Fall, Bernard B.
FALL, Bernard B.
(b. 19 November 1926 in Vienna, Austria; d. 21 February 1967 near Hue, Vietnam), scholar, author, and journalist whose work on Vietnam challenged many of the assumptions underlying American policy in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
Although Fall was born in Austria, he did not live there long. Fall's parents, Léon Fall, a businessman, and Anna Seligman, a housewife, fled with their son and daughter to France in 1938 following the Anschluss between Nazi Germany and Austria. After the fall of France, Fall's father was executed by the Germans for his resistance activities, and his mother was deported to Germany, where she disappeared. Following in his father's footsteps, Fall joined the French resistance, served in the French Army after liberation, was wounded twice, and was decorated for bravery.
From 1946 to 1948 Fall worked as a research assistant for the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, and from 1949 to 1950 he was employed by the United Nations in the International Tracing Service. Meanwhile he completed his university studies at the Sorbonne in Paris (1948–1949) and the University of Munich (1949–1950). In 1951 Fall was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to pursue graduate studies at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, where in 1952 he earned an M.A. in political science. Searching for a dissertation topic, he was encouraged to take advantage of his French background to explore the neglected scholarly field of Indochina studies. Fall drew on his personal savings to make his first trip to Vietnam in 1953. While gathering information for his dissertation Fall traveled with French troops into the jungles of Vietnam, where the French colonial regime was struggling to quash a revolt by the Communist Viet Minh.
Upon his return from Vietnam, Fall married Dorothy Winer, an American citizen and graphic artist who often resided in Hong Kong, on 20 February 1954. They had three children. The following year he received his Ph.D. in political science from Syracuse. His three-volume dissertation on post–World War II Vietnam provided the basis for his first book, The Viet-Minh Regime (1954). In 1956 he secured a position teaching international relations at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he taught until his death in 1967.
Fall was a scholar who relied on considerable field research. Accordingly, he continued his travels to Vietnam, making five more trips to Southeast Asia. Speaking fluent French and some Vietnamese (he also was fluent in German, Polish, and Hungarian), Fall used his French citizenship to gain access to areas of Vietnam that were often off-limits to Americans. Despite his long sojourn in the United States, Fall never applied to become a naturalized citizen, although his friends insisted he was exploring the naturalization process shortly before his death. Fall used his experiences with French troops during the First Indochina War to publish Street Without Joy (1961), named after the major Vietnamese coastal highway where the author observed fierce fighting between the French and Vietnamese.
In 1962 Fall was teaching at the Royal Institute of Administration in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when he was invited to visit North Vietnam. While in Hanoi he was allowed exclusive audiences and interviews with Premier Pham Van Dong and President Ho Chi Minh. His research culminated in the influential book The Two Viet-Nams (1963), which became required reading for many U.S. politicians and military leaders, even though they often failed to implement Fall's suggestions. Fall's most scholarly volume was Hell in a Very Small Place (1966), an examination of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Fall argued that air support from the Eisenhower administration might have saved the French garrison.
In addition to scholarly works, Fall wrote more than 250 articles for publications ranging from such mainstream titles as U.S. News and World Report and the Saturday Evening Post to the left-wing periodical Ramparts. Many of his articles discussing the origins of American intervention in Southeast Asia were compiled in Viet-Nam Witness, 1953–66 (1966). Fall was in demand as a speaker as well as a writer, delivering lectures at the Foreign Service Institute, the National War College, and the military academies.
His critique of American foreign policy and military strategy in Southeast Asia antagonized many government officials, leading J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to place Fall under surveillance as a "foreign agent." However, Fall's perceptions of Vietnam were complex and often misunderstood by thin-skinned policy makers because Fall did not fit easily into the Vietnam War dichotomy of "hawks" and "doves." While critical of French colonialism and American imperialism, Fall also denounced international Communism and Chinese expansionism. Perhaps his greatest complaint regarding American politicians was their ignorance regarding Indochina and their failure to consult expert advice. Of course, Fall perceived himself as one of these experts, remarking, "My ambition is to be the foremost military writer of my generation."
Fall did not oppose American aid to the regime in South Vietnam, but he insisted the failure to couple such assistance with land reform was undermining popular support for the South Vietnamese government. He also believed the U.S. military response in Vietnam was heavy-handed. For example, beginning in 1957 the Vietcong were gaining power in the countryside by murdering village chiefs and officials, many of whom were unpopular appointees of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Thus, with a fairly low level of violence the Vietcong gained the upper hand with the local population. The American military rejoinder to this Vietcong campaign of assassination was what Fall termed "weapons of mass destruction," such as napalm, rockets, artillery, and tanks, which killed indiscriminately and turned the population against the United States and its client state in South Vietnam. Fall concluded that if such massive retaliation were necessary to prevent a nation from falling to Communism, some people might accept Communist rule as the lesser of two evils.
Rather than a military solution Fall called for reform in South Vietnam along with diplomacy—carefully avoiding the word negotiations, which some American politicians associated with surrender. Fall argued that skillful diplomacy could exploit historical animosities between the North Vietnamese and the Chinese, driving a wedge between the Communist nations. As the war in Vietnam dragged on in the 1960s, Fall became increasingly critical of President Lyndon Johnson, asserting in a February 1967 piece for the New York Review of Books that the president was ignoring peace initiatives from Hanoi.
While disenchanted with political leaders, Fall had great respect for the common fighting men of France, Vietnam, and America, sharing their hardships on the field of battle. In his shorts, shirt open to the chest, and wearing tinted glasses, Fall often cut a dashing figure, but he remained a favorite of the common soldier, somewhat of a scholarly Ernie Pyle. He also expressed great admiration for the Vietnamese people, writing in the introduction to The Two Viet-Nams that his work was an "attempt to bring some understanding to the plight of a valiant people that happens to find itself, no doubt much against its will, at one of the focal points of world-wide struggle."
With no end in sight to the conflict in Vietnam, Fall planned on a return to Indochina in the autumn of 1966. In an interview with Dick Hubert of American Broadcasting Company's (ABC) television news, Fall expressed misgivings about his upcoming journey to Vietnam, remarking, "It's just simply and purely for the first time I'm really apprehensive about what I'm going to find. You know, Viet-Nam to all accounts is really taking a horrible beating for a small country or for a country that size." He continued, "We've never really fought that intensive a war over that small a piece of real estate.… I'm just wondering what's going to be left of 'my old Viet-Nam.'"
His departure was delayed by the birth of his third daughter in September as well as concerns about his health; surgeries had removed one kidney and part of his colon, and Fall suffered from a rare and incurable fibrosis condition that affected his kidneys and bladder. In December 1966 Fall, with the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship, finally left for Vietnam. This proved his last journey to Southeast Asia, for on 21 February 1967, while on patrol with U.S. Marines about 14 miles northwest of Hue, along the stretch of seacoast Fall had popularized as the Street Without Joy, Fall was killed by a Vietcong mine. His final dispatches, along with a preface by Dorothy Fall, were published in Last Reflections on a War (1967). Fall is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Fall's warning about America's approach to Southeast Asia went unheeded, and the Vietnam War continued to rage into the early 1970s. Closer attention to Fall's work might have spared both American and Vietnamese lives.
Fall's papers are available at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts. For Fall's writings see The Viet-Minh Regime (1956); Street Without Joy: Indochina at War, 1946–54 (1961); The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis (1963); Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (1966); Viet-Nam Witness, 1953–66 (1966); and Last Reflections on a War (1967). Obituaries are in the New York Times (22 Feb. 1967), Newsweek and Publishers Weekly (both 6 Mar. 1967), and Commentary (Mar. 1967).