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Lady Borton: A September 1945 Message – Võ Nguyên Giáp to the American Mission

[ndlr] Rédigé à l’occasion du 102e anniversaire du général Vo Nguyen Giap au mois d’août dernier, Lady Borton nous fait part d’une petite carte de visite intrigante trouvée dans les archives américaines. Publié avec l’aimable autorisation de Lady Borton. Texte et photos de Lady Borton.

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A September 1945 Message:

Võ Nguyên Giáp to the American Mission

by Lady Borton

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 Việt Nam at the end of World War II.

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. Võ Nguyên Giáp’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 “Lời kêu gội quốc dân” by Hồ Chí Minh, with the handwritten notation “5 Sept. 45 via Mons. [Monsieur] Buu.”

Surely this was precious.



I noticed the name “M Buu” and thought: This must be Tạ Quang Bửu, 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 Việt Nam. Most interesting to me, though, was the irony: Less than a decade after Võ Nguyên Giáp sent President Hồ’s “Appeal” and his business card to the American mission, Tạ Quang Bửu, as deputy minister of defense, was signatory to the 1954 Geneva Agreements for “the Commander-in-Chief of the People’s Army of Viet-Nam,” who was, of course, Võ Nguyên Giáp.

Yet how could I be sure that the “Mr. Buu” on the business card was Tạ Quang Bửu?

Back in Hà Nội, I asked General Giáp’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law. At age twenty, General Phạm Hồng Cư had been a guard for Hồ Chí Minh’s reading of Việt Nam’s Declaration of Independence on 2 September 1945. For many years, Hồng Cư was one of Võ Nguyên Giáp’s personal assistants and amanuenses. Đặng Thị Hạnh, sister to General Giáp’s wife, is a retired professor of French literature.

I enlarged the digital image of the business card.

“Oh!! Very interesting!!” they said.

“I recognize the signature,” I said, “but is the message in General Giáp’s handwriting?”

“Yes,” they said.

“The English is so good! Could someone have written that message for Võ Nguyên Giáp to copy?”

“No,” Mme. Hạnh said. “He was very good at writing English! Besides, in those days, no one wrote anything for him.”

“Might ‘Mr. Buu’ be Tạ Quang Bửu?”

“Definitely!” Hồng Cư said.

“How do you know?” I wasn’t being arrogant. We are both researchers and are always trying to verify details.

“Tạ Quang Bửu and I worked together for years,” General Hồng Cư said. “His widow lives next door!” Hồng Cư touched the top right corner of the image. “That handwriting in black ink isn’t Võ Nguyên Giáp’s. That’s Tạ Quang Bửu’s.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Where is ‘L’ancien Hôtel de la Residence Supérieure’?”

“I’ll explain,” Hồng Cư said. “The initials at the bottom of the card stand for ‘Provisional People’s Government of Việt 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 Hà Nội until 9 September.

“The recipient was Archimedes Patti, head of the OSS mission in Hà Nội,” Hồng Cư said. “He wrote in Why Vietnam? about Tạ Quang Bửu.”

Later, Hồng Cư found Archimedes 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 [Giáp’s] personal calling card: the Home minister sent his compliments, and so on. M. Buu was his personal deputy. He [Giáp] would be grateful to the American mission to facilitate his work, and so forth.”

From the US Archives records, we now know that the business card was attached to the official Việt Minh English version of President Hồ’s “Lời kêu gọi quốc dân” (Appeal to Citizens) published in Cứu Quốc (National Salvation) newspaper on 5 September 1945:

Fellow Countrymen!

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 Fatherland.


Fellow Countrymen!

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

03_HoChi MinhAppealinEnglish_05Sept1945

The business card presents us with Võ Nguyên Giáp’s haunting sentence: “We should be very grateful to the American mission to facilitate his [‘Mr. Bửu’s’] work until establishment of official relations.”

I keep thinking: What would Võ Nguyên Giáp, Tạ Quang Bửu, Phạm Hồng Cư, 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 thày (a master teacher). At the time of their youth, this was the most esteemed profession in Việt Nam, a country heavily influenced by Confucianism’s emphasis on scholarship.

While Tạ Quang Bửu was a pre-teen, he was famous at Quốc Học (National School) 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, Võ Nguyên Giáp wrote a carefully researched, insightful book on political economy. Today, he has a well-earned reputation as a historian.

General Giáp has long since been acknowledged as the victorious general in the French War and the American War. He is also recognized 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 General Giáp’s wistful comment, “If war hadn’t intervened, I would have been a teacher.”