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.

VIETNAM OBSERVANCE

April 4, 2016–A few days ago I did a radio interview with a San Francisco station. The United States government is in the process of conducting a years-long observance of the 50th Anniversary of the American War in Vietnam. The Department of Veterans Affairs had apparently selected March 29 as the date to celebrate Veterans. It did not seem right to me– that day in 1965 marked no great commitment of men and women to war, no significant Washington decision, no big battle, no Saigon coup, just a bombing of the North and a moment for small unit actions. Maybe that was the message.

 

In          Our          Name

These     things     were     done.

Among     our     names     was     mine.

And yours.

 

Someday, one day, there will be an observance like that for Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror. Think about it.

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: 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.

Farewell Old Indochina Hand: Philippe Devillers

February 21, 2016–In the middle of another piece of writing I checked the mail only to see the notice that Philippe Devillers had passed away. Actually that had happened a week ago, on February 15, but the news was only now circulating. He died in Paris at age 96. Devillers looms large in the historiography of Indochina, and the French and American wars. He was recognized all over. Nearly a decade ago in the former Saigon, for example, I wandered into a second-hand shop where I found a copy of his first great book, Histoire du Vietnam. The shopkeeper wanted an amount for that book that would nearly have financed my trip.

Born in Villers-Cotterets in Picardie, in November 1920, the man went to Saigon with General Philippe Leclerc and the French Expeditionary Corps in September 1945. He had graduated from Sciences-Po and had more degrees in law and administration. Leclerc employed him as an officer of the Fifth Bureau–the French staff for psychological warfare. Named Philippe Mullander, the man wrote as a stringer for the newspaper Le Monde, and adopted a second name referring to his home town to distinguish his writing for the French army from that for the press.

What distinguished Devillers so much was his drive to explore Vietnamese history and culture. Rather than base himself on French pronouncements and claims to historical events, Devillers explored the Vietnamese backgrounds of developments. He was also driven to report. In Saigon barely two months Devillers joined with others in creating the biweekly broadsheet Paris-Saigon. There he teamed up with another man, Jean Lacouture, who would become a key writer on Indochinese matters. His first article for Le Monde concerned the Dalat conference of April 1946, where French negotiators stalled the Viet Minh government in according rights promised in an agreement Leclerc had reached with them earlier.

After some time as a government official Devillers covered Asia for a local paper in Rouen for more than a decade. Histoire du Vietnam de 1940 a 1952 appeared while the French war still continued, and was printed in 19,000 copies. It remains a key source for the outbreak of the Vietnamese revolution, end of French Indochina, and the early French war. The book served to counterbalance arguments from some that the Indochina war was simple a communist aggression against the West. Devillers importantly showed the conflict’s roots in Vietnamese nationalism.

Devillers and Lacouture collaborated on two books and a movie. One, La fin d’une guerre, Indochine 1954 is an important source on the Geneva conference of 1954, and helped me with my study America’s Dien Bien Phu. Their movie also concerned Dien Bien Phu, arguing that French democracy had ended there, and in the late 1960s they joined to publish on the passage from the French war to the American one. In 1988 Devillers edited a collection of key documents, press releases and other material, Paris-Saigon-Hanoi that revealed the role of certain French officials in an explosive fashion.

QUI NHON AT TET

February 8, 2016–Greetings to all who observe the Lunar New Year! For me personally, the shock of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, back in 1968, put the Lunar New Year on the calendar, while many years of living in New York, with very active celebrations downtown, made it memorable. But the indelible element is Tet. Now, the thing about the Tet Offensive which made it so extraordinary is that fighting suddenly broke out all across South Vietnam. Yet when people talk about “Tet” it’s mostly three pieces of the action they mean–the fighting in Saigon (especially at the American embassy), the siege of Hue, or the battle of Khe Sanh. I admit I’ve written about all three. But there’s more to the story. In my book Vietnam: Unwinnable War I tried to expand the horizon, particularly on actions in the Mekong Delta. I’ve done pieces elsewhere, too, including one on “Tet in II Corps” that appeared in The VVA Veteran back in 2009. I was pleased the other day when a veteran of the events portrayed in that article approached me to correct some of what it said. With the Lunar New Year coming right up, this seems an ideal moment to mark it with a non-Saigon story. So, herewith, to Qui Nhon at Tet.

 

Qui Nhon is a city on the central Vietnamese coast. In the American war it was important as the rear base, at the foot of the Central Highlands, for troops engaged on the high plateau, the point of origin for the road to Pleiku. Qui Nhon was probably the most important place in Binh Dinh province, which was undoubtedly why the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam chose to attack it. As a bellwether for the pacification situation in Vietnam, a Binh Dinh province attack offered to put a propaganda feather in the NLF’s cap.

Qui Nhon lay in the tactical area of responsibility of the South Korean expeditionary corps in Vietnam, but the bulk of defense forces  for Binh Dinh were troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 22nd Infantry Division, in particular its 41st Regiment. As the North Vietnamese and NLF did elsewhere in South Vietnam, they made careful preparations in Binh Dinh, including attempting to neutralize the ARVN. During the predawn hours of January 10, 1968, about three weeks before Tet, an estimated battalion of the Vietnam People’s Army attacked Phu My, base of Captain Nguyen Van Ru’s 2nd Battalion, 41st Infantry.

ARVN units were importantly backed by American advisers. Sergeant Ray J. Robison, one of four men with the battalion’s U.S. detachment, believes the word “adviser” is a misnomer. Captain Ru had been fighting since the French war. There was nothing the Americans could tell him. Rather, the advisers were the point men for ARVN access to many resources their army lacked–from lavish artillery and air support to a scale of supply the South Vietnamese lacked. The North Vietnamese knew that too. During the attack on Phu My some People’s Army bo dois were specifically assigned to take out the Americans’ bunker. The enemy soldiers crept up and rolled two grenades into the emplacement. The first burst wounded 1st Lieutenant Richard Morris, Staff Sergeant Robert Harcum, and Sergeant Gerald Deady, while concussion threw Sergeant Robison against the bunker wall. The second grenade landed at Robison’s feet, an object of morbid dread. But before anything else happened an ARVN private, Do Van Tan, jumped on top of the grenade and shielded the Americans from its blast. Private Tan became one of only three ARVN soldiers awarded the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross during the war.

Sergeant Robison lived to fight at Tet. The other Americans were sent to get medical treatment at Qui Nhon. Captain Ru’s battalion had been badly enough handled that Brigadier General Nguyen Van Hieu switched it for Major Duong’s 1st Battalion. Duong impressed Robison as another great guy to work with.

Then came Tet. It was the night of January 30/31. At least two Liberation Front units hit Qui Nhon–the E2B Local Force Battalion and the H-36 Sapper unit. A Vietnam People’s Army infantry battalion stood in reserve outside the city. The NLF targeted the compound of the South Vietnamese Military Security Service, the railroad yard, and the radio station. They struck an hour later than other positions in II Corps. Police chief Captain Bui Van Lan had time for some preparations, and he assembled five platoons and put them on alert. Captain Lan’s men turned aside most of the initial attacks, though the NLF captured the radio station (they were unable to broadcast any of their pre-recorded tapes). A South Korean battalion and two U.S.-led companies of montagnard strikers reacted to the NLF attacks.

Police killed the leader of the NLF sappers and captured their political officer among more than fifty others. Over 150 Liberation Front soldiers were killed. The Binh Dinh province chief called off the police units after dawn, turning instead to his Regional Force/Popular Force (RF/PF) militia. To give the RF/PF, and the montagnards, more striking power, ARVN sent in Major Duong with two companies of his 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry. They airlifted from Phu My in CH-47 helicopters. The ARVNs complained, “We are jungle fighters, not city fighters,” but in Qui Nhon they would do splendidly.

Montagnards led by Green Beret Sergeant Michael R. Deeds were pushing toward the railroad yard as the ARVNs came up. The South Vietnamese infantry were painstakingly clearing nearby buildings house to house. A Green Beret and another soldier came up to Sergeant Robison, told him they had a 90mm recoilless rifle to set up, and asked him where on the rooftops they could best employ it. Robison advised them to stay off rooftops because enemy snipers were all around. The Americans disappeared but a little later one returned to ask for help–his sergeant had been wounded on the rooftop of a hotel. After seeing the situation for himself, Sergeant Robison told the young soldier to fetch his vehicle and put it as close to the wall of the building as he could. Robison then crept along the rooftop, got hold of the wounded Green Beret, and managed to lower him to the carrier truck that could take him to hospital. Sergeant Robison still wonders what became of the wounded American.

Major Duong’s soldiers spent two days working their way through Qui Nhon, while the South Korean troops cleared the hinterland outside the city. On the second day Sergeant Robison went along with the ARVN scouts ahead of a force of two platoons heading for an outlying village. They soon encountered the NLF and a firefight began that lasted all day. At one point Robison accompanied a relief party to retrieve several wounded Vietnamese soldiers, covering them with fire from his carbine. The sergeant would receive the Bronze Star with a combat “V” for his actions at Qui Nhon.

That second day ended with the security situation much improved. South Vietnamese authorities declared the battle at Qui Nhon over on February 5. Yet another of the NLF’s Tet tentacles had been lopped off.

 

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.

The End in Saigon: 40 Years On

May 4, 2015–This is a bit late–and it will be posted in pieces–but there is still a lot to say, perhaps though, to a diminishing audience. The first thing I want to say is “Hurrah!” While it was going on–and no matter what side of this thing you were on–the Vietnam war was pure trauma. Tragic too, it needs to be said. It went on for years then, for that very last part, got even worse, except if you were North Vietnamese. The angst, the sadness, the heart wrenching scenes of desperation and defeat–none of it was good and its was worse if you were involved personally, as Vietnamese or American. Now it is over. For many of the boomers, that trauma came at the formative moment of their lives.

This year it is over for the 40th time. There has been a remarkable outpouring of reflections, remembrances, speculations–in the press, broadcast media, and in events such as conferences marking the occasion. I’ve participated in several of them. I have reflections of my own.

The first is to note the continued vigor of those who yearn for a different truth. Like southerners refusing to acknowledge the “Lost Cause” following the Civil War, a significant number of Americans, primarily veterans and Vietnamese-Americans (refugees and their descendants) continue to insist that America did not lose the war, even that we won–or we won but threw away the victory–or that the Congress lost the war, or that the antiwar movement lost the war, or that the media lost the war. There are many variations on the theme.

In truth the war was lost quite convincingly. Our adversaries not only marched right into Saigon, our allies collapsed. We ended by desperately evacuating Vietnamese and Americans from the city even as the North Vietnamese and Liberation Front forces took over. The argument that Congress lost the war by refusing President Gerald R. Ford’s demand for yet another aid appropriation is misinformation. Not only was that aid request intended simply to fund a last-ditch stand–not anything that could have led to a military victory–there were unexpended aid funds lying unspent in current accounts at the time Saigon fell. And it was American presidents, not the Congress, who cut the aid requests from $2.2 billion for 1973, to $1.4 billion for 1974, to $1 billion for 1975.

Lost Cause deniers present well-worn arguments, over and over, in a litany that ignores refutations. The point above has been made before. So has the point that another important causal factor in the South Vietnamese collapse was the Arab Oil Embargo, which for a time specifically intended to cut off fuel deliveries to South Vietnam, and which ultimately meant huge increases in the price of oil–with immediate consequences for the South Vietnamese military and the Saigon government. That instantly soaked up a greater proportion of the available U.S. aid. This was something that had nothing to do with the U.S. Congress, media, or the antiwar movement. No matter.

Deniers make no effort to explain how the Thieu regime could eliminate the corruption on which its leader had relied to maintain his hold on power, and which functioned to drain away another slice of U.S. aid.

Deniers deplore aid to North Vietnam from the socialist camp but fail to compare that with U.S. aid to South Vietnam. The truth is that the United States delivered more aid to Saigon after U.S. forces left the war than China and Russia together provided throughout the conflict.

Saigon as well as Hanoi conspired to tear up the Paris Ceasefire on 1973. Deniers make no effort to analyze this in a balanced way, which is unfortunate since South Vietnam’s main chance for survival at that time lay precisely in ensuring the continuing operation of that agreement. The Korean war ceasefire of 1953, which has been behind the continuing division of the Koreas, could have served as the model for South Vietnam.

The argument that the National Liberation Front was defeated and the pacification war won ignores the fact that the United States itself moved the conflict from the level of an insurgency to that of a conventional war. The various formulas for isolating the battlefield by cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail are all flawed–either the forces were not available in the moment, the logistics were not there, or the political evolution of the war had passed the point when the stated action was possible. The deniers don’t seem to care.

For the 40th time we observe the same history–that is, the North Vietnamese did march into Saigon. Our proponents of the Lost Cause, you would think, must be tired by now, since each time we revisit this history it has the same tragic and traumatic content.

A second point is that “victory” did not mean what our former adversaries thought. North Vietnamese authorities made a hash out of reunification and reconciliation, and never did escape entirely from wartime ways of thinking. The peace so many longed for was enveloped by fresh challenges from China allied with Cambodia–and the Chinese challenge continues to this day. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, meanwhile, now maintains friendly relations with its erstwhile enemy, the United States, partly to counterbalance the Chinese challenge. At the same time, the dynamism of Vietnamese of the south has come to play an important role in governing the nation and as Vietnam’s economic engine.

To learn one must start by acknowledging true conditions and developments. Our Lost Cause deniers and our North Vietnamese victors have this in common: neither group can bring itself to acknowledge truth. At their most extravagant the deniers turn history on its head and claim the war was won. The Vietnamese victors willfully refuse to admit their abuses in the postwar era. More recently, when significant capital inflows to Vietnam are coming from the overseas Vietnamese, the Viet kieu, the Vietnamese government has been slow to amend regulations that separate and divide families, or to dismantle repressive wartime ideological controls.

When the next major anniversary of the end of the war comes it would be delightful to be able to report that we have moved past these counterproductive and spiteful attitudes.

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.