Operation Vulture by John Prados reveals President Eisenhower’s plans to use nuclear weapons at Dien Bien Phu to “rescue” the French garrison. An analyst of national security based in Washington DC, he is a Senior Fellow and Project Director with the National Security Archive at George Washington University where he leads the Archive’s documentation projects on Vietnam and CIA.
The US National Archive has released multiple classified documents since 2000. We now understand Eisenhower’s deep involvement. He ordered the US military into the First Indochina War in 1953. Prados reveals startling details of Eisenhower’s wish to use nuclear weapons and his order to the US Air Force and Navy bringing a nuclear weapons attack upon the valley as the French garrison was being quickly suffocated by the Viet Minh.
The details of those military actions moving men and arms throughout Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia along with the international political maneuvering by Allen Dulles in the early 1950s dispels any myth that America simply went to war in Vietnam under President Kennedy.
Prados stitches an enormous amount of Eisenhower’s actions regarding Vietnam beginning in 1953. Eisenhower acted on his view of the world that required a strong American confrontation in Asia to offset China.
Prados illustrates how Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles ordered US forces to Vietnam in an effort to secure French success against the Viet Minh. It will surprise many how committed Eisenhower was to push America into war during the siege. Prados shows Ike even held favorable congressional support.
In countless examples throughout the book, there was a complete lack of dedication by France to their colonial aims. French General Navarre was summoned to Paris to justify the French efforts against a backdrop of repeated defeats throughout Indochina:
Finance Minister Edgar Fauve reported the Treasury had calculated the cost of the Vietnamese army buildup would amount to some 80 billion francs about $230 million. The other measures Navarre wanted would add another 20 billion. France could not afford that cost.
As noted by many historians France could not afford to fight. At the very end of 1953, the French encountered difficulty finding enough personnel to command the new air transport wing in Indochina. France turned to the United States once again.
In Washington the Eisenhower administration engaged in a major new policy review on Indochina, An interagency project was sponsored by the NSC. The paper, United States Objectives and Courses of Action with respect to Southeast Asia was completed on December 30, 1953:
It found South East Asia was critical to American security, and that South East Asia, accepting my ally, could be defended only by holding Indochina.” Intern, holding Indochina” was defined as doing everything possible for the success of the Navarre plan.
Even Admiral Arthur Radford emphasized to the French the need for firm assurances that no American soldier could be exposed to capture by the Vietminh. Politicians in Washington including Sen. John Stennis was concerned about sending Americans to fight for the French. He said, “First we send them planes then we send them men.” He predicted the United States will end up with ground troops in Vietnam. This was the feeling of other members of the House and Senate in February 1953.
Of course, they turned again and again throughout the late 1940s to the US for military aid including a request for 400 American mechanics to service French planes. Eisenhower dedicated $400 million in the 1954 budget for Indochina.
Yet by mid-January 1954 French intelligence received extremely high-level reports that Giap was ready to begin his assault on Dien Bien Phu by mid-January. Newspaper columnists Joseph and Stewart Allsop wrote:
“One thing, Alas, is certain. A defeat at Dien Bien Phu or even a fairly mild French reverse will cause the same kind of reactions in Paris that Yorktown caused in London 171 years ago.”
It was evidently clear Washington was making a commitment to deliver soldiers and material to the French. Prados reveals in communications from Ike to Churchill, the President urged Britain to join with the US and aligned help the French avoid disaster:
But regardless of the outcome of this particular battle, I fear the French alone cannot see the thing through, this displays a very substantial assistance in money and material that we are giving them. It is no solution simply two order of French to intensify their efforts…This has lead us to the hard conclusion the situation in southeast asia requires a solution to take serious and for reaching decisions.
Slow down and read this….
Nevertheless just ten days after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower remained prepared to seek war while denying the war was at issue, the stance that became familiar in America’s later Vietnam involvement.
By early April the French had only 1,200 men available to reinforce Dien Bien Phu. At this time the battle was classic trench warfare World War I. United States Army Lieut. Gen. John W. Iron Mike O’Daniel, who also fought in the great war, drafted an American plan to rescue the French. However, he overlooked the routes rescue units would travel through Viet Minh-held positions. This included roads not traveled by the French in over ten years. Many viewed his plan as absurd, as designed over European battlefields and not the jungles of Southeast Asia. Prados reveals, Operation Condor, the rescue of French soldiers from the Garrison was planned the previous December. By late April all options for the French took a turn for the worse:
As the French commanders considered a last ditch effort to break out and flee towards Laos. At the White House, President Eisenhower met with five Republican congressional leaders. They considered over $1 billion for the war in Indochina. This amount was more than a third of the planned total in the coming budget year. Eisenhower said:
“if the French are stiff enough to come through this, I’ll forgive them for a lot of things they caused me to worry about over the last four years…..At the same time Admiral Ranford sought to understand if the US couldn’t commit belligerent acts in Indochina without full political understanding with friends and other countries. In addition, congressional action would be required.”
The National Security Council in the same April time frame made recommendations to Eisenhower including; accept nothing short of military victory in Vietnam. Second, the US will endeavor to obtain French support for this objective — but falling short wouldn’t oppose any settlement at Geneva:
In the event a settlement still resulted from the conference the United States take immediate steps aimed towards continuation of the war in Indochina, to include an active US participation without French support should that be necessary…..The study built around the assumption that atomic bombs will be available for use as required by the tactical situation and has approved by the President.
After the national security meeting Secretary of State Dulles offered the French 15 B-29 bombers for Dien Bien Phu. Yet the French had no pilots to spare and their crews would require four months training before flying a single mission.
Ike’s argument for Indochina? The French were fighting a strategic key point for the national security of United States. In this timeframe Eisenhower also ordered the Navy to intervene:
On April 4 the aircraft carrier Boxer steaming directly from Pearl Harbor to the South China Sea to reinforce the carrier group in the Gulf of Tonkin. That night Admiral Phillips took a off from the Essex on a scouting flight over Dien Bien Phu to see conditions there for himself. Three days later the task group received a new requirement for photographic coverage of Dien Bien Phu and the Viet Minh supply lines. The pictures were to be in by April 12. There was also an early April photo recon mission over the Chinese airfields and supply centers at Nanning.
On April 7 Eisenhower introduced publicly for the first time the Domino theory. This would come to dominate US foreign policy for a generation. It would be extended to a military position against the Soviet Union and across Europe.
In late April operation Vulture planned by the French to rely upon American bombers to deliver a maximum effort strikes utilizing 500 pound conventional bombs with a minimum intervolimeter setting (30 ft.) and 1/10 second delay fusing. This was to meet the requirements the enemy forces totaling some 20 to 30,000 men were dug in at death of 3 meters on three sides of Dien Bien Phu. This bombing raid, wrote Caldara “could have effectively destroy the entire enemy force.”
Those planes from Clark Air Force base would never arrive.