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Le dictionnaire

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OFFICE OF STRATEGIC SERVICES (OSS)

American external intelligence agency that came to life by presidential order in June 1942 as World War II raged across Europe and Asia. Now at war across much of Eurasia, President Franklin Roosevelt felt he needed a centralized intelligence agency to provide strategic information of the highest possible quality. He put Major General William Donovan at the head of this new agency, subordinate to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The OSS was divided into three main operational branches: intelligence, special operations, and operational groups. Europe and Asia were obviously the two major geographical areas of interest to the OSS in the global war against the Axis powers, Germany and Japan. In Asia, the OSS was active in southern China, where it worked closely with the Republic of China and was in contact with Chinese communists. In order to obtain intelligence on Japanese troop movements and to rescue downed Allied pilots, it also cooperated with groups linked to the French in Indochina and, after these networks went dead on 9 March 1945, with Ho Chi Minh and his communist-led Viet Minh. OSS teams even provided a small amount of weapons and military training to future General Vo Nguyen Giap’s still rag-tag military forces during the summer of 1945. Further south, the Allies provided similar aid to communists fighting the Japanese in Malaya. Following the Japanese capitulation in August 1945, various OSS teams arrived in Indochina to tend to prisoners of war and gather intelligence, including Archimedes Patti in Hanoi and A. Peter Dewey in Saigon.

The OSS was phased out with the end of the Pacific War; but, with the start of the Cold War, it would re-emerge in 1947 as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The phase-out of the OSS was prolonged, however, since the follow-up Strategic Services Unit continued to provide intelligence reports on the situation in Vietnam into 1946. With the withdrawal of the OSS, the Americans relied upon their consulates in Hanoi and Saigon to provide information and analysis on Indochina. The Americans also turned to their presence in Thailand to collect information on French Indochina. Colonel William Hunter worked out of Bangkok as naval attaché providing intelligence and analysis on Indochina until 1949.

If the globalizing effects of World War II had pushed American intelligence operations into Indochina in the fight against the Japanese, the rapid spread of the Cold War into Asia in 1949–1950 renewed American interest in Indochina as part of Washington’s efforts to contain the spread of Eurasian communism. In 1950, the CIA dispatched delegates to meet with the French about exchanging intelligence and developing joint clandestine operations. The CIA’s Colonel Chester and M. de Saint Phall first met with the high commissioner for Indochina, Léon Pignon, about such matters. While there was some confusion at the outset as to with whom the CIA should work, in the end negotiations in Paris, Washington, and between the CIA and its real counterpart Service de documentation et de contre-espionnage (SDECE), led to the establishment in May and June 1951 of an accord allowing the CIA to operate in Indochina via the United States Embassy in Saigon. This accord received final approval in Washington from the heads of the CIA and the SDECE. The CIA agreed to provide the SDECE in Indochina with one hundred radio posts.

The two sides also accepted to exchange Service Action missions in Indochina and Korea, pointing up the extent to which the Americans were thinking in global terms about unconventional containment strategies. An American liaison officer of the CIA was attached to the SDECE, while two SDECE officers joined the corresponding CIA service in Korea. The CIA had first tried to develop a Service Action in Indochina following their initial meetings with Léon Pignon in 1950, but ran into opposition from Maurice Belleux at the head of the SDECE and General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, who balked at letting the Americans run the show. Nevertheless, the 1951 accord improved cooperation between the two intelligence services. From 1952, cooperation between the CIA and the SDECE was such that the two sides were exchanging intelligence on a weekly basis on military matters and communism in the region. The Americans also helped finance the creation of the French Service Action in Indochina and the Groupement de commandos mixtes aéroportés.