Historical Dictionary



The French Army practiced torture during the Indochina War. How widely? No one knows for sure. The army, however, was not the first to do so in Indochina. During the colonial period, the Sûreté did so with considerable impunity. In 1933, Esprit published the notes of Andrée Viollis’s detailed investigation into the official use of torture against the Vietnamese who had revolted against the French in 1930–1931. Marcel Bazin was known for the harsh methods he used on Vietnamese political prisoners. After his liberation from a Japanese prison camp (where he himself was tortured), Bazin resumed his harsh methods against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s men and women who fell into his hands. He was the head of the Sûreté Fédérale in southern Vietnam.

There was continuity in the use of this practice flowing out of the colonial period and World War II. The French army practiced torture during the colonial reconquest of southern Vietnam, especially in mid-1946 when General Jean Valluy had to issue orders to stop it. The French public became aware of the use of torture when, in July 1949, the influential Catholic newspaper, Témoignage Chrétien, published Jacques Chegaray’s account of its use within the army. Outraged by what Chegaray described, the French specialist of Indochina and then head of the Colonial Academy, Paul Mus wrote a series of famous essays in which he publicly condemned the use of torture (Non pas ça! is how he titled it). The Right and military circles in Indochina, notably General Roger Blaizot, condemned the articles. However, Paul Ramadier, then minister of Defence, issued secret instructions to authorities in Indochina proscribing the use of torture. High Commissioner Léon Pignon was appalled, writing in September 1949 that torture was contrary to everything that the French were trying to do in Indochina in the name of une valeur essentiellement humaine et de civilisation. It had to be stopped at all levels. In fact, Chegaray’s article coincided with internal investigations into the use of torture and summary executions in the Service de sécurité d’Air in Hanoi on at least two separate occasions in mid-1949. Ramadier and Pignon were referring to this as much as to Chegaray’s article.

How widespread was the use of torture during the Indochina War? Jules Roy left the army disgusted by the army’s use of it. Vietnamese-language memoirs and histories of the conflict leave no doubt as to its existence. However, in the absence of any methodologically reliable study of the question, it is impossible to gauge how widespread the use of torture was in the army and security services across all of Indochina. Was the Algerian experience engraved in the Indochinese one? In an internal Étude sur les renseignement tirés de la campagne d’Indochine en matière de “renseignements”, the Deuxième Bureau for North Vietnam concluded in 1955 that when it came to interrogating Viet Minh prisoners during the Indochina War, the use of torture had in no way improved the quality of the intelligence provided (les mauvais traitements n’améliorent nullement le rendement des interrogatoires). The opposite was often true, as the DRV’s services had also learned the hard way. See also ALGERIAN WAR; CAM LY, MASSACRE; MY THUY, MASSACRE; MOTHERS OF GIO LINH; PHAM DUY; TORTURE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM.