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Unless otherwise indicated, all material researched, written, and copyrighted by Bill Stone for publication in various venues online and elsewhere. Feel free to point links at these pages, but reproduction of this material, electronic or otherwise, is prohibited without prior permission in writing from Stone & Stone.

Vichy and Pearl Harbor

During the Sino-Japanese War, Japan complained to the French government about the ongoing shipment of oil, trucks, and war materiel from the port of Haiphong in French Indo-China by railroad to Kunming in China to help support Chiang Kai-shek's regime. Since technically no state of war existed between Japan and China, France refused to halt shipments. In the winter of 1939/1940, the Japanese military showed its displeasure by bombing the rail line.

By June 1940, when the Wehrmacht's blitzkrieg overran France, approximately 10,000 tons of war goods, most from the US, were being shipped each month from Haiphong into China, and a backlog of 125,000 tons had accumulated in the port.

As metropolitan France collapsed, on 19 June 1940 the Japanese government presented the French ambassador in Tokyo with its demand to cease shipment of all war materiel to China and to accept a Japanese control commission in Indo-China to regulate the agreement. Simultaneously, Japanese troops demonstrated on the Chinese border with Indo-China and IJN warships sailed into the Gulf of Tonkin. The French government was given 48 hours to reply to the demands. At the same time, the British government received demands to close the Burma road supply route into China.

General Catroux, Governor-General of Indo-China, acting on his own initiative due to the confusion reigning in France, sought US support, but such support was not forthcoming. Given the defeat of France, the impossibly weak military position of the colony, and the inability to gain support from abroad, the Japanese demands were met. Similarly, Britain closed the Burma road. General Catroux, who had acted strenuously to resist Japanese pressure, was dismissed. (He rallied to the Free French and later became High Commissioner to the Middle East and then Governor-General of Algeria.)

On 1 August 1940 the Japanese government presented Vichy with further demands: "...right of transit for Japanese forces through Indo-China; construction of airfields in the colony; and agreement in principle to an economic arrangement which would bind Indo-China securely to the Japanese sphere." Again Vichy turned to the US for support; again it was not forthcoming. Nevertheless, General Weygand, Vichy Minister of Defense, initially favored military resistance, but the Cabinet eventually concluded that resistance would be doomed to failure and Indo-China would be permanently lost. On 29 August a preliminary political agreement recognizing Japanese interests in the area was signed. Next day the Japanese Army presented additional military demands which, if implemented, would amount to virtual occupation.

At this point Japanse forces in China threatened to advance across the border on their own initiative. Chiang Kai-shek in turn threatened to attack French Indo-China if it became a Japanese base. At the same time, Siam pressed its claims for Indo-Chinese territory.

Both Britain and the US notified Tokyo of their opposition to military occupation of Indo-China, but neither power was prepared to defend the colony or to send aircraft and other weapons.

The final agreement, signed 22 September 1940, "...made available for the Japanese three airfields in Tonkin (as against six originally called for); granted permission for the stationing of 6000 Japanese troops (as against 25,000 or 32,000 first demanded); agreed to permit eventual passage of Japanese forces (never to exceed more than 25,000 men) through Tonkin to Yunnan..." and, subject to further negotiation, allowed a Japanese division to evacuate China via Tonkin. Although these concessions were not insignificant, they did not include the critical facilities of southern Indo-China.

Before negotiation on the final point commenced, the Japanese division in question crossed the border from China. The Vichy army resisted but could not stop the Japanese advance. Eventually frantic diplomatic efforts halted the combat and Japanese movement pending final negotiation.

Despite this show of arms and resolve by the local French administration, the US continued to rule against selling aircraft, weapons, or supplies for Indo-China.

In December 1940 and January 1941 Siam and Vichy Indo-Chinese forces fought a brief war over their border along the Mekong. Siam gained the upper hand on the ground, but "its fleet was destroyed" (three ships were sunk) by the Vichy squadron. Japan, unwilling to tolerate such disturbances—even those partly Japanese inspired—in such a sensitive area, mediated a settlement which, by no coincidence, strengthened its own position in southeast Asia.

Again, Vichy military resistance had proved futile.

The final act was played out in the summer of 1941.

On 12 July of that year, the Japanese ambassador in Vichy presented the latest demands: "permission to dispatch the 'necessary' land, sea, and air forces to southern Indo-China; occupation of eight air and two naval bases in the same region; recognition of freedom of movement for Japanese forces in southern Indo-China; withdrawal of French garrisons from the places to be occupied by the Japanese."

Although the US strongly advised Vichy not to acquiesce, for the third time there was no hope of military support. Neither Britain (which had just seized the Vichy Levant by force of arms) nor the US was willing even to send warships to Indo-Chinese waters.

(It was around this time that Admiral Darlan told the US ambassador, Admiral Leahy, in regard to American advice and assistance: "If and when the United States can bring to Marseilles three thousand tanks, five hundred thousand men and six thousand planes, be sure to let me know, for then you will be welcomed.")

On 21 July the preliminary agreement was, inevitably, signed. On the 23rd local arrangements were settled in Hanoi. On 29 July 1941 the final protocols were exchanged. In its one concession, Japan agreed that Vichy retained sovereignty over the colony.

In addition to eight airfields in southern Indo-China (notably those around Saigon which put Singapore within range of Japanese land-based warplanes), Japan took possession of naval facilities at Camranh Bay and Saigon. Troops were already arriving in Saigon on 28 July, and some 50,000 men were soon dispatched.

Without those air and naval bases, Japanese military operations aimed at Malaya, Singapore, and the Netherlands East Indies would have proved extremely difficult. The gaining of the bases, though, ensured the need of them.

On 26 July 1941, recognizing the critical nature of Japan's diplomatic victory in Indo-China but perhaps not realizing that at this point possession of the new bases would make feasible military ventures which previously had been only theory, President Roosevelt issued an executive order freezing all Japanese funds and assets in the United States. The same day all British and Dominion trade treaties with Japan were terminated, as, two days later, was the Dutch-Japanese agreement. These actions brought Japanese international trade almost to a standstill, an impossible position for an industrialized nation completely dependent on imported raw materials. In particular, Japan produced only 10% of its petroleum requirements, and foreign sources were suddenly dry.

Under these circumstances the Japanese government concluded that, before stockpiles of strategic materials were consumed, it must finally reach a suitable accord with the US, or initiate war. In this case Japanese diplomacy failed, and on 8 December 1941 (7 December in the United States), Japanese forces from bases in southern Indo-China invaded Siam and Malaya, and eventually overran Singapore, Burma, British Borneo, and the Netherlands East Indies. Meanwhile, to protect its exposed flank, Japanese carrier-based aircraft proceeded to methodically demolish the American Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor.


Aldrich, Richard J. THE KEY TO THE SOUTH: BRITAIN, THE UNITED STATES, AND THAILAND DURING THE APPROACH OF THE PACIFIC WAR, 1929-1942. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1993.

de Gaulle, Charles. THE COMPLETE WAR MEMOIRS OF CHARLES DE GAULLE, 1940-1946. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.

Hammer, Ellen J. THE STRUGGLE FOR INDOCHINA, 1940-1955. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966.

Kirby, Major-General S. Woodburn, et al. THE WAR AGAINST JAPAN, volume 1. London: HMSO, 1957.

Langer, William L. and S. Everett Gleason. THE CHALLENGE TO ISOLATION, 1937-1940. New York: Harper Brothers, 1952.

Langer, William L. and S. Everett Gleason. THE UNDECLARED WAR, 1940-1941. New York: Harper Brothers, 1953.

Marr, David G. VIETNAM 1945: THE QUEST FOR POWER. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995.

Spector, Ronald H. ADVICE AND SUPPORT: THE EARLY YEARS OF THE U.S. ARMY IN VIETNAM, 1941-1960. New York: The Free Press, 1985.

Tansill, Charles Callan. BACK DOOR TO WAR: THE ROOSEVELT FOREIGN POLICY, 1933-1941. Chicago: Regnery, 1952.

Copyright © 1998 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone



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