The BBC website is renovating an old ‘un (one, to be honest, I my memory had mislaid):
Sixty years ago this week, French troops were defeated by Vietnamese forces at Dien Bien Phu. As historian Julian Jackson explains, it was a turning point in the history of both nations, and in the Cold War – and a battle where some in the US appear to have contemplated the use of nuclear weapons.
“Would you like two atomic bombs?” These are the words that a senior French diplomat remembered US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asking the French Foreign Minister, Georges Bidault, in April 1954. The context of this extraordinary offer was the critical plight of the French army fighting the nationalist forces of Ho Chi Minh at Dien Bien Phu in the highlands of north-west Vietnam.
Note that weaselly “appear to have contemplated”.
Those were indeed stirring times and high tension, and not ones any sane person would wish to repeat. For a few examples:
- In February 1953, Eisenhower had ended the blockade of Formosa, in effect giving the Nationalists free rein to attack the mainland.
- The French were involved in major colonial wars, not all of which were in Indo China.
- Stalin died (5 March 1953), creating doubts about the future direction of the Soviet Union. The US made noises about freedom for the Soviet-bloc countries. In July there were strikes and riots in East Germany which were suppressed by military force — whereupon the US made clear there would be no support or intervention.
- The Korean War was still recent: the Armistice had been signed on 27 July 1953.
- The Soviet Union was already a thermo-nuclear power, detonating its first H-bomb on 12 August 1953.
- In September 1953 the US brought Franco’s Spain into the Western defence net (but not NATO) with $226M in exchange for military bases.
Dien Bien Phu: the context
Quite what brainstorm possessed the French commander General Henri Navarre to create a garrison (November 1953) in the quagmire of this enclosed valley must be one of the psychological mysteries of military history. On paper it might have been a logical link between the French base at Sam Neua in Laos and the garrison at Lai Chau in Northern Vietnam. Then again the opium production around Dien Bien Phu financed Vietminh’s weapon purchases. Talks about peace talks were happening back at Geneva; but Ho Chi Minh was anxious for a symbolic victory to hurry things along.
One of Navarre’s assumptions was this would be tank country. Ten Chaffee M24 tanks were flown in. It was quickly realised they could not cope with the undergrowth. Once the rains set in, they became bogged down.
So the siege came down to an artillery battle. The French had, again on paper, ample resources: some 30 heavy howitzers and as many heavy mortars. Alas, the Vietminh had backpacked into the surrounding hills far more weaponry: unknown to the French, Võ Nguyên Giáp had five infantry divisions, 140 field howitzers, 50 heavy mortars, perhaps 80 recoilless guns, 36 anti-aircraft guns, and a dozen Katyusha rocket launchers camouflaged in the wooded hillsides.
The shooting war began in earnest on 12th March. French attrition was horrific (a final butcher’s bill of 7,693 French — though at a cost of 20-odd thousand Vietminh). Beatrice (the French so romantically gave their strong-points girly identifiers) was smashed within a day. The airstrip had been put out of use within three days: the second artillery post, Gabrielle, was useless by the same time. That left Isabelle, which proved to be poorly located and incapable of offering covering fire. Colonel Charles Piroth, in command of the French heavy gunnery, took to his cot on the morning of 15th March, cradling a grenade, and pulled the pin.
In total Vietminh AA guns destroyed 56 French aircraft, and damaged 150-odd more.
The American dilemma
Paul Ely, the French chief of staff, had come hot-foot to Washington as soon as the shooting started, looking for American military assistance. He found John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State, and Admiral Arthur Radford as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff receptive. Vice-Pres Nixon, no cooing dove, had a walk-on part (but Eisenhower had his number, and never allowed him near big decisions).
General Ely returned to Paris with a plan, Operation Vulture, which would involve B-29 bombers out of the Philippines, escorted by US Seventh Fleet fighters, carving mayhem out of the Vietminh attackers. General Matthew Twining, for the USAAF, was up for it. The objector was General Matthew Ridgeway of the army, who had commanded the Allies in Korea, Ridgeway reckoned, even if nukes were used, it would require seven divisions to hold the line in IndoChina, and another five if the Chinese intervened. This was the wrong war in the wrong place. Eisenhower squelched Operation Vulture by insisting it would only go ahead if it were approved by Congress and supported by Britain.
A Pentagon study group at the time concluded that three tactical atomic weapons, “properly employed,” would suffice to smash the Vietminh forces at Dienbienphu. The idea tantalized Radford, who favored its proposal to the French. But the notion alarmed senior State Department officials, one of whom warned that, if the French were approached, “the story would certainly leak” and spark “a great hue and cry throughout the parliaments of the free world.” Georges Bidault disclosed some months later that he had turned down an offer by Dulles for atomic weapons during talks the previous April. Dulles denied the account, and the French confirmed his denial, saying that Bidault had been “jittery” and “overwrought” and had misunderstood. Bidault nevertheless repeated the account in his memoirs.
Contrary to portrayals that depict him as an unalloyed “dove,” Eisenhower did not completely oppose U.S. intervention. But recalling his command of the allies during World War II, he refused to commit America alone. “Without allies and associates,” he told his staff at one meeting, “the leader is just an adventurer, like Genghis Khan.” Besides, he had been elected on a pledge to end the war in Korea, which might have spiraled into a bigger confrontation with China—and as his closest aide, Sherman Adams, observed, “Having avoided one total war with Red China the year before in Korea, when he had United Nations support, he was in no mood to provoke another one in Indochina . . . without the British and other Western allies.” Eisenhower appealed to Prime Minister Churchill to participate, reminding him of the failure to stop Hitler “by not acting in unit and in time.” He sent Dulles to London to plead his case, but the British spurned him. Churchill told the House of Commons that Britain “was not prepared to give any undertakings … in Indochina in advance of the results of Geneva,” and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who was to cochair the conference with Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet foreign minister, simply refused to be “hustled into injudicious military decisions.” The best that Dulles could achieve was a British promise to contemplate a future regional security arrangement, which eventually became the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.
It was clear by late April, as the battle raged at Dienbienphu, that neither the Americans nor anyone else would come to the rescue of the French. During our chat in Hanoi thirty-six years later, I asked Giap to reflect on what might have happened had Eisenhower intervened. “No doubt we would have had problems,” he replied, “but the outcome would have been the same. The battlefield was too big for effective bombing. Only a lunatic would have resorted to atomic weapons, which in any case would have devastated the French troops. At the time, however, I feared poison gas. Fortunately, it was never used.”
Confronted by the inevitable, the Washington hierarchy now accepted the imminent French defeat with genuine or contrived equanimity. Dulles tried to portray the coming debacle as a blessing, saying that it would arouse the other countries of Southeast Asia to take “measures that we hope will be sufficiently timely and vigorous to preserve [them] from Communist domination.” Eisenhower, appearing as calm as ever, shrugged off what had not long before loomed as a crisis. Speaking at a press conference on April 29, he said, “You certainly cannot hope at the present state of our relations in the world for a completely satisfactory answer with the Communists. The most you can work out is a practical way of getting along.”
Giap’s timing was perfect. On the afternoon of May 7, 1954, the red Vietminh flag went up over the French command bunker at Dienbienphu. The next morning in Geneva, nine delegations assembled around a horseshoe-shaped table at the old League of Nations building to open discussions aimed at ending the war in Indochina.