Number One Realist: Bernard Fall and Vietnamese Revolutionary Warfare

Ronald Bruce St John

Bernard B. Fall was the soldier-scholar par excellence. Born in Vienna, Austria to a Jewish merchant family, he emigrated with his family to southern France after the Anschluss in March 1938 in an unsuccessful attempt to escape Nazi persecution. His mother was detained in 1942 and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. His father joined the French Resistance and was tortured and murdered by the Gestapo in November 1943. Still a teenager, Fall joined the Resistance and later the Marquis, serving in the Haute-Savoie. During the liberation of France, he joined the regular French army, where his fluency in French and German proved useful. For his wartime service, he was awarded the Médaille de la France Libérée, validating his veteran status.

In the immediate postwar period, Fall was employed at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946-1948 as a translator and research assistant in an experience that the author says “decisively shaped his understanding of war” (p. 58). The historical process that unfolded at Nuremberg shaped Fall’s subsequent views of justice and of the extent to which warfare should conform to standards that shielded citizens from being directly targeted. At the same time, it reinforced the 20-year-old combat veteran’s understanding of the ambiguities of resistance and collaboration that he experienced in Occupied France.

Based on his wartime service, work at the Nuremburg Trials, and subsequent employment as a UN Tracking Service Officer, Fall was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in December 1950. In late 1951, he began work on an MA in political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Administration at Syracuse University. In 1952, while completing the MA, he took a summer course on Indochina at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, a turning-point in his study of warfare. Thereafter, Indochina dominated his scholarship, and he would become the foremost English-language scholar describing the conflict for much of the next two decades. His knowledge of guerrilla tactics from his time in the French Resistance and Marquis, his formal educational training, and his research skills honed during his work at Nuremberg came together at a time when the war in Indochina was of growing geopolitical interest. Fall made his first trip to Vietnam in 1953, and he quickly surmised that the communists were winning. He would spend the remainder of his abbreviated life trying to explain to English-speaking audiences what needed to be done to reverse the prevailing course of events.

Bernard Fall struggled for years trying to come up with the right words to describe the complex warfare he witnessed in Vietnam. He finally arrived at the concept of Revolutionary Warfare. In simple terms, Revolutionary Warfare is “a diverse phenomenon of socio-political processes mobilized to achieve strategic results” (p. 303). As Fall emphasized in Last Reflections on a War (1967), “the formulation for Revolutionary Warfare is the result of the application of guerrilla methods to the furtherance of an ideology or a political system. This is the real difference between partisan warfare, guerrilla warfare and everything else” (quoted on p. 303, emphasis in original). A prodigious author, Fall – by focusing on the concept of Revolutionary Warfare in works like Street Without Joy (1961), The Two Viet Nams: A Political and Military Analysis (1963), and Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (1967) – brought perspective and insight to contemporary events in Indochina.

Nathaniel L. Moir, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and more recently a research associate in the Applied History Project at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, did not set out to author a conventional biography of Bernard Fall. Instead, this is a history of Fall’s scholarship, focused on why it mattered when he was alive and why it remains relevant today. The author sheds light on how Fall construed Revolutionary Warfare as well as the cultural and historical contexts in which it functioned. In so doing, he details Fall’s argument that reducing overly militarized solutions and increasing diplomatic and political ones can offer more optimum solutions to deterring or blunting adversarial intent.

Bernard Fall was one of the earliest critics of U.S. policy in Vietnam. His outspoken criticism of U.S. foreign assistance to the Republic of Vietnam, to cite one example, led him to be blocked in 1958 from future employment by the U.S. State Department. His penetrating critiques began as early as 1956; however, the year 1965 marked a turning point for him. The U.S. decision to intervene with conventional military forces, combined with virtually unlimited aerial bombardment, led him to argue in a December 1965 Ramparts article that “the over-militarization of foreign policy was destroying the Vietnamese people and degrading American humanity” (p. 21). His longtime criticism of U.S. policy throughout Indochina explains the title of Moir’s book, which is taken from a Letter to the Editor written by Fall and published in the 11 October 1965 issue of Newsweek: “I have never claimed for myself the place of ‘the No. 1 pessimist’ about Vietnam—but if a place of ‘No 1 realist’ is available, I’ll be glad to stake out a claim for it” (p. 1).

Bernard Fall died from an enemy explosive device on 21 February 1967 while on patrol with a rifle company of U.S. Marines engaged in a routine search and destroy mission. Ironically, he died on Route 1, the Street Without Joy he had made famous with the publication of his book by the same name in 1961. “In the years after his death, Fall’s legacy continued to grow as others learned more about Vietnamese aspirations for independence and how US policy in Southeast Asia was increasingly ineffective and even counterproductive” (p. 371).

This book is meticulously researched, thorough, and highly readable. In addition to providing a comprehensive analysis of the subject’s academic output, the author does a very good job of providing the socioeconomic and political context necessary to understand the events, experiences, and decisions that constitute the life and times of Bernard B. Fall. It is recommended for undergraduate and graduate students, Asian specialists, diplomats, and the general public, especially veterans of the Second Indochina War.