BOOK REVIEW: Number One Realist: Bernard Fall and Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare
By Nathaniel L Moir. Oxford University Press, London. Hard cover, 516 pp with notes, bibliography and index. US$41.
One morning in February 1967, I boarded a US Air Force C-130 for the flight from what was then Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airfield to Da Nang Air Base 600 km to the north. I was then a correspondent for Newsweek Magazine and at my side on the flight was Bernard B. Fall, the author and scholar, who was staying with Newsweek’s Francois Sully while he used the Newsweek bureau as a base.
Fall was on his way back to the contested area of Highway 1 above Danang, the area he had made famous as la rue sans joie, the street without joy that had claimed so many French lives, and later American ones. Although he suggested I accompany him up to the area, I had recently been there with US Marine General Lew Walt, and I wanted to go south where newly arrived Korean Marines were operating.
When I got back to the Marine Press Center in Danang three days later, I discovered Fall was dead, killed instantly that morning along with his US Marine escort Sgt. Byron Highland. One of them had stepped on a booby-trapped artillery shell. The shock was tremendous, partly from losing an acquaintance and selfishly because if I had taken his advice and gone north, I would probably have been walking with him on that dyke, as correspondents tended to stick together in combat zones.
In that explosion, the United States and the world lost by far the most authoritative and sensible voice on conditions in Vietnam, a man who more than any other had delivered a lucid and realistic account of the situation since the French had tenuously reestablished rule. Every correspondent and 2nd lieutenant who arrived in that country carried a copy of “The Street Without Joy” as well as his other famous work, “The Two Vietnams.”
It is impossible to comprehend in the present day how important a voice Fall was, when social media has splintered all authority. There was the irrational feeling that, had Fall lived, and Washington listened to him, the US would not have left 57,000 dead and a million Vietnamese as well. But Lyndon Johnson and the people David Halberstam called the Best and the Brightest weren’t going to listen to anybody.
Le Figaro called Fall “without a doubt, the greatest world expert on questions related to Indochina.” But beyond his expertise in Indochina, he had lived an extraordinary life before his death at 40. Born in 1926, he and his sister Lisette were sent by his Jewish parents to France to escape the Anschluss of Austria by the Nazis in 1938, only to have his mother Anna later sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered. His father joined the Maquis underground only to be murdered as well.
Fall, still a teenager, joined the Maquis himself and specialized in the liquidation of French turncoats. After the war, speaking accentless French, German, and English, he joined the Nuremburg Commission to investigate war crimes, amassing overwhelming proof of the complicity of the German industrialist Alfried Krupp in Nazi war crimes. To his disappointment, Krupp was freed by US forces seeking a counterweight, no matter how odious, to Soviet aggression in Europe.
Fall’s decision to seek a Fulbright scholarship and move to the United States to complete his education at Syracuse University was a fateful one. On a summer break, and anxious to finish his studies, Fall enrolled in a class taught by Dr. Amry Vandenbosch who, given Fall’s French background and citizenship, persuaded him to look into what then was almost a forgotten corner of the earth – Indochina, where the French were attempting to reestablish their hegemony after the Japanese occupation during WWII. The area would furnish Fall with his doctorate and preoccupy him for the rest of his tragically short life.
Nathaniel Moir, a former US Army Major and psywar specialist in Afghanistan – and now a research associate with the Applied History Project at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, in this 515-page biography, demonstrates how Fall’s tragic history in WWII shaped his ability to grasp the concept of the Viet Minh’s revolutionary warfare. The book was published in the UK in 2021 and this year in the US.
That is interspersed with what can only be called a granular history of Vietnam through two wars. It is a book that implies it was designed to go on the library shelves of the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It goes well beyond Fall’s story and warns of the danger of repeating history anywhere else rambunctious Americans might be interested in liberating in case they didn’t learn more recent lessons in Afghanistan.
Moir had access to Fall’s papers from his widow plus massive amounts of other information including the Pentagon Papers. His bibliography alone is 17 closely-spaced pages. He makes assiduous use of it all. More than a biography, this is a meticulous, painstaking, deeply detailed account of 30 years of Vietnam’s agony at the hands of both the French and the Americans.
“The rupture of power in the Indo-Pacific early in World War II created by the Japanese occupation of the European colonies of the region, initiated decolonialization and encouraged anticolonial movements that had been simmering – some approaching a boil – for decades before the war,” Moir writes.
To Fall, almost immediately on his arrival, it was clear the French had lost control of their territory. Despite their complacency and the massive watchtowers that protected the Red River Valley, Fall found there were no tax receipts from the surrounding villages, an indication the insurgents were already strong enough to prevent the colonial government from collecting taxes. Under French noses, the insurrection was growing. The end, carefully detailed in hundreds of pages by Moir, would be tragedy at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, when the final 8,000 Legionnaires surrendered to the Viet Minh.
Fall never ceased his commitment to the country he loved. From the start, his writings antagonized those whom he was trying to alert to the growing danger, including John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state under President Dwight Eisenhower, who in a telegram wrote that “Fall has been a consistent and vocal critic of US policy (in its efforts to aid the French) and has in recent months made public statements extremely critical of US aid programs.” Dulles would go on to kill funding for Fall to teach and provide advice in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Despite Dulles’s sarcastic dismissal of him, Fall, now a professor at Howard University in Washington, DC would continue providing lucid advice on the country as nearly half a million US troops flooded in 1966. He predicted the disaster that would eventually befall the Americans, who like the French never really understood the situation. As Fall would tell Francois Sully, who would himself die tragically in Vietnam, “a US Marine can fly a helicopter better than anyone else, but he simply cannot indoctrinate peasants with an ideology worth fighting for.”
Among Johnson’s key advisers Bundy and the National Security Staff, Moir quotes Andrew Preston, “they “had become policy experts over regions in which they had no genuine expertise. In confronting Vietnamese communism, they applied their Cold War lessons axiomatically, only to produce disastrous results.”
Arguments over whether security must precede political stability miss an important point, in conflicts where military officers and politicians debate which should be secured first, it is often already too late to stabilize the environment.´
This is a book that, for those of us who witnessed America’s efforts firsthand, is difficult and, to some measure, distressing to read. Fall at every turn knew and was writing the reality on the ground. He was quite ill at the end, disease having taken one of his kidneys. But he was determined to see for himself what was going on, including on Highway 1 on that fateful day when he was killed. Those who knew him felt his loss enormously. He was a joy to be around. That was compounded by his loss to the nation and the world.
What Fall understood and the French mostly did not – and the Americans after them – was the concept and conduct of revolutionary warfare. It is perhaps oversimplified to say that the French and the Americans were trying to win a war in a country that did not want them there. That is a lesson the Russians are learning today to their grief in Ukraine. It is a lesson the Chinese would do well to heed in their appetite for Taiwan.