What really caused France’s humiliating loss to the Viet Minh in the French Indochina war? To understand we must focus on logistics. Charles Shrader’s A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945–1954 reveals the true staggering failures of the French were simply the result of poor logistics.
On the surface, it may not make sense. A western power falling to an agrarian band of guerrilla fighters? No author has precisely examined Viet Minh and French military logistics in great detail. This is an impressive view.
Shrader has taught at West Point, the Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and at the Army War College. He is a former executive director of the Society for Military History. His metrics and well-written history document those French military pillars that collapsed triggering their retreat not only from Indochina but from the world stage.
Many respected books point to Dien Bien Phu as the surprising French loss and later defeat in the war. Shrader documents how this battle was the culmination of a series of shocking logistical failures that plagued their efforts against the Viet Minh.
The shift benefitting the Viet Minh developed after the Korean War. China began delivering overwhelming logistical resources to the Viet Minh. While French and CIA intelligence captured communications confirming numerous deliveries of infrastructure, France did not adjust to this threat.
In retrospect, the logistical failure to support the French effort should have sent strong signals to American military advisors that success against this communist enemy would be a long and difficult task.
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Regarded as one of the CIA’s premiere Vietnam intelligence experts George W. Allen wrote a 2001 memoir None So Blind: A personal account of the intelligence failure in Vietnam that remains an alarming insight of intelligence failures that forecasted both France and America’s defeat in Vietnam. Allen’s contributions set the stage regrettably for the Pentagon and White House to also follow France’s misplaced goals for the next twenty-five years.
My interest in Allen’s memoir developed from reading a series of confidential reports by the US military and CIA from the 1950s.
Declassified in the late 1990s the documents address the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
Many of those documents point to Allen’s intelligence reports and analysis. Naturally this peaked my wish to better understand the American intelligence analysis of the French defeat.
Allen holds a unique, deep understanding of the Indochina Wars (France 1945-1950) and the coming failure of America’s intervention on behalf of South Vietnam 1960-1974. The lessons in his book leave deep, haunting impressions today on the White House and Pentagon leaders who ignored our intelligence community.
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The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow is another stunning book regarding the French defeat in Indochina. He follows the same historical accuracy as Archimedes Patti’s Why Vietnam? Prelude to America’s Albatross and Bernard Fall’s Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu.
Windrow has written an amazing history of France’s approach to defeat the Viet Minh. His work complements a select number of authors who have brought to life an important battle long overlooked in the late 1950s by America that contributed heavily to our entry into Vietnam.
Similar to my review of Ted Morgan’s book Valley of Death The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War the siege is a stunning look by Windrow at a morally bankrupt 4th republic attempting to re-colonize Indochina beginning in 1946. World War II in Europe was over with rebuilding was underway. France attempted along with Britain to reclaim colonial territories after the surrender of Japan.
In great detail the opening chapters document French losses from 1948 to 1952. His attention to detail is amazing. These repeated failures as Windrow noted began to show weak points within the French Union. Clearly they had no ability to defeat the Viet Minh at the Laotian border.
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The Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War by Ted Morgan is a simply stunning read. This book proves to be a perfect follow up to the CIA’s Archimedes Patti revealing Why Vietnam? Prelude to America’s Albatross and Bernard Fall’s excellent Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu.
This review below includes a series of powerful quotes from the 700+ pages that should turn your stomach as French leaders permitted men to die just to save face for their failing empire. It is truly stunning across this book to see a morally bankrupt France fight to re-colonize Indochina.
Morgan set the post-World War II stage inside Indochina for any reader to learn how France was able to maintain a rule over Indochina during the occupation by the Japanese Imperial coup in Vietnam. Valley of Death reveals how the CIA approached Ho Chi Minh before D-Day to rescue downed US Air Force pilots from Japanese troops throughout Indochina. Ho urgently cooperated and was rewarded with munitions and a US Army Deer Team sent by the CIA to Ho Chi Minh. Their mission? To train and lead Viet Minh troops against the Japanese. This includes raids on Japanese positions in northern Vietnam after both atomic bombs were dropped.
Again Valley of Death clearly reveals US and Viet Minh relations were bonded against Japanese control of Indochina during World War II.
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Bernard Fall wrote a compelling yet sober book Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu. Fall was a respected journalist who predicted the failure of French efforts to re-colonize Indochina after World War II. He delivers a first hand account. He was on the ground with French troops beginning in 1953. He returned to Indochina multiple times before dying in a 1967 ambush with US troops in Operation Chinook II.
On more than one occasion in the opening chapters the French considered permanently passing on Dien Bien Phu as a location to confront the Viet Minh to stop their push into Laos. Google Satellite Map of the valley Dien Bien Phu.
At first glance this is a Greek Tragedy. Yet Fall reveals, to simply save face on the global stage France continued to send men to their deaths over the 56 day siege. In Paris and Hanoi the commitment was NOT to win the war but rather simply hold the garrison as means to strengthen negotiations at the Geneva Accords.
At the earliest stages of the French occupation General Henri Navarre and Lt. General Rene Cogny would spare over the definition of the Dien Bien Phu defensive parameter with tragic consequences.
Cogny defined Dien Bien Phu as a guerilla camp or ‘mooring point’ defense, Navarre interpreted a ‘heghog’ or airhead defense be established which had proven successful for France against the Viet Minh at the Battle of Na San. Regardless the French defensive positions were never implemented to withstand the Viet Minh onslaught that came in waves and deadly accurate cannon fire.
Hell In A Very Small Place reveals during this early confusion French intelligence intercepted multiple radio messages revealing strong evidence of the enemy’s shift of two established divisions heading towards Dien Bien Phu. Yet this intelligence was only debated between Navarre and Cogny. They never acted on this intelligence. This led to increased disagreements between the two at the cost of their men.
No French military leader could forecast a cease fire in the Korean War. This permitted Communist China to shift much needed weapons from Soviet Russia and material into Dien Bien Phu in mid 1953.
It is discouraging to read Fall’s account of the Allied losses around Dien Bien Phu beginning in November 1953, three months before the Viet Minh would launch their initial attack at Dien Bien Phu. The cold war shifted tides from Korea to Indochina.
Fall’s other recognized book Street without Joy reveals how 400 French Union troops were confronted by nearly 1,000 Viet Minh in hand to hand combat. They “simply fixed bayonet and walked into death.” Fall’s Hell In A Very Small Place extends this horrific sacrifice.
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The Pentagon Papers revealed a startling event: France requested the US Air Force drop three atomic bombs at Dien Bien Phu. The French Union troops were being overrun by the Viet Minh and their well placed and deadly accurate cannon fire in the surrounding hills of the French garrison.
French artillery commander Charles Piroth realizing his overconfident plan to easily silence their cannons committed suicide in his bunker after the opening days of the siege.
This loss was the tipping point for France’s failure as a post World War II colonial empire, their exit from Indochina and the world stage.
France initially declassified documents regarding Dien Bien Phu in 2005. They acknowledged a very active role of by the US Air Force during the siege. Two US Air Force pilots were killed over the battlefield. They were awarded France’s highest military honor by the French Ambassador to the United States.
The battle began on March 13, 1953 with their surrender on May 7th. The Americans were killed in the final three days of battle.
The Pentagon Papers confirm 38 US Air Force pilots flew at least 682 sorties over the course of the siege. The Pentagon Papers more importantly reveal French cables to Washington (just 10 days into the month-long siege) requesting US air support and eventually the Eisenhower White House considered atomic bombs to Viet Minh positions surrounding the garrison’s hills.
President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles actually kept this nuclear option on the table until the British ambassador in London notified Dulles that Britain would not support the French request.
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