded that the French army needed one battalion to ensure the defense of 500–800 km² and ever-increasing amounts of concrete to build the needed look-out posts. In all, the Expeditionary Corps had to commit 30–40 battalions to “territorial missions”, that is, maintaining continued pacification and its supporting structures and personnel. And this is why when the DRV intensified its classic military operations, obliging the French to transfer battalions to engage them on the battlefield in the north, the DRV was simultaneously able to expand its guerrilla operations into the French “pacification network” in the Red River and Mekong Deltas. See also GROUPEMENT DE COMMANDOS MIXTES AÉROPORTÉS; PARALLEL HIERARCHIES; RENÉ HÉBERT; REVOLUTIONARY WARFARE; SERVICE ACTION.