The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War against Japan by Dixee R. Bartholomew-Feis
|Reviewed By:||E. Bruce Reynolds|
|Reviewed in:||Diplomatic History|
|Date accepted online:||14/01/2008|
|Published in print:||Volume 31, Issue 04, Pages 775-778|
Book Review: Temporary Allies: The OSS and Ho Chi Minh
The World War II cooperation between Ho Chi Minh and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an incongruous prelude to three decades of hostility and conflict between the United States and revolutionary forces in Vietnam, has long fascinated students of American-Vietnamese relations. Some, including a prominent OSS participant, have maintained that tragic consequences might have been avoided had Washington stuck by Franklin D. Roosevelt's idea of blocking a French return to Indochina and recognized Ho's Viet Minh as a legitimate nationalist force, its Communist leadership notwithstanding. Dixee R. Bartholomew-Feis, however, does not dwell on "lost chances" or "roads not taken" in this fullest scholarly account published to date of World War II American intelligence activities in Vietnam.
After surveying the situation in Vietnam before and during the Japanese occupation, Roosevelt's ideas about postwar trusteeship, and William J. Donovan's role in creating the OSS, Bartholomew-Feis takes up the earliest and least-known intelligence ventures aimed at Vietnam: the GBT and Meynier projects. The former operated with notable success; the latter foundered on the shoals of Free French political rifts and disputes among the Allies.
GBT drew its name from the initials of its founding members: Laurence Gordon, a Canadian-born British citizen who had established residence in California; American Harry Bernard; and Frank Tan, a Chinese-American whose family had returned to China in the 1930s. As all had worked in Indochina before the war, they established their intelligence network through contacts in the French colonial community. They worked with and drew support from British and Chinese intelligence agencies, as well as from American General Claire Chennault's Fourteenth Air Force. This multiple sponsorship bothered the intensely territorial OSS, which sought to absorb GBT. Gordon, who headed the group, resisted an OSS takeover and adamantly opposed working with Vietnamese.
The Meynier operation developed under the controversial American naval Captain Milton Miles, who had carved out an intelligence/irregular warfare mini-empire under the patronage of Chinese spymaster Dai Li (Tai Li). Robert Meynier, a French naval commander with a beautiful, well-connected, part-Vietnamese wife, hoped to develop an effective spy network, but stood on the wrong side of the Free French power struggle between Generals Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud. Consequently, the Free French Mission in Chongqing (Chungking) missed no opportunity to harass Meynier, while his close association with Miles ensured that the OSS would abandon him. Donovan's organization had initially sought to capitalize on Miles's success by naming him head of the OSS in China, but the partnership had soon broken down amid harsh recriminations.
A central figure in the book, Lieutenant Charles Fenn, who granted the author interviews and access to his unpublished memoir, takes the stage in Chapter 4. The OSS recruited this British-born American citizen because of his previous experience as a journalist in China and assigned him as liaison with GBT as part of the OSS effort to control it. Fenn became an influential force in GBT during Gordon's extended absence on a trip to the United States, however, and transferred his primary loyalty to that organization.
Ho, who operated in China during most of the war, came to Fenn's attention because of the Viet Minh's repatriation of a downed American pilot in late 1944 and Ho's contacts with the U.S. Office of War Information in Kunming. After the Japanese seized power in Indochina and disrupted the GBT spy network by interning the French, Fenn met with Ho on March 17, 1945. Impressed by Ho's eagerness to cooperate, Fenn broke with Gordon's policy of avoiding cooperation with Vietnamese, sending Tan and a Chinese radio operator overland to the Viet Minh base area inside Indochina.
Short on intelligence options and under pressure to gain information, the OSS sanctioned the venture. The relationship between Ho and the OSS became more direct after Captain Archimedes Patti, who was charged with launching a separate intelligence-gathering scheme (code named QUAIL), met with a Viet Minh representative in mid-April.
The latter connection led to the dispatch of the first element of the OSS DEER mission to Ho's base area in mid-July, a group headed by Major Allison Thomas. After an airdrop of reinforcements and weapons at the end of the month, Thomas and his men started training a Viet Minh cadre. Emotionally attached to the Vietnamese he had trained, Thomas controversially participated in a Viet Minh attack on a Japanese garrison at Thai Nguyen, a highly symbolic skirmish that occurred after Tokyo's acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration.
With Japan's surrender came the dispatch of an OSS group to Hanoi, where Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence on September 2. The mission's leader, Major Patti, who clearly relished his role as ranking American representative and found it difficult to disguise his sympathy for the Vietnamese, became a prime target of French hostility and his conduct the subject of enduring controversy.
Patti survived to write about his heady experiences, but the chief OSS representative in Saigon, Major Peter Dewey, did not. His efforts to establish an independent American intelligence presence enraged British occupation commander General Douglas Gracey and the vengeful French colonialists with whom Gracey cooperated. Before Dewey could obey an order to leave, a Viet Minh unit shot and killed him from ambush, apparently mistaking him for a Frenchman.
In her epilogue, Bartholomew-Feis reviews the various interpretations of the brief OSS-Viet Minh collaboration. She agrees with the conclusion of George Wickes, who took part in the OSS mission to Saigon, that "our messages to Washington predicted accurately what would eventually happen if France tried to deny independence to Vietnam," but concludes that the "political climate at the time" made this reporting irrelevant (p. 318).
Bartholomew-Feis thoroughly researched the various American intelligence ventures into wartime Indochina and blended documentary evidence from OSS records, unpublished participant accounts, and oral history into a compelling, well-written narrative. She provides more detailed coverage of these secret operations than did David Marr in his more broadly focused history of Vietnam in 1945,  and the book reveals much about the personalities of the participants. Even-handed to a fault in assessing their motives, Bartholomew-Feis demonstrates how a widely shared distaste for colonialism and the circumstances under which they operated affected the attitudes of the OSS representatives. She also recognizes and vividly portrays the formidable political skills that helped Ho Chi Minh seize leadership of the Vietnamese nationalist movement.
While the strength of the book lies in its narrative account of the American missions, Bartholomew-Feis falls short in placing the 1945 events in Indochina into a broader context. For example, she suggests that China had its own agenda for Indochina (p. 42), but sheds little light on what it might have been. Divisions in Washington over policy toward Indochina, especially within the State Department, are mentioned, but not explored in any depth. Particularly notable is the absence of an explanation of how Indochina came to be divided into Chinese and British occupation zones, or any mention of the ramifications of the determined British effort to wrest Indochina from its initial assignment to Chiang Kai-shek's China Theater. Without such background, the French and British hostility to the OSS activities in Indochina cannot be fully understood. Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, a principal actor in the Indochina dispute, receives only peripheral mention. Absent from the bibliography are Christopher Thorne's path-breaking work
In analyzing the role of the OSS, Bartholomew-Feis rightly focuses attention on the views and activities of Donovan, but she pays inadequate attention to the theater OSS commanders, particularly Colonel Richard P. Heppner, who had gained the confidence of General Albert C. Wedemeyer during their earlier service under Mountbatten in the Southeast Asia Command. Although she mentions Wedemeyer's effort to consolidate all China Theater intelligence activities under Heppner, she seems not to grasp the full significance of this attempt to control the China Theater's intelligence turf wars, a move that greatly strengthened the OSS position. Despite the fact that the bulk of the operations she describes originated in China, neither Maochun Yu's
This lack of attention to the regional context contributed to Bartholomew-Feis's mistaken assumption that Detachment 404 was simply another name for the OSS EMBANKMENT mission to Saigon at the end of the war (p. 268). In fact, Detachment 404, the OSS unit assigned to the Southeast Asia Command, headquartered in Kandy, Ceylon, dispatched the EMBANKMENT team to Saigon. Also, she errs in referring to the precursor to the OSS, the Coordinator of Information (COI), as the "Coordinator of Intelligence" (p. 55), and in stating that Miles went to China in 1942 to head up Naval Group China (p. 69), a unit not formed until 1944.
Bartholomew-Feis has produced a detailed, sympathetic, readable account of American intelligence activities in Vietnam during World War II. In the end, however, the book offers little new grist for historical debates about the significance of the OSS-Viet Minh connection and the factors that led the United States ultimately to support the French effort to regain and maintain control over Indochina.
David G. Marr,