HEROES: The Patriot

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One voice—the voice that mattered most—was silent as the generals met in Washington last week, to discuss Southeast Asian strategy (see above). After a brief illness and two operations (for prostate tumor), General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, 62, High Commissioner and Commander in Chief of French forces in Indo-China, was dead.

Gallant, flamboyant, brilliant, shrewd, unpredictable and seemingly fearless, Jean de Lattre was one of the ablest soldiers of his time and a patriot without qualification. In an increasingly cynical world, he took the words "honor" and "country" seriously. He would literally blanch at the suggestion that all Frenchmen might not instantly rush to the defense of their country at any time. "That is sacrilege, sacrilege!" he would mutter, and his own deep conviction was enough to spur French pride. He had his small vanities: uniforms tailored by Lanvin, an insistence on low-numbered license plates. Général de Théátre the cynics called him, but if De Lattre's triumphs were invariably spectacular, it was simply because he saw no reason why heroism and high purpose should be hidden under a hypocritical bushel of false modesty.

Wounds, Jail, Escape. De Lattre made his early entrances with characteristic élan. Born like Clemenceau in the Vendée village of Mouilleron-en-Pareds, the village where De Lattre's 97-year-old father has been mayor for 40 years, De Lattre startled the neighbors early in life by leading cavalry charges across the garden astride his father's great Dane. As a young lieutenant of dragoons just out of St. Cyr in World War I, he earned his first wound and his first citation in a victorious hand-to-hand clash with two German Uhlans. Transferred to the infantry, he was wounded four more times in the same war, wounded again fighting the Riffs in Morocco in 1925. In 1939 he became the youngest general (50) in the French army, and fought gamely in the Third Republic's dying hours.

In 1942, the Vichy government sentenced him to ten years in jail for conducting a virtual one-man war against German occupation. U.S. and British generals who served with him in Italy and France after his escape stood in constant awe, and De Lattre made sure that they continued to do so. Once he chewed out General Marshall himself because of a delayed shipment of supplies. Years later, informed that Marshall had forgotten the incident, De Lattre remarked: "Nonsense! The general is polite. Nobody whom I have castigated ever forgets it."

When, in December 1950, De Lattre was called upon to redeem French honor in the jungles of Indo-China, few Frenchmen had much faith in the "dirty little war." De Lattre went to Hanoi and faced the demoralized troops of France with fire in his eyes. "From now on," he told them, "you will be led!" Within 30 days, his refusal to admit defeat had turned the tide of battle.

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