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Allied Intelligence and Indochina, 1943-1945

Ronald Spector

The author is a historian in the Southeast Asia Branch of the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

  • D OUBTLESSINSPIRED by the events and debates of the 1960s, a

numberof historians have recently turnedtheir attention to an exam- inationof American policy towardIndochina during WorldWar II. As a resultthe main outlines, ifnot all details, ofthat policy are now familiar.'Most historianshave agreed thatPresident Franklin Roose- velt's hostility to Frenchcolonialism and his determinationto establish

a trusteeship forIndochina following thedefeat of

Japan

was consid-

erablymodified, if not abandoned, in the finalweeks before Roose-

velt'sdeath.

By V-Jday theUnited States had virtuallyacquiesced in

thereturn of Indochinato France. Yetwhile this analysisprobably represents an accurate description

ofAmerican policy as viewedfrom Washington or London, it takesno accountof the actionsof Americanson the scene in SoutheastAsia

during WorldWar II. Withouta close look at American actions, as

opposed to policies, towardIndochina it is impossible to cometo

grips

with the bittercontroversies which have surroundedthis aspect of

WorldWar II.

These

controversies chiefly concern allegationsby French writers,

UnitedStates consistently

and writers sympathetic to them, thatthe

refusedto aid in organizing and equipping a French underground re-

'George

C.

Herring,

"The TrumanAdministration and the Restorationof FrenchSov-

ChristopherThorne,

"Indo-

(1976), 73-

ereignty in Indochina,"Diplomatic History, I (1977), 97-117;

china and

96; Walter

Anglo-AmericanRelations,

1942-45," Pacific Historical Review, XLV

LaFeber, "Roosevelt,Churchill, and Indochina: 1942-45," AmericanHistorical

Review, LXXX (1975), 1277-1295; Gary Journalof American History, LIX (1972),

R. Hess, "FranklinRoosevelt and Indochina,"

353-368

23

Pacific HistoricalReview

? 1981,by thePacific Coast Branch, AmericanHistorical Association

24

PACIFIC HISTORICAL REVIEW

sistanceto the Japanese in Vietnam during 1944-1945and that, dur-

ing

thissame period, theUnited States was

primarilyresponsible for

guerrillasalong their

helping Ho Chi

road to

Minh's anti-FrenchViet Minh

power.2 The controversy tookon a

new variation during the

1960s whendissatisfaction with American policy in Vietnamwas at

its height. At thattime some writers came to believethat the United

States might have misseda

splendidopportunity by

not

beinghelpful

enough to Ho Chi Minh, who might havebecome an "Asian Tito."3

An examinationof Americanwartime activities directed toward or

effecting Indochina during thewar years enablesus to see these prob-

lemsfrom a differentand

morerealistic perspective. Throughout most

East, par-

ofthe war theactions and policies ofAmericans in theFar

ticularly the leadersof the

army,army air force, and navy,plus the

ubiquitous Officeof StrategicServices, were in fact"out of phase"

withofficial American policies in Washington. WhenRoosevelt's anti-

Frenchinclinations were at their

UnitedStates "do

nothing

...

other way in relationto

height, he

had orderedthat the

in regard to resistance groups or in any

Indochina."4But Americanswere already

involvedwith

some

intelligenceoperations in Vietnam, and mostinvolved

French. Later,during the final

restorationof

degree of cooperation withthe

monthsof

the war, as Washington'sopposition to the

French sovereigntygradually lessened, Americansin thefield became

increasingly involvedwith the

Viet Minh.

nationalist opponents ofthe French, the

At the timethat the President penned his "do

nothing"memo, a

good deal had nevertheless already been done, forthere were require-

mentsin SoutheastAsia forwhich the French could provide consider-

able assistance.These included providing informationfor Allied

bomberson

likelyJapanese targets, air defenses,weather, and troop

movementsin Indochina.Information on troop movementswas of spe-

2PierreMaurice

14, 1947; "The

Dessinge,

"Les Intrigues Internationalesen Indochine," Le

Monde,April

17, 1954),

4-

Indo-China Story," New Statesmanand Nation, XLVII (April

5; Bernard Fall, The TwoVietnams: A Politicaland

MilitaryAnalysis (New York,1964), 54-

Reflections on a War (New

59, and Fall, "U.S. Policiesin Indochina 1940-1960," in Last

York,1967), 125-136; Jean Sainteny, Histoired'une Paix Manqube (Paris,1967), 25-33, 63-
107.

3J. William Fulbright, The Arroganceof Power (New York, 1966), 114; ArthurM.

Schlesinger,Jr., The Bitter Heritage(New

lution (New York,1966), chap.

II.

4Memorandum fromRoosevelt to the

State,Foreign Relations of the United States, Europe (Washington,D.C., 1965), 777.

York,1967), and Robert Shaplen, The LostRevo-

Secretary of State, Oct. 16, 1944, in U.S. Dept.

of

1944. Vol. III: The BritishCommonwealth and

Allied Intelligence and Indochina

25

cial

significance becausethe

shifting of Japanese forcesin or out of

Indochinacould affect the military situationin southern China.5 The

Frenchalso

mighthelp

in rescuingpilots shotdown over Indochina.

Policymakers also

believedthat both the Frenchin Indochinaand

the Vietnamese-ifnot the Laotiansand Cambodians-wererestive

undertheir Japanese mastersand thattheir services might be enlisted

forvarious types of espionage and "fifthcolumn" activities. Although

Americancommanders in China and India made no deliberateeffort

to contraveneor circumventAmerican policy toward Indochina, the

policy was sufficientlyvague

ety of interpretations.

Yetlocal

and ambiguous to allow fora widevari-

commanderswere seldom kept abreast

of itslatest twists and modifications. The needfor tactical intelligence

was sometimes urgent; the instructionsfrom Washington were few

and uncertain.For those reasons, after1943 Americancommanders in

the Far East frequently violatedthe spirit, if notthe letter, of Roose-

velt'sdictum.

Among thefirst to takean activeinterest in Indochina-specifically

Vietnam-was Navy CommodoreMilton E. ("Mary") Miles. As

commanderof NavyGroup China and Far East Directorof the Office

of

Strategic Services (OSS), the organizationresponsible underthe

presided over

Joint Chiefsof Stafffor unconventional warfare, Miles

kaleidoscopicorganization with responsibility for liaison,training,

a

espionage,guerrilla warfare, and support of naval operations.6He

also servedas deputy directorof a joint Chinese-American espionage

group knownas

theSino-American CooperativeOrganization, led by

One of the

principal missions

a

Chinese master-spy, GeneralTai Li.

given Miles by the

landing on thecoast of China, a

1942 and 1943.

Miles attempted to extendhis

Navy Department was to prepare foran Allied

possibility thatstill seemed likely in

Sincethat might also involve operations in Vietnam,

intelligence networkto that

country.

The manhe choseto head the operation was a Frenchnaval officer,

CommanderRobert Meynier, a supporter of GeneralHenri Giraud.

Like Giraud,Meynier was a war heroand was anti-German, anti-

British, and stronglypro-American. More important, he was married

to a womanwith important connections among theVietnamese man-

5John T. McAlister,Vietnam, The Originsof Revolution (New York,1970), 136.

6For a discussionof the activitiesof

Navy Group

Kind of War (New York, 1966), and Oscar P.

China, see Milton E. Miles, A Different

China: A

Study of

Fitzgerald, "Naval Group

Guerrilla Warfareduring WorldWar II," (Masters thesis,Georgetown University, 1968).

26

PACIFIC HISTORICAL REVIEW

darin class; his wife's uncle,Hoang TrongPhu,

was a memberof the

privy counciland a former governor ofTonkin. The othermembers of

Meynier'sespionage group had extensivecontacts among Frenchof-

ficersand officialsin Vietnam.

Almostfrom the start the

Meyniergroup foundits operations ham-

French Military Mission in Chun-

pered

king,

and circumscribed by the

which was Gaullist

in its loyalties.Ironically, the Vichyite

Meyniergroup

be-

Chungking.By

he returned

Frenchin Indochinawere also suspicious of the

cause the group was associatedwith the Gaullistsin

mid-1944 Meynier'sposition had become untenable, and

to Europe.

Despite those handicaps,Meynier had

enjoyed somesuccess in his

efforts.Before his departure in 1944, he succeededin establishing a

networkof agents insideIndochina. Many ofthem operated fromin-

side

French governmentagencies and even insidethe

Frenchintel-

ligenceoffice, the

Deuxieme Bureau. They sentback a steady stream

of informationon field fortifications, troop movements, bombing tar-

gets, and local politicaldevelopments.7

china, CommodoreMiles

To complementMeynier's activeties among

prepared still

the Frenchin Indo-

another plan to utilizethe

mountaintribesmen of Vietnamfor guerrilla warfareand espionage

against the Japanese. The mountain peoples,

the

Meo, the Muong,

and the

who includedthe Tai,

Nungs were ethnically and culturally

distinctfrom the lowland Vietnameseas well as fromeach other.

Miles's

plan

to enlistthe support of the tribesmen, labeledthe "Spe-

cial Military Plan for Indochina," had been suggestedby Lieutenant

GeorgeDevereux, UnitedStates Navy

Reserve, a psychological war-

fare expert attachedto Miles's staff.As a civilianDevereux had done

anthropological research among theMeo and was familiarwith their

dialectsand

social customs.8

Devereux's

plan

called for a

group of twentyspecially trained

agents to be parachuted intothe central highlands ofVietnam near the

townof Kontum.The

group would establish friendlyrelationships

their long-standing hatred

withthe mountain tribesmen and play on

ofthe French, the Japanese, and thelowland Vietnamese to organize

7Miles,"Report on theactivities of SACO directedtoward Indochina," 1-22 and passim, in

Milton E. Miles Papers, Officeof Naval

History,Washington, D.C.

8Miles, "Memorandumfor General William

  • J. Donovan," May 7, 1943, Miles Papers.

Allied Intelligence and Indochina

27

guerrilla bands. Arms,ammunition, and medicineswould be supplied

by air.

Devereux hoped to

begin

operations withinfour or fivemonths

guerrilla bands would supply

intel-

after entering Indochina.The

ligence, "tie up enemyforces, offera rallyingground forFrench pa-

triotsand native opponents ofthe Japanese," and pose

a threatto the

enemy rear during the

projected Alliedinvasion of Burma.Devereux

minimumof

20,000" tribal guerrillas

plan was approvedby

superiors in the Navy

commanderof the

confidentlypredicted that "a

could eventually be recruitedand trained.9The

theOffice of Strategic Servicesand by Miles's

Department and enthusiastically endorsed by the

China-basedFourteenth Air

Force,Major

General Clair L. Chen-

nault, who promised to launch diversionary air raids to coverthe

drop.'0

By the end of May 1943, Miles and Devereuxhad succeededin

assembling a group of eighteenarmy, navy, and marine corpsperson-

nel,

mostof whom spoke Frenchand someof whom had civilianback-

grounds in anthropology or psychology. For politicalreasons, two

French officers, also

former anthropologists,

wereattached to themis-

sion.In June the group assembledat

Fort Benning,Georgia, for spe-

Frenchin

cial parachutetraining. But politicalarguments withthe

Chungking,squabbles

betweenthe Officeof Strategic Servicesand

Navy GroupChina, and a constant "kidnapping" of Devereux's per-

sonnelfor more

cancellationof the

of

urgentassignments delayed

project."

and

eventually forced

Asidefrom Miles's efforts, themost reliable and widely used source

American intelligence in

regard to Indochinawas an

organization

knownas "theGBT Group," so-calledfrom the first letter of the last

namesof the leaders of the group: Laurence Gordon, a Canadian cit-

izen who had workedin Vietnamas an employee of the Cal-Texaco

Oil Company;Harry Bernard, a Britishtobacco merchant; and Frank

Tan, a Chinese-Americanbusinessman. Formed at firstto look after

Alliedbusiness property in Vietnam, theGBT group soon expanded

9GeorgeDevereux, "A Program forGuerrilla Warfare in French Indochina,"April 1943, in Miles Papers.

'oGen.

Clair Chennault, memorandumfor Miles,

Aug. 3, 1943, Miles Papers.

"Author'sinterview with Professor Weston La Barre, a formermember of

Jan. 9, 1973, Durham, N.C. La Barre

Devereux group,

expressed the opinion thatthe operation"might very

well have succeeded"had it been put intoeffect.

28

PACIFIC HISTORICAL REVIEW

into espionage. Froman

namese border, the GBT

outpost at Lungchow nearthe Chinese-Viet-

group

directeda networkof couriersand

clandestineradio transmitters throughoutVietnam, which provided

"consistentlyoutstanding intelligence on transportation,industry,

shipping and airfields."As time

strong contactswithin the colonial

passed the GBT group built up

governmentagencies and armed

an anti-Japanese

forcesin Vietnamand encouraged theformation of

undergroundamong theFrench colonials.'2

MilitaryOperations Board,

and equipmentsupplied by the British, theGBT

of its workcame to be

Originallysponsored by the directorof intelligence of the Chinese

Admiral Yang Hsuan Chen, withfunds

group, as thevalue

appreciated, received increasingsupport from

theFourteenth Air Force. By late 1944, theFourteenth Air Forcewas

supplying mostof

its operating fundsas well as moremodern and

for its radio net in Vietnam.'3

group

more powerful transmitters

Although the FourteenthAir Force's support of the GBT

was

primarily forthe purpose of obtainingmilitary intelligence, the

relationship nevertheless brought theUnited States into collaboration

witha colonial power.Strong anti-colonialists

Patrick J. Hurley,

such as Major General

who was appointed ambassadorto China in De-

cember 1944, were suspicious of all Britishand Frenchclandestine

activitiesin Southeast Asia, viewing themas part of an effortto re-

establishtheir prewarempires. "I indicatedto Hurley that I had

givenyou permission to issuesome

equipment to certainforces in In-

dochinaas requestedby Colonel Gordon," wroteGeneral Albert C.

Wedemeyer, Commanderof UnitedStates Forces in the China The-

ater and Chiefof Staffto Generalissimo Chiang
1944.

intelligence contributionwhich you desire

causedme to approve the request ....

Kai-shek, in late

"He was not pleased by the action,although I mentionedthe

very

much and which

However, General Hurley had

had increasing evidencethat the British,French, and Dutchare work-

ing ...

for the attainmentof imperialisticpolicies and he felt we

12Charles Fenn, Ho Chi Minh

(London, 1973), 75-76; Gen. Albert Wedemeyer's Data

MilitaryHistory, Washington, D.C.;

"Organiza-

ResourcesTechnical Staff,August-September

Book, section 20, in U.S. Army Centerof

tional Report of 5329th Air Ground Forces

1944," pp. 13-15, in FourteenthAir Force Records, AlbertF. Simpson Historical Center,

Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

'31bid.

Allied Intelligence and Indochina

29

shoulddo nothing to assistthem in theirendeavors which run counter

to U.S. policy."'4

Hurley's

positionfaithfully reflectedPresident Roosevelt's own

viewsas expressedagain in December 1944, whenthe British govern-

ment protested that"it

in the liberationof

wouldbe difficultto

deny French participation

Indochina."Roosevelt respondedby instructing

to get

I

....

Secretary of State Edward Stettiniusthat "I stilldo not want

mixed up in any Indochinadecision. It is a matterfor post-war

do notwant to

get

mixed up in any military efforttoward the libera-

tion of Indochina."'5Air forceand otherAmerican units in China

neverthelesscontinued to cooperate to a limitedextent with the French

insideIndochina in orderto obtain intelligence and to aid in therescue

ofdowned pilots.'6 When Wedemeyer assumedcommand of the China

Theaterin October 1944, he foundrelations between the Free French

in Kunming and theFourteenth Air Forceto be "verycooperative and

friendly." He believedthat "an arrangement had

beenmade" between

thetwo without the cognizance ofhis predecessor, LieutenantGeneral

Joseph Stilwell.'7

Despite theconcern occasionally voiced by Ambassador Hurley and

others, Americanclandestine contacts and activitiesin

regard to Indo-

significance.

china beforethe spring of 1945 were actually of small

They had littleor no effecton the internalsituation in Indochinaor

on the policy of theAllied

governments. Their importancelay

in the

factthat through themAmerican commanders in the China Theater

became dependentupon

intelligence fromIndochina. In thesame way

thatan urgent desirefor intelligence had prompted somecommanders

to cooperate withthe British and theFrench colonials, so they would

laterdeal withforces hostile to Frenchcolonialism once the Japanese

forciblyrepressed theFrench colonial regime in Vietnam.

Withthe liberation of France in 1944 and Americanvictories in the

'4Wedemeyer to Chennault, Dec. 27, 1944, Wedemeyerfiles, Record Group 332, National Archives (hereafter citedas RG, NA).

IsRooseveltto Stettinius,Jan. 1, 1945, in U.S.

Dept. of State,

Foreign Relations of the

(Washington,D.C.,

United States, 1945. Vol. VI: The BritishCommonwealth and Far East

1945), 293.

16In late January1945,

Navy

G-2,

a group describedas "the Free

French under-ground"provided the

area." See recordsof

and theFourteenth Air

Forcewith "pinpointtargets in the Saigon

332,

NA.

FourteenthAir ForceIndochina file, RG

'7Author's interviewwith Wedemeyer, Feb. 2, 1972, Washington, D.C.

  • 30 PACIFICHISTORICAL REVIEW

Pacific, theFrench in Indochinaunderwent a dramatic change ofatti-

tude towardthe Japaneseoccupation. Old feudsbetween Vichyites

and Gaullistswere put aside, and attempts were made to establish

contactwith the new French government of General

Charles de

Gaulle in Paris.'8 In the army and thecolonial administration prepa-

rationswere

similarto the

made to organize an

Maquis

in

underground resistancemovement

metropolitan France.

From Admiral Louis Mountbatten'sSoutheast Asia Command

Headquarters in Ceylon,specially trainedFrench officers and

were

parachuted into Indochina along

agents

with arms, communications

brought out

equipment, and demolition gear. Resistanceleaders were

for discussions, and a wirelessnetwork of elevenstations was estab-

lished throughout the country.'9 Frenchleaders told the OSS thatfol-

lowing an

uprisingthey hoped to hold parts of northernVietnam for

threeor fourmonths with help fromAllied airpower.20

These French plans and preparations were a poorlykept secret.

Japaneseintelligence was well aware ofthe local preparations forre-

sistanceand moved energetically to counterthem.21 Mountbatten and

his politicaladvisor, Esler

mentto go slow on

but to no avail.22As

Denning, cautionedthe De Gaulle govern-

encouragingany premature actionin Indochina,

early as September1944, a State Department

expert on SoutheastAsia advisedPresident Roosevelt in a draftmem-

orandum:"It is

thought the Japanesemay

shortly disarmthe French

and takeover the country."23

Information'sair liaison

Aroundthe same time, theOffice of War

representative in Chungking, William

Powell,reported that"all ofus out here anticipatequite an upheaval

inIndochina."24

's"Conditionsin French Indochina," Officeof StrategicServices, Researchand

(OSS, R and A) Unit Kunming,Rpt. 0016, Oct.

15, 1944, copy

in

Analysis

NA.

G-2 files, RG 319,

files, RG 319,

NA.

19Unsignedmemoranda, "Force 136, Future Plans," Nov. 16, 1944, and "Force 136, Future

Plans forFrench

Indochina," Dec. 28, 1944, both in W0203/4331, Public Record Office,

London; U.S.

Military Attach6, Paris, to MilitaryIntelligence Div., Rpt. R3-45, subject: "In-

dochina Question,"April 11, 1945, G-2 Intelligence Document (ID)

200SS Rpt. YH/KM-1, subject: "Conditionsin

files, RG 319, NA. 21Lt.Col. Sakai Tateki,

Northern Tonkin," Nov. 15, 1944, G-2 ID

"FrenchIndo-China OperationsRecord," Japanese monograph no.

MilitaryHistory.

(SEAC), to ForeignOffice, Jan. 24, 1946,

25, p. 22, in U.S. Army Centerof

22Politicaladvisor,

SoutheastAsia Command

W0203/5561A, Public RecordOffice. 23ChiefSouthwest Pacific Division, "DraftMemo forthe President,"Sept. 8, 1944, RG 59, NA.

24William Powell to Clarence Gauss,

Sept. 6,

1944, enclosuresto Gauss to Secretary of

State,Sept. 9, 1944, file 851G.00/0944, RG 59, NA.

Allied Intelligence and Indochina

31

As the

possibility ofa Japanese takeover increased, Frenchofficials

strenuousefforts to determinethe possible linesof

might take."25 On February2, 1945, the

Chungkingapproached Wedemeyer in a

in

Kunming "made

actionthe United States

French military attachein

stateof anxiety overthe possibility ofsuch a Japanese move.Should it

occur, theattache believed that the French forces would retreat to the

mountains, thereto carry on guerrilla warfare againstJapanese. The

attacheasked whether, underthose circumstances, the UnitedStates

wouldbe prepared to provide assistance.

Wedemeyer was non-committal,

merely indicating thatthe matter

the question of

was one fordecision at a higher level. Awarethat

American cooperation withthe

Frenchin Indochinawas delicateand

thatthe President held strong viewson the subject,Wedemeyer cabled

Washington for guidance;

sponded that they could

but the state and war

departments re-

"only reiteratethe President's policy" ofnon-

involvementin Indochinamatters.26

The President's position had

nevertheless alreadybegun to undergo

some change. At a conferenceof Alliedand Russianchiefs of stateat

Yalta in February1945, he toldthe U.S. Joint Chiefsof Staffthat he

was "in

favorof anything thatis

against the Japanese in Indochina

provided thatwe do not align

ourselveswith the French.'27 Accord-

Theater,Brigadier General

ingly, the acting chiefof staff of the China

MelvinE. Gross, instructedsubordinate commanders on February 20

that "appropriate and feasible help," suchas

plies, might be renderedto Free

way

furnishing medical sup-

made their

French guerrillas who

to the Chinese border.The matterof the

guerrillasentering

China,however, "shouldbe

settled directly betweenthe Chineseand

theFrench."28 On March 7, China Theater headquarters furthercau-

tionedcommanders that "any help or aid given to the French by us

shallbe in sucha way thatit cannot possibly be construedas further-

ing

the political aims of the

French

The

governing factoris that

....

theaction be in furtheranceof our militaryobjectives and nota matter

25"History of U.S. Forcesin the

  • p. 24, Centerof MilitaryHistory. 26Memorandum by Gen. Gross, 27U.S.

Dept. of

China Theater,"unpublished manuscript, vol. I, chap. 5,

Feb. 20, 1945, FIC book II,

Wedemeyerfiles, RG 332, NA.

State,Foreign Relations, 1945. Vol. VI: BritishCommonwealth and Far

East, 297. 28"History of U.S. Forcesin the China Theater," vol. I, chap. 5, p. 30.

  • 32 PACIFIC HISTORICAL REVIEW

ofconvenience to theFrench or to any othernation."29 Two days later

the Japanese struck.

At eight o'clockon the evening of March 9, the Japanese ambas-

Admiral Jean

sadorto FrenchIndochina presented Governor-General

Decoux withan ultimatum demanding thatdirect control of the

ernment,police, and armedforces of

gov-

the colony be turnedover to the

Japanese. Two hourslater Japanese forcesmoved against Frenchforts

and garrisons all overIndochina. Most were quicklydisarmed, but a

few offered fierce,although brief, resistance, and a sizable body of

troops stationedin the northfell back intothe mountainous jungle

areas ofwestern Tonkin and Laos, thestart of a fighting retreatacross

theChinese border.30

The

firstnews of the Japanesecoup received by Americansin the

China

Theater was a radio

fromthe French

message

garrison at midnight on the
garrison at
midnight on the

Langson in northeastern Vietnam, transmittedabout

ninthof March. The

messagereported a heavyJapanese attackon the

overallattack on all Frenchunits in

garrison and speculated thatan

Indochinawas probablyunderway. The defenders requested Ameri-

can air strikeson

designatedtargets in theirarea.

The commanderof the Fourteenth Air Force, GeneralClair Chen-

nault,requested permission to provide the air assistancewhich the

Frenchhad askedfor and "to

co-operatedirectly withthe French au-

thoritiesin Kunming" to conductattacks in

fewhours later the

of Major

Indochina generally. A

theater headquarters,apparently on the authority

GeneralRobert McClure,acting commanderin theabsence

of General Wedemeyer who was in Washington to conferwith the

Joint Chiefsof

Staff,replied: "Go ahead. Co-operatecompletely with

message

the French.You can use Posehairfield. Give themhell." The

added thatthe authorization "pertainsentirely to the present emer-

gency."3'

At

thesame time that McClure was

givingapproval, Wedemeyer in

instructionsfrom Roosevelt.

Washington was

receivingcontradictory

Wanting "to discontinuecolonization (colonialism) in the Southeast

Asia

area,"

thePresident told Wedemeyer in a private conferencethat

he was "determinedthat there would be no military assistanceto the

29Chennaultto Gross, March

7, 1945, Wedemeyerfiles, RG 332, NA.

30Sakai, "FrenchIndochina OperationsRecord," 24-29.

31Grossto Chennault, DFB

34041,

March

10, 1945, Wedemeyerfiles, RG 332, NA.

Allied Intelligence and Indochina

33

Frenchin Indochina."32When Wedemeyer learnedlater of McClure's

authorization permitting

thathe wouldhave

Chennaultto aid the French,he doubted

granted such sweepingauthority in similarcir-

cumstances.33 Yet the authority had already been given, andit setin

motiona chainof events which resulted in theactive involvement

of

Americanforces in Indochinauntil the Japanese surrender.

While American planes were

preparing to aid

state,

nault persuaded the Chinese head of

the French, Chen-

Generalissimo Chiang

Kai-shek, to allow French troopsfleeing the Japanese to take refuge

in China. Chineseauthorities further agreed that"if stiff resistance is

putup by theFrench against the Japanese,military assistance may be

rendered.'"34

to Authority
to
Authority

operate in support ofthe French at

Air

Force, buton

first appliedonly to

theFourteenth

March 11, an eventoccurred which

officialsofthe OSS, whohad wanted for some time to

operate in Indo-

china, sawas an opening forthem. A group ofabout a thousandViet-

namesecolonial troops with twenty French officers,

an underground radio station, whichhad

slowly fighting

sup-

their way towardthe Chinese border,appealed forAmerican air

port. The

ing

commanderofthe force was a colonelwho had been operat-

provided valuable

informationtothe Fourteenth

Air Force. OSS officialssaw "an excel-

lent opportunity

to organize this group intoan effective

guerrilla force When the
guerrilla force
When the

and thereby maintaina fruitful source of information."

OSS

proposed to droparms, equipment, and guerrillatraining teams

in Vietnam, McClureand Chennaultresolved to seek"a clear-cut

statement"form Washington in hope of increasingsupport to the

French.35

At aboutthe same time their request arrivedin

Washington,

the

French ambassador, Henri Bonnet, called upon the Secretary ofState

and

requested "all possiblesupport" in Indochina. Apparently un-

Air Forcewas

alreadyflying tacticalair

awarethat the Fourteenth

support missionsfor the French, Bonnetasked for "immediate tactical

andmaterial assistance in every field:direct support of operations and

32Author'sinterview with Wedemeyer.

331bid.

34Minutesof meeting of National MilitaryCouncil, March 10, 1945, enclosureto Gen.

Yung to Gross, March 16,1945, Wedemeyer

35Chennault

toGen. George Marshallfor Gen.

NA.

Wedemeyerfiles, RG 332,

Hsu

files, RG 332, NA.

JohnHull, March 13,1945, FIC book II,

  • 34 PACIFIC HISTORICAL REVIEW

the

parachuting of arms, medical supplies,quinine and food."36The

followingevening in Paris, De Gaulle expressed concernto theAmer-

ican ambassador,Jefferson Caffery, about reports thatthe Americans

and Britishhad failedto cometo theaid ofthe French in Vietnam.7

Bonnet'sand De Gaulle's remarksand Chennault's request were

before Secretary ofState Stettinius on March 16, whenin a memoran-

dum forthe president, he discussedthe question of Americanaid for

Indochina.On the assumption that the Frenchwere

attempting to

makethe United States "appear responsible forthe weakness of their

resistanceto the Japanese," Stettinius suggested that"we combatthis

trend bymaking public our desireto rendersuch assistance as may be

warranted by thecircumstances

...

."38

Although the president sanctionedno publicstatement, he gave

his

consentto continued support forthe French. On the

evening ofMarch

18, theU.S. Army'sdeputy chiefof staff,Major GeneralThomas C.

Handy,telephoned Wedemeyer's home just outside Washington to re-

port thatthe president'spersonal chiefof staff, FleetAdmiral William

  • D. Leahy, had toldhim: "it was

alright to help the Frogs,providing

operations."39

such help does notinterfere with our

In Wedemeyer'sabsence, his chiefof staff,Brigadier GeneralPaul

Carraway took Handy's call. After tryingunsuccessfully through

muchof the

friendsin

an

night to get in touchwith Wedemeyer, who was visiting

sent

Harper'sFerry, West Virginia,Carraway draftedand

urgent,priority message to Chennault:"The

U.S. Government's

present attitudeis to aid theFrench providing suchassistance does not

interferewith operations now planned

Operationsagainst

the

....

Japanese to aid theFrench may be under-taken by theFourteenth Air

Force."40

Although the UnitedStates was at

that pointdefinitely committed

to

aiding the Frenchin Indochina, the French government continued

to express dissatisfactionabout the kind and extentof American sup-

port. On March 24, De Gaulle toldAmbassador Caffery thatno sup-

36U.S. Dept.

East, 290-299.

of State,Foreign Relations, 1945. Vol. VI: BritishCommonwealth and theFar

37JeffersonCaffery to Secretary of State, March 13, 1945, in ibid., 300. 38EdwardStettinius, memorandumfor the President, March 16, 1945, in U.S.-Vietnam

Relations (WashingtonD.C.,

39Memorandumfrom

4'Ibid.,

March 20, 1945.

Wedemeyerfiles, RG 332,

1971), VII, 66.

Brig. Gen. Paul Carraway to Wedemeyer, March 19, 1945, NA.

Allied Intelligence and Indochina

35

plies had been dropped to theFrench. He

could onlyassume, he said,

thatthe American government, "as a matterof policy, does notwant

to help

De

theFrench."41

Gaulle's complaint was partiallyjustified, forfew supplies had

been provided the French,only smallamounts of blanketsand medi-

cines.The problem was an extreme scarcity ofall types of supplies in

theChina Theater, whichhad to obtainalmost all

suppliesby

means

ofhazardous flights overthe "hump" ofthe Himalaya Mountains.Yet

the FourteenthAir Forcehad been

helping the French,having flown

missionsover Indo-

betweenMarch 12 and 28 a totalof thirty-four

china,involving ninety-eight sorties, ofwhich forty-three werebomb-

ing missions,twenty-four offensive reconnaissance, and thirty-one

regular reconnaissance. Twenty-eight of the sortieswere in response

to

direct requestsby

theFrench. There might havebeen more, Chen-

nault reported,except for"bad weather,non-availability of surplus

equipment, and the fluidity ofthe situation."42

Chenault'seffort comparedfavorably with that of Mountbatten

whowas also

attempting to fly missionsin support ofthe French from

hamperedby bad weatherand the larger

bases in easternIndia. But

distances involved,only aboutone-third of the SEAC sortieswere suc-

cessful.Chenault complained that Mountbattenfailed to coordinate

his operations withthe China

Theaterand sometimes droppedsup-

plies

in areas fromwhich the Frenchhad already withdrawn.43 De

Gaulle's government offeredto man and maintaintwo squadrons of

Liberator bombers, but the BritishAir

Ministrypointed out thatno

aircraftwere available and thateven French air unitsin the European

Theaterwere still short of crews.44

Concernedover French complaintsnevertheless, the head of the

Department'sEuropean Division, H. Freeman Mathews,sug-

State

gestedinformally to theWar Department that"even a token drop of

supplies wouldassist in

refuting the

help

allegations and accusations"that

the French.The War Depart-

theUnited States had no wishto

41Caffery to Secretary of State, March 24, 1945, in U.S. Dept. of State,Foreign Relations, 1945. Vol. VI: BritishCommonwealth and Far East, 302.

42Chennaultto War

Dept., April 14, 1945, Wedemeyerfiles, RG 332, NA.

43Supreme Allied Commander, SoutheastAsia

1945,W0203/2965, Joint StaffMission (JSM) to

(AMSO),

(SACSEA) to Air Ministry, March 21,

Air Memberfor Supply and

Organization

April4, 1940, F2005G, F0371, bothin Public RecordOffice.

441bid.; Air Ministry to SACSEA, April 5, 1945, Wedemeyerfiles, RG 332, NA.

  • 36 PACIFIC HISTORICAL REVIEW

ment, in response, instructed Wedemeyer, whohad returnedto China,

to

honorFrench requests for supplies"providing they represent only a

negligible diversionfrom Theater's plannedoperations and entailno

additionalcommitments."

Wedemeyer, whowas hard put to supply his own forces, was stillin

no position to supply much material,particularly suchscarce items as

gasoline, whichthe French specificallyrequested. Although a limited

amount

of supplies were dropped to the French during April,

Wedemeyer was still obliged to turndown most requestsexcept for

medicines.45 Unaware of

the War Department's instructionsto

Wedemeyer, the Frenchwere quick to attributethe failure to provide

supplies to a deliberate policy ofthe American government.

The viewthat the United States deliberately limitedand

delayed its

help to

theFrench during the Japanese takeoverthus was incorrect.46

Yetthe beliefthat the United States, forreasons of political calcula-

tion,deliberately withheld support whileFrenchmen died at thehands

of the Japanese in the spring of 1945 came to be acceptedby

most

Frenchmenand some Americans.The memory of America's sup-

posedlytardy and callous response to the Japanesecoup

poison

enduredto

later Franco-Americanefforts at cooperation in Indochina.

Howeverserious that disagreement, it was destinedto be only thefirst

of a seriesof events during 1945 whichserved to complicate and em-

bitterFranco-American relations concerning Indochina.

Anothereven more disturbingdisagreement soonarose over Ameri-

can relationswith the Viet Minh. In a cave nearthe village ofPac Bo

in a remote part of northeastern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh had con-

venedthe eighthmeeting ofthe Central Committee of the Indochinese

Communist Party in May 1941. The

meetingproduced a decisionto

Vietnamese Independence

founda new anti-colonial coalition, the

League (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi) or Viet Minh, de-

signed to appeal to all opponents of the Frenchand Japanese.47 The

45Hullto

Wedemeyer,April 7, 1945, and Wedemeyer to Gen. Gabriel Sabattier,April 21,

in Bernard Fall, The Two Vietnams.Fall statesthat the

sentence for any French

Chi Minh (Hanoi, 1965), 191-

1945, Wedemeyerfiles, RG 332, NA.

46A typically distortedversion is

American posture towardIndochina " .. . meantan automaticdeath

attempt at

organized resistancein case of

Japaneseattack"; see 55-57.

47Editor,author, and

translatorunknown. Days WithHo

193; Alexander Woodside,Community and Revolutionin Vietnam (Boston,1976), 218-219;

McAlister, Vietnam,112-113; William J. Duiker, The Rise of Nationalismin Vietnam

(Ithaca, 1976), 274-275.

Allied Intelligence and Indochina

37

Viet Minh

began

an ambitious program of propaganda and recruit-

ment amongpeasants in the nearbyprovinces and among the Tho, the

mountaintribesmen who wereleast hostile to theVietnamese.

Remnantsof rebel bands which had fought theFrench in

uprisings

in 1940 were incorporated intothe Viet

forthe

first guerrilla units. During

Minh and formedthe basis

1943 and 1944, thoseunits occa-

sionally skirmishedwith elements of the French colonial militia, while

developing their strengththrough a networkof training and supply

bases in themountainous regions nearthe Chinese border.48

Ho also sought assistancefrom China, and he attempted to

organize

groups of Vietnameseexiles living in southernChina into supporters

ofthe Viet Minh. Chinesewarlords who controlled Kwangsi and Yun-

nan provinces had theirown plans for Vietnam, however.On a visitto

China in August1942,

Chinese

prison.

Ho was arrestedand spent overa year in a

Meanwhilethe Chinese organized theirown Viet-

namese independence movement among theremnants of the old anti-

Frenchnationalist groups. Knownas the

Dong

Minh Hoi, the Chi-

nese-backed organization lackedable leadership or any real following,

and it facedstiff opposition fromthe Viet Minh.49

In

September1943,

a

Chinesewarlord generalcontrolling the re-

Kwei, decidedto try

to be releasedfrom prison

Dong Minh Hoi, witha subsidy of 100,000

gionadjacent to theVietnamese border,Chang Fa

different approach. He arranged forHo

a

and made head of the

Chinese dollars per month. Although Ho ostensibly made the Viet

Minh a part of the Dong Minh

Utilizing the Chinese

Hoi,

they in factsoon controlledit.

subsidy and gaining the cooperation of Tho

establishedan impressive under-

mountain tribesmen, theViet Minh

ground network throughout northernTonkin.

When the Japanese takeoverin March 1945 eliminatedmost pre-

viously establishedsources of informationinside Vietnam, Americans

in southernChina

The whole

began

to takea seriousinterest in theViet Minh.

intelligencenetwork, whichhad been carefully built upon

and the military, was at that

sourceswithin the French administration

pointinoperable. As the directorof the OSS detachmentin China,

Colonel Paul E. Helliwell, notedat the end of March: "The GBT

Group is knocked out, the French system has been destroyed, and

48McAlister,Vietnam, 110-112, 140-143.

491bid.,134-140; King C. Chen, Vietnamand China (Princeton,1969), 56-71.

  • 38 PACIFIC HISTORICAL REVIEW

General Tai Li's setup has been knockedout lock,stock, and bar-

rel."50 The Viet Minh appeared to be the one

organization in Viet-

nam stillable to supply informationand help in therescue of Allied

pilots.

In March 1945 officersof the U.S. Air GroundAid Servicecon-

tactedHo Chi Minh in

Kunming and agreed to supply himwith com-

munications equipment, medical supplies, and small armsin return

for intelligence and assistancein

rescuing Allied pilots.s5During

Service supplied

the

next few monthsthe Air GroundAid

Ho's forces

with rations, small arms, and medicines by air-drop, while a radio

operator was

 

meansof

ing

ofthe Office of

stationedwith the Viet Minh to transmit intelligence to

theChina Theater.

That cooperation withthe Viet Minh was, in fact, the only remain-

obtainingintelligence, as demonstrated by the experience

Strategic Services.

Intelligence

The OSS organization in China, knownas the Special

Branch, or Detachment 202, had been at workfor some timeon a

project to penetrate Indochina.The

projectedgoals

werefirst to obtain

intelligence on the transportationsystem and on the Japanese orderof

battleand secondto obtain political informationon "internalmove-

mentsin regard to Chinese,French, and British policies." The OSS

expected to

troopsalong

receive cooperation fromFrench officials and colonial

the China-Indochinaborder and from"numerous revo-

lutionarygroups which have been used successfully in the past."

These

groups were expected to provide the OSS withboth practical

aid and a meansof "obtaining a clear picture of FrenchIndochina

Politics."52

Although Detachment202 on March 1, 1945, forwardeda plan for

penetrating Indochinato OSS headquarters in Washington, two days

laterthe G-5 sectionof the China Theaterstaff instructed the detach-

mentto holdthe plan in abeyancepending a finaldecision on extend-

soPaul Helliwellto Strategic Services Officer, China Theater, March 29, 1945, Wedemeyer

files, RG 332, NA.

S'Fenn, Ho Chi Minh,

back to

'get

thatnet

52Col. Willis

H. Bird

IntelligenceAgent forthe

74-83. Fennrecalls (p. 78) that"We asked GHQ

Chungking[China

Theater] for clearance, in viewof Ho's reputed communist background. The instructionscame

regardless.' " See also, Lloyd Shearer,

U.S.," Parade, March 18, 1973, p.

"When Ho Chi Minh was an

8.

(Dept. Chief OSS) to Gross,April 9, 1945, FIC book II, Wedemeyer

files, China Theater Records, RG 332, NA.

Allied Intelligence and Indochina

39

ingoperations intoIndochina. Six days latercame the Japanesecoup.

The Japanese takeoverand theresultant reduction in theflow of in-