February 21, 2016–In the middle of another piece of writing I checked the mail only to see the notice that Philippe Devillers had passed away. Actually that had happened a week ago, on February 15, but the news was only now circulating. He died in Paris at age 96. Devillers looms large in the historiography of Indochina, and the French and American wars. He was recognized all over. Nearly a decade ago in the former Saigon, for example, I wandered into a second-hand shop where I found a copy of his first great book, Histoire du Vietnam. The shopkeeper wanted an amount for that book that would nearly have financed my trip.
Born in Villers-Cotterets in Picardie, in November 1920, the man went to Saigon with General Philippe Leclerc and the French Expeditionary Corps in September 1945. He had graduated from Sciences-Po and had more degrees in law and administration. Leclerc employed him as an officer of the Fifth Bureau–the French staff for psychological warfare. Named Philippe Mullander, the man wrote as a stringer for the newspaper Le Monde, and adopted a second name referring to his home town to distinguish his writing for the French army from that for the press.
What distinguished Devillers so much was his drive to explore Vietnamese history and culture. Rather than base himself on French pronouncements and claims to historical events, Devillers explored the Vietnamese backgrounds of developments. He was also driven to report. In Saigon barely two months Devillers joined with others in creating the biweekly broadsheet Paris-Saigon. There he teamed up with another man, Jean Lacouture, who would become a key writer on Indochinese matters. His first article for Le Monde concerned the Dalat conference of April 1946, where French negotiators stalled the Viet Minh government in according rights promised in an agreement Leclerc had reached with them earlier.
After some time as a government official Devillers covered Asia for a local paper in Rouen for more than a decade. Histoire du Vietnam de 1940 a 1952 appeared while the French war still continued, and was printed in 19,000 copies. It remains a key source for the outbreak of the Vietnamese revolution, end of French Indochina, and the early French war. The book served to counterbalance arguments from some that the Indochina war was simple a communist aggression against the West. Devillers importantly showed the conflict’s roots in Vietnamese nationalism.
Devillers and Lacouture collaborated on two books and a movie. One, La fin d’une guerre, Indochine 1954 is an important source on the Geneva conference of 1954, and helped me with my study America’s Dien Bien Phu. Their movie also concerned Dien Bien Phu, arguing that French democracy had ended there, and in the late 1960s they joined to publish on the passage from the French war to the American one. In 1988 Devillers edited a collection of key documents, press releases and other material, Paris-Saigon-Hanoi that revealed the role of certain French officials in an explosive fashion.