Interview with Carleton Swift
Carleton Swift, a CIA employee, replaced Archimedes Patti as head of the O.S.S mission in Hanoi. Swift recounts why he got involved with Indochina and his experiences after he took the mission over from Patti. Swift recalls his impressions of Ho Chi Minh describing him as a slight man and Swift admits to not understand how Ho Chi Minh gained so much power. Swift discusses the way the Americans dealt with the North Vietnamese and the friendships that developed.
Imperialism, Indochinese War, 1946-1954, International relations, Japan--History, Military--1868-1945, National liberation movements, Nationalism and communism, Subversive activities, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989, United States--History--1945-, United States--History, Military--20th century, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, Capitulations, Military, Cold War, Colonization, Communism, Diplomacy, France--Colonies--Asia, France--History, Military--20th century, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, United States. Office of Strategic Services
Indochina in the immediate aftermath of World War II
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Turning one. Marker.
Swift, Slate one. Clapsticks.
Sound Roll 1. Camera Roll 1.
Turning one. Marker.
Swift, Slate one. Clapsticks.
I wonder if you could tell me how and when and why you got involved in Indochina?
Indochina? Ah, well, World War II came along and I ah, was in the Navy, and toward the end of my, well in 1944, I ran out of a job in the Navy and ah, went down the street and joined something called the OSS. Uh, not long afterwards, I found myself after various bits of training, ah going into the interior of China.
My original role there was ah to ah be in charge of ship watching in a small ah, OSS headquarters in Kunming. Um, the ah, when at the end of the war, the ship watching was over, ship watching being re—reported coast watching out to the Pacific for the submarines to attack vessels, and then we'd also reported Japanese movements on the rivers and, and waterways, so that the 14th Air Force could use them as bombing targets.
Well, at the end of the war, uh, ah I was made in charge, I was put in charge of, ah, or we readjusted ourselves and went and, and sent teams out as POW rescue missions around China. I was the operations officer for that. And as those became established, we changed our organization and I took over the geographic ah, area of South China and Indochina.
Ah, the Indochina desk, which was really one man in our small headquarters, had been um, a captain named Archimedes Patti. He had run our operations focusing on the border area, and ah, Indochina, so all of them were oriented against the Japanese.
Um, and when Patti went down to uh, be chief of our little contingent in Hanoi, I took over the desk and behind him, ah, South China and Indochina. I went down a number, a couple of times, flew down and visited him while he was there, because I was his backup officer. I remember on one of those flights we took in a fellow named Jean Sainteny.
Um, Patti left at the end of September, as I recall, and I went down to take over, take charge of the station. Ah, my tour there as the chief of station was rather short-lived, and before October was over, I was out myself. Uh...
Can you tell me, what was it like as you went in to, to take over from Patti, and what, what was actually happening, what was the situation when you arrived?
Ah, Hanoi, north of the 16th parallel um, was in the China theatre, and the command and the structure was run out of, out of ah, the China theatre, with the, Wedemeyer and Chiang in charge. Very little contact with the ah, southern part of Indochina, which was in the Southeast Asia theatre under Mountbatten.
Ah, I for example saw we had very little traffic exchange with ah, with Saigon. The ah, there were French military there, but the, they were disarmed and in the citadel in the middle of town.
The Japanese I believe in March had occupied the area or taken over more formal control. And at the end of the War, the Japanese were in control and there to hand over, surrender to ah, the authorities, which ah, in the China theatre were the Chinese, with the aid and assistance of the Americans.
Ah, political activity was ah, um, there were as we...a number of Vietnamese political stirrings, I'd say. Nothing terribly clear. As I would have guessed there were perhaps four or five ah, ah political parties. Bao Dai was king, and ah, a fellow named Ho was prime minister.
We had some contact with Ho a few, ah a few months before, because ah, the OSS had been asked ah, to um, ah conduct some operations limiting the Japanese ability to return to go to Kwang-Chou-Wan, where the first landings were going to be. Had a circle around Kwang-Chou-Wan, came down into the northern part of Indochina, and so we endeavored to put together teams that could um, blow bridges, interdict, harass Japanese, and ah, we had a few Frenchmen on our teams, and ah, indeed some locals. Ah, and in the bottom areas, some Vietnamese that we'd ah, come across, and indeed Ho and some of his colleagues were part of one of our teams.
Positive impressions of Ho Chi Minh
What did you think of ah, what did you think of Ho? What did you know of Ho, indeed? Were you able to find out anything about him?
Well, let me, let me add one bit of background in this. I was in the Chi—I was in the intelligence collection side of affairs. These divisions were quite sure clear in the OSS. You, ah, the intelligence boys, which I, of which I was one, felt we were the, the bright ones.
Our job was to find out what was going on. We didn't necessarily do anything about it. We passed it on to ah, our ah, customers, and they made the decisions about what to do. Ah, quite separate from that was what was called the SO teams and the blow and burn, guys who'd parachute in with the ah, ah guns and um, ah ammunition and blow bridges. They were, they were different.
And ah, some of our teams were a little bit were mixed. Ah, if you went into ah, ah on an operation to interdict something, we'd generally put an intelligence officer with them so that these husky types would, ah, um we'd tell them where the bridge was and ah, point to it and say go do your job there. Um, well ah, Ho was part of one of our teams, and at the end of the War ah, a major, I've forgotten his name at this minute, but went on down with Ho, took him a few weeks.
I, I know his name.
Turning. Marker. Slate 2.
Can you tell me ah, you're in Vietnam, it's 1945. Who are these people you were dealing with, I mean, who is this chap Ho? Who is the Viet Minh? What do you know about him?
Well. Um, fascinating at the time in a lot of ways. Ah, while Japan was our target and ah, ah the Chinese were the people we worked with, a bit tiresome because they weren't fighting the Japanese as hard as ah, we wanted them to, but in any case, the Vietnam situation and Ho.
Um, when his, our files reflected that Ho had been at school on the Left Bank in Paris, he probably had gone to Moscow. Ah, we uncovered a little intelligence in China, right there, that he'd been in Canton um, at some time in his earlier career.
And there was um, an old Soviet. You go back in Chinese-Soviet history. There's an old Soviet general who'd been there, oh, in the twenties. The Southern China had been where pr—where ferment and new ideas cropped up, and so ah, this was interesting.
And it ah, for those of the intelligence officers who were aware of the Soviets and how they had come to control, and how indeed the police and the procurator's office were the instruments of maintaining control ah, ah there was a disposition to be ah, oh, maybe I'd say too clever by half. Ho indeed, all this talk of nationalism was cover for a tight Soviet controlled agent, who was responsive to every whim of direction from Moscow.
However, as we gained an association with the man directly ah, and later when we talked with him in Hanoi, and indeed at one time he was a very ill man, and we helped him out, we saw him in his natural habitat. The evidence, as ah, we collected it up in his file ah, was consistently that of a nationalist, a man concerned for his people, a man, a man concerned for the welfare of the peasantry at large, and committed to do something about it. Not that hateful of the French or the French system.
Indeed, so many Vietnamese had great respect for the French educational system, and while they didn't want the, essentially the French colons to return, they were going to send their children to French schools. At least, the better educated, and the merchants, which tended to be the ones I saw.
So ah, at the same time Ho clearly had some ideas about how to run things, that ah, came out of Lenin's book. So um, you found ah, a mixture, a disposition to say, let's not be fooled by ah, an apparent nationalist ah, ah, and we tended at that time to see our problems with, or at least the enlightened intelligence types, ah which I ah, at the time figured amon—myself among, um, Soviet were bad, black, and we were white, and ah, the ultimate, the, the grays and the problems that all have emerged since then ah, we weren't quite so aware of, or didn't understand that they could exist and survive.
But um, I think the, I think I'm confident in saying, oh in the Hanoi station we had four or five who could speak Annamite. And we had the language, young language officers who were ah, with the teams. Ah, and as each of them reported, and we tried to build a picture of Ho and his activities, they tended to be what he said he was: a nationalist, concerned for his people, but with some disposition to use some, some of Lenin's works as a his, in his politics. Ah...
Did you ever, did you ever meet with Ho direct...we'll wait for the train to go over. We've run out, have we? Okay.
Turning. Slate 3.
I believe you, you met Ho. Can you tell me what, what he was like personally on a one-to-one basis? How did you find him?
Ah, I had. I had met Ho, and I, I ah, the occasion I remember best was on a visit down to Patti when Ho and probably a couple of his cabinet came over to ah, came over to the station, and we sat around the table discussing ah, as I recall, what ah, his government's foreign policy should be.
I believe the issue was, at the time was ah, what they'd do with 20,000 Frenchmen, disarmed Frenchmen. And our advice at the time was ah, no courts, don't, don't harm a hair of their head. Call in the Red Cross, get their names, and ah, that will help you establish an image that you're a responsible government in North Vietnam and deserve serious consideration. I think that was, I'm not s—yes that was, that was it.
I may have seen him once or twice before, but on the staff were people who'd been with him, knew him, and went over often to the ah, to the cabinet to ah, I felt under Patti, and indeed when I was there, we ah, had ready access to him ah, though um, not being that good a French speaker, I, I didn't seek him out for one-to-one conversations, but my impression of the man is, you know very much as his picture, an ascetic, thin intellectual slight man, who ah, one thought, why is this man a leader? Why is this wisp of a man ah, such, such a, such a significant force? Ah, the prime minister at this time.
And ah, one wondered. Well, that's, that's, that was, that was what I, I...my impression of him.
The early mission of the O.S.S. in Indochina
You were saying ah, as we were talking just now, that you'd got around to talking to Ho and the Viet Minh about what their policy should be with the French. I mean, how did the French feel about what you were up to and what you were engaged in?
Oh, ah the, we were I'd say in a single word, anathema to the French. Ah, my impression, ah – I don't want to be that strong perhaps – but I think the French were uneasy at our being there. I think that um, ah because, ah...Well, while Roosevelt ah, had taken an attitude toward the French that ah, wasn't that forward leaning on their re-establishing their colonial relationships, it seemed to me as Truman came in, it, it rather changed, and that ah, the American, the official position was pretty much ah, capitulation to French wishes and how they returned to their colonies.
This ah, how, how they re-established their colonial control. And this was at odds a little bit with the ah, American public views, the, the Atlantic Charter which ah, ah the North Vietnamese knew all about, and the Philippine story.
So we were Americans clean-cut, young guys, who'd ah, Atlantic Charter, Philippines, were there with a smile on our faces and eager. And I'd dare say some candy bars too, but I don't think the candy bars were, were that important. And ah, the French um, ah as they set about the problems of re-establishing colonial control, must have ah, this, this wasn't a congenial atmosphere to have us there.
I think ah, we were, my instructions were very firm to be intelligence on, well, I say intelligence...POWs and then quietly be a reporter, report what's going on.
Can you say, "My instructions were..." I need you to start again. Carry on. What were your instructions, you were saying?
My instructions, when I went down to take over the station were, were ah, were clear. We, we were ah, in that public sense, and indeed our first mission was to look after some POWs, but indeed, below that was to be...report what was going on, in this amorphous unknown sort of situation - what was going on?
But at the edge of that, it was categoric and firm. We were to take no actions, no political actions or, or interfere. Take no steps. I think Wedemeyer let the OSS down there with, with some reluctance, and ah, he, he in any case, his requirements of Heppner were, were that firm, and I went down expecting and ah, intending to live up to my instructions.
So we were intelligence reporting, but ah, at the same time, the sense of the Americans' presence there, and...well...this, I ultimately had to leave, and I learned, I, I, I, the reason I had to leave was the complaint that we were inciting revolution. Well I of course was utterly outraged at a charge like that, and that my state department would take it seriously, but ah, ah in any case, in spite of my outrage, we were out quite soon.
But I, I, I learned afterwards about this, this complaint, and I, I, I now see what the French meant when they said that, because indeed we were talking with the locals, albeit not as political agents, but just um, quietly and not drawing attention to ourselves, trying to understand what was going on, what their aspirations were, what the economy was like, all the things, the panoply of things you do when you grove around to try and advise Washington of what's going on.
Well, the very fact that we explored and asked the Vietnamese, "what do you, what's going on, what do you want to do? What ah, what is the structure of this?" Uh, and that we talked to them man-to-man. Or, I say man-to-man, crosswise. Not in the old colonial position, of superior to subordinate, a role that the Americans, any American is not comfortable in.
This very fact ah, gave the as I gather Sainteny, who originated the complaint that led to my removal ah, I can see what he meant. We, we enthused, we gave excitement to we, we ah, the locals. They said, look, here's someone who understands, who wants to understand what our problems are. Ah, and it stimulated and excited them, and ah, indeed, I guess if I'd been there to re-establish colonial control, I would have said ah, let's not have, we know best wha—how to re-establish our control, and let's not get the locals ideas in, cranked in too deeply.
I wonder if, I wonder if you could actually condense that for me just ah, just a little bit. I wonder if you, I mean con—say, you were saying that you were asked to go back home, and that, that part of the story is fine. But, I mean, why, why was it you thought, I wonder if you could just tell me in sort of briefer detail about that you talked to people on a one-to-one basis, this was so different. I wonder if you could just compare the way you operated with the way the French would like to operate.
Um, well, I've...I've um...We dealt with the, our, our, our...The way the Americans dealt with the North Vietnamese, just out of the natural way Americans deal with anybody. Ah, ah their interest in them, their desire to find out what they were doing um, excited I think, and gave hope to the North Vietnamese that ah, ah, their aspirations, the, their, they could have a role that was perhaps something that was under the Atlantic Charter, self-determination, a role something like the Philippines.
So ah, ah, we excited them, and I can see that this, in the French eyes, this ah, was the sort of excitement and stimulation that they, and they, as they re-established colonial control was ah, would make their job more difficult.
American interactions with Vietnamese nationalists
They've, there were some claims that you did a little bit more than that. I wonder if you could tell me for example what about the US – Vietnam friendship society? What were, what, what...can you tell me something about that?
Well, did that go farther? Certainly, that's easy to um, that's easy to say. My recollections were that it was some time in September that ah, really some rather spontaneously the Vietnamese that we saw in their welling up of good feelings toward the Americans. Ah, and indeed there was a little idealism in it. They were an isolated, this is an isolated area.
This emphasis on their knowledge of, or reference to our way of dealing with the Philippines, and the Atlantic Charter, and that they'd like a pattern with the French not unlike our relationship with the Philippines. Um, I'm sorry I forgot what I was talking about.
You were going to tell me, you were going to start off saying...Could you tell me about the US – Vietnam friendship?
What were you doing, what was it supposed to do – commercially, intelligence, cultural? What was the organization?
The ah, its initiation, it was in the September of a few Vietnamese suggested we should have a cultural relationship, a cultural society. We ought to, we ought to set up an organization where we could learn more about your ideas, we should ah, more about American attitudes, and indeed, you more about our Oriental ones. Um, we were, I say, cautious in, in, in reacting.
Ah, it's hard not to be proud of the Philippine situation, and its, its ah, having Orientals understand the West and America was, seemed a good thing, so rather, we didn't object to this. Whether we could have done anything about it in any case, but ah, ah the society was set up, I believe at the end of S—by the Vietnamese, or Annamites as we called them then in the north, at the end of September.
I remember reporting rather carefully, being aware that my mission was only intelligence, that here was a dicey area. So we put, we provided no funds whatsoever, we provided no service to them. And indeed we said no American could be a member of a, an officer, and even...
We've just run out of film. Put on another magazine.
Alright. Finding an excuse.
Wasn't the Vietnamese friendship society actually an advantageous organization as far as you were concerned in intelligence?
Oh, sitting there in Hanoi, one applied the ah, one's school training. You know, the boiler plate. Obviously, an organization that ah, involves signi—important Vietnamese, tied together with a, for the Americans, potentially is valuable both as an intelligence source, as an instrument to improve commerce between ah, ourselves and them, a cultural exchange which is, which in itself is valuable.
A better understanding of the Vietnamese and Americans ah, ultimately a political instrument, a ah, front organization to ah, if you wanted to use it that way. At the time it was, we created it as, oh I saw we created it, it was spontaneous, but the way I looked at initially was a cultural organization. It was spontaneous and sound and justifiable on that grounds.
It had the capability of being developed and used otherwise, providing the US government wanted to use it otherwise. It turned out they didn't want to use it otherwise it ah, and indeed the French didn't want to use it ah, ah, so ah, ah I feel myself I was meticulous in keeping it from being a political instrument.
Though I did report that it had the capability of ah, ah influencing the, the ah, ah, the government, Ho's government to demonstrate in favor of American intervention between the ah, American intervention, American mediating between the French and the Annamites. An offer, I believe that Under Secretary Acheson made in October.
Did the French, were the French aware of the association's existence, and what did they say to you about it?
Uh, I never spoke with the French there. I remember bringing Sainteny in, and he disappeared down the street, and ah, ah I, we had ah, our liaison was a liaison between intelligence services, and they didn't have too much to exchange with, with us at the time.
The French, some French at any rate claim – and I wonder if you could deal with this in your reply because it's the core substance of a question – that basically the Viet Minh grew because of American support, and if it wasn't for American support, the Viet Minh would have been an irrelevant organization. I wonder if you could...
I ah, react pretty strongly to that. I, while I was intelligence, the next room had the guerrilla operations. Ah, what we called the SO teams in it. And ah, we had these teams designed to fight the Japanese, interdict, that were designed to fight, the very, a few teams. Maybe three.
There was a fellow, there was Thomas and his team, there was another major, and maybe a third one that didn't really get into Indochina. But the resources that those small teams had, oh, tens of weapons, and enough ammunition to say carry down there, carry into the jungle on their back.
That was the, that was the military resource. Three small teams out of perhaps, oh goodness knows, forty or fifty we'd had in China was minor, nothing.
I wonder could you actually say the amount of aid that we gave the Viet Minh was, was irrelevant, and it was of no, no, no consequence, and made no difference to them being a massed organization or not? Would you feel happy saying that or some similar statement?
Oh, we didn't give it to the Viet Minh. We gave it to a team comprising Americans, French, and Viet Minh, Viet Minh whose mission was to interdict the Japanese.
If the ah, if the Viet Minh, or North Viet—Annamite members of our team um, chose to steal a couple weapons ah, and give them to a party of their choice ah, it was, at best it was very, very minor, so minor that ah, you know, not as much as a pawn shop in Washington in the handing out of ah, hand weapons. Um...
China's presence in north Indochina
We could move on to the, you're there, the Chinese are also there at this time. What were Vietnamese-Chinese relations like? What were the Chinese up to?
Oh, ah, it was interesting. You come in, come out of China, a harsh, hard survival ah, ah problems of survival for a Chinese, into a warmer lusher climate, life is a little easier. The ah, the Annamite's life seemed a little bit, little softer than the tough Chinese.
Uh, we were committed to take the Japanese surrender, and the form was to let the Chinese do it. This was Chinese territory. So ah, Lu Han, the war lord of the South, who presumably was totally under Chiang's control, but wasn't quite ah, was moved in with American assistance and help, uniforms, trucks, gasoline, and airplanes.
And clearly, the North Vietnamese were uneasy to have a ah, well equipped neighbor to the north, who indeed had been in there not that many centuries ago, in a rather harsh way ah, come down to take the surrender. And I felt that they were, they were, you know you can love your neighbor if there's one country between you and your neighbor, but the neighbor who's right on your border is ah, you tend not to be so, a little uneasy about what his intentions could be. And indeed, they were uneasy about Lu Han's intentions.
Um, a Chinese-Annamite friendship society was ah, came into existence earlier in September. Lots of Chinese officers on it, lots of money in it. And ah, one could see the beginnings of building a, ah Chinese controlled Annamite ah, political structure. Ah, but it never, the Chinese, Lu Han didn't have the power, the resources, it didn't eventuate, it didn't grow, take roots and grow, and ah, ah it faded out as a threat. Um...
The missed opportunity to support Ho Chi Minh
I wonder if, you come, you get ordered out by Sainteny and the French, or at least Sainteny demand that you be ordered out by your own...What, what happened to you when you came back home? What was the response?
Oh, I'd hesitate to say just how I, what the sources were. It was a second hand report that someone who told me why, how the generation of the request that got us out, got me and the mission out. I took another, I came back to the States in ah, early '46 ah, to be re assigned in the intelligence part of ah, the OSS ah, structure ah, in headquarters here. And ah, while I had, while I was operations officer for the Far East, it ah, ah there's a vignette that sort of reminded me of my experience, short experience in Vietnam.
Don Gordon was the deputy chief, Far East, for Southeast Asia, and at lunch one time he said, Carleton remember those cables you sent back, saying what do I, asking for instructions on whether to encourage Ho to demonstrate in favor of American ah, mediation of the ah, Vietnamese situation. Ah, your second cable, and you know your complaint that you got no instructions, therefore you took no action ah, we wanted to answer you, we wanted to tell you to encourage ah, but we couldn't do it. You should have gone ahead.
Well, Don didn't tell me the background of this, and, and I suppose it's a little bit speculative, but it's easy to see that, well, I suspect the working level analysts had come to believe that perhaps Ho and his fellows weren't puppets of the K—of the Kremlin, and that the, the cabinet was a mixture of middle, some right and some left, but it could ah, and that going along with the structure was, wouldn't be a bad idea. Yet at the top level, State and Truman, policies with regard to the French were pretty well set, and Don couldn't have gotten that cable saying, encourage Ho.
Looking back on all that, I wonder if you could pose this as a thought. Do you think if you had encouraged Ho to demonstrate that things had got rolling, that it could all have been very different. Supposing you'd interpreted silence on that cable as meaning go ahead and do something. Could it all have been different?
Well, that's, that's ah, it ah, that's one of those fantasies isn't it? Ah, if I, one thing I promised I'd never do is speculate, look back and reconstruct history. But I, I think I do feel that if indeed I'd, we'd encouraged him, and that's all it would take.
Ho, it, it just, give a...and I think there would have been a significant demonstration, and it would have been theirs. Ah, we wouldn't have run it or directed it. We would have just tipped the scale. Uh, ah, I think we would have caused embarrassment to the US government, a little bigger one than our very presence was causing. Ah, the policy of allowing the French to, I felt we were turning our head.
We stood for principles, but we were letting the French, turning our head and letting the French re-establish their position in their colonial, in their, in their colony as they wished to. And if it wasn't quite along the principles that ah, we might have done, we were going to ah, ah overlook it.
Ah, so I think a ah, um, demonstration of this sort merely would have embarrassed the government, embarrassed the White House ah, and ah, we would have apologized to the French, and ah, been in the difficult thing of standing on principle, but being very prag—being pragmatic. But you know, who knows? It's that odd dream that, you know, if it had ah, changed the way we looked at things.
But yet another factor, well there was no policy planning committee. We wanted to get the boys home, and American strategic interests in South V—in Vietnam was the last thing anybody in Washington wanted, would even read. There was nobody to read it.
So ah, ah if, in a sense there was nobody to look at this question that Don, well maybe there was somebody, but not ah...I feel if there'd been a policy planning committee, some that had created the Marshall Plan, a policy planning committee that was in existence in the fifties, by 1950. If that had existed in 1945 and had reviewed the situation, they might have given slightly different instructions.
But ah, the realities of the time, ah it seems that if I had acted against my instructions uh, I'd be written about more in OSS books to show how ah, unqualified, how irresponsible they were.
Fine, we've run out of film, but we carried on with the sound.
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