Thursday, October 19, 2023

A Technological and Political Appendix to Postblogging Technology, June 1953 With No Public Engagement Whatsoever: Willow Run and Dien Bien Phu

 Well, I might well be on strike next week, and I certainly have split single days off this week. And that can only mean one thing. A Technological Appendix with absolutely no reference to modern day events. Instead, I'll talk about a long deadlock in the French National Assembly requiring multiple votes for multiple candidates to select a new premier, and a devastating military setback for colonialism. People, it's the Fifties! It was a different time. 

GM's lease at Willow Run, signed in August of 1953, and the fall of the French fortress of Dien Bien Phu in the Sip Song Chau Tai, on 7 May 1954 stand as two signal failures of  high modernism. 

They are also drawn together as threads in the June 1953 news, while I am writing less than a month ahead of the 70th anniversary of the creation of the fort at Dien Bien Phu, threaded through by a technological story, if not a very exciting one, that of the Fairchild C-119, and the month-long series of votes in the French National Assembly that was required to finally find a premier who could command the confidence of the house. 

The first candidate for the premiership was, pictured, Pierre Mendes-France, who gave The Economist the vapours, as reported in the issue for 6 June, with his neutralism (he was cool to the European Army), his socialism, and his openness to an outcome in Southeast Asia that didn't involve the final crushing of Communism.   The final, and successful one, was Joseph Laniel. I've joked several times in alt text that the Assembly was choosing the man to throw under the bus of Dien Bien Phu, a hair-brained strategic scheme that is already cooking, inspired by dubious success of a small airlift of troops into Vientiane, in which C-119s played a non-trivial role. Mendes-France will negotiate France's disengagement from Indo China in the course of 1954, when the Assembly grudgingly accepted that he had been right all along, and liberated Tunisia in the bargain before the diehards expelled him in order to make the Algerian situation as difficult as possible. 

There's not necessarily anything funny-ha-ha about this. The Fourth Republic did fall, and not long after the deadlock of 1953. It's the only modern democratic state to do so in the post-WWII international order, and evidence that it can happen. On the other hand, in retrospect it seems like it mostly came about because of obdurate resistance to social democracy, and, anyway, the Fifth Republic might not be perfect, but it is better than the Fourth, and one has to wonder if some of the other modern democratic states of the post-WWII international order could do with a one-and-done revolution and a new constitution. Maybe if they're having difficulty selecting a head of government, that's a sign? Of course, it's hard to think of a perfect modern parallel, given that we're well past the days of colonialism. 

Dien Bien Phu also has a more unusual hook on my imagination, because I cannot escape memories of Tactics of Mistake, an entry in Gordon Dickson's Childe cycle. Tactics is a late novel, but strikes me as marinated in the contemporary reaction to Dien Bien Phu, which might be because it is a fix-up, like Soldier, Ask Not, but of unpublished stories from Dickson's first decade as a professional science fiction writer Or he just read Bernard Falls. If the first theory is true, though, we can thank Nguyen Van Giap for the boomlet in military/mercenary/war-world science fiction that continues to this day.

So, first things, first. Let us rally the nation and form our battalions to overthrow the foreign hirelings and mercenaries invading us to impose a King we don't want!

Second things, second. Let's look at how modernity overcomes the advantages of primitive, numberless Asiatic hordes. Specifically, air mobile networks of fortresses that impose order and technology on a landscape of rice paddies and jungled mountains. This is so getting a "Magic Aeroplanes" tag. 

The Fairchild C-119 flows from the discovery that air transport was a really useful tool of modern war, but that getting barrels of avgas through the side door of a C-47 and up the floor to the front of the plane was a serious pain in the ass.

 The Pentagon therefore dug up in 1942 an American aircraft manufacturer which had somehow missed any significant contracts up to this point and gave them an order for a twin-boom rear-loading, tricycle design with integral boom, hitting all of the standing preferences except the swinging nose door. The result was the C-82, which was a bit of a disaster, and led through to the perfectly cromulent C-119, rolled out in 1949. (Oh, and it was  another of those "don't use any strategic materials, use plywood and steel instead, oh, wait, we're out of plywood!" planes.)

At this point, the Fairchild plane got caught up in politics. Multiple-source contracting is probably a good idea, considering that most everybody did it, but it seems beyond bizarre that it was assigned to Willow Run, considering the fiasco of B-24 production there during the war, leading to the cautious conclusion that there were politics involved. Henry Kaiser? Politics? Next you'll be saying that there's something fishy about Gilded Age lumber and roads in the Pacific Northwest, and that's unpossible. (The weird thing about Kaiser being that he had Democratic connections.)

As we've heard in great detail, the C-119 contract matured exactly like the B-24 --late and far too expensive, because the Kaiser organisation wasn't even remotely capable of running an airplane (or car) factory, and had no intention of learning from its mistakes, because that was boring. Next you'll be asking for an atom bomber with ailerons that work! Kaiser gave up on Willow Run, Fairchild ended up building almost all the C-119s that were built, marking another of the rare examples in which replacing a Pratt and Whitney engine with a Wright improved things, and the plane went on to be a transport plane that did transporting things. This included running logistics into Dien Bien Phu, but this is even more boring than cost accounting, so most discussions of the plane focus on its use as a gunship and for catching parachute-dropped photo capsules from the first generation of spy satellites, which does fall under the heading of things that it is hard to believe happened.

 On 20 November 1953,  six battalions of French parachute infantry began an insertion into the disused Japanese airstrip at the town of Dien Bien Phu, in the Muong Thanh Valley of the Nam Ron River, a northwestward-flowing tributary of the Mekong across the water parting from the Red River valley. Supposedly the site of the old kingdom of Muang Then (please forgive me omitting written Vietnamese's many diacriticals, 'cuz I'm not typing all that!), it was by 1953 part of an autonomous Tai region, inevitably divided between the pro-French White Tai and the pro-Viet Minh Black Tai, among other colours of Tai, or maybe it's the other way round. History!

Speaking of deep history giving an event more resonance, the preliminary discussion of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu characterises the strategic plan of constraining the Viet Minh with strong points as something that General Henri Navarre came up with on the fly, when in fact it is deeply embedded in the French military mind, a way of, as my teacher, the late Janis Langins, put it, "conserving France."

Dien Bien Phu was supposed to be a new kind of fortress,one that was impossible to besiege because it was open to the sky, what with the superiority of air power and all of that. It hadn't worked very well at Stalingrad, but on the other hand there's the Berlin Blockade. We're well past parachute battalions being "modern," but in 1953 it all sounded more than kinetic enough to overwhelm those poor, sad, Third World savages who hadn't even progressed to the point of realising that they had no business governing themselves. 

Which brings up the second way in which deep history can help, since I read the Wikipedia article about how the French were just preparing the way for a diplomatic solution in Viet Nam and reflect on what was written at the time and think to myself, "That's some serious revisionism, right there." There's no doubt that Mendes-France and the Radicals wanted out of Indo China, but the rest of the French political establishment was deeply committed to a French Indo-China, and the Americans were willing to pay for it. American policy here is a bit febrile and I am going to avoid leaning on it until we get closer to the date and it is easier to assess stories that the Dulles brothers were contemplating the use of atomic weapons to break the siege of Dien Bien Phu. Seriously? I see in the Wiki that Radford was involved, so yeah, maybe. (Talk about a sanitised biography. This was the guy we caught trying to start a marine war with Britain in the South China sea.)

I am getting the sense that as we get closer to the crisis, the American reaction will make more sense as a frenzied refusal to accept the reality that the Viet Namese did not want to be a colony, and were perfectly capable of organising an army that was remarkably large for their population and remarkably small considering rhetoric about Asiatic hordes, and perfectly capable of winning a battle with some extremely modest support. In light of which I point the reader in the direction of one of the leading Google search returns for Dien Bien Phu (well ahead of the Wikipedia article for the city itself --I had to go three layers deep to find the name of its river), the Hoover Institute's "The Lessons of Dien Bien Phu." 

I hear you asking, "Can you summarise so I don't have to click on  a stupid link in the first place and give the fucking Hoover Institute some traffic on top of it," and I answer: The lesson  is that we underestimated the massive support that international communism was willing to give the Vietnamese, with that overwhelming artillery force and everything.

I dunno? Maybe Mireille Matthieu can sing even louder? 

One of the things that Wikipedia is doing pretty well these days is providing full orders of battle for major military operations, from which you can learn that the "vast amounts of heavy artillery" used by the Viet Minh's  Artillery-Engineer Division 351 at Dien Bien Phu  consisted of 24 US-built M101 105mm gun-howitzers, 20 ex-Japanese 75mm mountain guns, 16 ex-Red Army M1938 120mm mortars, and 54 M1937 82mm mortars, 12 ex-Chinese H6 six-barrel 75mm rocket launchers, a battalion of 75mm recoilless rifles, and 24 ex Red-Army M1939 37mm antiaircraft guns. That, plus 33 infantry battalions, was Giap's besieging force.  The French had more guns. And they had air power, including Chennault's CAT flying C-119s modified to tip barrels of napalm out the cargo door as a counter battery measure. (More C-119s.) What they evidently didn't have was the institutional memory of Vauban the besieger, who could have told them that "a fortress besieged is a fortress taken." Which is why you build networks of forts. But, of course, that would have been expensive, as opposed to throwing a few paratroopers here and there and building a new one as needed. I guess if people are going to drop atom bombs on you, it pays to be mobile . . .  

All of this reads a lot like the Groundnuts Scheme. It turns out that massive consequences flowed from an attempt to do things the easy way. The key failure point of western imperialism, much like the Kaiser Organisation, turns out to be less its lack of moral vision or Third World buy in and more the fact that it was cheap and lazy.  



  1. Hey Erik.
    I've been thinking about this for a while, re-read it last night, and I realized what strikes me as missing: the US definitely didn't do the Vietnam War on the cheap and still lost. The US won at Khe Sanh while the French lost DBP for a couple of reasons (superior topography for defending the airfield being one- all the defensible hills around the airfield at KS were clustered together rather than having Gabrielle and Ana-marie out by their lonesome, whose fall at the beginning of the siege meant that the French lost the use of the airport) but some of the most important were that the the US had those nearby bases (US artillery at Camp Carroll gave plenty of support throughout the siege even when Rt 9 was closed) and had the airpower to actually carry the supplies in (in spite of high losses).
    Fall, _Hell in a Very Small Place_ made the point that the US had higher daily sortie rates to support a 12-man SF A-Team and a few hundred Hmong CIDG's at Camp Pleiku in 1965 than the French could muster to support 15,000 paras that were supposed to be the centerpiece of their pacification program in 1954.
    But it didn't matter because all of that money and effort was spent doing the wrong things, focused on the fighting the wrong war, and so the US lost anyway. There is no way that sending another 100,000 soldiers to Vietnam, more expensive front-line weapons, more air sorties, could have changed the outcome of the war.

  2. I suppose that to develop my point I would have to talk about Janis and "conserving the enlightenment

  3. We had our differences about what fortress building meant to the development of the state and what aspects of it were the most important. He violently rejected my idea of the European fortress complex as some kind of post-Wittfogel "hydraulic state," for example, and preferred to talk about roads. Doing Indo-China right doesn't mean having strategic bombers to carpet bomb the trenches before Dien Bien Phu.

    It means that it should have been a railway town on a line connecting the Red River to the Mekong and not a barely-inhabited "city" where a French resident played "divide and rule" amongst the Black and White Tai. That's what a "mission civilisatrice" would have actually looked like.

    (One could say the same thing about half measures dooming Willow Run as much as Henry Kaiser's cupidity.)

  4. Mmm, so the argument is more that if France in the 1920's and 1930's had invested in railroads to the same scale that they did in the Metropole then it would have worked out? But that by the time we end up with large scale anti-colonial armies it's too late? I'll buy that as a coherent argument, though I do wonder how long a quiescence the railroads leading to economic growth leading to more railroads cycle could last- could it survive the 1960's?

    Certainly if the colonies were not milked dry to gorge the elites of the home country colonialism would be a lot more morally justified!