CHARLES DE GUALLE wrote in his memoirs World War II that the French colonly of adding: "As I saw her move away into the mist, I swore to myself that I would one day bring her in."
That is the central fact about Indochina, composed of north and south Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia: Because of de Gaulle the French did return; they were defeated by Ho's Viet Minh. Then the American's came and they, too, were defeated by Ho's Viet Minh.
The basic story of President Roosevelt's wartime determination to prevent a French return and of President Truman's capitulation to De Gualle is well known and well documented (in the Pentagon Papers, for instance). We also know well the Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon followed along the policy route set by Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson. And we know, too, that, basic to Truman-acheson policy, as later to the Eishenhower-Dulles policy, was the postwar American determination to revive the power and stature of France in Eupope against the perceived twin dangers of internal communism and an external Soviet threat.
Against these facts, Why Viet Nam? comes as a fascinating fragment from the early moments of that long story. It is the first-person tale of a thenn American major and officer in the Oss (Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency), Archimedes L.A. Patti, and of his dealings with the Viet Minh, most especially with Ho himself and others we later learned to know well, such as Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. What comes through most clearly is their stubborn determination which would outlast the power and the glory of both France and America.
A good deal has been written, and much speculated, about the OSS connection with Ho toward the end of World War II; this is the definitive book written by the chief American participant, well documented and footnoted from the records which he has combed. It is, that his manuscript was completed by the time of the 1954 French disaster at Dien Bien Phu but that the Department of the Army threatened him with disciplinary action if he published. If he had gone ahead and risked being a whistle blower, would it have made any difference, would it have headed off the American plunge into the Indochina bog? Possibly, but more probably not.
Patti writes that his book is "neither an acquittal nor a condemnation of anyone" but he emerges from it exactly as R. Harris Smith in his 1972 history of the OSS described him: a man with an "anti-colonial thrust." Patti himself early on was convinced that the Viet Minh movement was "real, dynamic, and bound to succeed."
To Patti, Ho described himself as a "progressive-socialist-nationalist" with an ardent desire to rid his country of foreign domination. He explained that in World War I he had relied on Wlison's 14 Point's and in World War II on the Atlantic Charter as the basis for an end to French colonial rule, but both failed him; he found his intellectual underpinning in Lenin's Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions. Nevertheless, Ho told Patti he considered himself " a free agent." At the moment the Russians were unwilling, or unable to help him and Mao had not yet won China. Patti does not directly consider whether Ho might have become, if we had helped him to oust the French, an "Asian Tito" as many American opponents of our entry into the war have contended. Given what we know today, it seems a possibility; given the power play at the end of World War II, it seems less likely.
Patti was stationed in Kunming, in Southwest China, where the American's were in a constant struggle to get Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese to fight the common Japanese enemy.Patti went to Hanoi, ostensibly on a relief for prisoners-of-war mission, as the Japanese were surrendering and just before the first climatic moment for Ho, his proclamation of independence on Sept. 1, 1945. Patti's account of their meetings, especially the dinner together the night before the proclamation, catches both Ho's hopes and fears; his fears were well grounded for on Sept. 2, when the Japanese formally surrendered on the battleship Missouri, nobody in the American chain of command was paying any attention to Indochina. Ho told Patti he was "developing a plan of operations for a protracted conflict against the French" and before long it was under way.
Important in Patti's book is the long and often convoluted tale of his realtionship with Jean Sainteny, the French intelligence chief eternally seeking to return the tricolor and usually convinced that the Americans were conspiring against France, an attitude that would long continue. Yet, and decidedly for the worst, the United States threw its weight and its arms behind the losing French cause. Sainteny would be an intermediary to Ho for Richard Nixon in 1969; there is no indication that Patti's connections ever were employed again.
As a foreign service officer, Paul Kattenburg was long involved in Vietnamese affairs. He now teaches at the University of South Carolina and his The Vietnam Trauma in American Foreign Policy is an excellent account of our involvement in Vietnam as "an intrinsic and inseparable part of our whole approach" to the post-World War II world. He examines in some detail, and with considerable bureaucratese, 10 "fateful" American decisions in the 1961-75 period. He concludes, for example, that the American role before 1968 was "unwise politically" though not immoral, but that after 1968 the war we waged was "immoral, failing both the test of means to ends and the test of ends." There is plenty in this book to chew on at senior seminars for both civilians and military.