Admiral Jean Decoux | March 2013
An exceptional eye-witness account by the last Governor-General of Indochina who was able to protect ‘the Jewel in the Crown’ of the French Empire from the upheavals of the Second World War and to establish the foundations of what might have become three independent nations in peaceful association with France.
On June 20 1946, at the time of Admiral Decoux’s show trial (which would eventually end in the dismissal of all charges), the King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, wrote to him:
“….I wish to highlight your exemplary and noble conduct during four years in protecting both the strategic interests of France and the security of the peoples of Indochina against the enemy. I am certain that justice will be done and France will deem you one of its most illustrious sons”.
That is the way with History - according to circumstances, the hero may quickly become ‘the traitor’ in the eyes of a misinformed and misled public; inconvenient truths are erased from the official record. Sadly, Admiral Decoux did not escape this sorry process.
‘At the Helm of Indochina’ - the account of his period as Governor-General - remained lost for many years. But what a magnificent account it is!
He writes elegantly with an extreme attention to detail. He explains to us how he was able to keep afloat the ship of state during the turmoil of the Second World War. He describes the chain of ever-increasing events and challenges which confronted him. His sole objective in dealing with all these problems was to ensure the continuing presence and influence of France in Indochina.
But the extent of his actions went much further. He turned his considerable energies towards creating the firm foundations necessary for the establishment of a freely-determined union between France, Vietnam and the Kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia. Admiral Decoux was the first high French government official to use the name Vietnam to encompass what was still being referred to as the regions of Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina.
The military attack by Japan on March 9 1945 with all its tragic consequences, finally shattered any hope on the part of the admiral of achieving the peaceful independence of the Indochinese nations in association with France. Yet this autobiography is still able to highlight the very special relationship between France and Indochina with whom France has so much in common. This relationship might still be re-established were the French able, at last, to acknowledge not just the evils of colonialisation, but also its benefits.
In this sense, ‘At the Helm of Indochina’ is not simply an extraordinary historical document. It is also a book with a compelling relevance for us today.
Preface: Jacques Decoux
On June 25 1940, Admiral Jean Decoux was appointed Governor-General of French Indochina. For nearly five years he inspired a period of unprecedented development of infrastructure, agriculture, industry, education and culture. This period also saw the emergence of a new Indochinese elite (particularly from Vietnam) who made a significant and enthusiastic contribution to the development program. The Admiral was taken prisoner by the Japanese following their military attack on March 9 1945. The Admiral was later taken back to France where he faced trial in the High Court of Justice. None of the many charges brought against him were ever proved and the case against him was dismissed in 1949. He died in Paris on October 20 1963.