Dien Bien Phu: A Titanic Clash

March 13, 2016–Major Edward Yarbrough sat in a dugout beneath the looming hills. Yarbrough was visiting the French mountain fortress of Dien Bien Phu. It was March 13, 1954, precisely sixty-two years ago. Yarbrough, a United States Air Force officer, was doing precisely what President Dwight D. Eisenhower had promised the American public that U.S. forces would not do–engage in combat operations in French Indochina. Major Yarbrough led a hush-hush detachment of the Air Force’s 315th Air Division codenamed “Cat’s Paw.” Their mission was to use American planes–“sheep-dipped” C-119 transports temporarily lent to France and painted with French markings–to fly supplies to French posts in Indochina.

Eisenhower’s promise had been built into a U.S.-French agreement that the Cat’s Paw aircraft would not fly into combat zones. Technically, until March 13 that promise was being maintained–battle had yet to begin at Dien Bien Phu. But the use of the C-119 planes, which the French called “Packets,” was irresistible–on the long haul to the entrenched camp they could carry more then three times as many supplies as the C-47 “Dakota,” the mainstay of the French air force transport service in Indochina. Indeed, once battle had been joined the French prevailed upon Eisenhower to contrive a CIA proprietary unit that would continue the Packet service, now with no niceties about avoiding combat.

Anyway, a few days earlier a C-119 at Dien Bien Phu had lost an engine while landing and Yarbrough wanted to see if she could be repaired. His flight line chief at Cat Bi air base, outside Haiphong, where Cat’s Paw had its primary maintenance facility, estimated a crew of mechanics flown into Dien Bien Phu with a new engine could fix the Packet in a day and a half provided that the plane’s structure and fittings were still solid. Major Yarbrough went to Dien Bien Phu to find out. So Yarbrough would be there when the battle began, one of a steady stream of Americans to be in, out, and around Dien Bien Phu throughout the epic siege (read his story and many more in my book America’s Dien Bien Phu). The Vietnamese revolutionaries opened their offensive with a big artillery bombardment. Among other things, they targeted the damaged C-119, which would be blown up by cannon fire. Yarbrough hitched a ride out on one of the last French aircraft to escape the base.

The Viet Minh, a united front of Vietnamese led by communists, had been fighting France for more than seven years. They had gradually become stronger until here, at Dien Bien Phu, the revolutionaries not only far outnumbered the French but had artillery too, guns of 105mm caliber, powerful enough to smash Ed Yarbrough’s bunker–and almost every other one at the entrenched camp. Indeed, within not too many hours the officer commanding the sector the Viet Minh first attacked would be killed in the collapse of his dugout after an artillery hit.

Titanic forces were in play. The Vietnamese were fighting for their independence. That gave them a huge moral advantage, but the war had been long and costly and insiders saw signs their morale might be sagging. Chinese allies of the Viet Minh were pushing them to battle, but also anxious for their nation to make an entrance on the world diplomatic stage. Soviet allies of the Vietnamese were providing trucks and other aid, and setting that diplomatic stage.

France had tired of the war also. Here it was the United States pushing an ally. The French Army in Indochina was thoroughly professional–in part because the homeland had passed a law prohibiting draftees from being sent to the war. But the professional brotherhood of French soldiery, ranged against the depth of Vietnamese yearnings for independence, promised a battle royal. It began that day, with the assault on a strongpoint called Beatrice.

Farewell Old Indochina Hand: Philippe Devillers

February 21, 2016–In the middle of another piece of writing I checked the mail only to see the notice that Philippe Devillers had passed away. Actually that had happened a week ago, on February 15, but the news was only now circulating. He died in Paris at age 96. Devillers looms large in the historiography of Indochina, and the French and American wars. He was recognized all over. Nearly a decade ago in the former Saigon, for example, I wandered into a second-hand shop where I found a copy of his first great book, Histoire du Vietnam. The shopkeeper wanted an amount for that book that would nearly have financed my trip.

Born in Villers-Cotterets in Picardie, in November 1920, the man went to Saigon with General Philippe Leclerc and the French Expeditionary Corps in September 1945. He had graduated from Sciences-Po and had more degrees in law and administration. Leclerc employed him as an officer of the Fifth Bureau–the French staff for psychological warfare. Named Philippe Mullander, the man wrote as a stringer for the newspaper Le Monde, and adopted a second name referring to his home town to distinguish his writing for the French army from that for the press.

What distinguished Devillers so much was his drive to explore Vietnamese history and culture. Rather than base himself on French pronouncements and claims to historical events, Devillers explored the Vietnamese backgrounds of developments. He was also driven to report. In Saigon barely two months Devillers joined with others in creating the biweekly broadsheet Paris-Saigon. There he teamed up with another man, Jean Lacouture, who would become a key writer on Indochinese matters. His first article for Le Monde concerned the Dalat conference of April 1946, where French negotiators stalled the Viet Minh government in according rights promised in an agreement Leclerc had reached with them earlier.

After some time as a government official Devillers covered Asia for a local paper in Rouen for more than a decade. Histoire du Vietnam de 1940 a 1952 appeared while the French war still continued, and was printed in 19,000 copies. It remains a key source for the outbreak of the Vietnamese revolution, end of French Indochina, and the early French war. The book served to counterbalance arguments from some that the Indochina war was simple a communist aggression against the West. Devillers importantly showed the conflict’s roots in Vietnamese nationalism.

Devillers and Lacouture collaborated on two books and a movie. One, La fin d’une guerre, Indochine 1954 is an important source on the Geneva conference of 1954, and helped me with my study America’s Dien Bien Phu. Their movie also concerned Dien Bien Phu, arguing that French democracy had ended there, and in the late 1960s they joined to publish on the passage from the French war to the American one. In 1988 Devillers edited a collection of key documents, press releases and other material, Paris-Saigon-Hanoi that revealed the role of certain French officials in an explosive fashion.

Gamers’ Corner: PANZERKRIEG Historical Notes

For all those gamers who may be interested, I have assembled a set of the Historical Notes that go with the boardgame Panzerkrieg. It’s available as a download from the “Download” section of the website. Because I had to put some time into finding a copy of the game, scanning the material, and assembling the material as a product, I have put a $1.00 price on the download. Hope you enjoy it!

QUI NHON AT TET

February 8, 2016–Greetings to all who observe the Lunar New Year! For me personally, the shock of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, back in 1968, put the Lunar New Year on the calendar, while many years of living in New York, with very active celebrations downtown, made it memorable. But the indelible element is Tet. Now, the thing about the Tet Offensive which made it so extraordinary is that fighting suddenly broke out all across South Vietnam. Yet when people talk about “Tet” it’s mostly three pieces of the action they mean–the fighting in Saigon (especially at the American embassy), the siege of Hue, or the battle of Khe Sanh. I admit I’ve written about all three. But there’s more to the story. In my book Vietnam: Unwinnable War I tried to expand the horizon, particularly on actions in the Mekong Delta. I’ve done pieces elsewhere, too, including one on “Tet in II Corps” that appeared in The VVA Veteran back in 2009. I was pleased the other day when a veteran of the events portrayed in that article approached me to correct some of what it said. With the Lunar New Year coming right up, this seems an ideal moment to mark it with a non-Saigon story. So, herewith, to Qui Nhon at Tet.

 

Qui Nhon is a city on the central Vietnamese coast. In the American war it was important as the rear base, at the foot of the Central Highlands, for troops engaged on the high plateau, the point of origin for the road to Pleiku. Qui Nhon was probably the most important place in Binh Dinh province, which was undoubtedly why the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam chose to attack it. As a bellwether for the pacification situation in Vietnam, a Binh Dinh province attack offered to put a propaganda feather in the NLF’s cap.

Qui Nhon lay in the tactical area of responsibility of the South Korean expeditionary corps in Vietnam, but the bulk of defense forces  for Binh Dinh were troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 22nd Infantry Division, in particular its 41st Regiment. As the North Vietnamese and NLF did elsewhere in South Vietnam, they made careful preparations in Binh Dinh, including attempting to neutralize the ARVN. During the predawn hours of January 10, 1968, about three weeks before Tet, an estimated battalion of the Vietnam People’s Army attacked Phu My, base of Captain Nguyen Van Ru’s 2nd Battalion, 41st Infantry.

ARVN units were importantly backed by American advisers. Sergeant Ray J. Robison, one of four men with the battalion’s U.S. detachment, believes the word “adviser” is a misnomer. Captain Ru had been fighting since the French war. There was nothing the Americans could tell him. Rather, the advisers were the point men for ARVN access to many resources their army lacked–from lavish artillery and air support to a scale of supply the South Vietnamese lacked. The North Vietnamese knew that too. During the attack on Phu My some People’s Army bo dois were specifically assigned to take out the Americans’ bunker. The enemy soldiers crept up and rolled two grenades into the emplacement. The first burst wounded 1st Lieutenant Richard Morris, Staff Sergeant Robert Harcum, and Sergeant Gerald Deady, while concussion threw Sergeant Robison against the bunker wall. The second grenade landed at Robison’s feet, an object of morbid dread. But before anything else happened an ARVN private, Do Van Tan, jumped on top of the grenade and shielded the Americans from its blast. Private Tan became one of only three ARVN soldiers awarded the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross during the war.

Sergeant Robison lived to fight at Tet. The other Americans were sent to get medical treatment at Qui Nhon. Captain Ru’s battalion had been badly enough handled that Brigadier General Nguyen Van Hieu switched it for Major Duong’s 1st Battalion. Duong impressed Robison as another great guy to work with.

Then came Tet. It was the night of January 30/31. At least two Liberation Front units hit Qui Nhon–the E2B Local Force Battalion and the H-36 Sapper unit. A Vietnam People’s Army infantry battalion stood in reserve outside the city. The NLF targeted the compound of the South Vietnamese Military Security Service, the railroad yard, and the radio station. They struck an hour later than other positions in II Corps. Police chief Captain Bui Van Lan had time for some preparations, and he assembled five platoons and put them on alert. Captain Lan’s men turned aside most of the initial attacks, though the NLF captured the radio station (they were unable to broadcast any of their pre-recorded tapes). A South Korean battalion and two U.S.-led companies of montagnard strikers reacted to the NLF attacks.

Police killed the leader of the NLF sappers and captured their political officer among more than fifty others. Over 150 Liberation Front soldiers were killed. The Binh Dinh province chief called off the police units after dawn, turning instead to his Regional Force/Popular Force (RF/PF) militia. To give the RF/PF, and the montagnards, more striking power, ARVN sent in Major Duong with two companies of his 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry. They airlifted from Phu My in CH-47 helicopters. The ARVNs complained, “We are jungle fighters, not city fighters,” but in Qui Nhon they would do splendidly.

Montagnards led by Green Beret Sergeant Michael R. Deeds were pushing toward the railroad yard as the ARVNs came up. The South Vietnamese infantry were painstakingly clearing nearby buildings house to house. A Green Beret and another soldier came up to Sergeant Robison, told him they had a 90mm recoilless rifle to set up, and asked him where on the rooftops they could best employ it. Robison advised them to stay off rooftops because enemy snipers were all around. The Americans disappeared but a little later one returned to ask for help–his sergeant had been wounded on the rooftop of a hotel. After seeing the situation for himself, Sergeant Robison told the young soldier to fetch his vehicle and put it as close to the wall of the building as he could. Robison then crept along the rooftop, got hold of the wounded Green Beret, and managed to lower him to the carrier truck that could take him to hospital. Sergeant Robison still wonders what became of the wounded American.

Major Duong’s soldiers spent two days working their way through Qui Nhon, while the South Korean troops cleared the hinterland outside the city. On the second day Sergeant Robison went along with the ARVN scouts ahead of a force of two platoons heading for an outlying village. They soon encountered the NLF and a firefight began that lasted all day. At one point Robison accompanied a relief party to retrieve several wounded Vietnamese soldiers, covering them with fire from his carbine. The sergeant would receive the Bronze Star with a combat “V” for his actions at Qui Nhon.

That second day ended with the security situation much improved. South Vietnamese authorities declared the battle at Qui Nhon over on February 5. Yet another of the NLF’s Tet tentacles had been lopped off.

 

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.)

When Is a War “Winnable”?

September 1, 2015–This is a question everyone ought to be asking. In place after place today, most recently in Syria and against the fundamentalist group known as ISIS (the Islamic State or “caliphate”). American tactics centering on the use of air power and unarmed aircraft, or “drones,” have proven insufficient. Some observers are calling for boots on the ground. Already U.S. troops have returned to Iraq, which we left only a few years ago, to resume training an Iraqi army that failed miserably against ISIS. The CIA and Pentagon have both spun up operations to train and arm Syrian resistance fighters against ISIS, bands that have not gained much ground against the fundamentalists. Special operations forces have entered Syria too, on pinpoint raids against enemy leaders or hostage rescue missions (for a light primer on Special Forces see my new book here). The U.S. bombing campaign in Syria has just passed its first-year anniversary. So far the only apparent results are lengthening casualty lists and more destruction. The same kinds of activity characterize U.S. operations in the Yemen. The lack of results there runs in exact parallel.

Any pattern of military and paramilitary operations that assumes a routine shape can be said to have become a tactic or operational method. The pattern used in Syria and Yemen, developed to its present state of sophistication by the Obama administration, can be called “remote/proxy warfare.” Operational methods can be usefully reviewed and analyzed. The most direct avenues do so by asking, what does the tactic accomplish against the adversary, how practical is it in the context of friendly forces and capabilities, and what are foreseeable consequences of the interaction. It is also important to ask whether relevant information has been left out of the review.

Sometimes the most experienced and creative practitioners, taking full advantage of capabilities and their imaginations, fail to achieve the results anticipated. When that happens it is fair to ask if the conflict is winnable.

Here’s an example from the bad old days of the Vietnam war: Major General William E. DePuy led the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, renowned as the “Big Red One,” in the region north of Saigon over the period from March 1966 to February 1967. DePuy is a great example not just because he was an innovative military officer but because he actually did innovate the operational methods utilized by an allied coalition to win the First Gulf War of 1990-91.

General DePuy was also perfectly placed to produce results. Like others of his generation, the man was a product of World War II, and a small circle of officers from his unit, the 90th Infantry Division, became very notable moving between conventional and special warfare assignments. They were, perhaps, more open to unconventional thinking in their tactics. DePuy moved back and forth from the Army to the CIA (where he worked on covert operations against China), and from field units to operations staffs. It was one of his colleagues from the 90th Division cabal, Richard G. Stilwell, who not only brought DePuy into the CIA behind him, but also to Vietnam as the operations officer for General William G. Westmoreland’s top Vietnam command, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). There DePuy gained Westy’s full confidence, and he had two years to develop his understanding of the nature of the conflict.

Thus when General DePuy assumed command of the Big Red One he had everything going for him–a powerful and capable force, the full confidence of his commander-in-chief over the intervening level of command) and MACV headquarters, an imaginative and innovative nature, and a developed idea of the nature of the war. So what happened? DePuy performed exactly as his superiors must have hoped. He introduced new tactics–right down to giving his troops an improved way to dig their foxholes–kept up a high tempo of operations, emphasized helicopter assault techniques, and so on. The Army’s official historian ranks the Big Red One’s performance in a series of operations called “El Paso” up with the 1st Cavalry Division’s actions in the Central Highlands in late 1965 (the ones popularized in the book We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young). DePuy even changed field on the National Liberation Front (NLF) armed forces by staging a reverse ambush, where the 1st Division baited a trap by sending a road column into NLF-controlled territory after carefully preparing intervention forces to support it, artillery to match, and making sure to leak (only) the part about the road column to a known NLF spy. By several accounts General DePuy’s performance at the 1st Division shone.

Back in Washington the general was assigned to head a special office at the Pentagon that controlled military special operations and liaised between the armed services and the CIA. Then came the Tet Offensive of early 1968. Now, DePuy had been a very successful division commander. His successors had continued to attrite the enemy, which was General Westmoreland’s strategy. Yet at Tet the NLF and North Vietnamese were able to attack all across South Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) ordered his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to inspect the front and propose countermeasures. When they came back with Westmoreland’s request for a huge new troop contingent, Johnson asked a group of advisers he called the “wise men” to look at the claims. General DePuy would be tagged to present the military briefing to this group, which included generals and statesmen, past and present. DePuy briefed Tet as a U.S. military victory and relied upon his experience to describe the Vietnam war optimistically. Next the wise men turned around and told LBJ that Vietnam had become a disaster.

The president, stunned, demanded the briefers who had addressed the wise men repeat their presentations for him. DePuy later conceded that the briefers were perhaps a tad overwhelmed by the Washington point of view (pessimistic) on Vietnam, but the general stuck to his guns. The encounter proved chaotic–President Johnson was making phone calls even while the briefers droned on, and entertaining his grandson, a toddler at the time, giving him drinks from a bottle of Coca-Cola. But LBJ concluded there had been nothing wrong with what DePuy and the briefers had told the wise men.

What had happened was that William E. DePuy, the maker of victory, had been present at the moment when senior government officials decided the Vietnam war had become unwinnable.

The Big Red One, despite the ingenuity of DePuy and others like him, left Vietnam in 1970 having suffered 20,770 casualties, more than its toll in World War II, and nearly 85% of its losses in World War I, the division’s most costly conflict. Of its losses, 3,181 names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, combat deaths in the field.

Now, back to remote/proxy warfare. That operational method did not work in Libya, its first major application, which seems at this writing to have disintegrated into a warlord state. In Pakistan, the province of the CIA, the proxies pocket the money and follow their own agenda, while the drones serve as a recruiting tool for the enemy. In the fight against ISIS the air campaign has had a modicum of value as a mechanism for tactical air support of proxy troops fighting ISIS, but very little value against the adversary as a movement. That is because the ISIS “state” is a very distributed network, while the air campaign has nowhere near the military weight that would be required to seriously impede ISIS logistics, exports, etc. –Plus, that weight of effort cannot, as a practical matter, be generated. If it were, as in Pakistan, it would be a recruiting tool for the enemy. A ground intervention is not sustainable in terms of public support or budgetary commitments. U.S. efforts to rally other nations to prevent individual persons from going to Syria to join ISIS will, in my view, involve such a level of social intervention as to also be unsustainable. The remaining question is when will we decide the war is unwinnable–and will there be a William DePuy character there to see it.

Gamers’ Corner: Waterloo 200th

June 17, 2015–At the moment I’m actually on the other side of the world, writing about the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Pacific War, but I didn’t want to let this moment go by without some remark. The 200th anniversary is a notable passage for anything–or person–and Napoleon is staging a remarkable comeback. Perhaps it’s not surprising that everyone’s favorite Napoleon, a French lawyer and re-enactor named Frank Samson, is choosing the big Waterloo re-enactment this week to retire in a blaze of glory.

Two centuries is both an eon and an instant. Scary to think about, but in that length of time the world has gone from the calculated and tightly-contained conflicts of the 18th Century to a point where we engage in global wars, now irrational ones, and where we are near to destroying the very environment that sustains us. The A-Bomb, the warplane, the mechanized army were instruments unthinkable in Napoleon’s day, but that man was instrumental in making those things possible in two ways: by introducing a version of state power that focused it more efficiently towards state goals, and by deepening the inculcation of a new vision of the “nation engaged” that reframed the individual as part of a mass movement. All those developments in a mere two centuries? Stunning.

Some things that exist today, such as the irredentism of Russia over the Crimea and Ukraine, are constants. In this sense the change is also that of an instant, and Frank Samson might as well be Napoleon.

But there is also an eon that has passed. The world is so different, as the A-Bomb reference suggests. Anyway, here I want to speak to my gamer friends. Not that we’ve been playing for two centuries (though games did exist in Napoleon’s time), but that an age’s work of development has occurred in gaming since Napoleon’s day. Then Bridge and Whist were common, and of course Chess, our closest progenitor for the modern boardgame. But Waterloo, specifically, became the subject for one of our first games. In fact Charles Roberts, who had made a hypothetical the subject of his first game, selected Waterloo in Europe, and Gettysburg in America as his first historical subjects.

The first insight was, you could take an event from history and make it into a boardgame. The first design innovations came on the heels of that insight–Avalon Hill’s published versions, in some editions, included an early sense for  formation (hence “front” versus “flank”) and ranged fire (with artillery units). That happened in the early 1960s.

What’s interesting to look at is the evolution of boardgames, viewed specifically through the lens of the Waterloo battle. The middle 1970s were a fulcrum point when the innovations flooded the hobby one after another. In 1974 Tom Dalgleish, Ron Gibson and Lance Gutteridge brought us the simply-titled Napoleon (Columbia Games), one of their clever assays in the use of wooden blocks to simultaneously insert a fog of war element (limited intelligence) and to afford the ability to portray attrition. Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) came out in 1975 with 1815: The Waterloo Campaign, in which Frank Chadwick brought us the concept of “blown” cavalry (horses exhausted after making a charge) and, if I recall correctly, line-of-sight checks for ranged fire.

You can’t discuss the subject without touching on the contributions of Simulations Publications, of course. They began with Jim Dunnigan’s Napoleon at Waterloo (NAW) in 1971 which reproduced the battle action more realistically than Charlie Roberts’s design, and zeroed in on Mont St. Jean where Avalon Hill had really done a campaign game. NAW became the foundation for a whole series of Napoleonic-era productions. Dunnigan used to say that everyone has at least one boardgame in them, and this shows it. Possibly the best-known of these Napoleonic games from SPI was Borodino (in 1972), on the famous Russian battle at the heart of War and Peace. The designer of that game, John Young, was actually SPI’s accountant. Point taken. Anyway, the Waterloo campaign lent itself to recreation, and when SPI introduced its quad-game format, one of them did all the Waterloo campaign battles on the NAW system. The drama of the situation also offered possibilities at the micro- level, so when SPI followed GDW into the world of “monster” games, it published Waterloo as Wellington’s Victory, Frank Davis’s 1976 game, which moved the action to the regiment/battalion level, at which the actions at Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte acquire new meaning.

Kevin Zucker worked at SPI during much of this period and designed Napoleon’s Last Battle (1975), which has spawned an entire line of products from the company Operational Studies Group, which he formed when leaving SPI. I mention this separately because never pursued the innovations Zucker had made, and he took them with him to OSG. His NLB introduced a variety of design advances including portrayal of a chain of command by inserting leadership rules, backed counters to reflect partial losses, the idea of “march orders,” and more. This Napoleonic system has been extended and deepened through a long series of subsequent games, some on Waterloo, others on different Napoleonic campaigns.

At the strategic level David Isby did a game whose name escapes me now (I shall check) for Rand Games Associates in the mid-70s. I published Campaigns of Napoleon with West End Games in 1980. That was altogether a new approach, though it featured Waterloo as just one of many scenarios. (Incidentally, contrary to what appears on the web at BGG, Dan Palter was the publisher and claimed  no more than “contributing design” credit; and Eric Goldberg had nothing whatever to do with the design of Campaigns, only its development. The most recent entry in the strategic sweepstakes is also my game, which appeared as the 2011 annual for ATO, Beyond Waterloo  That features advances in many areas from battle portrayal in a strategic game to an ability to fight out the 1815 campaign somewhere other than at Waterloo.

In any case, as gamers reflect on the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, we have real reason to appreciate the event, which has had a real impact on the quality of the boardgames we play.

Whatever Happened to V-E Day?

May 8, 2015–A few years ago my companion and I were in Paris, going out for dinner on this date. The evening was nasty, horrible. Soaking rain. Then we found almost every place closed. Once we finally encountered an open cafe and sat to eat the waiter exclaimed at the extraordinary fact that we’d come out on the “holiday.” Extraordinary? Perhaps. All that evening, as I recall only one other couple entered the cafe. Holiday? Casting about, I soon realized that our gentleman was referring to V-E Day, May 8, 1945, the day that marks the end of World War II in Europe.

Actually what is extraordinary is how little Americans pay attention to the end of that war. This is a big event in France. In Russia they put on elaborate Victory parades. There are other observances too. America not so much. In our conversation with the waiter I hypothesized that the United States does not do so much with V-E Day because that day in 1945 the war still blazed in the Pacific, not to be ended until the Japanese surrender in August. I’d like to see that waiter again–because after reflection I realized the U.S. does not mark V-J Day very much either. The reason there, most likely, is that American atomic bombs dropped on Japan were the means chosen to force the surrender. The less attention drawn to the American use of atomic weapons the better. But our end result is that Americans hardly note a truly momentous occasion.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I learned that this year for V-E Day there will be a ceremony at the World War II Memorial on The Mall in Washington, one that will climax with a flyover by a procession of World War II-vintage U.S. aircraft, carefully preserved by folks who are mostly veterans. The aerial parade perhaps mimics the one over New York City in 1945–incomparable–when over a hundred B-29 bombers thundered over the town. Here the demonstration was a mixed display of fifty-six bombers, transport aircraft, trainers, and fighters arranged so as to evoke events ranging from Pearl Harbor to the Ploesti Raid, from D-Day to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, trailed by the “Missing Man” formation.

It was nice to see the United States do something for V-E Day. It’s sad it takes the 70th anniversary of that event to get us off our a**es to do it. I hope we can keep this up.

Dien Bien Phu’s Consequences: Geneva and Diem

May 7, 2015–Last year was the 60th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu. At the time I posted a host of pieces observing aspects of the campaign, the battle, its outcome, and the American role. You’ll find these archived on the site. I especially wanted to call attention to the new evidence in my e-book on America at Dien Bien Phu, Operation Vulture. It’s perfectly true that Dien Bien Phu led to the Geneva agreements of 1954, because defeat in the battle convinced France it could no longer carry on in Indochina. Right now, however, we mark the 60th anniversary of the events that set the stage for the American War in Vietnam. These events, culminating in the “Battle of Saigon”–as intense as the Tet Offensive of 1968 but largely unremarked in history–cut the ground from under the French attempt to preserve a major role in Vietnam, confirmed the United States as guarantor of the Saigon regime, and established Ngo Dinh Diem as undisputed ruler of South Vietnam.

It happened this way: The Eisenhower administration, intensely preoccupied with the notion that it could turn back the Viet Minh challenge in Vietnam, continued to maneuver after Dien Bien Phu, attempting to keep all the pieces in play (especially the French Expeditionary Corps, already in Indochina and lavishly supported by U.S. aid). The French, desperate for help, appealed to the U.S. again and again. Washington considered intervening several times and in several forms, at the end the commitment of U.S. Marines in northern Vietnam to help defend the Hanoi region. Ultimately the French cabinet then in power lost its mandate to govern. Under its parliamentary system France then selected a new cabinet, one headed by the socialist Pierre Mendes-France, who came to power on a specific promise to make peace at Geneva or resign. That is what he proceeded to do.

Hostile to the Geneva negotiations from the outset, the United States took a very hands-off attitude towards them. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles considered Geneva a sham. (Which makes a mockery of the U.S. claim during the American War to be fighting to enforce the Geneva agreements.) Once a settlement was reached, rather than stepping up to support peace, the U.S. simply said it would do nothing to obstruct its implementation. Eisenhower and Dulles promptly broke that promise by agreeing to avoid the Vietnam-wide elections provided for by Geneva.

Eisenhower’s posture with respect to the emergent government of South Vietnam is quite revealing, as I discuss at length in my comprehensive book Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War. The Saigon leader Ngo Dinh Diem actually was selected by French-backed Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai. The leader began as prime minister of a Vietnamese state that, from a legal and juridical standpoint, was an “associated state” of the French Union. The French had negotiated a treaty with that entity endowing Vietnam with “independence,” but the French National Assembly never ratified the agreement. Despite (or because of) that status, the Diem government held France at arms length. As for Geneva, Diem had his negotiator denounce the agreements and the United States supported him in that. That move amounted to Washington assuming another measure of responsibility.

Further underlining Eisenhower’s posture is the letter he sent Diem in October 1954 promising aid to South Vietnam. Mr. Diem’s intransigence and rigidity were already being marked in Saigon with the first rumblings of a series of South Vietnamese moves to unseat him. In his letter, his formal undertaking, Eisenhower made aid conditional on Diem implementing reforms and opening up his government. The Saigon leader never did so. Washington never enforced the U.S. conditions.

In a succession of political crises that spanned the autumn of 1954 and spring of 1955 the chief of staff of the South Vietnamese armed forces threatened to overthrow Diem, the CIA intervened to make that impossible;  the Saigon leader promised to employ certain Vietnamese nationalists, made assurances in that regard, then did nothing; and finally Diem confronted the armed Vietnamese political-religious sects. Eisenhower had sent a friend, his Old Army colleague General J. Lawton Collins, to Saigon as his personal representative and the U.S. ambassador. With Diem at the promise-making stage, Collins reported that the Diem regime seemed on the right track. Once the Saigon leader began to show his fundamental rigidity, however, Collins concluded the U.S. backing for Diem had failed. Exactly a year after the Dien Bien Phu battle had been at its height, the U.S. proconsul in Saigon sought Eisenhower’s approval to withdraw aid to Diem, by that time actively using his Vietnam National Army to fight the sects.

General Collins even flew to Washington to argue his case. Eisenhower approved but then let himself be convinced otherwise by John Foster Dulles. Dulles, whose brother Allen ran the CIA, contrived to energize pro-Diem fighters in Saigon while delaying Lawton Collins’s return to Saigon long enough for the Diemist forces to obtain the upper hand. When Collins got back to Saigon the die was cast. As many as twenty thousand people were left homeless in Saigon, a couple of thousand ended up wounded, and there were five hundred dead.

American involvement only deepened when the South Vietnamese refused to participate in the Geneva-mandated elections. Meanwhile neither Diem nor his successors ever broadened the Saigon government as they had promised to do. This conflict proved to be based on empty promises from the very beginning.

The End in Saigon: 40 Years On

May 4, 2015–This is a bit late–and it will be posted in pieces–but there is still a lot to say, perhaps though, to a diminishing audience. The first thing I want to say is “Hurrah!” While it was going on–and no matter what side of this thing you were on–the Vietnam war was pure trauma. Tragic too, it needs to be said. It went on for years then, for that very last part, got even worse, except if you were North Vietnamese. The angst, the sadness, the heart wrenching scenes of desperation and defeat–none of it was good and its was worse if you were involved personally, as Vietnamese or American. Now it is over. For many of the boomers, that trauma came at the formative moment of their lives.

This year it is over for the 40th time. There has been a remarkable outpouring of reflections, remembrances, speculations–in the press, broadcast media, and in events such as conferences marking the occasion. I’ve participated in several of them. I have reflections of my own.

The first is to note the continued vigor of those who yearn for a different truth. Like southerners refusing to acknowledge the “Lost Cause” following the Civil War, a significant number of Americans, primarily veterans and Vietnamese-Americans (refugees and their descendants) continue to insist that America did not lose the war, even that we won–or we won but threw away the victory–or that the Congress lost the war, or that the antiwar movement lost the war, or that the media lost the war. There are many variations on the theme.

In truth the war was lost quite convincingly. Our adversaries not only marched right into Saigon, our allies collapsed. We ended by desperately evacuating Vietnamese and Americans from the city even as the North Vietnamese and Liberation Front forces took over. The argument that Congress lost the war by refusing President Gerald R. Ford’s demand for yet another aid appropriation is misinformation. Not only was that aid request intended simply to fund a last-ditch stand–not anything that could have led to a military victory–there were unexpended aid funds lying unspent in current accounts at the time Saigon fell. And it was American presidents, not the Congress, who cut the aid requests from $2.2 billion for 1973, to $1.4 billion for 1974, to $1 billion for 1975.

Lost Cause deniers present well-worn arguments, over and over, in a litany that ignores refutations. The point above has been made before. So has the point that another important causal factor in the South Vietnamese collapse was the Arab Oil Embargo, which for a time specifically intended to cut off fuel deliveries to South Vietnam, and which ultimately meant huge increases in the price of oil–with immediate consequences for the South Vietnamese military and the Saigon government. That instantly soaked up a greater proportion of the available U.S. aid. This was something that had nothing to do with the U.S. Congress, media, or the antiwar movement. No matter.

Deniers make no effort to explain how the Thieu regime could eliminate the corruption on which its leader had relied to maintain his hold on power, and which functioned to drain away another slice of U.S. aid.

Deniers deplore aid to North Vietnam from the socialist camp but fail to compare that with U.S. aid to South Vietnam. The truth is that the United States delivered more aid to Saigon after U.S. forces left the war than China and Russia together provided throughout the conflict.

Saigon as well as Hanoi conspired to tear up the Paris Ceasefire on 1973. Deniers make no effort to analyze this in a balanced way, which is unfortunate since South Vietnam’s main chance for survival at that time lay precisely in ensuring the continuing operation of that agreement. The Korean war ceasefire of 1953, which has been behind the continuing division of the Koreas, could have served as the model for South Vietnam.

The argument that the National Liberation Front was defeated and the pacification war won ignores the fact that the United States itself moved the conflict from the level of an insurgency to that of a conventional war. The various formulas for isolating the battlefield by cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail are all flawed–either the forces were not available in the moment, the logistics were not there, or the political evolution of the war had passed the point when the stated action was possible. The deniers don’t seem to care.

For the 40th time we observe the same history–that is, the North Vietnamese did march into Saigon. Our proponents of the Lost Cause, you would think, must be tired by now, since each time we revisit this history it has the same tragic and traumatic content.

A second point is that “victory” did not mean what our former adversaries thought. North Vietnamese authorities made a hash out of reunification and reconciliation, and never did escape entirely from wartime ways of thinking. The peace so many longed for was enveloped by fresh challenges from China allied with Cambodia–and the Chinese challenge continues to this day. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, meanwhile, now maintains friendly relations with its erstwhile enemy, the United States, partly to counterbalance the Chinese challenge. At the same time, the dynamism of Vietnamese of the south has come to play an important role in governing the nation and as Vietnam’s economic engine.

To learn one must start by acknowledging true conditions and developments. Our Lost Cause deniers and our North Vietnamese victors have this in common: neither group can bring itself to acknowledge truth. At their most extravagant the deniers turn history on its head and claim the war was won. The Vietnamese victors willfully refuse to admit their abuses in the postwar era. More recently, when significant capital inflows to Vietnam are coming from the overseas Vietnamese, the Viet kieu, the Vietnamese government has been slow to amend regulations that separate and divide families, or to dismantle repressive wartime ideological controls.

When the next major anniversary of the end of the war comes it would be delightful to be able to report that we have moved past these counterproductive and spiteful attitudes.