The Debacle Before the Disaster

At Dien Bien Phu, the French got a lesson the U.S. would take two decades to learn


Valley of Death: The Tragedy of Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War, by Ted Morgan, Random House, 748 pp., $35

During the slow and agonizing defeat of the United States in Vietnam, it was often said that American leaders had not learned the lesson taught so painfully, less than a generation before, by the French in Indochina. The best and the brightest of the early 1960s knew full well what had happened at Dien Bien Phu and why. But they concluded that France in 1954 had lacked the resources and commitment, the savoir-faire (and nuclear menace) of a truly great power that was required to block the spread of global communism. How else to explain the stubborn historical ignorance of American intervention in Indochina?

Thus the story of Dien Bien Phu is worth telling again, for such impulses never go away, it seems.

Unlike the later American experience, the end of the French empire in Southeast Asia came quickly, over the course of a few months, on a single battlefield—a muddy cesspool of corpses, spent shells, screaming wounded, smashed artillery, festering disease, charred tanks and helicopters, abominable rains, dazed commanders, madness and suicide and desertion, and that strange semitragic phenomenon of even the most hopeless war—incredible heroism in the face of certain doom. Dien Bien Phu, which ended eight years of struggle against the Vietminh insurgency led by Ho Chi Minh,  convinced even the most stubborn imperialists—not to mention anti-imperialists—everywhere else that the days of colonization were truly numbered.

Everywhere but in Washington, one is tempted to say. Except that, as Ted Morgan makes so dramatically plain in Valley of Death, Eisenhower and Churchill among many others did wring their hands sincerely over the fate of the French, over their darkening pleas for assistance, and over the huge concession to communism that their defeat would constitute. But diplomats, politicians, and generals alike in the United States and Britain were alert to history and reality. They saw pretty clearly in 1954 that the Vietnamese had been determined for centuries to throw off the yoke of outside rule, that if the United States intervened, it would inherit the albatross of the colonial master, that such a commitment risked provoking the Soviets and the Chinese and tempted the use of tactical nuclear weapons, and not least that the Vietminh was an enemy all but impossible to defeat by conventional means, let alone to befriend. Why this wisdom was no longer at work a decade later is the malodorous question that hangs, largely unnamed, over this riveting but demoralizing account.

Morgan is a distinguished journalist and author, a biographer of Churchill, FDR, Somerset Maugham, and William S. Burroughs, with a particular pedigree for this career-crowning work. Born in 1932 into the French aristocracy, Morgan fought in Algeria, France’s final wrenching detox from overseas empire. Soon after, he took U.S. citizenship, changed his name (Sanche de Gramont’s surname anagrams to Ted Morgan), joined the New York Herald Tribune, and won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting (on an opera star’s death during a performance at the Metropolitan Opera).

That background is apparent in Valley of Death. It is first a war story told on the ground, populated by scores of quickly etched characters and hundreds of voices culled from oral histories, memoirs, and military archives, notably the official inquiry into the defeat held in Paris the following year. All of this is given the extra dimension of contemporaneous information and intelligence from the Vietminh side. More striking is the way Morgan counterposes the diplomatic struggles going on in parallel, also day by day, among Eisenhower, Churchill, Chou En Lai, Ho Chi Minh, the hapless French foreign minister Georges Bidault, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his deputy, Walter Bedell Smith, and all the generals and diplomats trying to plan their next move as the French battalions were pinned, besieged, and then slaughtered by endless waves of Vietminh.

The idea of Dien Bien Phu came from General Henri Navarre, a distinguished veteran of two world wars and the commanding general of French forces in Indochina. He thought the moonscaped floodplain with an abandoned airstrip was an ideal spot to draw the Vietminh into a decisive air and artillery onslaught and end the war. Historians and armchair generals are all but unanimous today in thinking this was a pluperfectly dumb place to make a stand—a valley far from Hanoi and Haiphong, inaccessible by road for resupply or evacuation, deep in hostile territory, ringed by mountains full of caves where the enemy could hide and bombard at will. Morgan writes:

Here, nine years into the nuclear age, was a return to siege warfare that went back to medieval times. Although the French had tanks and air power, it turned out that long lines of coolies were more dependable. The French were trapped in Cartesian syllogisms:

The Vietminh have no roads.
Cannon must be hauled over roads.
Therefore the Vietminh have no cannon.

The French forces were “an amalgam of races and nationalities, like the legions of decadent Rome, in contrast to the ethnic sameness of the enemy. [Navarre] had a minority of French, with a majority of black, yellow, Arab and German [the latter mostly Foreign Legionnaires].” Navarre knew that his intelligence was far inferior to his enemy’s: “They had informants in every village, and conversations in the officer’s mess were picked up by the Vietnamese waiters.” Much worse, Navarre was up against a government in Paris adrift and soon to fall, a war-weary and hostile home population, and allies that were aloof and uncertain.

The garrison of 10,000 at Dien Bien Phu dug in before Christmas 1953 and set up eight hilltop posts surrounding the airstrip. They waited four months while General Vo Nguyen Giap, the shrewd Vietminh commander, prepared his attack. During the awful days of March and April, Vietminh troops knocked off the posts one at a time, taking heavy casualties with seeming imperturbability, and slowly drew a noose around the garrison. With its perimeter shrunk by half, and resupply only pos­sible by parachute at night, the French—with undercover technical and transport assistance from the United States, but scant U.S. personnel—dropped tons of urgently needed weapons, ammunition, medical supplies, and of course, soldiers, into enemy hands.

The deadline faced by both sides in the battle was a late-April great-powers conference in Geneva to chart the future of Indochina. Some feared and some hoped that a French defeat would make Indochinese sovereignty a foregone conclusion of the conference, as indeed it was. The deliberate shifts between pontificating and fulminating in the glittering meeting rooms on Lake Geneva and the stench and agony in the muddy trenches of northern Vietnam make powerful, even suspenseful, reading.

Morgan can be savage in his rendering of French delusion, hypocrisy, and incompetence. But as a one-time soldier of the French army, he admires the sense of professional discipline and valor that motivated the men under siege at Dien Bien Phu. In the midst of the worst setbacks and grim prognoses, hundreds volunteered to parachute (some for the first time) into the night over the jungles and come to the aid of their comrades and country in dire distress. One of the sterling field surgeons in this account, Captain Ernest Hantz, is portrayed working shirtless, up to his crotch in monsoon water, operating on waves of the wounded and near dead:

Hantz never knew the names of his patients, they were only mangled human forms with numbers on their brows. Years later, he was still haunted by the young lieutenant who, knowing his wound to be fatal, asked that his Moroccan orderly be treated first. And the Legionnaire who had deserted his wife in Germany, whose last words were that his bonus be sent to her in Tübingen. And the big Senegalese whose face was split in two, with lobes of his brain pushing out of his skull, who survived for ten hours thanks to morphine. There was a saying among the doctors at Dien Bien Phu: “To each his ghosts.”

Given the enormous resonance of what he has compiled, a history bidding fair to replace Bernard Fall’s extraordinary Hell in a Very Small Place (1967) as the standard work on the battle, I would fault Morgan for not writing one more chapter to remind us of the bitter aftermath of this momentous event: The establishment of not very independent or democratic states, the unremitting rise of the Viet Cong, and the creepy gurgle of the quagmire into which the United States soon would march, eyes wide open.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Charles Trueheart is a Scholar contributing editor and former director of the American Library in Paris. His book about Vietnam in the Kennedy years, Diplomats at War, is forthcoming.


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