Richard Nisley


General Ridgway’s Finest Hour
History - World Released - Jan 09, 2013

A European-style set-piece battle. That’s all the French wanted.

Come out from hiding and fight us. Give us a fair fight and we’ll destroy your sorry excuse for an army.

At Dienbienphu in 1954, the French had the Vietnamese army--the Vietminh as they were known then--right where they wanted them. The French had set a trap and a set-piece battle appeared imminent. When the Vietminh forces massed, the French would crush the enemy who had so long eluded them, and gain the victory they so desperately needed to keep their colonial possession.

Alas, it was wishful thinking.

With the arrogance that Western generals could still have after eight years of fighting a determined infantry like the Vietminh, the French built their positions in the valley of Dienbienphu near Laos, reachable only by air, and left the high ground to the Vietminh, a move which violated the first cardinal rule of warfare: always take the high ground. An American officer who visited the site just before the battle noticed this and asked what would happen if the Vietminh had artillery.

Ah, he was assured by a French officer, they had no artillery. Even if they did, they had no way of getting such big guns to the top of the mountains. The mountains were too steep, the terrain too rugged, and there were no roads, and they had no trucks to haul artillery anyway. On top of that, they didn’t know how to use heavy artillery; the barefoot Vietminh army had never been trained.

It was yet another case of Western generals totally underestimating the determination and resourcefulness of the Vietnamese. They did have artillery and anti-aircraft guns and they did know how to use them. To get them up the mountains, the Vietminh disassembled the big guns and dragged them by hand and piece-by-piece up the mountainside, reassembled the guns at the top, and pointed them down on the French garrison. Reinforcements trying to fly in were shot down. In the end, it was the Vietnamese, and not the French, who had the enemy exactly where they wanted them.

Day by day as the Vietminh pounded the French defenders, pressure grew in Washington for the United States to intervene. Something had to be done. The French were fighting bravely, but time was running out. Mobilize the Army. Send in the fleet. One could feel the momentum building for intervention. Save our ally. It was the right thing to do.

Admiral Arthur W. Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--a Navy man--had a plan. There was no need to send the Army. Radford would mobilize his aircraft carriers, park them in the Gulf of Tonkin, and fill the sky over Dienbienphu with fighters and bombers. Concentrated bombing raids would knock out the big guns and send the little brown men scurrying like ants from an anthill. The French could walk out unharmed. Backed with the threat of nuclear missiles, it would be an early version of “Shock and Awe.” A display of overwhelming firepower that would be felt as far away as Hanoi, and perhaps in Beijing and Moscow as well.

Radford presented his idea to the White House first. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was cool but open to the idea. His Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, however, was enthusiastic. Radford was presenting a way to fight war on the cheap, with little or no American casualties. Dienbienphu was a golden opportunity to test it. Funding was needed, and that was the business of Congress. Get Congressional approval and come back and see me, Eisenhower said.

Radford met with the Congressional Armed Service Committee. Lyndon Johnson, then Senate Minority Leader, was on the committee. Johnson and others grilled Radford and Dulles for two hours and uncovered a number of problems. For one, the Joint Chiefs, with the exception of Radford, were against intervention; two, the military had no back-up plan should the air strikes fail; three, there was no strategy in place should China intervene and the war escalate; and, four, America would be going in alone. England, for one, wanted no part of the deal. In the end, it seemed no one in the Pentagon would take responsibility should Radford’s scheme fail. Without Congressional approval, Eisenhower backed away.

As weeks passed and the French held out, the pressure to intervene did not go away.

Enter the Army Chief of Staff, General Matthew B. Ridgway. He was uneasy from the start. He knew wars were settled on the ground, and on the ground the losses were always borne by his people, U.S. Army foot soldiers and Marines. Radford, on the other hand, was a Navy guy and an advocate of air strikes. He didn’t share Ridgway’s concern for his men. So Ridgway sent an Army survey team to Indochina to determine the requirements for fighting a ground war there.

The answers were chilling: minimal, five divisions and up to ten divisions if we wanted to clear out the enemy (as opposed to six divisions in Korea), plus fifty-five engineering battalions, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 men, plus enormous construction costs.

The United States would have to demand greater mobilization than in Korea, draft calls of 100,000 a month. Nor would the war be as easy as Korea, where the South Koreans had been an asset to American troops. Vietnam was as much a political war as a fighting war. The French were colonialists, and therefore the enemy, and the U.S. would be allied with the enemy. Therefore, it was more than likely the population would help the Vietminh, or at best remain neutral. So, instead of being like the Korean War it would really be more like a larger and more costly version of the Philippine insurrection, a prolonged guerilla war, native against Caucasian, which lasted from 1899 to 1913 and which had been politically very messy.

Finally, the Army report did not permit Admiral Radford the luxury of thinking that he could get by only with air power. Radford’s plans for an air strike were contingent on seizure of China’s Hainan Island, which seemed to guard the Tonkin Gulf, because the Navy did not want to enter the gulf with its carriers and then have Chinese airbases right behind them. But if we captured Hainan, the Chinese would come across with everything they had; then it was not likely to remain a small war very long.

Ridgway gave Eisenhower what he wanted all along--a reason to say no. In fact, it was classic Eisenhower. Don’t take a position until absolutely necessary. Send up a trial balloon. Let the government function as the framers intended--let democracy do its work--and see what turns up. With Truman, it was “Give ‘em hell.” With Ike, it was “Give ‘em enough rope. . . .” The political process exposed Radford’s plan for what it was--ill-conceived, based on false assumptions, and woefully ignorant of the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.

On May 7, 1954, Dienbienphu fell and the French were finished in Vietnam.

Years later, General Ridgway would write that of all the things he had done in his long and illustrious military career--the battles fought, units commanded, medals won, honors accorded--there was nothing he was prouder of than helping to keep the United States from intervening in Vietnam.

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