One morning in February 1967, I boarded a US Air Force C-130 for the flight from what was then Tan Son Nhut Airfield in Saigon to Da Nang Air Base 600 km north. north. I was then a correspondent for Newsweek Magazine and with me on the flight was Bernard B. Fall, the author and academic, who was staying with François Sully of Newsweek while he used the Newsweek office as his base.
Fall was on his way back to the disputed Highway 1 area above Danang, the area he had made famous as the joyless street, the joyless street that had claimed the lives of so many French people, then Americans. Although he suggested I accompany him to the area, I had recently been there with US Marine General Lew Walt, and wanted to go south where the newly arrived Korean Marines were operating.
When I returned to the Marine Press Center in Danang three days later, I found that Fall was dead, killed instantly that morning along with his escort US Marine Sgt. Byron Highland. One of them had stepped on a booby-trapped artillery shell. The shock was enormous, partly because of the loss of an acquaintance and selfishly because if I had taken his advice and gone north, I probably would have walked with him on this dike, because correspondents tended to stick together in combat zones.
In that outburst, the United States and the world lost by far the most authoritative and sensible voice on conditions in Vietnam, a man who more than any other had delivered a lucid and realistic account of the situation since the French had tenuously restored power. Each correspondent and second lieutenant who arrived in this country carried a copy of “The Street Without Joy” as well as his other famous work, “The Two Vietnams”.
It’s impossible to comprehend these days how important a Fall voice was, when social media has shattered all authority. There was the irrational feeling that if Fall had lived and Washington had listened to him, the United States would not have left 57,000 dead and a million Vietnamese as well. But Lyndon Johnson and the people David Halberstam called the best and brightest weren’t going to listen to anyone.
Le Figaro called Fall “without a doubt, the world’s leading expert on Indochina-related issues”. But beyond his expertise in Indochina, he had lived an extraordinary life before dying at 40. Born in 1926, he and his sister Lisette were sent by his Jewish parents to France to escape the Anschluss of Austria by the Nazis in 1938, only to later have his mother Anna sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered. His father joined the underground maquis to also be assassinated.
Fall, still a teenager, joined the maquis himself and specialized in the liquidation of French defectors. After the war, speaking accentless French, German and English, he joined the Nuremberg Commission to investigate war crimes, amassing overwhelming evidence of German industrialist Alfried Krupp’s complicity in Nazi war crimes. Much to his disappointment, Krupp was liberated by American forces seeking a counterweight, however heinous, to Soviet aggression in Europe.
Fall’s decision to apply for a Fulbright scholarship and move to the United States to complete her studies at Syracuse University was fatal. During a summer break and anxious to complete his studies, Fall enrolled in a course given by Dr. Amry Vandenbosch who, given his French origin and citizenship, persuaded him to look into what was then almost a forgotten corner of the earth – Indochina, where the French were trying to restore their hegemony after the Japanese occupation in World War II. The area would provide Fall with his doctorate and preoccupy him for the rest of his tragically short life.
Nathaniel Moir, a former US Army major and psychological warfare specialist in Afghanistan – and now a research associate with the Applied History Project at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, in this 515-page biography, shows how Fall’s tragic story during World War II shaped his ability to grasp the concept of revolutionary warfare from the Viet Minh.
This is interspersed with what can only be called a granular history of Vietnam through two wars. It’s a book that implies it was designed to go on the shelves of the library at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It goes far beyond Fall’s story and warns of the danger of repeating history wherever rambunctious Americans might be interested in breaking free in case they haven’t learned more recent lessons in Afghanistan. .
Moir had access to his widow’s Fall papers as well as huge amounts of other information, including the Pentagon Papers. His bibliography alone has 17 close pages. He makes frequent use of it. More than a biography, it is a meticulous, painstaking and deeply detailed account of 30 years of Vietnam’s agony at French and American hands.
“The power breakdown in the Indo-Pacific at the start of World War II created by the Japanese occupation of European colonies in the region, initiated decolonization and encouraged the anti-colonial movements that were simmering – some approaching a boil – during decades before the war,” Moir writes.
To Fall, almost immediately after his arrival, it was clear that the French had lost control of their territory. Despite their complacency and the massive watchtowers that protected the Red River Valley, Fall found that there were no tax receipts from the surrounding villages, an indication that the insurgents were already strong enough to prevent the colonial government to collect taxes. Under the French nose, the insurrection was growing. The ending, carefully detailed in hundreds of pages by Moir, would be a tragedy at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, when the last 8,000 legionnaires surrendered to the Viet Minh.
Fall never ceased his commitment to the country he loved. From the start, his writings antagonized those he tried to alert to the growing danger, including John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower, who in a telegram wrote that “Fall has been a critic constant and vocal U.S. policy (in its efforts to help the French) and has in recent months made public statements extremely critical of U.S. aid programs Dulles would go on to kill Fall’s funding to teach and providing advice in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Despite Dulles’ sarcastic dismissal of him, Fall, now a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., would continue to provide lucid advice on the country as nearly half a million American soldiers were inundated in 1966. He predicted the catastrophe that would eventually befall the Americans, who like the French never really understood the situation. As Fall would tell Francois Sully, who himself would die tragically in Vietnam, “A US Marine can fly a helicopter better than anyone, but he just can’t indoctrinate peasants with an ideology worth fighting for.” to beat”.
Among Johnson’s top advisers, Bundy and the national security staff, Moir quotes Andrew Preston, “they” had become policy experts on areas in which they had no real expertise. In confronting Vietnamese Communism, they applied their Cold War lessons axiomatically, only to produce disastrous results.
Arguments about whether security should precede political stability miss an important point, in conflicts where military officers and politicians debate what should be secured first, it is often already too late. to stabilize the environment.´
It is a book that, for those of us who have witnessed America’s efforts, is difficult and, to some extent, painful to read. Falling at every turn knew and wrote the reality on the ground. He was quite ill at the end, the disease having taken one of his kidneys. But he was determined to see for himself what was happening, including on Highway 1 on that fateful day he was killed. Those who knew him deeply felt his loss. It was a joy to be with him. This was compounded by his loss to the nation and the world.
What Fall understood and most of the French did not – and Americans after them – was the concept and conduct of revolutionary warfare. It is perhaps too simplistic to say what this means is that the French and the Americans were trying to win a war in a country that didn’t want them there. It is a lesson that the Russians are learning today to their great regret in Ukraine. It’s a lesson the Chinese would do well to heed in their appetite for Taiwan.