Poetic Nods to an Atomic Indochina

Bernard Fall… nuclear strategist? One of the pieces of archival treasure I discovered among Fall’s personal papers is a document that reveals his awareness of and engagement with nuclear issues.

In a general sense, that’s a claim that could be made of just about anyone at the time. At the height of the Cold War, social and political anxieties over the prospect of nuclear war were real and pervasive. This was c. 1960-1961, right around the same time Fall was seeing Street Without Joy: Indochina at War, 1946-1954 – that quintessential artefact of Vietnam-era counterinsurgency – fully realized and published. Apparently he wasn’t busy enough, because meanwhile he was, according to what I found in his papers, also contributing expert input and analysis to a U.S Air Force Command and Staff College exercise.

It was a 24-hour affair a year in the planning, and focused on a hypothetical deployment of forces to Laos, then of much more immediate concern to U.S. policymakers than was Vietnam. In typical Fall style, he submitted a memoranda to exercise planners in which he tore apart the scenario they had developed for being completely “unrealistic” (underlined in the original memo). It was, he wrote, “so divorced from the military, political, terrain and even meteorological realities of war in Laos as to make any attempted solution along its lines unlikely to ever be applicable to Laos or to a similar situation.” He went on to detail exactly why this was the case, one paragraph per faulty scenario reality.

This is pretty standard Fall: when someone got their details wrong, he would basically eat them alive. But this wasn’t even the fun part. In addition to pointing out the flaws in the exercise design, he also offered a few observations about parts of it that could work, and it’s here that his engagement with nuclear practicalities comes through. Exercise participants were meant to include in their planning any and all possible options. The use of nuclear weapons was tabled, and one move that participants suggested was to disrupt cross-border logistics by nuking the mountain passes between Laos and North Vietnam.

Fall thought that while it might work on the ground units and bases in the area, Soviet airlift would limit its effectiveness. Use of battlefield nuclear weapons, on the other hand, could work in another way. “One new favorable factor is the creation by the Communists of a large supply center based on the three airfields of the Xien-Kouang Plateau (XK, Plaine des Jarres, and Phong-Savan). This does offer a valuable target inside Laos which no doubt can be taken out by small nuclear weapons.” It’s a striking comment, not least because it’s so far removed from the kind of subject matter for which Fall is remember these days.

Fall had made the occasional poetic allusion to nuclear anxieties in his military histories, but they were rare and fleeting and not the point of his published writing. The brutally unsympathetic nods to atomic Indochina contained in this exercise paperwork puts a different spin on things. And yes, this is a bit of shameless self-promotion: if you want the details and the source references, you’ll have to buy the book (or at least wait until it comes out, and then use Amazon to look inside and pilfer whatever details you need).