Born November 11, 1926
Died February 21, 1967
Near Hue, Vietnam
French journalist and historian
"We went in a third time and raked over the village with our cannon . . . . The village was burning fiercely. I will never forget the sight of the fishing nets in flame, covered with burning, jellied gasoline. . . ."
French journalist Bernard Fall covered the Vietnam War through the 1950s and 1960s, as first France and then the United States became engaged in military efforts to control the political future of Vietnam. During this time, he published several important studies of the situation in Vietnam, including Street Without Joy, Two Viet-Nams, Hell in a Very Small Place, and Last Reflections on a War. These works made Fall a recognized authority on both the French and American phases of the Vietnam War.
Young member of the French Underground
Bernard Fall was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 11, 1926, while his French parents were traveling in the city. After he was born, the family promptly returned to France to raise him. Fall's early childhood was comfortable and happy, but his teen years were darkened by the growing threat of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. In 1939 Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland triggered World War II (1939–45). This conflict, which lasted until 1945, eventually involved every major military power in the world. It pitted Germany, Italy, and Japan against the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and other European nations.
During the summer of 1940, Germany successfully invaded France. The German army seized outright control over northern France and installed a pro-German government in the country's southern territory. When this occurred, however, a secret French rebel organization—known as the French Underground—took up the fight against the German invaders. The Underground was unable to push the Germans out of its homeland, but it repeatedly attacked German posts and installations around the country over the next several years.
Fall joined the French Underground in 1942 at the age of sixteen and took part in a number of operations against the Germans. In the meantime, however, Germany used brutal force to stamp out all resistance to its occupation. "Things got very bad," recalled Fall in 1966 on Celebrity's Choice, a television interview program. "My mother was deported as a hostage and she never came back and my father was tortured to death in 1943 by the Gestapo [the secret Nazi police]—we found his body in a ditch with twelve other people, two years later . . . . I hadn't known my father was in the Underground." Fall remained a member of the French Underground for more than two years before joining the Fourth Moroccan Mountain Division in 1944. He fought against Germany as a member of that army until the war came to an end a year later.
Educated in the United States
After World War II, Fall worked from 1946 to 1948 as an investigator for the Nuremberg Trials. During these proceedings, held in Nuremberg, Germany, a number of Nazi officials were convicted of committing war crimes during World War II. Fall then took classes at the University of Paris and the University of Munich before earning a Fulbright scholarship to continue his education in the United States.
Fall arrived in America in late 1951. After briefly attending classes at the University of Maryland, he enrolled at Syracuse University in New York state. Over the next few years, he earned both a master's degree (1952) and a doctorate degree (1955) at Syracuse. In 1954 he married Dorothy Winer, with whom he eventually had three children.
During this same period, meanwhile, France tried to regain its prewar control over French Indochina. This region, which included Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, had been under French control since the late nineteenth century. During World War II, however, France's grip over the territory had been lost. Its effort to regain colonial rule over Indochina ultimately ended in failure in 1954, when the Viet Minh—a Communist-led nationalist group that fought for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule—handed France a decisive defeat in an area of northern Vietnam known as Dien Bien Phu.
Fall goes to Vietnam
Fall made his first visit to Indochina in 1953 to research a doctoral paper on the Viet Minh. He ended up spending eight months in Vietnam, accompanying French troops on a number of military operations. During this period, Fall developed what he later called a "bad love affair" with the troubled but beautiful region. He also established himself as an insightful and talented reporter during this visit. In fact, the letters and notes that he wrote in 1953 eventually became the basis for his first book on Vietnam, Street Without Joy (1961). In his introduction to a 1994 edition of this work, historian George C. Herring called Street Without Joy "one of a handful of truly classic accounts of the wars in Indochina . . . . It remainstoday perhaps the best English account of France's frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful effort to subdue the Vietminh insurgency [rebellion]."
In the mid-1950s, Fall taught Asian studies and international relations at a number of prestigious U.S. universities, including Cornell University, American University, and Howard University. In 1957, however, he returned to Southeast Asia to study the developing struggle between the newly created nations of South and North Vietnam.
North and South Vietnam had been created in 1954 by the Geneva Peace Accords. Under this treaty, which brought the French-Vietnamese conflict to a close, Vietnam was temporarily divided into Communist-led North Vietnam and U.S.supported South Vietnam. The Geneva agreement provided for nationwide free elections to be held in 1956 so that the two parts of Vietnam could be united under one government. But U.S. and South Vietnamese officials refused to hold the elections because they feared that the results would give the Communists control over the entire country. North Vietnam and its allies in the South—known as the Viet Cong—responded to this refusal by launching a guerrilla war against South Viet nam. This aggression ultimately convinced the United States to use its own military power to save South Vietnam and defeat the Communists.
Recognized as an expert on Vietnam
Fall made numerous visits to Vietnam from 1957 to 1967. During that time, he became known not only as a premier war correspondent, but also as a leading authority on the Vietnam War. He contributed hundreds of articles on politics, military affairs, and Vietnamese culture and attitudes to ForeignAffairs, Military Review, the New York Times, and other publications. In addition, he wrote several critically acclaimed books on the struggle for Vietnam. These works include Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military History (1963) and Viet-Nam Witness, 1953–1966 (1966). His best-known work, however, was Hell in a Very Small Place (1967), a gripping account of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
Fall's reporting was praised for being both scholarly and fiercely independent. In fact, both supporters and opponents of the war respected him for his refusal to reduce the war to a simple drama of heroes versus villains. Instead, he offered balanced analysis of both the positive and negative aspects of French, American, and Vietnamese activities in Vietnam. For example, he criticized the United States for abandoning France when it tried to reestablish control over Vietnam. But he condemned many aspects of French colonialism, and he denounced his homeland's military strategy during the First Indochina War. Fall also disliked the Communist political philosophy. But he repeatedly expressed admiration for the intelligence and grit of North Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh (see entry) and other Communist leaders. Finally, historian George C. Herring noted that Fall's writing reflects "a deep and abiding empathy [understanding of another person's feelings and motives] for the victims of the wars in Vietnam, especially for the common soldiers who fought on all sides."
Fall reserved his most critical remarks for U.S. military strategy in Vietnam. He condemned America for trying to fight "ideology [political and social beliefs] with technology [military firepower]," and repeatedly charged that the United States was underestimating its Viet Cong and North Vietnamese foes. He also claimed that America's reliance on brute force to beat the Communists turned many Vietnamese people against the U.S.-supported government in Saigon. In the following passage from Street Without Joy, for example, Fall bitterly criticizes American efforts to use bombing raids against Viet Cong forces in South Vietnam: "In South Vietnam, where the enemy hardly offers conventional aerial targets . . . the use of massive bomb attacks and napalm drops on villages is not only militarily stupid, but it is inhuman and is likely to backfire very badly on the psychological level. To a village which has been occupied by a VC [Viet Cong] platoon against its will and whose only suffering at the hands of the Communists was the murder of a rather unpopular village chief, 'liberation' through massive napalming and attendant losses of innocent inhabitants (not to speak of all property, stored rice, and even farm animals) will be a hollow joke, indeed."
Dies in Vietnam
In late 1963 Fall was diagnosed with retroperitoneal fibrosis, a rare incurable disease that can destroy internal organs. He underwent a couple of major operations, including surgery to remove a damaged kidney. Fall's physical problems convinced him that he did not have long to live, but he continued to pursue his journalism career.
In December 1966 Fall made his sixth trip to Vietnam. He soon joined a U.S. Marine mission outside of Hue in northern South Vietnam. On February 21, 1967, he and a Marine sergeant accidentally tripped a land mine while out on patrol in an area known as the "Street Without Joy" (this was where the title of his first book came from). The land mine exploded, killing Fall instantly. A few months after his death, his wife put together a collection of Vietnam essays and articles that Fall wrote during the mid-1960s. This collection was published in 1967 as Last Reflections on a War: Bernard B. Fall's Last Comments on Viet-Nam.
Fall, Bernard B. Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu. Lippincott, 1967.
Fall, Bernard B. Last Reflections on a War. Doubleday, 1968.
Fall, Bernard B. Street Without Joy: Indochina at War, 1946–54. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1961.
Fall, Bernard B. Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military History. New York: Praeger, 1963.
Fall, Bernard B. Viet-Nam Witness, 1953–1966. New York: Praeger, 1967.
"Death of a Scholar." Newsweek, March 6, 1967.
Fall Reports on an American Bombing Raid of a Fishing Village
In the following account (first published in Ramparts magazine in 1965 and later included in Fall's collection Last Reflections on a War), Bernard Fall provides readers with a powerful example of American firepower in Vietnam:
The Viet-Nam conflict has become an impersonal, an American war. I was with an American airborne unit operating strictly on its own. There was not one Vietnamese with that unit. It was going strictly by its own mark and literally by its own light. [Fall then describes a U.S. bomber known as a "Skyraider."] It is an amazing airplane—especially in the amount of destruction it can bring to bear. You have to know an airplane like this before you can really understand the tremendous impact of American firepower on the Vietnamese on the ground. This airplane can carry a bombload of 7500 pounds under its wings. It can unload a variety of bombs—750-pounders, 500-pounders, 250-pounders, 100-pounder general-purpose bombs. It also can drop 260-pound fragmentation bombs, 120-pound fragmentation bombs, or 100-pound white phosphorous bombs and napalm [a jelly-like gasoline that burns everything it touches]. The "Skyraider" has four 20-millimeter cannon as well.
This was the airplane I was to ride in on a raid on a Vietnamese fishing village ....
We were airborne for one and one half hours before we reached our primary target. But as we came over the target the monsoon came down with quite incredible force and completely obscured the ground. Then a decision was made, in accordance with established procedures, to switch over to the alternate target which was described as a "Communist rest center" in the Camau Peninsula. A rest center may of course by anything, any group of huts, or it may be just a normal village in which Viet Cong troops have put down stakes for, perhaps, 48 hours.
As we flew over the target it looked to me very much as any normal village would look: on the edge of a river, sampans [boats] and fish nets in the water. It was a peaceful scene. Major Carson put our plane into a steep dive. I could see the napalm bombs dropping from the wings. The big bombs, first. As we peeled back from our dive, there was an incredibly bright flash of fire as napalm exploded at the tree level. The first pass had a one-two effect. The napalm was expected to force the people—fearing the heat and the burning—out into the open. Then the second plane was to move in with heavy fragmentation bombs to hit whatever—or whomever—had rushed out into the open. So our wingman [a second U.S. bomber] followed us in and dropped his heavy explosives. Mushroom-like clouds drifted into the air. We made a second pass and dropped our remaining 500-pound napalm bombs. Our wingman followed. Then we went in a third time and raked over the village with our cannon. We came down low, flying very fast, and I could see some of the villagers trying to head away from the burning shore in their sampans. The village was burning fiercely. I will never forget the sight of the fishing nets in flame, covered with burning, jellied gasoline. Behind me I could hear—even through my padded flying helmet—the roar of our plane's 20-millimeter cannon as we flew away.
Bernard Fall's Last Report
In February 1967 journalist Bernard Fall accompanied a group of U.S. Marines on a mission through the countryside north of Hue. This area was known as the "Street Without Joy," a title that Fall had used for one of his most famous books on the Vietnam conflict. As the patrol made its way through the area, Fall accidentally stepped on a Viet Cong land mine. The explosion killed Fall instantly. Following are the journalist's last words, preserved on a tape recorder that he was carrying:
February 19, 1967. This is Bernard Fall in the Street Without Joy, the old area where the French fought in 1953.
I am lying right now in a small stone hut near a big church in a small village with part of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Infantry Regiment, and we just walked across something like twelve kilometers of sand dunes and tomorrow morning we're going to push Southeastward where supposedly there is part of a Viet Cong battalion . . . .
[The next morning, Fall and the Marines resume walking and encounter enemy fire. When the Marines counterattack, the Viet Cong disappear into the jungle.] Well, that was that for a while. It didn't look very good but we made it. They ran and since the sky was too dark for air support, we just kept on going and then we came to a church and it was a big church and was constructed in 1963 and—oh, very beautiful . . . .
I walked behind a fellow, thought I walked pretty well in his traces [tracks]. Apparently I stepped slightly aside and all of a sudden the ground gave way under me and this was one of these punji stake traps that the VC sets with very sharp points and if you fall in this you pierce your foot and go to the hospital. I was very lucky because when I felt the ground yield under my feet I threw myself forward so that my whole body weight shifted to my knees and hands and so the trap gave way and nothing happened to me but it ... ah, shakes you up a bit and now we are sitting in a deserted farm destroyed by gunfire . . . .
Well, we're moving out again on the Street Without Joy—it's the third day now and what you heard before were the noises of the crickets and the frogs next to us where we were sleeping out in the open. It started to drizzle afterward and now we've got thick-packed fog at nine o'clock in the morning—supply chopper [helicopter] couldn't come in but we had enough food for this morning and on we go now . . . .
Afternoon of the third day. Still on the street . . . . The weather is finally cleared and we have an observation plane over our heads, turning around shepherding us. But Charlie Company [an American combat infantry unit] has fallen very badly behind now there's a big hole in our left flank and there's some people running away from us obviously getting out of the way . . . We've got to start firing if they move . . . [Sounds of gunfire, planes flying overhead, and shouted instructions.]
There's no return fire whatever but the Chieu Hois who are with us—they are former Viet Cong returned to the government side and . . . fighting now with the government forces—well, they assured us that Charlie Company is moving right through the area and by tonight we will know whether what we killed were genuine VC [Viet Cong] with weapons or simply people. I personally looked through binoculars of the platoon leader from the machine gun platoon and I saw people fleeing to the boats and waving the Vietnamese government flag with three red stripes on a yellow background. Find out more about this later . . . This is Bernard Fall on the Street Without Joy.
[Silence on the tape.] First in the afternoon about 4:30—shadows are lengthening and we've reached one of our phase lines after the fire fight and it smells bad—meaning it's a little bit suspicious . . . Could be an amb . . . . [End of Fall's tape].