Sending Greetings to a Determined, Free People
by Jerry Elmer
Today, September 2, is Vietnam’s National Day — the Vietnamese independence day that is the equivalent of our Fourth of July. On September 2, 1945, President Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence at Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi.
The opening words of the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence might sound vaguely familiar to Americans: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is not a coincidence that these words are in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. Ho Chi Minh had lived as a young man in the United States (in New York City and Boston) and had been deeply impressed with the American ideals of independence and freedom.
Interestingly, Ho’s time living in the U.S. was not the only reason for his high regard for Americans and for American ideals. During World War II, Ho and the Viet Minh worked extensively with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the American war-time intelligence agency that was one of the forerunners of the CIA. In fact, in August 1945, at the end of World War II, many of the American OSS officers in Vietnam believed that the United States should support the Viet Minh’s anti-colonial struggle against France as France moved to retake its Indochina colony after the Allied defeat of Japan.
During the war, Ho and the Viet Minh provided the OSS with an intelligence network in Vietnam, information on Japanese troop movements, the building of Japanese military installations, and, by radio, twice daily weather reports. These weather reports were especially crucial because Allied forces arranged their bombing raids on Japanese forces and installations based on the reports. In return, the OSS provided Ho and the Viet Minh with arms, radio sets, medicines, and training.
Toward the end of the war, a group of OSS agents called the “Deer Team,” which included Allison Thomas, Hank Prunier, and William Zielinski, parachuted in to the Viet Minh stronghold at Tan Trao. There, the OSS worked with their Viet Minh counterparts to set up a joint OSS-Viet Minh training camp. The Americans provided the military training, while the Vietnamese provided political education. Ho Chi Minh referred to the resulting binational force as the Bo Doi Viet-My, or “Vietnamese-American Force.” This Vietnamese-American Force captured the Japanese garrison at Thai Nguyen, being led into battle by OSS man Allison Thomas and Viet Minh leader Vo Nguyen Giap (about whom, see next paragraph). In August 1945, after the Japanese surrender, Thomas gave a substantial cache of American weapons to his Viet Minh colleagues. That night, the OSS officers and Viet Minh soldiers got good and drunk to celebrate (together) the end of the war.
Looking back on these events from the perspective of today, it is easy to see the ironies. For example, Vo Nguyen Giap, who built the base at Tan Trao with the Americans, was the brilliant Vietnamese military strategist and general who defeated and routed the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. OSS officer Paul Hoagland tended a critically ill Ho Chi Minh, who was sick with a combination of malaria, dengue fever, and dysentery; Hoagland nursed Ho back to health with quinine, sulfa drugs and other medicines. (How might history have been different if Hoagland had not saved Ho’s life?) And, although it was Ho’s idea to quote Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, Ho actually had the wording slightly wrong in his original draft; on August 29 — three days before the public announcement of Vietnamese Independence — the head of the OSS in Vietnam, Archimedes L.A. Patti, met with Ho and corrected the language Ho had used.
To be sure, not all of the OSS men in Vietnam during World War II supported Ho. Some, such as Lucien Conein, opposed the Viet Minh, believing, correctly, that Ho was a Communist. Others in the OSS, like Stephen Nordlinger, were mired in the colonialist mindset, believing that the backward (read: non-white) Vietnamese needed the French (read: white) colonialists to civilize them.
But a great many, probably most, of the OSS supported Ho and the Viet Minh. These included Allison Thomas, Charlie Fenn, Frank White, George Wickes, Carleton Swift, Henry Prunier, Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, and OSS Chief A.L.A. Patti. They knew perfectly well that the Viet Minh wanted freedom and independence for their country. These OSS officers took seriously the Atlantic Charter that had been issued by Roosevelt and Churchill at the outset of the war that set forth the Allies’ reasons for fighting (in much the same way that Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” had framed the reasons for U.S. participation in the First World War). In particular, the third point in Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter had announced that we “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and [we] wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”
Certainly the Vietnamese were acutely conscious of Roosevelt’s words; after Ho announced Vietnamese independence on September 2, 1945, the new provisional revolutionary government declared: “The victory of the Vietnam nation will be insured by either peaceable or forcible means … always in accordance with the Atlantic Charter…. The third point of the Atlantic Charter stipulated that the United Nations respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live, and that they want too see the sovereign rights and self-government restored to those that have been forcibly deprived of them.”
The OSS officers in Vietnam understood the connection between traditional American ideals and the Vietnamese struggle for independence. Some years later, George Wickes wrote: “During the war, they [the Viet Minh] had listened to Voice of America broadcasts which spoke of democracy and liberty, and they regarded the United States not only as a model but as the champion of self-government that would support their cause.”
This explains why Ho Chi Minh wrote repeatedly to President Truman after the war, seeking American aid against the French who were moving in to retake their Indochina colony. Several of those messages from Ho to Truman were transmitted to Washington via the OSS, and most of the OSS leadership in Vietnam supported the Vietnamese request.
Sadly, Truman did not share Roosevelt’s anti-colonialist sentiment, and, instead of supporting the Viet Minh freedom fighters, the United States supported the doomed French effort. By the time the French were finally defeated in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, the United States was paying fully 85% of the costs of the French intervention. The former OSS officers who had been in Vietnam knew the French effort was doomed: “Our messages to Washington,” Wickes remembered later, “predicted accurately what would eventually happen if France tried to deny independence to Vietnam.”
Today, September 2, we remember this history and we send the Vietnamese fraternal greetings on their National Day.
Jerry Elmer is an attorney in Providence, Rhode Island. He was a Vietnam-era draft resister, and was the only convicted felon in his graduating class at Harvard Law School. He is the author of Felon For Peace (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), which was published in Vietnam as “Toi Pham Vi Hoa Bing” (The Gioi, 2005); this was the first book by a U.S. peace activist ever published in Vietnam.