Ike’s Advice – Dien Bien Phu

I have a book that I would dearly love to give to my daughter Sarah, who is studying international affairs, because it contains so much wisdom, and I keep trying to finish it, but it’s just one of those books you have to read a little bit at a time.

I remember reading the first chapter of “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevksy when I was about 14. Enraptured as I was, I had to put the book away. I couldn’t read any more for three years. I guess there was some stuff I couldn’t understand yet.

The book I’m talking about tonight is called “In Review: Pictures I’ve Kept” and it’s by Dwight D. Eisenhower. On the dust jacket there is a picture of Ike in an overcoat, holding his hat, sitting on a stone wall in Gettysburg.

There is a picture in this book of Ike walking with John F. Kennedy at Camp David. JFK was asking Ike’s advice during the Cuban missile crisis — good move! But what’s most historic about this picture — aside from the fact that Ike was probably giving JFK some advice that kept us all from being blown to smithereens — is that Ike is carrying a hat and JFK is not.

Ike was the last president to wear a hat and after that hats on men disappeared from American life.

But the book is more than a collection of photographs. It’s got selections from all of his other books. As I read this book I can’t help but think of all the people who died because some bonehead or boneheads failed to heed the advice that Ike put in this book.

Let’s start with Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam’s post-WWII struggle for independence from France. In 1951, Ike, not yet president, was commander of the newly constituted North Atlantic Treaty Alliance.

“NATO forces needed greater Frenchg participation,” Ike writes, “but this was largely denied because of France’s losses and costs in the Indochina war.

“These losses and costs to the French might be lessened, I believed, if allies could carry part of the load in defending Indochina. Such a development would depend, of course, upon a clear appreciation throughout the Free World that the war was in no sense an effort by the French to sustain their former domination of the area, but was in fact a clear case of freedom defending itself from Communist aggression.

“To bring about such an appreciation, there would have to be a definite and public pledge on the part of the French to accord independence and the right of self-determination as soon as military victory should be attained.

“I repeatedly urged upon successive French governments the wisdom of publishing to the Free World, and particularly to all Indochina, such an unequivocal commitment.”

Simple, obvious advice from someone who knew what he was talking about. Wouldn’t the French give this pledge, just to acknowledge that the opinion of the Free World was worth something, and at the same time end this costly, indeed ruinous struggle? Not! Apparently it was a matter of national honor.

Later the French occupied Dien Bien Phu. Ike wrote, “It was difficult then — as it is now with the advantage of hindsight — to understand exactly why the French decided to send 10,000 crack troops into this position, strong as it was, whose only means of supply was by air.”

When a French diplomat explained to Ike that the French strategy would “draw them out where we can then win,” he replied,

“The French know military history,” Ike replied. “They are smart enough to know the outcome of becoming firmly emplaced and then besieged in an exposed position with poor means of supply and reinforcements.”

Now clearly this statement is false. The French were not smart enough to know this, nowhere near smart enough. But, nevertheless you must admit, it contains a great deal of wisdom.

And before you get too smug about the stupidity of the French, you must consider the subsequent stupidity of our own government in pursuing policies that were still more ruinous in the same exact location. Think of all the people, Americans and Vietnamese, who would not have died if Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara had heeded Ike’s advice:

“Willingness to fight for freedom, no matter where the battle may be, has always been a characteristic of our people,” Ike wrote, “but the conditions then prevailing in Indochina were such as to make unilateral American intervention nothing short of sheer folly.”