In the late afternoon of February 21, 1967, the United States infantrymen of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines were conducting the third day of Operation Chinook, a sweep down Route 1 in pursuit of Viet Cong Battalion 800. Bernard Fall was with them, revisiting the road that French soldiers had christened 'la rue sans joie,' a highway already immortalized in his best-known book, Street Without Joy (1961).
Around 4:30, Fall was dictating notes into a tape recorder while he watched the end of a minor skirmish. "We’ve reached one of our phase lines after the fire fight, he said, and it smells bad–meaning it’s a little bit suspicious….Could be an amb–"
He would never finish that sentence, as at that moment his foot touched off a Viet Cong landmine, immediately ending the life of the foremost authority on the wars in Vietnam -- a man whose books about the country became must reading for scholars and soldiers alike to this day.
At the time of his death, in February of 1967, Bernard Fall was the leading authority on the French and American wars in Vietnam. He had written seven books and some 200 articles in fourteen years, including his classic account of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, Hell in a Very Small Place. Valued for his deep knowledge and acute analysis, he taught journalists, antiwar intellectuals and military officers the political and military realities of Vietnam. No one had more experience with the two wars than he did, or saw them as clearly.
Fall’s final trip to the Street Without Joy started 15 years earlier when he was a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. The school offered a course on Indochina, and Fall enrolled in it as he found the area interesting. Amry Vandenbosch, one of his professors, casually suggested specializing in Indochina because of his French background.
"Nobody knows much about it," Vandenbosch remarked. And so Bernard Fall found his metier by chance. "In 1952 I became interested in Vietnam," he once told an interviewer, "and it’s been sort of a bad love affair ever since." Oddly, nothing in his background as a young man from metropolitan France would have suggested any special interest in the French colonial empire in Asia.
Bernard Fall was born in Vienna on Armistice Day of 1926. Raised and educated in France, he was living on the Riviera when the Germans invaded in 1940. His father was a businessman who served in the army before the fall of France, and who became a member of the Underground Resistance movement after the capitulation. Eventually, in 1943, the elder Fall was captured and tortured to death by the Gestapo, while his wife was deported and killed in the holocaust. Young Bernard became a member of the Maquis in Savoy and fought an irregular war against the Germans until the Allies landed in Southern France. After that he served in a Moroccan infantry division in the final campaigns across Europe. Twice wounded in battle, he was decorated with the Ordre de la Liberation in 1945.
At the end of World War II, Fall briefly found a job as a researcher for the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal and then enrolled as a student at the University of Paris and, later, at the University of Munich. Late in 1950, he received a Fulbright grant to study in the United States, where he pursued his graduate education at Syracuse University and Johns Hopkins. Early studies betrayed no special interest in Vietnam: his thesis for the Master of Arts was an examination of the illegal rearmament of Germany during the interwar years. Acting on the casual suggestion of his Professor Vandenbosch, however, Fall began to study Indochina, travelling to southeast Asia in 1953 at his own expense to gather material for his doctoral dissertation.
He earned the doctorate from Syracuse in 1966 and taught for a time at American University in Washington before accepting a post at Howard University in 1956. Fall interspersed trips to Vietnam, funded now by Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations, with his teaching duties. As time went on, he became the leading academic critic of the war in Vietnam, as well as the first serious student of Indochinese military operations. The Defense Department awarded him a Certificate of Appreciation in 1961 in thanks for his tireless efforts to secure the facts and data as they are, and not as one wishes them to be. As American involvement in Vietnam became deeper and more politically sensitive, however, the government became less comfortable with Fall’s often prickly writing about the war.
Unlike most political scientists and historians who wrote about Vietnam, Fall spent a considerable amount of time there, and was, in fact, extremely critical of those who wrote about the country without visiting it. When in Vietnam, Fall preferred to live in the field with combat soldiers, sharing their risks in order to understand what was happening. Fall thus missed the special operations staged especially for journalists but developed an unique ability to describe the life of the average soldier, who could tell him in his own terms what it was like to be out along the defense perimeter, wet and afraid. Fall also learned, as he later wrote, how it felt to pry off a few leeches or to struggle with dysentery. He didn’t like that sort of life, of course, but concluded that after a while it knocked the intellectual superciliousness out of me.
The result of that sort of research was the superb Street Without Joy, a book that is well on its way to becoming a military classic. In it, Fall describes the French failure in what he called the First Indochinese War. He had a special gift for blending the details of high-level decision-making with the details of operations at the company level, so that his readers shared both the thoughts of French commanders and the emotions of the soldiers they led.
Like an unfolding drama, Street Without Joy details the successive attempts of the French commanders to cope with the insurgent Viet Minh. Firepower, airpower and mobility were the French advantages, and the generals tried for years to devise a plan that would draw the Viet Minh into a set-piece battle where those advantages could be exploited to defeat the otherwise elusive enemy. Fall’s drama draws to a close with the irony of Greek tragedy–when the French finally managed to get such a battle at Dien Bien Phu, they discovered that it was the enemy who had acquired the superior mobility, superior firepower, and an answer to limited airpower the French had available.
At the end of the book Fall began to evaluate the Second Indochina War of South Vietnam and the United States. He explicitly criticized the way American authorities failed to learn from the experience of the French in such things as the conduct of Viet Cong ambushes. The rest of the book is a thinly veiled criticism as well. Observers of the American war could not fail to notice the similarity of U.S. operations to such French ideas as the mobile group, riverine forces, commando counterinsurgency cadres operating behind enemy lines, and strings of mutually supporting strongpoints. Above all, however, Fall decried the Western reliance on mechanization, firepower and tactical air support to win the war. Because armored forces were confined to roads, the footsoldiers of the Viet Minh and Viet Cong could range more freely on foot. Possessing such mechanized forces, however, both the French and the Americans continued to conduct conventional World War II-style operations that rarely succeeded in finding the guerrillas opposing them. Artillery and tactical air power were of little utility except in pitched battles, which the Communists were not often willing to fight. Fall knew that the French had tried all of those orthodox ideas and found them lacking. He seemed to be taunting the American unwillingness to learn from the French experience.
Fall had earlier published his doctoral dissertation as Viet-Minh Regime: Government and Administration in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1954), the earliest real study of Ho Chi Minh and his movement. In his later The Two Vietnams: A Political and Military Analysis (1963), The Vietnam Reader (1965), and Vietnam Witness (1966), Fall developed his ideas about the political situation in Indochina. In many ways, he seemed to believe that no Western power could ever win the war, chiefly because Ho Chi Minh had captured the nationalist ideal in a region with a millennium-long sense of nationality. Perhaps because he had himself fought as a guerrilla, he wrote with particular understanding of the Viet Minh. His biographical sketches of Ho Chi Minh and the other Communist leaders were eloquent and rather friendly portraits. Because Fall continued to hold French citizenship, he was able to visit North Vietnam when such travel was denied to Americans. As a consequence, his work was based on broader research and more immediate sources than those of most other Western authors interested in Vietnam. It also meant that Fall came to be regarded with considerably less affection by the U.S. government.
The last book published in his lifetime was Hell in a Very Small Place, a detailed analysis of the last French attempt to bring the Viet Minh to battle. It is a book with many qualities. On the one hand, it captures the human response to battle in graphic detail. His accounts of the fighting for the various strongpoints in the fortress of Dien Bien Phu are models of their king. Fall’s description of the fighting is the most compelling eulogy the French infantry and parachute troops of the colonial army are ever likely to receive. On the other hand, he explains the rationale behind the operation and the basic plan for the campaign with bell-like clarity, and then critiques the plan in unsympathetic detail. He depicts the limitations that made it clear even before the fighting started that the French could not win. Among those limitations were the lack of engineering equipment and materiel and the volume of airlift deliverable to the garrison. Few battle analyses are so gripping or so lucidly presented.
In Last Reflections on a War (1967), Dorothy Fall presented a selection of her husband’s essays about Vietnam, clarifying his evolving view of the fighting. The essays show that Bernard Fall often changed his mind about Vietnam and was as often wrong in his analyses as he was correct. Yet the entire body of his writing shows a deep commitment to the country and to understanding its trials that belie the casual way in which he took up the study. Critics, particularly by the second half of the 1960s, often felt that Fall was both too harsh on the United States and its policy in Vietnam, and too generous toward the French. With the perspective of time, however, even allowing for his natural biases and occasional errors, Fall seems to have been, in the words of one reviewer, thoughtful, informed, and for the most part eminently sensible. Certainly few men understood the war better than Fall, and fewer still had the perspective to see the French Indochinese war and the American war in Vietnam as parts of the same conflict and exhibiting the same basic problems and strikingly similar operational limitations.
Fall’s books remain popular with American soldiers today because they ring true. While they make the impersonal economic and political convolutions of Vietnamese history understandable, they always draw the reader back to the man on the ground who has to live with the consequences of those forces. Fall was a political scientist, but one who had been a soldier and who spoke the soldier’s language. He obtained his data on the war while slogging through the mud of Vietnam with French colonial troops, with American infantry, and with South Vietnamese soldiers. He combined the usual academic analysis of Indochina with an unmatched perspective of the war from the soldier’s point of view. Thus his books are unique and unlikely ever to be superceded. Fall lived with the war for more than a decade and, according to one critic, insisted on describing it, and living it, to his last minute. In his nine books and more than 200 articles, Bernard Fall cured the general ignorance about Vietnam upon which Professor Vandenbosch had commented in 1952, and set an imposing standard for scholarship and reportage of modern war, in all its permutations.
Much of Bernard Fall's original papers can be found at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston.
This article was written in part by Charles E. Kirkpatrick and originally published in the January 1989 issue of VietnamMagazine.