For most of World War II, the United States considered Vietnam to be a relatively unimportant French colony to someday be reclaimed from the Japanese; but America showed little interest in enlisting Vietnamese aid in that effort. All this changed rapidly in March 1945. Though the Japanese had invaded Vietnam in 1940, they allowed French colonial authorities to retain power so long as they controlled the Vietnamese and maintained the colony as a supply base for the Emperor’s army fighting in China. However, this also allowed the French to maintain covert Allied intelligence networks that supplied information to Allied personnel aiding the Chinese in their war against Japan. By early 1945, however, the war in the Pacific had shifted in favor of the Allies and the Japanese became increasingly suspicious of French activities in Vietnam. As a result, on March 10, 1945, Japanese forces launched Operation Meigo, a swift military takeover that effectively ended French colonial rule of Vietnam.
With the loss of French control over the colony during Meigo, Allied intelligence networks operating in Vietnam collapsed. One such group, known as the “GBT,” had been providing information on weather conditions, the movement of Japanese troop trains and naval vessels, and on escape routes for downed Allied airmen to the 14th US Air Force stationed in China. Up to this point the GBT refused to employ Vietnamese as agents because the French claimed they were untrustworthy and were only interested in acquiring weapons to fight the French, not the Japanese. With their normally busy wires now silent, native agents became necessary.
Both the GBT and the US Office of Strategic Services (the OSS) reached out to a Vietnamese man who had drawn positive attention from the 14th Air Force the previous year when he escorted a downed American pilot out of Vietnam and into China. OSS agent Charles Fenn tracked down the man in question—Ho Chi Minh—describing him as articulate and charismatic, and both open and friendly to Americans. Fenn was convinced Ho would be an excellent intelligence agent and the group he represented, the Viet Minh, would also be valuable assets in the war against Japan. Soon thereafter, Ho Chi Minh became OSS agent “Lucius.”
The OSS then sent in “Deer Team,” commanded by Maj. Allison Thomas, who parachuted into the Viet Minh base area to train them for operations against the Japanese. When Thomas and his team arrived in late July, they were greeted by a large banner proclaiming, “Welcome to Our American Friends.” With the tone for their work set, the Deer Team went about training the Viet Minh in the proper use of bazookas, carbines, and grenades. Before long, the Vietnamese-American Force was born.
Their training did not last long, however. With the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945, World War II ended. Upon receiving the news, the Americans of the Deer Team and the Viet Minh laughed and drank long into the night. Thomas wrote in his diary: “We shot our trip flares and our pyrotechnics before our troops. They all shouted ‘Hip Hip Horray.’ We’re a bunch of happy boys to-night. [We] Will be in pretty bad shape to leave to-morrow morning.”
The Americans then accompanied the Viet Minh, now carrying new American weapons, to the capitol of Hanoi and all along their journey the Vietnamese-American Force was welcomed by cheering villagers waving flags and offering food.
With the Japanese defeated and the French colonials still in prison, the Viet Minh quickly stepped in to fill the existing power vacuum. Viet Minh flags went up and the Vietnamese were jubilant. By the time the first Americans arrived in Hanoi on August 22 to help prepare for the formal Japanese surrender, the Viet Minh were firmly in control of the north. The man in charge of the American Mission to Hanoi was Capt. Archimedes Patti, whose team was greeted with the same warmth and respect that had been accorded the Deer Team earlier. Greetings in English festooned the city alongside demands for Vietnamese Independence in English, Chinese, and French.
Patti witnessed the first parade of the Viet Minh troops and the first “international” ceremony where the Vietnamese flag was displayed alongside those of the Allies and the new Vietnamese national anthem was played after the Star Spangled Banner. Vo Nguyen Giap, who would later became famous as the Viet Minh’s preeminent military commander, noted: “This is the first time in the history of Viet Nam that our flag has been displayed in an international ceremony and our national anthem played in honor of a foreign guest. I will long remember this occasion.”
On September 2, Patti and his team watched as Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence before a cheering crowd. This apparent US recognition of Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese independence further inflamed French opinion as most colonials had expected the Americans to refuse to deal with this up-start government and help France restore control over the colony.
In the South, the head of the OSS mission to Saigon, Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, also angered the French. Although the Viet Minh in the south did not enjoy the same level of control as in the North, they were every bit as concerned with making a positive impression on the Americans. Dewey, like Patti, was royally treated by the Viet Minh and he met often with them in his quest to gather information. But the amicable relationships established with the Vietnamese by Patti and Dewey resulted in both being recalled from duty in Vietnam in response to French (and British) complaints about their behavior.
For the Vietnamese who interacted with Americans during this time, however, these young American men represented hope that their own national aspirations might be fulfilled. One Vietnamese, a student activist in 1945, recalled: “Vietnam was suffering in those days and exactly at this moment came the Americans—tall, handsome, very rich, idealistic, it was only natural for the Vietnamese to fall in love with the Americans." This seemed true even at the highest levels.
Perhaps the relationship can best be illustrated by one of the last meetings between a member of the OSS (dissolved in September 1945) and Ho Chi Minh. Major Frank White’s first conversation with Ho was not unlike those the Viet Minh leader had had with other Americans before him. Ho reiterated Vietnam’s desire for independence, the atrocities and hardships suffered under French rule, and the deep respect the Vietnamese had for the United States and its people.
Upon returning to his hotel, White found an invitation to a reception at Ho’s governmental palace that evening. He arrived at the appointed place and time and soon discovered that he was surrounded by Chinese, British, and French colonels and generals, as well as the members of Ho’s cabinet. Conscious of his inferior rank and ill at ease, White stood back as the others assumed their places around the dinner table. Clearly the lowest ranking man in the room, he expected to find his seat, in his words, “well below the salt,” and was ready to “slink away” if there were no empty chairs left. When everyone else was seated, only one seat remained—the chair next to President Ho Chi Minh. White recalled the evening:
“The dinner was a horror. The French confined themselves to the barest minimum of conversation and scarcely spoke to the Chinese, who quickly became drunk. . . At one point I spoke to Ho very quietly. ‘I think, Mr. President, there is some resentment over the seating arrangement at this table.’ I meant, of course, my place next to him. Ho thought for a moment then replied simply: ‘Yes, I can see that, but who else could I talk to?’”
The positive relationship between the Vietnamese and the American men on the ground was already strained, however. The excitement and optimism the Vietnamese felt at the end of World War II for both a free and independent nation and good relations with the United States had eroded. The US government wanted to leave the messy colonial situation to the French and focus national attention on the brewing Cold War. In his last transmission to OSS headquarters in autumn 1945, Capt. Peter Dewey reflected this sentiment: “Cochinchina is burning, the French and British are finished here, and we ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.”
On the day of his scheduled departure, Peter Dewey was shot and killed by Vietnamese guards who may have mistaken him for a Frenchman, thus becoming the first American casualty in Vietnam in the post-war period. In the decades to come, however, many more would die.
Meet the Author
Dr. Bartholomew-Feis is Dean, School of Liberal Arts at Buena Vista University and author of The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War against Japan. Her research interests include modern Vietnamese history and World War II and the Holocaust.
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