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Historical Dictionary

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ALGERIAN WAR

It is well known that the start of the Algerian War on 1 November 1954 followed on the closing of the Indochina War a few months earlier at Dien Bien Phu and Geneva. Algerian nationalists at the helm of the Front de libération nationale (FLN) were inspired by the Vietnamese military victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu, demonstrating that the colonized could use military force to win independence. Indeed, a FLN delegation visiting Asia met with Vo Nguyen Giap in the late 1950s to discuss the Vietnamese experience and how it might be applied in Algeria. The Vietnamese stressed the importance of guerrilla warfare, tight organization, and national front work. The Chinese provided similar advice.

Like the Chinese and Vietnamese united fronts, the FLN was designed to build up popular support for the independence movement regardless of sex, creed, or class. FLN leaders created a provisional government and organized guerrilla action in the countryside and in the cities. Indeed, the famous battle of Algiers in 1957 had precedents in the violent urban war Nguyen Binh had unleashed in Saigon in the late 1940s, to say nothing of the battle of Hanoi that had first opened the Indochina conflict between 19 December 1946 and 17 February 1947.

The wars of national liberation led by the Viet Minh and the FLN were also carriers of violent civil conflicts. In Vietnam, the Indochinese Communist Party went to war with its nationalist competitors as did the FLN’s leadership. However, there were also significant differences between the Algerian and Indochinese colonial wars and revolutionary states. For one, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was much more successful than its Algerian counterpart in creating a veritable war state during the Indochina conflict, complete with functioning ministries, a bureaucracy, economy, police and health services and so on. Second, the DRV, thanks in part to Chinese communist military aid, successfully transformed a guerrilla army, at least in central and northern Vietnam, into a remarkably modern army. From 1950, Vo Nguyen Giap was commanding six divisions over all of northern Indochina and engaging the French in set-piece battles. The FLN never matched this level of force or wartime modernity in securing Algerian national independence. Whereas the French army suffered a humiliating battle defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, it dominated the FLN on the battlefields in Algeria. Deprived of a jungle-protected rearbase bordering a country like China, the FLN’s military force never developed beyond the guerrilla stage.

However, if the FLN lost the war on the battlefield, they were much more successful than the Vietnamese on the diplomatic front. True, the Arab League was unable to match the assistance the international communist bloc led by China provided to the DRV. Nonetheless, like the Indonesian Republicans before them, the FLN leadership was non-communist and anti-colonialist; and this mattered in the international arena. For one, this allowed the Algerian nationalists to play various sides of the Cold War more effectively against France. Whereas Washington put its anti-colonialism on the backburner in order to support the French in Indochina as part of the wider struggle to contain global communism, in Algeria the Americans were less prone to back the French for a lost colonial cause when it was obvious that the FLN was anything but communist-led. Washington was even less supportive if it meant alienating other Arab countries, such as Egypt, in the increasingly important Middle East region.

Whereas the DRV failed to bring the Vietnamese question before the United Nations, the FLN effectively used the decolonization of the international system and the increasing number of “Southern” states entering the General Assembly to push its case against the French on the diplomatic battlefield. Thus, although the DRV pulled off something of a “military revolution” by creating a modern army capable of taking on the French and winning, they were less successful with “diplomatic struggle”. The Algerians walked away from the Evian Accords of 1962 with full national independence and territorial integrity. When the ink dried on the Geneva Accords of 1954, the contours of the Cold War imposed a diplomatic defeat on the Vietnamese: Ho Chi Minh only obtained half of the Vietnam he had declared independent in 1945.

For many French officers, too, the Indochinese and Algerian wars were also closely intertwined; indeed, both wars of decolonization deeply influenced the nature of the French army, its strategy, tactics, internal cohesion, and especially its politicization. For one, the army’s humiliation at Dien Bien Phu, coming on top of the debacle of 1940, left many French officers determined not to lose another war, certainly not in Algeria. Plus jamais, ça! and talk of honor could be heard in private conversations among French officers humiliated in Indochina. Rather than walking away from Indochina aware of the reality of decolonization and the power of nationalism, many (not all) French officers left Indochina obsessed with never losing again. Officers arriving in Algeria from Indochina carried other things with them, too. Many officers having fought conventional battles against the DRV in Tonkin and Annam were deeply frustrated by the absence of such combat in Algeria.

At the same time, a handful of French military officers active in southern Vietnam during the war were convinced that the FLN was engaged in the same type of guerrilla tactics and “revolutionary warfare” that the Vietnamese communists had used during the Indochina conflict. At the head of these French “theoricians” with experience in southern Vietnam and at the head of the Groupements de commandos mixtes aéroportés were officers such as Roger Trinquier, Jacques Hogard, and of course the godfather to them all, Charles Lacheroy. They were soon speaking of “parallel hierarchies”, psychological warfare, and linking the FLN to global communism even though the FLN core leadership was anything but communist. (The FLN never applied communist rectification, new hero, and emulation campaigns or even Maoist-minded land reform.). A handful of these French “centurions” (celebrated by the French film directors Pierre Schoendoerffer and Jean Lartéguy and military historian Bernard Fall) ended up in jail or on the run when they tried to use revolutionary warfare against the French state when Charles de Gaulle decided that the decolonization of Algeria was now in France’s best interests. In short, France’s colonial wars politicized the army and led men such as Raoul Salan to refuse to obey orders, even those coming from de Gaulle, on the grounds that it was tantamount to a third humiliating defeat, equal to that of June 1940 and Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The Indochinese and Algerian wars were also different in that the French army sent to fight in Indochina was a professional one, the Expeditionary Corps, whereas the draft was instituted in order to keep Algeria French. Moreover, the settler population in Indochina, some 40,000 Français d’Indochine in 1945, was much smaller than the one million Français d’Algérie living in Algeria in 1954. As a result, many more French soldiers, their families, and European settlers experienced the war, explaining in part why the Algerian War occupies a larger place in the contested French memory of its wars of decolonization. Ironically, thousands of Algerians experienced the Indochina War as soldiers in the multi-ethnic, colonial French Expeditionary Corps.

Significantly, Vietnamese communists maintained their anticolonialist links with Algerians at the helm of the FLN. In 1958, the Vietnam Worker’s Party and Ministry of Defense secretly approved and executed the “top secret” delivery of a “large amount” of arms to the FLN to fight the colonizer. The arms, taken from the French during the Indochina War, were shipped successfully by sea to North Africa on a Polish “commercial” ship to be used in this second war of decolonization.

Although the wars and the entities running them were significantly different, the Algerian and Indochina conflicts were clearly linked in a myriad of ways. The supreme irony is perhaps the fact that the man who put an end to the Algerian War in 1962 was the same man who had, in 1945, ordered the French reoccupation of Indochina by force, convinced that Empire was still part of French national identity and a powerful diplomatic lever. His name was Charles de Gaulle. From 1962, he could now steer France down a more independent, assertive course in the international system, often to the dismay of the Americans whom he criticized for embarking on another war in Indochina. See also ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES ANCIENS ET AMIS DE L’INDOCHINE ET DU SOUVENIR INDOCHINOIS; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES ANCIENS PRISONNIERS ET INTERNÉS D’INDOCHINE; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES COMBATTANTS DE DIEN BIEN PHU; EXPERIENCE OF WAR; MYTH OF WAR.