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The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War Against Japan

University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, 2006, hardcover $34.95

There are only two approaches to the future: faith and history. The former, as the Apostle Paul pointed out, is a matter of belief in things unseen. The latter is a matter of facts coupled with careful analyses. Dixee Bartholomew-Feis’ story of American idealism, Vietnamese hope and French perfidy at the end of World War II, The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War Against Japan, serves not only as a haunting reminder of a prelude to tragedy for the United States and Vietnam (if not France) but also as a warning to be wary of allies.

The author begins by tracing the development of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) from the early days of World War II to a culmination point in the last weeks of the war in Japanese-occupied French Indochina. Considering that America’s war in Vietnam was, in terms of resources spent, predominantly an air war, and that the fate of American aircrews shot down and detained or missing in action became a primary bone of contention between the United States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, it is ironic that the OSS first contacted the Viet Minh guerrillas for help in finding and recovering downed U.S. fliers to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Japanese. Even if this book did nothing other than chronicle the role of the Air Ground Aid Service, the entity charged with contacting Vietnamese and French resistance in Indochina to recover American aircrews, it would make a significant contribution to knowledge.

Idealistic OSS agents operating with the Viet Minh—led by the mystical and determined Ho Chi Minh and the insightful guerrilla commander Vo Nguyen Giap, a soldier who in his lifetime would be recognized as one of the great captains of modern warfare—believed that the United States would support the Vietnamese desire for independence. Yet there were flies in the fish sauce.

Communism, indeed, was one of those flies. Ho Chi Minh was a founding member of the French Communist Party, and the founder of the Indochinese Communist Party, the Viet Nam Phuc Quoc Dong Minh Hoi (Viet Minh). History made this a greater obstacle, in retrospect, than might have been perceived in 1945, when a democratic United States, the imperialist Great Britain and the Soviet Union were allies. Ho Chi Minh, for his part, readily admitted to being a Communist but wondered why ideology mattered. Ultimately the Cold War made it matter.

Britain, America’s closest ally, determined that victory over Japanese imperialism would not mean an end to the British Empire, not with India as the jewel in its imperial crown. Accordingly, London made common cause with France’s return to Indochina.

Anyone wondering what a war without France would be like need look no further than World War II. It took from May 10 to June 17, 1940, for the Wehrmacht to drive from the Ardennes Forest to the tables of sidewalk cafes along the Champs Elysées. While the Germans allowed the collaborationist neutral Vichy French regime to retain its colonial holdings, Axis partner Japan secured basing rights throughout French Indochina. In March 1945, in Operation Meigo, the Japanese initiated a coup de main to depose Vichy officials. With a few exceptions, French garrisons surrendered quickly. When in August atomic strikes against Japan brought the war to an unexpectedly quick conclusion, London supported Paris’demand for a colonial status quo ante bellum.

To make a long tragic story short, the future of Indochina was only one rather minor consideration in the aftermath of World War II. The British facilitated the French return to Indochina. The OSS went home. The Viet Minh went to war for its independence. By 1950, France’s colonial war morphed into the American struggle in Korea, becoming part of the Cold War, anti-Communist crusade; and the United States cast its lot with colonial France.

In the heady days of 19th-century imperial glory, Lord Palmerston told the House of Commons: “We have no eternal allies and we have no eternal enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

An associate professor of history and the director of international education at Buena Vista University, Bartholomew-Feis has written a highly readable and critically important book.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.