Filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick interviewed a retired University of Oregon English Professor about his time as a spy following World War II for their documentary The Vietnam War. The series wrapped up Thursday on public television.
George Wickes is 94 years old. He retired several years ago from the U of O where he taught modern literature. He’s interviewed in the first hour of the Vietnam War documentary. In 1946, Wickes was part of a secret mission to the country which was then under French occupation.
Wickes: “Well, I was 22 years old when I landed in Vietnam. I was very lucky to get there actually. I’d been trained by the army. The army sent me to Berkley during the war to learn Vietnamese as it’s now called.”
Wickes was part of the OSS, Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA.
Wickes: “I was recruited by OSS and trained as a cryptographer and sent overseas to Southeast Asia. And at the war’s end I was in Rangoon waiting to jump into Thailand which fortunately I never had to do. And me the commanding officer of a mission that was going to Saigon. I asked him if I could join the mission. I told him I had learned the language. He said, yes but can you speak French? I said yes, French is my first language, I spoke it before I spoke English. So he gave me a one word test in French. What is the French word for street? He said. Rue is a difficult word for Americans to pronounce. And as soon as I’d spoken that word he said alright you can go. He spoke faultless French himself I must say.”
Wickes says he was in Vietnam before the U.S. had any overt involvement there. At that time the Vietnamese were seeking independence from the French. Wickes says he saw that the people of Vietnam were no longer willing to be ruled by another country.
Wickes: “ In some of the letters I wrote home at the time. I predicted that the French could not take their country back if the whole population was going to rebel against them. And we tried to do the same thing after the French failed.”
Wickes says the OSS was in contact with Vietnam independence leaders, including Ho Chi Minh. He says the French targeted his commander, Colonel Peter Dewey and himself.
Wickes: “At one point I learned I had a price on my head. They confused me with my commanding officer who’d been killed by then. By the Vietnamese not by the French. The French probably knew I was having meetings with the Vietnamese resistance.”
Wickes says Dewey was likely killed by mistake. He thinks the Vietnamese mistook him for a Frenchman.
Wickes: “I think all the OSS in Vietnam were sympathetic with the cause of independence and yes, Dewey had good relations with the leaders that he met. I think it was simply a mistake. A tragic mistake.”
After his service in Vietnam with the OSS, Wickes came back to the United States and got his masters at Columbia and his doctorate at Berkeley with the GI bill. He came to the University of Oregon in 1970.
Wickes: “I love teaching. I love the academic life. I love everything about it. I never had the slightest inclination to become a ‘spy’. I just happened because of circumstances to be gathering intelligence for the OSS which was the only American representation in Southeast Asia at that time.”
Wicke’s taught modern literature at the U of O. That’s how I met him when I took a class on James Joyce at the University of Oregon in the early 1990s.
Wickes: “I’ve loved my years at the U of O. I’ve been here since 1970. I still think Eugene is a great place to live. And I’m even a Duck fan. Although I don’t go to games.”
While Wickes has been retired for many years, he’s still active at in academia. This January, he’ll teach an insight seminar through the U of O Academic Extension on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.