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In the years that I covered the wars in Indochina, the night of October 20, 1950, is burned indelibly into my memory, more than any other night. It was the night that Langson, the principal French post on the China border, fell to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh troops. I had been in Langson with the French Foreign Legion and traveled in convoy along the border on the Rue du Mort (Road of Death) to the smaller posts, all of which blocked the mountain passes leading to China. That was also the night that Susan, the first of our five daughters, was born to my wife, Audrey, in Saigon’s French military hospital. Cascading flares lit up the skies over Saigon as Audrey, in labor, was wheeled on a cot into the surgery of the military hospital. At the door, I was listening to the crackle of small arms fire when I heard Audrey cry out. Susan had just been born.
The French doctor who cut the umbilical cord wore a smock stained with the fresh blood of wounded soldiers in the battle for a French outpost under attack by Viet Minh guerillas. Not long after the birth, Audrey urged me to go back to the typewriter in my office. A journalist herself, she knew that a momentous battle was taking place on the frontier. In the night, as the French border posts were overrun, I reported in a dispatch filed to the Associated Press that the Viet Minh had won control of the North Indochina frontier and ended French chances of winning a decisive military victory. I described the loss of the frontier as the turning point in the war. I wrote: “Yielded to the Viet Minh is a near impregnable mountain base area with good trans-frontier connections to supply sources and training centers in China. This means that the Ho Chi Minh regime now has the space and means of preparing a full-scale military offensive against the principal French strongholds located further south. The purely guerrilla phase of the war in Indochina has ended.”
Loss of the frontier and the mountain passes to the China supply bases eventually led to the total defeat of the French and subsequently was a key factor in the defeat of the United States in the struggle with Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam.
Seymour Topping retired from the New York Times in 1993 after serving as foreign editor and as managing editor for ten years. He is the author of On the Front Lines of the Cold War: An American Correspondent’s Journal from the Chinese Civil War to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam.