751G.00/4–2454: Telegram

The Secretary of State to the Department of State

top secret

Dulte 17. Repeated information Geneva 114. Eyes only for the Acting Secretary from the Secretary. Re my meeting with Eden and Bidault already cabled,1 suggest you also pass following information to President:

“At Laniel’s request I called on him this evening accompanied by MacArthur and Dillon. Laniel who had Maurice Schumann with him said he wanted to describe to me the situation as he saw it. He said the latest news from Dien Bien Phu which he had received after the Cabinet meeting this morning was very bad. For the first time counter attacks by the garrison had been heavily repulsed and now it seemed only a question of days before the fall of Dien Bien Phu. He felt there was a precarious equilibrium at present both in Indochina and in France. The fall of Dien Bien Phu which had become such a symbol would be a heavy psychological blow both in Indochina and in France. He feared it would affect the morale of the Vietnamese army and if Vietnamese units began to desert it could upset the military equilibrium [Page 1395] and lead rapidly to disaster. In France he was afraid that the loss of Dien Bien Phu would strengthen the hands of those who wished to end the war at all costs and he believes that his government which is the symbol in France of the continuation of the war will probably be overthrown. Laniel said it was for this reason that he had made the request for US military assistance.

“In answer I told him that we felt deeply moved by the gallant fight that was being waged at Dien Bien Phu and that we had shown our feelings by doing everything in our power to help in the battle short of direct acts of belligerency. I told Laniel that I was sure that he realized that under our Constitution the President did not have the authority to authorize acts of belligerency without the approval of the Congress except in the case of an attack on the US. Action in Indochina would definitely require Congressional approval. I told him that the US Government was prepared to seek this approval if desired by the French Government on two conditions. First, that the United Kingdom which had real interests in the area would agree to join us in the military defense of Indochina and secondly, that the Indochina States had achieved real and complete independence. I further said that from what I had heard since I had been in Paris the second condition regarding the independence of the Associated States seemed to have been substantially met and should present no difficulty. I told him that I could not foretell the attitude of the UK but that we were prepared to do everything in our power to make them see the seriousness of the situation and the necessity of joining in the defense of Indochina. I further told him that I fully realized the heavy load on French and Vietnamese morale that would be caused by the fall of Dien Bien Phu and said that I had hoped that this could be countered by the formation of an alliance that would bring to France’s aid within the next few weeks the military forces of the US and the UK. For this to come to pass however, it would be necessary for France to hold firm in the coming weeks. I then told him that as a friend of France I would like to make one rather delicate comment. There were many people in the world who felt that the tremendous loss suffered by France in the first world war had been a mortal blow from which France had not recovered and that France has shown by her tragic experience in the second world war that she could no longer be counted among the great powers. The French reaction to the fall of Dien Bien Phu would have a tremendous influence on world opinion. I hoped that by standing firm France would show that she still had the spirit of a great power.

Maurice Schumann then said that he understood from Bidault that Eden might not go directly to Geneva but would return to London to discuss the situation with the British Government. I told him that that was not quite my understanding. I felt that Eden was undetermined in his own mind but that if he received a request such as we had received from Laniel or from Bidault I believed he would then return to London to take it up with his government. If the French desired help from US and UK I felt it was important that he get this message to Eden. Laniel said that he would do so immediately and he asked Schumann to make the necessary arrangements. The way the conversation developed I did not feel that it was appropriate to leave the President’s letter with Laniel. It is my recommendation that this letter be redrafted [Page 1396] and sent instead by the President to President Coty immediately following the fall of Dien Bien Phu. Will cable suggested redraft.2

Laniel now recognizes that the fall of Dien Bien Phu is inevitable. It has deeply affected him. For example, he mentioned that one of his messengers keeps asking him if there is nothing that can be done to save the garrison from massacre. He said that the Cabinet meeting this morning, referred to in my previous message3 had gone well, but implied that had the bad news which he had subsequently received been known by Cabinet it would have had a definite effect on Cabinet meeting. I think he now believes that his government will probably fall and while I think he would like to believe there is a possibility of continuing the struggle he sees no way to do so. He also seemed to feel a sense of almost personal responsibility for the tragic plight of the Dien Bien Phu garrison. He made no response one way or another to my statement that we would pursue joint defense project if France desired.”

  1. See telegram Dulte 15 from Paris, Apr. 24, p. 1391.
  2. For the text of the message which President Eisenhower proposed sending to Premier Laniel, see telegram Tedul 7 to Paris, Apr. 24, p. 1383.

    Secretary Dulles transmitted the suggested redraft in telegram Dulte 2 from Geneva on the evening of Apr. 25. (751.11/4–2554) The text, designed for delivery in the event of the fall of Dien Bien Phu, was virtually identical with that sent by President Eisenhower to President Coty on May 7. Telegram Tedul 9 to Geneva, Apr. 26, read as follows: “The President has approved and accepted your redraft of message to Coty to be sent immediately following fall of Dien Bien Phu, both as to context and timing. In talking with him, however, I got the impression that he was disappointed that the previous message had not been sent and rather feels that an elegy over the fallen would have less effect than what he had previously suggested.” (751G.00/4–2654)

    In telegram Dulte 11 from Geneva, Apr. 27, Secretary Dulles instructed Acting Secretary Smith to explain, if he thought it wise, to President Eisenhower that the Secretary had withheld the President’s proposed message to Premier Laniel because he felt that delivery might be construed by the French as excessive pressure by the United States upon France to continue fighting. For text of Dulte 11, see vol. xvi, p. 578.

    For the message transmitted by President Eisenhower to French President Coty following the fall of Dien Bien Phu, May 7, see editorial note, p. 1501.

  3. Reference is to the message contained in telegram Dulte 15 from Paris, Apr. 24, p. 1391.