Bernard B. Fall (November 19, 1926 – February 21, 1967) was a prominent war correspondent, historian, political scientist, and expert on Indochina during the 1950s and 1960s. Born in Austria, he moved with his family to France as a child after Germany's annexation, where he started fighting for the French Resistance at the age of sixteen, and later the French Army during World War II.
In 1950 he first came to the United States for graduate studies at Syracuse University and Johns Hopkins University, returning and making his residence there. He taught at Howard University for most of his career and made regular trips to Southeast Asia to learn about changes and the societies. He predicted the failures of France and the United States in the wars in Vietnam because of their tactics and lack of understanding of the societies. He was killed by a landmine while accompanying United States Marines on a patrol in 1967.
Born in Vienna, Austria, to Jewish parents Leo Fall and Anna Seligman, Bernard Fall and his family migrated in 1938 when he was a child to live in France, when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. After France fell to Germany in 1940, his father Leo Fall aided the French Resistance. Leo Fall was captured, tortured and killed by the Gestapo. His mother was also captured and deported to Auschwitz, where she died.
In 1942, at the age of sixteen, Bernard Fall followed in his father's footsteps and joined the French Resistance, after which time he fought the Germans in the Alps. As France was being liberated in 1944, Fall joined the French Army, in which he served until 1946. For his service, he was awarded the French Liberation Medal. Following World War II, Fall worked as an analyst for the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, in which capacity he investigated Krupp Industries.
After completing his studies in Europe, Fall traveled to the United States in 1950 on a Fulbright Scholarship, where he studied at the University of Maryland for a time. In 1951, Fall enrolled at Syracuse University, where he received a masters degree in political science in 1952. Fall did post-graduate study at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, where he was encouraged to study Indochina. Fall took the idea to heart.
Not content to study Indochina from afar, Fall traveled to Vietnam in 1953, when the First Indochina War was being waged between the Viet Minh and French Union forces. Due to his French citizenship, Fall was allowed to accompany French soldiers and pilots into enemy territory. From his observations, Fall predicted the French would fail in Vietnam. When the French were defeated in the critical Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Fall claimed the United States was partly responsible for France's loss. Fall believed that the United States had not supported France to a sufficient extent during the First Indochina War.
In 1954, Fall returned to the United States and married Dorothy Winer. In 1955, he earned a doctorate from Syracuse University and became an assistant professor at American University in Washington, DC.
Never losing his interest in Indochina, Fall returned to the region five more times (in 1957, 1962, 1965, 1966, and 1967) to study developments firsthand. Fall was given a grant by the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization to study the development of communism in Southeast Asia. He used it to document the rise of communist activity in Laos. Fall was particularly interested in the tensions between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. While teaching at the Royal Institute of Administration in Cambodia in 1962, Fall was invited to interview Ho Chi Minh and Phạm Văn Đồng in Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh told Fall his belief that communism would prevail in South Vietnam in about a decade's time.
Fall was a political scientist, but one who had been a soldier and who spoke the soldier's language and lived the soldier's life at the front line. He obtained his data on the war while slogging through the mud of Vietnam with French colonial troops, with American infantry, and with South Vietnamese soldiers. He combined the usual academic analysis of Indochina with a perspective of the war from the soldier's point of view.
Fall supported the American military presence in South Vietnam, believing it could stop the country from falling to Communism. But, he strongly criticized Ngo Dinh Diem's American-backed regime and the tactics used by the United States military in Vietnam. As the conflict between the American forces and the Communists in Vietnam escalated throughout the 1960s, Fall became increasingly pessimistic about the U.S.'s chances of success. He predicted that if it did not learn from France's mistakes, it too would fail in Vietnam. Fall wrote extensive articles detailing his analysis of the situation in Vietnam, and lectured a great deal about his ideas on the Vietnam War. Fall's research was considered invaluable to many U.S. diplomats and military officials, but his negative opinions were often not taken seriously. By 1964, Fall concluded that the U.S. forces in Vietnam were losing. Fall's dire predictions caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which began to monitor his activities.
Many have noted Fall's accuracy and comprehension in his writing about the Vietnam War. In Colin Powell's 1995 autobiography, My American Journey, he wrote:
I recently reread Bernard Fall's book on Vietnam, Street Without Joy. Fall makes painfully clear that we had almost no understanding of what we had gotten ourselves into. I cannot help thinking that if President Kennedy or President Johnson had spent a quiet weekend at Camp David reading that perceptive book, they would have returned to the White House Monday morning and immediately started to figure out a way to extricate ourselves from the quicksand of Vietnam.
Towards the end of his life Fall suffered from retroperitoneal fibrosis which resulted in the loss of a kidney and a colon blockage. According to his wife his condition engendered a sense of fatalism as he departed for what turned out to be his final trip to Vietnam. On 21 February 1967, while accompanying a company of the 1st Battalion 9th Marines on Operation Chinook II in the Street Without Joy, Thừa Thiên Province, Fall stepped on a Bouncing Betty land mine which killed both him and Gunnery Sergeant Byron G. Highland, a U.S. Marine Corps combat photographer. He was dictating notes into a tape recorder, which captured his last words: "We've reached one of our phase lines after the firefight and it smells bad—meaning it's a little bit suspicious... Could be an amb—". Fall was survived by his wife and three daughters.
The medical library at the main civilian hospital in Da Nang was named The Bernard B. Fall Memorial Medical Library in his honor.