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Bernard Fall: Memories of a Soldier-Scholar

By Dorothy Fall, Potomac Books, Washington, D.C., 2006, hardcover $27.50

Thousands of books have been written about the Vietnam War. An unfortunately large percentage of them are sheer junk. Of those that remain, only a small number, perhaps a little more than a dozen, are really important books that will still belong on library shelves more than 100 years from now. Bernard Fall wrote two of those books. Street Without Joy and Hell in a Very Small Place, which respectively chronicle the French military experience in Indochina and examine the disaster at Dien Bien Phu, rank among the all-time classics of military history writing. It is impossible even to begin to understand the 30-year war in Vietnam without reading those two books. He also wrote five other significant books and some 250 magazine and journal articles about Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

Fall died in Vietnam in February 1967, while accompanying a patrol with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. Gunnery Sergeant Byron Highland died with him; both were victims of a VC “Bouncing Betty” mine.

Almost 40 years after Fall’s untimely death, his widow, Dorothy Fall, has written the first detailed account of his life. In Bernard Fall: Memories of a Soldier-Scholar, Mrs. Fall gives us an intimate portrait of the man and the scholar, filled with details that only she could provide. Bernard Fall was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, in 1926; the family moved to France in 1938 to escape the Third Reich. Fall’s father was later killed by the Gestapo, and his mother died in Auschwitz.

The young Bernard joined the French Resistance at the age of 15. From there he worked his way into the French Forces of the Interior, and then into the regular French army. By the time the war was over he had participated in numerous guerrilla actions and several conventional battles.

Following his demobilization he worked as a researcher and analyst for the Office of the Chief Counsel at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunals. He later worked for the Stars and Stripes GI newspaper in Munich, while attending the German university there. In 1951 he won a Fulbright fellowship to study in the United States, eventually earning his Ph.D. at Syracuse University. His dissertation was a penetrating critique of French and American policy in Indochina.

As the title of his wife’s book implies, Bernard Fall was no armchair academic. Legendary reporter David Halberstam, who wrote the book’s foreword, calls him an “action historian.” Fall believed it was impossible to write about and understand a country or a war without collecting the information firsthand. Like most good military leaders, he fully understood how critical it was to “have eyes on the battlefield.” Over the years, Fall made six trips to Vietnam. He came down with a rare kidney disorder in 1964, but he still made two more research trips to Vietnam with only one kidney. The last trip cost him his life.

Although by the early 1960s he was almost universally regarded as the West’s leading expert on Vietnam, Fall was all but shunned by the American policy establishment. He was a staunch anti-Communist, but also a hard-nosed realist. He was the first to point out that the United States could never lose militarily in Vietnam, but that it didn’t matter because Vietnam was first and foremost a political war, and one that the American leadership simply didn’t understand. He clearly saw his adopted country blundering its way into a catastrophe. Suspecting him of being a “French spy,” the U.S. government placed Fall and his family under FBI surveillance. Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed the order approving the wiretap on Fall’s phone.

Ironically, at the same time Fall was being shunned by the civilian leadership, he was being embraced by the U.S. military. The Washington Post refused to accept any of his articles, while Military Review printed everything he sent it. Early in the war, Street Without Joy was the must-read book among many American military officers. To the increasing chagrin of many in the civilian leadership, Fall was continually invited to lecture at service schools throughout the country, especially the Kennedy Center for Special Warfare at Fort Bragg, N.C.

When the FBI tried to pressure the Army to cut its ties with Fall, Maj. Gen. William P. Yarborough, the commander of the Special Warfare Center, wrote directly to the assistant director of the FBI, making clear his intentions for “the continued use of Dr. Fall here to augment our instruction with one of the best authorities and expertise available in the USA today on the North Vietnamese.” In response, Yarborough received a letter directly from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, stating that he had referred Yarborough’s letter to the Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence. Despite Hoover’s ham-fisted attempt to intimidate the head of Special Forces, Yarborough continued to bring Fall back to Fort Bragg.

Bernard Fall’s criticisms of first French and then American policy in Vietnam were not driven by political or ideological agendas. Hard facts and objective analysis were all that mattered to him. On the other hand, he had a deep respect and empathy for the soldiers fighting the war—the soldiers on both sides. He had experienced far too much combat as a soldier himself to feel any other way. He loved soldiers, and they felt the same way about him. Even as a historian and journalist he accompanied them into the field, sharing their dangers and privations, and often carrying a weapon along with his ever-present Leica camera. Knowing that his kidney disorder would most likely kill him before long, he probably could not have thought of a better way to go out than with soldiers in the field.

In the future, someone may write a more comprehensive and analytical book about Fall and his work, but no one other than Dorothy Fall will ever be better able to explain what made Bernard Fall, the man, the soldier and the scholar, tick.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here