Forty years ago a bookish French Indochina specialist–who was also a media celebrity in the United States–stepped on a landmine in Vietnam while accompanying a platoon of US Marines on patrol. Bernard Fall was making his sixth trip to Vietnam, where he found (and perhaps sought) the brutal end that would finish the wild and romantic project that was his life. He was blown up on a dirt track that French soldiers, more than a decade before, had dubbed la rue sans joie.
Fall’s biography could be divided into three or four parts, each of which would contain enough drama for a whole life. While still a youth, he lost his parents in the Holocaust, fought in the French Resistance and conducted crucial research at the Nuremberg trials. He kept company with famous intellectuals, diplomats, soldiers and political dissidents; fathered a large family; and was a prolific writer and scholar, publishing nine books and scores of articles. In 1956 he became a professor at Howard, the premier African-American university in the United States, where he taught until his death.
When, on February 21, 1967, Fall stepped on that landmine on the “street without joy,” or Vietnam’s coastal Highway 1, he was ranked among the world’s leading academic specialists on Southeast Asia and a famous war correspondent. Several of Fall’s books are still in print, notably Street Without Joy (1961) and Hell in a Very Small Place (1966). Both of these are intensely detailed military histories: The first is an overview of the French war in Indochina; the second focuses on the definitive battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Fall’s extraordinary life, for all its intrigue, is only part of the reason we should remember him. Though he has been dead as long as he was alive, his legacy lives on in strange ways. As a technocratic critic of war who was close to the warmakers–a contradictory if not schizophrenic position that allowed him to have it both ways–Fall helped lay the foundations for a genre of war reportage that is still very much in fashion in American journalism. Now, on the fortieth anniversary of his death, Fall’s widow, Dorothy Fall, has written Bernard Fall: Memories of a Soldier-Scholar. An account of his adventures, and of the complexities of his personality, Memories of a Soldier-Scholar is perhaps more revealing than intended–and not only of Fall himself.
Fall was born in 1926 in Vienna to Leo Fall and Anna Seligmann, Polish Jews who had moved to Austria and then fled the Nazi takeover for France in the late 1930s. After France fell to Germany in 1940, Anna was deported to Germany and died in the camps. Leo was eventually tortured to death by the Germans on suspicions of aiding the French Resistance. Bernard used fake papers to pass as Catholic and at age 16 infiltrated the paramilitary Compagnons de France–Vichy’s version of the Hitler Youth. Within the Compagnons there was an underground of Jews passing as gentiles and organizing what Fall once called “terrorism” against the occupation, from sabotage to assassinations. Fall’s comrades carried out the assassination of at least one Nazi soldier and helped bring many other Vichy collaborators to informal justice.
As the Allied invasion approached and then as the Allies moved east, the Resistance picked up steam. During the final stages of the war, young Bernard saw real combat in the Alps against the retreating but still tenacious Germans. It must have been terrifying, sad and, as war always is, unseemly and frantic. But it may also have been cathartic for the adolescent Fall to help destroy the very enemies who had murdered his parents.