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: 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.)

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.

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.

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.