French colonists' mood upon Gracey's arrival in Saigon

SR 2809
We are now in Sarasota, Florida for an interview with Mr. Frank White. Camera roll is continuation of Roll 813 from yesterday.
Today is the 2nd of April.
Mr. White. Take 1.
Could you just start, Frank, by telling me your opinion of General Gracey as a man and what you thought of him as an officer in the situation.
Well, I met General Gracey the first time because I was assigned to him as one of my liaison functions between our OSS group and, in this case the British. I was also similarly assigned to the French.
But, in the case of General Gracey, I saw him a lot. And he was to invite me to his Sunday mess. And if you have never been to an Indian Army mess, you've got a lot coming, because they're served with a full sort of packs of, panoply, turbans and all the various regimental colors, pipes and the whole thing.
Anyhow, as far as Gracey himself was, he was almost gentlemanly, in the first place. He wasn't one of — I've known a lot of general officers in my life, and ah, he got the, ah, kind of tough let's go get 'em type officer. He wasn't that kind. He was, ah, very sil—very gentlemanly, very calm, so forth, and so on.
On the other hand, that much being said, he saw his function there as to restore law and order, peace and quiet. And, ah, he didn't care who was going to give him any trouble.
His function was to see that the trouble was kept to an absolute minimum, which was a very difficult assignment for him because, ah, there were lots of arms floating around, a lot of dissident groups and it was very difficult for him or anybody else to tell who was what, that is in the Annamite community, or the Vietnamese community, when one looked exactly like another and when bunch of peaceful demonstrators could turn into a non-peaceful group in terrible hurry.
And nor did he particularly empathize with the American group that was there. He saw us, I'm sure he would have agreed to it, this assessment, as another distraction. We were talking to anybody who would talk to us, both we were talking to all segments of the Annamite colony we could find. And this disturbed him and worried him because he felt that this gave them encouragement to protest further and carry on in a manner that made his command difficult.
And I suspect that when he passed the order down to his various echelons, they were the 20th Indian Army and it was a detachment that had seen a lot of combat in Burma and a lot of combat in the Aswan area, and so forth and so on. And they didn't, real combat operations tended to be very tough when they wanted to be tough, and so I think he could have been tough, too. But as an individual he was gracious and pleasant and I liked him a lot.
Take 2
Tell me Frank, what was the attitude of the French to the situation in August that the Vietnamese protesting and the British and the Americans...
Sure. In the very beginning when we arrived, it was Saigon liberated or Paris liberated or Toulouse liberated, the whole scene. We were a very small group, but ah, but the French population of Saigon was terribly glad to see us. And, ah, they were somewhat disappointed that there weren't more of their own.
But in any event, we all came in as, not all of us jumped in, but all of us came in prepared to jump, so we had parachutes. I do recall that we made our parachutes available to the young ladies of Saigon, who made dresses out of them.
The whole thing was one of great overcome joy and, um, what little there was to spare, for example, somebody gave me (which I didn't really need) a bottle of the old Pernod and of champagne, so forth and so on, much of which had been husbanded away for a long time.
Another thing, of course, right after the immediate euphoria, we were asked to help reorganize and get back the French male population. They had all since for over a year, all the Japanese had rounded up all the male population and had them in various prison camps spread all over the country.
I remember, for example, once I got a car as soon as I could find one and got a driver, and drove to two towns – one called My Tho and one called Can Tho, both in the delta. Went up and liberated all the French prisoners that were in either of these two jails.
It was as, it wasn't, the Japanese were still in place. Their Japanese guards were still there, ah, the French were no longer captives, but nobody had any transportation to go anywhere. And so that's why we had to find out where they were, what condition they were in and trying to go about seeing where we could raise transport to bring them out.
And we did that for awhile. Then there was a period of family reunions, so forth, on the French side. And on the Annamite, or Vietnamese side...
Take 3
Begin camera roll 814
Just on the atmospherics of Saigon to the Vietnamese showing signs of independence.
Right. Well, as far as the Annamites or Vietnamese – when we first got into the city of Saigon, what French there were and Annamites themselves mingled in, ah, the genera1 pleasures of the liberation and so forth. Very quickly, gradually but quickly, the attitudes began to change.
Ah, it's hard to say what, at any one given juncture changed it. But we could see from my vantage point and from our vantage point various groups of Vietnamese would come to us with proclamations at first, and ah, carrying signs proclaiming independence and self determination of people, they were generally aware, even the people on street were aware of the implications and the meaning of the San Francisco declarations, and gradually over a period of weeks this tone and attitude became much more strident.
First, and then it became in the first instance, gradually as it came became more strident it became more hostile to the French. And there were incidents around, not in the center of town, but around the outskirts of town, and these incidents started to gather in momentum, and it was the function of General Gracey's British troops to quell those various disturbances from time to time, which they did, as fast and as rapidly and sometimes rather abruptly.
Then the first really tough situation I remember was a group of Annamites cordoned off a section of the city, not in the downtown, but out on the Rue Catinat further, and grabbed the French residents of that two block section and held them hostage. I suppose this was one of the first hostages for political reasons that at least I remember of.
Anyhow, I was involved, and others of us were too, trying to negotiate with these various groups, some of which, all of whom claimed to be able to release these people. Whether they could've or not, or whether we even negotiated with the right group, I never did know.
But anyhow, most of the hostages were released, but six or seven were killed. This was the first deliberate bloodshed that I know of in the Vietnamese independence situation.
Then later while we took over the Continental Palace Hotel and often Vietnamese with signs, they'd be in trucks and they'd come tearing down the Place de l'Opera with machine guns firing at us from the back of these trucks as we were in the hotel. It was fairly unpleasant as you can imagine. None of us were hurt in this instance, and we certainly didn't return fire to any extent.
But then it began, then things began to disintegrate even further when the first French count des armes – the French Army – arrived off the ship Pasteur, and Marshal Leclerc began to arrive with his staff. Then you could see the two sides entirely separating and the beginning of organized hostilities all the way through. This was to go until Dien Bien Phu, until the end.

Vietnamese reaction to Britain's use of Japanese troops

Take 4
Just tell me Frank, what you saw of the Japanese acting on allied orders and what effect that had on the situation.
Well, as liaison officer between ourselves and the British I attended all of General Gracey's staff functions at officer's call every morning at 11:00, I believe it was, or something like that. And when there were outbreaks of trouble, then the word would come in from whatever source and the British chain would respond.
Since the manpower situation with the British was not very good at all, they (the British in this case) would frequently call on Japanese who were immobilized in various compounds, especially in and around the southern part of Saigon, the town now called Cho Lon. And it was not unusual at all to see Japanese riding in British lorries off to whatever mission they were on.
The most ironic demonstration of this was all during this period from August through, I should imagine at least until, well until the Japanese finally surrendered, which I believe was in November. I may be wrong about that. Anyhow, in the open air lobby of the famous Continental Palace Hotel, there was a platoon of Japanese Marines, complete with the hats, swords, the whole routine with their boots up to here, and all, and ah, a British lawyer, ah lorry sitting there just for the purposes of providing police protection in case of an emergency someplace.
I remember distinctly once that there was a French convent not far from the hospital in Saigon, which is half a mile from the hotel. And a call came in, and ah, the nurses were experiencing some harassment by Vietnamese, and ah, there was a British officer on duty in this little open air place, was called the Perroquet. Ah, he jumped on the lorry and I jumped him...
Take 5
One incident involved a call we had one morning from a convent, which was not far from downtown Saigon near the hospital. And it seems that the nuns, nun nurses, were experiencing some kind of harassment there. And so we, again in my duty as liaison, I got in touch with the British officer and the British officer and I had a British lorry with a Gurkha crew and we filled that up with the Japanese Marines from this bar the Perroquet, and off we went to the source of the disturbance.
By the time we got there, or shortly after we got there, whoever was causing this disturbance disappeared. But that was kind of ad hoc way that the British used the Japanese that were still left behind.
Another one was that Saigon had been a big ship building operation for the Japanese, of course. They had a whole bunch of people there that, professional carpenters, and they had ship builders, shipwrights and engineers, so forth and so on, and ah, British put the Japanese to work making various river cargo ships to haul refugees around, so forth and so on. And had a few small personal boats for various people who wanted a boat. But I think that covers how that covers how that sort of...
What about the Vietnamese. How did they react to the Japanese being used like that?
Oh, ah, clearly ah, the Vietnamese all this time were getting less and less enchanted by the scene. And to the extent that anybody was putting down or postponing or not recognizing their increasingly urgent demands for independence, for more participation in Saigon city council, was one place that came up very early in the business.
They expected to have representation on what would he our city council type of formal government. And to the extent that force was used to break up these demonstrations, whether it came from the Japanese or whether it came from French themselves, or whether it came from the British or from Gurkha or from Indian troops in the British force.
Ah, this was a matter of great disappointment and subsequently great anger by the Vietnamese people, and you could read this in the form of their posters. They would come. We'd need some help with the translation, but you'd see these big red posters with sort of gold lettering always saying, "Down with the people who broke up the March 15th protest," or "Have you forgotten the proclamation of the United Nations," and you know, all the signs are going, and after every incident the signs would get more strident in nature.
And I'm sure that it was eventually to rub off on the Americans there, cause they were part and parcel of the same, we were part and parcel of the same, what the Vietnamese saw as status quo anti and repression and so forth.
That's good. Just begin by saying what time...

Friendship and state dinners with Ho Chi Minh

Take 6
Begin camera roll 815
Could you tell us Frank, about your famous dinner with Ho Chi Minh?
Well, when I arrived in Hanoi the precise instructions we were given were very marginal to the point of being nonexistent. But they did include contacting the leading political figures in the place and ah, reporting an assessment of who they were and what they represented, and ah, who their conflicting interests were, and so forth.
Well, by the time I'd actually arrived in Hanoi, Ho was already in the "Residence" as a provincial provisional president of Vietnam under this arrangement that pertained at that time, which was early 1945. And I believe it was December. In any event, so he was high on the list of people I was supposed to be getting in touch with. So indeed I did.
I sent a message through, through the concierge of the hotel, as a matter of fact, I had no other way of figuring out how to do this. And I had an answer back rather quickly saying that President Ho would be pleased to receive the emissary of the United States or Major White, the emissary from the United States, and ah, so on several occasions I went to see him.
And oddly enough he used to ask me to come in the evening. He'd explain to me that he was sort of an evening type. And ah, he liked to drink scotch whiskey and he had a bottle of Red Label, and he'd never tasted Black Label, and he also smoked. He was a big smoker, heavy smoker. He smoked, I don't know where he got 'em either, I tried to get some for him too, but I never could succeed. But he smoked Pall Mall's. And chain smoked.
Anyhow, we'd go in the evening and he'd ask me, he was really a thirst for information, he wanted to know all I knew about the figures in the world that time. And having been not in any particular, been a long time from the United States, and so I was wasn't particularly aware, but I did see copies of Time Magazine one of those overseas editions, so forth and so on.
But he'd ask me who Stafford Cripps was and how good a socialist really was he, and what was an English socialist, for example, and what was a French socialist, and ah, it wasn't that he was dumb on these subjects, but I think he was listening for other kinds of attitudes and views and information.
Well anyhow, one evening I wasn't at all surprised then to get a call from the Residence saying that President Ho would be very pleased if you would join him. So I just assumed this was one of these coffee klatch things and went on over. I found him sitting, the odd thing about this one was that it was six-ish in the evening, and it was much earlier than our usual late night talks. And so we were sitting in his study, just two little seats with a little table and even then there was a bottle of whiskey.
It was kind of interesting that I thought there was a, um, a man in short white pants, which was customary uniform of that period in time, who would come up to say things to Ho every once in awhile, and of course, in Vietnamese, which I don't speak, but there'd be a little discussion, anyhow the guy would occasionally turn up with more cigarettes or a paper to sign, or some such thing. He was later identified to me as General Giap. And ah, I thought he was a houseboy at the time.
But anyhow, so this particular evening we just talked, I forgot small talk, and then the room began to fill up. And ah, first arrivals were two rather elderly Vietnamese, as we were able to identify in those days as Mandarin types, the kind of traditional costumes, the hands up their sleeves, the lacquered hats, and so forth. And I was introduced to them and ah, then pretty soon others arrived.
Much to my astonishment began people showing up in uniform. Pretty soon Marshal Leclerc himself arrived with his chief of staff and one other aid, and then the Chinese arrived. I often forget that there were two Chinese generalissimos at that time, General Chaing Kai Shek to be sure, and the other Lu Han in the south of China. Lu Han, this was still 17th parallel period when after Yalta, Vietnam had been divided and the Chinese were nominally, or more than nominally but were the occupiers of the northern half. So he was there and that began.
Well this was designed to be a, what I've called elsewhere as a "bury the hatchet" type dinner. But I had no formal invitation to this. Ho just simply said, "we assume you'll join us at the table." I'd been a general's aid in the United States before, and I know quite a lot, a fair amount of protocol in military circles, and clearly this was an unusual arrangement.
And I thought perhaps, oh, we'd just been carried away by good feelings, or something, and didn't really expect me to sit at the table. 'Cause I could see the dining room through open doors and there were place cards all around, and these very senior officers, at least two field marshals – Leclerc and Lu Han – and their several staffs were seating themselves in various places. The British were there too.
And anyhow, I looked, I made myself the last one to go in so that if there was not any seat left, I could back pedal out backwards. But to my astonishment, and even horror, the seat on Ho's right was the only one empty. So I groaned inwardly but strode up and took a look at it and sure enough it said Commander White.
I sat down, or we were standing behind our seats, and the general discussion before everybody sits down, you know how that goes, so I said, "Mr. President, I think that some of your guests might find the protocol seating arrangement not quite as they usually organize these things." In short, what's a major doing sitting on your right when you have these very senior people?
Anyhow whether this was part of the famous Ho dissimulation or not, he looked up at me and gave me a kind of a waggy smile and said in English ('cause he did speak English if he wanted to organize a sentence, he could speak a sentence of English without any trouble.) And he said, "I didn't think I could talk to anybody else."
What he meant by this cryptic phrase I don't know, but clearly ah, he was more comfortable politically than he was with the French and clearly more so than the Chinese, who were busy looting Hanoi at the time in a most outrageous fashion. And clearly, well I suppose even so more at home, or less not at home with me than even the British. Anyhow that was the way that happened. It was a very difficult dinner, I can tell you that. And ah...
That's good. That's fantastic.

Ho Chi Minh reaches out for American aid

Take 7
We discussed, Ho discussed with me at considerable length, his first real interest was the priorities and the needs of his country. And ah, he was a different kind of chief of state than I had met, although a very tenuous one at the time and, but, ah, he asked me very early in our conversations how much of the countryside of Vietnam had I seen. And had I had a chance to travel here and there mentioning various places, particularly in the north. And I hadn't.
I had been to see, as far as Haiphong to see the French battleship Richelieu arrive and ah, battle cruiser, and a contingent of French troops. They were given a very noisy and hostile welcome, as we know. But anyhow, they'd arrived in Hanoi, but I went by car down to watch that arrival.
And ah, other than that, really, I'd spent very little time in the Tonkinese countryside, or any part of Vietnam as far as that's concerned. I'd gone to various capitals. I'd been to Cambodia and elsewhere, but, Laos, but anyhow, I was not able to say yes. I had to say no, I haven't seen very much.
And he said, "Well, had you been able to, you would have noticed right away that this is primarily an agricultural country blessed by very few of any other resources. The agriculture of our country," he gave me quite a lesson about all this, "is based on an intricate system of dikes on the Red River. And those dikes are largely, because of our struggles against the Japanese and other invaders, have either been allowed to go to ruin because of lack of care, or in many cases have been deliberately blown up as acts of war."
And he said, "Our first priority is to get this agricultural system reorganized." And he said rhetorically, "Where do you suppose I can get large agricultural economic help?"
Answering his own question he said that he would think that I, as a Marxist and Communist, he made no attempt to to hide this at all in the times I talked to him, although he didn't lean down on it very heavily either. But he said as a Marxist and Communist one would think I'd go in the first instance to the Soviet Union.
And he said, "I have not been to the Soviet Union since the war was over, but I gather from all that I can read, and from what I've been told elsewhere the Soviet Union will be preoccupied with rebuilding its own agriculture and economic system for a number of years. And even if they didn't have us way out here in Southeast Asia to cope with or worry about, they will be more concerned and rebuilding the Communistic economies in western Europe."
And he was speaking, I suppose, without identifying with Czechoslovakia and Poland and various satellite countries. He may have even been thinking that some of those democracies that were designed to fall under the grand common form, common term, scheme, indeed would fall, but did not. But anyhow, he saw no real immediate help from Russia.
And then answering his own question, a second one, I think our neighbor to the north. Then he went into a subject that was very dear to his heart, and that was the historic enmity between his people and the Chinese people. And he gave me a very thorough briefing on Chinese/Vietnamese history, invasions, counter invasions, and uppits and all.
And assured me that Chinese help would not be forthcoming if it were sought, and would not be sought. In other words he was not going to ask, and he didn't expect them to provide any even if he did ask.
So that took care of his two, and of course the third being French. And then he recited a story of the French occupation of the five countries of Indochina. He didn't use the word "Vietnam" in those days, but he spoke instead of Cochinchina, his own province or his own country of Tonkin, Cambodia and Laos and Annam. Right, that makes the five. And he was almost thinking of them as individual entities and not a whole conglomerate, as Vietnam subsequently became.
And anyhow, he saw very little prospects of France under resurgent conservative, I don't know whether he used the phrase "right wing" but anyhow conservative resurgent Gaullist government went out of its way to ah, ah, to send aid and financial aid and technical aid to his country in sufficient amounts to do any good.
That left in his lexicon, or his list, that left the United States. And he said, "I have some hopes for the United States based on mainly that the US," and then I was thinking he was going to invoke our liberal principles, so on, and so on, but he didn't. He said, "In view of the fact that the United States is a Pacific Ocean power."
Occasionally, I, I wasn't thinking in those terms, and it struck me, struck me to the point where I still remember. Then he went on, then he did invoke after that scene, being a Pacific power, a community of economic and political interests that might ah, tend to ah, for Washington to smile sympathetically on appeals for help.
Then he asked me at that time to address such an appeal to my government. And I assured him that such an appeal would be implicit and that if he wanted to make any written appeal for me to deliver, that could be arranged too, because I had a full radio system with me, and an operator, and a coding machine, and so forth.
Anyhow, he declined at the time to write anything on paper. But each occasion he would always say to be sure you relay this, and he presumed that I was going to relay it the sort of sense that he was telling me.
That was, that occupied the main part of the conversation and he did tell me he'd make a few historic allusions to where he'd been and various, one of his sisters served a considerable period of time in a French jail in Poulo Condore, and he never made any reference to his own imprisonment in various ways, but various members of his family he did mention.
And ah, but he didn't, at least with me, he didn't take any sort of sermon, he had no sermon of speech, he was rather professorial, as if he were lecturing somebody who was interested and needed lecturing, I suppose, on the problems facing his country and himself.
That's good.
End Side 2

The use of torture by the occupying forces

T 876 (SYNC)
Side 1
Take 8. Camera Roll
What was your experience of torture in South Vietnam?
I saw a fair amount of brutality. In reflecting on it, the thought, obviously, occurs to me that people I saw for the most part either had been or were going to be or were at the time members of armies, and armies that had been fighting a lot of combat, armies that, at least on the side of the French and the British for the most part, were anxious to go home, and not begin another campaign.
Anyhow, tempers, as they tend to be with the military (chuckle) tempers in the military in action, tempers tend to be quite short, quite abrupt and occasionally quite brutal. In all forms of combat ah when two forces are locked together, interrogation is the name of the game. We all know that to be a fact, and interrogation can be either the long way or the short way. And, if it's the short way, it's also going to be the brutal way.
Now, there are such things as quick interrogations of prisoners in the field in a non-organized way and then there's the interrogation of political prisoners that are Gulag Archipelago or what, and there are two different kinds, but so I was the ones, the kind I saw was that the soldiers see often in the field. And, these range from such rather simple but effective ways in most field units.
In Vietnam whether it was a British Field Unit or a Gurkha or a French unit or since we had no armed units in the field, I'm not referring to any American ones in this case, but standard fixture would be an eye bolt in the ceiling of a door and ah the routine would be to take a suspect from the field and tie his hands behind him in this fashion...and then string a rope up through the eye bolt in the top of the door and then stand the interrogee on a, usually on a Gerry can or a stool or something and then ask him once again who was out there or whatever they want to find out.
Then, if he didn't respond, they'd kick the Gerry can out from under him, and this would leave him hanging by his shoulder blades, in effect, and you can get very conversational. It's very painful but it doesn't leave any, in most cases, any lasting damage. It may tear a few ligaments in your shoulder but that was one form.
Then in more violent cases, I've seen prisoners shot. Sometimes with a, I remember one episode and this concerned a French unit. Just as a matter of historical, it was a French unit of mixed ethnic background. There were a lot of those. But, I'm not making any ethnic or racial references here.
But, anyhow, if a prisoner failed to oblige, he was told to take off and he was surprised and didn't believe it, but anyhow he did begin to run and he got shot in the back cause he ran away. That happened I'm sure on occasion.
There was a longer term form of interrogation-cum-prison we just, obviously, never saw. But, it was, what I'm getting at is mainly is we saw what is fairly, not normal, but is not unusual in combat operations, field interrogation type operation in which the interrogators have very little time or patience with the people they are interrogating.

Missed opportunites to avoid conflict in Vietnam

Fine. Could it have been different?
Well, could it have been different? Ah, this is the hindsight department, obviously. It does seem to me, at least I confess, confess isn't the word, I was impressed by the palpable sincerity of Ho when he told me that his country's first requirement was a large scale economic rebuilding program, which as a correspondent, I was going to see in great detail done very successfully in Paris and Western Europe when I was there as a correspondent for Time.
Now we've got also the fact that reasons quite alien to the Indochina problem. You have the fall of the Chiang Kai Shek government and you get a very hostile Chinese regime in Peking and you can understand why American attitudes switched around rather abruptly.
In other words, if there hadn't been China it's conceivable that a Marshall Plan type operation in the far east, in Indochina in particular, could have had a chance of succeeding. Clearly, it never did simply work out that way.
And, whether, even had theft been such a program, we never undertook a program that was designed for a communist constituency, clientele. Whether the Indochinese or the Vietnamese, the Viet Minh in this case, Ho's people, would have played fair with us and conducted a political or a non-communist regime in rebuilding the country who knows.
I rather doubt it as a matter of fact. I think they were indoctrinated in communism and we might have had a very serious disappointment. But, he felt that that was the prime salvation of his country and that's the message he wanted to get across in 1945.
What was American policy in those days?
American policy insofar as it applied to our group, the one in first in Saigon, and then later in my own mission in Hanoi, was primarily reportorial.
It had other functions, prisoners of war information, downed airplane pilots that we had a couple of economists, very good ones, with us who were assessing the chances for rice crops and self sufficiency and so forth, but, basically, we were trying to find out who was there, what the different groups are, very complex cause they all look much the same and their banners look much the same and the chances, there was a lot of milling around, but we were there to try and separate them as best we could into what their positions were, not communist and noncommunist, particularly, but if they were Chamber of Commerce groups or largely economic or religious sects, and so forth and so on.
It was reportorial in that sense. I never saw, if there was any, any set of instructions to go see so and so and tell him so and so or go help so and so's group as opposed to somebody else's group. Now, there may have been such instructions that could have reached Saigon without my knowing it, although I doubt it.
And, at least my role, as a newspaper man in uniform, that is to say, as a former foreign correspondent when I joined the army, I drew the sort of reportorial type assignments and I treated them as reportorial type assignments and I tried to find out as accurately as a good reporter can what was going on and report that back to our superiors in the State Department and the War Department.
Okay. Cut.