The validity of the phrase "nobody knows Vietnam like the French" is a matter of perspective. Given the ignominious ending of the French colonization of what had been called "French Indochina," it is questionable whether France’s decades of experience in Vietnam translated into a useful degree of knowledge and understanding...
The validity of the phrase "nobody knows Vietnam like the French" is a matter of perspective. Given the ignominious ending of the French colonization of what had been called "French Indochina," it is questionable whether France’s decades of experience in Vietnam translated into a useful degree of knowledge and understanding of the Vietnamese people and their culture. Dien Bien Phu represented a catastrophic defeat for French forces in Southeast Asia. That France had colonized a sizable part of Southeast Asia since the late 1880s certainly could lead to the assumption that diplomats and other government officials in France "understood" Vietnam. Whether the French possessed of formidable knowledge of Vietnam, however, is irrelevant, to the extent that such knowledge did not allow for more informed political and military decisions regarding France’s colonial holdings in Southeast Asia. The post-World War II period witnessed considerable transformations in world affairs with respect to the age of European colonialism. A new superpower was emerging in the form of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and victory by the communists in China radically altered the old equations. Vietnam was no longer solely a colonial affair for the French; it was the beginning of superpower rivalry in Southeast Asia as well.
By the time of the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, the United States had demonstrated that it no more appreciated the political and military dynamics at work in Southeast Asia than had the French. The differences between the two events—French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and U.S. military victory and political defeat during the Tet Offensive—were considerable yet also irrelevant. What mattered was that both events effectively marked the end of French and American involvement in Vietnam, respectively. Public perceptions of the Tet Offensive in much of the United States were such that military victory (the Viet Cong were a spent force by the end of the offensive in late-September 1968) was ignored and notions of catastrophic defeat dominated public discourse.
If the French understood Vietnam better than anybody, they failed to apply that understanding to their situation there. The French desperately desired to reclaim their colonial possessions following Japan’s defeat in World War II. It was more about prestige and access to natural resources than anything else. Knowledge and understanding of Vietnam, or Laos, or Cambodia, meant nothing.