Book review: 'Valley of Death,' by Ted Morgan

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By David Kaiser
Sunday, April 4, 2010


The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America Into the Vietnam War

By Ted Morgan

Random House.

722 pp. $35

Ted Morgan, a retired journalist who has written numerous works of history, has now given us two books in one: an intricate, compelling narrative of the horrifying battle of Dien Bien Phu, which raged from March 13 to May 7, 1954, near the Vietnamese-Laotian border, and a parallel account of deliberations among French, American and British leaders over the impending catastrophe and what to do about it while the battle raged, and of the Geneva negotiations that eventually created North and South Vietnam. The battle account draws mainly on reminiscences and primary sources, while the diplomatic one uses memoirs and secondary works effectively. For his discussion of deliberations in Washington in particular, Morgan relies largely and properly on the dean of American Vietnam researchers, William Conrad Gibbons. Unfortunately his notes and bibliography attribute Gibbons's works to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which commissioned them in the 1970s, and do not even mention that distinguished historian's name.

Morgan gives us military history of a very high quality at both the strategic and tactical levels. After seven years of war, which Morgan summarizes effectively if unevenly, Gen. Henri Navarre, the French commander in Indochina, decided in late 1953 to place a garrison of about 10,000 troops in the region. (Only a minority of them were French: The French government would not send French draftees to Indochina. The rest were Vietnamese and Laotians, mostly German members of the French Foreign Legion and other colonial troops from North Africa.) Navarre thought that by putting the base along a vital line of communication into Laos he could provoke Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and the Viet Minh into the kind of set-piece battle at which the French so far had excelled. Even though the French would be vulnerable to attacks from the hills and would have to conduct their entire resupply by air, he counted on superior firepower to win. Like U.S. leaders a decade later, he miscalculated the capabilities of masses of dedicated Vietnamese soldiers, helped by aid from communist China, which had provided bases and weapons to the Viet Minh since 1949.

In an extraordinary feat that recalls Henry Knox's transport of artillery from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston in the winter of 1775-76, Giap's men managed to create new, invisible roads through the jungle and use manual labor and bicycles to transport heavy artillery within range of Dien Bien Phu. Once there, they dug secure emplacements into the sides of mountains -- emplacements that French air power could not reach. Then the tens of thousands of Viet Minh troops began digging trenches to within a few hundred yards of French outposts. The battle, as Morgan repeatedly notes, was similar to sieges like Verdun during World War I -- but with the horrifying difference that the French troops had no avenue of retreat. It did not take long for Viet Minh artillery fire to make the airstrip almost unusable; for much of the battle, reinforcements and supplies had to be dropped by parachute. As the French positions shrank under the weight of costly but successful Viet Minh attacks, more and more of them were occupied by the wounded. "Valley of Death" is filled with stories of horror and heroism, especially among the medical personnel, who struggled against enormous odds. The French surrendered on May 7 when they were surrounded with no room to maneuver; the 10,000 prisoners taken (out of a total of 15,000 men sent) spent months in captivity.

The weak government of French Prime Minister Joseph Laniel did nothing to avert the disaster and began to realize that it could be an excuse to wind up an unpopular war. The British government -- led in practice by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden -- wanted a detente with Moscow and Beijing and saw no reason why France, like Britain, should not give up its Asian empire. But U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Adm. Arthur Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted an allied confrontation with China over Indochina, almost surely involving the use of atomic weapons, which Dulles in fact offered to Laniel during the crisis.

Morgan shows in some detail how British and French opposition, congressional reluctance and President Dwight Eisenhower's refusal to go it alone stopped Dulles's and Radford's plans -- but Dulles still refused to sign the Geneva agreements because they gave legitimacy to yet another new communist government, that of Ho Chi Minh. Having spent months trying to arrange a coalition of Asian and Western powers to enter the war, Dulles had to be content with forming the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization after it was over -- and with using American manpower and money to try to build non-communist bastions in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with decidedly mixed results. Morgan's book will be enjoyed by students of military history and will be useful to anyone curious about the bizarre atmosphere of the early, frenzied years of the Cold War.

David Kaiser is a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and the author, most recently, of "The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy."

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