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Interview with Harold Robert Isaacs, 1981

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Summary
An historian who in 1932 was living in China and editing a small communist newspaper, Harold Isaacs was contacted by the Indochinese communist leader who went by the name of Nguyen Ai Quoc, (a pseudonym for Ho Chinh Minh), who had just been released from prison. Isaacs recalls landing in Saigon in 1945 as a correspondent for Newsweek, reuniting with Ho Chinh Minh, and Ho Chinh Minh’s attitudes towards both the French and the Russians. Isaacs also attests that the Vietnamese communists reveleaved themselves to be just as tyrannical and corrupt as any other communist leadership; that after Ho Chinh Minh’s death, the political finesse Ho had used when dealing with the occupying forces vanished and the remainder of his staff became heavy-handed.
Topics
Indochinese War, 1946-1954, Communism, Great Britain--History, Military--20th century, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Vietnam--History--August Revolution, 1945, War and society, Indochina--History--1945-, France--Colonies--Administration, Criminal courts, Self-determination, National, World War II, Colonization, Nationalism and communism, Diplomacy, Japan--History, Military--1868-1945, International relations, China--Foreign relations--Vietnam, France--History, Military--20th century, Vietnam--Politics and government
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Transcript

Isaacs's assistance to Ho Chi Minh in Shanghai

VIETNAM
ISAACS
SND ROLL 2854
HAROLD ISAACS
This is sound roll 2854 on Vietnam Project T876. [incomprehensible] The date is July 14, 1981. Tone is at minus eight. This machine set for 50 cycles pulse 25 frames per second.
The first interview on this will be with a Mr. Isaacs.
Okay. Project. Take one, take one. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
I wonder if I can take you back to 1932. I wonder if you could tell me first of all what you were doing in China. How you met Ho Chi Minh and something of your dealings with him.
Isaacs:
Well, in 1932 I had been in Shanghai for several years. I had come to edit a small newspaper called the "China Forum" which I established in collaboration with the underground communist movement in Shanghai.
I had been ah brought into connection with them by meeting Song Qingling and a number of other people and also by my discovery of what the realities of life in China were, and I came to this as a very ardent sympathizer who went to work for them with a will.
The Japanese invasion created an even larger aura for this and we, I was in this midst of this, a rather busy and lively experience it was.
When this chap got in touch with me, ah, who turned out to be the ah Indochinese communist leader whose pseudonym in the communist movement was Nguyen Ai Quoc.
Interviewer:
Why don't just start at the beginning. Somebody got in touch with me or I got a phone call, whatever, and it turned out to be...
Isaacs:
Well, I don't remember how exactly it happened. He might even have appeared at my office. At any rate, I met ah this man who came as a fugitive. He had just been released from prison in Hong Kong and had been spirited out of Hong Kong in order to escape being taken by the French.
In Hong Kong he had served a term under British ah authority for being a subversive or something and I suppose he had some contact in Shanghai with the underground communist movement and they must have been the ones who asked him to get in touch with me.
And, it, what it turned out to become was that I was sort of the go between between him and my communist friends, ah, around the issue of maintaining him while he was there, and ah trying to organize his further journey on. He wanted to get out presumably to Europe.
So that for quite a space of many months, I had periodic meetings with him. I don't remember what pseudonym we used. The name Ho Chi Minh was unknown at that time. I'd never heard that name. Ah. I knew he was Nguyen Ai Quoc, but I didn't, we never used that name or said it out loud, and we used to meet conspiratorially.
The rules of a conspiratorial meeting are really just like you see in the movies, and the fact of the matter is that although I was a very exposed person, we managed to pull it off quite successfully for a long period of time. So that I had these brief encounters with this man who was a cavernously thin, gaunt man with wispy hair, mustache wispy black hair, let me say (chuckle).
And ah I would have to say that our conversations were of necessity restricted in time, restricted to the practical matters of messages back and forth, ah, about what could be done or what might be done or what should be done about getting him out of Shanghai. And ah I regret to say that ah there never was the time to sit down and have biographical sessions or thoughtful discussions about politics.
Interviewer:
How did he conduct [inaudible], you said he was gaunt and cavernously thing, how did he actually live, how did he have enough money to eat and what were his relations to the outside world?
Isaacs:
Well, he lived in the Chinese YMCA on Sichuan Road in Shanghai. Which...
Interviewer:
Start that again. He lived...
Isaacs:
Ah. He lived in a room in the Chinese YMCA on Sichuan Road in downtown Shanghai in the international settlement, ah, where one could live quite modestly, I must say.
How he spent the rest of his days, I'm not sure I can say. Again, by, by conspiratorial rules under which everybody had to live who was engaged in resistance to the regime ah one did ask questions like that. Ah. What one didn't know, one couldn't reveal. So, I can't say, I'm sorry how he spent the rest of his days. The money was passed through me.
I would receive sums, chunks of money, which whenever we met I would pass on to him to pay his rent and buy meals and whatever else. Ah, and this went on as I say for quite some time. Now, the efforts to get him out, which had to begin with getting him some kind of a false passport and then had to develop into some means, some means of transporting him out of the city.
Ah. In these I had only a small part. Sometimes kind of vivid, however. I know I proposed the passport business... ah.
Interviewer:
Could you just start the story again. Say we had to get him a passport, and start the story?
Isaacs:
Well, one of the needs was to get him a passport, and for this passport he needed a photograph. And, I, that was my mission. See to it that he got photographed (chuckle), and we concocted with much hilarity the idea that one way to change his appearance would be to shift the part in his hair which he wore on one side to the middle.
I don't know whether anybody today still remembers that there was such a thing as men wearing their hair parted in the middle, and we, we rehearsed that for some time. He came to one of my meetings with his hair parted in the middle and he, he was really very funny about it.
Ah, but he went in that guise and took, had the picture taken and duly brought it back to me. Ah. I don't know whether that picture still exists in my file somewhere. I, I haven't made an exhaustive search. I don't know how I would delve into the chaos of my files to see but, ah, I, I, I really don't know whether I still have it. Uh...
Interviewer:
You didn't actually give him the passport? Were you ever able to get him the passport?
Isaacs:
That I don't know. He must have eventually gotten the passport because he eventually left Shanghai, I understand, more or less as a legal passenger on something.

Ho's relations with the Soviets

Interviewer:
Go back a little bit. Ho was supposed to have been a Comintern agent from sort of mid twenties onward. Were you aware of this connection? I mean what was his connection with the Soviet Union? Were they trying to get him out? Or... Could you tell me something about that?
Isaacs:
Well, in the first place, although he was, by no means, an internationally known figure at that early date, he was a very well known figure in the communist movement. He was the visible ah well, Indochinese Communist. Ah. In those days they used the term Annamite, ah, more commonly than they did afterward.
The term Vietnamese, by the way, only came in after independence. Nobody ever was a Vietnamese. You were either a, an Annamite or a Cochin Chinese or something else. Ah.
And Ho had been a dele—he'd been in France during the war. He was one of those, one of that body of men who were recruited into the labor battalions in France during WWI and was educated into his politics there. And, he was, he took an early role in the communist movement and attended the first congress as a Comintern under the name of Nguyen Ai Quoc.
Ah, and he had written a, a very noted little pamphlet called "La Colonisation Francaise" or something like that, so that he was, in his way, insofar as the Comintern had paid much attention to Asia ah, at that time, a well known figure. Ah.
What his distribution of his politics as between ah Comintern radicalism of that vintage and nationalism ah is the thing that ah would have to be sorted out in, in, in, ah I don’t, in terms of his own ah holding of these things, ah, by somebody who knows him better than I did.
I know that by the time I met him, and as I met him again later in Vietnam, he certainly placed the heaviest emphasis upon his nationalism his Vietnamese nationalism rather than on the other. Ah.
Interviewer:
Were the Russians, ah, via, the Comintern or whatever, in any contact with, was he having any dealings with any Russian agents, for example, in, in Shanghai? Or were the Russians trying to get in there?
Isaacs:
Well, first of all, I wouldn't know. I, I doubt it. Ah. But, I can't, can't testify to that. That would have been beyond my camp. I know that I did go to the TASS correspondent. It was part of my education on how the Russians dealt with other people's revolutionary problems. Ah.
Diplomatic relations had just been restored between China, between the Nanking government in China and the Soviet Union at that time. This was in the summer of 1933.
And Soviet freighters had begun to put in to Shanghai from Vladivostok. And, in all my romantic naiveté of that time, I went to the TASS correspondent who was a very stodgy man named Chernoff, and said I had this Indochinese communist, a well known communist....
Interviewer:
Just one other...
Take one. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Harold, you're in, you're in Shanghai and you're trying to think of various ways of getting Ho out and you're about to go on to see the TASS man, could you tell me about diplomatic relations being established and how you went to see this man and what happened?
Isaacs:
Diplomatic relations were restored between Russia and the Nanking government in the summer I think it was of 1933, so that shortly thereafter Soviet freighters began to put in to Shanghai from Vladivostok.
This seemed to me to be the obvious opportunity to get him out of the city. In my enormously naive and innocent way, I went to the TASS correspondent who was a rather stodgy, bureaucratically-minded man named Chirnoff and said I had this Indochinese communist who was a fugitive and who needed to get out of Shanghai and couldn't we arrange to smuggle him on board a Soviet freighter.
I don't know what he, he looked at me as though I might have suggested that he ah betray his country, or something cause he said... He looked at me with utter angry astonishment and he said, “Do you think for one moment we would jeopardize our new position here by anything like that?” Ah, and I, I had thought yes, indeed, they would, but, obviously, no, indeed, they would not.
And this was part of my own education in how the Russians regarded their relations with other revolutionary movements. That is to say that their immediate interests were paramount and that never mind anything else. Ah.

Impressions of Ho

Interviewer:
Maybe you could tell me a little bit more about how Ho actually looked. I mean what did he eat, what did he seem to be... You said you couldn't ask him any questions because of the conspiratorial nature of things, but how did he actually strike you. I mean were you, were you aware of his presence, did he sing out, or was he one of many revolutionary, just sort of...?
Isaacs:
Oh, Ho Chi Minh was obviously, even then, a man of considerable force and unique personality. He was, he was quizzical, he was always quiet and calm. He, obviously, conveyed force. Ah. I don't think I ever saw him agitated.
He always was on the quiet side and you certainly had a...
Interviewer:
Stop a minute...
Interviewer:
Shall we take one.
Clapsticks
Interviewer:
Can you tell me about this man, Ho Chi Minh as you saw him, and why you saw him the way you did?
Isaacs:
Well, even in those scanty meetings, ah, he made an enormous impact on me as a person. But I have to say, and I have to preface this by saying that I was twenty-one years old. I was an ardent helper in the revolution filled with a sense of its greatness and its importance and its dangers and its risks.
And I was seeing this man through those eyes. On the other hand, let me say that while I'd met a number of Chinese communists, I'd never met anybody like him. Nobody who quite conveyed the electric quality that he had and yet it was not an electric quality that crackled It was, it was simply the sense of a strong current.
More amperage than volts. Ah. He had always a quizzical quality to all our conversations I, I remember that very vividly. I think he looked, he couldn't have been all that much older than I at that time. He, he was a man at that time I suppose ah well he must have seemed very much older than me. He must have been like forty odd and so on. I was twenty-one.
And, he must have looked upon me as a, a phenomenon. You know, this young American. Ah. So that whenever we met there was always a smile lurking around the edges of his mouth and so on as we swapped our messages back and forth.
Ah. I had the sense of a, of a person of, of parts. And, I would be a little more skeptical of this view, at least I would ask anybody to take this view with reserve if I hadn't ten or twelve years later met him again in Hanoi and found that that's the kind of person he really was. He was an extraordinary unique sui generis type, communist and all, which he certainly was.
Ah. I don't know whether any justice has been done or is likely to be done to him in a biographic sense by anybody.
Interviewer:
Again. Let’s cut.
I love the answers...

The French colonialist response to Vietnamese nationalism

Take one. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
I'd like to take you back to 1945. You arrive in Saigon strike going on, just say in 1945 I went back to, just describe the scene for me. What was going on?
Isaacs:
Well, I arrived in Saigon in, some time in early October, I think, or mid, mid October, 1945. Ah. I was a correspondent for Newsweek then. Ah. I had just come down from Korea and Japan.
Saigon was paralyzed by a general strike. Just about three or f—three weeks or so earlier, ah, the provisional Viet Minh government that had been set up in Saigon by this united front of the communist and assorted other Indochinese parties, ah had been overthrown in a coup staged by a French colonel named Cédille, I think, with ah, a small number of French, released French prisoners and a small contingent of troops he had aided by the British who'd come in to take this Japanese surrender.
And the Viet Minh had been caught more or less unawares by this; they thought they had the situation in hand. They didn't dream anybody would try to do this to them. So, they were thrust out to the margins of Saigon ah, and carrying on guerrilla fighting on the highways leading out of Saigon, and in Saigon itself they had called a general strike.
Interviewer:
[Inaudible] I wonder if you could just say when you arrived in fact the Viet Minh had been forced out of ah out of out of Saigon, there was a general strike. Then take the scene from there. Just a little bit more, compactly.
Isaacs:
All right. Ah. I arrived in Saigon some time in October, '45. The Viet Minh had just been forced out of the city by a coup d'état led by a French colonel, supported by the British occupying force.
Fighting was going on all around the margins of the city. The Viet Minh guerrillas were fighting, the British had enlisted the Japanese troops who were there. Instead of disarming them, they used them to fight the guerrillas, to guard the highways and in the city itself, a general strike had been called, which was thoroughly effective. Literally, nothing was moving in the city.
You could walk down the the main streets without fear of anything hitting you. Most of the shops were closed. Very few Vietnamese were, were in sight, and what one had there were the small number of French troops, the recently released local French police and, and and jailers. Ah.
A French community that was bitter and angry with fear and loathing about what they felt they had been subjected to by way of Viet Minh national assertion.
Ah. And, it took the form of a, in the French manner I'm afraid of an extremely vicious, brutal response. That is to say, people were being brought in in long lines, chained prisoners. People allegedly caught fighting...
End of SR 2854. Isaacs.
VIETNAM
ISAACS
SND ROLL 2855
HAROLD ISAACS
This is the Vietnam project. Date 14/7/81 Roll 2855. Tone minus 8.
Take one. Clap sticks.
Isaacs:
Where do you want me to pick up from?
Interviewer:
You're at '45. You're gonna, you just said you can walk down the streets of Saigon. There's no fear. There's a general strike on. It's pretty effective. How are the French feeling about this and what are they doing?
Isaacs:
The French in Saigon then were an embittered, angry, frightened lot. The French who had been there before under Japanese domination and who'd been part, incidentally, of Vichy’s cooperation with the Japanese uh, considered themselves liberated by the coup that had removed the Viet Minh who threatened their very existence there as Lords of Creation.
But, now they felt assailed on all sides amid strangers, British, Japanese, a few Americans and they were very defensive and angry about the need to reassert their power over these ungrateful natives quote, unquote.
And, this took, I'm afraid what I would regard, as characteristic French vicious qualities in the nature of the repression. Prisoners were taken. They would always allege, of course, that they were taken virtually arms in hand, but most of them, obviously, had not been. They might have been distributing a few leaflets or they might have...
There were women whom they accused of carrying arms in their market baskets and these prisoners would come in chained lines into their prisons, appear before drum head courts, sent off to prisons. The French prison colony on that island, off of, what was it, Poulo Condor, something like that, became the scandal of, just as it had been the scandal of the colonial period ah became the scandal again of what the French did with their victims.
And, they expressed hatred and contempt and disgust and sometimes, the milder form was that, was the the notion of we did everything for them and now look what they're doing to us. It was the typical colonial response to nationalist assertion. Only in the case of the French, it was larded over with a particular quality of, what shall I say, ah, the particularly, it had a particularly repulsive form because of their pretenses at, at having had virtue in their colonial rule, and there was no way of attaching virtue to colonial rule. I don't know if it's possible...
Interviewer:
You mean the French would say that unlike the British and everyone else they weren't racists, and they had a different attitude. Can you tell me something about that?
Isaacs:
This, this was the most blatant kind of, of self serving statement which could bear hardly any examination at all. The French went to bed more freely with the women of their colonies. The French used the method of co-opting segments of the population, which they tried to turn in into what were contemptuously called black Frenchmen.
In the case of Indochina, they had granted citizenship at that, by that point through all their 80 or 90 year history, I think, to about 600 if I, I, I'm summoning this figure up from memory. I don't know whether it's right or not, but people who had been particularly serviceable to them were granted the great honor of French citizenship.
But, leave aside the degree or manner of, of waging their rule, and waging their rule is the verb. There could be no accepting for people in a colony of foreign rule over their lives. In the end, the, the basic demeaning of dignity and, and quality of life represented by having people rule over you, denying you all measures of autonomy, both psychological and political and and lording it over racially. The, the French were as racist as the next one when it came to the critical dimensions.
And, this is what fueled the nationalist movement in all the colonies. This is what the European colonialists never could quite take in. The French spoke of their civilizing mission and some of them, I suppose, believed it, although there was a high degree of cynicism, especially what one might call Gallic cynicism. Ah.
And, this is what led to the, the struggle against them. Its short lived but marvelous quality of purity, of high moral sanction. All kinds of bastardly politicians. Tyrants to be could in the period of the nationalist struggle really embrace a morally pure course. Nobody, except the colonialists themselves could challenge the validity of their need and their desire to become their own men.
And, anybody coming in to this certainly I, and many like me, and I think what could have been called a generalized American feeling about this given the whole American attachment to this same set of considerations, ah, could not but identify with this.
And, the political differentiation from communists who in this case dominated the nationalist movement, because they had fought most consistently. Ah. I have to recall to you that the French in Vietnam, in Indochina, after the fall of France in 1940 had entered into collaborative relations with the Japanese ah, and most people had simply submitted.
The Viet Minh which was organized and had fought with American help from across the border in China. Ah. There was American involvement in arming Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas who came in to fight, first the Japanese and then later the French, ah, had this identification with this, and it was very difficult not to, in one measure of another, ah accept this as valid, and the political differentiation, the fear of the communists that the American official establishment had and which the American official establishment gave priority to over all these other considerations and therefore, in effect re-armed the French.
They brought the French troops back from, from Europe. They supplied France with arms and weapons for Indochina and to a very considerable measure the return of the French, the restoration of French armed power in Indochina was made possible because of the Americans, not only acquiesced in it, but actively supported it at the time.
And, in that given moment of, of struggle, ah, the rightness of the cause was, was unchallengeable, and to, to be on the spot and see this being seduced by notions of fear of of what the communists might do later and giving this priority over the overwhelming need to identify with these nationalist movements and let the politics of the future shape itself as it might, ah, made it a moment in history which disappeared very quickly.
There was great faith and expectation that the Americans out of self interest... Indeed, Roosevelt, you know, because he was so annoyed at the French for the way they behaved vis-à-vis the Nazis, had made noises about giving a different status to Indochina. So, there were many illusions about this which died very hard.
Interviewer:
We're going to take you back, how were the Vietnamese? What dealings did you have with the Vietnamese in Saigon? How were they reacting to the French? What were they doing? How did they impress you? What, what did you see of them?
Isaacs:
Well, of the, of the people on the street, you know, I don't know that I can sum it up ah, particulars. There was that sort of sullen, frightened quiet. I very quickly was able to establish connection with the local Viet Minh people who were in effect mostly underground, but there was still a committee that was living a very precarious existence trying to negotiate ah some kind of arrangement with the British, uh, overlords of the situation. At least they had come, the British had come in nominally to take, take over pending the surrender of the Japanese and what not.
And, it, I very quickly was able to establish connection with them, and this was a group of, of bitter, angry, betrayed people who were filled with a sense of, of loss, and, and, and, and ah the need to resist...
Interviewer:
Are there any specifics you can remember? I believe you say you saw the...?
Isaacs:
Well, the chairman, the chairman or at least the, I'm sorry...

French attitudes towards the colonized

Mark it. Sound. Six. Take one. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
I'd like you to tell me about French justice that was being meted measured out at this time. What you told about these French who were sort of gather what sort of justice was going on, and what were the faults? And how did the Vietnamese react to it?
Isaacs:
Well, the piece of it that I saw was a day spent in a courtroom in the Palais de Justice in which there was a military court, and the judge sitting was, had a military uniform on, and this was very preemptory summary justice, indeed. These prisoners would be led in in groups.
Ah. Their names would be read out. Somebody would announce the charge. “Caught, ah, on the highway passing out ah leaflets,” or some of the women were charged with carrying arms and revolvers in their fruit baskets. Ah the charge would be read out, all of the, the proceedings were all in French. There was no attempt to translate for the for the prisoners who, obviously, didn't understand what was going on.
Questions would be put to the prisoners and the questions would be interpreted and the prisoners would mumble some kind of answers, and then they'd be led out, and that was the entire proceeding. Ah. My recollection is that, they’d be sentenced in groups, and then afterward they, there'd be a recess, and they'd be brought back in and this colonel or whatever he was would hand down the sentences like five to seven years in prison.
Ah. The conditions under which, I visited a prison in Saigon, and I suppose I've really blotted out of my mind just how awful it was. These were prisoners kept in a, in a most miserable state and fed garbage virtually to the extent that they were fed at all. Ah. It comes back to my mind that outside the prison there was a little huddle of women who thought their men might be in there.
It was quite a demonstration of western colonial justice in, in this place, with ah, with special French adornments. And, I must say it left one feeling that the anger and bitterness and violence of the feelings aroused, I can't speak to the man in the street. One always loosely talks about the man in the street but the only ones that I really talked to were part of the ah, the local revolutionary groups.
And they were ready to burn with vigor, in fact, there was one striking vignette that comes to my mind. I remember one of the members of this committee whose name I've forgotten, who spoke absolutely impeccable French, had been educated in France, and with ineffable sadness, you know, he said something like, You know, I really loved France, I loved my time there, I loved most of the people there. He said, but France here is a monster or, or, or something of that nature.
And, this contradiction between whatever one could have by way of a feeling of the people in the home country of the colony was not uncommon by the way, it was even possible among the Japanese; Chinese who'd been to Japan ah could have feelings like that about Japan and Japanese who they'd studied with or lived with or worked with.
So that the export, the colonial export, just like the British exported to India, the Japanese exported to China and most of all the French exported to Indochina. I have to say, if I, if I betray a particular feeling about the French it's because my own experience of them in these heightened circumstances, and by the way, there were other times when I saw this in North Africa too. Same thing.
But, the French managed to arou—the French colonialists, managed to arouse a peculiarly virulent hatred among those most Gallicized of their subjects. It was the French educated who often turned out to be the most vicious in their feelings of their violent feelings of, of, of need to be liberated from the French thrall.
And this is what I encountered among these people and in fact, all the members of this committee spoke impeccable French. Pham Ngoc Thach Pham Ngoc Thach this young doctor who was the head or at least the chief negotiator with the British was another one. He received his medical education in France and so on. This was a common feature of the colonial experience and it was particularly vivid in those circumstances there.

British rearmament of the French as origin of the Indochina Wars

Interviewer:
Could we move on to the other colonialists since you were there at the time? The British were there. How did the British and the Vietnamese get on? How did the British and the French get on? How were the British using the Japanese? Could you...
Isaacs:
Well, there again, I can't speak in much...
Interviewer:
What did you see...
Isaacs:
...detail about that. The British had come in under a Brigadier named Gracey with his Battalion of Sikhs officered by British officers, nominally to come in and take the Japanese surrender. Under the Potsdam Agreement they had drawn a line, across the 16th parallel. The Chinese of all things, Chiang Kai shek's Chinese came in across the northern border to occupy the northern half and the southern half of the country ah was supposed to be handled by the British for the transition.
And, of course, they came in to this maelstrom ah and their identifications as far as I could ever gather was certainly of the colonial order rather than the anti colonial order. Ah. I suppose if I remember correctly that Gracey tried to sort of hold on in some kind of maintain law and order position for a while, a typical prior concern, ah, very quickly found that ah he was under tremendous pressure from the French, the little French adjunct that I think came in with him.
Some parachuted in there. The French tried to parachute a contingent in there to try to seize hold. And, again, you've got to remember that the French were a very discredited bunch among their allies. Neither the British nor the Americans, ah, as allies of the French in the war, had very kindly feelings toward the French of any stripe ah, so that there w—there was a certain, there had to be a certain ah if not antipathy, at least ah, distance.
Interviewer:
Now let us get on with the Vietnamese. What did the Vietnamese think of the British, and what did the British do with the Vietnamese?
Isaacs:
Oh, they, as far as I ever got a refraction of the British through people like Pham Ngoc Thach and the members of this committee, they found the British unbelievably myopic, that they, they felt that the British were responsible.
The British had the formal control and yet here were the British doing everything possible to assist the French. The British connived in this coup d'état on the night of September 23. Am I remembering correctly?
Ah. It couldn't have been staged without British connivance, so that they felt the British had joined forces with the French against them. When the guerrilla operations began, when the fightings that started on that night of September 23 began the only forces of any size that he had to dispose of were the Japanese. He only had his 600 Sikhs ah.
So that in many cases arms that had already begun to be piled and taken away from the Japanese forces, stacks of rifles, were given back to the Japanese troops in their camp.
Interviewer:
I wonder if you can just give us a milieu…You just sort of said having gone into disarm the Japanese, what, in fact, happened was that the Japanese were armed, I wonder if you can give us a short...?
Isaacs:
Well, the Japanese were re armed and put to work patrolling the highways. I remember one night very vividly when the Viet Minh had blown up the munitions dump at the airport, which was on a road, I don't know what it is, fifteen miles out, 12 miles out, and we saw this great big flare in the sky and everybody tumbled out of the Continental Hotel and got into our jeeps and raced down the highway in the dead of night toward the airport to see what was happening.
And it was really quite extraordinary. The headlights of our jeep would pick out at about every 100, it seems 100 feet, maybe it was 100 yards, along the, on both sides of the highway, as we made our way toward the flaming airport, were Japanese soldiers guarding the road all the way. And, I must say, when many years later I had occasion to be back in Saigon, and went along not that highway, but a highway like it and there at about 100 yard intervals were great big signboards for Sony, Yamashita, Honda Motorcycles.
As we went along the road, I was driven by my son who was a correspondent there then, ah, here were these signboards in place of the Japanese sentries who had been armed by the British to guard their roads for them.
Interviewer:
The British, of course, would say that, ah they had no options... sorry...
End of Snd. Roll 2855.
VIETNAM
ISAACS
SR #2856
This is Sound Roll #2856. This is July 14, 1981. Project Vietnam. Tone is minus eight, 50 cycles. Talking in background.
Clapsticks. Take one.
Isaacs:
...come to power they’d have done the same thing.
Interviewer:
Did I say it? All right. Do you take a very black, I was ahm I was going to use the word jaundiced view of the British and their actions vis-à-vis the French. The British would say, I think, that they went into take the surrender and deal with law and order. They had no law and order. They couldn't deal with the surrender. How did you actually find this?
Isaacs:
Well, here again, I don't know how one votes on motive. I think with respect to the French who parachuted in, one could use any variety of adjectives. In relation to the British, it seems to be you get a little less complicated. That is to say, the British probably interpreted, Gracey probably interpreted his mission in a literal fashion, ah, and could only see that people were out there shooting, and he had to get rid of the people who were out there shooting, and the only kind of orderly people he could recognize were French, even though they were dubious, I'm sure to him. Ah.
And, I have no doubt, I've never studied the papers the, the new British papers that finally came out about that. I don't know what his official mandate was, but he certainly regarded his mandate, restoring law and order, as restoring French authority. This, of course, had the effect of disrupting the law and order that was there. Nobody was shooting...
Interviewer:
Just start over again. Gracey seemed to regard the same as law and order was actually…
Isaacs:
Gracey's mandate was to maintain law and order as well as to take the surrender of the Japanese and so on. Ah. I don't know how formal or explicit this was in his papers, but there's no question by his actions, that restoring law and order to him meant restoring French authority.
And, the result of this was to disrupt the law and order that there was. There was nothing disrupting law and order at the time of the arrival. The Japanese were passively waiting to be disarmed. The Viet Minh had set up their government and were waiting to take over and fully expected to rule, ah, and it was only the ah, the connivance at the return of the French that set the whole thing ablaze and started the war which, indeed, went on till, with very few intervals until 1975. Ah.
And, it seems to me, it can only be seen in this context. Now, in terms of how they themselves saw it, I remember a brigadier whose name escapes me who was the briefer. We constantly badgered, or at least I certainly did my best to badger him. I...
Interviewer:
Just talk about press conference. Tell me about press conference.
Isaacs:
Well, it was a question of asking questions about this rearming of the Japanese.
Interviewer:
Would you sat at press conferences...?
Isaacs:
At a press conference, there was a fair number of correspondents that gathered in Saigon by this time. Ah. And, at a press conference run by a brigadier attached to Gracey, ah, we pressed him very hard about rearming the Japanese in order to fight the Vietnamese.
And, I ah, I wrote this in great detail at the time, but I seem to recall that he offered all these law and order questions. These are disruptive elements. We ah had the need to use whatever means at our disposal. This is a temporary measure etc., etc., ah, to justify what they were doing. In the meantime, French, fresh French troops were being brought back into Saigon shipload by shipload. And, they marched up Rue Catinat looking like GI's. They were completely dressed head to foot in American given equipment, helmets, equipment and these, these little one that I saw come up they had some of these small whipper tanks, and they hadn't even erased the star on it. It still had the US, that white US star.
Ah, and you know you just squint your eyes a little and it was an American contingent marching up Rue Catinat with the French lining the street cheering them like mad. Ah, and this was going on steadily. It was ah a landing of I suppose battalion of better strength at a time over a matter of weeks. And, this is what brought the French back into the picture and started the whole huggermugger that resulted in all the subsequent history, and had there been, had there been the vision, I don't suppose it was possible, certainly on the part of the United States to see that this was contrary to all political sense. This was contrary to everything everybody ever said about what the war was being fought for.
Our whole history in this part of the world would have been different, and if it was done this way in Indochina, mind you, the same drama was played out in Indonesia where the British also with a landing force to take the surrender, where they also rearmed the Japanese to fight nationalist guerrillas.
So, that's the, the entire expectation in that region, that colonial era was coming to an end and for better or worse, surely it was going to be worse, but for better or worse, they were going to become masters of their own fate. They were simply crushed by these events between 1945 and ‘47.

Isaacs's meeting with Ho in Hanoi

Interviewer:
Okay. That was very good. Let me take you up north. You land in Hanoi. You meet Ho Chi Minh. Tell me about that. How was it managed? How did you meet again? What did you find, what did he say. You said he changed one prison for another. He had all guards around him. He had been a prisoner when you last saw him or had just come out of prison...? What happened? You arrived in Hanoi and you meet there. What happened? Talk about it.
Isaacs:
Well, ah, (coughs) I had the impression that the man everybody was calling Ho Chi Minh and of whom I'd seen pictures was the same chap I had known in Shanghai, and when I, I don't remember. I must have gone to the Residence Superieur to see him, I suppose.
Sent in my name, and the minute I saw him, I realized, of course, it was, and he immediately remembered me and we, we had quite a few days of reunion, with that same kind of quizzical quality to it that I always remembered in him. It was illustrated by the fact that when he took me from his office... Well, first let me tell you about his office.
He was established in the Residence Superieur; which was a sort of a mini Versailles, as the French always built palaces for their vice consuls abroad, and he went up this huge marble staircase to the great first floor where the governor general used to hold fort in a suite of royal offices.
At the head of the stairs, there was a tiny office that really couldn't have been much more than twelve or fourteen or fifteen feet square, which must have been the office of a porter or an usher or an aid or somebody that announced guests. I don't know what it could have been, but that was where Ho had established himself. He was now the President of the Vietnam Republic, which had been proclaimed in mid September.
And here he sat in this little crowded paper filled office, with all this grandeur behind him, and he very characteristically had chosen to sit here. Okay. We met and we talked and he said come on, come home with me. We'll have dinner. And, we go down and here we are surrounded by armed guards who ushered us out of the palace and into a car. We get in the car and we're riding out and he says something like ah it's a funny thing.
He said, when I was a prisoner and I was allowed to exercise, there would be armed guards to escort us outside the prison into the yard to exercise. He said, now, I'm president of the republic and when I go outside, I have armed guards to escort me. (chuckles) It’s this, this kind of humor that he was able to address. It was a sort of, of self deprecating in a way, although, obviously, he was a man whose, did not want for his particular quality or vanity, cause he, he had a lot to be vain about.
Interviewer:
Did he say war was inevitable at this time? Was he hopeful? Did you talk about this feeling the war with France was inevitable or did he think he could hang onto it…?
Isaacs:
No, he...
Interviewer:
Think of a question. Form a question in your own mind.
Isaacs:
Well, Ho's view of the situation that he was in at that time, he had two sets of problems to deal with. One was the Chinese. I think I mentioned that the Chinese were the occupying force in the north. And, the relations between the Chinese and the Vietnamese were very tenuous. The Chinese had all kinds of designs. Territorial and otherwise, to say nothing of, of direct and immediate large scale corrupt practice in beginning to loot Northern Vietnam of everything they could lay their hands on.
And, he was trying to play the game of dealing with the Jap, with the Chinese and get them out. Now, there was no nonsense about rearming the Japanese. I can say that for Chiang Kai Chek. His other problem was the French, with whom he had to negotiate what was going to happen in the other half of the country.
He didn't feel that any, he could win by force of arms at that moment. It was gonna take time. It was a post war situation, disruptive. They were fighting with arms they had seized from the Japanese before the Chinese could get them. Some of the small bits of arms they had from the Americans before the surrender...
Interviewer:
We’ve run out.
Mark it. Eight, take one. Take on. Clapsticks.
Interviewer:
Can you just, what was Ho, when you met did Ho talk with you about his dealings with the French and what he was trying to do? Can you tell me?
Isaacs:
Yes. Ah. We had considerable conversation about that it seems to me, and the main thrust of it was that he had to negotiate, that there had to be some way in which given the relationship forces that he was confronted with that, if he could get independence recognized, he was ready to deal on anything else. And, he said, there's no limit. I remember him saying something ah like I would be willing to guarantee the French economic position in Indochina in total in return for recognition of independence.
The French at that time were offering a limited French union kind of business. He said something like, look we've given oceans of blood. Lifetimes of it. What's a few hundred million piasters to give for in, more for independence. Ah. And, of course, he ah...most directly felt the the lack of support. He had no support from the French communists. The French communists tried to get them to ease off.
The French communists were trying to get them to lay off and negotiate a settlement and, and be good boys because all was going to be well in France. The Russians, they were bitter about the Russians. They didn't think the Russians cared anything about them, their, their affairs.
Interviewer:
You are saying Ho was actually bitter about the Russians. Did he actually say this to you? Did Ho actually ever mention the Russians to you?
Isaacs:
I can't testify. You know, we're talking about forty years ago. I certainly haven't, I certainly haven't looked at it, but I know that the general burden of the conversation was one of isolation, and the, from the people he thought would be his allies, including the Americans, and I would be amazed if I went back to my notes if it didn't include that the whole catalogue; The French, the Russians, the Americans, the French Communists included ah and that's why he felt that he had the task and the responsibility somehow to negotiate his way out to a new position, and then, and then gather the force that he knew, I mean Ho had no illusions ah that once enough force was gathered on both sides, there would be another story. I don't imagine for one moment, he ever deceived himself about that.

Vietnamese relations with the Chinese

Interviewer:
Okay. You were talking about the Chinese. Very briefly, can you tell me what were the Chinese up to and how was Ho responding to what the Chinese doing at this period?
Isaacs:
You mean in, in all of Vietnam. Well, they, had, they marched an army in there. I think...
Interviewer:
Would you say the Chinese?
Isaacs:
The Chinese, the Chinese marched into northern Indochina to be the occupying force. I think the commander was a provincial warlord named Lu Han from, from, from Hunan. Ah.
The Nanking government had all kinds of objectives here which ranged all the way from ah straight Chinese chauvinistic advance to their south, establishing their own sphere of control or influence, if possible, better than that. There were long standing border disputes which are still being fought out with the Chinese communists now. Ah. They also wanted to negotiate with the French, ah, about their relations and they had a bargaining point there.
Ah. And, certainly from Lu Han's point of view, he wanted to loot like hell. And, ah...
Interviewer:
Can you describe the looting? What was going on? What, what were the Chinese...?
Isaacs:
Oh, well, that I couldn't speak to. I didn't see any looting. I was being told that they were emptying warehouses. They were taking whatever they could find and moving it back across the border and so on, but I can't testify to that, but I certainly find it completely credible. I mean there's, there's absolutely no reason in the world to doubt ah allegations of that kind about almost any occupying army, much less a Chinese occupying army in that particular place and time.
But, it was mainly getting them off their backs. Here the Chinese were trying to be the local bosses. Here was the government of the newly created independent Republic of Vietnam and there was the whole question of recognition and relationship, and, by the way, the Chinese to further their, their leverage on the French, recognized this government. They recognized the... I believe for a long time, they were probably the only people on earth who recognized the Hanoi government so that Ho had, you know, had more, a more complicated kind of game to play vis-à-vis the Chinese. Ah.
I don't remember... I remember plenty of expression of antipathy to the Chinese. Ah. And, a lot of it would be couched on political grounds. These were after all Kuomintang Chinese. Ah. And, the communists at that time seemed to be on another planet. The Chinese communists seemed to be on another planet, which, indeed, they almost were. They were several thousand miles away.
Nobody would have dreamed that in four years they were going to be the new rulers of China. Ah. So, he was ready to play his game carefully, as he always I imagine did, with both the Chinese and the French. So long as he came out with an independent Vietnam. But, let me add one other thing. I, I think that ah there never was any question, I, I never heard it expressed in any other way, that independent Vietnam would be an all in Vietnam. I don't think anybody envisioned, envisaged a separate Laotian, Cambodia and so on. At, at most a federation that would unite them all ah under some kind of a common banner was seen as the logical political form of the thing. Now, I'm sure this cloaked what eventually became ah the Vietnamese thrust to establish control. Ah.
Churning up all the internal hatreds and antipathies and historic conflicts that exist within the Indochinese peninsula. But, there again, that was reserved for the time when the pure, nationalist dream dissipated in its few hours and was, was replaced by the normal viciousness of politics.

Vietnamese idealism and diplomacy

Interviewer:
Why don't I take you back to one period, or at least anything. You describe in your book a visit to the Opera House in Hanoi which young revolutionaries attend, like the British and the Japanese to claim about the future and how they are inferior to the French in many ways and how blood is going to flow, that there will be an independent Vietnam. Can you recount that scene for me?
Isaacs:
Well, I guess what I carry in my mind about that is a scene that in a sense would exemplify what I've said about the, the high moral intensity and sense of truth, virtue and purity that attached itself to this cause. This, this was a meeting. It was a youth meeting.
And this grotesque French opera house in Hanoi was filled to the rafters mostly with young people. And, there was some, it was a delegation from the south, I think, reporting on the progress of the fighting down there, and you remind me that a key line that I would not have remember if I hadn't re read it, something like the young man getting up there and saying...
Interviewer:
Could you do the story separately? I don't want reference to me because I won’t appear. Could you change the size, Jerry?
Isaacs:
All right.
Interviewer:
One man getting up?
Isaacs:
I remember one young man getting up and saying something like we are inferior to the French in arms. We are also inferior to the French in cowardice. There will be an independent Vietnam. And, the place just went up in a, a roar of high emotion, in which it was very difficult not to get caught up I must say. Ah.
There again, how long spirit like that can survive in Vietnam, it was shown that it could survive quite a while. But, I'm very struck by the fact that it could retain its quality, as it turned out, really for the duration of Ho's lifetime. The Vietnamese communists have turned out to be just as tyrannical and just as dictatorial and just as rough and just as difficult to be ruled by as any other kind of communist. Nevertheless conducted a struggle against all comers for more than another, what was it, two decades.
And, Ho as the leader of this thing, obviously, ran that tightrope between aid from China and aid from Russia and relations with everybody else with extraordinary skill. In fact, one of the things one had to acknowledge was the finesse of the politics as Hanoi played it during the years of the war against the French.
Then against the Americans. And, it's very striking that almost from the time of Ho's death, this remarkable group of leaders he had around him who still proved to be tough and able characters in their more limited way, but all the polish went out of the conduct of their policy. They became as heavy handed as the Russians in dealing, both with their own people, and with their neighbors. This whole Cambodian disaster that they've gotten themselves into and so on.
Interviewer:
Okay, we’ve just run out of film.
This will be an abstract to cover the interview of Mr. Isaacs. End of SR 2856.
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