Dawn of the Vietnam Conflict: War Powers and Dien Bien Phu

April 19, 2014–President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not an expert golfer but he was a dedicated one. Eisenhower had an area at the White House to practice his putt, regularly took time off to golf at the Burning Tree course, and he even took golfing vacations. Sixty years ago today, at the height of the Dien Bien Phu crisis, Ike was on one of those trips. He’d gone to Georgia, to the National Golf Club in Augusta, site of the PGA tournament. The president’s cottage at Augusta was called the “Little White House.” There Ike would experience one of the key moments of the Vietnam crisis.

President Eisenhower could hardly escape the action. A couple of days earlier his vice-president, Richard M. Nixon, had told an audience of media moguls that U.S. troops might well have to go fight in Vietnam. Ike wanted to help France, whose army was trapped at Dien Bien Phu, with its best units steadily losing strength. The situation was so dismal that men considered it good news when the New York Times could headline, “INCREASED RAINS SEEN SLOWING THE FIGHTING.” Nixon’s remarks were being interpreted as a trial balloon for U.S. intervention. Press inquiries flooded the Little White House. Soon after breakfast on April 19, 1954, Eisenhower telephoned Nixon, who worried the president would be furious at him for letting the cat out of the bag–officials had been trying to avoid mentioning that U.S. troops figured in the plans. But Ike was relaxed and told Mr. Nixon not to worry.

Eisenhower’s schemes to intervene at Dien Bien Phu might indeed involve American soldiers. At a minimum they included sailors and airmen. For nearly a month Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had been trying to create the conditions necessary for that intervention to go ahead. So far they had failed–British allies were opposed to a Vietnam intervention, while the French, despite their desperation, were leery of permitting the United States to have a big role in their war.

But Secretary Dulles had a formula to evade all obstacles. The Justice Department had worked up an extensive paper on presidential war powers as part of a government-wide study of Indochina intervention. Foster took that paper with him to visit the president on April 19. The two men would lunch at Augusta and mull over the Dien Bien Phu crisis.

The paper–like George W. Bush era Justice Department legal opinions on torture–was one of those documents that cobbled together lawyer language suitable to permit officials to do whatever they wanted. In this case the Justice paper relied on the “commander-in-chief clause” in Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution to assert that the president could order U.S. troops into battle without a congressional declaration of war. At their lunch Secretary Dulles scoffed at the paper’s legalisms but took its argument–the heart of the matter, Foster told Ike, was that the U.S. government “must have the power of self-preservation . . . . If the danger was great and imminent and Congress unable to act quickly enough to avert the danger, the president would have to act alone.” Why anything about a crisis threatening a French army in Vietnam was a matter of self-preservation to the United States Dulles did not attempt to explain. He was a preacher-man and capable of sallies like this.

On April 19, 1954, it was Dwight D. Eisenhower who saved the nation from war. For months Ike had been telling Congress he would not go into Indochina without getting its approval. Not only did Eisenhower feel bound by those political promises, he had just survived a congressional test of his foreign policy powers by a handful of votes–and would have lost if the Democratic Party, his opponents, had not rallied to his side. On April 19 Ike patted John Foster Dulles’s hand and told the secretary of state that as president he needed to carry out “the will of the people.” If not, the president warned, he could be impeached. As far as U.S. intervention to save Dien Bien Phu was concerned, the two men were still in the position of having to build a public consensus for war in Vietnam.

So passed another moment when the international crisis surrounding Dien Bien Phu could have pulled the United States into active fighting in Indochina a whole decade before this actually occurred. But Eisenhower and Dulles were not stymied by these developments. A few days later President Eisenhower made a political trip, swinging through New York and Kentucky in an effort to drum up support for intervention. There is much more to the story of America’s Dien Bien Phu. Read all about it in Operation Vulture.

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One Response to Dawn of the Vietnam Conflict: War Powers and Dien Bien Phu

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