The French are not quite so confident as they were at the start that this would be cleared up in a few weeks.
– OSS agent in Việtnam, 1945
The Vietnamese fought a 30-year war of independence. It formally began when Hồ Chí Minh read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in Hanoi on 2 September 1945 and ended with the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. In succession they fought Japan, Britain, France, and the U.S. as the entire imperialist world combined to control and exploit them.
Against such titanic forces, victory would not have been possible had the Vietnamese communists not been willing to seek strength and gain advantage wherever it was to be found by building alliances of convenience — even within the imperialist camp.
The first American to die in that 30-year long national liberation struggle was Lt. Col Peter Dewey. He was a member of a seven-man team from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) that arrived in Saigon on 4 September 1945 “to represent American interests.” There was no Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) back then, the OSS was it. When the Cold War got going, it would become the CIA.
Dewey was shot dead by Việt Nam Ðộc Lập Ðồng Minh Hội (Việt Minh) troops on 26 September 1945 in Saigon, and since, at the time, the OSS was working with the Việt Minh, he may also be considered the first US “friendly-fire” fatality of the Việtnam War, and since his body was never recovered, the first MIA as well.
Road rage may have been his undoing. The Việt Minh said they mistook him for the enemy after he shook his fist and yelled something in French at three Việt Minh soldiers manning a Saigon checkpoint. Dewey wanted to fly the U.S. flag on his jeep so he could be easily identified at the many Việt Minh road blocks, but General Gracey, his commanding officer, forbade it, saying that only the commanding officer had that privilege. Before he was shot, Dewey worked with the Việt Minh to arrange the repatriation of 4,549 Allied POWs, including 240 from the U.S.
The French put a price on his head and the British told him to leave Việtnam. While his death at the hands of the Vietnamese was an accident, the French wanted him dead. According to George Wickes, another OSS Saigon team member that also had a price on his head:
I don’t believe I was ever in any danger, but clearly Dewey was persona non grata on account of his sympathy with the Vietnamese cause. As a matter of fact, all members of our mission shared his views, and our messages to Washington predicted accurately what would eventually happen if France tried to deny independence to Việtnam.
George Wickes’ writings provide a unique window into this time period. In a letter to his parents in October 1945, he wrote:
“I do have some very reassuring information from Hanoi (Việt Minh Headquarters). It seems they are well-organized and realistic with a cosmic view of things. But France is determined to keep Indochina, determined enough to send out 120,000 troops. My visit to Thủ Dầu Một also provided some information: that the Annamites [Vietnamese] have some military organization and that without the Japanese the task of clearing areas would be well-nigh impossible without large numbers. Also that the British have no great opinion of the French as soldiers.
“A small percentage of Annamites are determined to sacrifice all and have a specific plan of action, but most of them, passively at least, want independence.
“The French are not quite so confident as they were at the start that this would be cleared up in a few weeks. And I believe that, unless they always keep large garrisons and patrols everywhere, they will not be able to keep the country submissive as it was before. The Annamite’s great advantage lies in the fact that he is everywhere, that he does not need to fight pitched battles or organize troops to be a threat and that no amount of reprisal can completely defeat him.
“I cannot say how it will end, but at least it will be a long time before Frenchmen can roam about the country with peace of mind.”
The soldiers France rushed over to put down the independence movement were a real mixed bag; while some were Free French troops under the mistaken impression they were coming to help liberate Việtnam, others were ex-German soldiers, including SS, only recently released from the service of the Nazis.
Wickes met Hồ Chí Minh in Hanoi:
He received us in his office in the governor-general’s palace. As if to indicate his official role, he was wearing a military-style tunic, but wearing it modestly without any insignia to suggest that he was more than a private citizen. We had expected the interview to be in French, but to our surprise he spoke to us in English and reminisced about his experiences in the United States when he worked in restaurants in Boston or New York. When asked if he was a communist, he made no secret of the fact, but when asked if that meant Vietnam would become a communist country, he said he was not the one to determine that, for the political character of the country would have to be decided by the people. He spoke a good deal about the United States. He admired the principles of the Declaration of Independence, some of which he had paraphrased in declaring the independence of Vietnam the previous September 2. He wanted us to transmit to Washington his high hopes that the United States would aid Vietnam in its efforts to establish itself as an independent nation.
A few days later, Wickes described Ho Chi Minh in a letter home. It is worth quoting at length:
His pictures present him as an emaciated martyr with burning eyes. He looks like a martyr all right (and in fact is one, having devoted practically all of his 60-odd years to the cause of his country), but kindly rather than fanatic, like a benevolent grandfather for his people.
Short and very slight, a little stooped, with seamed cheeks and generally well-weathered features, wiry, grayish hair, a scraggly mandarin mustache and wispy beard — all in all, not a very imposing man physically.
But when you talk with him he strikes you as quite above the ordinary run of mortals. Perhaps it is the spirit that great patriots are supposed to have. Surely he has that — long struggling has left him mild and resigned, still sustaining some small idealism and hope. But I think it is particularly his kindliness, his simplicity, his down-to-earthiness. I think Abraham Lincoln must have been such a man — calm, sane and humble.
The Politics of Indochina During World War 2
The political-military landscape of what was then known as French-Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, and Việtnam) was very complicated during World War 2; it made the one in Casablanca look simple. As a French colony, it fell to Axis control after the fall of France in 1940. Occupied France controlled the north and Vichy France controlled the south with German supervision. Of course, Japan was the real Axis military power in the region but it was restrained from simply running roughshod over Việtnam because it was nominally a possession of their ally. That changed abruptly on V-E Day. The competing nationalist and communist movements in China also extended strong influences on regional affairs.
This was the situation into which the legendary director of the OSS, Brig. Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan parachuted his men. To this day, much CIA folklore harkens back to the days of “Donovan’s Rangers.” He was famous for his unorthodox methods and disregard for rules and the chain of command. When CINCPAC, Pacific Command, and U.S. Naval Intelligence refused to work with the OSS, Donovan set about building his own intelligence networks in Asia, trading secrets for favors and favors for secrets wherever he could. Accordingly, he instructed his South-East Asian staff to use “anyone who will work with us against the Japanese, but do not become involved in French-Indochinese politics.”
The Việt Minh emerged as a liberation movement under the leadership of Hồ Chí Minh and the Vietnamese Communist Party in the early 1940s. They were fighting against French colonialism as well as Japanese occupation. These strange circumstances meant that, for the moment, the U.S. intelligence organization and the Vietnamese communists were natural allies. What is more, both groups were headed by men who could see the advantages of an alliance and were willing push the envelope.
The relationship was actually initiated by the communists in December 1942 when a representative of the Việt Minh approached the U.S. Embassy in China for help in getting Hồ Chí Minh out of a Chinese Nationalist prison. He had been caught with invalid documents.
Whatever the U.S. did or did not do, Hồ was not released until September 1943. A month after Hồ’s release and return to Việtnam in October 1943, an OSS memo called for the U.S. to “use the Annamites [Vietnamese]…to immobilize large numbers of Japanese troops by conducting systematic guerrilla warfare in the difficult jungle country.” The mission plan counseled that their most effective propaganda line was to tell them “that this war, if won by the Allies, will gain their independence.”
In mid 1944, the OSS approached the Việt Minh for help with setting up intelligence networks for fighting the Japanese and rescuing downed American pilots. After the Axis retreat in Europe and the fall of the Vichy French government, Japan moved quickly to consolidate its hold on Vietnam by having Emperor Bảo Đại proclaim an independent Vietnam on 11 March 1945 and announce his intention to cooperate with the Japanese. This brought an even greater sense of urgency to the developing OSS-Việt Minh cooperation. Also in March, when the Việt Minh rescued a U.S. pilot who had been shot down in Vietnam, Hồ Chí Minh personally escorted him back to the U.S. forces in Kunming. While he was there, Hồ Chí Minh met the legendary founder of the U.S. volunteer group, the “Flying Tigers” and got an autographed photo. Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault was then commander of the Fourteenth Air Force.
27 April 1945, Captain Archimedes Patti, head of OSS in Kunming met with Hồ Chí Minh and got his permission to send an OSS team to work with Hồ and the Việt Minh and gather intelligence on the Japanese.
OSS Deer Team members pose with Việt Minh leaders Hồ Chí Minh and Võ Nguyên Giáp during training at Tân Trào in August 1945. Deer Team members standing, left to right, are Rene Defourneaux, (Hồ), Allison Thomas, (Giáp), Henry Prunier and Paul Hoagland, far right. Kneeling, left, are Lawrence Vogt and Aaron Squires. (Rene Defourneaux)
In July 1945, a six-man OSS Special Operations Team Number 13, code-named “Deer,” parachuted into the jungles near Hanoi with the mission of setting up guerrilla teams of 50 to 100 men to attack the railroad line running from Hanoi to Lang Sơn and thus slow down Japan’s movement into southern China. General Võ Nguyên Giáp and 200 guerrilla fighters greeted them. One member of the OSS team was a weapons trainer. They intended to air drop in a supply of weapons for the Việt Minh and teach them to use them.
They found Hồ Chí Minh in a very bad way. He was very ill. Claude G. Berube quotes the OSS team leader in his Hồ Chí Minh and the OSS:
“Hồ was so ill he could not move from the corner of a smoky hut,” Defourneaux said. Hồ didn’t seem to have much time to live; Defourneaux heard it would not be weeks but days. “Our medic thought it might have been dysentery, dengue fever, hepatitis,” he recalled. “While being treated by Pfc Hoagland, Ho directed his people into the jungle to search for herbs. Hồ shortly recovered, attributing it to his knowledge of the jungle.”
Some members of this team soon developed a close working relationship between themselves and Hồ and Giáp. Thomas even used Hồ’s recommendations for United States Army Air Forces targets against the Japanese in direct defiance of his OSS orders.
After they received supply drops in early August, the Deer team began small arms and weapons training for the communists. The weapons trained were the M-1 and M-1 carbines as well as mortars, grenades, bazookas, and machine guns. The Japanese surrendered on 15 August and so the training mission was over almost before it began. The Deer Team gave the weapons to the Việt Minh and started making plans for their departure. This was no small matter because as late as 25 August some Japanese in Indochina had not heard the word and were still fighting.
On 16 August, the same day the Deer team left camp and started for the French provincial capital Thái Nguyên, with General Giáp and his troops, the National People’s Congress started in Tân Trào. On 27 August the congress elected Hồ Chí Minh the President of Việt Nam’s Provisional Government.
A week later, on the same day MacArthur formally accepted the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, Hồ Chí Minh declared Vietnamese independence in Hanoi. OSS team members were there and photographed the event. The new Minister of the Interior Giáp recognized the U.S. contribution in his speech — a few days earlier, OSS team members joined him and the Viet Minh as they repelled a Japanese attack just 60 kilometers from Hanoi.
After NATO’s intervention into the Libyan Revolution and the various requests for international aid by Syrian revolutionaries, there has been a lot of discussion as to what does and does not constitute a respectable deal with imperialist forces.
In light of this, I thought I would use Hồ Chí Minh’s 123rd birthday on May 19 to remind everyone that accepting weapons, training, and even air support from an imperialist power does not necessarily mean that the revolutionaries have sold out and can safely be described as “puppets” or “proxies” without regard for the overall context they are fighting in.
Most importantly, I would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that a revolutionary who is unwilling to make use of contradictions among the imperialists and make such “deals“ that will benefit the revolution is not a real revolutionary.