In the preface to Dorothy Fall’s Bernard Fall: Memories of a Soldier-Scholar, (Potomac, 2006) the late David Halberstam recounted his admiration for his friend Bernard Fall. Fall’s classic book Hell in a Very Small Place which recounted and explained the French defeat at the hands of Ho Chi Minh’s Viet-Minh in 1954 is, wrote Halberstam, “a great, great book, one of the most important nonfiction books of the last fifty years, a stirring bit of history and a cautionary tale for American presidents. (What, one wonders, would have happened had the architects of the second Iraq intervention read it?)” asked Halberstam although Colin Powell, Dorothy Fall tells us later in her text, had read the book twice.
Bernard Fall, for those of us old enough to remember the Vietnam War, was a scholar-soldier-writer, who began his “bad” love affair with Vietnam (or as he would write it Viet-Nam) summer 1953. Because of his French background and citizenship – he had become an American citizen before his untimely death - as well as his own participation as a guerilla fighter in the French underground during World War II, it’s perhaps only natural that Viet-Nam became his life’s work and passion. Or that he understood it and could explain the country and its struggle for independence so well.
I first learned of Bernard Fall in February 1967 when I was a graduate student in political science at Syracuse’s Maxwell School although, unfortunately, I never had a chance to meet him or hear him speak. Fall had just been killed in a booby-trap in Vietnam while accompanying American troops on a mission along “The Street without Joy” as a part of his research on the deepening American
involvement in the country and the evolving course of the war.
This was Fall's sixth and final research visit to Vietnam. His own American experience began as a Fulbright scholar in that same political science department where numerous faculty still remembered him reverently for his intellect, his realism, the quality of his on-the-ground, in-depth research, his trustworthiness, his productivity and a dissertation on Vietnam that encompassed over 900 pages.
A year or so later, I came across Fall’s file in the department office when I was an administrative assistant and still working on courses for my PhD. In that file, I found and read his hand written letters to one of his former professors. One letter detailed an interview he had had with Ho Chi Minh in 1962. By then, of course, Fall was on the faculty of Washington, DC’s Howard University.
His research, its implications and his willingness to speak out made him unpopular with Kennedy and Johnson administrations because he had long questioned – with good reason – the administrations’ fundamental policy decisions based on too rosy assessments of the course of that ill-begotten war and what superior American fire-power could bring to this anti-Communist crusade.
Fall was a political realist who understood all too well the staying power of guerilla warfare: he was not anti-American as the powers that be in Washington at the time tried to paint him. He was anti-Communist, anti- Nazi, and he was no French agent.
FBI targeted the wrong man
The seven year long extensive and intrusive FBI surveillance against him authorized by successive administrations turned up nothing – and was finally called off in 1964. His wife Dorothy – who ultimately obtained the large file of half-blacked out documents through the Freedom of Information Act in 2000 for research for her book – devotes a chapter to J. Edgar Hoover and his over-zealous activities targeted at the wrong man. Yet throughout that difficult time, Fall was also regularly called upon to address US military schools and give high level military intelligence briefings even though the administration – and the FBI sought to keep the US military - the people who needed his advice the most – away.
What Washington failed to recognize was that superior military force, incessant aerial bombardments,
and far greater firepower than the French ever had would not win what was, in fact, a political struggle for the hearts, minds, and stomachs of the Vietnamese people and that, in the name of combating global anti-Communism, the US had, from the start, backed the wrong side.
What Fall had figured out - based on his research into the earlier French experience – was that the indicator that mattered most in determining the war’s outcome in Indochina was control of the countryside and the US was never able to win that battle. What he also learned was that atrocities committed by South Vietnamese and US forces – and too many American soldiers’ lack of understanding of the rules of war – just “helped to justify North Vietnamese torture and killing of US prisoners including US pilots who were shot down.”
Vietnam: Militarily unlosable, but politically unwinnable
In his research, Fall talked with everyone who would talk with him. He meticulously scoured records, reports and news articles for data that might help him put the pieces together. Based on his research much of which was conducted in French, he discovered things successive US administrations failed to see, or did not want to see. He wrote about his findings in prestigious American periodicals and helped young journalists covering the war understand the reasons why things their gut instinct told them were not working as they “should” or as they were being led to believe.
It wasn’t that Fall wanted the North Vietnamese to win; it was simply that he was a top-flight analyst who based his assessments on an impressive assemblage of facts. He kept his ears to the ground, sifted through mountains of unclassified documents and went with the troops – sorry, W, the practice of sending journalists into battle with US troops began years before the Iraq “embed” practice had become the Pentagon’s flavor of the day - but because of the administrations’ blindness – or stubbornness – and their failure to listen to America’s Vietnam experts including Fall, the Viet Nam Primer, the book he coauthored with Marc Raskin became a crucial part of the growing anti-war movement.
McNamara: wrong again
It was simply inaccurate, as Robert McNamara claimed years later in his book In Retrospect that “when it came to Vietnam . . .[the U.S. leadership] ‘lacked experts to consult to compensate for their ignorance.’” As Dorothy Fall correctly pointed out in her preface to Bernard Fall there were plenty of experts inside and outside the US government including, and especially her husband. He lived and taught only a stone’s throw away in Washington, DC and in the year preceding his death many others did seek his counsel. In reality, however, “McNamara was not interested in learning the truth.”
Had McNamara not made that outrageously wrong statement, Dorothy Fall, a painter and former artist with the U.S. Information Agency's Russian language Amerika magazine, might never have taken down the dusty materials stashed away on her shelf, updated them with a series of interviews that even took her to Hanoi, and written and published the
story of her husband’s life.
Or given the uncanny parallels between Vietnam and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, maybe she would have done so anyway.
War's fatal addiction
If Bernard Fall had a fault, it was not lack of patriotism, love for America or his family, but the adrenalin charge that came from returning to the battlefield one time too many – and it was the lure of this fix, the same addiction former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges chronicles in his 2002 book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning - that killed Fall at the too young age of 40.
Dorothy Fall’s recent tribute to her late husband is a poignant personal history of his life, his work, and their life together and apart. The publication of this book couldn’t have come at a better time. Now is an excellent time to read it – and then move on to some of Bernard Fall’s writings as well.
Dorothy Fall, Bernard Fall: Memoirs of a Soldier-Scholar, Washington, DC: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006.
Bernard B. Fall, Street without Joy: the French Debacle in Indochina, Mechanicsburg, PA, Stackpole Books, 1961.
Bernard B. Fall, Hell in a very Small Place: the Siege of Dien Bien Phu. De Capo Press, 1966.
Bernard B. Fall, Last Reflections on a War: Bernard B. Fall’s Last Comments on Vietnam, Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2000.
Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, New York: Public Affairs, 2000.
Map and Photo credits: Map of Vietnam, 2001, Perry-Castaneda Map Collection, University of Texas; Photos by PH Kushlis, 2002: 1) Saigon Reunification Palace - helicopter on roof top; 2) Vietnamese countryside in south; 3) House and Reflection in lake near Ho Chi Minh's house, 2002.