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The exact details of the events leading up to the Vietnamese massacre of dozens of French civilians in a mixed quarter of colonial Saigon on the 24–25 of September 1945 may never be fully known. The violence that occurred during the early hours of that morning must nonetheless be situated within the wider context of the Japanese overthrow of the French in Indochina in the coup de force of 9 March 1945, Vietnamese attempts to create a new nation-state in the wake of the Japanese defeat by the Allies in mid-August 1945, the humiliation this triggered among the European settler population, and the chaos, uncertainty, and insecurity that occurs in the midst of such rapid, deep change.

Until March 1945, the European population in French Indochina lived in relative peace thanks to the condominium between France, Germany, and by extension Germany’s ally, Japan. That changed, however, with the liberation of France in 1944 and Charles de Gaulle’s determination to fight the Japanese and eliminate Vichy authorities there in order to legitimate his government’s national claim to Indochina. On 9 March 1945, worried that leaderless Vichy authorities would rally to Gaullists, the Japanese overthrew the French in Indochina. For some five months, around 40,000 European settlers lived in precarious, humiliating, and often very dangerous circumstances. Things became even more complicated when the Allies defeated the Japanese. This allowed Vietnamese allied with the Viet Minh to take charge of Saigon by late August. For about three weeks, the French community living in Saigon found the tables turned on them as the former colonized sought to assert national control over the colonial city. The Japanese mainly looked on as they awaited the arrival of British forces sent to disarm them below the 16th parallel in Indochina. The Japanese refused to free the colonial and foreign legion troops they had incarcerated.

Despite their efforts, local Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) leaders had a hard time preventing Vietnamese from humiliating and attacking the vulnerable European community. On 2 September 1945, for example, Vietnamese mobs attacked the French in Saigon during festivities organized to celebrate the declaration of Vietnam’s independence by Ho Chi Minh. A French Catholic priest sympathetic to the Vietnamese, Father Tricoire, was gunned down in front of the cathedral steps. Rumors of a French counter attack spread quickly; confidence between the two sides fell as Vietnamese authorities began arresting French while Vietnamese looters attacked French and Chinese shops. The local colonial press spoke of a “massacre”; “Black Sunday” some christened it. Local reports of 100 Europeans dead contrasted however with internal Japanese reports of four or five French dead and 14 Vietnamese casualties.

Whatever the exact number, the chances of heading off a wider confrontation in the south plummeted on this day. Many French promised to take revenge once they re-took control of the city. That day came on 23 September when British forces under General Douglas Gracey backed a French coup d’état to oust the Vietnamese, using colonial forces incarcerated by the Japanese, many of whom had been taunted by the Vietnamese during the 2 September incidents. Tensions were high. The French coup unleashed months of pent-up fears and frustrations among many in the European community and the newly freed colonial troops. Some took out their anger on any Vietnamese they could find. Many brought in Vietnamese prisoners on leashes, their hands bound. Others set to attacking and beating Vietnamese in the streets, many of them innocent bystanders. Pham Ngoc Thach’s French wife’s teeth were punched in that day, presumably because of her “traitorous” marriage to the southern leader of the Viet Minh. British and French officials like Gracey and Jean Cédile were appalled by this behaviour and Gracey even ordered the unruly colonial troops back to their barracks in order to restore order. Although the DRV authorities had been driven from the city, Gracey was worried that the French might not be able to avoid anarchy any better than the Vietnamese. Curfew, he hoped, would restore a semblance of order. He was wrong.

During the night of 24–25, Vietnamese attackers entered the French-Eurasian-Vietnamese district of Hérault, in the Tan Dinh and Dakao suburbs of Saigon, and perpetrated one of the most gruesome massacres of the entire Indochina War. In the early hours of the 24th, dozens of assailants took some three hundred European and Eurasian civilians as hostages, including women and children. Many of the hostages, especially the métis, were horribly mutilated, tortured, beaten, raped, and killed.

Some French officials would try to pin the massacre on the DRV/Viet Minh in an attempt to discredit the adversary. The problem, however, was that their own intelligence services and those of the British knew that the Viet Minh was unable to direct such hotheaded elements. One British officer went so far as to say that the Viet Minh was “not an identity” during the massacre. Jean Cédile himself ruled out direct DRV involvement. French, British, and American investigations concurred that the Binh Xuyen were the most likely perpetrators of the attacks and killings. Recent publications in Vietnam reveal that the DRV’s internal investigation came to the same conclusion. When Nguyen Binh, the new commander-in-chief of the armed forces in the south, arrived in November 1945, he ordered his men to track down and bring to him those who had perpetrated the massacre at Hérault. A few weeks later, Ba Nho (Le Van Khoi) appeared before the one-eyed chief of the DRV’s southern forces. The hastily arranged military court tried this member of the Binh Xuyen and summarily sentenced him to death. Nguyen Binh walked up to him, handed him a pistol, looked him in the face and told Ba Nho to kill himself on the spot. He did.

The exact number killed during the massacre is still a matter of contention. The total almost certainly did not exceed 100. As Cédile later admitted, his estimates at the time put the number of killed between 30 and 90. When pushed, he said that the “reality was around 40”. It was already too many. See also CAM LY, MASSACRE; EXPERIENCE OF WAR; FRANÇAIS D’INDOCHINE; MY THUY, MASSACRE; MYTH OF WAR.