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.

Deepening Shadows at Dien Bien Phu

April 24, 2014–Today is the sixtieth anniversary of what is possibly the most controversial episode of the siege of Dien Bien Phu. That 1954 battle, which brought an end to the French colony of Indochina, had already been sputtering on for more than a month. The French had lost key positions and many soldiers. Some of the men were replaced by parachuted reinforcements but the lost strongpoints were gone–and with them much of the area within which the French air force needed to drop in paratroopers and supplies. Only yesterday in that history, April 23, 1954, one more disastrous counterattack showed just how dire the situation had become.

The episode concerned a strongpoint known as Huguette-1, which the Viet Minh army of General Vo Nguyen Giap had first pinched off, then basically starved out. Against the advice of his senior officers the French commander, Colonel Christian de Castries, decided to use his last constituted reserve in an attempt to regain Huguette-1. That unit, the 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion, was in relatively good shape because it had arrived only recently, though in just two weeks at Dien Bien Phu the unit had lost nearly half its strength. The H-1 counterattack would be the first time the battalion had fought together in the battle. Major Hubert Liesenfeldt found his units late to reach their attack positions, making the preparatory air strike premature. An artillery bombardment was truncated due to the confusion. Then the redoubtable Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Bigeard, coordinator of all counterattacks at the entrenched camp, discovered Liesenfeldt out of touch with some of his embattled assault companies because his radios were tuned to the wrong frequency. The venture collapsed.

All that is subtext to the controversy of April 24. By that day the American secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was in Paris and closeted with top French officials, who were in shock at the crisis of Dien Bien Phu. We have seen Dulles, just the other day in this space (“Dawn of the Vietnam Conflict,” April 19, 2014), trying to stiffen President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s resolve to intervene in this desperate French battle. Now, in company with French foreign minister Georges Bidault, Secretary Dulles supposedly asked, as they descended the stairs in between formal working sessions, “And if I gave you two atomic bombs for Dien Bien Phu?”

Needless to say the question of using nuclear weapons in this Vietnam battle has been disputed ever since. I don’t want to write too much at this sitting because I’d like to come back later today and post something about Putin and the Ukraine, but I’ll say here that the most thorough analysis you’ll find anywhere on the question of nuclear weapons and Dien Bien Phu is in my book Operation Vulture. Take a look at it.