In response to:
Two Cheers for Ike from the September 24, 1981 issue
To the Editors:
In his essay on Eisenhower [NYR, September 24], Ronald Steel says that during the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Dulles “told the French that the United States would use atomic weapons against the communist-led Vietnamese rebels.” It is unclear whether this is Steel’s own contribution or is from one of the six books reviewed, but the statement is extraordinary.
The meager evidence so far available indicates that when Dulles attended a North Atlantic Council meeting in Paris in the last week of April 1954, before proceeding to the Geneva Conference, he spoke privately to the French foreign minister. Bidault later wrote in his memoirs (published here in 1967) that what Dulles did in this conversation “was to ask me if we would like the US to give us two atomic bombs” to use at Dien Bien Phu. Bidault said that employment of such weapons would put French troops in even greater danger than they were then, and declined the offer. Three weeks earlier Admiral Radford had sent word to Dulles that a study group in the Pentagon had concluded that three tactical atomic weapons, properly employed, would be sufficient to smash the Vietminh effort at Dien Bien Phu.
When asked later in the summer about his talk with Bidault, Dulles replied that it was incredible that he should have made an offer to let the French have such weapons since the law categorically forbad it. Ambassador Dillon told the French that there had been a complete misunderstanding by Bidault, possibly based on language difficulties and Bidault’s overwrought condition. In any case, Bobby Cutler, the staff director of the NSC, raised with Eisenhower at the end of April, after the Dulles conversation in Paris, the question of a “loan” of an atomic weapon to the French to use behind Dien Bien Phu. Ike reportedly expressed the opinion that high explosives and napalm would probably be as effective in the jungle around that battle site as a nuclear weapon, but that we might offer some to the French. Whether or not Dulles really spoke of such a possible offer, as Bidault thought he did, the French minister rejected it.