Tags: Syria, world war II
As the U.S. considers directly arming rebels in Syria, it would do well to heed the lessons of history and examine the positive, negative, and almost entirely unpredictable outcomes of such efforts. History is replete with such lessons including not only the obvious parallels to arming of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan but also the original story of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
In September 1940, the Japanese took control of French Indochina which had, during the Second World War, been governed by the Vichy government in France. To the north was pre-Maoist China, with Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces working with the U.S. military. General Claire Chennault’s 14th Air Force was based in Kunming, China, along with the area’s headquarters for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS.) The head of OSS, Major General William Donovan, was a highly decorated veteran of the first World War. When it came to Indochina, his direction to the base in Kunming was clear: “use anyone who will work with us against the Japanese, but do not become involved in French-Indochinese politics.”
Earlier in the war, an Annamite known as Ho Chi-Chi, was held in a Chinese prison. The Viet Minh asked the US Embassy in China asked for help in securing his release which happened in September 1943. The following month, an OSS member advised the base in Kunming to use the Annamites against the Japanese promising them independence if the Allies won the war.
In March 1945, the Viet Minh rescued a downed U.S. pilot. Ho, knowing the region, personally escorted him back to Kunming. Rejecting a monetary reward from the Americans, he asked only for the honor of meeting Chennault. On March 20, Ho asked Chennault for an autographed photo and a few pistols in their original packages. When Ho returned to Indochina, he met with local rivals, showed them the picture and distributed the guns, proving to them that the United States was his powerful friend.
The following month, the head of OSS Kunming, Archimedes Patti met with Ho and asked permission to send a team and establish a training camp. On May 16, Patti established OSS Special Operations Team Number 13, code-named Deer Team. Patti selected Major Allison Thomas to head the team and a Frenchman by birth, Rene Defourneaux, as the executive officer.
On July 16, Thomas, the team’s radio operation Sergeant William Zielski, and translator Private First Class Henry Prunier, parachuted into Tan Trao and met Ho and approximately 80 to 100 Vietnamese. The remainder of the team joined them two weeks later. Their mission was to train the Vietnamese how to find Japanese targets such as military bases, depots, railroads and send intelligence back to the OSS. Ho, ill from dysentery and malaria with possibly a few days to live, told his people to gather herbs in the jungle to make it appear he knew how to heal himself, even though he had already been administered to by the team’s medic.
Ho, and his aide, Vo Nguyen Giap, were believed to be “simple agrarian reformers” according to Major Thomas. But Defourneaux, when interviewed, recalled that “Ho didn’t know how to use a shovel and Giap didn’t know how to milk a cow.” The Viet Minh were trained on weapons provided by the U.S. including the M1 rifle, 60mm mortars, grenades, bazookas and machine guns as well as an Army field manual that focused on guerilla warfare.
In late August, word filtered out that the Japanese Emperor would surrender. The following day, Ho Chi Minh was elected president of provisional government by the small group at Tan Trao from where they began their first march to Hanoi. The new Minister of the Interior, Giap, thanks the U.S. for its support. On 15 September, Thomas finally asked Ho if he was a communist. “Yes,” Ho replied, “but we can still be friends, can’t we?”
Perhaps the first answer was from Colonel Peter Dewey: “Cochinchina is burning. The French and British are finished here, and we ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.” Shortly after submitting his report to OSS headquarters, Dewey was ambushed and killed on September 26, 1945.
Working with individuals or organizations that did not share U.S. values and interests was not uncommon especially in World War II when the U.S. allied with Joseph Stalin or, in the case above, insurgents fighting against the Axis powers. Every case is different, but the post-war Indochina experience suggests that understanding the insurgents one is supporting is important particular with regard to second and third order effects. As the United States considers its support for insurgents in Syria, perhaps it should consider potential outcomes in addition to short term objectives.
Photo: Library of Congress