The War with the French 2

As he roamed the mountain jungles of northern Vietnam and south¬ern China during the early 1940s, Ho Chi Minh was oblivious to the controversies rippling through Washington. He sought out American officials then in the region, aiming to persuade them to furnish him with arms, ammunition and other equipment, first to fight the Jap¬anese and later to oust the French from Vietnam. With U.S. aid and encouragement he could also show other Vietnamese nationalists that the world’s major power endorsed him, and rally those tempted to join rival movements. And he estimated that the Allies would live up to their vow, publicized in the Atlantic Charter and elsewhere, to free colonial areas.
At its base in Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, the United States had established the headquarters of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency. There, during the war, the Allies were caught up in a jumble of intrigue, political romanticism and oriental exoticism. Clandestine American operatives, many quarreling among themselves, clashed with covert French agents, also locked in factional disputes. Chinese officials manipulated the Westerners and tried to advance their favorite Vietnamese while cashing in on opium sales, gold transactions, arms smuggling and other maneuvers.
Ho navigated through this Asian thicket, adroitly playing Ameri¬cans against French, French against Chinese, Chinese against Amer¬icans, even Chinese against each other. But he seemed to prefer the Americans, who represented power. In August 1945, soon after Japan’s surrender, the French agent Jean Sainteny arrived in Hanoi accom¬panied by Major Archimedes L. A. Patti, an OSS officer assigned to rescue Allied war prisoners. Ho quickly cozied up to Patti but kept Sainteny at a distance. He chatted with Patti for hours, recollecting his visit to New York as a young seaman, extolling America’s colonial tutelage of the Philippines and minimizing his allegiance to Moscow. He enlisted Patti’s help in drafting his declaration of independence, and he transmitted a letter through him to Truman—not the first of such messages he sent to Washington that went unanswered.
But Ho’s real feelings toward the United States at the time are difficult to gauge. A master tactician, he was essaying every option. In a conversation with Bao Dai in late 1945, for example, he described the Americans cynically: “They are only interested in replacing the French. . . . They want to reorganize our economy in order to control it. They are capitalists to the core. All that counts for them is business. ”
Ho had contacted the U.S. consulate in Kunming as early as 1944 to explore the possibility of obtaining a visa for the United States, presumably to plead his cause there. He later went to Kunming, a skeletal figure in a seamy tunic, to solicit help from Allied officers, offering them the services of his guerrillas, who, he reminded them, had saved an American pilot downed after a raid against Saigon. As a token of gratitude, they ushered him into an audience with General Claire Chennault, the founder of the Flying Tigers, then commander of the U.S. Fourteenth Air Force. Ho humbly asked Chennault for an autographed photograph of himself, and the general magnani-mously complied. Returning to the jungle, Ho shrewdly used the portrait to show his skeptical comrades that the United States sup¬ported him.
Actually, the OSS did come to Ho Chi Minh’s aid in July 1945, when a team code-named Deer parachuted into a jungle clearing near his camp in the mountains of northern Vietnam. Two American officers had arrived there shortly before to assist in the location of any downed U.S. pilots. The Deer Mission, composed of three Americans, one Frenchman and two Vietnamese, was headed by Major Allison Thomas, a Michigan lawyer of thirty. French intelligence analysts in Kunming had warned the Americans against Ho, calling him “fearless, sly, clever, deceptive, ruthless—and deadly.” What the OSS men found, lying in a bamboo hut, was “a pile of bones covered with dry yellow skin,” as one of them recalled. Ho introduced himself to Thomas as C. M. Hoo, another of his aliases. The team medic, Paul Hoagland, treated him for dysentery, malaria and other tropical dis¬eases—perhaps saving his life. Thomas had included the Frenchman, a lieutenant called Monfort, to test whether the Vietminh would allow the French to return to Vietnam. Ho spotted him immediately, iden¬tified him by name and ordered him back to China, along with the two Vietnamese, who were French army auxiliaries. Chiding Thomas in colloquial English, he said: “Look, who are you guys trying to kid? This man is not part of the deal.” He added: “The French think we are bandits, but to show you we’re not, we will escort Montfort and the others back to the border.”
The proficiency of Ho’s intelligence network, evidenced by his rec¬ognition of the Frenchman, amazed the Americans. At first, however, they were less inspired by his force at the camp, which comprised about two hundred guerrillas armed with antique muskets, old French weapons and some British Stens. But they were soon impressed by the Vietminh troops, whom they supplied with rifles, mortars, gre¬nades and other materiel and instructed to train other partisans. As one OSS man recollected, “The Vietnamese had an uncanny ability to learn and adapt. They learned to pull a rifle apart and put it together after being shown only a couple of times.”
The OSS experience in southern Vietnam was less congenial. While Ho had taken over Hanoi by September 1945, the French and various Vietnamese factions struggled for power in Saigon. Seven OSS agents had landed there to liberate Allied war prisoners, search for missing Americans, and gather intelligence. Their chief, Lieutenant Colonel A. Peter Dewey, the son of a conservative Republican congressman from Chicago, was a remarkably accomplished young man. At twenty-eight, he had already worked as a foreign correspondent in Paris, written a book on the French defeat, fought in the Polish army and engaged in espionage behind the German lines in France. In Sai¬gon, he soon collided with Major General Douglas D. Gracey, com¬mander of a British force assigned to disarm the Japanese. Dewey, though passionately pro-French, disapproved of Gracey’s bias for the French, while Gracey suspected him of conniving with the Vietminh and ordered him out of the country. Before his departure, Dewey summed up the chaotic situation in a prophetic report: “Cochinchina is burning, the French and British are finished here, and we [the United States] ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.”

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