There have been countless books written about the war in Vietnam as the United States was involved in a very costly war in terms of human loss and what the conflict did to tear apart our country as a whole. But could the war in Vietnam have been avoided in the first place? In the closing days of World War II, the US’ OSS (Office of Strategic Services) had sent a team in Indochina to work with the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh. He pleaded to the US and President Truman to help Vietnam gain its independence. His pleas were ignored, Truman and the US backed the French to take back their colonial empire and the rest is history.
Was Ho’s plea a clever Communist tactic just to get economic support from the US and help a fledgling country get on its feet? Or was he, as tried to portray himself, a fervent Vietnamese nationalist who just wanted to free his people? The answer may never be known completely but the truth may be a little bit of both.
Ho Chi Minh traveled in his formative years, gained an education from the French school in Hue and traveled abroad first on a steamer to France and later lived in the United States for a short time working menial jobs in Harlem and Boston.
After World War I, he went to France, got into politics, especially when it came to Vietnamese independence. He wrote letters to French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, and US President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles peace talks asking for civil rights for the Vietnamese people. Ho pointed out that the self-determination proposed in the peace talks should include Vietnam and end the French colonial rule there. He asked for freedom of the press, freedom of association and assembly. Supposedly he claimed that his hero was George Washington who freed America from British colonial rule. But it all fell on deaf ears.
During this time, he fell under the sway of French socialists and became a member of the Parti Communiste Français (FCP). He studied in Moscow and moved to China where he taught young people at Whampoa Military Academy. He bounced between Europe and Asia until World War II broke out and in 1941, Ho returned to Vietnam to take control of the Viet Minh Independence Movement.
Ho commanded 10,000 guerrillas of the Viet Minh known as the “men in black” in fighting not only the Japanese occupation forces but those of the Vichy French as well. In April 1945, Ho met with Archimedes Patti the OSS Station Chief in Kunming, China. The two struck a deal where the Viet Minh would provide intelligence on the Japanese and rescue downed US aircrews. The US would supply them with communications gear, and small arms as well as the training to properly use them.
In July of 1945, the OSS parachuted a team into Vietnam codenamed the “Deer” team, about 70 miles west of Hanoi. They were met by the Viet Minh and treated as heroes. They were brought to the austere headquarters of the Viet Minh where the team found Ho close to death suffering from malaria and dysentery. He was treated by the medics where he made a full recovery.
During the training to teach the Viet Minh how to use the US bazookas, light machine guns and hand grenades, the OSS’ interpreter PFC Henry Prunier, from Worcester, Mass. was teaching a Viet Minh, named Mr. Van how to throw grenades with the overhand lob which was foreign to the Vietnamese. Mr. Van’s real name was Vo Nguyen Giap who later defeated the French and led the war against the Americans. Once Ho learned Prunier was from Massachusetts, he regaled him with his stories about his time in Boston.
The Viet Minh rescued a downed US pilot and Ho personally brought him to China to return him to American authorities. There he asked to meet Claire Chennault, who led the Flying Tigers in the early days of the war. Ho still talked to the OSS men about Vietnamese self-determination and asked them if he was any different than George Washington.
With the war winding down, Ho began writing letters to now President Harry Truman who took over after Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in April. Roosevelt favored Vietnamese self-determination. Ho in his letters, the first was written on August 17 began to ask Truman for help. His letters were ignored, however State Dept. cables from the time speak of Ho and his Communist leanings and it was clear that the US was not going to support him, despite the recommendations of the OSS team leader Major Allison Thomas and later Aaron Bank. Bank met with Ho and although he had Communist leanings felt like he was worth supporting.
Thomas in his reports to the OSS Station in China downplayed the Communist side of Ho’s personality and tried to play on the nationalistic side of things. “Ho definitely tabooed the idea that the party was communistic” since “the peasants didn’t know what the word communism or socialism meant—but they did understand liberty and independence.”
With the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945, Ho and the Viet Minh entered Hanoi and proclaimed their independence. His choice for their own Declaration of Independence mirrored the words of Thomas Jefferson.
“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
“This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.”
Ho wanted US support for the Vietnamese independence movement and asked for our help in not allowing the hated French from returning to their colonial empire.
That was not to be, the US began to tacitly and then actively support the French return to Vietnam. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1950s where Ho Chi Minh finally broke with his attempts to cultivate American favor.
Was Ho Chi Minh a Communist? Yes but more so, he was a fervent Vietnamese nationalist. After suffering under French rule for so long, it is doubtful he wanted to replace the French controlling his country with bosses from Moscow and Beijing calling the shots. But he was a pragmatist, he couldn’t take on the French alone and if the US wasn’t going to help then he was going to seek out those who would.
In a footnote to all of this, Prunier, the OSS interpreter, several times turned down opportunities to join the CIA after the war. Instead, he returned to Massachusetts and the family masonry business. However, in 1995 the U. S. Indochina Reconciliation Project, which had been established a decade earlier as a non-profit group to help facilitate relations between the United States and countries in Indochina asked him and the surviving members of the OSS “Deer Team” to return to Vietnam.
Giap remembered his OSS trainer and grabbing an orange, he aped the overhand movement that Prunier had trained him in 50 years prior. “Yes, yes, yes!” Giap exclaimed. Another Vietnamese soldier kept grabbing Prunier’s arm and calling his name. The Americans were stunned that they were held in such high esteem so many years later. Prunier donated his uniforms and papers from the OSS mission to the Vietnamese Museum of Military History in Hanoi. There they are prominently displayed and the museum’s Director General Le Ma Leung, who was a veteran of Khe Sanh, called Prunier’s donation “one of the most significant historical contributions that the museum had ever received.”
We’ll never know if the US could have held sway over Ho Chi Minh and turned him away from the Russians and Chinese. Even if the US had gotten involved in Ho’s bid for independence from France, would Vietnam have gone Communist? It is a great question and we may never really know the answer. Chances are they probably would have but the US lost an opportunity to stop a war from ever happening at the cost of 58,000 American lives.
Photo Courtesy: OSS archives