The OSS and Ho Chi Minh, by Dixee Bartholomew-Feis, was an unexpected pleasure. Books written on the OSS or the British equivalent in World War II, SOE, so frequently fall headfirst into a muddy miasma of internal politics, blame and counter-blame, and a fixation on minutiae that they often obscure more than they illuminate. Thankfully, Bartholomew-Feis gives a well-written and lucid account of the OSS in Viet Nam on the cusp between war and peace in 1945. She steps neither into the "Ho was a nationalist and if only they had listened to the OSS then the Vietnam war never would have happened" camp nor into the "Those naive fools helped Ho get to power and brought communism to Southeast Asia" camp, for which every reader should be grateful.
At first, her book gives one pause. She starts off with dual mini-biographies of Ho Chi Minh and F.D.R. and one wonders where on earth she will go with those. However, once she actually gets from contextual background to Vietnam itself, and begins to display the depth of her research and understanding, the book is on much firmer footing. The OSS encountered the Viet Minh in an intelligence-gathering context, so she focuses first on the intelligence networks in Vietnam and how the Allies used them (introducing the reader to a fascinating "free-lance" intelligence network that gave intel to the British, US and Chinese), then shows how the OSS gradually was introduced into this intelligence context. In the process, she illuminates the tensions between the French in Vietnam and the Vietnamese Communists, between north and south Vietnam, and between the Japanese occupiers and both the French and Vietnamese.
Bartholomew-Feis does a good job describing the various OSS missions into Vietnam at the end of the war and the personalities behind them. What is perhaps most striking is how few, how young, and how junior most of these American personnel were, yet the great responsibilities they had in representing their country in matters relating from intelligence to strategy to policy and diplomacy. Almost as fascinating is how, virtually without exception, all of the Americans (conservative and liberal alike) were impressed with Ho Chi Minh, who must positively have oozed charisma. It is quite interesting to compare the personal relationships between the American OSS representatives and Ho and his close collaborators on one hand with the much more bitter, taxing, and dysfunction relations between the British and Tito (see Dedjier's diaries on his views of the British, for example) or the British and the Albanian communists or the British and the Greek communists. Perhaps the only real comparison is with Mao Zedong who managed to win over a bevy of Westerners from left-wing reporters like Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley to Marine officers like Evans Carlson. In any case, it is quite interesting to see how genuinely friendly the Vietnamese were towards the Americans, more so than almost all of the other communist movements with which the OSS worked.
Bartholomew-Feis does write, rather often, of how the Vietnamese "manipulated" the Americans, yet some of the incidents of which she writes sound not so much as a deliberate underhanded manipulation so much as they seem a genuine (if perhaps temporary) convergence of interests. She is on firmer footing when she describes how the Vietminh used their rather tenuous official contacts with the United States as a way to gain status and legitimacy. The Vietminh were quite clever in that regard.
Overall, Bartholomew-Feis does an excellent job in covering a difficult and--given the fact that any book on this is heavily burdened with foreshadowing to begin with--sensitive subject. It would have been nice to have seen more use of Vietnamese sources but overall the book is well-researched and Bartholomew-Feis demonstrates a considerable grasp of her subject.
I have read scores of books on the OSS and SOE dealing with various resistance movements in World War II and I think this is definitely one of the better ones. Scholars and general readers interested in intelligence gathering during World War II, the origins of the Indochina War, Vietnamese nationalism, and the end of the Second World War will all be interested in this well-written study. I recommend it.