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Historical Dictionary

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MUS, PAUL (CAILLE, 1902–1969)

French specialist in Asian cultures and one of the few intellectuals to speak out against the war in Indochina at the time. The son of a school teacher and colonial educator in Indochina, Mus grew up and worked in Vietnam until World War II. After graduating from the Lycée Albert Sarraut in Hanoi, he completed his studies in France under the French philosopher, pacificist, and his godfather, Alain. Mus’s father was a Freemason and Mus may well have been one, too. Between 1921 and 1925, Mus obtained his undergraduate degree in philosophy and then began a career in Asian studies at the École pratique des hautes études and joined the École française d’Extrême-Orient as a permanent member in 1929. His subjects of research were as wide ranging as his interdisciplinary approach. He published a monumental study of Borobudur in 1935, analyzed the meaning of temples at Angkor, and traveled into Cham territories in central Vietnam. Mobilized in 1939, he saw brief but intense combat in France in 1940. Following the armistice, Vichy named him in 1941 Director of Education for French West Africa, a post he held until 1943.

Following the Allied landing in North Africa, Free French forces made him a lieutenant and sent him to Asia in light of his knowledge of Vietnamese and Indochina. He arrived in India under the code name caille (quail) and served in a commando unit preparing to be dropped into Indochina under François de Langlade, a representative of Charles de Gaulle in the Far East. In January 1945, Mus parachuted into southern Laos and made his way to Hanoi as head of a psychological warfare unit for the French resistance in Indochina. His mission was to make contact with Vietnamese elites to strengthen the internal resistance in Indochina. He met Admiral Jean Decoux but hardly had time to build up resistance networks before the Japanese struck. Indeed, Mus barely escaped from Hanoi during the Japanese coup de force of 9 March 1945.

As he was making his way into the countryside, he was deeply moved by the outpouring of Vietnamese nationalism he witnessed. It marked a turning in his thinking. While he remained a colonial humanist, he began to factor the reality of Vietnamese nationalism into his thinking. Back in Paris, he became political advisor to General Philippe Leclerc and accompanied him during the French reoccupation of southern Vietnam. In 1946, Mus returned to Paris and began warning French politicians of the dangers of not taking Vietnamese nationalism seriously. But de Gaulle brushed him away saying that “We will return to Indochina because we are stronger”. Between 1946 and 1950, Mus served as director of the École nationale de la France d’Outre-mer, the former Colonial Academy (École coloniale). In December 1946, he joined the prestigious Collège de France, holding the Chair in Civilisation d’Extrême-Orient. In April 1947, Émile Bollaert charged Mus with delivering what amounted to an ultimatum to Ho Chi Minh. Mus traveled to the remote headquarters of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the hills of Tonkin. Ho Chi Minh refused the French demands, telling Mus on 11 May: “si nous acceptions cela, nous serions des lâches. Dans l’Union française, il n’y a pas de place pour les lâches”.

During the late 1940s, Mus became increasingly frustrated by and critical of French policy towards Vietnam. The breaking point came between August 1949 and January 1950 when he wrote a series of essays critical of French colonial policy and the use of torture in Indochina in the pages of the progressive Christian paper, Témoignage Chrétien. This cost him his job at the colonial academy and coincided with his decision to take up a teaching position in Southeast Asian studies at Yale University, where he alternated with teaching at the Collège de France. In 1952, he published his classic study of the (mainly DRV) Vietnamese and their revolution, Viêt-Nam: Sociologie d’une guerre and followed it up with a little-known book on the French colonial mind, entitled Le destin de l’Union française: de l’Indochine à l’Afrique, published in 1954 as the French colonial empire in Indochina came tumbling down.

His impact upon the American anti-war movement during the Vietnam War would turn out to be greater than his influence in France during the Indochina War. Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake was inspired by Mus’s work. She dedicated her Pulitzer Prize-winning book to the former head of the French Colonial Academy. Together with Philippe Devillers, Mus was one of the first to write and teach about contemporary Vietnamese history in France and the United States in the wake of World War II. Mus, however, had little to say about the communist core driving the DRV; nationalism and colonialism were his post World War II research subjects. See also ALGERIAN WAR; ANTICOLONIALISM; BERNARD FALL; ESPRIT; JEAN CHESNEAUX; PAUL LEVY; PUBLIC OPINION.