The Pentagon Papers revealed a startling event: France requested the US Air Force drop three atomic bombs at Dien Bien Phu. The French Union troops were being overrun by the Viet Minh and their well placed and deadly accurate cannon fire in the surrounding hills of the French garrison.
French artillery commander Charles Piroth realizing his overconfident plan to easily silence their cannons committed suicide in his bunker after the opening days of the siege.
This loss was the tipping point for France’s failure as a post World War II colonial empire, their exit from Indochina and the world stage.
France initially declassified documents regarding Dien Bien Phu in 2005. They acknowledged a very active role of by the US Air Force during the siege. Two US Air Force pilots were killed over the battlefield. They were awarded France’s highest military honor by the French Ambassador to the United States.
The battle began on March 13, 1953 with their surrender on May 7th. The Americans were killed in the final three days of battle.
The Pentagon Papers confirm 38 US Air Force pilots flew at least 682 sorties over the course of the siege. The Pentagon Papers more importantly reveal French cables to Washington (just 10 days into the month-long siege) requesting US air support and eventually the Eisenhower White House considered atomic bombs to Viet Minh positions surrounding the garrison’s hills.
President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles actually kept this nuclear option on the table until the British ambassador in London notified Dulles that Britain would not support the French request.
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Eisenhower and the French war in Vietnam outlined in the Pentagon Papers is proving to teach us some very interesting lessons. The Pentagon Papers now confirm actions under Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower that span 1945 – 1955. Even before the end of World War II France was demanding the Allied nations, namely the US and Britain to re-colonize Indo-China which they lost to the army of Japan.
The Pentagon Papers reaffirm the US under Eisenhower financed the French Indo-China war beginning in late 1946.
Truman and Eisenhower preferred to send tens of millions of dollars in military assistance to France. They both held a position that the US would not stand in the way of France’s re-colonization in South Vietnam, permitting the US to keep an arm’s length from a growing communist war supported by Soviet arms and Chinese military advisors. The cold war was indeed beginning to heat up Asia.
The surprise for me in reading the Eisenhower volumes is how a cold war against communism was shaping up in Thailand, rather than Vietnam. David Halberstam reminds us in his book “The Best and the Brightest” that it was Eisenhower’s advise to President-elect Kennedy that he would inherit a war requiring US troop involvement — in Laos, not in Vietnam. But well before Kennedy’s defeat of Nixon, back in 1954 the siege of Dien Bien Phu would change France and America for generations.
They said when I was growing up that America’s involvement in Vietnam began in the 1960s with Presidents FDR, Truman & Eisenhower sending advisors to Vietnam to help a democratic South defeat an aggressive communist North. After Kennedy’s assassination the US was ultimately dragged into war following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964.
But the truth of America’s involvement is far more complex as Section V of the Pentagon Papers outlines below. US involvement dates back to FDR, Truman & Eisenhower. Actually the book cover obviously states realtions began in 1945 – before the US dropped atomic bombs on Japan.
American involvement and plans for a post World War II Asia extended back to the Presidency of FDR and then Harry Truman, noting negociations with the French regarding Indo-China before the end of World War II.
US involvement in Vietnam spans a full generation reaching back 30 years to an pre-war era of French Colonialism. I must admit: it is amazing to read communications between the OSS (precursor to the CIA) and the French Government discussing the role of a new French Indo-China following the coming Japanese defeat in World War II. Plans for a post-war “French Union” in Indo-China were being negotiated by the French as victors in the war with American support for their aims set against a backdrop of an emerging cold war with the Soviet Union and communist China. It would forever handicap our efforts fighting the Communist north. The Pentagon Papers document efforts by Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson in the following volumes:
[Part V. A.] Justification of the War. Public Statements.
Volume I: A–The Truman Administration
Volume I: B–The Eisenhower Administration
Volume I: C–The Kennedy Administration
Volume II: D–The Johnson Administration
[Part V. B. 1.] Justification of the War. Internal Documents.
The Roosevelt Administration
The Truman Administration. Volume I: 1945 – 1949
The Truman Administration. Volume II: 1950 -1952
The Eisenhower Administration. Volume I: 1953
The Eisenhower Administration. Volume II: 1954 – Geneva
The Eisenhower Administration. Volume III: Geneva Accords – 15 March 1956
The Eisenhower Administration. Volume IV: 1956 French Withdrawal – 1960
The Kennedy Administration. Book I
The Kennedy Administration. Book II
The papers clearly bring American interests at the end of World War II to light with France’s attempt to re-claim colonial territories lost to Japan during the war.
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The Pentagon Papers statistics and graphs of the war: Volume IV-c(10) “Statistical Survey of the War, North and South: 1965 – 1967” provides 23 pages of statistics and graphs on the war in the following areas:Clearly the splash of today’s information graphics are failed in comparison. I wonder what Edward Tufte would say about these graphs.
The Pentagon Papers Volume IV.c.9(b) is labeled “Direct Action: The Johnson Commitments, 1964-1968 and tells how difficult the relationship between Washington D.C. and Saigon was leading up to the Tet Offensive. After 40 years as a classified document, the only clarification in this volume was our investment in men and money didn’t mean a damn in the war against the north.
This volume was written right on the heels of Diem and Kennedy’s assassinations. It was a telling story: The war was not going to get any easier for either the US or the South Vietnamese against their determined enemy:
There seemed to be no compelling requirement to be tough with Saigon; it would only prematurely rock the boat. To press for efficiency would be likely, it was reasoned, to generate instability. Our objective became simple: if we could not expect more GVN efficiency, we could at least get a more stable and legitimate GVN. Nation-building was the key phrase. This required a constitution and free elections. Moreover, if we could not have the reality, we would start with appearances. U.S. influence was successfully directed at developing a democratic GVN in form. Beginning in September 1906, a series of free elections were held, first for a Constituent Assembly and later for village officials, the Presidency, House and Senate. U.S.-GVN relations from June of 1965 to 1968, then, have to be understood in terms of the new parameters of the liar. Before this date, our overriding objective had to be and was governmental stability, After the Diem coup, the GVN underwent six changes in leadership in the space of one and a half years. From June 1965 on, there was relative stability.
At the same time:
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