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.

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.