The Longest Day for the Allies

June 6, 2017–In these dark days when we need to remind ourselves that, yes, there truly are common interests among nations, and goals for which all are willing to strive, it is good to have history. One shining example of common action took place seventy-three years ago today. Of course, I am referring to D-Day, the “Longest Day,” the Allied invasion of Normandy, beginning the northwest Europe campaign that marked the final stage of World War II in the west.

There were 70,500 American troops plus 83,115 British and Canadian, and 600 0r so French. Roughly 23,000 of these troops arrived by parachute or glider. The armies were supported by 11,000 aircraft sorties and 5,000 naval vessels. Among this armada were warships or aircraft from the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, Norway, and Poland; reserve troops from Czechoslovakia, Belgium, and Holland; resistance forces in France and the Low Countries; plus more. You can see almost the entire line up of what later emerged as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The main country missing from the list would be Germany–and they, in World War II, were the enemy.

The invasion of June 6, 1944 led to fierce fighting. Americans will always think of the battle on Omaha Beach and the bitter field-to-field struggles for Normandy’s bocage country. Our British Commonwealth brothers will forever honor those who fought in the repeated fights over the city of Caen. The Germans will long remember their failed effort to seal up the Normandy bridgehead, the Allies’ breakout, and the battle for the Falaise Gap (for a detailed look at the struggle that followed D-Day read my book Normandy Crucible ).

It is a measure of the strength of our united purposes that wartime enemies became friends afterwards, and that the NATO alliance and that the union has evolved into a mainstay of American foreign policy. On this day let us all remember that.

Remembering a Spy for All Seasons

June 4, 2017–At the end of April with the death of Howard Phillips Hart, the U.S. intelligence community lost one of its true heroes. Unlike Dewey Clarridge, who tried to appropriate the title “spy for all seasons,” but who was a showboat and ideologue, Hart was the real thing, fortunately on the scene at some very real passages in recent American history. Even as a toddler. Born in St. Louis on the eve of World War II, Hart’s banker father moved the family to the Philippines, where they had the misfortune to be when the Japanese invaded after Pearl Harbor. The family were locked up in a Japanese prison camp at Los Banos and rescued in the nick of time, in 1945, as U.S. paratroopers liberated the camp before the Japanese could execute the prisoners. After the war the family went back to the Philippines.

Howard read in Oriental studies and political science at Cornell and the University of Arizona, learning Hindi and Urdu. He was thinking about joining the Marines when an agency recruiter convinced him to become a spy instead. He joined the CIA in the summer of 1966. The agency did well by Hart, assigning him to India for his first foreign tour. In that he followed Clarridge, who had served in Dehli but at this time was desk officer for India at Langley. The station chief was Clair George. Anyway, the Indians were in the process of edging closer to the Soviet Union, and in 1967 they signed a treaty of friendship and an arms delivery agreement with Moscow. Hart was wrestling with an invitation from an old friend to become a lawyer when one of his agents acquired the operating manual for the Russian SA-2 anti-aircraft missile, mainstay of the North Vietnamese air defenses that were zapping U.S. planes in the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. That coup convinced Hart to make his career as a spy.

He served three years in India, long enough to see the first rumblings of what became the Indian-Pakistani war of 1971. Hart got an education in the niceties of diplomatic relations–in India, with rising anti-Americanism, the Canadian embassy painted Canadian flags all over its cars so they wouldn’t be taken as Americans. Less than a decade later, Canadian diplomats heroically sheltered Americans in Teheran and helped smuggle them out of the country. Hart witnessed both ends of this show–first in India, then, after a tour in the Persian Gulf, in Iran. Assigned to the Teheran station, in the first phase of the Iranian revolution, the United States decided to greatly reduce its embassy staff–including the CIA station. In the summer of 1979 the spooks operated with a rump unit of a few officers within the reduced embassy, plus an undercover “outside” unit of four, headed by Howard Hart.

There were lots of adventures, including the time Hart was stopped by Revolutionary Guards at a checkpoint, beaten, and ended up blowing them away with his pistol. He got his CIA contingent safely out of the country. When the Carter administration organized the hostage rescue mission that ended so tragically at the Desert One airstrip in the Iranian outback, Howard Hart was the CIA adviser. He was physically at Desert One when the mission came apart. For Iran Hart received the Intelligence Star, an important CIA medal.

Next Howard went to Islamabad as station chief for Pakistan, and from there he directed the CIA paramilitary operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. This was the crucial early-mid phase of the Afghan op, when U.S. support did not quite rise to war-winning levels. Hart made the best of limited means. He finished his CIA career as an early chief of the agency’s novel “fusion center” to counter drug trafficking. Hart amassed five award decorations during his career–more than almost any other officer–and George Tenet selected him as one of fifty CIA “Trailblazers” in 1997. Unlike Clarridge or George, both of whom were swept up in the Iran-Contra scandal, Howard Hart never became controversial inside or outside the agency. That’s what made him a “spy for all seasons.”

Farewell Marilyn Young– Warrior Against War

February 20, 2017– When the Federal Bureau of Investigation went after the Concerned Committee of Asian Scholars (CCAS), there was nothing of the diffidence they are showing in their supposed look-see into Russian interference in the 2016 United States election. Perhaps the FBI under James Comey plays to a different set of favorites than it did during J. Edgar Hoover’s day. Those were the times of the Bureau’s COINTELPRO and their “inquiries” into the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The motive was very definitely to chill citizens’ relations with others, simply because of their political beliefs. The CCAS was a group that opposed the Vietnam war and favored better relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China–both directions in which the-then Nixon administration was moving–but that did nothing to shield these Americans.

Marilyn B. Young was among the founding members of CCAS. I became aware of them while studying Southeast Asia at Columbia. Some Vietnam veteran friends of mine were members, and CCAS published excellent newsletters and occasional journals. They were on the cutting edge of scholarship on Asia. But that’s not what put them on the FBI’s radar scope. Their passion–and passionate opposition to the Vietnam war did that. Indeed Young, who studied at Harvard with Ernest R. May and John King Fairbank as her advisers, was squarely within the cohort. In the 1971 marches on Washington, to protest the invasion of Laos, and then “May Day,” hyped to be a more focused attempt to prevent the government from conducting business as usual, Young participated with a affinity circle that included Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg, and Noam Chomsky, not to mention Fred Branfman (later of Indochina Resource Center fame), who also passed away recently and deserves being marked in his own right.

Marilyn did not just wear her beliefs on her sleeve. Decades later, having inspired generations of students at the University of Michigan and New York University (NYU), and an active member of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), Young was elected president of that body. In a customary SHAFR presidential address she reflected on how her studies and teaching had led her backwards and forwards, through wars past and future, until it seemed like war was less a progression than a continuation. There is no longer a discrete move from prewar, through conflict, peace, and postwar. Indeed in our last collaboration, which was a panel at a SHAFR conference a few years back, intended to draw parallels and lessons from the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, Marilyn presented something very much like that view.

At Harvard in the 1960s, Young examined the international side of the turn-of-the-century Boxer Rebellion in China, where she found U.S. participation influenced by the quest for an “Open Door,” that is, freedom for American trade. It was not difficult to link those historic events with Washington’s policies pursued after World War II, and, of course, “war for oil” became a slogan attached to both Bushes and their Gulf Wars. The continuity with which Marilyn Young constructed her views was something John King Fairbank would have enjoyed. Ernie May I am less certain, but he would have appreciated Marilyn’s coherence and historicity.

It was my privilege to know Marilyn Young quite well for decades. Many times we attended conferences together, shared podiums, participated in seminars and institutes. I contributed essays to books she edited. We broke bread innumerable times in myriad places. Her raucous laugh was a delight. I did not mind at panels when she came after me from the left. I watched, distressed, as Marilyn’s health declined. Talk about war, she waged a long–and long successful–struggle against cancer. Her passing will be a sadness for diplomatic history, a loss to historians, indeed to the NYU History Department, where she was emeritus. Some time ago I decided to dedicate my next book to Marilyn, and the only thing good in all this is that I told her a couple of months ago, so she got a little pleasure from that. Marilyn, we loved you. Fair winds and following seas.

On the Ropes at Leyte Gulf

October 26, 2016–I’d intended to post yesterday but it proved too busy. Having missed the crucial day of Leyte Gulf I’ll come around anyway. There are interesting things we can still say from the standpoint of October 26, 1944, seventy-two years ago today. Some of the analysis underlying the points I’ll make here resides in my book Storm Over Leyte, in which you’ll find lots more material on a pile of related subjects.

Today would be the moment that Bull Halsey’s vaunted battleship fleet, Task Force 34, would have arrived off the San Bernardino Strait. A couple of its fastest warships (of the Iowa class) could have made it. But four of the six battlewagons in Task Force 34 were rated at only 28 knots and could not have made it from the position where Halsey’s fleet was located when the battleships were pulled out of their screen positions around his aircraft carriers and instructed to form up. There is an argument in history that Admiral Halsey ought to have ordered the creation of Task Force 34 the previous night, and there was some scout information to support such a decision–see Storm Over Leyte for that– but even then the American vessels could not have arrived before the Japanese fleet had retreated through the straits. As it was some U.S. cruisers and destroyers, making their best speed, arrived in time to fire at Japanese destroyers that had stayed behind to save sailors from heavy cruisers that had sunk in the battle.

Admiral Halsey’s general situation had also become problematical. His entire Third Fleet had been steaming around for days, with high speed burning up fuel. The long chase action just carried out, known to history as the Battle of Cape Engano, used up much of what was left. Halsey had no alternative for October 26, 1944, except to order his carrier fleet to refuel at sea. The high speed deployment to San Bernardino expended his battleships’ fuel in the same way.

Storm Over Leyte relates the stories of a number of Japanese vessels for the day after the great surface action. The most remarkable aspect of their experience is that most American bombers which struck that day came from the self-same jeep aircraft carriers that the Japanese fleet had shelled only twenty-four hours before. Halsey’s ships were under orders to top off their oil tanks and then use their planes to defend U.S. ground positions on the island of Leyte. It’s ironic that the Imperial Navy’s behemoth, battleship Yamato, suffered more casualties on October 26 than on the day of battle.

At 11:34 AM on October 26 the headquarters of the Combined Fleet, the Japanese naval high command, ordered heavily damaged warships to return to the Home Islands, with more moderate repairs to be made at Hong Kong or in Singapore. It marked the effective end of what had been the proudest navy in the Pacific on the day of Pearl Harbor.

Kurita’s Surprise

August 2, 2016–More than six decades out  it is astonishing that the greatest naval battle in history has garnered as little attention as it has. This, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, was “the greatest” in lots of ways. More ships participated, more sailors, the stakes were the fates of an entire invasion fleet, the awesome combat power of one side such that its losses would be minuscule compared to those of the adversary. Measured by its decisive aspect—the tonnage of ships sunk, the destruction of virtually all of a mighty fleet—Leyte Gulf shines. For the Japanese Navy, defeat at Leyte Gulf duplicated in reverse their greatest achievement, when Japan’s fleet destroyed a Russian one at Tsushima in 1905. Apart from anything else, Leyte Gulf set the trajectory of the final phase of the Pacific War that ended with the Japanese surrender ten months later.

There is another aspect of the Leyte events which astonishes too. In this lopsided contest the Allied side held every advantage. Allied forces were far superior to the Imperial Navy’s remaining vessels, in every category of strength from battleships to submarines. Allied airpower, both carrier-based and flying from shore also far outweighed that of Japan. And Allied intelligence, photographing Japanese garrisons at will, reading Japan’s coded messages, benefitting from captured Japanese documents, saw the enemy’s cards like an open hand. Like I said, the Allies enjoyed every advantage.

In the face of all that, the Imperial Navy managed to put an immensely powerful surface force up against an isolated portion of the Allied fleet. In these days when so many speak of “asymmetrical warfare” the Leyte Gulf experience demands more attention. Now the book Storm Over Leyte meets that need in detail. One aspect of Japan’s success in getting at one fragment of the Allied fleet in isolation was a huge intelligence failure, one virtually unbelievable for the side that had attained such a great advantage.

This is only a part of the story but it is an important one. The month of October 1944 began with an Allied misreading of radio intercepts. The major Imperial Navy fleet command at mid-1944 had been the so-called “Mobile Fleet,” that had been hard hit in the Battle of the Philippine Sea (aka “Marianas Turkey Shoot”). Afterwards the Japanese had split up their forces, with the main surface units going to the Singapore area while the remnants of the aircraft carriers regrouped in the Home Islands. Messages the Allies intercepted in early October were read to indicate the Mobile Fleet had rejoined the surface force led by Vice-Admiral Kurita Takeo, Japan’s Sir Harry Hotspur for this desperate venture. That interpretation proved mistaken and U.S. intelligence realized its mistake within a few days.

Admiral Kurita had charge of the bulk of Japan’s surface combat ships. At his Lingga anchorage and in Singapore they were out of range of the usual Allied aerial reconnaissance units. The Allies could have run photo missions with China-based B-29 bombers, but the leader there, General Claire Chennault, refused. Chennault had already been pulled into agreeing to make a B-29 strike on Taiwan in support of a carrier raid there, and evidently thought he was giving the Pacific oceanic forces enough help as it was.

The window on Japanese fleet activities therefore came down to radio intelligence. Allied spooks were sharp enough that to develop a good indicator entirely by watching Japanese operating practices. They discovered that by tracking movements of Japan’s oil tankers, especially the fleet oilers needed for underway replenishment, they had a reliable predictor for naval activity. As Allied forces closed in for the Philippine invasion, the radio spies detected enemy tanker movements of the kind that indicated a fleet sortie.

But radio direction finding of messages sent by Kurita’s fleet continued to put it in the Singapore area. Allied forces in the Pacific fought an entire battle over Taiwan, conducted a series of supporting air strikes on the Philippines, and began their invasion in Leyte Gulf, without the Kurita fleet stirring. On October 16, 1944, as Allied invasion fleets closed in the spooks still located Kurita near Singapore. That same day the radio spies acquired fresh intelligence on tanker movements and began expecting Kurita to sail. The admiral actually did so on October 18 (the 17th in Washington, where the Office of Naval Intelligence, the next day, still only “expected” a fleet sortie.

Admiral Kurita headed for Brunei, a micro-state on the north coast of Borneo, where he had sent tankers to wait for him. As it happened, Allied intel authorities had previously debated the chances the Japanese would come out to fight, and the chiefs of General Douglas MacArthur’s spy unit had asked for extra aerial scouting of Brunei. A B-24 scout plane actually sighted the Kurita fleet and the Japanese monitored its contact reports monitored. But somewhere up the line the messages were misplaced and the warning lost.

Existing accounts of Leyte Gulf make much of the submarine attacks and aeronaval battles of October 24, as the Kurita fleet closed in on the Philippines, but in truth the Allies were responding instantly to reports just reaching them. Had General MacArthur and his Pacific theater opposite number, Admiral William F. Halsey, had the advance warning they could have had, the scale of their attacks would have been ferocious and Kurita might have been stopped right there.

In truth the Kurita fleet, grievously wounded during its advance toward Leyte Gulf, arrived in a weakened condition, but it pressed ahead. The next Allied element to fail would be aerial scouts over the San Bernardino Strait, a passage Kurita main force had to transit in order to reach its target. For a variety of reasons the scouts failed that night. From Pearl Harbor the Allied Pacific theater commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, discovered from his radio traffic analysts that the Kurita fleet had passed the strait to debouch on the Pacific Ocean side of the Philippines. Nimitz sent messages to Halsey and other invasion commanders—revealed for the first time in Storm Over Leyte—urgently passing on the location data and identifying it as “ULTRA,” the Allied codename for its supersecret radio intelligence. Nimitz’s action could have given away the source, so they violated all the classification rules for ULTRA. The messages demonstrate his horror at the front-line situation.

The Japanese appearance was actually preceded by a series of intelligence failures—to detect by aerial reconnaissance at Lingga-Singapore or Brunei, to detect by radio direction finding at the moment of the sally, and to detect transiting the San Bernardino—to the extent that Pacific commander Nimitz felt it necessary to send messages that broke all the rules. Usually Admiral Nimitz is associated with a message that needled Halsey on the activities of his fleet, but the ULTRA messages were a far greater act of intervention. Thus our old understanding of the Battle of Samar—the action Kurita’s fleet fought off of Leyte Gulf—needs revamping.

Storm Over Leyte: The Philippine Invasion and the Destruction of the Japanese Navy (PenguinRandomHouse) is available today.

 

 

 

 

What’s Secret, Hillary? Who’s Careless, Trump?

July 28, 2016–There’s a significant slice of folks out there who think Hillary Clinton ought to be in jail. This latest business of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump inviting Russian spies to hack U.S. computers to track down allegedly missing Clinton emails is typical of the genre. But what we’re really talking about is imagined transgression versus truly stunning betrayal. Don’t fall for it!

Readers of this space will know that when the Clinton email scandal broke, now more than a year ago, the very first pieces you saw here explained how phony were the breach of secrecy charges. I’ll refrain from going back over those details and just make a few central points. First, not until 2009 did the Department of State have any regulation regarding officials’ use of private channels, not until 2012 did the National Archives and Office of Management and Budget issue rules requiring agencies to actually manage electronic messages sent thereon, and not until 2014 did the State Department actually ask former senior officials, including but not limited to Clinton, to hand over copies of their electronic messages. Clinton may indeed have lied in responding to those inquiries, but she was not in violation of regulations. In columns posted here I showed that a range of other senior officials had done the same. Both Condi Rice and Colin Powell were later shown to have been dissembling when they initially denied ever using private channels.

My second point concerned the arbitrary operation of the secrecy system. Much of the fancied Clinton secrecy violation was the product of after the fact judgment by unnamed officials of the CIA and other agencies. Director James B. Comey of the FBI acknowledged as much on July 5 of this year, when the Bureau formally ended its investigation of the Clinton emails. Over three thousand emails–a little more than ten percent of those Ms. Clinton handed over–were found to have sensitive contents. Of those, 2,000 were found to have been retroactively graded classified, and another 1,000 contained a category of information, deemed “sensitive but unclassified,” which really doesn’t belong in the secret vault at all. Eight emails were judged to contain Top Secret information, an equal number confidential, and 36 messages plain secret info. Moreover, those messages appear in chains, where Secretary Clinton reacted to messages in ongoing conversations, and where the actual insertion of the information could have been by anyone.

My conclusion at the time bears repeating: when the regulations become so onerous that top officials cannot do business without violating them, it’s time to change the regs, not persecute the officials.

As a historian I deal with government secrecy every day. I make requests to open secret records, make arguments for why documents should be opened to the public, or desist, agreeing or begrudging claims that continued secrecy is justified. But secrecy can be phony just as it can be real. One of the supposed Clinton violations concerned a newspaper story about the drone war, the text of which was forwarded to Clinton, then traveling, so she would be able to respond to reporters’ queries. It happens the CIA considers everything about drones Top Secret–so it charges the secretary of state with dealing in Top Secret information she could have read in the newspaper. That is phony secrecy.

Contrast it with an example from my current book, which deals with the battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the largest naval battle in history. Arguably the two biggest Top Secrets of World War II were the development of the atom bomb and the fact that the allies were reading their adversaries’ coded radio messages, a form of intelligence called “ULTRA.” Extraordinary measures were adopted to protect the secrecy of ULTRA, including never identifying the source. In the battle of Leyte Gulf a powerful Japanese fleet transits through the Philippines to the Pacific side of the archipelago to engage the Americans. In the book I show how America’s Pacific commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, threw security to the winds in order to warn of the emergency, and identified ULTRA in a dispatch to subordinates that gave a position for the Japanese fleet on the Pacific side of the islands. That was a real security breach. No one even criticized Nimitz for his deliberate action.

Today Donald Trump invites Russia to hack in search of Hillary Clinton emails. That would be a true cyberattack–a security breach–an intelligence penetration, and an intervention in United States politics. The act is not fundamentally different from the political terraforming the CIA accomplished with its covert operations in various lands. At its heart Trump’s is an act of disloyalty.  Sounds like The Manchurian Candidate.

During 1944’s presidential campaign, Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, who knew the secret of the codebreaking, thought to employ it to charge Franklin Roosevelt with dereliction for Pearl Harbor. Instead Dewey kept his silence after the visit of an emissary from Army chief of staff George C. Marshall. That was being careful.

The politics has fallen very far when citizens want to jail the former secretary of state for doing her job, while political adversaries invite foreign spying merely to obtain votes.

Two Atomic Bombs for Dien Bien Phu

April 24, 2016–Operation Vulture was the American plan to save the French forces at Dien Bien Phu by means of a maximum effort air strike using B-29 heavy bombers of the United States Far East Air Force (FEAF). It would have been carried out by FEAF’s Bomber Command, led by Brigadier General Joseph D. Caldara. A delegation of staffers went to Saigon with Caldara, using an older aircraft of the B-17 type so as not to attract attention, to meet officers of the French high command in Indochina. Caldara’s FEAF people completed their operations plan sixty-two years ago today, on April 24, 1954.

Bomber Command planned a maximum effort strike by B-29 bombers using conventional munitions. The French Union forces at Dien Bien Phu, being pressed back into a very small space by General Vo Nguyen Giap’s Viet Minh siege force, were increasingly desperate for some form of outside intervention, and rumors of a U.S. bombing raid were already current at the entrenched camp. The day before the Vulture plan was completed the French garrison had thrown its only fresh unit, the 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion, into a full-scale assault intended to gain some breathing space for Dien Bien Phu’s central defense complex. It had failed miserably, in part because commanders had tuned their radios to the wrong frequencies and not heard or responded to the evolving events on their radio net. By now the garrison was on its last legs.

Another key element in American support for the Dien Bien Phu battle, the use of CIA proprietary air crews to deliver supplies on board U.S.-loaned C-119 “Packet” transport planes, also took a hit on April 24. That was when Paul R. Holden, one of the Civil Air Transport (CAT) pilots was wounded by the Viet Minh flak over the entrenched camp. The contracts CAT personnel had signed did not provide for combat missions. The other Americans more or less went on strike.

This became a key moment of America’s Dien Bien Phu. For political and other reasons, Washington and Paris continued to tiptoe around the Vulture option, which seemed more remote by the minute. In Paris, French officials summoned U.S. embassy counselor Douglas MacArthur II to the Quai d’Orsay for a last minute consultation. MacArthur found Joseph Laniel, the French prime minister, in the room when he arrived. “Dien Bien Phu has become a symbol in the mind of the French people,” Laniel told him. The prime minister went on to say the French chief of joint staff now believed that only intervention with U.S. bombers could save the entrenched camp.

Across town at the same moment a session of the high council of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was in full swing. These NATO council meetings happened twice a year, and at that time NATO headquarters was near Paris. The conference had begun on April 23. A staffer entered the meeting to hand a cable to French foreign minister Georges Bidault. He read it, then silently handed it on to the American secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. The dispatch recorded that Dien Bien Phu had just committed its last reserves in the futile attempt to clear the western face of the center of resistance. Secretary Dulles held his ground. “B-29 intervention as proposed seems to me out of the question,” he said.

Dulles promised to report immediately to U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and to bring into the picture Admiral Arthur Radford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was then en route to the NATO meeting. In his actual cable Dulles would say that it had been “painful” to watch Bidault preside over the NATO Council, and that “he gives the impression of being a man close to the breaking point.” Later, after dinner, Dulles sent another message. “The situation here is tragic. France is almost visibly collapsing under our eyes.”

Georges Bidault has also left an account of these moments. In a 1967 memoir he recorded that Foster Dulles, next to him as they walked down the stairs during a break between the NATO Council sessions, piped up and asked, “And if I gave you two A-Bombs for Dien Bien Phu?”

Later, in the summer of 1954, after Dien Bien Phu had fallen, Secretary Dulles prepared a white paper the United States wanted to issue to document its efforts during the Indochina crisis. With regard to these events in Paris, the text noted arrival of the dispatch from the French Expeditionary Corps in Indochina that had reported dire straits at Dien Bien Phu, and said that Dulles, after consulting Admiral Radford, had rejected any short term intervention, citing the need for united action and for congressional approval, neither likely in a matter of hours or even days.

This text went to the U.S. embassy in Paris to be shown to the French for their information. Dien Bien Phu had led to the fall of the Laniel government, hence the ouster of Bidault as France’s foreign minister. But a core of professional diplomats staffed the Quai d’Orsay. Roland de Margerie, a close aide to the foreign minister, and Guy de La Tournelle, had both been with Bidault immediately following the exchange with Dulles. Bidault had described the offer and his rejection of it–no good, he felt, could come from using Atomic Bombs in Indochina.

John Foster Dulles denied having made any offer at all. The French must have confused his statement of April 23 to the NATO Council, in which he had argued that atomic weapons must be treated as having become no different than conventional ones. C. Douglas Dillon, the U.S. ambassador to France, warned that if Washington put out its Indochina white paper, Margerie might respond by putting out his version of the Bidault-Dulles exchange.

Washington never released its white paper.

But rewind to the time of Dien Bien Phu, and on April 30, 1954–days after the exchange that Dulles denied having taken place–President Eisenhower, Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, and national security adviser Robert Cutler met at the White House and discussed whether an Atomic Bomb could be “loaned” to France for a strike on the Viet Minh supply base that supported the siege.

That conversation is hardly conceivable in the absence of the exchange between Dulles and Bidault that the American diplomat insists never happened. This, and many other aspects are explored in Operation Vulture, the story of America’s Dien Bien Phu.

VIETNAM OBSERVANCE

April 4, 2016–A few days ago I did a radio interview with a San Francisco station. The United States government is in the process of conducting a years-long observance of the 50th Anniversary of the American War in Vietnam. The Department of Veterans Affairs had apparently selected March 29 as the date to celebrate Veterans. It did not seem right to me– that day in 1965 marked no great commitment of men and women to war, no significant Washington decision, no big battle, no Saigon coup, just a bombing of the North and a moment for small unit actions. Maybe that was the message.

 

In          Our          Name

These     things     were     done.

Among     our     names     was     mine.

And yours.

 

Someday, one day, there will be an observance like that for Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror. Think about it.

Dien Bien Phu: The Torpedo Boat

March 18, 2016–In accepting battle in the high mountain valley that was Dien Bien Phu, French commander-in-chief General Henri Navarre had simply assumed that his Expeditionary Corps would emerge victorious. The entrenched camp was dug in, had multiple strongpoints, and had been equipped with every appurtenance of modern warfare from tanks to high capacity .50-caliber guns to an airfield. What broke his smug surety, sixty-two years ago, was the fall of the strongpoint known as “Gabrielle,” situated directly north of the main resistance center of the camp.

This important strongpoint had offered the French observation of the valley entrance to Dien Bien Phu from the north. In Vietnamese hands, flak guns located there would cut one of approaches to the airfield, reduce French freedom of action, and have perfect observation for artillery strikes into the main camp. Located on a hill that rose separately from the larger mass of mountains which ringed the valley, the French called “Gabrielle” le torpilleur, the torpedo boat. This strongpoint had been configured into independently defensible sectors with two complete layers of bunkers and trenches. “Gabrielle” had won an award for the quality of its installations. It represented the best-built strongpoint at the entrenched camp.

A solid, reinforced battalion defended “Gabrielle,” along with a heavy mortar company of the Foreign Legion. The 5th Battalion, 7th Algerian Tirailleurs under Major Roland de Mecquenem with the Legion’s 1st Composite Mortar Company, provided an all-around defense. In reserve was the 416th Thai montagnard company. On the morning of battle French logistics had delivered extra ammo and food to the strongpoint in the expectation it might have to hold out. Four days worth of supplies were stocked.

The Viet Minh battle corps of General Vo Nguyen Giap had spared no effort to prepare its attack. His Viet-Nam People’s Army had never fought a larger battle against a fortified enemy. All his arrangements were reviewed at command conferences before the action opened. Giap slated two full regiments of his regulars for the operation, Le Thuy’s 165th of the 312th Infantry Division, plus Nam Ha’s 88th Regiment of the 308th “Iron” Division, the flagship infantry formation of the People’s Army. Vuong Thua Vu, commander of the 308th, was in overall command of the operation.

Le Thuy’s men would strike from the hill mass that had also overlooked “Beatrice,” and clear the foot of the hill and first line of defenses. Nam Ha’s troops would come from the northeast, debouching from the pass through which the “Pavie Track” made for Lai Chau.

Battle began late in the afternoon on March 14, 1954, hours after the final bullets had pinged in the assault on strongpoint “Beatrice,” with which the People’s Army had opened its offensive. The artillery struck first. Some French officers had noticed that “Gabrielle’s” dimensions corresponded to the standard dispersion pattern for a battery of 105mm howitzers firing at medium range. But the French artillery chief, Colonel Charles Piroth, had so much confidence in his own guns that he assured De Mecquenem the torpedo boat’s defenses would hardly be touched. Instead, Dien Bien Phu’s counterbattery fire proved ineffectual.

Instead bunkers on the hill collapsed under fire, one by one. Nam Ha’s Viet Minh attackers made the first breaches in the defenses. The Viet Minh guns fell silent at 2:30 AM on March 15, leaving the field entirely to Vuong Thua Vu’s assault force. But one shell had hit with devastating effect: exploding in 5/7 RTA’s command post the shell smashed its radio sets and wounded the battalion commander, his newly-arrived replacement, the artillery liaison officer and the CO’s aide all at once. The deputy CO lost his nerve. One of the tirailleur company commanders took over the defense.

The center of resistance at Dien Bien Phu ordered a counterattack. Slated for the mission would be the 5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion of Major Andre Botella, which had jumped into the entrenched camp that very day. Backed by  some tanks the 5th Paras were supposed to cross part of the entrenched camp, pick up the Pavie Track, ford a river, and reach Gabrielle–at night and under enemy attack. Botella’s men had been at Dien Bien Phu for a time, months earlier, but under very different conditions and without the urgency of this night. This would be an unrehearsed counterattack over unfamiliar terrain, by a newly-arrived and disoriented unit, in the dark, against enemy opposition. Two companies of the 1st Foreign Legion Paratroops were added. They had to march through the center of resistance under fire, and they, too, had never rehearsed this mission. Just as bad, the overall commander of the relief force, Major Hubert de Seguin-Pazzis was late on the scene as the result of a last-minute confab at HQ. He not only had to catch up, jeeping across the camp, once in place he received contradictory orders. It is not surprising the counterattack fell apart at the ford.

By dawn “Gabrielle” was in Viet Minh hands. Colonel Piroth, the artillery boss, now realized the enormity of his error and the deep dangers of the French predicament. Piroth killed himself with a hand grenade. General Navarre’s fantasies of victory lay broken on the floor.

In Paris the French government had been preparing to send a military delegation for special talks with the Americans in Washington. Led by General Paul Ely, the head of the French equivalent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the mission had been intended to explore possibilities for United States action in case the Red Chinese air force intervened in French Indochina. Instead, the centerpiece of the Ely talks suddenly became what additional aid the U.S. could give France for the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The Ely mission highlighted an extraordinary phase of American participation in the Viet-Nam war. Read all about it in Operation Vulture.

 

The Fabulist as Operator: Michael Hayden’s Openness

March 15, 2016–Former top spook Michael V. Hayden loves operations. Pushing pieces around the board, making the game go his way–those are the things for which he wakes up in the morning. That’s the meaning hidden in the title of his recent memoir Playing to the Edge. In this space a few days ago (“Michael Hayden: Voice of the Fabulist, March 12, 2016) I covered Hayden’s recent appearance at the “Lawfare” forum of Stanford University. One of the questions he fielded there was which organization–Hayden had headed both the National Security Agency (NSA)  and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)–he had better liked being the director of. Having already said, in a different context, that NSA probably accounts for 60 percent or more of the President’s Daily Brief–and the CIA for much less than the rest–the general came back and said he preferred leading the CIA. He ticked his head. “Covert operations,” he said.

I’ve heard elsewhere–in more than one place–that Mr. Hayden takes more delight in the intricacies of minute spy activities than whichever other senior officer my commentator was familiar with. CIA lawyer John Rizzo writes, “Mike Hayden loved being a spymaster, by which I mean he reveled in conceiving and running covert operations involving real people and back-alley intrigue.” In fact General Hayden’s Big Idea when he took the helm at CIA was revamping the agency’s organization so as to increase the “operational tempo.” Even CIA’s historians were supposed to get involved. Operational tempo did increase–but how much of that was due to the latest moving of deck chairs and ho much to Langley’s increasing reliance on drone attacks remains an open question.

In his memoir the general recounts asking a civilian advisory board whether the United States will be able to continue espionage into a future where every day the demands increase for transparency and public accountability. He reports the board had its doubts. “Really important answer,” Hayden notes (p. 422).

What do you do to avoid that eventuality? You manipulate the public’s knowledge. Here’s a story, and it’s about spies, and it really happened:

When General Hayden came to Langley the hottest issue on CIA secrecy was the continuing effort to shield the “President’s Daily Brief” (PDB), reports that constantly update the chief executive. The PDBs had been recently controversial in the case of 9/11, where it developed that CIA had warned of an imminent threat. Elsewhere CIA had observed that terrorists might use airplanes as weapons. The Bush White House tried but failed to keep that information from reaching the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks and the public. The CIA asserted these PDBs were decision documents and eligible for special secrecy protection.

Dr. Larry Berman, a University of California history professor, asked for some of these PDBs to be released for his research, documents so old their secrecy was not credible. The CIA turned Berman down. In conjunction with the National Security Archive he sued for the papers’ release. The PDBs were not protected either by precedent or by nature–Berman and Archive could show that numerous PDBs and predecessor reports (the documents had another name in the Kennedy years) had long since been declassified, and that no claim had ever been made that releasing them revealed intelligence sources and methods or that they were exempt by virtue of presidential privilege.

While Berman lost at the U.S. district court level, his appeal was on its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit when Michael Hayden took over the CIA. As per Hayden’s question to his advisory board, it appeared there were reasons to expect the same societal forces pushing the effort to open the PDBs might sharpen across the board.

The general’s problem was to be open and shut at the same time.

Now, the CIA also had another ongoing secrecy appeal on its plate. That was the matter of the “Family Jewels,” a notorious compilation document ordered up by CIA director James R. Schlesinger in the early 1970s to discover what domestic abuses the agency had previously engaged in. Revelation of some of the ops that figured in that report had led to the “Year of Intelligence” in 1975, when the CIA had had to endure multiple major outside investigations. Even though its contents were picked through by all those inquiries, the CIA had forever kept secret the document itself. Numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for it had all been rejected. When Hayden arrived at Langley the National Security Archive had been pursuing an FOIA on the Family Jewels since 1992. Archive director Thomas Blanton had been in contact with CIA declassification officials encouraging them to release the material. It would be a good place to start, Blanton argued, if the agency wanted to turn the public dialogue away from torture.

Suddenly Blanton began to hear good things. Senior agency officials told him he’d be happy with an upcoming speech–General Hayden was scheduled to address the Society for the Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), the major professional association of diplomatic historians. Hayden duly appeared on June 21, 2007. He called himself “a lifelong student of history.” He went on to declare that “CIA recognizes the real benefits that flow from greater public understanding of our work and mission,” extolled a “very successful” FOIA program, and went on to assert that “we have completed our declassification review and are preparing to release most of the so-called Family Jewels.”

At the Archive we were overwhelmed, in the short term, with the impact of all this. The general seemed to be turning over a new leaf, perhaps a true age of openness was dawning. Media excitement built through the weekend. The CIA actually released the Family Jewels on the Monday, June 25, when a CIA car pulled up in front of the Gelman Library building of George Washington University, where the Archive offices are located. Television trucks were pulled up all along the street and Langley’s minions no doubt feared the consequences of their pictures appearing in the press. They called upstairs for Mr. Blanton and an assistant to come and retrieve the papers. Much has been done with that declassified document since.

But the Family Jewels were only the MacGuffin in all this. I did not realize it at the time but General Hayden now confirms it in his memoir. “I decided to centralize declassification review at the corporate level,” he writes (p. 121). That meant the agency’s Publications Review Board, a zealous and paranoid collection of the most antediluvian sort, whose antics I have documented in my book The Family Jewels. Releasing the document of that name marked not the beginning of openness but its end–or at least Michael Hayden’s play to the edge.

I was at the SHAFR luncheon where Hayden spoke. I ought to have realized at the time. There were two giveaways–during the questions and answers, several diplomatic historians raised the question of the PDBs. Far from talking openness, he spoke of desire for openness but  General Hayden wanted “space” for decisionmakers and also alluded to the spurious sources and methods argument, which those of us who had ever seen the already-declassified PDBs knew to be so much hot air.

The other giveaway was that CIA took the occasion of the SHAFR luncheon to roll out a new umbrella unit, “Information Management Services,” that combined the Review Board, which has the power of (and indeed is preoccupied with) suppression of anything written by a CIA employee, the Historical Review Program (which had done some declassification work in the past), and the agency’s FOIA and privacy office. An official of this new unit actually drew me aside at the luncheon, reminded me of a particular declassification request I had filed, which apparently he had worked on, and asked why “we” (the public) kept making requests like that. Managing information meant keeping it away from the public.

Hayden told us, “I firmly believe this approach will improve CIA’s standing with key partners inside and outside government, including people like you.” The CIA’s declassification process slowed down considerably in the wake of that episode. General Hayden personally participated in this op.

A few months later the Circuit Court ruled that CIA could, indeed, keep their PDBs secret for the moment, but it threw out the “sources and methods” bugaboo, telling the agency it would have to consider the true secrecy value of the various reports. That is what led to the event last September at the Johnson Library, where the CIA made a show of releasing thousands of PDB documents. Note the additional 8-year delay in opening this material. It’s also worth noting that in both the Family Jewels and PDB cases the agency speaks as if it had itself thought up the idea of releasing these documents, rather than being impelled by the public.