Nuclear Threats - Dien Bien Phu - 1954
“The day we didn’t go to war,” a Washington Post article of June 1954, suggests that only the insistence of Congress on British involvement thwarted Eisenhower’s plans for a massive air strike to relieve beleaguered French forces at Dienbienphu. John Foster Dulles, French accounts would later claim, had gone so far as to offer the (presumably non-returnable) loan of two atomic bombs to France.
The crisis began with the eponymous Navarre plan, the result of an American attempt to prod the French general into action against the Communist wave which – so thought the United States – stood to engulf Southeast Asia. With American military aid, Navarre would concentrate his scattered troops and turn a parochial campaign in Indochina into a strategic offensive.
Under pressure from his transatlantic ally, the sceptical Navarre launched an ill-fated operation in the Red River delta, soon forcibly abandoned as the Vietminh invaded Laos. Navarre improvised a response by establishing a remote position in the valley of Dienbienphu, where he hoped to lure the enemy into a set piece battle. Confounding Western military analysts, the forces of Vietnamese General No Nguyen Giap somehow manoeuvred heavy artillery onto the heights surrounding the garrison. Their fire quickly destroyed the runway and the French troops were cut off.
Laniel’s administration, facing opposition to the war from the French public and its own treasury opted to negotiate a settlement. This worried Washington. The fall of Dienbienphu would likely mean a total French collapse and could prompt Chinese intervention. Fearing a sell-out in negotiations, America sought ways to bolster France and deter China. The rapidly deteriorating situation in Dienbienphu lent a growing sense of urgency.
France and the United States agreed on the necessity of action, which common understanding preceded a round of bickering that made such action impossible. France demanded American assistance and refused American control. The United States would not commit ground troops to the jungles of Indochina (good sense which seems to have evaporated somewhere on the road to Vietnam) and would not act without its British ally. Britain refused to co-operate. Churchill, again British Prime Minister, told the Americans that Britons, having relinquished India, could not be expected to die holding Indochina for France: “I have known many reverses myself,” he said. “I have not given in. I have suffered Singapore, Hong-Kong, Tobruk; the French will have Dien Bien Phu.”
He British refusal followed fraught diplomacy, which began with Frenach General Paul Ely’s visit to Washington to request the loan of 25 additional B-26 bombers and American volunteers to fly them. The bombers were granted; but without pilots. Ely resisted American pressure for a greater role in training local forces and determining strategy. Eventually, discussions between Ely and JCS Chairman Radford considered an air strike to relieve Dienbienphu. The plan, code-named VULTURE, called for bombing raids by three hundred American aircraft launched from carriers and from bases in the Philippines.
Who brought up the idea, and with what enthusiasm, is disputed. In any event, Radford was unable to garner support for plan after Ely’s departure. The majority of the Joint Chiefs doubted its decisiveness. Of the most hawkish civilian leaders, Vice-President Nixon played little role in the decision, while Dulles remained cautious: Chinese intervention would be better discouraged by naval operations off the Chinese coast and Taiwan. Eisenhower too was noncommittal.
What arose instead was ‘United Action’ a plan to mobilise a now familiar sounding “coalition of the willing.” Based on a regional security plan proposed under Truman, the formation of the coalition was aimed at bolstering French resolve and discouraging Chinese intervention and was later dismissed by one of Dulles’ top aides as a “grand charade of deterrence.”
Yet the plan did have some practical applications. Foremost among these was insuring that if the United States was forced to intervene, it would do so under favourable circumstances. In keeping with the ‘New Look’ policy, local forces would bear the brunt of the fighting while the United States would control strategy and logistics. The major problem was time: It was doubtful Dienbienphu could hold out for much longer.
Eisenhower also had to overcome domestic opposition to military action. The bipartisan co-operation of previous years had become febrile and the President was forced to promise no action without congressional approval. While Eisenhower sought a ‘blank cheque’ resolution, congressmen were successful in tying his hands, making intervention contingent on British co-operation.
Just as the limitations on American action were becoming apparent, France concluded that only American air strikes could save Dienbienphu and requested the implementation of VULTURE. The response was negative.
Instead, the American administration began to prepare for United Action and Dulles flew to Europe to gather support. In London, he ran up against a brick wall. In Paris, he became bogged down. While the United States demanded the French refuse a settlement at negotiations in Geneva, Foreign Minister Bidault insisted the French public would not support continued war. Nor would France relinquish strategic control to the Americans.
By the time Dulles returned home, opposition had flourished and Vice-President Nixon’s rash remark that “we must take the risk by putting our boys in” had to be ‘clarified’ by the administration. Soon after, British refusal struck a body blow to United Action.
The pro-interventionists struggled for alternatives and it is at this point, claimed Bidault in his memoirs, that Dulles offered him atomic bombs. Dulles denied the charge and there is no written evidence to support it. Dulles had shown no interest in the use of nuclear weapons and had no authority to grant the loan. While Eisenhower did at one point discuss the possibility of lending France “new weapons,” this was not until eight days later on April 30th, when Dulles was in Europe. It is possible that Bidault misinterpreted a remark by Eisenhower that the United States now regarded Atomic weapons as conventional; but that is speculation.
Despite Bidault’s pleas for action, the Unite States and France were unable to reach agreement and on April 26th a final refusal from Britain killed any hope for United Action. Various schemes were mooted to no avail on May 7th Dienbienphu surrendered.
While the United States was open to the idea of intervention, there was at no time a commitment to air strikes. United Action was a least part bluff and even when faced with a total French collapse, the administration stuck resolutely to its position. The French, for their part, stuck to theirs, making impossible an operation on American terms.
Eisenhower is often praised for consulting Congress over the decision to go to war; in fact, the legislature left him little option. Congressional restrictions made British refusal sufficient to destroy plans for co-operative intervention. As for nuclear weapons, their use was never seriously considered.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|