Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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VULTURE, Operation (March–April 1954)

Proposed U.S. military intervention in the Indochina War. On 13 March 1954, Viet Minh commander General Vo Nguyen Giap launched an attack on the French fortress of Dien Bien Phu established in far northwestern Vietnam on the orders of commander in Indochina General Henri Navarre. Ultimately, Giap committed to the battle some four divisions of 49,500 troops against a total French strength with reinforcements of only 13,000. Both sides recognized the importance of the battle, which took place against the backdrop of an international conference in Geneva, called to discuss Asian affairs.

In February 1954, French Army chief of staff General Paul Henri Romuald ély and Defense Minister René Pleven undertook a fact-finding mission to Indochina. Convinced that France could not win the war there without massive military assistance, ély traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. government officials. Arriving there on 20 March 1954, he candidly informed his American counterpart, Admiral Arthur W. Radford, of the probable fall of Dien Bien Phu and the serious consequences this would have for the Indochina War and perhaps for all of Southeast Asia.

Radford recommended that the United States consider direct military intervention, most likely in the form of airpower, should the French government so request. This was the origin of Operation vulture. Despite opposition from army chief of staff General Matthew B. Ridgway, Radford encouraged ély to believe that the United States would intervene should Paris request it. After ély's return to Paris, President Dwight D. Eisenhower did decide to send the French twenty-five additional B-25 medium bombers.

Although the military options varied, the plan revolved around an air strike by between sixty and one hundred air force B-29 bombers from the Philippines, supported by several hundred navy jet fighters flying off U.S. aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. The option of attacking Viet Minh forces in the mountains surrounding Dien Bien Phu was abandoned because of the inadequacy of French radar. Another option called for air strikes against Viet Minh base areas and lines of communication to the Chinese border. Finally, there was discussion of possible air bursts with nuclear weapons. A Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) study committee concluded that three tactical nuclear bombs would be sufficient to smash the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu.

On 29 March, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles delivered a speech to the Overseas Press Club in New York City in which he called for "united action" to meet the communist threat in Southeast Asia. Several days later during a press conference, President Eisenhower seconded Dulles's call, although without promising direct U.S. assistance. Vice President Richard Nixon was among those urging intervention, suggesting that the United States might have to "put American boys in."

On 3 April, Dulles and Radford met with congressional leaders to solicit their support should Eisenhower decide that military intervention was necessary. The legislators set three conditions to secure congressional approval: the intervention would have to be a multinational effort, including Britain and Commonwealth nations; France would have to promise to accelerate independence for Indochina; and France would promise not to withdraw from the war should the United States become directly involved.

On 4 April, Navarre cabled ély reporting a deterioration in conditions at Dien Bien Phu and calling for a U.S. air strike. That same night, the French government formally requested immediate U.S. intervention. On 7 April during a press conference, Eisenhower referred to the possible loss of Indochina to communism as the "falling domino principle," the first occasion in public that the administration had used the term. He again refused to commit the United States to unilateral military action, however.

Dulles then flew to London and Paris to meet with his counterparts. British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, while publicly supporting the principle of collective defense, refused any specific commitment. Dulles then flew on to Paris, where the French government sought to bargain regarding the European Defense Community (EDC), which the U.S. government earnestly sought. On 22 April, Dulles informed the French that without French approval of the EDC, there was no chance of U.S. intervention. Foreign Minister Georges Bidault responded that if Dien Bien Phu surrendered, France would have no interest in the EDC. Bidault said that the only alternatives were Operation vulture or an Indochina cease-fire. French Premier Joseph Laniel then appealed to the British government for its participation, the precondition for U.S. military intervention. Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the British cabinet into emergency session, but it decided against involvement. The British believed that the battle was too far gone and that France should seek to resolve the situation diplomatically at the Geneva Conference. Eden noted prophetically: "I am beginning to think Americans are quite ready to supplant French and see themselves in the role of liberators of Vietnamese patriotism and expulsers or redeemers of Communist insurgency in Indo-China. If so they are in for a painful awakening."

On 7 May 1954, Dien Bien Phu surrendered. The next day, the French government entered into negotiations at Geneva to extricate France from Vietnam.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
ély, Paul. Mémoires: L'Indochine dans la Tourmente. Paris: Plon, 1964.; Billings-Yun, Melanie. Decision against War: Eisenhower and Dien Bien Phu, 1954. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.; Eden, Anthony. Full Circle: The Memoirs of Sir Anthony Eden. London: Cassell, 1960.; Eisenhower, Dwight D. Mandate for Change, 1953–1956: The White House Years. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.; Prados, John. The Sky Would Fall: Operation Vulture, the Secret U.S. Bombing Mission to Vietnam, 1954. New York: Dial, 1983.; Radford, Arthur W. From Pearl Harbor to Vietnam: The Memoirs of Admiral Arthur W. Radford. Edited by Stephen Jurika Jr. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institute Press, 1980.
 

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