California Literary Review

Book Review: Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War by Ted Morgan


March 15th, 2010 at 1:50 pm

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Valley of Death by Ted Morgan
Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War
by Ted Morgan
Random House, 722 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

The Road to Dien Bien Phu

The cover story for Time Magazine on September 28, 1953 featured the battle-hardened face of the French commander in Indochina, General Henri Navarre. Wearing a kepi, the peaked hat made famous by a more illustrious French general, Charles de Gaulle, Navarre was portrayed on the Time cover as a military commander facing crucial decisions on how to defeat a tough and determined foe.

The subtitle of Navarre’s Time portrait accurately summed-up his dilemma. “In the green jungles, a red nightmare.”

Navarre’s jungle nightmare is the subject of a brilliant new book by historian Ted Morgan. Valley of Death focuses on the pivotal battle of Dien Bien Phu, fought in the spring of 1954, when Navarre made a bold airborne attack to crush the long guerrilla war waged by Vietnamese forces opposed to French colonial rule. Navarre failed, with his troops surrounded and overwhelmed, and the first fatal steps taken that would, in due course, lead the United States into the Vietnam War of 1963-1975.

Navarre’s opponents were the Vietminh. Led by the brilliant revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, these Communist insurgents – or Vietnamese freedom fighters, in the eyes of much of the world – had declared independence from France on September 2, 1945. That was the day that the Japanese surrendered to the Allied forces under General Douglas MacArthur on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri. One war ended that day and another began. France, in a foolhardy effort to regain its position as a major power in Southeast Asia, dispatched an expeditionary force to crush Ho Chi Minh. The campaign to restore the French power escalated into a “quicksand war” that would last for thirty years.

But for several twists of fate, the long, the bitter Vietnam War might never have occurred. Had President Franklin D. Roosevelt lived long enough to direct peace-making efforts after the Second World War, it is almost certain that he would have acted to defuse the volatile situation that sparked the war’s outbreak in 1946. Morgan’s opening chapter focuses on Roosevelt’s dislike of Western colonialism, particularly for France’s heavy handed rule of Indochina.

“France has had the country – thirty million inhabitants for nearly one hundred years,” Roosevelt said disparagingly of the French colonial regime, “and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning.”

Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, however, was the first act in the interim period between the last scenes of the Second World War and the opening round of the Cold War. As Morgan relates in considerable detail, Ho Chi Minh and his able military assistant, Vo Nguyen Giap, made numerous overtures to U.S. military leaders in the China-Burma-India Theater. They rescued downed U.S airmen and, after receiving arms and training from the O.S.S., began to harass the Japanese who had seized Indochina from France.

Humiliated by the Japanese take-over of Indochina, the French returned on March 2, 1946, landing with a force of 50,000 troops at the port of Haiphong. The French initially recognized Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Negotiations soon broke down and by December the stand-off had degenerated into a shooting war.

The French army, despite its modern equipment, quickly bogged down trying to respond to Giap’s guerrilla campaign. The ace card in the French hand was the fact that the Vietminh were Communists. As the U.S government responded with alarm to Mao Tse-tung’s seizure of China, the French were in a position to offer their services. They would help the United States to halt the spread of Communism in the Far East in return for aid in the war against the Vietminh.

Swallowing their dislike of European colonialism, the Truman administration began supplying small amounts of arms and supplies. On June 27, 1950, two days after the outbreak of the war in Korea, Truman announced the formation of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to help France and the Associated States – the half-baked version of the British Commonwealth which the French established, comprising France, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In August 1950, the first U.S. military officers of MAAG arrived in Saigon. The road to Hell is measured in small steps.

MAAG had hardly set up its headquarters when two French motorized columns were ambushed and destroyed near Vietnam’s border with China in October 1950. This cleared the way for Mao’s triumphant Red China to open its own military assistance program to the Vietminh. The French fell back to safeguard the vital Red River delta around Hanoi. Under a new commander, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, the French began to regain some lost ground during 1951. But de Lattre, emotionally devastated by the combat death of his only son and suffering from cancer, died a year later. The French had lost their best commander and their Indochina war effort, even with large shipments of U.S. aircraft and war equipment, stalled.

In May 1953, as the Korean War entered its final, frustrating phase, the French realized that Red China would soon be able to devote more energy and resources to helping the Vietminh. A new commander, General Henri Navarre, was sent to Indochina to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Although he had a fine military record, Navarre was a staff officer by temperament. He had served his whole career in Europe and was given few reinforcements with which to stem the Vietminh tide. He was the wrong man in an impossible spot.

Navarre had also to contend with the United States, which by the time he arrived was spending nearly a billion dollars per year bankrolling France’s “dirty war.” In April 1953, month before Navarre took command, Giap’s troops launched a daring raid into Laos. In Washington, U.S. officials, including President Eisenhower, began to fear that “Indochina is the first row of dominoes. If it falls its neighbors will shortly fall with it, and where does it end?”

In his headquarters in Saigon, Navarre was pressed by his superiors in France to block another Vietminh incursion into Laos. Looking at the colored lines on the battle maps in his headquarters in Saigon, Navarre saw that the static defenses around Hanoi and Haiphong were tying down French forces more than the Vietminh. The fighting was spreading south down the embattled coastal highway nicknamed “the Street without Joy.” Navarre had to find a secure position where his elite airborne troops could lure the Vietminh into a pitched battle and then destroy them with artillery and aircraft. The spot he chose was called Dien Bien Phu.

Dien Bien Phu is located in the Muong Thanh Valley, a rare patch of open ground approximately 11 miles in length, with a valley floor a mere three miles wide. It is surrounded by jungle-clad mountains and ridges, some as high as 2000 ft. A rough air strip was the sole link to the outside world apart from one vulnerable road, an easy target for ambushes. But it was only a few miles from the border with Laos, which the French were trying to protect. French fighter-bombers taking off from the base could blast Vietminh supply dumps.

On November 20, 1953, three of Navarre’s paratrooper battalions jumped into Dien Bien Phu, which they seized after a fierce fire fight with the Vietminh regiment stationed there. A rapid build-up ensued, with everything from 155 mm howitzers to an X-ray machine for the base hospital brought in by transport planes. After engineers laid a metal-plated runway, ten American-made M-24 Tanks were flown in piece-by-piece and then rebuilt. A fighter squadron and veteran troops of the Foreign Legion arrived to give offensive capability to the base aero-terrestre, the official military designation of Dien Bien Phu. The French thought of everything needed to win, except studying the subtle mind of the enemy commander, Vo Nguyen Giap.

Morgan succeeds to a very admirable degree in probing the character of this illustrious general. Giap had lost several family members to the rigors of French colonial rule, including his wife who was arrested and died in a French prison. A model of cool, methodical persistence, Giap was not goaded or tricked into a rash counterattack on Dien Bien Phu. He patiently assembled his forces, digging gun positions in the forested slopes overlooking the French defenses and amassing a huge supply of ammunition carried by thousands of porters through the jungle. Then on March 13, 1954, Giap struck at Dien Bien Phu, capturing several key strong-points and pounding the air strip so that supply planes could no longer land. The base aero-terrestre had become a death trap.

The epic clash between the French defenders and Giap’s Vietminh, an Iliad fought with sub-machine guns, trench mortars and grenades, is only one of several battles which Morgan depicts with the scene-shifting skill of a Hollywood script writer. These clashes were fought in high level military, diplomatic and political circles. Admiral Arthur Radford, the bellicose chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, pressured his Army, Air Force and Marine counterparts into supporting a plan to send U.S carrier planes to bombard Giap’s gun positions and supply lines. Still licking their wounds from the Korean “Police Action,” they wanted nothing to do with a situation that might lead to a ground war. Anxious to thwart the Communist threat, the American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, even offered the French the use of two atomic bombs to drop on the Vietminh. Dulles later denied the offer, but Morgan’s careful research provides abundant documentation that the offer was made.

While the noose tightened around Dien Bien Phu, the major world powers convened a peace conference at Geneva. The principal agenda items included resolving the deadlocked Korean armistice and trying to arrange a cease fire and a negotiated settlement for Indochina. Far from bringing the fighting to an end, the Geneva conference prolonged the agony at Dien Bien Phu, as both sides hoped favorable military developments would bolster their bargaining positions. They waited, postured and attended to diplomatic niceties, like finding country estates for their delegations so that their sleep would not be bothered by traffic. The first session at the Geneva Conference to be devoted to Indochina opened on May 8. Dien Bien Phu had fallen to a massive Vietminh assault the day before.

By the time that the banner of the Vietminh was raised over the command bunker of Dien Phu, 2,000 men in the beleaguered French garrison, including many Vietnamese and Thai soldiers loyal to France, had perished. The French forces at Dien Bien Phu fought with astonishing heroism, but to no avail. Of the 11,000 prisoners taken by the Vietminh, only 3,290 made it back to the French lines, being released after the July 20 1954 ceasefire. Despite the short duration of their captivity, these prisoners endured a death march and imprisonment equal in suffering to that of the Allied POWs at Bataan and Burma during World War II.

Giap’s forces lost an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 killed and an equal number wounded. The 56-day battle at Dien Bien Phu, a monsoon-lashed valley of negligible strategic value, cost the lives of nearly 20,000 men. It ended forever the delusion that France would retain any of its power in Southeast Asia. But the July 20 cease fire left the Vietminh in control of only North Vietnam. The United States patched together a “democratic” Republic of Vietnam in the southern provinces of the country. This partition lit the fuse leading to renewed warfare during the 1960’s and 70’s, with 58,000 American lives and countless Vietnamese added to the butcher’s bill at Dien Bien Phu.

Ted Morgan’s Valley of Death is an outstanding book, vividly written and full of human insight. Morgan seamlessly integrates scenes of battlefield carnage with the equally lethal duplicity of the “peace talks” in Geneva.

What is so amazing about reading Valley of Death is how closely the American experience in the Vietnam War corresponded to that of the French a decade earlier. It had happened too recently to have been forgotten. Yet policy makers in the United States, some of them like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who had balked at sending U.S. planes to Dien Bien Phu, repeated the French blunders again and again. Except for a resounding battlefield defeat like Dien Bien Phu, the “American War” was almost a carbon copy of the “French War.”

Even the words were the same. In the concluding paragraph of the 1953 Time article on Indochina, an unnamed source commented on the renewed confidence that General Navarre’s strategy would lead to ultimate victory.

“A year ago none of us could see victory. There wasn’t a prayer. Now we can see it clearly – like light at the end of a tunnel.”

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