One idea that has been expressed a lot is the idea that the US lost an opportunity in 1945 when Truman did not respond to any of Hồ Chí Minh’s letters seeking American support for Vietnamese independence.
The idea is that if the American government had simply understood that Hồ Chí Minh was more of a nationalist than a communist and had supported his effort to establish the independence of Vietnam, that somehow everything after that point would have been different.
One person particularly associated with this idea is Archimedes Patti, an OSS officer in Vietnam in 1945, who published a book in 1980 in which he made this point very forcefully (Why Viet Nam? Prelude to America’s Albatross).
This is also part of the discourse in Vietnam as well. We can see it expressed, for instance, by the late revolutionary and historian Trần Văn Giàu in the clip below from the documentary “Pacific Century: From the Barrel of a Gun” where he says the following (4:00):
“Hồ Chí Minh’s belief in the help of America had its logic. The issue was not that Hồ Chí Minh wanted to establish a communist country. The main issues were independence, freedom and democracy, not a communist Vietnam. Later, we’d see about communism.”
Over the past 15 years or so, scholars have been challenging this idea. For instance, in his Imagining Vietnam & America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950, historian Mark Philip Bradley pointed out that there is quite a difference between what Patti remembered in 1980 and what he wrote in 1945.
In 1980, for example, Patti wrote about a 27 August 1945 meeting between Jean Sainteny and Võ Nguyên Giáp as follows:
“Despite his efforts to appear civil, he [Sainteny] set the tone by cutting Giap short with a paternal lecture. . .Giap, in perfect French and with absolute self-control, said he had not come to be lectured. . . For the first time in his life, Sainteny was meeting face to face a Vietnamese who dared to stand up to a Frenchman. . . Sainteny had been outplayed and was visibly annoyed.” (134)
However, at the time in 1945, Patti actually wrote the following:
“. . .was apparent from the start that French had upper hand and that during the course of negotiations Annamites lost considerable ground mainly due to their inferiority complex when confronted by a European.” (135)
Also, other scholars have pointed out that, contrary to Trần Văn Giàu’s claim, not much time was spent waiting to see about communism.
In any case, we should not be surprised to find that some people’s memories do not match the historical reality. But what then was the historical reality? Was there an opportunity for the US in Vietnam in 1945?
Certainly there were people who claimed to want to offer the US an opportunity. On 22 August 1945, for instance, head of the OSS William Donovan forwarded to the secretary of state information that an OSS officer in Kunming had submitted. This officer quoted “the leader of the Annamite Kuomintang Party in China and a direct representative of the Central Liberation Committee in Hanoi,” as having said the following:
“The Central Committee wishes to make known to the United States Government that the Indo-Chinese people first of all desire the independence of Indo-China, and are hoping that the United States, as a champion of democracy, will assist her in securing this independence in the following manner:
“(1) Prohibiting, or not assisting the French to enter Indo-China; (2) keeping the Chinese under control, in order that looting and pillaging will be kept to a minimum; (3) sending technical advisors to assist the Indo-Chinese to exploit the resources of the land; and (4) developing those industries that Indo-China is capable of supporting.
“In conclusion, the Indo-Chinese would like to be placed on the same status as the Philippines for an undetermined period.”
Then there is the fascinating case of Huynh Van Khoa (Huỳnh Văn Khoa?), a Vietnamese man living in Berlin who in July of 1945 wrote two documents in German: “Vorschläge für eine Zusammenarbeit zwischen Amerika und Indochina” (Proposals for Cooperation Between America and Indochina) and “Die Wirtschaft Indochinas” (The Economy of Indochina).
Then on 29 October 1945 Huynh Van Khoa completed English-language versions of these documents. They do not appear to be exact translations. The English documents are less complete, but perhaps more hopeful given the fact that the title of the first document became “Indo-China’s Destiny.”
What exactly was Indochina’s destiny according to Huynh Van Khoa? Well it was for him to go to the US, get a US passport, and then with the help of an influential bank in the US, to set up the first American bank in Indochina and to take over “the representation of the American Export and Import Company ‘Indo-China.’”
Huynh Van Khoa also proposed to bring along some Indochinese students who were in Berlin at that time, “among the best Indo-Chinese students in Europe,” whom he said “shall be prevented from turning communists.”
What is more, Huynh Van Khoa promised that later these students would take on the task of making “propaganda for the USA in Indo-China.”
And as I wrote before, there was a Vietnamese man in France who joined the US military during the war who wrote a similar letter.
Therefore, in 1945 there were several Vietnamese who wrote letters to the US government and offered America an “opportunity.”
However, these people and their desires for the future were all different. What is more, the people I have mentioned here only represent a small sample of the diversity that existed in Vietnam at the time in terms of people’s visions for the future.
This is then where I think that the idea of the “lost opportunity” falls apart. In 1945 there were far too many interests and agendas, on all sides, for an opportunity to form. This was an environment where opportunism could flourish, but where opportunities were difficult to establish.
Memory, meanwhile, has a tendency to forget the diverse voices and interests in the past. It too, after all, is opportunistic.