Ho Chi Minh & Company

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

Posted by LCDR Claude Berube, USNR in History
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  • Matt

    Perhaps one should watch the video of the “rebels” decapitating a Catholic Priest, with the town folk watching, to understand just who we are dealing with. That said, if giving them weapons will keep them fighting long enough to get killed, then by all means give them weapons. I cannot imagine a better situation after Iraq than Hezbollah and Al Qaeda killing each other in large numbers. The last thing we should want is for them to stop fighting each other. The goal in Vietnam was for one side to win. Our goal in Syria should be for both sides to lose and lose big. Our country should not try to be Jesus and sacrifice ourselves for any of them. They chose to be terrorists. Let them suffer the consequences.

    • Jay

      Yeah, that’s what Brezinski said about Osama and the Soviets in 79 and what Reagan said about Saddam and the Iranians in the mid 80s. Both enterprises caused serious blowback on the US. The Law Of Unintended Consequences is not remembered or studied by the Masters of The Universe that rule Washington DC. I give it another decade or so before the US is reaping the whirlwind for Dim Son Bush & Dickless Cheney’s misadventure in Iraq.

      • Matt

        How is the “Let’s Run Away” strategy working out in Libya? Why doesn’t Al Qaeda like us yet since we are running away from them?
        How’s the “Let’s Run Away” strategy working out in Iraq? or the “Let’s Do Nothing” strategy in Syria?
        Is Al Qaeda getting stronger under Obama’s wimpy strategies??? Do you even allow yourself to ponder the reality? Why are 21 embassies closing for a week if Al Qaeda is “almost defeated”?
        We shall continue to see the results of running away from the enemy in a war. We alone do not get to choose whether we are at war.
        The suggestion of “blowback” as a result of the Afghan/Soviet or Iran/Iraq wars is ridiculously naïve.

      • Matt

        They don’t “hate” us. The natural world is defined by competition. They are trying to win in their minds and that means, in their minds, we must lose. This is not a popularity contest. Just like lion prides, many other animals compete for territory and resources, so do humans. We must compete to survive. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor because they needed resources to “win” in their minds. Whining and complaining about the natural state of things, the way things have been since the beginning, is like complaining about gravity. Indians competed with other Indians on this continent before we ever showed up. Ever read any Chinese history? Competition defines so much of our lives personally. Someone else will be more than happy to replace losers at any time. The Soviets were absolutely trying to replace us, the Germans and the Japanese before them. AQ’s entire goal is replacing us first in the Middle East and then everywhere as they have stated they intend to conquer every corner of the globe.
        Our efforts in both Afghanistan and Iran at those times in history were done in the context of the larger “competition” of the Cold War and WWII before that. We did not have a choice in WWII remember? WWII taught us hard lessons. Running from the enemy is suicide.
        What did we do “over there” that you think is so bad anyway? Free Kuwait? AQ and like minded Islamic radicals will kill anyone who disagrees with their religion. Do you agree with that? Do you agree with them that “nonbelievers” do not have any rights? That “blasphemy” should be met with the sword?


    True, true. One need not study history to know that it’s a bad idea to stick your nose into fights you have no business in. You’re likely to end up with everyone hating you.

    That’s a good thing because clearly, nobody who makes American policy or war plans cares to take the time to study any history at all. Ever.

    As a general prudential rule we should avoid doing things that don’t benefit us and could hurt us on the basis of a reflexive reaction to an irresistible urge to both do something (anything) and pick the winner (every time) of every possible conflict.

    I think the real question is not should we or should we not intervene in the Syrian civil war, but rather have we lost our collective minds as a nation?