April 1, 2014–Sixty years on one can look back at the Dien Bien Phu crisis and see that that April Fools’ Day was destined to become one of the most significant of the entire siege. April 1, 1954 became the day that many strands of the events came together. It was a day when the French decline accelerated and its chances in the struggle darkened perceptibly.
Let’s start with the battlefield. In the high mountain valley that is Dien Bien Phu, General Vo Nguyen Giap had launched what the Viet Minh would call the second stage of their offensive. This was where the Viets, who had already captured the outlying French positions, attacked the central strongpoints right in the valley. Giap hurled his battalions at the low hills which shielded the interior of the French entrenched camp, part of strongpoints “Dominique” and “Eliane.” The fight for Eliane-2 was particularly fierce. This phase of the siege has come to be known as the “Battle of the Five Hills.” The Viet Minh captured several important positions including, for a time, the peak of Eliane-2 itself. Just the previous day desperate counterattacks had ejected the Viet Minh from the center of that position and pinned them down at its edge. The redoubtable Major Marcel Bigeard was in the thick of it. Battle raged at Dien Bien Phu and the fight for the hills would go on for days longer, but on April Fools’ Day the combat was at its fiercest.
The parachute supply drops upon which the French camp relied were being curtailed by monsoon rain, worse every day. The French command calculated on April Fools’ Day that deliveries had reached a “catastrophic” level–averaging only 60 tons over the past four days, only a fraction of the amount necessary for a robust defense.
The French Expeditionary Corps, led by General Henri Navarre, conducted the campaign through its theater command for Tonkin–northern Vietnam–under General Rene Cogny and located at Hanoi. As the siege intensified Navarre and Cogny became increasingly adversarial, each blaming the other for the predicament they were in. The Expeditionary Corps had a forward command post at Hanoi, where Navarre had arrived the previous day, only for Cogny to refuse to meet him. The commander-in-chief summoned Cogny later and the two had a furious shouting match at headquarters. On April Fools’ Day General Cogny received a letter Navarre had written before leaving Saigon. The C-in-C could easily have brought the directive with him, but chose to send it by routine courier instead. The explosion between the two generals soured their relations, which never recovered, to the detriment of desperate French soldiers at the entrenched camp.
France had sent the chief of its armed services staff, General Paul Ely, on a mission to Washington to appeal for more help for Dien Bien Phu. While Ely was in Washington his American counterpart, Admiral Arthur Radford had suggested that a U.S. air strike by B-29 heavy bombers, soon to be dubbed Operation Vulture, could break up Giap’s siege force and destroy his supplies. Ely needed to consult with Navarre about an outside intervention of such proportions. He sent aide Colonel Raymond Brohon to speak to Navarre personally. On April Fools’ Day Brohon arrived at Saigon only to discover Navarre was not there. The consultations were delayed while Brohon traveled onwards to Hanoi.
Back in Washington, Admiral Radford had made his offer without any of the other chiefs of the U.S. armed services knowing of it. Redford summoned them, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to a meeting to present his proposal. That, too, had taken place the previous day. Some of the Chiefs opposed him. Their negative views, expressed in writing, began to land on his desk on April Fools’ Day too.
The admiral had not acted in isolation. In fact the Operation Vulture project was backed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his secretary of state John Foster Dulles. A couple of days before Mr. Dulles had given a speech at the Overseas Press Club linking Indochina with an American threat of “massive retaliation.” At lunch on April Fools’ Day President Eisenhower entertained some top correspondents and told them he might soon have to make a decision to send planes from American aircraft carriers off the Indochina coast to bomb the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Soon afterwards Secretary Dulles phoned the president to report he was setting up a meeting with the congressional Gang of Eight to inform them of the Operation Vulture project. Meanwhile the Navy’s top officer, Admiral Robert B. Carney, cancelled a long-planned visit to his forces scattered across the Pacific–and he ordered the fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin to extend its cruise there.
Dulles and Radford were going to meet with the congressional leaders, who were certainly going to have questions. Among their principal concerns would be what allies the United States would have for its intervention in Indochina. Washington’s most important ally in this regard was Great Britain. A few hours before his Overseas Press Club speech, Dulles and Eisenhower had met with the British ambassador to ask for London’s support. On April Fools’ Day the British foreign minister replied that “we fell it would be unrealistic not to face the possibility that the conditions for a favorable solution in Indochina may no longer exist.” Thus London, too, had been involved in this April Fools’ circus.
Dien Bien Phu would fight on for weeks longer. And the proponents of a U.S. intervention would play more cards before the game was up. Read the whole story in Operation Vulture.