This documentary film is the story of opportunities lost, roads not taken and 30 years of war that, perhaps, could have been avoided if other decisions had been taken in the summer of 1945. That‘s when Vietnam and America could have become friends, and not the fierce Cold War enemies that they became.
Maybe. The “what-ifs’’ resonate and so do the ingenious, courageous, conspiratorial and sometimes funny and outrageous characters in our story.
It’s a story of international intrigue, war, clashing cultures, shifting alliances, unlikely friendships and bitter, albeit evolving, enemies and confused national policies. The backdrop includes Vietnamese jungles, French cafes in Hanoi, the halls of power in Washington and Paris and such historical figures as Chiang Kai-Shek, Charles De Gaulle, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt and the rather pathetic Vietnamese Emperor /playboy Bao Dai .The foreground includes such characters as the Viet Minh’s political leader, Ho Chi Minh, and its military leader, Vo Nguyen Giap, gung-ho and eccentric Deer Team leader Allison Thomas, the OSS’s Archimedes Patti, OSS and CIA man Carleton Swift and others with vivid tales to tell, filled with heroism, conniving, paradoxes and absurd situations.
But then, Ho and Giap were among the few personages in the story who did not seem confused about where they were going.
The gist of the story — using dramatic new and archival film of war and other historical events — evocative music from the time and riveting interviews done over almost three-quarters of a century, is this:
Toward the end of World War II, the U.S. Office of Special Operations (the OSS), the precursor to the CIA, started doing business with the communist-dominated Viet Minh, led by the ascetic and mysterious globe trotter Ho Chi Minh. The aim was to use the Viet Minh to drive the Japanese out of what had been French Indochina.
The Viet Minh aimed to permanently end French colonial rule in the region. American policy, while it was murky, except for the obvious aim of defeating the Japanese, tended initially to push toward a speedy French exit from the region. After all, the late President Franklin Roosevelt had often made know his distaste for European colonialism; and his expectation was that it would end soon after World War II. As for the example of U.S. imperialism in the nearby Philippines, well, America had promised the Filipinos that they would get independence soon after the year ended.
In scenes evocative of Somerset Maugham stories and spy novels and the movie Casablanca, the film starts with the planning for infiltrating a small OSS team into northern Vietnam in the summer of 1945 to make contact with the Viet Minh. The idea was to set up a partnership to obtain information on Japanese troop movements and military installations, and arrange bombing raids on Japanese forces.
In return for the Viet Minh’s help against the Japanese, the OSS provided the Communist-dominated group with weapons, radio sets, medicines and training. The two groups quickly became very friendly and fought as comrades-in-arms in capturing the Japanese garrison at Tan Trao. They celebrated by getting drunk together. Along the way there would be such incongruous (in retrospect) actions as an OSS medic saving the life of the very sick Ho Chi Minh.
But events were moving too fast for coherent American policy to be made. The Japanese, traumatized by the dropping of the atomic bombs, surrendered much earlier than expected and Ho’s forces declared independence within weeks. In so doing, they looked to America for friendship and even included some phrasing from the American Declaration of Independence in their own.
Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-Shek’s undisciplined and rapacious troops, defeated Japanese forces, some French military people and colons and a few bemused Americans milled around in Hanoi waiting for resolution of the dangerous and confused situation in which Indochina found itself at the end of World War II.
The Americans’ adventure in Hanoi ended quickly, and it swiftly became clear that the French would fight to regain their lucrative colonies in Indochina. At the same time, U.S. policy makers in the inexperienced Truman administration were dealing with domestic pressures to send U.S. forces home and anxiety about upsetting the French.
Washington feared that in the chaos and economic distress of immediate post-war France that the communists would take power there. So they pulled back from what had seemed to have been their support for Vietnamese nationalism under the Viet Minh and began to support the French.
Some OSS people thought that this was foolish.
The seeds were sown for America’s conflict with what came to be known as North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, in southern Vietnam. The tale of the Deer Team demonstrates just how unpredictable politics and war can be, and how difficult it is to gauge the intentions of leaders. For example, was Ho more a nationalist than a communist, or the other way around?
In any event, the Deer Team left Indochina with a sense of incompletion, which was not resolved by the “American War’’ that followed the French war to keep Indochina.
The story shows how fast one-time friends can become enemies and then, as now with America and Vietnam, friends, of a sort, again — especially when a bigger adversary — China — looms next door.
Link to Claude Berube’s article