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Deadly Domino

 Dien Bien Phu -- one of the biggest and most costly blunders in modern military history.

By From the June 2010 issue

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Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War
By Ted Morgan
(Random House, 722 pages, $35)

For Ho Chi Minh, né Nguyen Sinh Cung, peripatetic professional revolutionary and alumnus of the Soviet Union's University of the Toilers of the East, founder in 1941 of the Vietminh independence movement against French colonial rule in Indochina, it had been a long wait. Some 50,000 French colons had ruled for decades over Vietnam's native population of 20 million Annamites, creaming off the profits from the land's rubber, coal, tin, and tungsten. Now at last he smelled blood. French blood, in the broad, mountain-ringed valley known as Dien Bien Phu.

As he saw it, the situation was simple. To illustrate it for an inquiring visitor, Ho turned his pith helmet over on the austere bamboo table that served as his desk. Placing his hands in the bottom of the hat, he said, "That's where the French are." Then, running his fingers around the helmet's rim, "That's where we are. They will never get out."

Simple indeed, and you have to wonder whether only a French general would fail to get it. Certainly President Dwight Eisenhower, a man of some military experience, had to agree with Ho on that point. "Finally, [the French] came along with this Dien Bien Phu plan," he wrote in his memoirs. "As a soldier, I was horror-stricken. I just said, ‘My goodness, you don't pen up troops in a fortress, and all history shows that they are just going to be cut to pieces.'"

But French generals, shifting arrows on wall maps back at headquarters, decided this god-for-saken spot in the northwest corner of Vietnam was just the place to get General Vo Nguyen Giap's hit-and-run guerrillas into the sort of conventional, set-piece battle the French could win after eight years of harassment. The plan had the advantage, in their eyes, of drawing the Viet-minh away from the important Tonkin Delta and cutting off their advances toward nearby Laos. Not incidentally, a victory at Dien Bien Phu might just win back some flagging public support among the French public for the Indochina war. So the first French paratroops dropped into the valley on November 20, 1953, and began setting up their base.

The generals were wrong, as we know. Why and how they could be so wrong, committing one of the biggest and most costly blunders in modern military history, is the subject of a new work by Ted Morgan. A French-born naturalized American citizen formerly known as Sanche de Gramont, Morgan, author of biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as well as studies of the settling of the American West, recounts the 56-day battle itself in horrific detail.

But this is more than just another retelling of the siege. Thanks to newly opened archives in France and China and recently declassified top-secret U.S. documents, Morgan, a French army veteran, also shows the extent of Chinese aid to the Vietminh and how America was gradually, reluctantly, controversially drawn into the Vietnam War. That, plus detail on how the quarrelling, horse-trading diplomats at the hectic 1954 Geneva Conference partitioned the country, make this book a worthy complement to earlier descriptions of the battle, such as Bernard Fall's indispensable Hell in a Very Small Place, published in 1967.

IT WAS 55-YEAR-OLD General Henri Navarre, appointed overall commander of forces in Indochina in May 1953, who chose Dien Bien Phu for the French stand. A career intelligence type, not a combat officer, and with a preference for the European theatre, he protested that he had never served in Asia and knew nothing about Indochina. Paris's answer: "Someone has to do it....You will see it with fresh eyes....Find an honourable way out." As Morgan's thorough research shows, when Navarre flew to France's headquarters in Hanoi to work out final details with his commanders on the ground, they unanimously rejected the plan. Drop paratroops over enemy-held terrain? "You're going to lose 50 percent of your men," they told him. In his later memoirs, Navarre baldly writes, "No unfavourable opinion was expressed before the battle."

The augurs were never good. To start with, Navarre immediately requested more troops, but France's pusillanimous Fourth Republic government refused. (Comments Morgan: "It was like turning off the hydrants while fighting a fire.") Of the nearly 15,000 troops in the garrison when it reached full strength, only a minority were French. The rest were from France's pickup colonial armies of Algerians, Moroccans, Laotians, and Vietnamese, plus mostly German members of the Foreign Legion. The latter were especially useful, because "They never complained, and when they were killed, no one claimed their corpses."

Then there was Navarre's questionable choice to command the stronghold. Colonel Christian de Castries was a cavalry officer. When offered Dien Bien Phu, he replied candidly, "If you're thinking of setting up an entrenched camp, this isn't my line. I'd rather you picked somebody else." Too bad. So an officer used to carrying the battle to the enemy and operating in the open field of rapid tank advances was ordered to head what was, in effect, a defensive Maginot Line. All the initiative would be left to the Vietminh guerrillas.

Castries soldiered on, repairing the small airstrip that the Viets had previously pitted with holes. Until it was ready, everything had to be parachuted in, from canned cassoulet to bales of barbed wire and a six-ton bulldozer in two parts. Then eight fortified "centers of resistance" were created. There were underground surgical units -- and two Bordels Mobiles de Campagne (Mobile Field Bordellos), one with 11 Algerian women and the other with five Vietnamese, each with its own madam.

All this was closely observed by two very interested parties: General Giap and the Eisenhower administration.

Giap had his own plans for Dien Bien Phu. The French assumed he would be unable to bring in artillery on the region's narrow, twisting mountain roads. But Giap mobilized a virtual army of thousands of coolies. Working in gangs of hundreds, they manhandled in mortars, 105 mm cannon, recoilless rifles, antiaircraft guns, and 12-tube Katyusha rocket launchers, much of it provided by Communist China. He had nearly 150 artillery pieces securely dug into the sides of the mountains, compared with 60 French pieces exposed in the valley. Advised of this, Navarre was already having doubts in January 1954. "Two weeks ago I was one hundred percent sure of winning at Dien Bien Phu," he reported to Paris, "but given the new means our intelligence is announcing....I can no longer guarantee success."

The Eisenhower administration, unlike Giap, was divided over what to do. On one hand, Ike, like every administration since Franklin Roosevelt, was loath to help the French in a colonial war. On the other, the domino theory -- Morgan calls it a "catchy but fallacious notion" -- had been dogma in Washington since at least April 1950. That was when President Harry Truman signed off on NSC 64, which held that if the French could not contain Ho's forces, the rest of Asia would go Communist. (The U.S. chargé in Saigon was even more alarmist: If Indochina fell, "most of the colored races of the world [sic] would in time fall to the Communist sickle.") In May Truman approved $10 million in aid for Indochina and sent a military assistance group. "At this point," Morgan writes, "the tragedy of Indochina became the shared responsibility of the French and the Americans."

Having just gotten the U.S. out of the Korean War, Ike considered any direct American armed intervention in Vietnam unacceptable. "No one could be more bitterly opposed to ever getting the United States involved in a hot war in that region than I am," he told a press conference. But in January 1954, Ike approved sending 700 tons of military equipment to Vietnam aboard a squadron of C-119 Flying Boxcars with French insignia, piloted by American civilians under CIA contract. By March the U.S. was actually paying for fully 80 percent of France's Vietnam War.

Giap attacked on March 13. His artillery quickly made the airstrip unusable, so all French reinforcements and supplies had to be parachuted in despite thick antiaircraft flak. After his troops had dug trenches to within a few hundred yards of the garrison, they advanced in human waves, starting with "death volunteers" who threw themselves at French positions with 20 pounds of TNT strapped to their chests. Morgan's research turned up reports and letters home that give vivid descriptions of the carnage. One Legion officer wrote to his wife of "human waves of Viets drunk on choum (rice alcohol) marching over their own dead and attacking with flamethrowers. Our men have bloodied uniforms and ravaged, ghostlike faces." Another described an artillery barrage: "It was like the end of the world. I thought the sky was falling. We were glued to the ground." A German Legionnaire summed up, "We kill them but they just keep coming. Alles kaput!"

On a single day early in the siege, doctors performed 23 amputations, plastered 15 broken ribs, sewed up 20 open abdomens and chests. As one surgeon described it, "Piles of hands, arms, legs and feet mixed together as in some foul bouillabaisse. Maggots swarmed in bandages and plaster casts." Machine guns were manned by amputees, who urinated on their red-hot bar-els to cool them. As morale declined, Castries's chief of staff had a nervous breakdown and had to be evacuated. His artillery commander, who had boasted he would easily wipe out Giap's guns, held a grenade to his body and pulled the pin. Hundreds of deserters, mainly colonial troops, fled to the banks of the Nam Yum River and lived off the plunder from errant air-dropped supplies and stripped corpses.

With no avenue of retreat, only surrender was possible. By May 7, the battle had cost France 16 battalions, two artillery groups, and a squadron of tanks. (Vietminh losses were heavier, but Giap had a virtually inexhaustible supply of manpower.) Castries got his headquarters in Hanoi on the radiophone to say he was sending out negotiators to meet the Vietminh. "Listen, mon vieux," replied his delusional chief, "I realize it's all over, but avoid any form of capitulation. That is forbidden. We must have no white flags." Some 10,000 French prisoners were taken. Those who survived forced death marches spent months in camps where mortality rates ran more than 60 percent.

MORGAN SKILLFULLY WEAVES together his narrative of the battle with the diplomatic games being played at the Geneva Conference, which opened April 26 and lasted almost three months. There the U.S., Britain, France, Soviet Union, China, and the nations of Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and representatives of both the Vietminh in the north and the State of Vietnam in the south) debated and jockeyed for position over what had been a colonial conflict and became a superpower proxy war.

Dulles took a hard line and earned the enmity of Britain's Anthony Eden (Prime Minister Winston Churchill privately called Dulles "a stupid sermonizer"), who feared that Dulles wanted to bomb China. Chou En-lai sought the spotlight to raise China's standing as a world power. The French dithered, intellectualized, and drove the others crazy with their shifting positions. In internal memos Britain's Foreign Office lamented the excessive "mental dexterity" of the French, "the hopeless instability of French thought."

The conference ended July 21, 1954, with the partitioning of Vietnam at the 17th parallel. As Morgan puts it, "France lost the crown jewel of its colonial empire." Some of the French press tried to turn defeat into victory. Thus Paris Match called Dien Bien Phu "the capital of heroism." But most saw it clearly, like Le Figaro, which editorialized, "During these nine years of war, opportunities to win...were lost because of our weakness...we fought this war shamefully."

The domino effect hit France itself. The humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu contributed to the fall of the Fourth Republic and the return to power of Charles de Gaulle. Next to topple were France's West African and North African colonies. Thus it can be argued that, to a large extent, the spectacular blunder at Dien Bien Phu weakened France's self-confidence and hastened the end of its colonial empire. In this book Morgan, with his Franco-American perspective, neatly dovetails military and diplomatic history of a high order to clarify such ramifications -- both in France and the U.S. -- for history buffs and the general reader as well.

Sequel: Today Dien Bien Phu boasts the Victory Statue, a splendid example of grandiose neo-Stalinist style. Dedicated in 2004 to commemorate the battle's 50th anniversary, the metal work is already rusting and cracked. The Vietnamese bureaucrats who oversaw the project are accused of using inferior materials and pocketing the difference, faking documents to embezzle, and taking bribes.

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.