Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog

Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past


WWII and after in Southeast Asia

Bombing Distilleries in World War II Indochina

I recently came across a report that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) prepared during World War II on “Selected Industrial Sites in Indo-China.” In seeing this title, I assumed that this document must have identified potential bombing targets.

I therefore also assumed that it would be about places like oil refineries, fuel storage tanks, etc., but much to my surprise, the main “industrial sites” mentioned were distilleries.

At first I couldn’t understand why bombing distilleries would be so important. Can eliminating an enemy’s alcohol supplies really lead to a military victory?


As I read the report, however, I quickly came to see the connection, as during the war the Japanese had converted distilleries in French Indochina so that they could produce fuel.

Actually, the French had started to produce alcohol as a substitute for motor fuel in the 1930s, but had still relied heavily on imported fuel. After the Japanese occupied French Indochina, those imports were cut off, and the Japanese and Vichy French officials then expanded the capacity of distilleries produce alcohol for fuel purposes.

Further, by the middle of the war there were some distilleries that were producing butanol for aviation fuel.


The biggest distilleries were clustered in two areas: the Nam Định-Hà Nội-Hải Dương area and the Sài Gòn-Phnom Penh area. Of these two areas, the OSS deemed the distilleries in the Sài Gòn-Phnom Penh area to be the more important to bomb as that is where butanol was being produced.


David Marr’s Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power has information about which industrial sites were bombed when. He obtained this information from OSS reports that are held in the US National Archives. What that information shows is that these distilleries were indeed bombed.

Dr. Francisco Africa and the Burmese Mission in WW II Southeast Asia

I was looking at a report that the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) compiled during World War II about Filipinos who were collaborating with the Japanese. One of the people discussed was a man by the name of Dr. Francisco Africa.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Africa had served as the dean of the Institute of Arts and Sciences at the Far Eastern University in Manila. After the Japanese occupied the Philippines, Dr. Africa was appointed to serve on a committee to select Filipinos to study in Japan.


Later, in 1944, Dr. Francisco Africa became a consultant for the Foreign Ministry. In that capacity he then took on a very interesting job.

This is what the OSS report says,

“In connection with his work as consultant, he was also appointed Chairman of the Philippines Inter-ministry Joint Committee whose chief function it has been to assist the Burmese Research Mission in its extensive study of conditions in the Philippines which began 13 July 1944.


“Of greatest use to the Burmese Commission is a 338 [or 358?] page book entitled ‘What Burma (word missing in original report) about the Wartime Philippines,’ prepared by Dr. Africa. This report which was completed in July 1944 is a compilation of answers of the different ministries and offices of the Republic of the Philippines to questions of the Burmese Commission.

“‘It is intended to serve as a guide and source of information to researchers and students of Philippine economics, finances, technical education, sociology and public administration. . . Divided into 12 chapters, it gives a general picture of the structural activities and problems of the present independent Republic.’”


The report goes on to say that,

“In addition, the volume contains the proceedings of the round-table conference held July 21 among members of the Burmese Mission and the Inter-ministry Joint Committee.

“It is conceivable that such a report would be sued for propaganda purposes to convince other governments, in this case Burma, of the success and efficiency of the Japanese administration.”


I had never heard of the Burmese Mission, nor did I know that there were people from Burma who visited the Philippines in the middle of World War II ostensibly in order to learn about how the Philippines was administered and how its society and economy functioned.

I also had no idea that there were people in the government of a Japanese-occupied country like the Philippines who put together extensive reports like the one mentioned here.

Ultimately there is a lot that we still do not know about the day-to-day activities of governments and societies in Japanese-controlled Southeast Asia during World War II. However, from the brief mention of the Burmese Mission and the report that was drafted for its visit to the Philippines by Dr. Francisco Africa’s committee, we can see that in many ways, life apparently went on as usual.

Documenting Japanese Crimes in the Early Occupation of the Philippines

I came across a file in the National Archives of Australia that contained a translation of a captured Japanese document that recorded information about crimes committed by Japanese during the early occupation of the Philippines.

The translation was made by the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, a joint Australian-American intelligence agency that was given the responsibility of translating captured Japanese documents.


What the document shows is that there was an effort on the part of the Japanese military authorities to discipline soldiers for crimes in an effort to prevent other soldiers and Japanese civilians in the Philippines from doing the same thing so that the Filipinos would not become resentful of the presence of the Japanese.


As for the crimes, there were several men convicted of rape, such as the following case:

“Defendant took part in the PHILIPPINE campaign and saw action in several place. Subsequently during a long halt in TARURAKKU [Tarlac], he went out with a party of 14 under the leadership of a certain sgt [sergeant] to requisition food. This was on 11 Jan ’43 [I think this is a typo and should be 1942, as the other crimes in this document were committed in the first half of 1942].

“As he was passing alone through an inhabited locality he noticed a woman of about 23 years of age hiding in a sugar cane plantation. Prompted by his lower instincts, [the] defendant pursued the girl, knocked her down in the middle of the plantation and there committed the office.”


There were also cases of looting and plundering, such as this case which involved a Japanese civilian who was living in Manila when the war broke out:

“The accused had a hair-dressing establishment in the city of MANILA; but at the outbreak of the war he was interned and his household effects were stolen. When the Japanese Army occupied MANILA, the accused partly through a desire for revenge, and partly in order to support himself decided to take advantage of the resultant panic of the inhabitants to relive some of them of their money and belongings.

“On Mar 3 and Mar 4 ’42, he entered native houses in the disguise of a Japanese soldier ordering the occupants to surrender firearms, money and other articles. In this way, he obtained five pistols, ten clocks, seven rings, ¥ 160 in cash and one camera.”


Finally, there was one case of desertion.

“The accused took part in the PHILIPPINE campaign, landing with his unit at Ringaen [Lingayen] Bay in LUZON Island. After taking part in various engagements, during a long halt at BIGAA in the province of BURAKAN [Bulacan], LUZON, he was upbraided by a certain sgt [sergeant] for slackness in the performance of his duties and for his unsatisfactory attitude. The sgt went so far as to strike him.

“This took place on 5 Jan ’42, but on several previous occasions the same sgt had assaulted him on similar grounds with the result that Army life had become distasteful to him and he felt it would be better to desert.

“Thereupon, at a time when he was not under supervision he seized the opportunity to make off and having left his unit he wandered about in various localities until finally, at about 6 pm on 16 Jan, he was arrested by the military police while hiding in a native house at PURARUDE [?] in the said province of BURAKAN.”


Each of the reports about these crimes is followed by a section called “observations relative to the prevention of this crime.” In the case of the deserter, the observation is that “The accused seems to have been incapable of carrying out his tasks to perfection owing to congenital stupidity,” but that the crime could have been prevented it the sergeant had managed the situation better.

Nonetheless, the sergeant was not penalized. Instead, the deserter was imprisoned for six months. The looter, meanwhile, received a sentence of 1 year and 8 months of hard labor, while the man convicted of rape was sentenced to 2 years of hard labor.

I wonder how many more documents like this still exist? Although this document only contains information about a few cases, it nonetheless provides a view of some aspects of the Japanese occupation that people have certainly talked about, but which are at times difficult to document.

Identifying Betty Boop and Horseface after World War II in Southeast Asia

After World War II came to an end in Southeast Asia, the Allies tried to bring to trial Japanese who had committed war crimes there. They were particularly concerned with identifying Japanese who had committed war crimes against Allied soldiers and prisoners of war.

In order to do this, the same kind of information that is used in other court cases had to be collected. People needed to accuse certain Japanese of crimes and supporting evidence had to be found in order to convict the accused person.


One group of people who provided a great deal of such information were Allied soldiers who had been prisoners of war in the region. Many of these men witnessed crimes committed by Japanese officers and guards in prison camps.

However, the people who attempted to collect evidence from former Allied prisoners of war soon encountered a problem – many of the Allied soldiers only knew the Japanese by nicknames that the soldiers had themselves created for the Japanese, rather than by their real names.


In other words, former prisoners of war remembered the crimes that Betty Boop, Horseface, Mad Doctor and George Formby had committed, but who exactly were these people? That had to be determined in order to bring charges against them.


So the people in charge of collecting information about war crimes distributed pictures to former prisoners of war of Japanese officers and soldiers who had served in Southeast Asia during the war in an effort to link nicknames to faces. Meanwhile, the real names of these individuals were obtained through interrogation after they had been apprehended.

I find the period immediately following World War II to be fascinating. This effort to identify people only known as Betty Boop and Horseface in order to bring them to justice is just a small example of the many challenges that people faced in trying to restore some form of order to a region that had been seriously thrown into disorder.

The above images come from the following file in the National Archives of Australia that contains information about this effort to use photographs to identify Japanese war criminals: War Crimes [Investigations – General correspondence regarding photographic recognition of suspected Japanese war criminals, requests for interviews and affidavits by former POWs held various camps in Japan, Korea, Thailand (Siam), Singapore, Java, Thailand-Burma Railway and Italy.] NAA: D844, 167/1/1A.

The Dog of the Paracels

The other day I came across some materials in the National Archives of Australia that talked about an American submarine attack on Japanese forces on Woody Island in the Paracels in 1945.

Before fires were short from the submarine, the U.S.S. Pargo, a reconnaissance team went ashore, and while they were on the island, they saw a dog. This is what was later recorded:

“. . . it was discovered that there were dog paw prints on the beach and also on several semi-trails through the mangroves. From a position on the edge of the undergrowth and approximately 150 yards to 200 yards south from the base of the jetty, the dog, a large cross between an alsation and an airdale, was observed to run out onto the beach at teh end of the jetty and approach our direction.

“When slightly south of Crew any myself it picked up our scent, nosed around and followed our trail to within 50 yards of us where it saw us and returned to the beach and sat.”


When I read that information, I assumed that this must have been a dog that the Japanese soldiers had brought with them, perhaps to serve as a watchdog. However, today I was reading an account of a visit to Woody Island from more than a decade before this point that also mentioned the presence of a dog on that island.

In an article that was published in The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (06 June 1934, pg. 366) entitled “Desolation on Paracel Island: Impressionistic Sketch of a Visit to Dangerous Reefs in the South China Seas,” a certain L. Dowdall recorded information about a visit he made to Woody Island a few years before this article was published.

Dowdall, whom I’m guessing was an Englishman, was on a ship that was voyaging from Bangkok to Hong Kong. It needed to anchor in order to undergo some repairs to the engine, so the captain stopped in the Paracels, and let Dowdall go ashore on Woody Island.


Dowdall said that “I knew that Woody Island had been exploited for guano by some Japanese several years before, but that they had been put out by the Chinese government who claimed the sovereignty of these islands. Since then several other companies, both Chinese and foreign, had been formed to work the guano but all had come to grief one way or another.”

As such, Dowdall walked ashore on what was at that time an uninhabited island. Much of his article is then spent describing the desolate scenery that he observed on the island.

And then he saw a dog.

alsation airedale mix

“. . . I was very surprised when I saw a large dog. He trotted out of the bushes a couple of hundred yards ahead of me, stood at gaze for a moment and then trotted back into the tangle of shrubs and grass and was gone.

“Had I been dreaming? No. When I came to the spot there were his tracks in the sand. Poor chap, I thought. He must have been left behind by the last people who had been there.

“How long had he been there all alone and did he come down to the beach sometimes to gaze wistfully out to seaward waiting for his mater to come back?

“I called and whistled to him but got no response. He was probably crouching in the bushes watching me warily, wondering whether I were friend or foe. Indeed he would have found me friend had he ventured to come to me.”

dog on beach

Could it be possible that the dog that Dowall saw in the early 1930s was the same dog that the American reconnaissance team saw in early 1945?

The late Thai politician and author, M. R. Kukrit Pramoj, wrote a wonderful short story in the 1950s about a dog called “Mom.” In that story, Kukrit Pramoj basically depicts the events of World War II in Bangkok as seen from the perspective of Mom, the dog.

While that story is, as far as I know, a work of fiction, there appears to have been an actual dog who not only witnessed World War II on Woody Island in the Paracels, but who was there for several years before the war as well; a dog that saw, over the course of more than a decade, Japanese, French, Vietnamese, Chinese, Americans and a lone Englishman all come and go.

For anyone who wishes to read the entire piece, I’m attaching Dowdall’s article here (Dowdall article).

Vietnamese, Japanese, Formosan Coolies and the U.S.S. Pargo in the Paracel Islands in World War II

Given that things are heating up now that the PRC is attempting to set up an oil rig in an area of the sea that is claimed by Vietnam, I decided to look around to see if I could find some new information about the history of this area (at least something new to me – I’m not an expert on this topic).

A quick search in the National Archives of Australia brought up some interesting documents.


I found one document, for instance, that appears to be an intelligence report from 1945 about the Paracel Islands. Late in the war, Australian forces moved northward to liberate Southeast Asia from Japanese rule. They were instrumental in retaking Borneo, for instance, and this report was made in preparation for an anticipated landing in the Paracels (did that ever take place?).

To prepare for this operation, someone collected together various materials about the Paracels. For example, there is information here that was obtained from a 1940 pre-war report in which the Paracels were seen as a potential stepping stone in a Japanese advance towards Indochina.


That report contained the following information:

“The Japanese have phosphate and fishing companies here and on the pier at Woody Island is an imposing monument inscribed ‘Here begin the lands of the Empire of the Great King of Japan.’

“The French erected monuments on Woody, Duncan, Drummond, Robert and Pattle Islands in Mar[ch 19] 38, and on Lincoln and Money Islands in Jun[e 19]39, denoting that these islands belonged to the Republic of France.”


Going into more detail, this document recorded the following information about the Paracels:

“There is a French police station on the island. . . In Jan[uary 19]40, the French personnel consisted of

1 Inspector (native)

1 Sergeant (native)

1 Corporal (native)

24 Policement (native)

1 Doctor (native)

1 Interpreter (native)

1 Electrician (native)

11 Coolies (native)

“There is a Japanese phosphate undertaking at the SW of the island. The undertaking belongs to Messrs Kaiyo, Kagyo of Takao [now Gaoxiong] in Formosa [i.e., Taiwan], and the local staff consists of a Japanese manager, 30 Japanese and 150 Formosan collies. . .

“In Mar[ch 19]38, the Japanese were authorized officially to fly their flag, but it was pointed out that they were only allowed to do so as private individuals, and that the permission has no political significance. Since then it has been hoisted on very rare occasions. . .

“Except [a]round the French and Japanese establishments the island is densely wooded.

“There is an enormous number of rats.”


I had no idea that this is what life was like on the Paracels in the late 1930s, but apparently there was a group of Indochinese “natives” (I’m assuming that they were Vietnamese) based there, as well as Japanese who were obtaining phosphate from the large collection of guano there.

Or more accurately, Formosan coolies were probably the ones who were collecting the guano.

What I am unsure about is why the Japanese were allowed to fly the Japanese flag there. However, this detail, and the claim that there was a monument on Woody Island that had inscribed on it “Here begin the lands of the Empire of the Great King of Japan” suggests that the Japanese there were quietly setting a foundation for Japan’s eventual expansion into Southeast Asia (and it is well documented that Japanese businessmen performed this kind of role in the 1930s in Southeast Asia).


In the end, I don’t think that the Japanese used these islands as a stepping stone for their invasion of Southeast Asia. However, after they had successfully occupied the region, they apparently placed some people on these islands.

A secret mission that a US submarine, the U.S.S. Pargo, carried out in early February 1945 found Japanese soldiers on Woody Island, and the U.S.S. Pargo then fired shots at what appeared to be their administrative building.

Once they began to do so, someone raised the French Tricolor over the building, but the Americans saw this as a ruse on the part of the Japanese there and continued to fire.


I had never heard of any of this, but this file contains a very detailed account of the U.S.S. Pargo’s reconnaissance of the Paracels (they even noted that there was a dog on Woody Island, a cross between an Alsation and an Airdale, that anyone landing on the island needed be aware of, in case it started to bark at them) and its attack on the Japanese base there.

I found this particularly fascinating to read as I was at a conference a couple of years ago where a very respected historian from Southeast Asia argued that China’s claim to those islands really began after World War II when the Chinese tried to claim as their own territory areas beyond China that the Japanese had conquered.

This historian did not provide any details to support his argument, but I can clearly see those details here in these materials.

In the 1930s and 1940s, there were no Chinese claims on the Paracels. The French claimed those islands as part of French Indochina, and the Japanese tried to challenge that claim.

As for the Chinese, their main presence in the Paracels during those years was in the form of Formosan coolies (if we want to consider the inhabitants of the Japanese colony of Formosa as “Chinese”), men who spent their days collecting guano (i.e., shit) for Japanese businessmen.

Oh, isn’t history fascinating?!!

[The full file can be accessed here.]

Darkness and Javanese Soldiers in Australia during World War II

On 5 September 1945 the acting premier of New South Wales, J. M. Baddeley, sent a letter to the prime minister of the Commonwealth of Australia to report about complaints that the Aborigines Welfare Board had made concerning the behavior of Javanese soldiers who were based at the town of Casino, New South Wales.

Apparently there were some Dutch soldiers based there from the Netherlands East Indies (N.E.I.). I’m not sure how they got there, but they must have evacuated to Casino as the N.E.I. fell to the Japanese during World War II. When they did, they brought with them some of their colonial forces, namely Javanese and West Indian soldiers.

Those men, it turns out, started to interact with Aboriginal women, and that did not please the Aborigines Welfare Board.


In his letter, Baddeley reported the following the information about these interactions:

“For some considerable time the Aborigines Welfare Board of New South Wales has received very adverse reports regarding conditions at Casino where there is situated a Camp of Javanese and West Indians, under the control of the Netherlands East Indies Forces.

“The reports disclosed that the presence of these coloured troops in the vicinity of Casino had attracted a considerable number of young aboriginal women to the town, resulting in immoral behaviour, drinking and gambling.”


The Aborigines Welfare Board had apparently first learned of this problem in November 1944, and local officials in Casino had decided to prevent the interactions between Javanese men and Aboriginal women by banning the Javanese soldiers from going to the area where the women were.

However, in July 1945 there were again reports of interactions between these two groups. To quote from Baddeley’s letter,

“Between 16th and 21st July, thirteen persons of aboriginal blood were convicted on charges of drunkenness, obscene language and resisting arrest, and it has been alleged that one of the main causes of this misconduct is the traffic in adulterated liquor between the Javanese and the aborigines.

“In the streets after dark and in the picture shows, numbers of aboriginal girls are to be seen in company with Javanese and West Indians although, apparently, the same also applies to many white girls.”


The Aborigines Welfare Board, originally founded in 1883 as the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, is an institution that regulated the lives of Aborigines. Today it is perhaps most well known (or notorious) for its role in the taking of Aboriginal children from their families in an effort to assimilate them into white Australian society.

This child removal policy was based on various motives and beliefs, but they were tied together by a shared conviction, on the part of white Australians, that it was in the best interest of the country that the “darkness” of the Aborigines (be that perceived as cultural backwardness or the actual darkness of their skin) should ultimately be eliminated.

The Aborigines Welfare Board was therefore concerned that the relations between Aboriginal women and “coloured” Javanese would perpetuate “darkness.”

I wonder, however, what the Board felt about the white women who were apparently interacting with the Javanese soldiers in the streets after dark. Their activities didn’t seem to concern Baddeley all that much. Were they seen to be reducing “darkness”?

[The letter is from the National Archives of Australia = NAA: A1066, IC45/54/5/1, and the image is from the KITLV Digital Media Library = Title: Een soldaat van het volksleger op Java; Image code14048]

Banning Women in Bondage and Dragon Seed in French Indochina

I found a list of American movies that were banned in French Indochina in 1949-1951. It’s interesting to see the kinds of things that the colonial censors did not want movie viewers to see.


When I first looked at the list and saw titles like Women in Bondage, Dragon Seed, China’s Little Devils and 13 Rue Madeleine I started to wonder if Hollywood had perhaps made some risqué movies at that time that I was unaware of, but that is not the case.


Instead, the “women in bondage” in the film of that name (1943) were women in Germany living under the “social bondage” of Nazi control, one of whom resists and becomes a martyr for the cause of freedom.


“China’s little devils” (1945), meanwhile, were children who fought against the Japanese in World War II.

dragon seed

Dragon Seed (1944) also deals with anti-Japanese resistance. Based on Pearl Buck novel of the same name, this film stars Audrey Hepburn as “Jade,” a Chinese peasant woman who, in contrast to the men in her village, stands up against the Japanese. There is a fascinating trailer for this film here.


Another American film that was banned was This Land is Mine. This 1943 movie was about people resisting the Nazis in a European country.


In France the movie was released as Vivre Libre (Live Free). . .


Speaking of France, “13 Rue Madeleine” was the location of a Gestapo (Nazi secret police) headquarters in German-occupied France. The plot of this movie (1947) is too complex to relate here, but essentially it involves an American OSS officer who goes to France and outsmarts his German counterpart.


That an American OSS officer had to save the day in France does not, of course, present the French in the best light. More sympathetic was the 1949 Outpost in Morocco, about members of the French Foreign Legion who successfully put down an uprising by indigenous tribesmen. . .


And then finally there was the 1941 film, Sundown, about British resistance against the Germans in Africa, during which they came across a white woman who had “gone native.”


What should be clear by now is that the main “unacceptable” aspect of these films was their depiction of oppressed peoples fighting for their freedom (or in the case of Outpost in Morocco, the depiction of the French as suppressors). And in World War II, those oppressed peoples were Europeans and Americans.

Scholars have said many times over that the colonial educational system created a contradiction. Once, for instance, the French started to teach the Vietnamese about “nos ancêtres les Gaulois” and the French Revolution, so the story goes, the seed for anti-French revolution was planted.

That may be true to some extent, but by the 1930s there was no sign that revolution had any chance of success until World War II came along. World War II did this by transforming the political landscape, but also because it presented a new “liberation discourse,” which in turn created a new contradiction.

Europeans, Chinese and Americans fought for liberation in World War II. . . so why shouldn’t Indochinese do the same after the war?

That liberation discourse existed in American films, and that is why the colonial censors in Indochina banned them.


This then brings up an interesting question – who exactly were the “colonial censors”? Was this a group of Frenchmen? I not clear about this, but from the above passage, it looks like Vietnamese officials in the post-war Indochinese government had a say in these matters.

A Lost Opportunity or Opportunism in 1945 Vietnam?

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.

donovan 1

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.”

donovan 2

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.”

Huynh Van Khoa

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.

Donovan      Huynh Van Khoa German      Huynh Van Khoa English

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