Dien Bien Phu retrospective

The valley of Dien Bien Phu was the site of a historic siege by the Viet Minh on a French garrison from March 13th to May 7th 1953. The result was the first time an Asian guerrilla force defeated a standing Western army in sustained battle.

The French hoped to again draw out their Viet Minh enemy and defeat them with superior artillery fire as they did at Na San in November 1952. However a year later a series of French military blunders would doom the garrison.

To more fully understand the French defeat the six titles below are well written and serve as the entrance to a deeper American involvement that would lead to our own nightmare.

Each author addresses key failure points long after the battle that invalidate immediate reactions to the siege. Each author conveys the inhumanity suffered by both sides before, during and after the siege.

Why Vietnam?: Prelude to America’s Albatross
Archimedes Patti

Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu
Bernard Fall

Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina
Bernard Fall

Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam Fredrik Logevall

Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War
Ted Gibson

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam
Martin Windrow

The books all provide powerful experiences from both the Vietnamese and French perspectives:

This garrison was not an all-French unit. Quite the opposite. A majority of soldiers were African, Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian and of course Vietnamese serving the French Far East Expeditionary Corps. This unit included European volunteers from Spain, Poland and Germany. The garrison’s officer corps were French. Make no mistake Paris was no longer interested in sending their sons to die in the jungles of Vietnam.

French Union troops moved a brothel into the garrison. Yes in 1953.

Generals Christian de Castries, Henri Navarre and René Cogny ignored their own very accurate military intelligence reports. The movement of heavy artillery from China into the surrounding hills was discovered by radio intercepts. Yet the Generals never considered the Viet Minh able to position heavy artillery around the surrounding hills.

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Latest read: Embers of War

Fredrick Logevall won the 2013 Pulitzer for Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. Today America continues to hold a quiet, deep divide when looking inward to find the truth regarding our long nightmare in Vietnam.

Logevall traces America’s involvement to Paris at the end of World War I. A young Nguyen Ai Quoc sought support at the June 1919 Paris Peace Conference from US President Wilson. Quoc carried a declaration addressing a free Vietnam. He never met with Wilson. At the conclusion of the conference Nguyen Ai Quoc, translated to mean “He Who Loves his Country” changed his name to Ho Chi Minh.

Embers of War

Astounding that in 1919 a young revolutionary could patiently wait 50 years for his opportunity to bring independence to Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh would become (much to our regret) one of the most famous revolutionaries in history.

He led his country to defeat two western powers in a devastating war that lasted over 30 years. His cause was a war of independence against the French and then the Americans.

Interesting to learn how well Ho Chi Minh understood America. He lived in Boston and New York City. He worked as a cook, a baker and later a production line manager for General Motors before returning to Europe.

Embers of War beautifully illustrates how the US State Department shifted policy from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Harry S. Truman. It was only strengthened under Eisenhower. It is still difficult to imagine the level of initial support in men, money and weapons we gave to support Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh against French colonial rule after World War II. It is a stark wake up to read how CIA advisors met with Ho Chi Minh and our US Army units training his troops.

Continue reading “Latest read: Embers of War”