Vietnam War – the missed opportunity that could’ve prevented it

History is replete with examples of America arriving at a fork in the road, trying to decide which path to take. These have included declaring and fighting for our independence from Britain, whether to engage in western expansion, whether to enter World War I, etc. For those of us whose lifetime experiences cover most of the 20th century, American foreign policy encountered just such a fork in our relationship with Vietnam. What is ironic is that, while initially taking the right path in 1945, we backtracked later to take the wrong one. Doing so left us to fight the longest war, as of that time, in our history and the deaths of 58,209 Americans.

The Vietnam conflict ended in 1973. History tells us it could well have been avoided as we initially enjoyed an alliance with Hanoi in the closing months of World War II – established to defeat a mutual enemy, Japan. Sadly, it created a basis for a relationship attenuated and lost in the following years as we backtracked to re-embark upon the wrong path.

But the story of the U.S./Vietnamese bond that led to battlefield actions against the Japanese – lost, for the most part, to history – is brought back to life in a book written by the late George H. Wittman, “There Was a Time.”

As an intelligence desk officer for the Indo-China region, Wittman’s older colleagues shared experiences concerning their clandestine actions with Vietnam – operations that would have America working closely with two men who would later be its enemies – Ho Chi Minh and Gen. Nguyen Giap. Wittman took a literally novel approach to recounting this history by creating fictionalized characters reliving it. In this manner, the reader comprehends what happened through the eyes of the characters so as to better understand the complexities of the multi-national interests in Vietnam – the future of which was up for grabs in the summer of 1945.

The complex interests included those of Japan, which had displaced French colonial control of Vietnam and was clinging to its own control in the waning days of World War II. Once Japan was defeated, France fully intended to retain Vietnam as a colony. While American interests opposed Japan, they also opposed French colonial control of Vietnam. The U.S. position had been set out by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he sought to allow Vietnam the right of self-determination. China also had interests in Vietnam, having invaded that country almost every century of the last millennium and obviously worried about what ideology the country on its southern border would embrace. But ultimately, the most important interests were those of the Viet Minh, a rag tag army commanded by Giap – a force committed to its ideological leader, Ho Chi Minh. He was a man capable of playing international chess with the best of world leaders to forge alliances with nations committed to assisting Vietnam in its quest for independence.

Against this backdrop, the incidents described in the novel involve the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of today’s Central Intelligence Agency. Japan had seized most of the strategic and mineral rich Indo-China region during the early years of the war, and the U.S. was finally able to work more closely with the Vietnamese resistance to undermine Japanese occupation.

Parachuting agents into Tonkin in northern Vietnam, the OSS conducted an attack against the Japanese alongside Giap’s seriously depleted Viet Minh forces. Although the attack was successful, years later it would have serious repercussions for the U.S. after the bond between the two countries was broken.

Victory over the Japanese became a morale booster and rallying cry for the Viet Minh who, having been on the verge of destruction as a fighting force, had been well-trained and equipped by the OSS. The Viet Minh blossomed into the capable fighting force Giap would lead in the war against America. And, ironically, it was the OSS that helped an emaciated Ho Chi Minh, on the brink of death from malaria, by providing him with medicine and care. He would regain his health and go on to inspire the fight against French forces and then U.S. forces in creating and unifying an independent Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh and Nguyen Giap had been hopeful, especially after their joint victory against the Japanese, that the U.S./Vietnam friendship would work to their benefit in casting off the yoke of French control. But the actions of the OSS that could have and should have been a force multiplier in building that friendship were forgotten as new American presidents took U.S. foreign policy in a different direction.

Wittman’s book underscores a valuable lesson not learned – the failure to use even a minor opportunity as a building block for mutual understanding between countries can needlessly lead to conflict, destruction and opportunity lost.

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