Indo-China and the Japanese
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 13 Feb 1941, p. 342-355
May, Dr. Jacques M., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Indo-China, consisting of two countries: the Kingdom of Siam on the west, and on the east the five provinces united under French guidance. Effects of the fall of France. Japan's attempts to gain influence in these two countries. Examining past events in the Far East in order to understand the coming events. A description and brief history of the Kingdom of Siam. Siam's Army, built on the Swiss model. The speaker's illustrative anecdote about this army. Successes of the army. The Air Force of Siam. Siamese dependency upon the British Empire. Relations between Siam and Indo-China. The treaty between France and Siam in 1907. Japanese influence in Siam. The population on the other side of Indo-China. The French Army and Air Force under Japanese control. How that control was attained. Indo-China the price paid by Germany to lure Japan into the unknown terms of the German-Japanese alliance. Pretexts for invasion. The real aims of Japan. Background to the Japanese-German alliance. The speaker's confidence in the British stopping the invasion of Asia, as they have stopped the invasion of Europe.
Date of Original
13 Feb 1941
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Full Text
Chairman: The President, The Honourable G. Howard Ferguson.
Thursday, February 13, 1941

THE HONOURABLE G. HOWARD FERGUSON: Gentlemen, we have had over a period of time a number of very interesting talks, not only interesting but very informative, about present conditions in various parts of the world. We have learned a good deal about the European situation, France, the Low Countries, particularly England, Africa and the Near East, and as a member of this Club said to me, before coming in here a while ago, the only two places we can't learn much about are Canada and the Far East.

Now, you will have plenty of time and ample opportunity to investigate and hear all you can about what we are doing in Canada, but today we are to have the privilege of having a unique type' of discussion by Dr. May with regard to the Indo-China situation. Some of you, I dare say, have been over there. Others of you have read a good deal because it is not only an interesting feature of the whole problem but it may loom larger in importance as time goes on.

If I may venture a personal reference I was telling Dr. May a little while ago I had an opportunity to go to Bangkok, some years ago, and my wife and I were waiting at a junction for a little train, and a fellow came up to me. He was a neat, tidy, athletic type, but he was lame. They don't see many people at this lonely spot and he got into a conversation with me, and he said, "You are from America?" I said, "Yes." He said, "I know New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and so on". I said, "I am from Canada." He said, "Toronto?" I said, "Yes". He said, "Do you know Shea's Theatre?" I said, "Yes". He said, "Do you know Jerry Shea ?", and then he went on to tell me that at one time he had put on an act of an athletic type and he had been in Toronto a number of times but unfortunately he had met with a mishap that had injured him so he couldn't continue his work.

It just shows how channels of communication and contact can be established. I don't know that Dr. May is going to tell us of anything of that kind, but I am sure. he will tell us something that will be most interesting to us and that will shed an entirely new light upon a very critical and very important situation that exists in the Far East and which is, I am afraid, gradually developing into more serious proportions. Dr. May. (Applause.)

DR. JACQUES M. MAY: Mr. Chairman, Gentlemen It looks as if the fall of France which has opened in Europe the gates of the invaders has opened them also in the Far East. Indo-China as a whole comprises two countries. On the western side is the Kingdom of Siam, an independent Kingdom; and on the eastern side are the five provinces united under French guidance. That is, it was such when I left.

During these past years Japan has sought to gain influence in those two countries--in Siam in peace time, and in French Indo-China since the fall of France--about the same way that Germany in peace time invaded the Rhineland and in war time the Low Countries, in order to secure bases on the French side of the English Channel. In the same way did the Japanese, little by little, very thoroughly indeed, as it actually appears, seek bases for themselves on the French side of the Malayan Channel.

We must have this in mind when we think of the past events in the Far East, in order to understand the coming events. They had, actually, invasion bases on the Indo-China side against British Malaya, as Germany had on the French side of the Channel.

I don't know how much you know about French Siam and Indo-China. It is a little embarrassing to me, I am afraid, to say things you may know very well--perhaps better than I do. On the other hand, this question seems very important now, and you will certainly forgive me if I tell you things you know quite well already about the background of the present situation.

Siam is located at the western side of the Indo-China Peninsula. It is populated by around fifteen million people who claim to be of Thai descent, the word "Thai" meaning in their language "Free men". The Thai race is supposed to be an old Indian race, very much intermixed with other races, although they don't admit it, and widely scattered in the southern part of Asia. You can find Thai people in Siam, in Burma in the British Empire, you can find them in the south of China and you can find some others in French Indo-China.

In Siam you have also a Chinese community. This Chinese community is entirely devoted to trade in every part of the world and they bring a very important income to Siam by their activities in their trade. The Siamese population is chiefly agricultural, peaceful, calm, religious and quiet. They are very good people, indeed. They don't know anything about labour. They are very happy since they have plenty of rice and when they want some meat or flesh they just get a little fish out of the canals which they have quite handy, near the premises of their houses.

The happy Siamese nation was torn by bloodless revolution in 1932. The Royal Family has been since that time deprived of all the privileges that belonged to it, retaining only the right to supply the country with a Sovereign. This Sovereign is actually not of age and is completing his education m Switzerland or somewhere in Europe, and the Government of Siam has been in the hands of a political clique since 1932. This clique itself, as often in Asia and in Europe, is divided into two rival clans. One of them, the civilian clan, is led by a man called Luang Pradit (and this leader was educated in France-much to my sorrow), and the other one, the military clan, is led by a man, also educated in France, called Luang Bipul. (I can't help it.) This man is actually the leader of these two dictators because he chose to be on the side of the Army and he owns the guns. The recent political history of Siam is nothing else but the story of the rivalry of these two clans, each of them seeking prestige and trying to gain prestige in the eyes of their respective followers.

Now, the Army in Siam is a rather good Army.It is built and equipped with the following weapons and is built on the Swiss model. To give you an idea of what this army, when it is left alone, could do, I will tell you a small personal story about it.

In 1933, the King of Siam, being very much worried about the fact that the family had been deprived of the privileges it had before the revolution, tried to make a counter-revolution, and a cousin of his started an uprising in Siam. The Army of this cousin of the King of Siam, crossed the Indo-Chinese borders from France and tried to besiege Bangkok, the capital. One evening I was taking an evening walk on the outskirts of the city and I ran into a battery firing and shooting up in the darkness. I asked the Commanding Officer, "What are you doing there?" He said, "I am shooting at the enemy." I said, "Yes, but where is the enemy?" He said, "Well, of course we don't know--somewhere there." Of course it didn't matter very much because the cartridges for the guns did not fit the barrels.

The Navy was built on the same pattern at the time. The next day I took a morning walk, this time on the banks of the river. The Navy at that time was located on the upper river and had to go under a draw-bridge to make for the sea. The Navy was against the Government and it would have been an easy job to keep the Navy located at its anchorage in the upper part of the river by simply closing the bridge, and it was much to the interest of the government not to let the Navy loose on the high seas.

Much to my surprise that morning the two sides of the draw-bridge were lifted and the passage was wide open so I asked an officer of the Army who happened to be there, "How is it you are allowing your rival, the Navy, to get off its anchorage?" He said that they were very much worried about that, but "There is nothing we can do. We have lost the key of the cabin where the electrical machinery is located."

Well, I can't help thinking of these two anecdotes of incidents that took place about seven years ago, when I read in the paper today that the Siamese Army has gained an overwhelming victory over the French forces and when I read in the paper that the Siamese Navy has sustained victoriously the fire of the French cruisers. Something must have happened.

The Air Force of Siam, since the time of 1933-1936 has been steadily increased. They have bought good machines in America, and I suppose they have, actually, around two hundred and fifty of them. Were they flown by good pilots they might have a real military value. At the time I was there and even when I left Siam in 1935 (I had been in Indo-China ever since, of course) they had no such pilots and they had no mechanics, and if a plane crashed or was damaged they simply could not repair it. How is it that we hear today exactly the same stories of the Army and Navy and that there is a really strong Siamese Air Force? Something must have happened.

Well, besides these military problems, what are the features of the Kingdom of Siam? Finally, the Siamese depend entirely upon the British Empire. The currency is based on the sterling and is very closely linked with the sterling bloc. They have in Bangkok a British financial adviser whose salary they pay. Besides, the exports of Siamese rice go to the Singapore market, and it would be certainly easy for the Straits Settlement Government to put a tax that might choke the Siamese economy.All this means that certainly the British have something to say in Siamese politics and they have the means to bring strong pressure to bear upon the Siamese.

What have been the relations between Siam and Indo-China, since we see today in the paper there has been a war. Well, it is interesting to see what a Chinese columnist says about it. I read the letter of a Chinese scholar, written from the Province of Cambodia which had been utterly devastated by the last Siamese war. The letter is dated 1296, and the man who wrote it was a very fine Chinese scholar by the name of Tcheon Ta Rouan. It proves that these border incidents between Siam and French Indo-China are not recent--they are old. Tcheon Ta Rouan did not know, of course, what was going to happen the year after he left Cambodia, where he had been so happy. The magnificent place of Bangkok, where he had lived and which he had written about in such enthusiastic terms, was raided year after year, and within sixty of seventy years of his voyage to Cambodia, the place was entirely destroyed and covered, little by little, by the jungle, until in 1859 a French scientist discovered it again by chance.

In more recent days the French got control of Cochin-China. On the eastern side of the Chinese border the Cambodian Kingdom was still alive between the two countries. Siam on the west and Cochin-China on the east. When the French arrived there it was the yearly habit of the King of Cambodia to pay tribute to both neighbours, to be on the safe side. When the French inherited those rights they said they didn't want the Cambodian money but just the reverse, they suggested they give money to the King of Cambodia to civilize the country. After two years of peaceful negotiation the King of Siam adopted these views and recognized the French.

About twenty years later the French settled themselves in Tonking by the same ways and means, and between Tonking and Siam, in another small kingdom called the Mekong valley, a similar dispute arose, as both the Siamese and the Annamite king claimed feudal right in this area.

In the year 1904, the Siamese decided to make a real and loyal effort to find what the actual boundary line was between the two countries-not onlv the diplomatic one on the map. They appointed a Commission of both Siamese and French members to find out. This Commission worked for three years in the field and reached an agreement embodied in the treaty of 1907, by which an eternal line of demarcation was settled under no military pressure whatsoever but under the arbitration of an American scholar, Professor Strobel from Harvard, who at the time was Adviser on Foreign Affairs to the King of Siam. The 1907 treaty was so fair that he urged that the Siamese King should sign it.

I dare say very few treaties in the world's history have been so carefully worked upon as this 1907 treaty between France and Siam, and in fact, up to 1940, no major dispute arose between France and Siam concerning boundary questions or any question, for that matter. It may interest you to know that when France was still strong in directing the Far East, the Siamese people signed a non-aggression pact with France five days before the invasion of the Low Countries began, which proves that in May last there was not a real dispute on the carpet between the two countries. Otherwise, they wouldn't have signed a treaty of nonaggression.Something also must have happened to change the minds of the Siamese Government to that extent. Another point which might interest you about Siam, is the reason for the Siamese suddenly becoming Thailandese people, adopting a name which is half-caste-Siamese at the beginning and English at the end. Well, if you remember what I told you about the population of Siam you will understand the meaning of that word, "Thailand". The word has no grammatical sense at all but has a lot of political sense. It means that the Siamese Government believes it should rule and govern all the Thai people, and as I told you, the Thai people means nothing less than Burma, the south of China and the greatest part of French Indo-China. Well, they have started already with French Indo-China. This, of course, was played upon by something which has happened since the time of the Navy and the Army and the Air Force and the peace that I was talking to you about a few minutes ago. What is this something? This something is Japan.

Of course it is very difficult to say exactly what is the amount of influence a country has in another country when it is well hidden, but still, since 1923 the Japanese have brought into Siam several large firms. They have an air-line in operation, they have control of the shipyards and they are the only people able to repair and maintain this ready-made Navy that the Siamese bought in Japan just before the outbreak of the present war. They have a strong influence, which can be judged by the fact that for about seven years the Siamese have been persecuting the Chinese community to their own detriment because the Chinese brought money into the country. They have set immigration taxes, they have stopped Chinese immigration, they have imprisoned Chinese business men on trifling pretexts, and so on.

Through all this we might have an idea of what has been the Japanese influence in Siam through all these years. But what can give us the greatest idea of all is the recent war between Siam and Indo-China, which had no reason at all to occur or to break out, and which ended, as all have seen, by Japanese mediation, the consequences of which are being felt very heavily right now.

Let us glance now on the Indo-Chinese side of the border. I won't give you any details about the geography, because you know that as well as I do. The population of Indo-China is chiefly Annamite, that is, of Chinese descent, with substantial minority groups of Cambodians and Chinese, as well as several other races living in the mountain regions in the north and west, some being Thai, and others the real originals of the country-savages, but very interesting to live with. They are mild and very pleasant, living on game and rice and having no political aptitude whatsoever.

This population of Indo-China is and was until last September when I left there, very true to France. I don't say that because I am French, I say it because it is a fact. It is not through love--I won't say that--but they certainly realize what the French meant to them and they have a very lovely saying in Indo-China which shows that they understand the present situation. This Annamite saying is as follows: "The French eat bread, the Japanese eat rice." That is all. But that means a lot. That means, "We don't mind the French, they are no competitors, but the Japanese take the rice out of our mouth". And that is exactly what is going to happen. It has happened, as a matter of fact already. We have read in the papers, not later than a few weeks ago, that the Japanese have a price for their mediation. They are asking control of 80 per cent of the rice production of Indo-China. That gives an idea of how wise this Annamite proverb is.

The French Army and Air Force there, of course, are actually under Japanese control. That is a fact which can't be hidden. It is very important to have that in mind in order to understand the recent conflict. Of course, the French could not really wage war against the Siamese and then defend themselves. The scanty stock of munitions they had was checked over by the Japanese, and the French could not fire a shot without the Japanese knowing it ant keeping a record of it--which means that they knew when it would be safe to ask for further privileges in Indo-China.

How have the Japanese gained such control over Indo-China? That is a point I would like to make clear to you. In June the armistice was signed in France and at that time Indo-China was ruled by General Catroux who was and is still my personal friend. He believed very much that the armistice was rotten and that French Indo-China should at all costs prosecute the war with the British Empire and be true to the word of honour France had pledged. (Applause.) I believe he did his best. He sent a Purchasing Commission to the United States to buy planes. For several reasons--among them the delay of the Clipper--this Purchasing Commission arrived late in July in the United States. He wanted to reinforce his defence. He tried also to slacken the pace of the Japanese demands. He accepted three or four Japanese officers sent into IndoChina to control contraband, just in order to gain time. All the population was behind him.

From that day on, from the day of the armistice, a decree, issued in Vichy, ordered General Catroux to abandon his post and to give the reins of the government into the hands of Admiral Decoux. At first he said to me, "I don't acknowledge that Government because anybody can sign 'Petain' to a wire or a radio report and I am not going to believe that." He replied to Vichy, "I have a letter signed by Petain. For the present I don't accept the order", but the orders came every day, more pressing, and by the end of July it appeared that Marshal Petain was really the man who signed the order. For several reasons, too long to go into right now, in one very sad evening we spent together at the end of July, he said. "Well, I don't think I can do very much. I will give up and Decoux is going to govern the country from now on." I said, "That is terrible. He will play into the hands of the Germans." He said, "I don't know. I am leaving and going to join de Gaulle." He joined General de Gaulle and was presently in Cairo and I guess he is taking part in the operations in Libya. I decided to join him later but my personal story is of no interest.

I stayed a month later than he did. As soon as Decoux was at the head of the Government the Japanese brought in more pressure. They said that they wanted to have their troops pass through Indo-China to invade China by the rear. If you have the map in mind you will understand what that means. This can deceive nobody because the border between China and Indo-China is jungle and nobody, not even a Japanese General, can cross the border with an army, and the secret purpose of that move was certainly different. Anyway, it was a blind, a cover.

Then we received an astounding order. We were filled with joy, but we did not understand what it meant. That order was that we wouldn't yield to the Japanese demands, we were going to fight the Japanese. We were very much surprised when we received the order to fight. We were so pleased, and everybody got ready. Eight days after, another order came in and this order said, "You are not going to fight after all. Just accept the Japanese terms."

Well, the Japanese terms had not changed, and at the moment we could not guess what had made them suddenly palatable, since they hadn't been such the week before. We understood later on. In the month of September the world learned that Japan had joined the Axis Powers. It was easy to understand that Indo-China had been a price paid by Germany to lure Japan into the unknown terms of the German-Japanese alliance. At the beginning probably the Japanese resisted or did not comply with all the German terms, so the Germans said, "You are not going to have Indo-China", and an order went out to the people to defend themselves. Since the Japanese were in no shape to take Indo-China by force, they were pretty anxious to have us surrender. A week later they had complied, and the order came to let them in, and this is what happened.

In the month of October, not only did they not even try to invade China by the railway as they said they would do once they got in a position to do it, but they even with drew the troops they had in Kwangsi Province, which is an adjacent part of the Indo-China border, which they would have used had they really intended to invade China.

What was their purpose? Their purpose was to get the southern part of Indo-China. It is very strange that the Japanese as well as the Germans don't dare say they will take anything because they want it. They believe they have tricks enough to do it. They always have to find the pretext that they are protecting somebody, which makes it sound civilized, and the Japanese said, "We must find a pretext to invade the south of Indo-China." They found two. The first did not work. They started riots, so-called Communist riots in Indo-China. Of course that didn't go, but the second worked all right. That was the Siamese War I was talking to you about a few minutes ago, and the Siamese War has ended with a Japanese offer of negotiation, an offer dictated from Berlin; and it had a favourable answer because Vichy received the same orders from Berlin.

So here we are with Japan having a free hand, both in Siam and in Indo-China. What are the real aims of Japan? This is a question which certainly you have already discussed very often. There is one thing I want to tell you about. Of course they want territory, they want Indo-China, they want rubber, and I grant they are interested in tin. Those are the covers, those are the European reasons for a Japanese move.

The real situation in Japan is quite different. You get an explanation of that situation if you will read Japanese history. It has been a Japanese proverb for two thousand years, "Keep the Army busy, and if possible, away." Busy and away. Of course in the early years of Japan, that was not possible. The Army was at home and the Army being at home Japan was the theatre of the worst civil wars in the world for centuries. Finally, they reached a peace period that lasted one hundred and fifty years, when they had found a policy to keep the Army quiet, but the situation now is that Japan cannot face the problem of demobilizing her own Army, of turning loose some three million men with no plan ready for absorbing them in the domestic economy. They realize that under the guidance of very ambitious generals, military revolutions could be started one after another that would tear the Japanese Empire to pieces. The proverb is "Keep the Army busy and keep the Army away."

Peace is a very difficult problem. It needs a very high civilization. Plato said that democracy was the form of government suitable for a nation of aristocrats. I think that is a great fact. He meant an aristocracy of the soul and the heart, not of technique only. It is easier, you will agree with me, to build guns than to give every citizen a decent share of butter, and this is the reason that the Japanese have to make war forever.

This implies, of course, a very serious challenge. They really run the risk of facing the United States Navy in the South Seas. For that they wanted a larger political surface, as well as technical help. Therefore, they were ready to comply with the German terms of alliance. The Germans, of course, wanted a fleet in the Pacific. Those are, most probably, partly the backgrounds of the German-Japanese Alliance. Of course, we must think from now on in terms of a German Fleet in the Pacific and no more of the Japanese Fleet. They have German investigators in Tokyo and of course their face will be saved. There will be Japanese officers in Berlin, but I don't believe the Japanese officers in Berlin will have very much say in the plans for the forthcoming invasion of England, but I do believe they will have something to say in the war in the Pacific, and of course we should prepare to face this reality.

But I am still full of hope. First of all, even if there were no United States help in that part of the world, I don't believe the Japanese are a match for whatever forces the British have in those parts of the world. (Applause.) I am even certain that they are no match for it, and that they are going to their doom. I am certain of that, even though for fifteen centuries it was the fate of France to fight and use her sword to protect civilization against the barbarians and for the first time in fifteen centuries this sword has fallen from France's hand. But the British have taken the sword again in Europe. They have raised it high. What are they going to do in the Far East? I don't exactly know but I am perfectly certain they are going to stop invaders in Asia, as they have stopped them in Europe. (Applause.)

THE HONOURABLE G. HOWARD FERGUSON: Gentlemen, I am sure you all agree that you would like me to say to Dr. May how grateful we are to him for finding time to come here and give us such an interesting talk about a very intricate and difficult problem, away in the furthest ends of the earth.

I am rather cheered, a great deal cheered, by what he said with regard to the Japanese Navy. Most island nations are good sailors and the Japanese have boasted a bit about their seamanship and about their naval effectiveness. You must be a bit of a sailor if you live on an island, because there is no other way of getting off it occasionally.

I think, Sir, that you have clarified the situation and given us an enlightened idea of just what is occurring away in that far eastern part of the world and you have cheered us with the confident hope that the old British Navy can take care of that part of the world, just as it has the rest of the world. I am very sure that every one here has intensely enjoyed your talk.

Frenchmen are not the only people that wander about the world. I was thinking when the Doctor was talking, about another little experience I had at Bangkok, which is a beautiful city. A chap came to meet me and he told me he was the head and director of the newly inaugurated Flying Service in Siam. He took my wife and myself out to lunch at his home. It turned out he was a Canadian and his wife was a Canadian, and it just struck me as remarkable that the reputation of our flying men, for intelligence and organizing capacity and for courage has gone a long way about the world. This man occupied a very important position there and was very happy in the work that he was carrying on.

Then you will recall-I have forgotten now whether the little King of Siam visited Canada or not, I was in the Old Country at the time, he travelled far, at any rate and I never knew why he didn't go back to Siam unless he was afraid the guns would get plugged up. He was a delightful person, so was his wife-they were intelligent, with vision and a constructive outlook on the world, unselfish and public-spirited with regard to all these great problems that have become a part of the complicated problem of bringing about a better type of civilization and a better measure of peace to us all.

Doctor, again may I say to you we are all indeed deeply grateful to you for the delightful talk you have given us today. (Applause.)

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Indo-China and the Japanese

Indo-China, consisting of two countries: the Kingdom of Siam on the west, and on the east the five provinces united under French guidance. Effects of the fall of France. Japan's attempts to gain influence in these two countries. Examining past events in the Far East in order to understand the coming events. A description and brief history of the Kingdom of Siam. Siam's Army, built on the Swiss model. The speaker's illustrative anecdote about this army. Successes of the army. The Air Force of Siam. Siamese dependency upon the British Empire. Relations between Siam and Indo-China. The treaty between France and Siam in 1907. Japanese influence in Siam. The population on the other side of Indo-China. The French Army and Air Force under Japanese control. How that control was attained. Indo-China the price paid by Germany to lure Japan into the unknown terms of the German-Japanese alliance. Pretexts for invasion. The real aims of Japan. Background to the Japanese-German alliance. The speaker's confidence in the British stopping the invasion of Asia, as they have stopped the invasion of Europe.