The War with the French 3

Early on September 26, 1945, Dewey prepared to clear out himself. He went to the Saigon airport with a colleague, Captain Herbert J. Bluechel, only to find that his airplane had been delayed. They came back later in the morning to check on the aircraft, with Dewey behind the wheel of the jeep—which Gracey had forbidden him to identify with a U.S. flag on the grounds that only he, as area commander, was entitled to fly a pennant on his vehicle. Another OSS officer had just been wounded by the Vietminh, and Dewey was upset. He took a shortcut past the Saigon golf course. Suddenly a barrier of logs and brush blocked his path. Braking to swerve around it, he noticed three Vietnamese in a roadside ditch. He shouted angrily at them in French. Presumably mistaking him for a French officer, they replied with a machine-gun burst that blew off the back of his head. Bluechel, un¬harmed, fled the scene, a bullet knocking off his cap as he ran.
Dewey was the first of nearly sixty thousand Americans to be killed in Vietnam. His body was never recovered. The French and Vietminh blamed each other for his death. Ho Chi Minh sent a typewritten letter of condolences, in somewhat stilted English, to Truman. It said: “The incident may have been provoked by the British of [sic] the French, or it may be due to some confusion owing to darkness. . . . We are deeply moved by such a news and promise that nothing will be ommitted on our part to find out the culprits annd severely punish them.”
The OSS era was subsequently effaced by Vietnamese Communist historians unwilling to concede that Ho sought the help of U.S. “im¬perialism” or inflated by French colonial apologists seeking to prove that the United States conspired to deprive France of Indochina. Amer¬icans who dealt with Ho directly remember him fondly. But, from an official U.S. perspective, he was then merely a useful expedient, as were so many other local partisans at the time. And his later rise to prominence would not have been possible without the cataclysm that transformed Vietnam during World War II.
When the Japanese invaded Indochina in 1940, they left the French colonial administration intact, directing it from behind the scenes just as Germany obliquely managed Marshal Philippe Petain’s puppet French regime in Vichy. The image of European invincibility was shattered, and Indochina was a potential political vacuum.
Ho, sensing the magnitude of the change, had hastily formed the Vietminh as a nationalist front, masking its Communist leadership in order to appeal to broad patriotic sentiment. He instructed his hard¬core militants to mute their radical dogmas and to court landowners, village chiefs, merchants and others who might be troubled by rev¬olutionary rhetoric whose “time is not yet ripe,” as one directive put it. He also needed the cooperation of the Chinese authorities whose territory, adjacent to the Vietnamese border, could be used as sanc¬tuary for his embryonic forces. In late 1941, he set out for China disguised as a blind man, guided by a young comrade over the treach¬erous mountain trails. Barely had he crossed the frontier than he was detained by soldiers of Chang Fa-kwei, the warlord who controlled Guangxi province. Learning his real identity, Chang slammed Ho into prison, where he languished for more than a year, weaving Chinese verses in T’ang dynasty style.
Now the wind sharpens its edges on mountain rocks
The spear of cold pierces tree branches.
The gong from a far-off pagoda hastens
The traveler’s steps as boys playing flutes
Drive the buffaloes home across the twilight.
Chang Fa-kwei had jailed Ho out of hatred for Communists, but he had also hoped to emasculate the Vietminh so that he could strengthen his own Vietnamese proteges, most notably the VNQDD, which the Chinese Nationalists had created. But he soon discovered that they lacked the Vietminh’s influence. He released Ho and per¬suaded him to head the Vietnam Cach Menh Dong Minh Hoi, or Vietnam Revolutionary League, a nationalist coalition. He supplied Ho with money and bases in China in exchange for intelligence on their com¬mon enemy, the Japanese. The two men therefore entered into a marriage of convenience despite their ideological differences—a typical practice for Ho, who frequently shelved his Communist principles to attain his goals.
Inside Vietnam, meanwhile, the Vietminh’s guerrilla units grew under the direction of Vo Nguyen Giap, who, after Ho, was chiefly responsible for the ultimate success of the movement. He later com¬manded the Communist forces that defeated both France and the United States, and his brilliance as a logistician, organizer and strategist ranks him with Wellington, Grant, Lee, Rommel and MacArthur in the pantheon of great military leaders. Unlike them, however, he owed his achievements to innate genius rather than to formal training as a soldier. Reflecting on his career as we chatted in Hanoi in 1990, he laughingly said, “I was a self-taught general.”
We met at the former French colonial governor’s palace, a ginger¬bread mansion set in a spacious garden ablaze with hibiscus and bou¬gainvillea, where high Vietnamese officials receive guests. An elfin figure with smooth skin, white hair, narrow eyes and a spry gait, Giap wore a simple olive uniform, the four stars on its collar the only sign of his rank. Smiling broadly, he grasped me with soft, almost feminine hands and then, to my surprise, bussed my cheeks in tra¬ditional French style.
The French once dubbed him the “snow-covered volcano”—a gla¬cial exterior concealing a volatile temperament. The description only partly matched my impression of him during our two mornings to¬gether. Then approaching eighty, Giap seemed to have mellowed with age. But he still displayed the intellectual vigor and fierce determi¬nation that had propelled him to victory—and made him a legend.
A day after our first meeting I drove to his private residence, a handsome French colonial villa, its parlor lined with a polyglot as¬sortment of books and decorated with busts and portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and, of course, Ho Chi Minh. His wife, a buxom, cheerful woman, served fruit as he played the pater familias, proudly introducing his eldest daughter, a noted nuclear physicist, and cuddling his grandchildren in his lap. He spoke flawless French seasoned by a tonal Vietnamese inflection.

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