It happened today - September 26, 2015
It is, I suppose, always a dubious honor to be the first person killed in virtually any way or for any reason, even a noble cause. It certainly is in the case of Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, who on September 26 1945 became the first American killed in the Vietnam War.
His death has tangled roots, like virtually everything connected with that unhappy conflict. He was with the Office of Strategic Services on assignment to search for missing American pilots (Dewey was not of course the first American killed in Vietnam, just the first killed as part of the struggle against a Communist takeover after World War II) and gather information on the situation following the Japanese surrender. And the situation was murky.
For some reason the Potsdam Conference gave the British the responsibility of disarming the Japanese south of the 16th parallel while Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalists were to do so north of that line. Unsurprisingly, Chiang’s forces rapidly lost control of the North to Ho Chi Minh’s communists, as they would do four years later to Mao Tse-tung’s in their own country, and it became North Vietnam.
The British faced a challenge of their own from Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, who had declared themselves the government of all of Vietnam. The French, meanwhile, wanted their colonial empire back, and the British general in charge, Maj. Gen. Douglas D. Gracey, rearmed the French POWs liberated from the Japanese and had them toss the Viet Minh out of the various government offices they’d moved themselves into.
Now curiously, Lt. Col. Dewey sympathized with the Viet Minh, not the British or French, who he saw as imperialists repressing nationalist rebels. And he said so, loudly and repeatedly, to the point that Gracey ordered him to get out of Dodge. On the way to Saigon’s airport with another OSS officer, Dewey refused to stop at a Viet Minh roadblock, got into a shouting match in French and was shot dead, under the apparent belief that he was French.
It does seem fitting that the first American killed in the Vietnam War should have been a well-meaning sympathizer with local nationalists who opposed “imperialism” but did not grasp the situation and perished as the result of a cultural misunderstanding involving locals he thought were nationalists who thought he was an imperialist.
Many more Americans would suffer the same fate before the ultimate takeover by the “agrarian nationalist” reformers who turned out to be, gosh, violent communists.