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FALL, BERNARD (1926–1967)

Bernard Fall was born into a Jewish merchant family in Vienna, Austria. In 1937, as Hitler eyed Austria, the Fall family hustled their 11-year-old son and his younger sister off to France. Bernard was placed in a Parisian elementary school, where he soon learned to speak and write French as fluently as his native German. In mid-1940, the entire family fled to the zone libre in the south. Fall grew up fast during the conflict. He had just turned 16 when the Germans occupied all of France in late 1942. Most scarring of all was the Nazi murder of his parents. In August 1942, his mother was arrested and sent to the infamous French concentration camp in Drancy before being shipped off to Auschwitz. She never returned. On 27 November 1943, the Gestapo arrested Bernard’s father and tortured him to death. Bernard himself secretly joined the French underground resistance on 8 November 1942 – the very day the Allies landed in North Africa.

Like the Viet Minh he would later study, Fall got his first taste as a French maquisard of what it meant to fight a guerrilla war against a militarily superior occupying power. He first joined the Forces françaises de l’intérieur (FFI) before moving into the Groupes francs de la Résistance in the Alps, and then finally landed in the Groupement FFI Haute-Savoie. During the liberation of France, he served as a sergeant in the 1st French Army under the command of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. While he saw some real combat at this time, his perfect knowledge of German landed him quickly in the French Army’s Intelligence Service, where he worked until his demobilization in March 1946. He then worked as a translator for the American General Staff between 1946 and 1948. In 1946, thanks to his fluency in German and no doubt his contacts with the Americans, he joined a research team working for the War Crimes for the International Court of Nuremberg. In 1949, he transferred to the Service International de Recherche des Nations Unies, where he worked until 1950. In 1950–1951, he completed a degree in Political Science at the American University in the Allied Zone in Germany and in 1951 he obtained a Franco-American study scholarship that allowed him to travel to the United States for the first time. In 1952, he completed his Masters Degree in Political Science at Syracuse University in New York and then began his PhD on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).

The topic dovetailed perfectly with the growing U.S. interest in Vietnam, both the French and the Vietnamese sides. The conjuncture was perfect for the making of an expert. In 1953, he spent six fruitful months conducting research in war-torn Vietnam. In Indochina, his personality, his time in the French resistance, his fluency in French, and his sensitivity to the fighting soldier and sympathy for “centurion” officers carrying on against all odds, opened doors to him through which few of his peers could have entered. Back in the US, Fall submitted his PhD in 1954 on the birth and the evolution of the Viet Minh between 1945 and 1954. It provided the first serious study in any Western language of the nature of the “enemy”. Fall examined the DRV’s organization, the construction of the revolutionary state, its economy, ideology, propaganda, and armed forces. He would also write a famous account of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, Hell in a Very Small Place. Like Philippe Devillers and Paul Mus, few could rival him as a Vietnamese scholar and writer. Fall wasted no time putting himself on the map of Vietnamese and Vietnam war studies in the United States, publishing scores of articles and books, and was on the move until the day he died, accompanying U.S. marines on a patrol north of Hue in 1967.