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Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War Hardcover – February 23, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Pulitzer-winning journalist Morgan (Reds) synergizes a comprehensive spectrum of overlooked sources in this magisterial analysis of the 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and its consequences. The battle ended French colonial rule in Indochina and set the stage for American involvement in Vietnam, as unwanted initially as it was tragic in the end. The French, in November 1953, decided to establish a base in the remote valley of Dien Bien Phu. They were convinced the garrison could be supplied and supported by air, and Vietminh reaction thwarted by the roadless mountains and impenetrable jungles. Both assumptions were mistaken. Morgan, himself a veteran of the French army, eloquently describes the envelopment, the strangling, and the crushing of the French garrison by a people's army of Vietnamese peasants in the face of no less determined defenders. Reframing the battle, often viewed as a French folly, Morgan calls Dien Bien Phu one of the great epics of military endurance by both sides. His book is a fitting tribute to the men who wrote that epic. 16 pages of b&w photos, 2 maps. (Feb. 23)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
This absorbing account of the prelude, battle, and aftermath that ended the “first Viet Nam War” is a sad tale of misconception, missed opportunities, and massive blunders by French and even American military and civilian officials. Morgan, whose given name is De Gramont, served as a French lieutenant during the Algerian war and has an understandably jaded view of French imperial pretensions. He illustrates how the arrogance of French imperial masters embittered Vietnamese and made a smooth transition to independence unlikely. Morgan eloquently illustrates the deceptions and maneuvers between France, Britain, and the United States over the fate of Indochina as World War II ended. Sadly, President Truman, reversing Roosevelt’s policy, supported the restoration of French control. The actual battle of Dien Bien Phu is recounted in brutal detail as French forces bravely but futilely fought off advancing Viet Minh, led by wily General Giap, who had deeply personal reasons to despise French imperialism. This is a superb chronicle of a sad and avoidable conflict that led to an even more destructive one. --Jay Freeman
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Top Customer Reviews
I suppose that the subtitle should have given an indication that this was not just about the battle but the author's style of changing constantly between the battlefield and Hanoi, Washington, Paris and Geneva gave a disjointed feel to the account. This wasn't helped by the lack of maps in the book. DBP had so many strongpoints and sub strongpoints being captured and recaptured that it needs good maps to allow the reader to follow the encounter. The two badly drawn maps of the camp in Morgan's book meant that I kept Windrow's handy to enable me to follow Valley of Death's account.
As I read through the book I started finding errors and inconsistencies that belie the dust jacket's claim that this is "superbly researched". Morgan states that Capt Hantz's surgical team dropped into DBP on the night of April 7-8 but both Fall and Windrow place this on April 12. Morgan states that "two companies of Brechignac's Legionnaires came to relieve Trapp..."but Brechignac was Colonial Paras not Legion. Morgan states that "with the loss of H1 a new strongpoint clled Opera was jerry-built". H1 fell on April 21/22 but Windrow has Opera shown on a map in existence from the 18th of April and Fall talks of Opera well before H1 fell. Morgan talks of the "low Elianes 3, 10, 11 and 13. There was an Eliane 12 but no 13. Finally when Morgan talks of the importance of Camerone Day to the Legion he states that the Legionnaires involved in the battle of Camerone were stationed at Camerone. This is incorrect; they retreated to and made their last stand there but they were stationed at Veracruz.
I could go on because these are not all of the errors which I found. The point I would make is that if I can find these errors because of my familiarity with the battle, what "facts" has Morgan stated in his lead up to the battle and beyond about which I am less familiar, that might also be wrong. This brings me to another criticism. The notes to the book are sparse and although the bibliography is extensive there are conversations and facts that are not attributed. (e.g. The establishment of Opera, and Brechignac's "Legionnaires" are not referenced at all). I am more inclined to accept Windrow and Fall's accounts of the battle because of their notes and sources.
Finally, I thought the selection of photographs was unusual. While it appears to correct what could be seen as a failing of other accounts which have few photos from the Viet Minh side, there are some curious selections.The photograph of a poster warning against aids and heroin in present day DBP and the photos of Roosevelt and Churchill seem out of place. I also have a feeling that some of the photos of the Viet Minh attacks might be from the re- enactment film produced by the Viet Minh after the battle although I stand to be corrected. The photo of the Viet Minh anti aircraft guns appears to show them tightly grouped and very exposed.
So while I would say that this is a good addition to the books on this battle it is not the best and not, in my opinion, a definitive account as the dust jacket proclaims.
It would prove a tragic decision. Still thinking the movement headed by Ho Chi Minh as a band of guerrillas, Navarre didn't realize that Chinese support had transformed the Vietminh forces in a proper army. The French were soon entrapped - general Giap, the Vietminh commander, had decided the time was ripe for a battle in a fixed area.
The French base, consisting of several strongpoints scattered around a central command post, soon lost its airstrips and became a hell from which the wounded could not be evacuated. A brutal three-month trench fight ensued, in which the French were squeezed into an ever smaller perimeter. As airdrops turned out almost impossible, the situation became unsustainable. Upon surrender almost 11,000 prisoners were taken, most of them foreigners - German Legionnaires, Morrocans and Vietnamese - since the French could not send conscripts abroad. Less than a third survived the forced marchs and POW camps.
Ted Morgan, née Sanche de Gramont, is a veteran of the French army, having fought in Algery in the 1950's. The book, superbly researched, portrays the history of Indochina from WWII, when the fall of France relaxed the often brutal control they had been enforcing over the region for a century and allowed the Vietminh nationalist movement to set foot. Initially occupied during the war by the Japanese, a French administration sent by Vichy was allowed to keep nominal control. By the end of the war, fearing an American invasion, the Japanese took control back and jailed the French troops. The vaccum created by Japan's surrender allowed the Vietminh to take power, though the country ended up divided and occupied by the Chinese on the north and the British on the south. Roosevelt, a stark anti-colonialist, didn't want to hand power back to the French. His death in 1945 and the reality of cold war in Europe allowed the French to regain their colony. The forceful cohabitation between the French and the Vietminh soon deteriorated towards a war.
The conflict extended from 1947 to 1954, when the defeat at Dien Bien Phu led to the partition of Vietnam in a conference in Geneva. The French had finally lost their Asian colony, while US involvement - they supplied the French with matériel all over the war - would soon result in their own tragedy in the region.
The French built the base to protect Laos and to draw the forces of General Vo Nguyen Giap into a pitched battle, one that the French expected to win. In addition to the problem of being dominated by the surrounding high ground, the valley could only be supplied by air.
Logistics then, became the problem facing both armies. The Viet Minh had to move an army of 35,000 soldiers over 300 miles from their supply bases along the Chinese border. More importantly, they had to man-handle heavy artillery pieces, disassembling them before moving them by brigades of coolies over mountains, across rivers, and through thick jungle. And they had to do this without being discovered by the French.
All the French supplies and manpower had to be dropped by air. Weather, distance, lack of resources, and enemy anti aircraft fire all impacted their ability to accomplish this mission.
Neither side had any shortage of courage and both were subjected to horrendous conditions. In the end, the Viet Minh prevailed. The French left Vietnam for good, we entered the fray, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The book is well written and detailed. I would have liked to see more maps (there are only three in the front of the book), and more photos of some of the combatants who so bravely fought there. Otherwise, it is a worthy addition to any library on the history of the Vietnam conflict.