Back to a Forgotten Street: Bernard B. Fall and the Limits of Armed Intervention
Originally published in Prologue, Spring 2011
Bernard Fall on a Vietnam street with soldiers, undated. Until his death in Vietnam in 1967, Fall argued that American counterinsurgency efforts against the Communist guerrillas must be combined with economic aid and political reforms. (Courtesy of Dorothy Fall)
Scholar and war correspondent Bernard Fall liked to gather information about combat in the field, near the front lines, where the fighting was going on—and he had done a lot of it in the former French colony of Indochina.
He was there when the French were fighting a losing battle against Vietnamese insurgents, leading up to their final defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In 1961 he wrote a classic account of how French commanders had tried to cope with the Viet Minh: Street Without Joy.
In the end, at Dien Bien Phu, the insurgents had more firepower and mobility than the French. The Vietnamese victory should serve as a lesson to the United States, he believed.
Fall was a thorn in the side of Washington policymakers in the 1950s and 1960s, arguing that, just as the French at Dien Bien Phu, the United States could not defeat Communist insurgents in Vietnam by conventional military means. Fall argued that only new military strategies combined with economic aid and local political reforms could defeat successful insurgencies like he had observed against the French.
Rather than heeding Fall’s advice, the U.S. government responded by thwarting his earlier rise as a contract analyst in Washington, D.C., and in 1958 terminated negotiations begun by the International Cooperation Agency (ICA, a predecessor of the U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID]), to employ him at the Royal School of Administration in newly independent Cambodia.
On January 21, 1967, Fall was back on the Street Without Joy, the main highway between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, as a journalist embedded with U.S. troops. On a patrol near Hué, he was dictating into a tape recorder: “We’ve reached one of our phase lines after the fire fight and it smells bad—meaning it’s a little bit suspicious . . . Could be an amb—”
The recording stopped when Fall stepped on a land mine that killed him and a Marine sergeant.
That explosion stilled a voice that resonates yet today, with his warnings that counterinsurgency techniques are important in modern warfare and that the old playbooks don’t work anymore. Based on costly experience, Fall’s insights even achieved some influence with the revival of counterinsurgency doctrine that has shaped recent American initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Fall’s writings and public speeches, in which he insisted that modern armies could not win against guerrilla forces by fighting in the same way they fought previous wars, put an end to his own prospects for a government career. Newly opened Records of U.S. Foreign Assistance Agencies, 1948–1963 (Record Group 469) at the National Archives detail the government’s moves against Fall beginning in the summer of 1958.
NARA Holdings Document: Bernard Fall’s Early Career
Throughout his short career, Fall stressed in his writings and public speeches that to win against guerrilla forces, modern armies must combine economic and political programs with superior military means. He presented his ideas in a speech to the annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies in New York on April 1, 1958, and then published them on May 31, 1958, in The Nation. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles opposed Fall’s ideas about counterinsurgency in Vietnam, and the State Department abruptly rejected a contract to employ Fall by the ICA through the U.S. Operations Mission (USOM) at the American embassy in Cambodia.
Until Dulles’s objection, Fall, a French citizen, had worked successfully for the U.S. government and various federal contractors throughout his career. His federal employment began in 1946 with a job as a civilian research analyst and interrogator under Russell H. Thayer, a chief counsel for the prosecution at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials in U.S.-occupied Germany. Fall worked under Thayer through November 1948, including five months as “acting head of [the] research section.”
From January to May 1949, Fall served as a “child search officer” for a temporary United Nations agency in Munich, where he coordinated efforts by American and German authorities to locate “children of allied nationalities kidnapped by Nazi forces during World War II.” He then attended courses provided by the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) for United States military personnel in Germany before arriving in the United States on the first of two Fulbright grants to attend graduate school at Syracuse University (1951–1955).
In May 1955, after completing his doctoral dissertation on the Viet Minh administration of North Vietnam, Fall took a position as research associate for a federal contractor in Washington, D.C.
Fall Brings His Expertise To Washington Venues
In 1956, Fall continued to apply his expertise in foreign affairs on federal projects as he began teaching graduate and undergraduate courses at Howard University in Washington, D.C., including a course for the National Security Agency (NSA). From September 1956 to March 1957, he also joined Systems Analysis Corp. in Washington as a research associate reporting to the firm’s director, Gene Z. Hanrahan. At Systems Analysis Corp., under contract to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Fall wrote briefs based on interviews with officials from the Defense Department (DOD), State Department, ICA, and the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) to South Vietnam.
As a professor at Howard University and a research associate for federal contractors, Fall developed contacts at the U.S. foreign assistance agencies who tried to recruit him for work in Southeast Asia. By the middle of 1957, officials of the International Cooperation Administration (ICA) responsible for the USOM in Cambodia initiated contract negotiations, hoping to send Fall to Cambodia as an adviser to the United States embassy and professor of international relations at the Royal School of Administration in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Fall accepted the contract in March 1958, but the telegram sent in May by the Department of State put a stop to it.
After 1958, Fall continued his research in Southeast Asia, but without financial support from the State Department, the ICA, or any other part of the U.S. government. When, from 1961 to 1963, he did teach in Cambodia under contract to the Royal School of Administration and without American support, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh continued to view him with suspicion.
Fall Writes Two Books On Waging Counterinsurgency
Fall’s authority on counterinsurgency issues stemmed largely from his dedication to gathering facts in the field, often at great personal risk. He traveled repeatedly in Vietnam after his first visit there as a graduate student in 1953, and he reported on the Vietnam War in the 1960s while with American troops.
Based on his observations in Vietnam, and extensive interviews with participants in the French Indochina War (1946–1954), Fall’s many publications include two seminal critiques of French counterinsurgency strategy: Street Without Joy (1961) and Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (1966). The first of these dealt with the failure of technically superior French military forces to defeat Vietnamese insurgents on the same highway outside of Hué where Fall himself died in 1967 while reporting on American military operations.
Through his reporting and public speaking, Fall sought to improve American counterinsurgency efforts against Communist insurgents in the newly independent nations of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. He stressed the limits of armed intervention and the need to address broader issues of economic development and political corruption that plagued the region.
However, despite Fall’s many years in the field, during the American war in Vietnam (1965–1975), such key presidential advisers as Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy never consulted him. Fall’s views gained the most attention from lower-level Pentagon officials, soldiers in the field, and the growing minority of antiwar intellectuals.
In her memoir of their marriage, Memories of a Soldier-Scholar (2006), Dorothy Fall recounts how her husband’s views on Vietnam also drew the opprobrium of U.S. government officials, including J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mrs. Fall cites documents that she received in 2000 from the Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act to support her vivid descriptions of how after May 1958 “the FBI accelerated its scrutiny of Bernard, with reports that spoke of his ‘activities on behalf of the French government’ and called him ‘a possible propaganda agent for the French government.'” The surveillance continued even though Fall never worked in any capacity for the French government.
According to Mrs. Fall, even before the FBI surveillance began in earnest, elements within the State Department took exception to Fall’s reporting on counterinsurgency in Vietnam. She writes that after her husband published an article critical of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem in the May 31, 1958, issue of The Nation: “Incredibly, in Saigon, the Diem regime, apparently working with the U.S. Embassy, was able to kill Bernard’s appointment as a professor to the Royal School of Administration in Cambodia.”
In fact, the newly available records at the National Archives demonstrate that the State Department moved against Fall with the telegram of May 26, 1958, two days before The Nation article appeared. Soon after that, FBI surveillance of Fall began and would continue for years.
Contracting with the United States to Work in Cambodia
In contrast to the disclosure of FBI surveillance after May 1958, the records of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Agencies document initially successful efforts in 1957–1958 by the ICA and the USOM to employ Fall through the American embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Indeed, Alvin Roseman, an ICA official and the director of USOM in Cambodia, together with Thomas L. Eliot, an official with the ICA in Washington, first approached Fall in Washington because of his American education and the emphasis he placed on reinforcing military initiatives with political and economic reforms in Southeast Asia. They sought to hire Fall as both a professor at the Royal School of Administration and adviser to the American embassy in Phnom Penh. They hoped that Fall could advance the U.S. objective of political reform by training future Cambodian administrators through the new Royal School of Administration.
The first modern U.S. ambassador to reside in Cambodia, Robert McClintock viewed the new university as an opportunity to support bureaucratic reform in Cambodia, although the Royal School’s inauguration with a French curriculum on February 11, 1956, had disappointed him. Ambassador McClintock thought that by training competent administrators, the new university could encourage the hiring of civil servants based on merit. However, in a telegram to his superiors in Washington, the ambassador observed that the Cambodians and the French in Phnom Penh rejected his method of promoting reform through university training as “being too American.” McClintock nevertheless anticipated that “should United Nations consultants be called upon again in the future, and should foreign aid other than French tackle the critical problem of management reform, the school might usefully be made to serve as the starting point for a modern reorientation of the Government’s organization.”
In February, Eliot and Roseman in Washington tried to advance McClintock’s method of reform by persuading Fall to teach at the Royal School. Then, in June 1957, Fall accepted an invitation from the South Vietnamese government to conduct fieldwork regarding the status of political and administrative reform in President Diem’s new government. As soon as Fall returned to Vietnam, he found Roseman in Saigon on the way to his new assignment as the USOM director in Cambodia. Roseman invited Fall to Phnom Penh so they could further discuss the possibility of his academic appointment to the Royal School.
Before following Roseman to Cambodia, Fall also met in Saigon with Michigan State University professor Wesley Fischel, who asked him to think about teaching part-time in Vietnam if he took the job in Phnom Penh. Fall told Fischel that if he worked at the Royal School, he would enjoy the weekly commute to teach a course at the Michigan State University Center in Saigon.
On August 12, Fall met in Phnom Penh with the Cambodian prime minister’s French adviser (Nolleaux), the U.S. embassy’s political officer, and Roseman, who together “expressed great interest” in developing a course of international relations at the Royal School. Roseman thought that the Cambodians would more readily accept Fall because he was “a Frenchman teaching U.S. methods.”
As a result of these discussions, Fall planned to arrive in Cambodia in July 1958 to begin teaching “P.A. [Public Administration] and Problems of International Relations.” In addition to teaching, Fall hoped to establish a student-run Documentation Center as a source of information about countries other than Cambodia.
Bernard Fall s application (page 3) for a position as professor at the Royal School of Administration in Cambodia in March 1958. (Records of U.S. Foreign Assistance Agencies, 1942—1961)
The Terms of Fall’s Agreement to Teach At the Royal School of Administration
By mid-September 1957, still waiting to hear from Eliot, Fall sent a 600-word proposal explaining the content of their discussions to the Cambodian prime minister. He told Eliot that he needed to inform Howard University by January 1958 of his plans for the next year.
At least in the beginning, Roseman and Eliot hoped to keep the U.S. government in the background of any arrangements to get Fall to serve in Cambodia. On November 18, 1957, the Royal Cambodian Government (RKG) initially advised USOM of its interest in hiring the Howard University professor as the new “chair of international relations” at the Royal School. Roseman then informed the ICA in Washington that he assumed that the Cambodian government communicated directly with Fall: “USOM strategy [is] to keep [the] official relationship directly between [the] RKG and Fall. Do not envisage ICA employment of Fall or any ICA dollar expenditures, but may work out small counterpart project to assist [the] school.”
By early March 1958, the prospect of sending Fall to Cambodia remained unresolved. Roseman reiterated to the ICA in Washington that his office had proposed a “direct contract” between the Cambodian government and Fall, but would wholly finance the agreement through local currency if the RKG arranged to convert an “appropriate part [of] his [local currency] salary into dollars.”
Despite the initial efforts by ICA and USOM to remain in the background of any agreement, the Cambodian Ministry of Education requested a “direct USOM contract” to cover Fall’s position at the Royal School. As a result, Roseman proposed “writing [a] contract in [the] field as [a] third country technician and still probably on [a local currency] basis.” To facilitate the new contract, Roseman requested that the ICA start the background check for Fall’s security clearance in Washington, provide housing for the Fall family in Phnom Penh, and advise the USOM on Fall’s salary requirements.
On March 30, 1958, Fall accepted and signed the one-year renewable contract that he received directly from the ICA in Washington. The contract identified his position as “Professor of International Relations and Public Administration, Royal School of Administration, Phnom-Penh, Cambodia.” Two days later, on April 1, Fall received a letter from the Royal School’s French Director (M. Bargue) that the Cambodian government had approved his candidacy to join the faculty, and his security clearance from the U.S. government came through on April 4, 1958. In cablegrams on April 8 and April 25, Eliot then urged Roseman to affirm the contract as soon as possible so that Fall could submit his plans for the 1959 academic year. According to the April 28 cablegram, “Fall cannot afford to jeopardize his relationships [with] Howard University since he intends [to] return there on [a] career basis.”
On April 29, 1958, from Phnom Penh, Roseman then urged Eliot to resolve any remaining questions with Fall directly through ICA in Washington. However, Roseman stipulated his agreement with the following contract terms. First, Fall would receive a salary of $12,000, “including differentials and in dollars.” As the “French expert” in the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, Fall “will have duty free entry privilege” and access to the commissary, post office, and embassy medical facilities along with “holders of US special diplomatic passports.” Furthermore, the USOM would provide “official transportation” and receive “training aids” for his classes directly through “the Mission to avoid any customs difficulties.”
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles opposed Fall s appointment to the position at the Royal School of Administration in his May 26, 1958, telegram to the American embassies in Saigon and Phnom Penh. (Records of U.S. Foreign Assistance Agencies, 1942—1961)
Breaking Fall’s ICA Contract to Teach in Cambodia
A telegram stamped “Dulles” and sent on May 26, 1958, from the State Department in Washington, D.C., to the American embassies in Saigon and Phnom Penh represents the first documented opposition to Fall’s employment under the ICA contract. Referring to Fall’s possible “assignment under [the] ICA contract to [the] Royal School Administration as Professor Public Administration and International Relations,” the Dulles telegram continued: Fall has been consistent and vocal critic U.S. policy, and in recent months has made public statements extremely critical U.S. aid program Vietnam. Also has criticized vocally Diem and his Government to point where certain members Vietnamese Embassy and American Friends Vietnam are actively looking for means offset his influence as one of self-styled experts on Vietnam in U.S.
View these facts and fact Phnom Penh already has several French citizens both critical of and actively working against Diem Government question whether Fall should be employed in above capacity by U.S. Government at present time.
The telegram ended with a request for the U.S. embassies in Phnom Penh and Saigon to comment, “Reply priority.” The folder on Bernard Fall in the Records of the Foreign Assistance Agencies includes comments returned from Phnom Penh, but none from Saigon.
On May 27, Roseman and the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Carl W. Strom, responded to the request for comment, noting that Fall had already obtained a security clearance. They reported that during their interviews with him, Fall had expressed neither “any anti-Diem bias” nor opposition to U.S. policy in Vietnam. Furthermore, as a result of their interviews with Fall, the granting of his security clearance, and “many messages exchanged between USOM and ICA/W[ashington],” USOM had already informed the Cambodian government about Fall’s agreement to arrive in October.
Moreover, the U.S. embassy and USOM in Cambodia regretted that the Department of State in Washington had not earlier raised objections to Fall. They repeated that during interviews in Phnom Penh, Fall had “clearly understood” that his teaching “could not involve any political content,” especially regarding Vietnam. They insisted that Fall’s qualifications as a native French speaker with training in American methodology uniquely appealed to Cambodian officials.
If Fall were dropped, Ambassador Strom insisted that the “decision must be made by Washington agencies” without his concurrence and that Washington should deflect the Cambodians by simply claiming that Fall was not available. Moreover, Strom warned that since Fall might have already requested a leave from Howard University, there remained “some possibility that he will communicate his own version to [the] Royal School of Administration” at variance with whatever reason that the U.S. government might convey.
Despite these admonitions, on May 29 Frederick H. Bunting, the ICA’s director of Far Eastern Affairs in Washington, requested that the American embassy in Phnom Penh inform the Cambodian government that the embassy could not finance the hiring of Fall.
At the same time, other officials in Washington backed away from supporting Fall. On May 28, Ed Hough of the Department of State’s Far Eastern Division, noted that he had telephoned Tom Eliot to confirm that after discussing the situation with his division chief, they both agreed to let Fall “‘fall’.” Hough suggested to Eliot: “as [a] personal friend tell him [that he had] ‘cooked his own goose’ by ‘shooting off’.” Hough further authorized Eliot to say that the “Vietnamese complained to State and certain countries in SEA will be closed to him.”
Ed Hough of the State Department noted in a May 28, 1958, memo that he had informed Tom Eliot that Hough agreed with his division chief to let Fall fall. (Records of U.S. Foreign Assistance Agencies, 1942—1961)
Fall Pleads with State Department To Save His ICA Contract
On May 26, 1958, ICA officials in Washington informed Fall that his contract had been dropped “because he had made a speech unfavorable to the Government of the Republic of Viet-Nam” at the April 1 meeting of the Association of Asian Studies in New York. Fall then launched a telephone campaign to salvage his contract with the ICA. He immediately called Thomas J. Corcoran, the Department of State officer-in-charge of Laos affairs in Washington, to complain about the news of losing his contract. According to a memorandum of conversation dated June 3, Fall informed Corcoran over the telephone “that Mr. Nguyen Phu Duc, First Secretary of the Vietnamese Embassy, had attended his speech in New York, and persuaded the Ambassador of Viet-Nam to write to the Department of State protesting against his employment in Cambodia.”
Fall also conceded, according to the memorandum, that he had been critical of the situation in Vietnam “based on his honest opinion,” but that he was not in fact “anti-Vietnamese” and that he “clearly favored the Ngo Dinh Diem Government over the Communist regime.” Finally, as Strom had warned, Fall told Corcoran that he would inform the Cambodians why his contract had been dropped.
Early in June, Fall directly approached the ICA’s Bunting with his complaint. In a memorandum of conversation that Bunting distributed in the Department of State on June 7, Bunting described Fall as being somewhat contrite about his speech to the Association of Asian Studies and his article in The Nation. According to Bunting, Fall knew “his talk in New York was indiscreet,” and he also regretted letting the article appear, even after receiving a telephone call from the Vietnamese ambassador, who complained to him personally on April 12.
Still eager to save his ICA contract, Fall showed Bunting publications that he had written for USIA, ICA, and the Department of Labor, “saying that the U.S. had not hesitated to use his services in the past.” In the memorandum, Bunting warned that the decision to drop Fall “may cause some later repercussions,” and although he concurred, he expressed his regret about the situation: “I am not happy about it because of Fall’s considerable knowledge and abilities. The case is complicated. If you would like to know more about it, let me know.”
In addition to informing the Royal School and the Cambodian government of the Department of State’s decision regarding his contract, Fall apparently also complained to the embassy of France in Washington that “the Vietnamese Embassy had intervened with the Department to obtain” their cancellation of his ICA contract. As a result, on June 12, 1958, Pierre Landy, counselor at the French embassy, went to the Department of State to hear an explanation of the matter from Eric Kocher, the director of the Office of Southeast Asian Affairs, and Corcoran.
Kocher expressed regret that “negotiations between Fall and ICA had proceeded so far before the department decided they should be dropped.” He explained that “Dr. Fall’s public criticism of the U.S. aid program made it inappropriate to send him out as a representative of that program,” and he interpreted the article in The Nation as “a fair illustration of the emotional and inaccurate nature of some of his views on this subject.”
Kocher also flatly denied Fall’s claim that the Vietnamese embassy had intervened. He claimed that “the Vietnamese Government had made no request to us concerning Fall’s public comments on the aid program on its own.” For his part, Landy characterized Fall as “an extremely independent and audacious man,” and he left the meeting with an assurance from the Americans that they would not object “if another French candidate came forward” for the post at the Royal School in Phnom Penh.
On June 10, 1958, in his last documented effort to reinstate the cancelled ICA contract through the Department of State, Fall telephoned Joseph A. Mendenhall, an OSS veteran of intelligence operations in the Second World War then serving as officer-in-charge of Vietnam affairs at the Department of State in Washington. In his “Memorandum of Conversation” regarding that telephone call, Mendenhall reports that Fall assumed the Vietnamese embassy had persuaded the Department of State to drop his contract based on objections to his speech to the Association of Asian Studies by the Vietnamese press attaché Nguyen Phu Duc. Mendenhall denied that the Vietnamese embassy ever approached the Department of State “on the matter of his employment,” and he maintained that “the decision to terminate further consideration of his employment had been taken on U.S. Government initiative.”
Fall argued further that he had received a security clearance and that his writings demonstrated his opposition to the Communist government in Hanoi. However, Mendenhall assured Fall “that the decision concerning his employment had not been taken on security grounds.”
Mendenhall then told Fall that two factors determined the Department of State’s decision. First, Fall had criticized U.S. policy and the aid program in Vietnam: “The U.S. Government does not customarily employ persons who show publicly that they are out of sympathy with its policies and operations.” Second, Fall was “a public critic of the Vietnamese Government,” and it would be “embarrassing in our relations with this friendly government, for the U.S. to hire him.”
In concluding their conversation, Fall repeated that he thought the decision to drop his contract stemmed mainly from the Vietnamese response to his briefing in New York. He asked that the Department of State review his “whole record” in support of South Vietnam to reconsider him for employment. He also alleged that the Department of State had accepted biased information from “persons in Saigon unfriendly to him,” specifically “[Gene] Gregory, editor of the English-languageTimes of Viet-Nam.”
Mendenhall responded that “the whole record . . . had been taken into consideration in reaching a decision in his case.” The memorandum concludes with the statement that Mendenhall “avoided comment for various reasons on all of these points, and gave him [Fall] no indication that he could expect reconsideration of the decision about his employment.”
Why Did the State Department Cancel Fall’s Contract?
The folder on what some memoranda refer to as “The Bernard Fall Case” neither confirms nor refutes Mrs. Fall’s assertion that in 1958, “in Saigon, the Diem regime, apparently working with the U.S. Embassy,” joined forces against her husband’s contract to work in Cambodia. However, these records do confirm that after Fall signed the contract offered to him by ICA and USOM in Cambodia, Dulles and other State Department officials moved to cancel acceptance of the contract.
The State Department explicitly opposed the contract because Fall had publically questioned the effectiveness of American foreign aid in countering the rise of a Communist insurgency against the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem in the Republic of Vietnam. In the United States, Fall’s views also provoked the ire of South Vietnam’s embassy officials and members of the anti-Communist lobby group American Friends of Vietnam.
This opposition stemmed from Fall’s speech in New York. In the subsequent article that reiterated the main points of that speech, however, Fall merely stressed the need for real economic development stimulated by more effective foreign assistance programs in support of Diem. Although Fall also attributed the growing unpopularity of President Diem to political corruption, he strongly preferred Diem to the unification of Vietnam under a Communist dictatorship. For Fall in 1958, President Diem’s political problems made it all the more important for the United States to improve its foreign assistance programs as a means of promoting economic development that would win popular support for Diem away from the rising Communist insurgency.
Ironically, Mendenhall advocated much stronger sanctions against President Diem just four years after he explained that the Department of State had dropped the contract because, “as a public critic of the Vietnamese government,” Fall might embarrass the United States. By 1962, Mendenhall flatly recommended that the United States “Get rid of Diem,” in a secret memorandum that he, as the former political counselor in the American embassy in Saigon, presented to Edward E. Rice, the new deputy assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern Affairs in Washington. The Department of State first published the memorandum in 1990.
Much as Fall had argued previously, the 1962 Mendenhall memorandum held that “the government must win the support of the villagers by providing adequate protection and helping them improve their lot.” Unlike Fall, by 1962 Mendenhall concluded that since Diem’s “weaknesses represent the basic underlying reason for the trend against us in the war,” Diem should leave the government. Mendenhall closed the memorandum with a section speculating on “How the Coup Might Be Carried Out.”
In November 1963 a coup d’état did eliminate President Diem from office, if not precisely as Mendenhall had recommended. However, the U.S. government never resolved the issues of economic development and political reform in Vietnam, which Fall had addressed in 1958 before the Association of Asian Studies and in The Nation. Indeed, as Mrs. Fall laments in her telling memoir of their marriage, officials in Washington continued to neglect the body of her husband’s writings on counterinsurgency through the end of the American war in Vietnam (1975).
The records of U.S. Foreign Assistance Agencies indicate that this long period of official neglect began with the telegram sent in May 1958 over Secretary Dulles’s name, which ended months of direct negotiations by USOM and ICA to hire Fall.
Remembering What Bernard Fall Wrote
Thomas E. Ricks, a former Washington Post correspondent who covered the American invasion of Iraq, reports that in 2002–2003, American commanders in Iraq began to rediscover Bernard Fall among other bygone writers who suddenly seemed relevant as American troops faced the insurgency that rose against them after the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Today Fall’s books on Dien Bien Phu and the failure of France to maintain its colonial holdings in Indochina deserve a closer reading by diplomats and soldiers.
Even the short article in The Nation summarizing the analysis that derailed Fall’s early career as a government contractor includes observations that may yet prove valuable to Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first point Fall made was that a less obvious, if not a smaller, American presence would have been more effective in backing Diem. To support this observation, he quoted an unclassified report submitted in the spring of 1958 as testimony to Congress by Leland Barrows, then serving as director of USOM in Vietnam:
The number of American jeeps, American uniforms, American faces, which one encounters on the principal streets of the principal cities . . . seems disproportionately large to a native population that has an innate destructor resentment of anything alien or non-national. . . . If the American presence is over-obvious we will inevitably be made the scapegoat for failure or shortcomings in which we had little or no part.
Fall further observed that in the event of legal disputes with the local civilian population, the practice of prosecuting U.S. personnel under U.S. law made the American forces vulnerable to increasing conflict with civilians. He quoted a MAAG officer as saying, “We aren’t an occupation force, you know. Our guys are spread in small packets throughout the countryside, wearing civvies, living in the local hotels,” and this played into the hand of the insurgents because if the U.S. personnel “do get into trouble, they’re shipped out to the Philippines for courts-martial. . . . The Vietnamese don’t know what happens to them. They probably think we just white-wash all the cases, as the Commie propaganda tells them.”
Fall believed that the failure of land reform to allow more farmers to own the land they farmed would over time lead discontented farmers to support insurgents. He wrote, “Land reform, widely hailed as giving the small farmer a share in his country’s economy, has bogged down in red tape and inefficiency, and is not even keeping pace with the natural growth of the farming population.”
At the heart of Fall’s critique was the observation that the failure of American economic assistance to develop the competitive advantages of the local economy led to economic deterioration and a dependence on foreign aid that fueled local support of the insurgents. In Vietnam, despite the potential to cultivate export surpluses, the lack of local currency for local investment led to increasing imports of food and American consumer goods.
Devoted to finding the facts, Bernard Fall presented such observations in a relentless effort to improve American counterinsurgency operations against Communist guerrillas after the defeat of France at the siege of Dien Bien Phu. A veteran of the French Resistance in World War II, he loyally served the U.S. government in a series of projects that began in 1946 on the U.S. staff of the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal and continued until May 1958, when the Department of State rejected his analysis of the realities in South Vietnam.
Despite the ignorance of his work by executive policymakers who might have applied resources more effectively to win the American war, Fall continued to gather the facts until 1967, when he died beside a forgotten street in Vietnam. His writings remain signal contributions to military science from a different war, long ago, when perhaps the best of analysts dodged police surveillance at home to wage counterinsurgency abroad.
Note on Sources
All quotations in this article regarding Bernard Fall’s negotiations with the ICA and State Department to teach in Cambodia come from documents in the folder labeled “Cambodia—Contracts—Bernard Fall” in Records of U.S. Foreign Assistance Agencies, 1948–1961 (Record Group [RG] 469). In this folder, the telegram from the Department of State ending those negotiations was sent over the name of “Dulles,” stamped not signed, and approved for transmission and classification by Eric Kocher, the director of the Office of Southeast Asian Affairs: “Outgoing Telegram, Department of State; Confidential; 1958 May 26,” NARA RG 469, Entry P85.
The same folder contains tear sheets of Fall’s publication “Will South Vietnam Be Next?” The Nation(May 31, 1958): 489–493, which is quoted in the article. The quotations from Fall’s last tape appear on page 271 of Last Reflections on a War (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967), the posthumous selection of his late works with a preface by Dorothy Fall.
Dorothy Fall cites FBI documents in her Memories of a Soldier-Scholar (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, Inc.: 2006). She writes there that in addition to tailing her husband for seven years, FBI surveillance methods included telephone taps, concealed microphones, snooping by neighbors, and the solicitation of private information from people whom the Falls considered to be friends.
The National Archives holds Joseph A. Mendenhall’s OSS personnel files in Records of the Office of Strategic Services (RG 226, Entry 224). The Department of State published Mendenhall’s August 16, 1962, recommendation to “Get rid of Diem” in Vietnam 1962, Volume II; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990), pages 596–601.
Former Washington Post Pentagon correspondent Thomas E. Ricks reports about the renewed interest in Fall’s views on counterinsurgency in Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin Press, 2006).
Photographs of Bernard Fall in Cambodia (after 1961) and Vietnam appear here with permission of Dorothy Fall, who very graciously discussed the documents about her husband’s early career. I am grateful for her patience in recalling the frustrations they both endured.
Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.