Dien Bien Phu: America Casts its Lot

September 6, 2015–It was Harry Truman who involved the United States in the Vietnam conflict, “recognizing” French efforts to combat Viet Minh revolutionaries there as a contribution to fighting the Cold War. Truman started up military aid. The 200th shipload of U.S. military aid docked in Saigon in July 1952. By the fall of 1953 shiploads were nearing double that amount. A new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had taken the helm. While “Ike,” as he was familiarly known, had expressed certain reservations regarding French colonialism in his diary earlier in the decade, and had made public statements at press conferences and such that seemed to show reluctance to dispatch U.S. forces to Indochina, the proof of intentions lies in policy, and there the American approach helped lead France to its ultimate crisis at Dien Bien Phu. This subject came up recently in conversation and I thought I would amplify the comment I offered then.

It happens to be a good moment to take up the antecedents of Dien Bien Phu, for it was in September of 1953 that Washington made up its mind on furnishing extra military aid for the French in their Vietnamese war. There is much more on this in my book Operation Vulture.

Ike had perfectly good reasons not to do so. A new French commander-in-chief had been sent to Indochina, Henri Navarre, and that general had cobbled together what became known as the Navarre Plan. General Navarre insisted he needed additional military aid, along with reinforcements from France, in order to proceed with his operations. The French government, reluctant to supply all that Navarre wanted, thereby gave Ike an automatic out. America’s military attaché in Indochina, an air force general named Thomas Trapnell, had big doubts as to the efficacy of French methods in the war, also grounds to rule out the assistance. On the other hand, President Eisenhower sent a special military survey group to Vietnam to look at the French effort in the specific context of the Navarre Plan aid request, and General John O’Daniel, chief of that group, reported in very optimistic regarding Navarre’s chances. But in late August of 1953, reversing the advice of his predecessor (Omar Bradley), Admiral Arthur Radford, incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended against funding the Navarre Plan. Radford’s view became the official advice of the Department of Defense.

So here is Eisenhower, with advice on both sides of the question of whether to fund the Navarre Plan. The weight of advice seemed to be against moving forward. The U.S., already funding the French to the tune of $3.6 billion (in 2015 dollars), was giving plenty of assistance. Why need there be more? Enter the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, a man with a Manichean view of the world. For Dulles, anyone fighting communism had taken the side of the angels, and he did not bother himself with such issues as the narrow political support for the French operation, or the reluctance of the French themselves to reinforce Navarre. President Eisenhower listened, at a National Security Council meeting on September 9, 1953, as Dulles opined that the Navarre Plan actually had poor chances of success but that the aid had to be given because the French government of the day was the last that would have a free hand to prosecute war in Indochina, that any successor government would be forced into a negotiated settlement. Dulles argued the United States did not want a negotiated settlement to the Indochina war.

President Eisenhower took the point. Before the end of September he released a joint United States-French communique that stated Washington would accord France an additional $3.445 billion to prosecute war in Viet-Nam. Together the existing assistance plus the extra aid for the Navarre Plan amounted to more than $7.0 billion. To put that in a present-day perspective, in 2013 the entire military aid program funded by the United States came to about $14 billion, just twice the Indochina line item alone, and much current aid is in “nonlethal” categories or comprises loans, while help to the French in Indochina was all grants and all intended to help kill the enemy.

By his decision to support the Navarre Plan, President Eisenhower took the United States significantly closer to participation in the Vietnam war. (I will return to this subject some weeks from now to consider French preparations for the actual attack on Dien Bien Phu.)

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