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: A Titanic Clash

March 13, 2016–Major Edward Yarbrough sat in a dugout beneath the looming hills. Yarbrough was visiting the French mountain fortress of Dien Bien Phu. It was March 13, 1954, precisely sixty-two years ago. Yarbrough, a United States Air Force officer, was doing precisely what President Dwight D. Eisenhower had promised the American public that U.S. forces would not do–engage in combat operations in French Indochina. Major Yarbrough led a hush-hush detachment of the Air Force’s 315th Air Division codenamed “Cat’s Paw.” Their mission was to use American planes–“sheep-dipped” C-119 transports temporarily lent to France and painted with French markings–to fly supplies to French posts in Indochina.

Eisenhower’s promise had been built into a U.S.-French agreement that the Cat’s Paw aircraft would not fly into combat zones. Technically, until March 13 that promise was being maintained–battle had yet to begin at Dien Bien Phu. But the use of the C-119 planes, which the French called “Packets,” was irresistible–on the long haul to the entrenched camp they could carry more then three times as many supplies as the C-47 “Dakota,” the mainstay of the French air force transport service in Indochina. Indeed, once battle had been joined the French prevailed upon Eisenhower to contrive a CIA proprietary unit that would continue the Packet service, now with no niceties about avoiding combat.

Anyway, a few days earlier a C-119 at Dien Bien Phu had lost an engine while landing and Yarbrough wanted to see if she could be repaired. His flight line chief at Cat Bi air base, outside Haiphong, where Cat’s Paw had its primary maintenance facility, estimated a crew of mechanics flown into Dien Bien Phu with a new engine could fix the Packet in a day and a half provided that the plane’s structure and fittings were still solid. Major Yarbrough went to Dien Bien Phu to find out. So Yarbrough would be there when the battle began, one of a steady stream of Americans to be in, out, and around Dien Bien Phu throughout the epic siege (read his story and many more in my book America’s Dien Bien Phu). The Vietnamese revolutionaries opened their offensive with a big artillery bombardment. Among other things, they targeted the damaged C-119, which would be blown up by cannon fire. Yarbrough hitched a ride out on one of the last French aircraft to escape the base.

The Viet Minh, a united front of Vietnamese led by communists, had been fighting France for more than seven years. They had gradually become stronger until here, at Dien Bien Phu, the revolutionaries not only far outnumbered the French but had artillery too, guns of 105mm caliber, powerful enough to smash Ed Yarbrough’s bunker–and almost every other one at the entrenched camp. Indeed, within not too many hours the officer commanding the sector the Viet Minh first attacked would be killed in the collapse of his dugout after an artillery hit.

Titanic forces were in play. The Vietnamese were fighting for their independence. That gave them a huge moral advantage, but the war had been long and costly and insiders saw signs their morale might be sagging. Chinese allies of the Viet Minh were pushing them to battle, but also anxious for their nation to make an entrance on the world diplomatic stage. Soviet allies of the Vietnamese were providing trucks and other aid, and setting that diplomatic stage.

France had tired of the war also. Here it was the United States pushing an ally. The French Army in Indochina was thoroughly professional–in part because the homeland had passed a law prohibiting draftees from being sent to the war. But the professional brotherhood of French soldiery, ranged against the depth of Vietnamese yearnings for independence, promised a battle royal. It began that day, with the assault on a strongpoint called Beatrice.

Freeing the President’s Daily Brief

September 16, 2015–Today the big pooh-bahs of the security services–Fearful Leader Clapper, the Machiavellian Brennan, former SEAL chieftain Admiral McRaven, and a number of their predecessors, have gathered in Austin, Texas, at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. Their purpose is to preside over an event at which the government agencies and the National Archives formally open for research the key intelligence reports for the ages. Today these are called the President’s Daily Briefs (PDBs). Jack Kennedy knew them as the PICKL (predictably, “pickle”), or President’s Intelligence Checklist; Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff had even more awkward names like “Synopsis of Intelligence Items Reported to the President.” (They never could find an acronym for that one.)

If you’re familiar with the PDB at all it is probably due to the now-notorious issue of August 6, 2001, in which CIA analysts reported their sense that Al Qaeda terrorists were likely to employ large aircraft as weapons. The Bush White House, which paid no attention, moved heaven and earth to keep that PDB out of the hands of 9/11 investigators. Michael Morrell, Mr. Bush’s CIA briefer, went on to great things at the agency after his time with the PDB, so you can see it’s serious business.

The PDB is literally the president’s daily secret newspaper. The Johnson Library alone has 38 boxes (an archival box typically contains roughly 2,500 pages). Kennedy another 17, and Eisenhower records together possibly contain that many more. Who knows how many boxes of PDBs accumulated during the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush (I and II), Clinton, and Obama administrations.

These documents have a long and storied past. The very first PDB was crafted on February 15, 1946. In Ike’s day they were written right inside the White House by the president’s trusted staff secretary, Colonel Andrew Goodpaster, and started simply as his notes. He, and John S. D. Eisenhower, the president’s son–and Goodpaster’s assistant–had the advantage of knowing precisely what the president worried himself about.

But like most things that go to presidents, the PDBs became the focus of fierce jockeying. (Still today: In an attempt to assert that it was always the oracle of the PDB, the CIA maintains that its publications Current Intelligence Bulletin and Central Intelligence Bulletin, precursors to the National Intelligence Daily, all lower-level organs, were “PDBs.”) Responsible for the actual information utilized in the PDB the CIA sought to gain control over the drafting. They succeeded when John F. Kennedy occupied the White House. The PICKLs, as they were then known, were delivered by the president’s military aide, General Chester V. Clifton. Then a focus of infighting became who would be present when the president received his daily dollop of intel. McGeorge Bundy often attended, Walt Rostow wanted to be a recipient of the document himself, Henry Kissinger did not want the PDB delivered if he wasn’t there to hear it; Zbigniew Brzezinski, I am told, sought to prevent CIA director Stansfield Turner from delivering the document, to take over the delivery duty himself, or at least be there for the event. In Ronald Reagan’s time security advisers did not trust the president to understand the issues and were almost always in attendance.

Bill Clinton started off by reading PDBs as part of his morning national security briefing. Then he read them only when he was in Washington, often cancelling the remainder of the briefings. People at the agency got the sense the president was not interested. When that got reported in the media, Clinton made a show of the PDBs, receiving them together with Vice-President Al Gore, both their national security advisers, and deputies, and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. George W. Bush read the documents and plied his CIA briefer with questions. Bush’s father, having once headed the CIA, paid careful attention to the PDBs. Barack Obama has the big multi-official palavers on Friday mornings and small briefings every day. (See more on the PDBs and see some samples on the National Security Archive website, http://www.NSArchive.org.)

The CIA might have gotten control of the process, but it had no handle on the president’s interests. The customer has always been the problem for the intel pookies. President Kennedy would question Mac Bundy or General Clifton and they would pass the queries along to the agency. LBJ went through Rostow and Nixon through Kissinger. Carter often relied upon Vice-President Walter Mondale, who had been a member of the Church Committee, as his conduit to the intelligence agencies. CIA director Bill Casey heard President Reagan express a desire for more information on Poland and had the PDB redesigned to include a special Polish section. Casey arranged for Richard Lehman, head of his PDB unit and the designated briefer, to discuss the president’s mood and concerns after his return each day. These “backbriefs” have remained the standard procedure ever since. (After Bill Clinton appeared to shun PDB reports the CIA tried spicing them up with foreign inside gossip and direct reporting from clandestine sources.) The final printed edition of the PDB went to the White House on February 15, 2014. Mr. Obama now receives his daily intel on a secure tablet.

With whatever exceptions exist, all this vein of rich historical material will remain classified even after today. I say “opened for research” because those who control declassification at the agency have demonstrated a proclivity for gutting the record in the name of information security.  The big brass aren’t coming to Austin to give out the PDBs, only to acknowledge they have become fair game in the secrecy jousts.

Return, with me, to the days of Clinton, when the Cold War had ended and the winds were so fair that a serious political philosopher could ventilate about the “end of history.” Secrecy was already a problem then, and Clinton recognized it with a project to institute “automatic declassification” of records older than 25 years, with “exceptions” to be carved out by agencies requesting “exemptions.” The overall project failed (the Air Force and CIA claimed exemptions for 100% of their work), but the specific angle for the Presidential Daily Briefs was CIA boss George Tenet’s assertion that the PDBs needed secrecy to protect  intelligence sources and methods. That marked the beginning of an Alice in Wonderland story that ended only today.

“Sources and methods” are spookspeak for intelligence tradecraft or for specific agent identifications or information compartments (such as overhead imagery, communications intelligence, or the like). But the PDBs are information reports, not efforts to create new intel channels or technologies. Names of agents and whatnot can easily be removed from ancient documents or are, in a number of instances, already known from the CIA’s declassification of specific cases. (For example, Tenet asserted sources and methods protection for PICKLs of the Cuban Missile Crisis in spite of the fact the agency had already released portions of those very documents, plus the actual transcripts of interviews with its Soviet spy Oleg Penkovskiy, whose information lay at the heart of that reporting.) A number of PDBs, bearing on Vietnam, Chinese nuclear weapons, the Six-Day war in the Middle East, and other subjects had already been declassified, with the secrecy apparatus considering them as simple information reports. Currying favor with the press and enhancing his stature as maven of top-level information, Henry Kissinger permitted the PDB to be photographed, a picture published in Newsweek on November 22, 1971. There’s no way a true “sources and methods” issue would have been treated in such a cavalier fashion. But suddenly the sources and methods bugaboo descended to chill the entire declassification process.

In 2004 the National Security Archive joined scholar Larry Berman to challenge this idiocy. Berman had requested and had been denied release of a pair of innocuous PDBs. The Archive joined him in a lawsuit for release of the material as is provided under the Freedom of Information Act. Though we lost the suit for the two specific PDBs in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2007, the justices ruled that CIA could no longer claim a blanket exemption for the class of documents, and that PDBs from the Kennedy and Johnson eras had to be considered for release.

What is happening at the LBJ Library today is a direct result of that court battle. Notice that the agency took its sweet time–8 years– to cough up any of this material. Without seeing the rest of the documents I nevertheless expect the collection will be laced with redacted passages, pages, and whole documents. The organizers of this event promise that PDBs will be posted on the CIA website, presumably today after the event. I have argued elsewhere that the agency’s declassification process has been corrupted. It functions to protect proper secrets only at the margin and is far more concerned with preventing embarrassment–a stance explicitly prohibited in the regulations supposed to govern secrecy and declassification. I’ll have more to report on the PDBs once I get the chance to see what the agency has done.

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.)

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.

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.