The Light That Failed 13

Giap adopted a different and more cautious strategy. He ordered his cannon hauled higher into the hills so that the artillery could pound the French posts as the infantry crawled slowly toward them through a maze of tunnels. Colonel Bui Tin, who was wounded in the battle, later told me of his experience.
Now the shovel became our most important weapon. Everyone dug tunnels and trenches under fire, sometimes hitting hard soil and only advancing five or six yards a day. But we gradually surrounded Dienbienphu with an underground network several hundred miles long, and we could tighten the noose around the French.
Preparing for the new assault took nearly two months. Finally, on the afternoon of March 13, Giap gave the signal to advance.
His first objective, Beatrice, fell immediately, and Gabrielle fol¬lowed the next day as the Vietminh howitzers raked the airstrip and pinpointed other French targets. Colonel Charles Piroth, a one-armed officer in charge of the big French guns, had pledged to Navarre two months earlier, “Mon general, no Vietminh cannon will be able to fire three rounds before being destroyed by my artillery.” At dawn on March 15, Piroth lay down in bed, pulled the safety pin out of a grenade with his teeth and blew himself to bits. He had said the night before, after Gabrielle’s collapse, “I am completely dishonored.” Shortly after his opening barrage, Giap slowed the pace of his of¬fensive to shift for two weeks to a less costly strategy of attrition. The French figured that the oncoming rains would mire him in mud, but just the opposite occurred. The lowering clouds hindered their aircraft from bombing and strafing his men and made parachuting supplies to their beleaguered garrison nearly impossible. The French now knew that, on the eve of negotiations, they were doomed on the battlefield and also at the conference table—unless they received a formidable dose of outside help. Only the United States could furnish that aid fast and effectively. But another engagement would have to be fought in Washington.
No sooner had Giap fired his first salvos than the French claimed that they urgently needed American military assistance at Dienbienphu to bolster their diplomacy at Geneva. General Paul Ely, the French chief of staff, delivered that message to Washington on March 20, winning over Admiral Arthur Radford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Radford proposed that sixty B-29 bombers based in the; Phil¬ippines, escorted by fighter planes of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, conduct night raids against the Vietminh perimeter around Dienbienphu. Ely returned to Paris with the plan, labeled Operation Vulture, and his government welcomed it.
Another member of the joint chiefs, General Nathan Twining of the air force, endorsed the idea. But General Matthew Ridgway, army chief of staff, had little faith in air strikes—and no taste for a fight on the mainland of Asia. An old-fashioned infantryman who had com¬manded the U.S. forces in Korea, he argued that even atomic weapons would not reduce the need for seven American combat divisions to assure French success in Indochina—twelve divisions if the Chinese intervened. The other members of the joint chiefs agreed with him that the Indochina conflict was the wrong war in the wrong place. As they stated shortly afterward, “Indochina is devoid of decisive military objectives” and involvement there “would be a serious diversion of limited U.S. capabilities.”
The French, disappointed by that verdict, were further discouraged by President Eisenhower’s insistence that he would not even ponder Radford’s project without its approval by Congress as well as by his World War II ally, Britain. Radford, backed by Dulles and Vice- President Richard Nixon, tried to get legislative authorization for the president to employ air power at his discretion, but the request was rejected by several influential senators and representatives—among them Lyndon Johnson of Texas, leader of the Democratic minority in the Senate. Key members of Congress allowed, however, that they might reconsider if, among other things, the British joined an en¬deavor to rescue the French.
A Pentagon study group at the time concluded that three tactical atomic weapons, “properly employed,” would suffice to smash the Vietminh forces at Dienbienphu. The idea tantalized Radford, who favored its proposal to the French. But the notion alarmed senior State Department officials, one of whom warned that, if the French were approached, “the story would certainly leak” and spark “a great hue and cry throughout the parliaments of the free world.” Georges Bi- dault disclosed some months later that he had turned down an offer by Dulles for atomic weapons during talks the previous April. Dulles denied the account, and the French confirmed his denial, saying that Bidault had been “jittery” and “overwrought” and had misunder¬stood. Bidault nevertheless repeated the account in his memoirs.
Contrary to portrayals that depict him as an unalloyed “dove,” Eisenhower did not completely oppose U.S. intervention. But re¬calling his command of the allies during World War II, he refused to commit America alone. “Without allies and associates,” he told his staff at one meeting, “the leader is just an adventurer, like Genghis Khan.” Besides, he had been elected on a pledge to end the war in Korea, which might have spiraled into a bigger confrontation with China—and as his closest aide, Sherman Adams, observed, “Having avoided one total war with Red China the year before in Korea, when he had United Nations support, he was in no mood to provoke another one in Indochina . . . without the British and other Western allies.”
Eisenhower appealed to Prime Minister Churchill to participate, reminding him of the failure to stop Hitler “by not acting in unit and in time.” He sent Dulles to London to plead his case, but the British spurned him. Churchill told the House of Commons that Britain “was not prepared to give any undertakings … in Indochina in advance of the results of Geneva,” and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who was to cochair the conference with Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet for¬eign minister, simply refused to be “hustled into injudicious military decisions.” The best that Dulles could achieve was a British promise to contemplate a future regional security arrangement, which even¬tually became the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.

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