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Bernard Fall: The Man Who Knew the War

Fifty years ago today, on Feb. 21, 1967, the journalist Bernard Fall stepped on a land mine while accompanying Marines on a mission near Hue, in South Vietnam. He died instantly. He was 40 years old.

The literature on the Vietnam War is enormous and growing, but Fall’s work still stands out for its insight and sagacity. He remains our greatest writer on the struggle, despite the fact that he died before the period of heavy American military involvement had reached its halfway point.

Fall wrote six books on the Indochina conflict, along with more than 100 articles in popular publications like The New York Times Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post and The New Republic, as well as academic journals. Many an officer who shipped out to Saigon carried with him a dog-eared copy of “Street Without Joy: Indochina at War, 1946–1954,” published in 1961. In early 1968, when it seemed possible that American forces could be in for a disastrous siege at Khe Sanh, officers scrambled to get their hands on “Hell in a Very Small Place,” Fall’s searing account of the siege at Dien Bien Phu, 14 years earlier, in which the French suffered the decisive loss in their own struggle to control the country.

Born in Vienna in 1926, Fall moved to Paris after Germany annexed Austria, and as a teenager he fought for the French resistance. (His father, who also fought for the resistance, was executed by the Germans; his mother died at Auschwitz.) He came to the United States for graduate school in international relations and eventually became a professor at Howard University. He also began traveling to Vietnam in the 1950s and writing about what he saw. Passionate, tireless, intensely ambitious, Fall set out to become, as he put it, “the foremost military writer of my generation.”

Arguably, he succeeded, or came close. Always wishing to be seen as a soldier’s historian, from early on he earned the respect of French and American servicemen and their superiors for his close attention to their experiences, and for his penetrating and dispassionate analyses of strategic and tactical matters. Journalists and Foreign Service officers seeking to make sense of the war likewise devoured his books and articles, as did general readers drawn in by this transplanted Frenchman’s acute powers of observation and robust and engaging English prose.

Bernard Fall in Vietnam in 1967. Courtesy Dorothy Fall
Bernard Fall in Vietnam in 1967. Courtesy Dorothy Fall

To read Fall today is to be struck by his deep understanding of French counterinsurgency efforts in Indochina and other parts of the empire and their clear relevance for what the Americans sought to achieve in Vietnam. Counterinsurgency, that French experience taught, was extremely hard going. Results could be measured only over a period of many years, and success required an effective host government that in the end could carry the burden on its own. Moreover, notwithstanding counterinsurgency theory’s emphasis on nonmilitary measures, large-scale and brutal firepower would almost certainly be used, resulting in the widespread killing of civilians and heightening local resentments.

And therein lay a problem, Fall concluded, for the support of that local populace was absolutely vital. “In revolutionary war,” he wrote, “the allegiance of the civilian population becomes one of the most vital objectives of the whole struggle. This is indeed the key message that Trinquier” (the French military theorist) “seeks to impress upon his reader: Military tactics and hardware are all well and good, but they are quite useless if one has lost the confidence of the population among whom one is fighting.”

For that matter, was it even possible to keep the people’s confidence? Could a local population ever come to see an occupying force as its friend? Fall was skeptical. His own experience with the French underground had given him a taste of what it meant to fight a guerrilla war against such a force, and he saw the phenomenon again when, as a doctoral student at Syracuse University, he first visited Indochina in 1953 to conduct research for a dissertation on the nature and evolution of Ho Chi Minh’s regime (which he completed the following year and published as his first book in 1956).

Still, Fall was not at that point pro-Viet Minh, and indeed he felt an affinity for the fellow Frenchmen he encountered in the field, and for what they sought to achieve. (Establishing a pattern he would follow on all his trips to Indochina, he accompanied units on combat operations, attended lunches and dinners with officers and kept his eyes and ears open.) A cold warrior at heart, he in this period endorsed the domino theory, much to his later regret. France was doing its part for the West, he believed. When, after France’s defeat, the United States took up the challenge to thwart Ho’s revolution and to build up a non-Communist bastion in South Vietnam, Fall expressed support.

The task would be anything but easy, he knew. From his research and his battlefield observations he developed a genuine, if initially grudging, admiration for Ho and his fighters — for their tenacity, their fighting skill, their commitment to their cause. He did not hesitate to level criticisms against the harshness of the regime (notably regarding the excesses of its land reform campaign in 1953-1956), but he grasped that the Communists were no mere puppets of Beijing or Moscow, that they had a nationalist ambition as well as an ideological one. And he saw, crucially, that they had support where it counted, in the villages where a vast majority of Vietnamese lived.

The evidence was everywhere. In 1953, having been assured by French officials that the Red River Delta was firmly in the control of the French-backed government, a suspicious Fall decided to take a close look at teacher-assignment data: In a school system where teachers were supposedly designated by the central government, he found that scores of villages were not being assigned teachers from Hanoi. Fall produced a map that showed a picture of control “frighteningly different” from what French authorities were claiming. He concluded that the Viet Minh dominated 70 percent of the delta inside the French perimeter — more or less everywhere except Hanoi, Haiphong and the other large garrison areas.

When American officials later offered similar assurances about the security situation in the Mekong Delta in the south, Fall ran similar tests and found similar results. Just as the French had lost the battle for the control of the population, so the Americans were now in the process of doing the same.

True, Fall acknowledged, the power differential between the two Western powers was immense, and he rejected as simplistic the casual way some critics of Johnson’s escalation in 1965 invoked the French analogy. The United States, after all, was hugely more powerful than her ally had ever been, especially in the air. “Before Dien Bien Phu,” he pointed out, “the French Air Force had for all of Indochina (i.e., Cambodia, Laos and North and South Vietnam) a total of 112 fighters and 68 bombers. On Sept. 24, 1965, the United States flew 167 bombers against North Vietnamese targets alone, dropping 235 tons of bombs, and simultaneously flew 317 bomber sorties ‘in country’ ” — South Vietnam — “dropping 270 tons of bombs.”

Even as he marveled at America’s military capacity, however, Fall doubted it would ultimately make a decisive difference. The unleashing of such awesome high-tech weaponry might make the war “militarily unlosable” in the short term, but at profound cost: the destruction of Vietnam. He quoted Tacitus: “They have made a desert, and called it peace.” Even then the enemy would not be vanquished, for in this conflict military supremacy mattered only so much — the struggle had to be won politically if it was to be won at all. To Fall there was little indication that this was happening, either in late 1965 or in the year that followed.Bernard Fall The Man Who Knew the War

He grew more and more despondent. He called for negotiations, for treating the National Liberation Front for what it was: a political force in South Vietnam that could not simply be obliterated by American firepower. But he feared the violence would only increase. “The incredible thing about Viet-Nam is that the worst is yet to come,” he wrote. “We have been bombing for a relatively short time and the results are devastating. The United States is probably only operating at 1 percent capacity in Viet-Nam. Everything could be escalated vastly — in the North, major industrial targets, major towns, and then the irrigation dams; in the South, more powerful bombs on more vulnerable targets.”

As he prepared to depart on his fateful final trip to Vietnam, Fall felt a sense of foreboding about his own mortality (he suffered from a serious kidney disorder), and dejection about what was happening to the Vietnam he loved. “It’s always very sad,” he told a radio interviewer, “when you come back to a place and you sort of wonder what they have done with it.”

On Feb. 20, 1967, Fall headed out on an operation with a battalion from the Third Marine Division along the “Street Without Joy” — the same road, northwest of Hue, that he had written so powerfully about in his 1961 book. A haven for the Viet Minh during the French war, the area was now the home territory of the 802nd Viet Cong battalion.

The next day Fall spoke into his tape recorder as he walked, sixth in the line of men:

“First in the afternoon about 4:30 — shadows are lengthening and we’ve reached one of our phase lines after the firefight and it smells bad — meaning it’s a little bit suspicious … Could be an amb —.”

Those were Bernard Fall’s last words.

Fredrik Logevall, a professor of international affairs and history at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam.

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