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’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.

What Have We Learned from the Vietnam War?

April 29, 2015–On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in 1975 I participated in a roundtable discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. Some of the things I heard there are actually disturbing for citizens of a nation that is continually faced with new appeals for it to commit blood and treasure in foreign ventures, some important, some not so much.

One panelist went on about transformation. That is, since the Vietnam war the lands of East Asia have enjoyed an economic boom, greater prosperity, more cohesion in terms of regional politics, and the like, attributed to the “stand” the United States made in Vietnam. When you have lemons, make lemonade. First, the United States did not make a “stand” in Vietnam, that was an intervention. More to the point, while it is perfectly understandable that national and international investments had been slowed by the security fears occasioned by the war, and therefore surged once it ended, attributing economic prosperity to the war is mistaking consequence for purpose. America lost the Vietnam war–and not prettily–and to make it out as a victory of any sort is inadmissible. This version is actually something popularized by Walt W. Rostow in the 1990s, when Robert McNamara’s memoir deploring the mistakes of White House insiders put Rostow on the hook of responsibility for some of the trauma of Vietnam.

Another panelist learned that presidents need to keep their sights on three things– the need to keep on the right side of the Congress, the American people, and the media. There were no lessons about valid purposes, none about proper commitments, nothing learned about the need for exit strategies. Apart from the question of whether it is any longer even possible to stay on the right side of the Congress, this whole thing is about freedom of action. Presidents can do anything they like so long as they follow these three easy rules.

If this is the caliber of our takeaway from the Vietnam war then perhaps it is a good thing that Americans spent several decades trying to forget all about Vietnam.

Geneva Ends U.S. Action in French Indochina

July 21, 2014–Sixty years ago today at Geneva, the negotiators for an array of Far Eastern nations, convening powers, and Western allies announced a negotiated settlement of the Franco-Vietnamese war that had climaxed so remarkably at Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva accords set the stage for what would later become the American war in Vietnam. Players changed. Others assumed new places onstage. The United States was among the latter.

I have posted a good deal about Dien Bien Phu in this space. You can read more in my book Operation Vulture. I’ve tried to illuminate one of the most ignored aspects of that 1954 crisis, the extent to which the U.S., going beyond the received history of diplomatic feelers, participated in real military actions in the French war at the time of Dien Bien Phu.

The book is replete with details of various American naval and air activities and the Eisenhower administration’s canoodling on whether to move to open intervention in Indochina. Here I thought I would just present a few points on U.S. Air Force activities by way of making the case concrete.

First, a quote. This concerns the long-running effort to pretend that U.S. planning for Indochina intervention in 1954 never had anything to do with using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. The text is from Far East Air Force (FEAF)staff study K720.04-8, dated April 12, 1954, and intended to “Recommend an Effective Course of Action to Achieve US Objectives in Indochina.” In their concept of operations the FEAF staff planners commented: “All types of weapons and devices, including atomic bombs, should be made available and used whenever a militarily profitable target is discovered. In order to gain maximum psychological benefit from the decision to use atomic weapons where profitable in a localized war, the decision should be generally announced. Its subsequent employment would not then create would-wide opinion that the US is about to embark on a global war.”

President Eisenhower didn’t take this advice as it turned out, instead doing what he could to keep the lid on his conversations about nukes. But Ike’s action should be seen as the cover up it was, and the absence of open acknowledgement of the nukes in memoirs and so on should no longer be taken as evidence that none were involved. As Operation Vulture shows, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers conducted nuclear weapons drills on their way to patrols off the Vietnamese coast.

The Far East Air Force was a large organization. Its aerial transport activities were conducted by the 315th Air Division, which was composed of units of various type aircraft. The extent of its involvement in work that directly supported the French military in Indochina is evident from the division’s own statistics: nearly 40 percent of the flight hours of its C-119 twin-engine aircraft, a quarter of the effort of the huge C-124 “Globemasters,” yesterday’s equivalent of the C-5A or Boeing 747 (that effort amounted to 48.3 percent of C-124 flight activity during the height of the Dien Bien Phu battle), and over 20 percent of the hours flown by four-engine C-54 transports, the military version of the Douglas DC-6. In all U.S. Air Force aircraft spent nearly 11,000 hours flying for the benefit of the French military effort just until April 18, 1954, with more work to do before the Dien Bien Phu battle ended in May. Slightly more than five thousand airmen of the transport units worked on the Indochina mission.

Bottom Line: The American military effort was real–and significant. On a certain level it is a good thing that the diplomats reached some accommodation at Geneva, because the warriors were edging closer and closer to battle.

Dien Bien Phu: “The Fruit are Ripe”

May 8, 2014–French shortwave radio in Tonkin broadcast the phrase “The Fruit are Ripe” at 1:05 PM of May 8, 1954 (1:05 AM on the American east coast). The message was an “open code,” of the same sort the British had sent over the BBC in World War II to alert various Resistance networks on the continent. The French military commander in Tonkin, Major General Rene Cogny, had agreed to send this message when he was certain of the fall of the entrenched camp at Dien Bien Phu. French army units in Laos had been warned, in messages dropped to them by scout planes, to listen for the open code message.

The Tonkin radio was actually late–the French at Dien Bien Phu had stopped shooting around 5:30 in the afternoon of the 7th. Like much else about this decisive battle, the reasons for the discrepancy remain obscure. Perhaps Cogny was reluctant to acknowledge final defeat. Or again, there had been a last-minute plan for a sally of the fittest remaining French troops and maybe the Tonkin command, hoping that action had taken place, was trying to make time for the desperate sortie.

“The Fruit are Ripe” began a sort of delicate dance with many movements. One was among the French units in Laos, alerted to be on the watch for from Dien Bien Phu. Seventy-eight men made it to join either the Franco-Laotian regulars and commandos, or the Hmong partisans strung in an arc along the Laotian side of the border. Remarkably, one survivor had also walked out of another French entrenched camp, Na San, when that had been abandoned in the summer of 1953.

Another dance movement was the Viet Minh pursuit. General Giap wanted to regroup his main forces closer to Hanoi for a final offensive–but he also wished to follow up into Laos. He ordered Viet Minh who had not been at the battle–and some who were–into northern Laos. That meant a race between the French perched in their arc and the Viet Minh pursuers.

It was an irony of Dien Bien Phu that the worst French wounded became the luckiest survivors. With but a handful of doctors and medical personnel, and almost no drugs, the Viet Minh were in no position to treat French wounded. Meanwhile French medical staff, led by the redoubtable Doctor Paul Grauwin, shared their drug supplies with the Viets and helped their wounded. Together with the Viet Minh’s chief surgeon, General Giap decided to make a deal. In exchange for French medicines and medical assistance, they would re-open the airfield at Dien Bien Phu. The French air force could fly in medical supplies and evacuate the wounded. Some 858 seriously wounded soldiers left the entrenched camp that way.

In yet another United States connection to Dien Bien Phu, many of those French wounded would immediately be evacuated to France by the U.S. Air Force. It happened this way: There had been a secret U.S. airlift of paratroops and French Navy pilots called Project “Blue Star”–you can read all about it in Operation Vulture. Blue Star had used huge C-124 transport planes–the C-5As of that day–to deliver the French troops to what is now Da Nang. The Blue Star planes were still there when the smaller French Dakotas began to lift out the wounded from Dien Bien Phu. President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a French appeal to carry the wounded home aboard the big American planes.

Thus ended the epic siege in the Vietnamese uplands.

The End at Dien Bien Phu

May 7, 2014–At 10:20 AM on May 7, 1954 (10:20 PM of May 6 on the U.S. east coast), the Frenchman leading all forces in Laos asked the general commanding the north of Indochina to give him immediate notice if there were a “grave event” concerning Dien Bien Phu. The Laotian commander, Colonel Boucher de Crevecoeur, was clearly thinking that he should warn the troops sent to effect an overland rescue of the entrenched camp that they should get out of the way. Tonkin theater commander Major General Rene Cogny advised De Crevecoeur a few hours later that if the threatened event occurred he would have French radios broadcast the phrase “The fruit are ripe.”

In gaming there are only a few boardgames which deal with the Franco-Vietnamese war, and even fewer that concern Dien Bien Phu itself. The ones that do uniformly confirm the French did not have a chance at that battle, indicating the dubious strategy of selecting that high mountain valley for the scene of a major encounter.

That was true of my game as well. Around the time I first wrote my book on Dien Bien Phu, Operation Vulture , I also designed a boardgame on the battle. For those familiar with the gaming of that era, it was a “mini-monster” design with a main board depicting the valley center and French strongpoints, plus a strategic board of the region surrounding Dien Bien Phu. The strategic/tactical split followed the concept of the Avalon Hill Roman era siege game Alesia. Using the strategic board forces could maneuver to the battle, the French in Laos could try and rescue the camp, and the French air force could attempt to reduce the scale of Viet Minh supply. French forces were modeled in companies, with breakdowns to platoons; the Viet Minh were at the battalion-level, with breakdowns to companies. It was a highly detailed boardgame and showed very well the dynamics of the strongpoint battle. Viet Minh forces sustained tremendous losses, but the French could not win.

What the generals learn–or do not learn– from history could fill books. Politicians too. Let’s just hope we’re not seeing this lesson repeated today.

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.

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.