A lone American military airplane roared over the treetops. Lightless, it dodged Japanese radar in the tropical night. A young army captain huddled in the open doorway of the C-47 Skytrain. The wind whipped at his face as he stared down into the blackness. He could see nothing in the gloom before him. He held the door frame tightly with one hand, and clutched a large rectangular box under the other arm. The carton was from the Office of Strategic Services back in Washington, and the captain had been chosen to deliver it to a middle-aged French Communist, a politician hiding in the jungle highlands of Vietnam.
The guerrilla was popular with the Americans, a rescuer of their downed pilots. His nationalist troops provided a steady stream of wartime information about Japanese movements in Indochina, and in exchange, the United States gave him money and weapons. The revolutionary did not need to be paid to oppose the Japanese and French, these invaders in his homeland of Vietnam; he was driven by patriotism to set his country free.
The captain felt the cargo plane jump into the sky, gaining altitude, readying for his jump. The signal came, and he leaped into the sky. He clutched the prized box against his chest. Unafraid, he fell through the darkness. When the parachute snapped open he nearly dropped the wooden frame. The silk bloomed above him, a datura nightflower, and he expelled his breath with a gasp.
The captain wheeled and turned toward earth, carrying with him an elegant collection of American butterflies. He drifted soundlessly toward the grass huts, unseen in the black jungle below.
Ho Chi Minh waited in the Montagnard village for the lone parachutist. Like the Lepidoptera already in his own collection boxes, the original American struggle for independence inspired and fascinated him. If only he could set his own people free, as Thomas Jefferson had done for the Americans. Ho had applied for a visa to the United States, but it had been lost in the bureaucratic mess of Washington, and the butterflies, a gift for his work with the OSS, had to be flown in like a load of fresh seafood.
Ho was certain Japan would fall one day, and he wanted to be great friends with the victors. He knew that the Americans would take mere days to show up in Viet Nam after World War II ended, and he planned to be the one to welcome their triumphant party to his country.
Ho planned to be the only one.
The French introduced themselves to the mandarins of Vietnam in 1847, when they sent two warships into the harbor near Hue. They were there to rescue a French priest who had been ordered to deport to Singapore. Angry and frustrated after waiting two weeks at anchor without the courtesy of a reply, the French showered the fishing boats and shoreline of Annam with cannonballs.
Of course they did. They were Europeans. They saw no other recourse.
Not long after that they committed themselves to forty years of trying to force the slippery Vietnamese into submission. They waged war, stole land from the natives, destroyed a working social order that was one thousand years old, and taxed millions into poverty. It was much like their American counterparts were doing with the Indians at the time. Finally, Emperor Tu Duc asked Ulysses S. Grant to throw the French out. Grant said no. He was too busy with his own problems.
By the time the French were finally forced to leave Vietnam, nearly a hundred years had passed. Everyone wanted the French outórich and poor, Buddhist and Catholic, Communist and Democrat and Emperor alike.
No matter. The Europeans were not quitters.
Soon after the captain delivered Hoís butterflies, the Americans delivered another airborne gift to Asia. The atomic flowers bloomed in Japan. The Rising Sun went down, and Uncle Ho marched triumphantly into Hanoi with his troops. Dispirited Japanese soldiers sulked in doorways, drinking rice wine. Angry French soldiers, they unarmed by the Japanese, skulked and drank imported cabernets and chardonnays. The lot of forsaken soldiers watched helplessly as Hoís Viet Minh, the people of one mind, took over.
A rally was held that fall of 1945 and more than a half million delirious Vietnamese gathered in the heart of Hanoi. Firecrackers echoed like small-arms fire through the dusty streets. The American red-white-and-blue fluttered everywhere above the crowd, mixed in with the yellow and red home pennants. Horns honked, people shouted, babies cried, women laughed. Banners proclaimed victory: Woe to the Oppressors and Welcome the American Delegation, and so on.
Suddenly a whistle blew: High noon. Ho stood on the bunting-draped podium in his stiff-collared khaki tunic, singular among the sea of white-suited officers. The breeze ruffled his long mandarin beard. He stepped to the microphone. The crowd roared. Ho raised his hands, and they fell silent. He cleared his throat and began to speak in his quiet, clear voice.
"All men are created equal," he said. "The Creator has given us certain inviolable Rights; the right to Life, the right to be free, and the right to achieve happiness."
He stopped. "Do you hear me distinctly, fellow countrymen?" he asked with the timing of a comedian. They roared back. Yes! They cried, doc lap! Independence!
Ho ahemed into his fist and continued. "These immortal words are taken from the Declaration of Independence of the United Stares of America in 1776." He looked out over the mass of humanity before him, and his heart swelled with the essence of Thomas Jefferson. He felt like shouting with the crowd, yet he restrained himself.
"In a larger sense, this means that all the people on earth are born equal," he told them.
Then he delivered the punchline.
"All the people have the right to live, to be happy, to be free."
The multitude exploded in wild delirium. Ho waved at them from the high platform, and a smile broke his solemnity, pulling the corners of his mustache high in the crisp autumn air.
At long last, he thought, my country is free. He threw his hands into the air, a child desperate to catch butterflies on a perfect summer day.