Promoted to general, de Lattre commanded the 14th Infantry Division, leading it with distinction in the 1940 Battle for France. He then served in the military of Vichy France. In November 1942, however, he broke ranks with the government and ordered his troops to oppose the German occupation of southern France, allowing the escape of many anti-German Frenchmen by sea. Tried and convicted by Vichy authorities of attempting a putsch, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. De Lattre escaped from Riom prison in September 1943 and made his way to Britain, where he joined the Free French forces of General Charles de Gaulle. De Lattre commanded Free French forces in the June 1944 invasion of Elba and then commanded the French First Army in the invasion of southern France. At the end of the war, his troops had reached the Austrian border. He then served on the Allied Control Commission for Germany, was inspector general of the French Army, and from 1948 to 1950 commanded West European land forces.
In December 1950 to signify its determination to win the Indochina War, the Paris government appointed de Lattre, arguably its greatest living soldier, to the two posts of high commissioner and commander of French forces in Indochina. French political leaders hoped that its charismatic general would inject new energy into the flagging war effort. At first, de Lattre enjoyed success. French forces repulsed repeated Viet Minh attacks on the Red River Delta in the first half of 1951. De Lattre also attempted to bolster the French effort by employing more Vietnamese soldiers, a process known as jaunissement (yellowing). Heralding his accomplishments, he flew to Washington that September and met with U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Pentagon officials, calling for more U.S. assistance for the French war effort and stressing the interdependence of the fronts against communism in Vietnam and Korea. None of this, however, turned the tide of the war, and the French became bogged down in the December 1951–February 1952 Battle of Hoa Binh, an inconclusive battle of attrition for both sides.
De Lattre, consumed by cancer, left Indochina in December 1951 and died in Paris on 11 January 1952.
Mark Atwood Lawrence and Spencer C. Tucker
Dalloz, Jacques. La guerre d'Indochine, 1945–1954. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987.; Fall, Bernard. The Two Viet Nams. Rev. ed. New York: Praeger, 1964.; Gardner, Lloyd C. Approaching Vietnam: From World War II through Dienbienphu. New York: Norton, 1989.