ADVISING THE VIET MINH

Dr. Ernest Bolt, University of Richmond

 

For a week in September 1997, some of the surviving Viet Minh forces of Ho Chi Minh and veterans of the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS), who collaborated in 1945 near the end of World War II, met for a second "reunion" in New York City. Some of these same men and women had met in 1995 in Vietnam to begin an oral history project sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the Vietnam USA Society.

The Vietnamese and Americans are now in their sixties or seventies, having served in World War II when quite young. In this document, some of these Viet Minh and their counterpart American OSS veterans are introduced. Professor Ernest Bolt, one of the instructors for The Vietnam Experience, attended a one-day conference, September 24, 1997, at which some of these spoke to a public audience at the Asia Society, located in New York City. That occasion was sponsored by the United States-Indochina Reconciliation Project. Historians involved in the oral history project, American and Vietnamese, were also present. All speakers related some of their 1945 experiences in what some still regard as a "missed" opportunity to avoid the later war between the United States and Vietnam.

 

Viet Minh Veterans Present at the New York "Reunion" Conference (September 24, 1997)

 

 
Mrs. Tran Minh Chau was the Head of the Administrative Office of Tan Trao, where the Viet Minh were based previous to the August 1945 Revolution. From 1946-1970 she was the Party Secretary of Ha Dong Province, and from 1970-1976 the Party Secretary of Hung Yen Province. From 1976 until her retirement in 1982, she was the Head of the Department for Publication of the Ministry of Culture and Information. 

 

 

Mr. Nguyen Chinh worked in the Administrative Office of Tan Trao from 1944-1953. From 1953 until his retirement in 1982, he was the Head of the Technical Desk of the Military Barracks under the Ministry of Defense.

 

 
Mr. Nguyen Kim Hung was head of the Viet Minh/OSS team that worked together in 1945. From 1946-1955, he was attached to Army Division No. 308. From 1955-1994, he was the Director of the Department of Foreign Military Affairs at the Military Academy of Vietnam. He retired in 1996. 

 

 

Mr. Nguyen Hai Mui worked in the Administrative Office of Tan Trao from 1944-1946. He then joined Army Division No 312 until 1959. From 1959 until his retirement twenty years later, he worked for the Ministry of Construction.

 

 
Mr. Trieu Duc Quang was a member of the Viet Minh/OSS team that worked together in 1945. From 1947-1953, he served on the Tay Nguyen Front. From 1954-1958, he was a member of an Artillery Division. From 1958-1975, he served on the Lao Front. After that, until his retirement in 1990, he was a member of the General Staff of the Ministry of Defense. 

 

Mr. Tran Trong Trung was a member of the Viet Minh/OSS team that worked together in 1945. From 1945 until he retired in 1990, he was a member of the Joint General Staff of the Ministry of Defense.

 

 
Other Viet Minh who were trained by the OSS in 1945

 

Vietnamese Specialists Present

Prof. Le Ba Thuyen worked in the office for Public Relations of Quang Nam - Da Nang Province from 1945-1950. He then went on to become Deputy General Director of the Vietnam News Agency until 1967. From 1967-1976, he was the Director of "Vietnam" pictorial. He was an International Affairs Analyst of the "Nhan Dan" newspaper from 1976-1992. Since then he was been an associate of the North American Study Center of the National Center for Social Sciences and Humanities.

Prof. Duong Trung Quoc was at the Vietnam Institute of History from 1969-1989. He became the Vice-Director of the Institute in 1989, a post he held until 1994. Since 1988, he has been the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Historian Association. In 1994, he was appointed the Editor in Chief of the history magazine "Past and Present." He was introduced at the conference as the leading military historian in Vietnam.

Prof. Tran Buoi worked for the Ministry of Defense from 1945-1975. Since then, he has been at the Vietnam Institute of Military History.

Prof. Tran Nhung has worked at the "Quan Doi Nahn Dan" newspaper sine 1972. He is presently the head of the International Relations Department of the newspaper.

 

OSS and GBT Veterans Present

 

 
Mr. Charles Fenn made initial contact with Ho Chi Minh to arrange cooperation to rescue downed Allied Fliers and send intelligence and weather reports to the Allies. After World War Two, Mr. Fenn became a writer of plays, novels, and non-fiction, including Ho Chi Minh: A Biographical Introduction. 

 

 
Mr. Frank Tan marched with Ho Chi from China to the Viet Minh base in Tan Trao. There he helped teach intelligence techniques. After the war, Mr. Tan became a businessman, returning to Vietnam in that capacity later.

 

Mr. Mac Shin also marched with Ho Chi Minh from China to Tan Trao. There he taught the Viet Minh how to operate a hand radio and give weather reports for bombing runs. He also advised in the building of an airstrip. Mr. Shin later became a medical x-ray technician, a motion picture distributor in Hong Kong, the U.S., and a businessman.

 

 
Mr. Henry Prunier parachuted into Tan Trao as part of the Deer Team to provide small arms and training to the Viet Minh and then marched with General Vo Nguyen Giap to Tay Nguyen. After the war, Mr. Prunier joined his family's construction company. 

 

 
Historian Tayloe Wise talking to Henry Prunier. (Wise is on the left, Prunier on the right.)

 

 

 

Mr. Ray Grelecki was the CO of the Operations Group of the OSS Mercy Team that worked in Hanoi. He was the first American to parachute into Hanoi after the Japanese surrender, and while there his group provided humanitarian aid to Allied POW's and civilians. After the war, Mr. Grelecki became a businessman, with ten import-export offices in the Far East. 

 

 
Mr. Carleton Swift replaced Archimedes Patti as head of the OSS mission in Hanoi. He agreed to the establishment on the U.S. side of the Vietnamese American Friendship Association. From the end of World War Two until his retirement, Mr. Swift worked for the CIA. 

 

Mr. Frank White came up from Saigon, where he was under Col. Peter Dewey, the first American killed in Vietnam. He replaced Mr. Swift and maintained liaison with the Viet Minh through December 1945. After the war, he returned to this job as a Foreign Correspondent and was head of the Western Europe and Eastern Europe Desk of Time-Life for twenty-five years.

Mr. Georges Wickes was also in Saigon with Col. Dewey. He then went up to Hanoi to work with Mr. White. Mr. Wickes is a retired professor of English at the University of Oregon.

 

American Specialists Present

Prof. Robert Brigham teaches American History of Vassar College, and writes extensively on the war.

Prof. William Duiker is a retired Liberal Arts Professor of East Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He wrote Communist Road To Power in Vietnam and several other books on the war.

Prof. Stein Tonnesson is a senior research fellow at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. He has written 1946: Declenchement de la guerre d'Indochine and The Vietnamese Revolution of 1945.

 

Although not present at the New York conference (because of prior death or otherwise), the following persons were involved in the 1945 Viet Minh - OSS collaboration.

 

 

 

 

Ho Chi Minh    

     

Of course, Ho is one of the main figures in this online course. He is still remembered by most Vietnamese as "Uncle Ho." 

 

Vo Nguyen Giap

This link takes one to a sample entry from the Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. This three-volume encyclopedia, edited by Spencer C. Tucker, contains more than 900 entries, 150 primary source documents, 150 photographs, and 22 maps by over 138 contributors. Click on your browser's Back button to return to this page.

Laurence Gordon was one of three men involved in that intelligence operation which contacted Ho Chi Minh following the Japanese coup (March 5, 1945) against the Vichy French in Indochina. This operation is known as GBT.

Harry V. Bernard was another of the three-man GBT group.

Major Allison Kent Thomas, as this essay will show, directed the OSS Deer Mission which collaborated with the Viet Minh in 1945. He was in Hanoi in September, following Ho's August Revolution. According to historian Cecil Currey, he questioned Ho as to his communist affiliation; Ho responded that he was but then asserted he and Thomas could still be friends.

Archimedes Patti was a key OSS officer who headed the OSS operations in both Kunming and Hanoi. He developed a close relationship with Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, was in Hanoi during the August Revolution. His contacts with Ho encouraged each to expect more out of the U.S.-Viet Minh collaboration, and his later book presented Ho as more nationalist than communist.

Lt. Col. Peter Dewey was part of the OSS leadership group (including Patti) in Hanoi at the time of the August Revolution. Soon thereafter, in Saigon, Dewey died as a result of an accidental shooting by Viet Minh September 26, 1945. This made Dewey the first American to die in Vietnam. His daughter attended the New York City conference.

 

Some Vietnam War scholars might argue that certain Vietnamese and Americans make too much of the 1945 collaboration. Was it indeed a "lost opportunity"? After all it was brief, modest in intent, and late in the story of World War II. It is little remembered, and among our core texts for the Vietnam Experience course, only William Duiker mentions the matter at all. This situation alone justifies the efforts of surviving veterans and historians to record this moment in the U.S. relationship with Vietnam.

The Pacific war was not the first priority of the U.S. after Pearl Harbor. Defeat of Hitler first was the objective holding together the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union. China, then under Chiang Kai-shek was important to the allies but also was not top priority. It was difficult, therefore, for Ho Chi Minh to get our attention during the war as well as earlier. In 1943, his initial wartime overtures to the U.S., for example, were received often without comment or with vague responses or mixed messages.

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operated from its Kunming headquarters in Yunan province, in southern China. The head of the OSS there was Archimedes Patti. He interacted with Ho Chi Minh and was present in Hanoi, as head of OSS there, during the August Revolution. Several of the men who collaborated with Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh forces were earlier in Kunming working under the direction of Patti. In the war against Japan, there was concern that the Japanese might move from northern Vietnam into southern China. As historian Marilyn Young puts it, the U.S.-Viet Minh wartime connection made them"allies of a sort."

OSS operations launched from Kunming included the work of the Deer Team. This mission involved seven OSS men who parachuted into Ho Chi Minh's jungle headquarters north of Hanoi. The area in which the Deer Mission took place was Tan Trao. By this time, the three men in an intelligence group known as GBT (Laurence Gordon, Harry V. Bernard, and Frank Tan) had contacted Ho Chi Minh and learned of his eagerness for further contact with Americans in the war against Japan. GBT was the code name for the group; its origin was from the first letter of the last names of the three men on the team.

The Deer Mission started July 16, 1945. Led by Major Allison Kent Thomas, the seven men who landed at Tan Trao began to train the Viet Minh, to provide them with explosives and small arms, and to provide medical assistance to Ho Chi Minh, who on first contact was found to be very ill. Historian Cecil B. Currey maintains that the team's medic, Paul Hoagland, treated Ho Chi Minh and may have saved his life.

This OSS mission marked the beginning of a modest and brief American encounter with our future enemies in Vietnam. The OSS men observed the Viet Minh, whom they were training, in combat, and men such as Frank Tan trained some of them in use of radio equipment. In return, Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh, and their Viet Minh troops, assisted the U.S. by rescuing downed American pilots. The U.S. learned, also, how dedicated the Viet Minh and their leaders were to gain Vietnam's independence.

One thing Ho Chi Minh wanted at the time was recognition of the Viet Minh as legitimate representatives of the Vietnamese. Instead, in addition to our advisory role and a few weapons, the OSS gave Ho Chi Minh an official appointment as OSS Agent 19 and a code name of "Lucius." Closer examination of this collaboration by several scholars shows that few documents apparently passed among the two sides or between Ho Chi Minh and the OSS headquarters in Kunming. It is important to remember that President Franklin Roosevelt's death came February 12, 1945, before the Deer Mission started.

When I was in Vietnam in 1991, a discussion of the 1945 collaboration among Vietnamese and American scholars resulted in a consensus viewpoint by the Vietnamese that this was indeed a "lost opportunity." They believe that if FDR had lived the U.S. would have supported the August Revolution and Ho Chi Minh's leadership of the Vietnamese. They see Truman as more anti-communist and as altering the direction of FDR's anti-colonialism. So they blame Truman and say FDR was their "friend."

This OSS-Viet Minh collaboration lasted only until the Japanese surrender, August 15, 1945. Some OSS officers, however, remained in Kunming and even were in Hanoi at the time of Ho Chi Minh's August Revolution. One of the major sources of information we have is the record of Major Archimedes Patti's observations of the August Revolution. His book is Why Vietnam? Prelude to America's Albatross (1980).

The efforts of today's historians, Vietnamese and American, and especially the oral history project involving Viet Minh and OSS veterans of the 1945 collaboration will no doubt provide more detailed information. Already we have several videotape projects that have included interviews of the U.S. OSS officers involved. For example, some of our sections of the Vietnam Experience course have access to a brief comment by Charles Fenn in Ho Chi Minh: The Man Behind the Myth (Reuters Television Production, 1998). Speaking from outside Ho Chi Minh's House on Stilts in Hanoi, he commented on Ho's hard work and tough life -- his determination and will power. Fenn's impressions of the Vietnamese nationalist and communist leader reflected primarily his 1945 encounter with Ho. The major visual presentation of this story is "Uncle Ho and Uncle Sam", an A & E/BBC documentary film, which was screened twice at the 1997 one-day conference.


For further reading, students may wish to consult one of the following scholarly articles, all of which deal less with the OSS-Viet Minh collaboration than with the larger issue of Roosevelt's anit-colonialism and other policy priorities he faced as world leader before his death.

 

Links Related to This Topic

Click on the following images to access related sites and documents.

 

 
 The Asia Society, New York City

 

 

Cecil B. Curry, "Bao Dai (1913-1997)"

This link takes one to a sample entry from the Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. This three-volume encyclopedia, edited by Spencer C. Tucker, contains more than 900 entries, 150 primary source documents, 150 photographs, and 22 maps by over 138 contributors. 

 

 
Declaration of Independence, September 2, 1945 

 

 

  Document: Abdication of Bao Dai, August 25, 1945 

 

 

Return to The United States Advisory Experience: Early Commitments, 1954-1965