BOOK REVIEW Published March 2, 2010
by Robert Miller
Valley of Death
The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War
Random House, 2010
As in all classic Greek tragedies, Valley of Death is divided in five acts and ends in a sobering epilogue.
While most of the existing American histories of the Vietnam War begin with France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu or at the Geneva Conference of May- August 1954 many tend to skip to the ignominious end of the Diem Regime in 1963 and the American tragedy that followed under Lyndon Johnson. Ted Morgan however correctly warns us from the beginning that the roots reach further back in recent history where the paths of France and America crossed again and again as allies and as friends all the way since the birth of this nation.
The prologue came in 1940. The battle that France lost to Germany in May and June had enormous political and historical ramifications. As French historian J.B. Duroselle put it, in a matter of weeks France had ceased to exist as a great power and the whole world became instantly aware of that fact. Humiliations were to follow inexorably. Marshal Pétain asked Nazi Germany for the terms of an armistice; General De Gaulle called on France to stay in the war to preserve its honor, independence and prestige; and by a thread Britain miraculously held the line during that disastrous summer.
France’s loss of face among the colonized peoples of the French Empire was complete: a reality that would reverberate disastrously for another half-century.
As far removed as these events may appear from the reality of the American War in Vietnam, it is at that crucial moment, once France was forced to surrender to Nazi Germany, that the various factions of Indochinese nationalists including Ho Chi Minh embarked on the long struggle toward independence.
Ted Morgan fittingly begins Valley of Death, in the shadow of the summer of 1940. It must also be said that he is the author of the best single volume biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, another very complex subject that he has also mastered brilliantly. Because of the situation in Europe, FDR decided to seek a third term as president and defeated the Republican challenger Wendell Willkie in November. One may speculate how radically different history might have been had Cordell Hull been sitting in the White House in 1941. Sumner Welles would have probably been replaced as undersecretary of state and the anti-colonialist slant of the State Department postwar planning group may well have been shelved.
Welles along with New Deal New York businessman Charles Taussig, a longtime advisor to FDR on decolonization policy, had crafted the plans for Trusteeships. These were to be the “Trojan horse” mechanism Roosevelt imagined to achieve the gradual dismantling of the European empires over a 30 year period. The great cornerstones of the postwar world such as the United Nations and its agencies were the result of the planning groups that Welles managed.
The Atlantic Charter of August 1941 had every nationalist political leader looking to Washington for guidance and support in the struggle for independence. FDR’s insistence on immediate independence for Indochina may have also had its roots in his perception of France as a weakened power as early as after the First World War.
In 1920, as the debate over French war debts to the U.S. was beginning, a proposal was discussed in the French parliament to simply given the Americans all of Indochina as a way to settle those obligations! FDR was the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee while James M. Cox was heading the ticket that lost to Warren G. Harding and in all probability he learned about that strange proposal that was quickly forgotten. Ho Chi Minh was well aware of the American commitment to decolonization and would borrow the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights to declare the independence of Vietnam in 1945 in the presence of OSS officers. He wasn’t the only one to have such dreams.
How then did the United States go from promoting the Atlantic Charter, Trusteeships and the United Nations to dispatching over half a million troops to Vietnam in 1967?
Ted Morgan provides us at last with an answer to the elusive question of the origins of the war that has haunted journalists and historians from the beginning. His account provides the essential historical inventory you will not find in Halberstam, Sheehan, Karnow and many other Vietnam War histories. It took a writer equally comfortable with the French and the American archival record to finally deal successfully with the issue that compelled Robert McNamara to order the drafting of the Pentagon Papers. Yet, even that Department of Defense study remains largely incomplete because the French record was barely accessed, if not completely ignored, by American researchers who were unable to read the language. That gap in our knowledge has finally been closed with Morgan’s book.
When a liberated France emerged from the nightmare years of humiliation, and occupation in 1944, a new sense of pride, of nationalist patriotism and desire for fundamental renewal, swept the country. General De Gaulle headed the provisional government. Two important events shaped the colonial debate in France.
At the eleventh hour of the war, on March 9, 1945, the Japanese overthrew the French colonial administrators of Indochina who had remained loyal to Vichy and had reached a modus Vivendi with the occupying power, in a military coup. A world away in Algeria, on May 8 during the festivities for the Nazi surrender, Algerian Arab demonstrators in the town of Sétif demanded independence and went on a rampage killing 147 Europeans. A brutal repression followed where thousands were killed at random as revenge. De Gaulle addressed the cabinet saying:
"We will not let Algeria slip through our fingers…" the same applied to Indochina where the general dispatched some tough officers like Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu to make sure. Unfortunately Morgan doesn’t mention De Gaulle’s plans to restore a legitimate Vietnamese monarchy by sending Prince Vinh San, also known as Duy Tan, the former emperor of Annam who had been deposed in 1916 as a young boy. The hope was to find a pro-French solution with meaningful independence. The prince’s plane crashed at Fort Lamy in Africa on Christmas day 1945 as he was returning to Vietnam and with him a possible peaceful solution was tragically lost.
In Indochina following the Japanese coup, Free French units were stranded in the jungles of Tonkin in Northern Vietnam, hunted by the still aggressive Japanese occupation forces as they tried to reach safety in southern China. Morgan aptly recounts a dramatic meeting between U.S. Ambassador Jefferson Caffrey and General De Gaulle on March 13, 1945 where the French leader pleaded for supplies and assistance to be dropped to his forces. Roosevelt, mindful of the dangers of an angry and nationalist France as the war was winding down, eventually relented and reversed the stated anti-colonialist policy by allowing some help to be parachuted into the jungle. But De Gaulle remained suspicious of U.S. intentions about Indochina as would the rest of the French officer corps and most politicians for decades to come.
Roosevelt knew he must avoid a dramatic break with France in Europe where the Soviet threat was looming large just before the start of the Cold War. That pattern would continue all the way to Dien Bien Phu. The United States kept on requesting that France actively prepare Indochina for independence and the French dragged their feet unwilling or unable to carry out a policy they only gave lip service to or so it seemed.
De Gaulle resigned in January 1946 leaving a vacuum of leadership that would never be resolved by the Fourth Republic. The French Union was created as a reflection of the British Commonwealth but with a much less successful outcome. In theory Vietnam was independent within the French Union since 1946 but that meant a kind of protectorate in real terms. At first the Truman Administration pressed France to give full independence as it observed what was thought to be a colonial war to re-conquer the Vietnamese part of Indochina from the Vietminh. The Cold War quickly ended the anti-colonialist Roosevelt Agenda at least temporarily in U.S. foreign policy.
Once the Soviets exploded their first Atomic Bomb and Mao took over in mainland China in 1949 things changed dramatically. With Korea as the focal point of the Cold War the Americans were compelled to supporting France’s debilitating military effort and giving more than simple advice. From 1950 through 1954 the main issue in American policy towards Indochina was to push the French to be more aggressive against the Viet Minh.
General De Lattre de Tassigny in 1951-52 as military leader in Indochina created the illusion that something positive could be achieved. But De Lattre lost his son tragically in battle and fell terminally ill; he returned to France where he soon died. General Raoul Salan knew the terrain better than most officers, was cautious, rather unimaginative and unwilling to take risks, nevertheless he had drafted several plans and held Indochina together with meager forces and little equipment. He undertook several operations that were a prelude to Dien Bien Phu but had the good sense to evacuate his troops from those valleys before they became hopelessly stuck.
Eisenhower’s decisive electoral victory brought key decisions that the American public expected: an end to the Korean War, the proclaimed rollback the Soviets and Chinese communists, and therefore the decision to prod the French into winning in Indochina within two years or evacuating the colony. The pivotal moment that most historians have understated may have come during the meeting in Washington on March 26, 1953 with Prime Minister Rene Mayer and Foreign Minister Georges Bidault. Stalin had died of a stroke two weeks before and everyone had high hopes for massive change in the USSR.
Indochina was very much on Ike’s agenda: he was originally a Democrat and an ardent supporter of FDR and wanted both a decisive victory over the Viet Minh and full independence to be proclaimed and enacted soon after. The new president and the generals in the Pentagon had no use for timid military leaders like Salan. The French were told to come up with a plan and an aggressive soldier: the choice fell on Henri Navarre, an intelligence officer who had never set foot in Asia and didn’t want the job. But René Mayer insisted and ordered him to Saigon.
Taking a leaf from Salan’s past operations and plans the new commander in chief came up with the idea of a valley high up on the Laotian border where he hoped to attract the bulk of the Vietminh army that he could then pin down and destroy. But Dien Bien Phu was only one among many operations that Navarre was setting up, spreading himself far too thin in process. The Americans and the Pentagon in particular, were well aware of the French plan and no one questioned a strategy that his predecessor had successfully pulled off on a much smaller scale. On the contrary, Morgan shows how many U.S. military and CIA observers visiting Indochina in 1953 approved and supported the "Navarre Plan." So the myth of the Americans "not knowing" about what Navarre was up to is finally shattered.
After the end of the Korean War in May 1953 a series of east – west meetings resulted in the convening of the Geneva Conference on Indochina in April 1954. The fighting was still going on and the Vietminh with the French garrison stuck in muddy valley used the mix of war and diplomacy with consummate skill.
One third of the book’s 700 plus pages is devoted to the actual battle that is described in harrowing detail. Tragedy may be too soft a word to describe what the defenders endured and the attackers had to risk. From November 1953 to May 1954 the stranglehold created by General Giap's forces slowly tightened its noose until it decimated the French garrison. But Navarre could still end the operation as of December when the garrison could still be evacuated. He chose not to do so and that mistake assured him of his ignominious place in history.
During the final months from February to the surrender, it reminded some veterans of the Somme in 1916 albeit on a smaller scale: in short it was a full scale massacre. The strategic and tactical mistakes were destined to remain as textbook examples of what not to do in battle. Eisenhower would write in his memoirs Mandate for Change 1953-1956 that when he saw the Navarre plan he couldn’t believe a general could make such a decision, to place his forces at the bottom of a valley surrounded by hills he had decided not to control. But as we pointed out earlier the U.S. military had also applauded the plan.
It is therefore our strong suspicion and Morgan appears to agree, that Ike’s and the Pentagon’s impatience in March 1953 had truly set the stage for a far too weak attempt by the French to save their position in Asia by deliberately seeking a single knockout blow. In theory such a plan could have worked had there been adequate air cover and the relentless bombing of the hills and the trails leading to the Vietminh artillery emplacements. But the French didn’t have enough air power to mount that kind of attack that could have included the use of napalm and even tactical nuclear bombs, in spite of the fact that 80 percent of France’s military budget was earmarked for Indochina drawn from its NATO commitments.
For Eisenhower the U.S. couldn’t be associated with France’s colonial war by providing manned aircraft to fly missions over Indochina other than support and transport even though such plans had been studied and could have been effected had it been up to Admiral Radford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Whatever was offered would be too little and too late to make a difference. The discussions relating to the use of nuclear weapons were mostly theoretical and there still is speculation about John Foster Dulles offering two atomic bombs to Georges Bidault during a pause at a Paris meeting in April 1954.
Dien Bien Phu surrendered in early May 1954 and the event was rightly felt as a major tragedy in France and the west, not simply the defeat of a colonial army. The consequences of that defeat took the U.S. directly into Vietnam and that story has been well documented. The reasoning behind being so eager to replace the French in Indochina was: "France unfortunately was fighting a dirty colonial war with limited means, we Americans will show them how to fight because we have the money, the men and the weapons it takes to get the job done. Furthermore our mission is to secure a free, democratic and independent Vietnam" …and so on.
The final act of the tragedy took place at Geneva in the course of a long international conference where the Viet Minh, Communist China (PRC) and the USSR were participating from May to July 1954. France changed governments in June in the wake of the fall of Dien Bien Phu and the strategy shifted from a stubborn negotiating stance to a search for the fastest and best possible deal. In effect even the nationalist Foreign Minister Georges Bidault later acknowledged that the more liberal Pierre Mendes-France obtained the best and only possible outcome at the time. The United States left the conference and refused the accords that included country wide elections in Vietnam that would have ensured the victory of the Vietminh. In a final move Emperor Bao Dai appointed Ngo Dinh Diem as prime minister of South Vietnam. Diem had good credentials as a long time opponent of French colonialism, he was a catholic and the man John Foster Dulles and President Eisenhower felt had the necessary anti-Communist commitment to secure a non-communist South Vietnam.
Throughout the battle the pressure was always on Eisenhower to follow Adm. Radford’s advice and intervene heavily to support the French in Indochina. Vice President Richard Nixon agreed with the admiral and made statements to that effect. But Ike was looking at a bigger picture and his later comments on that time and his presidency as reported by Ted Morgan provide the most appropriate closing lines to this magnificent work:
"The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration. We kept the peace. People asked how it happened---by God, it didn’t just happen, I’ll tell you that."
Rating: Highly Recommended.
The Real and the Fake Gangster
By Tim Newark
St. Martin’s Press 2010