Georges d'Argenlieu

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See also: French Indochina
See also: Indochina and the Second World War
See also: Indochinese revolution

Georges Louis Marie Thierry d'Argenlieu (1889-1964) was the French High Commissioner for Indochina as of August 17, 1945. Prior to that assignment, Admiral d'Argenlieu, as he was generally known, had an exceptionally diverse career. Joining the French Navy in 1909, he fought through the First World War, and went onto reserve status in 1919.

Once a civilian, he became a Catholic priest, in the monastic order of Carmelites, with the religious name Pere Joseph de la Trinite, and, by 1932, he was the Carmelite provincial president for France. With the threat of war, he obtained a dispensation from religious duty, and rejoined the navy, initially as a chaplain with the rank of lieutenant commander.

A strong ally of Charles de Gaulle, he became a full commander in July 1940, campaigned in Africa, and took control of French Equatorial Africa. De Gaulle put him on the French National Committee's Council of Defense, and ordered him to London in 1941. With colonial experience, he was promoted to captain, and sent to the Pacific, to be Free French High Commissioner for the Pacific, based at Noumea, Tahiti. Serving there, he was insistent on French sovereignty, thoroughly annoying the U.S. military, and, showing equality among the Allies, bothered the British sufficiently that they jailed him. Nevertheless, he was promoted to rear admiral in 1942, and recalled to London via Washington, DC. A consistent man, he was reported to have had a stormy dinner with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle.

He was named head of Free French naval force in May 1943, but kept his headquarters in London, while the fleet was under Toulon, General Giraud's base. [1] When the Allied armies liberated France, he was designated chief of the general staff of the Navy, and he set up a headquarters separate from the Ministry of Marine, an act disliked by the naval hierarchy. De Gaulle then designated him vice president of the Superior Council of the French Navy, but d'Argenlieu insisted on maintaining a separate headquarters.

According to Hammer,

"he shared General de Gaulle's uncompromising ideas about maintaining the French Empire for the glory of France, whatever the cost. His orders were to re-establish French sovereignty in the country, and he planned to carry them out to the letter.[2]

While the members of the French mission waiting to return to Indochina, a French Provisional Government had declared itself. This took place on March 24, 1945, and is not the government proclaimed by Ho Chi Minh on September 2, 1946. It was also not an independent Vietnam, but a system creating five states in a French Union, with some autonomy but under the authority of a Governor General. It was not immediately obvious if Governor General and High Commissioner were synonyms for the same function.

In 1945, proposals for Ho and d'Argenlieu to meet were discussed, but cancelled after the Chinese protested. [3]

A substantial French military force under the command of Gen. Jacques Leclerc arrived in Hanoi on March 18, after the March 6 agreement among Jean Sainteny (Commissioner in Tonkin), Ho Chi Minh, and Vu Hong Khanh of the VNQDD. d'Argenlieu had been on leave, but was amazed "yes, that is the word, my amazement that France had such a fine expeditionary corps in France and yet its leaders preferred to negotiate rather than fight." Indeed, Leclerc, who had a distinguished Second World War combat record, preferred negotiation rather than the bellicose approach of d'Argenlieu, who had no ground combat experience and whose experience of war was at sea during the First World War. Leclerc knew limitations: "At the present time, there is no question of imposing ourselves by force on massses who desire evolution and innovation."

It should be remembered that Leclerc was in Hanoi while d'Argenlieu was in Saigon, and the local dynamics of Tonkin and Cochin China were quite different. d'Argenlieu was not a racist, but the seven of the eight Vietnamese he named to an advisory council were French citizens.[4]

Just after Ho left for a trip to Paris, d'Argenlieu, without informing his government, declared a Republic of Cochin China, ignoring Ho and his Northern allies. Cochin Chinese representatives met with Marius Moutet, minister for the colonies,, undercutting Ho.[5] In Paris, Ho faced a new government under George Bidault, who favored a much tighter French Union than the British Commonwealth approach that seemed acceptable, on an interim basis, to Ho. Ho made an interim agreement with Moutet but it obsessed him for the rest of his life. [6]

Bidault gave permission to d'Argenlieu, who was in Paris, to use artillery to control the situation, and General Jean Valluy, Leclerc's successor, ordered that the Viet Minh evacuate Haiphong in two hours. At that point, French ground troops attacked, and there was bombardment by aircraft and naval guns. Even the French agreed there were 6,000 deaths; the Vietnamese claimed 20,000. [7] By December, there was outright war between Viet Minh (under Vo Nguyen Giap and French troops. Moutet and d'Argenlieu rejected further negotiations, and this remained the policy until the French government changed; Paul Ramadier fired d'Argenlieu and replaced him with Emile Bollaert,with Paul Mus, a sympathetic expert on Vietnam, as an adviser.[8]

Leclerc actually had made progress in negotiations, but his policies, such as the March 6 agreement, being totally opposed by d'Argenlieu, he asked for relief and transferred to North Africa in July. [9]

He returned to religious life and died in 1947.


  1. Patti, Archimedes L. A. (1980). Why Viet Nam? Prelude to America's Albatross. University of California Press. , pp. 475-476
  2. Hammer, Ellen J. (1955), The Struggle for Indochina 1940-1955: Vietnam and the French Experience, Stanford University Press, p. 112
  3. Hammer, p. 148
  4. Karnow, Stanley (1983), Vietnam, a History, Viking Press, p. 151
  5. Hammer, pp. 168-169
  6. Karnow, p. 155
  7. Karnmow, pp. 156-158
  8. Karnow, pp. 158-159
  9. Hammer, pp. 154-156