Imagine my surprise.
I was in the US National Archives, examining a file about the "Deer Team", which the OSS (predecessor to the CIA) dropped by parachute into Viet Bac in northern Viet Nam at the end of World War II [on July 16, 1945].
Standing firm: General Vo Nguyen Giap
Here's my rule for archives: Look at everything. You never know what you'll find that you didn't know you were looking for.
There, loose between two typed pages, was a yellowed business card, with "VO NGUYEN GIAP" in bold, his role in italics, and "Home Minister" hand-written below. Vo Nguyen Giap's signature is on the back of the card along with an official stamp in the required red. The card had been attached to an English version of "Loi keu goi quoc dan" by Ho Chi Minh, with the handwritten notation "5 Sept. 45 via Mons. [Monsieur] Buu".
Surely this was precious.
I noticed the name "Mr Buu" and thought: This must be Ta Quang Buu, one of the most brilliant Vietnamese mathematicians and physicists of the twentieth century. He graduated from the Sorbonne and spent time at Oxford before returning to Viet Nam. Most interesting to me, though, was the irony: Less than a decade after Vo Nguyen Giap sent President Ho's "Appeal" and his business card to the American mission, Ta Quang Buu, as deputy minister of defence, was signatory to the 1954 Geneva Agreements for "the Commander-in-Chief of the People's Army of Vietnam", who was, of course, Vo Nguyen Giap.
Yet how could I be sure that the "Mr Buu" on the business card was Ta Quang Buu?
Call to arms: The English version of President Ho Chi Minh's Loi keu goi quoc dan (Appeal to Citizens) published in Cuu Quoc (National Salvation) newspaper on 5 September 1945. — File photo from the US National Archives
Back in Ha Noi, I asked General Giap's brother-in-law and sister-in-law. At age twenty, General Pham Hong Cu had been a guard for Ho Chi Minh's reading of Viet Nam's Declaration of Independence on 2 September 1945. For many years, Cu was one of Giap's personal assistants and amanuenses. Dang Thi Hanh, sister to General Giap's wife, is a retired professor of French literature.
I enlarged the digital image of the business card.
"Oh! Very interesting!" they said.
"I recognise the signature," I said, "but is the message in General Giap's handwriting?"
"Yes," they said.
"The English is so good! Could someone have written that message for Vo Nguyen Giap to copy?"
"No," Mme Hanh said. "He was very good at writing English! Besides, in those days, no one wrote anything for him."
"Might 'Mr Buu' be Ta Quang Buu?"
"Definitely!" Cu said.
"How do you know?" I wasn't being arrogant. We are both researchers and are always trying to verify details.
"Ta Quang Buu and I worked together for years," Gen Cu said. "His widow lives next door!" Cu touched the top right corner of the image. "That handwriting in black ink isn't Vo Nguyen Giap's. That's Ta Quang Buu's."
"Where is 'L'ancienne Hotel de la Residence Superieure'?"
"I'll explain," Cu said. "The initials at the bottom of the card stand for 'Provisional People's Government of Viet Nam.' In 1945, the Japanese and then the French occupied the Presidential Palace. Our Provisional Government was in what is now the Government Guest House across from the Metropole Hotel."
"And the recipient at 'the American military mission'?" I asked. Even though I'd found the business card in a report by Deer Team leader Al Thomas, I knew his unit could not have been the recipient. The Deer Team did not arrive in Ha Noi until 9 September.
"The recipient was Archimedes Patti, head of the OSS mission in Ha Noi," Cu said. "He wrote in Why Vietnam? about Ta Quang Buu."
Later, Cu found Patti's quote: "A visitor was waiting for me at the villa, a M. Buu, possibly in his late twenties, a distinguished-looking Vietnamese. I thought I had seen him before but was not sure. As Bernique and I shook hands with him, he introduced himself as 'from the Home Office', and his perfect English and unmistakable Oxford accent startled and intrigued me. He handed me a handwritten note from Giap scrawled on both sides of his [Giap's] personal calling card: the Home minister sent his compliments, and so on. Mr Buu was his personal deputy. He [Giap] would be grateful to the American mission to facilitate his work, and so forth."
Discovery of note: General Vo Nguyen Giap's handwritten English note to the American Mission. — Photo courtesy of the US National Archives
From the US Archives records, we now know that the business card was attached to the official Viet Minh English version of President Ho's "Loi keu goi quoc dan" (Appeal to citizens) published in Cuu Quoc (National Salvation) newspaper on 5 September 1945:
"The Vietnamese people heartily welcome the allied forces which are entering our territory in order to disarm the Japanese.
"However, we are determined to oppose the moving in of the French elements, because their dark aim is to reestablish the French rule over our Motherland.
"At the present moment a few Frenchmen have managed to filter into our territory. The Government expects every man to prepare himself to fight for our liberty and independence.
President Ho Chi Minh"
The business card presents us with Vo Nguyen Giap's haunting sentence: "We should be very grateful to the American mission to facilitate his ['Mr Buu's'] work until establishment of official relations."
I keep thinking: What would Vo Nguyen Giap, Ta Quang Buu, Pham Hong Cu, and so many others have created with their brilliance if colonialism had not siphoned off their talents into thirty years of war?
I expect they would each have been a thay (a teacher). At the time of their youth, this was the most esteemed profession in Viet Nam, a country heavily influenced by Confucianism's emphasis on scholarship.
While Buu was a pre-teen, he was famous at Quoc Hoc (National School) in the royal capital of Hue for his scientific discoveries. Who knows what he might have discovered or invented during thirty years if there had been no war? While still a young man, Giap wrote a carefully researched, insightful book on political economy. Today, he has a well-earned reputation as a historian.
Gen Giap has long since been acknowledged as the victorious general in the Anti-French War and the Anti-American War. He is also recognised as one of the greatest generals of the twentieth century and in history. But the sobering truth accompanying his fame is the generations of young people lost on all sides and the lost years-of-youth for the survivors from all sides.
For me, those losses crystalize in Gen Giap's wistful comment, "If war hadn't intervened, I would have been a teacher."
by Lady Borton