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.
The request to the US Air Force, named Operation Vulture may have just delayed France’s decline as a colonial empire. The US military and RAND consultants were rather careful in their evaluations in this volume:
Pentagon Papers [Part V.B.3.b.] Justification of the War
The Eisenhower Administration
Volume II: 1954 – Geneva
The U.S. Army position on intervention in Indochina cites the military disadvantages of such action. Specifically, the Army views are that air and naval forces alone cannot assure victory; that atomic weapons do not reduce the number of ground troops required; that at least seven U.S. divisions with air and naval support are required to win if the French withdrew and the Chinese do not intervene; and that the equivalent of twelve U.S. divisions are required if the Chinese intervene.
Army Position on NSC Action No. 1074-A .
The use of atomic weapons in Indochina would not reduce the number of ground forces required to achieve a military victory in Indochina.
UK attitude is one of increasing weakness. British seem to feel that we are disposed to accept present risks of a Chinese war and this, coupled also with their fear that we would start using atomic weapons ‘has badly’ frightened them. I have just received a note from Eden referring to my paper read before NATO restricted council where Eden again urges necessity of consultation before any use. He says, “You know our strongly held views on the need for consultation before any decision is taken.”
Additionally the use of atomic weapons was further explored should the Chinese intervene by air around the garrison. In retrospect this is even more chilling. The documents revealed the Eisenhower White House planning atomic weapons on select Chinese military locations.
This was very sobering to read how far governments in the 1950s were willing to maintain ancient colonial rule in Asia following World War II.
The world is better today as the US did not execute the French request. The French surrender was the tipping point of their fall of their global colonial empire. For America — it was only the beginning of our walk into that darkness that would last another generation.