“An Honorable Exit” by Éric Vuillard

Éric Vuillard Éric Vuillard

The title of French writer and filmmaker Éric Vuillard’s short book on the First Indochina War (1946-1954) exudes sarcasm. For Vuillard, there was nothing “honorable” about France’s efforts to hold on to its Indochinese empire by force. In this, he mirrors those on the American left who ridiculed the Nixon-Kissinger formula of “peace with honor” in the Second Indochina War. Vuillard reduces the complex historical and geopolitical aspects of the French war to a single anti-capitalist narrative—the war was all about money and greed.

The primary villains in Vuillard’s book are France’s ministers, the French Parliament, the country’s military leaders, and most especially the Banque de 1’Indochine, whose trustees and shareholders profited from the war. Vuillard has Emile Minost, the bank’s president, saying to himself that “the bank was from the outset the perfect partner for the French Army, it had a finger in everything that touched the financing and provisioning of the expeditionary force, and for six years it had found this a remarkable opportunity for enrichment”. The war became the bank’s “primary source of revenue”, and Vuillard writes,


With Parliament as its instrument and in the name of national honor, the bank’s trustees furthered a murderous war from which they profited, even though they all knew it was lost.


An Honorable Exit, Éric Vuillard, Mark Polizzotti (trans) (Other Press, April 2023)
An Honorable Exit, Éric Vuillard, Mark Polizzotti (trans) (Other Press, April 2023)

But there are other villains in Vuillard’s narrative—US President Dwight Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who helped fund and supply France’s war and who used covert means to upend democracy in Iran and Guatemala to further American corporate interests. Vuillard’s heroes are anti-colonial communists such as Ho Chi Minh and Patrice Lumumba; he portrays the former as a Vietnamese nationalist and the latter as a victim of Western colonial corporate interests.

Every war has its financial profiteers—the First Indochina War was no different. French political and military leaders during the war were far from flawless both in their intentions and judgments. Soldiers and civilians always suffer the most in war. Vuillard is right about all of that. But his grand narrative of French (and American) evil and Vietnamese purity and innocence is ahistorical. Vuillard simply ignores the context of Japan’s occupation of the region during the Second World War and the region’s perceived significance in the Cold War. It is arguable that geopolitics played a greater role in the First and Second Indochina Wars than economics, but that idea doesn’t fit into Vuillard’s chosen narrative.

History is full of nuance and distinctions, including varying perspectives of the time, which is why grand narratives written seventy years later usually overstate their case. Historical actors often have several motives, which is why focusing solely on self-serving financial interests leads to half-truths and skewed perspectives. The French debacle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, like the American exit from Saigon in April 1975, flowed from a complex web of historical circumstances, cultural arrogance, bad leadership, and imperial interests (which, to be sure, included economic interests). Vuillard’s point that neither the French or the American exit from Indochina was “honorable” is true, but his narrative would have had greater force if he acknowledged the multiplicity of factors that contributed to the causes and outcomes of both conflicts.

Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.