The Start of Our War in Vietnam

On September 26, 1945—75 years ago tomorrow—Peter Dewey, a Lieutenant Colonel in the American OSS, filed one final dispatch and headed reluctantly for Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport. General Douglas D. Gracey, a British officer, had ordered him to leave. The two men had disagreed over many things, but a small American flag was the last straw. Dewey had wanted to fly the flag on the bumper of his jeep. Gracey forbid that, and it cost Dewey his life.

Three weeks after Japan surrendered, Saigon was chaotic. The vast city was crowded with indigenous Vietnamese—or Annamese, as they were often called then—along with French colonials, Japanese soldiers, Chinese expatriates, British soldiers, Gurkhas, and, now, a handful of Americans.

Most of the Vietnamese hated the French colonials, and not without reason. Over the past half-century, the French had done what colonials do. Modestly naming the territory French Indochina, they proclaimed in 1887 that their presence was a gift—a mission civilisatrice undertaken for the benefit of backward and benighted peasants. That gift mostly took the form of rubber plantations. For a year of unrelenting labor, rubber workers were paid less than 50 piastres. Colonials spent three times as much to feed a pet dog. The literacy rate dropped from 80 to 20 percent.

Even these parsimonious measures, however, were not sufficient to adequately compensate the French for their largesse. So, they established official alcohol and opium monopolies. These didn’t just provide revenue to offset French expenses. In an early example of what we now call synergy, they also gave the laborers a bit of respite from their exhausting work. Finally, if addictive drugs failed to produce a sufficient level of compliance among the workforce, violence generally did the trick. An extensive intelligence apparatus was required to protect these enterprises from bootleggers, of course. The Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure succeeded in maintaining profitability, though it never was able to win the hearts and minds of the people.

When Hitler took France in 1940, Marshal Philippe Pétain’s Vichy government collaborated with the Germans. A few months later, the French in Indochina reached a similar arrangement with the Japanese. Throughout the war the French in Indochina supplied Japan with rice and rubber and pocketed a handsome profit. Granted, two million more Vietnamese died of starvation, but what of it?

By March of 1945, though, Vichy was history and the Japanese in Indochina were feeling frisky. They interned the colonial French forces, armed the Vietnamese, and let them form a puppet government. As the year progressed, though, things looked increasingly dicey for the Empire of Japan.

To the extent that he had paid attention to Southeast Asia—which was not very much, really—President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to see it de-colonized after the war, so it could enjoy his famous Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

His successor, Harry Truman, didn’t much care about de-colonization anywhere. Mostly he wanted to contain communism. Thrust into the job six months earlier, still trying to get up to speed, Truman met in Potsdam, in August, with Stalin and Churchill, to talk about the postwar world. In one of many afterthoughts, it was decided someone had to disarm the Japanese in French Indochina. Truman agreed to let the British do it.

The job was assigned to the aforementioned Major General Douglas D. “Bruiser” Gracey, commander of the Twentieth Indian Division, composed of Nepalese Gurkhas and Punjabi Muslims. Frederick Logevall, in his Embers of War: the Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, describes Gracey’s arrival: “he walked straight past the Viet Minh delegation waiting patiently by the tarmac and departed in the company of a group of Japanese soldiers. Gracey refused to meet Viet Minh leaders in the days thereafter…”

Logevall quotes Gracey, referring to the Viet Minh, saying, “They came to see me and said ‘welcome’ and all that sort of thing. It was an unpleasant situation and I promptly kicked them out. They were obviously communists.”

War correspondent Clark Lee described what happened next in his book, One Last Look Around (1947):

“…Gracey, a self-proclaimed Tory and believer in Empire, was willing to use whatever means necessary to restore white supremacy and try to rebuild the shattered self-confidence of the French. In negotiations with Viet Nam prior to the landing of British troops, the British assured the Annamites that Gracey’s mission was to disarm the Japanese and restore order. The Annamites were foolish enough to believe that story. Instead of carrying out the promise, Gracey returned the Japanese troops to their posts, allowed them to keep their arms, and used them to attack the Annamites who were likewise using Japanese arms when they had any at all beyond sticks, clubs, and spears. Thus, as was to be the case in the Dutch East Indies, the British used their former enemies, the Japanese, to shoot down other Asiatics. If the Japanese were planning a comeback in later years in their ‘Asia for Asiatics’ campaign, they could not have asked for better propaganda ammunition.

“Gracey’s defense was: ‘What do you want? Do you think we will surrender European supremacy to the first group of outlaws that point guns at us?’ In other words, the words not only of Gracey, but of his superior officers and the London Labour government, ‘defend the Imperial system and the hell with these outlaws who believe in the Four Freedoms.’

“The French who saw us at first in Saigon cheered enthusiastically for the arrival of ‘les soldats Américains.’ They said openly, ‘Now we can put these Annamite beggars back in their places.’ They were crestfallen when we told them we weren’t troops, but correspondents, and that no American forces were coming to the colony.

“Actually, the American ‘forces’ consisted of Colonel Dewey and his mission, plus a group of eight Air Transport Command personnel headed by Major Frank Rhoades. Dewey jumped from a transport plane into Saigon right after V-J Day and quickly got the 136 American war prisoners out of their camps and headed home. Then, instead of leaving, he got mixed up in a game that was too fast for him. ‘I am remaining to protect American property,’ he explained. What property? He had hung out the American flag from the offices of Standard Oil, Texaco, and Singer Sewing Machine. Also, he had intervened dramatically a few days before when Annamites had prepared to storm the Continental Hotel and threatened to kill the French people sheltered there. Dewey had bluffed the Annamites into believing the hotel was American property, exhibiting a ‘bill of sale’ made over to him by the Corsican manager, and had waved the American flag to turn back the would-be attackers. Tragically enough, it was the lack of an American flag on his jeep that caused his death.”

The sangfroid he displayed at the Continental was characteristic of Dewey. The year before, he had led a 10-man OSS team that parachuted into occupied France and spent six weeks transmitting reports from behind the lines on German troop movements.

The son of Charles S. Dewey, a wealthy real estate developer, Congressman, U.S. Treasury official, and financial advisor to the Polish government, Albert Peter Dewey attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., before graduating from Yale. He reported from Paris for the Chicago Daily News for a time, then accepted a commission as a Lieutenant in the Polish Military Ambulance Corps. After the French defeat, he escaped through Spain and Portugal before signing on with the OSS.

George Wickes, a cryptographer on the OSS team in Saigon, wrote about his commanding officer:

“[W]hat impressed me most was Dewey’s interpretation of the complicated political maneuverings of the different individuals and factions represented in Saigon, which he frequently explained to me. He was obviously contemplating a diplomatic career, and he encouraged me to do so too. I was 22 at the time and beginning to think about what I would do after leaving the army. Dewey had established contacts with the Viet Minh and perhaps other Vietnamese organizations. Because he was well known to the French and the British, both of whom objected to his contacts with ‘the enemy,’ he could not very well meet with any Vietnamese without being observed. So he sent me several times to meet with them in the evening. The streets were dark, there were still many former prisoners of war floating about, and I would dress as they did in order to escape notice. I would go to a house on a quiet street and there meet for perhaps two hours with three or four men who were obviously deeply committed to the liberation of their country.

“I have a very clear memory of those meetings but unfortunately no recollection of the names of the Vietnamese I met and only a general recollection of our conversations, which were conducted in French. I know that they were leaders in the independence movement and wanted us to let Washington know that the people of Vietnam were determined to gain their independence from France. During the war they had listened to Voice of America broadcasts which spoke of democracy and liberty, and they regarded the United States not only as a model but as the champion of self-government that would support their cause.

“Three months later I learned that the French had put a price on my head, though in reality they had attached my name to Dewey’s head. The description was of a balding man with a mustache who was six inches shorter than me. Obviously this was Peter Dewey, and the only reason my name was involved was that someone must have learned of my meetings with members of the Vietnamese independence movement. I don’t believe I was ever in any danger, but clearly Dewey was persona non grata on account of his sympathy with the Vietnamese cause. As a matter of fact, all members of our mission shared his views, and our messages to Washington predicted accurately what would eventually happen if France tried to deny independence to Vietnam. This is only one of  the many ironies of Saigon 1945.”

Dewey was clearly trying to realize FDR’s vision of a de-colonized Southeast Asia, but “Bruiser” Gracey wasn’t having any of that. On September 26th Dewey drove an un-flagged jeep to Tan Son Nhut, only to learn that the expected plane from Bangkok was late. According to Wickes, “the pilot got drunk the night before and failed to appear on schedule.” Dewey and Captain Herbert Bluechel decided to go to the OSS villa, just northeast of the airport and eat lunch while they waited. Wickes goes on:

“Dewey had wanted to fly the American flag on the jeep, but General Gracey had forbidden it, saying that only he as commanding officer had the right to fly his flag. Thus there was no way for the Vietnamese to know that this was an American jeep or that these were American officers. No doubt they took Dewey to be a Frenchman, and when he shouted at them, they opened fire with their machine gun, killing  him instantly. The jeep overturned, but Bluechel was able to get away, running to our villa. The Vietnamese pursued him and attacked the villa, but though only three of us were able to shoot back, we succeeded in driving them away.

“At the same time Frost radioed an SOS, and the British sent a troop of Gurkhas to the rescue. They proceeded as far as the roadblock, which had been abandoned by then, but did not find Colonel Dewey’s body or the jeep. In fact, the body was never found, though it was my grisly task for some time afterward to peer into newly dug graves where it was alleged to be buried. I will not claim that Colonel Dewey could have influenced American policy on Vietnam, though of all the Americans in Saigon in 1945, he was the one with the best political connections in Washington both through OSS and through his father, who was a member of Congress. But it was a tragic mistake that he should have been killed by people he was trying to help and a terrible irony that he should have died in what he called ‘a pop-gun war’ on the day he he was supposed to go home after surviving all sorts of dangers during World War II.”

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