The Unquiet Reporters: The American Press And The Franco-Viet Minh War, 1950-54

Alex Ferguson | 10 May 2021

American History / Asia / Diplomatic History / Vietnam War

In spring 1954, French soldiers await the Viet Minh attack at Dien Bien Phu, the scene of the climactic battle of the Franco-Viet Minh War. Source: File: Dien Bien Phu002.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

In Hanoi, Vietnam, correspondents filed into the press camp to hear about the latest military engagement in France’s war against the Communist-led Viet Minh. The French colonel presiding explained that French forces had secured a crushing victory in northern Vietnam, inflicting severe losses on communist combatants, and compelling the remaining enemy troops to flee across the Red River where they were being pummelled by French air power. 

The colonel could not revel for too long in tales of France’s battlefield success, for his announcement was interrupted by Bill Granger, a crude and often inebriated American correspondent. U.S. representation in the press corps had swollen in recent years, following Washington’s 1950 decision to supply French forces with American military hardware. US officials hoped this aid would stave off Vietnam’s fall to communism, preventing the start of a domino effect they feared would see all of Southeast Asia slip into the Soviet Union’s Cold War orbit.

After forcing the evasive colonel to reveal the scale of French losses, Granger turned to France’s next steps. Incensed by the American’s condescending tone and provocative questioning, the colonel eventually snapped, informing Granger that French options were limited by the tardiness of the arrival of US aid. 

Washington’s failure, the colonel sneered, to deliver the helicopters it had promised would probably cost French lives, leaving those wounded in the battle to trek through dangerous terrain in which death by ambush or gangrene likely awaited them. And with that the colonel stormed out of the press conference.[1]

The above account summarising Granger’s tense interaction with the French colonel is a scene from British author Graham Greene’s Indochina novel, The Quiet American. Since its publication in 1955, historians, encouraged by Greene’s own admission that the book contained more direct reportage than any of his other works, have sought to uncover the real-life inspirations behind the novel’s characters and plot.[2]   

Scholars have focused their attention principally on identifying the quiet American of the novel’s title, Alden Pyle, the CIA operative whose idealistic pursuit of a Third Force between communism and colonialism succeeds not in engineering democracy in Vietnam but rather sowing death and destruction in the streets of Saigon

Far less attention has been paid to the novel’s quite accurate portrayal of the tempestuous relationship between American correspondents and the French, one of several issues that fostered an uneasy alliance between Paris and Washington during the Franco-Viet Minh War. 

The press conference Greene depicted in The Quiet American was more fact than fiction, drawn from a December 1951 briefing that Greene himself had attended in Hanoi in which Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist Larry Allen, the model for Granger’s character, baited Colonel Gousset about French casualties.[3]

Such clashes between French officials and American journalists, as I show in my article ‘Press Management and U.S. Support for France in Indochina, 1950-1954’, were frequent events during the early 1950s, with French officials regularly complaining to US diplomats about the behaviour and reporting of American correspondents in Vietnam.[4]

US reporters, Paris noted, fixated more on French military setbacks and the evils of French colonialism than France’s honourable contributions to the causes of the Cold War and Vietnamese development. The French argued that such reporting succeeded only in strengthening the position of those in the French National Assembly calling for France to withdraw from Vietnam and abandon it to the communists.

The novel’s references to the evasiveness of French press officers and the severe restrictions and strict censorship that the French placed on American correspondents also accurately captured the obstacles reporters faced in covering the war, as well as the reasons for journalists’ frustration with their French handlers. 

The antagonistic relationship between American reporters and the French, I show in my article, left American policymakers fearful that US correspondents would initiate a rupture in the Franco-American alliance that would indeed force a premature French departure from Indochina. Washington recognised that non-state actors, as much as government officials, could make or break diplomatic alliances. 

To avert such a Cold War calamity, US diplomats briefed American reporters on their arrival in Vietnam on French sensitivities and the national security importance of avoiding stirring the pot. They also intervened with journalists and editors to kill stories and pressured media outlets to publish rebuttals when reporters refused to fall into line.

Simultaneously, American diplomats urged the French to ease their restrictions on US correspondents. The sum of American reporting was generally supportive of French aims, they accurately informed Paris, and draconian restrictions on press freedoms would only encourage embittered journalists to write critically of French efforts. 

The US mission’s activities met with mixed success. US government intervention ensured that the American media’s coverage of the war was largely favourable but some pessimistic and critical pieces continued to find their way to print. Small numbers of US correspondents found creative ways to bypass French restrictions, locate pessimistic sources, and resist US government intimidation. Meanwhile, American officials experienced little joy with the French, who knew that Washington’s steadfast commitment to containing communism would ensure the flow of US aid to Indochina regardless of whether they liberalised their press policy.

The relationship between American reporters and the French remained frosty right through to the war’s conclusion in 1954, when French war weariness, desire to focus on economic recovery at home and combat nationalist threats in their North African colonies, and further military setbacks forced France to call time on their war in Indochina.[5]

As the French departed and the focus of US efforts shifted to supporting the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem, Washington’s commitment in Vietnam grew, drawing with it increasing numbers of American reporters. 

As historian Kevin Ruane has recently noted, many of these incoming correspondents looked not to history books but to The Quiet American to understand their new surroundings. Sixty-six years on from the novel’s publication, we too can look to The Quiet American for insight into the fragile Franco-American alliance at the centre of early US efforts to contain communism in Vietnam. 

Dr Alex Ferguson is a Teaching Associate in 20th Century US History at the University of Sheffield. He is currently working on a book project examining the US Embassy in Saigon and the Franco-American alliance in Vietnam during the early 1950s. You can find Alex on Twitter @AFerguson1988.

[1] Graham Greene, The Quiet American (New York, 1957), pp. 63-67.

[2] Graham Greene, Ways of Escape (London, 1999), p. 165.

[3] Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene: Volume 2, 1939-1955 (New York, 1994), p. 398; Richard Greene, Russian Roulette: The Life and Times of Graham Greene (London, 2020), pp. 217-218.

[4] Alex Ferguson, ‘Press Management and U.S. Support for France in Indochina, 1950-1954’, Diplomatic History, 42.2 (April 2018), pp. 228-253. My thanks go to Oxford University Press and the Society for American Foreign Relations for allowing me to reuse some of this article here. 

[5] Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (New York, 2012).