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.

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.

 

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.

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.)

The Working Class General

 

February 7, 2014– In connection with publication of my new book on the battle of Dien Bien Phu I’m adding a new article to the “Downloadable” list on the website. This piece focuses on one character in that story, the French officer Marcel Bigeard, who led a parachute battalion in Indochina. Of working class origins, he was colorful enough to feature in the movie The Lost Command, played by actor Anthony Quinn and modeled on the character “Pierre Raspeguy” in the Jean Larteguy novels The Centurions and The Praetorians. In the Algerian war Bigeard’s role became controversial in the Battle of Algiers and afterwards, with charges that he had had prisoners tortured, a subject that reverberates in America today as a result of CIA actions during the 9/11 era. Bigeard also fought in World War II, ending his military career as chief of staff of the French army, after which he entered politics and became a deputy in the French National Assembly. Marcel Bigeard is a fascinating character, worth more attention than I could afford to give him in Operation Vulture.