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Jerry Elmer: Vietnam’s National Day

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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 Hồ Chí Minh read Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence at Ba Đinh 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. Hồ Chí 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, Hồ’s time living in the United States was not the only reason for his high regard for Americans and for American ideals. During World War II, Hồ and the Việt Minh worked extensively with the United States 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 Việt Minh’s anti-colonial struggle against France as France moved to re-take its Indochina colony after the Allied defeat of Japan.

During the war, Hồ and the Việt 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 Hồ and the Việt 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 Việt Minh stronghold at Tân Trào. There, the OSS worked with their Việt Minh counterparts to set up a joint OSS-Việt Minh training camp. The Americans provided the military training, while the Vietnamese provided political education. Hồ Chí 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 Thái Nguyên, being led into battle by OSS man Allison Thomas and Việt Minh leader Võ Nguyên Giáp (about whom, see next paragraph). In August 1945, after the Japanese surrender, Thomas gave a substantial cache of American weapons to his Việt Minh colleagues. That night, the OSS officers and Việt Minh soldiers got good and drunk to celebrate (together) the end of the war.


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Looking back on these events from the perspective of today, it is easy to see the ironies. For example, Võ Nguyên Giáp, who built the base at Tân Trào with the Americans, was the brilliant Vietnamese military strategist and general who defeated and routed the United States in the 1960s 1970s. OSS officer Paul Hoagland tended a critically ill Hồ Chí Minh, who was sick with a combination of malaria, dengue fever, and dysentery; Hoagland nursed Hồ back to health with quinine, sulfa drugs and other medicines. (How might history have been different if Hoagland had not saved Hồ’s life?) And, although it was Hồ’s idea to quote Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, Hồ actually had the wording slight 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 Hồ and corrected the language Hồ had used.

To be sure, not all of the OSS men in Vietnam during World War II supported Hồ. Some, such as Lucien Conein, opposed the Việt Minh, believing, correctly, that Hồ was a Communist. Others in the OSS, like Stephen Nordlinger, were mired in the colonialist mind-set, 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 Hồ and the Việt 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 Việt 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 United States 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 Hồ 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 Việt 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 Hồ Chí Minh wrote repeatedly to President Truman after the war, seeking American aid against the French who were moving in to re-take their Indochina colony. Several of those messages from Hồ 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 Việt Minh freedom fighters, the United States supported the doomed French effort. By the time the French were finally defeated in 1954 at Điện Biên Phủ, the United States was paying fully 85 percent 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 was a Vietnam-era draft resister. He is the author of Felon for Peace: The Memoir of a Vietnam-Era Draft Resister (Vanderbilt University Press 2005). In December 2005, Felon for Peace was published in Vietnamese translation as Tôi phạm vì hòa bìng by Thế Giới (Hanoi), Vietnam’s pre-eminent publishing house. This was the first book ever by a U.S. peace activist to be published in Vietnam.

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