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.

No Salvation for the French at Dien Bien Phu

May 4, 2014–On this night sixty years ago, French commando units maintained position in Laos, in an arc to the south and southwest of Dien Bien Phu. These troops represented the leading edge of an overland relief attempt that French leaders cobbled together in a desperate effort to save their garrison at Dien Bien Phu. Captain Henri Loustau, chief of one of these commandos, kept a radio watch. At night his men could see the horizon lit by the flashes of explosions inside the mountain valley, and on the radio Loustau could hear the businesslike transmissions in which French officers in the entrenched camp reported the destruction of their strongpoints and the loss of their men.

Loustau’s commandos lacked the strength to fight their way into the fortress from the outside. And he represented the tip of a spear that was rather weak overall. You can read the full story of the desperate French rescue mission in the book Operation Vulture . In Laos the Expeditionary Corps had put together four battalions of troops for the main force. Loustau’s commandos were the equivalent of another battalion, hurriedly assembled and thrown into the fray late in April. There was also “Operation Desperado,” in which a couple of thousand Hmong partisans who were fighting for the French, pitched in to help the relief mission.

In the original French contingency plan the spearhead troops were supposed to be reinforced once they reached near to Dien Bien Phu with a fresh and battle-worthy paratroop force. But when the time came the paras had been sent into the entrenched camp itself. There were no men to join Loustau, and no planes to carry them if there had been. The Hmong partisans were bringing up the rear–they had gotten a late start because the French Expeditionary Corps had been reluctant to approve their participation. The battalions of regular troops in Laos had not been strong enough to get closer than the Nam Ou river valley, still nearly three dozen miles from the embattled entrenched camp. Villagers along the wayside told the French that a Viet Minh force three times their size was expected soon. The French decided to hold their positions and wait.

A certain number of survivors escaped the hell of Dien Bien Phu and made it far enough to join up with either the Hmong partisans or the French-Vietnamese commando groups. But these were individuals, there were no organized units, no break out, no salvation. General Giap and his Viet Minh revolutionaries were poised on the verge of complete victory.

Dawn of the Vietnam Conflict: War Powers and Dien Bien Phu

April 19, 2014–President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not an expert golfer but he was a dedicated one. Eisenhower had an area at the White House to practice his putt, regularly took time off to golf at the Burning Tree course, and he even took golfing vacations. Sixty years ago today, at the height of the Dien Bien Phu crisis, Ike was on one of those trips. He’d gone to Georgia, to the National Golf Club in Augusta, site of the PGA tournament. The president’s cottage at Augusta was called the “Little White House.” There Ike would experience one of the key moments of the Vietnam crisis.

President Eisenhower could hardly escape the action. A couple of days earlier his vice-president, Richard M. Nixon, had told an audience of media moguls that U.S. troops might well have to go fight in Vietnam. Ike wanted to help France, whose army was trapped at Dien Bien Phu, with its best units steadily losing strength. The situation was so dismal that men considered it good news when the New York Times could headline, “INCREASED RAINS SEEN SLOWING THE FIGHTING.” Nixon’s remarks were being interpreted as a trial balloon for U.S. intervention. Press inquiries flooded the Little White House. Soon after breakfast on April 19, 1954, Eisenhower telephoned Nixon, who worried the president would be furious at him for letting the cat out of the bag–officials had been trying to avoid mentioning that U.S. troops figured in the plans. But Ike was relaxed and told Mr. Nixon not to worry.

Eisenhower’s schemes to intervene at Dien Bien Phu might indeed involve American soldiers. At a minimum they included sailors and airmen. For nearly a month Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had been trying to create the conditions necessary for that intervention to go ahead. So far they had failed–British allies were opposed to a Vietnam intervention, while the French, despite their desperation, were leery of permitting the United States to have a big role in their war.

But Secretary Dulles had a formula to evade all obstacles. The Justice Department had worked up an extensive paper on presidential war powers as part of a government-wide study of Indochina intervention. Foster took that paper with him to visit the president on April 19. The two men would lunch at Augusta and mull over the Dien Bien Phu crisis.

The paper–like George W. Bush era Justice Department legal opinions on torture–was one of those documents that cobbled together lawyer language suitable to permit officials to do whatever they wanted. In this case the Justice paper relied on the “commander-in-chief clause” in Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution to assert that the president could order U.S. troops into battle without a congressional declaration of war. At their lunch Secretary Dulles scoffed at the paper’s legalisms but took its argument–the heart of the matter, Foster told Ike, was that the U.S. government “must have the power of self-preservation . . . . If the danger was great and imminent and Congress unable to act quickly enough to avert the danger, the president would have to act alone.” Why anything about a crisis threatening a French army in Vietnam was a matter of self-preservation to the United States Dulles did not attempt to explain. He was a preacher-man and capable of sallies like this.

On April 19, 1954, it was Dwight D. Eisenhower who saved the nation from war. For months Ike had been telling Congress he would not go into Indochina without getting its approval. Not only did Eisenhower feel bound by those political promises, he had just survived a congressional test of his foreign policy powers by a handful of votes–and would have lost if the Democratic Party, his opponents, had not rallied to his side. On April 19 Ike patted John Foster Dulles’s hand and told the secretary of state that as president he needed to carry out “the will of the people.” If not, the president warned, he could be impeached. As far as U.S. intervention to save Dien Bien Phu was concerned, the two men were still in the position of having to build a public consensus for war in Vietnam.

So passed another moment when the international crisis surrounding Dien Bien Phu could have pulled the United States into active fighting in Indochina a whole decade before this actually occurred. But Eisenhower and Dulles were not stymied by these developments. A few days later President Eisenhower made a political trip, swinging through New York and Kentucky in an effort to drum up support for intervention. There is much more to the story of America’s Dien Bien Phu. Read all about it in Operation Vulture.

April Fools at Dien Bien Phu

April 1, 2014–Sixty years on one can look back at the Dien Bien Phu crisis and see that that April Fools’ Day was destined to become one of the most significant of the entire siege. April 1, 1954 became the day that many strands of the events came together. It was a day when the French decline accelerated and its chances in the struggle darkened perceptibly.

Let’s start with the battlefield. In the high mountain valley that is Dien Bien Phu, General Vo Nguyen Giap had launched what the Viet Minh would call the second stage of their offensive. This was where the Viets, who had already captured the outlying French positions, attacked the central strongpoints right in the valley. Giap hurled his battalions at the low hills which shielded the interior of the French entrenched camp, part of strongpoints “Dominique” and “Eliane.” The fight for Eliane-2 was particularly fierce. This phase of the siege has come to be known as the “Battle of the Five Hills.” The Viet Minh captured several important positions including, for a time, the peak of Eliane-2 itself. Just the previous day desperate counterattacks had ejected the Viet Minh from the center of that position and pinned them down at its edge. The redoubtable Major Marcel Bigeard was in the thick of it. Battle raged at Dien Bien Phu and the fight for the hills would go on for days longer, but on April Fools’ Day the combat was at its fiercest.

The parachute supply drops upon which the French camp relied were being curtailed by monsoon rain, worse every day. The French command calculated on April Fools’ Day that deliveries had reached a “catastrophic” level–averaging only 60 tons over the past four days, only a fraction of the amount necessary for a robust defense.

The French Expeditionary Corps, led by General Henri Navarre, conducted the campaign through its theater command for Tonkin–northern Vietnam–under General Rene Cogny and located at Hanoi. As the siege intensified Navarre and Cogny became increasingly adversarial, each blaming the other for the predicament they were in. The Expeditionary Corps had a forward command post at Hanoi, where Navarre had arrived the previous day, only for Cogny to refuse to meet him. The commander-in-chief summoned Cogny later and the two had a furious shouting match at headquarters. On April Fools’ Day General Cogny received a letter Navarre had written before leaving Saigon. The C-in-C could easily have brought the directive with him, but chose to send it by routine courier instead. The explosion between the two generals soured their relations, which never recovered, to the detriment of desperate French soldiers at the entrenched camp.

France had sent the chief of its armed services staff, General Paul Ely, on a mission to Washington to appeal for more help for Dien Bien Phu. While Ely was in Washington his American counterpart, Admiral Arthur Radford had suggested that a U.S. air strike by B-29 heavy bombers, soon to be dubbed Operation Vulture, could break up Giap’s siege force and destroy his supplies. Ely needed to consult with Navarre about an outside intervention of such proportions. He sent aide Colonel Raymond Brohon to speak to Navarre personally. On April Fools’ Day Brohon arrived at Saigon only to discover Navarre was not there. The consultations were delayed while Brohon traveled onwards to Hanoi.

Back in Washington, Admiral Radford had made his offer without any of the other chiefs of the U.S. armed services knowing of it. Redford summoned them, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to a meeting to present his proposal. That, too, had taken place the previous day. Some of the Chiefs opposed him. Their negative views, expressed in writing, began to land on his desk on April Fools’ Day too.

The admiral had not acted in isolation. In fact the Operation Vulture project was backed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his secretary of state John Foster Dulles. A couple of days before Mr. Dulles had given a speech at the Overseas Press Club linking Indochina with an American threat of “massive retaliation.” At lunch on April Fools’ Day President Eisenhower entertained some top correspondents and told them he might soon have to make a decision to send planes from American aircraft carriers off the Indochina coast to bomb the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Soon afterwards Secretary Dulles phoned the president to report he was setting up a meeting with the congressional Gang of Eight to inform them of the Operation Vulture project. Meanwhile the Navy’s top officer, Admiral Robert B. Carney, cancelled a long-planned visit to his forces scattered across the Pacific–and he ordered the fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin to extend its cruise there.

Dulles and Radford were going to meet with the congressional leaders, who were certainly going to have questions. Among their principal concerns would be what allies the United States would  have for its intervention in Indochina. Washington’s most important ally in this regard was Great Britain. A few hours before his Overseas Press Club speech, Dulles and Eisenhower had met with the British ambassador to ask for London’s support. On April Fools’ Day the British foreign minister replied that “we fell it would be unrealistic not to face the possibility that the conditions for a favorable solution in Indochina may no longer exist.” Thus London, too, had been involved in this April Fools’ circus.

Dien Bien Phu would fight on for weeks longer. And the proponents of a U.S. intervention would play more cards before the game was up. Read the whole story in Operation Vulture.

Reflections on Dien Bien Phu

March 13, 2014–Sixty years ago today the Viet Minh opened their siege of Dien Bien Phu. A revolutionary movement, mostly communists but with some nationalists too, the Viet Minh were fighting for their independence from France, which had held the three states of Indochina as a French colony since the nineteenth century. The siege of Dien Bien Phu, a French entrenched camp in the northern Vietnamese mountains would go on for nearly two months, the biggest battle of the Franco-Vietnamese war, and it would mark the end of the era of French dominance in Vietnam.

I was just a kid then and had no idea of these events, much less that they would impact my life. But fast forward a decade and more and America’s Vietnam war forced everyone of my generation to take a position, to deal with a conflict that had embroiled the United States. For me that meant trying to understand how and where the Vietnam war came from and that meant starting with the French. My first serious book project–never completed–was to fashion a history of the French war in Vietnam. I chose a college I knew would afford me access to new sources on French Indochina. I learned a lot about the epochal battle of Dien Bien Phu. One of my earliest boardgame projects similarly modeled the French war. A later game, also never published, specifically centered on the battle. America had a large and mostly hidden role in the events surrounding Dien Bien Phu and I made that the subject of my second book, which I have brought back and completely updated for this occasion.

As this anniversary unfolds I shall post occasional pieces on the events of that time and some of their consequences. One of the items in my “Downloadable” section, “The Working Class Hero,” concerns one of the French military heroes of Dien Bien Phu, Marcel Bigeard, who went on to controversy in the Algerian war and ultimately rose to become chief of staff of the French army. There may be more of these pieces as well. The French honor their fallen and mark the tragic end of their Indochina adventure. Americans largely ignore “Operation Vulture” and our almost-war of that time. The Vietnamese celebrate their independence and venerate their own heroes. At a certain level Dien Bien Phu represents a last stand of the imperial powers on the road to the end of colonialism. The lessons of that time still need to be appreciated.

The Death of Vo Nguyen Giap

While news of the passage of Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap attracted wide interest throughout the world in October 2013, we were struck by the extraordinary coincidence that at least two boardgamers, both heavily involved with the same game company, have had significant interactions with him. That company produces Against the Odds magazine. Paul Rohrbaugh, a game designer, consulted Giap on Dien Bien Phu for a game he was creating. Paul discovered that the general is familiar with wargames. Paul had wanted to visit and actually play a Dien Bien Phu game with General Giap but it proved impossible for him to do so. Earlier, in June 1997, I had been one of the historian members of a U.S. delegation led by Robert S. McNamara, which went to Hanoi to review the history of the war with Vietnamese counterparts, including Giap. What an odd coincidence! (October 2013)