n early 1946, French-educated Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, a Communist by training, decided to turn to the United States for postwar help. Despite the expulsion of the Japanese that came with the end of World War II, France had immediately re-colonized the southern half of the country, seeking to revive its century-old control of the Southeast Asian nation it knew as French Indochina. Ironically, Vietnamese troops had served on the side of the Allies in attempting to repel the Japanese in the hard-fought Pacific campaign.
For Ho, this wartime collaboration represented a possible stepping-stone toward reuniting Vietnam — bitterly split between the Communist north and the pro-French south — if he could only persuade the United States into pressuring war-humbled France to leave. France, economically weak and divided by the bitter legacy of its domestic collaboration with Nazi Germany during the war (and in Vietnam through Vichy forces), had logical reason to do so. At the same time, its new leader, Charles De Gaulle, a former Resistance leader, enjoyed his image as a self-styled nationalist and patriot eager to restore France’s tarnished glory in Napoleonic terms.
The situation didn’t deter Ho. He had mid-level supporters within the U.S. State Department who insistently told their bosses that siding with Ho, or supporting him in principle, would give the U.S. a key Asian ally, albeit a Communist one, against increasingly menacing Red China. They argued that an independent Vietnam would better serve U.S. strategic interests than one locked in a draining war with France, which they believed France could not win. Moreover, Ho was not a rogue figure.
In February 1946, Ho wrote a passionate letter to President Harry Truman stating his case (other such appeals would follow). The letter was followed up by a variety of diplomatic contacts and meetings in which Ho insisted time and again that an ongoing war of independence, with the U.S. on the French side, would only bring America to woe. He insisted his northern troops would fight until Vietnam was rid of the French, or any invader.
But Truman neither acknowledged nor answered the letter, which remained classified for decades. The State Department faction that supported Ho was gradually brought down by the Red-baiting mood that dominated post-war America, when McCarthyism contaminated foreign policy decisions.
Unable to get help from Washington, Ho reluctantly turned to the Soviet Union, and even to China, fortifying a guerrilla force that ultimately routed French forces in the south. It was that 1954 defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu that underscored America’s Cold War concerns about Vietnam’s role as a Communist stepping stone in Asia (famously known as the “domino effect”). It eventually led to the Vietnam War which left more than 58,000 Americans dead. The U.S. withdrew from Vietnam in 1974, and the country was finally reunited, earning independence as a Communist state, with Ho lionized.
Yet Ho’s rambling but poignant typed letter remains, as does the history of his failed effort to bring the U.S. around to his side.
February 16, 1945
DEAR MR. PRESIDENT:
Our VIETNAM people, as early as 1941, stood by the Allies’ side and fought against the Japanese and their associates, the French colonialists.
From 1941 to 1945 we fought bitterly, sustained by the patriotism, of our fellow-countrymen and by the promises made by the Allies at YALTA, SAN FRANCISCO and POTSDAM.
When the Japanese were defeated in August 1945, the whole Vietnam territory was united under a Provisional Republican Government, which immediately set out to work. In five months, peace and order were restored, a democratic republic was established on legal bases, and adequate help was given to the Allies in the carrying out of their disarmament mission.
But the French Colonialists, who betrayed in wartime both the Allies and the Vietnamese, have come back, and are waging on us a murderous and pitiless war in order reestablish their domination. Their invasion has extended to South Vietnam and is menacing us in North Vietnam. It would take volumes to give even an abbreviated report of the crisis and assassinations they are committing everyday in this fighting area.
This aggression is contrary to all principles of international law and the pledge made by the Allies during World War II. It is a challenge to the noble attitude shown before, during, and after the war by the United States Government and People. It violently contrasts with the firm stand you have taken in your twelve point declaration, and with the idealistic loftiness and generosity expressed by your delegates to the United Nations Assembly, MM. BYRNES, STETTINIUS, AND J.F. DULLES.
The French aggression on a peace-loving people is a direct menace to world security. It implies the complicity, or at least the connivance of the Great Democracies. The United Nations ought to keep their words. They ought to interfere to stop this unjust war, and to show that they mean to carry out in peacetime the principles for which they fought in wartime.
Our Vietnamese people, after so many years of spoliation and devastation, is just beginning its building-up work. It needs security and freedom, first to achieve internal prosperity and welfare, and later to bring its small contribution to world-reconstruction.
These security and freedom can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United States as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.
What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.
I am Dear Mr. PRESIDENT,
Ho Chi Minh