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.
Yet after Japan’s surrender France was permitted by British politicians to regain control of Vietnam in collaboration with China.
The French war against the Viet Minh spiked in 1947. However a clear sign of additional French failures were glaring in the norther region of Cao Bang. During a two year period France suffered repeated ambushes along Route Colonial 4.
Morgan describes culminating in late 1949the Battle of Cao Bang as a complete failure of French efforts. The losses were stunning and eerily mimicked the coming disaster at Dien Bien Phu.
Yet below the surface Morgan reveals the reasons why the French could not win on the battlefields:
From the first months, French losses were unexpectedly high, due not only to combat but to the scourges of alcoholism, venereal diseases (known as “a kick from Venus”), and tropical maladies. Bad water made the troops drink more beer and wine. Pernod was a cheap favorite. Drinking led to accidents and fights. It got to the point where the military command punished drunks with fines and prison time.
In what one soldier called “this whore of a tropical country,” the men were stricken with malaria, amoebic dysentery, bilharzia, and other unnamed parasites, not to mention typhoid, tuberculosis, cholera, and meningitis. In operations in the rice paddies, leeches attached themselves to men’s bodies and had to be removed with lit cigarettes. During the monsoon season, it took only twenty-four hours for men’s boots to be covered with green mushrooms. In many small posts, the rudimentary infirmaries were not up to the task.
Over the course of the war, from 1947 to 1954, 288,000 cases of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancres were recorded. Many men were repeatedly infected. Upon landing in 1945, the French were given a million English condoms (the French word for condom means “English overcoat”), but they didn’t seem to help. Saigon was alive with prostitutes. It was said that Ho Chi Minh had a corps of “Amazons,” young women who agreed to contract venereal disease so they could pass it along to French soldiers. Penicillin was in short supply, and the high command decreed that those afflicted with the mal d’amour would have to pay for their own medication or face eight days in prison. Due to venereal scourges, it was not unusual for half a garrison to be hospitalized.
As it was, the army of 120,000 (only 50,000 of them French) didn’t have the manpower to carry out their multiple missions: defend the strongpoints and depots; protect the roads and bridges; and conduct.
Clearly when you enslave an army to fight your empire’s wars you reap what you sow.
Chapters four and five display a series repeated failures of French and American politicians trying to win the battle for Asia from the comforts of their diplomatic offices while the French command in Hanoi actually became isolated from their top officers at Dien Bien Phu:
As the war progressed, the manpower crisis got worse. Companies that should have had one hundred men were down to eighty. Troops in fortified positions were reluctant to venture beyond their protected enclaves. The French were limited to countering Vietminh offensives, unable to conduct any of their own. The Indochina war was a manpower war, and it was lost because the French did not have enough boots on the ground. How futile their battles seemed to be.
As the conflict wore on, there was a gradual deterioration in the quality of the men. In one regiment of colonial infantry, the reinforcements were Algerian illiterates. Even in the Foreign Legion, even in the elite paratroopers, the quality dropped. In principle, the time of service was twenty-four months, but it was raised to thirty months in 1948. Those who reenlisted (and there were some) received bonuses.
At the time of full-scale war in 1947, the French air force was practically nonexistent. Not that a guerrilla war fought in the jungle could be won with airpower. But planes were needed to supply posts in areas hard to reach by road, and to evacuate the wounded. In 1947, the French had nine American C-47s, for which they had to get spare parts in the Philippines. From 1947 to 1949, there was a permanent spare-parts mission in Manila. Added to the C-47s were sixteen German Ju-52s, the slow mules that did the heavy lifting. Their crews used them as bombers, tossing bombs out by hand or building bomb racks under the fuselages. Of course, they never knew what they were hitting. Finally, they had twenty-four Spitfires built in 1943, fighter planes not intended to support troops on the ground, since they fired bursts of only fifteen seconds—inadequate for strafing. With this air force of planes of many nations, spare-parts problems abounded. In 1948, the 4th Fighter Squadron, based in Nha Trang, sent this plaintive message to Paris: “We have no more tires for our Spitfires. “There are days when we don’t have a Spitfire in the sky.” In 1949, the Spitfires were retired. Too old to fly, they became accident-prone. The French had bought them in 1946 after the Americans had refused their request for P-47 Thunderbolts.
Maintenance became a huge problem. In the monsoon climate, some airfields turned into swamps during the rainy season. Most were made of dirt; only a few were cement. Only Tan Son Nhut, in Saigon, was open to large cargo planes all year round. In the high heat, the landing strips became too hot to walk on, and mechanics could only work in the early morning or at dusk. After five hundred hours of flight, a plane’s engine had to be changed, but often there weren’t replacements. The air force lost on average one plane a month for lack of spare parts.
And yet, in spite of these drawbacks, the French made headway in 1947, the first full year of the war. They seized the initiative, while the Vietminh retreated to their jungle and mountain strongholds and kept to defensive maneuvers.
Valley of Death is also very revealing in the detailed tensions between England, France and the US. Both European countries wanted to return to IndoChina and reestablish colonial rule in to exploit oil and mineral resources.
Morgan even acknowledges many French at Dien Bien Phu hated the Americans more than their Viet Minh enemies. The killing of US Army Lt. Col Peter Dewey, the first American solider killed in Vietnam was a foretelling story of the very tense relationship between the American and French troops and their respective diplomats.
The Eisenhower administration begrudgingly provided over $800 million dollars to the French war effort. But the money could not buy success.
The Dien Bien Phu garrison built by French engineers and manned by the French Union was reviewed and declared “fit” by numerous senior American, British and French military officers. Morgan sheds light for any reader to understand how Western allies all stood behind General Navarre’s plans for protecting Laos. And yet the opposite was true:
When President Eisenhower discussed Indochina in the early months of 1953, he found himself trying to reconcile competing American concerns: the desire to give autonomy to the Associated States; the Cold War security need to assist the French; and their inability to win the war. At a National Security Council meeting on May 6, he said that “nothing could possibly save Indochina and that continued U.S. assistance would amount to pouring our money down a rat hole” unless “the French made it clear to the people of Indochina that they were serious about giving them independence, and at the same time appointed an effective military commander.
Finally, in July 1953, fifty-five U.S. Air Force specialists were assigned to French units at the squadron level, providing instruction in such matters as corrosion control and depot organization. General Trapnell, the head of MAAG, concluded that the French were not amenable “to any change or modernization of their traditional methods. On May 23, the French asked for an additional aircraft carrier for the Indochina theater. The United States handed it over in September, but the French crew did not arrive to man it until December. When the carrier left for Toulon in April 1954, to begin its first tour of Indochina, it was diverted to Bombay to deliver thirty-two French-built Ouragan jet fighters to the Indian air force. Why was France selling its jets to India when Washington was delivering U.S. jets to France to help build up its NATO forces? General C. H. Bonesteel, a member of the National Security Council, observed in a memo to Robert Cutler, the president’s special assistant for national security affairs: “The French will have had the Belleau Wood a whole year without making use of her in the fight for Indochina. Moreover, she is currently being used as a delivery wagon rather than a combat vessel.
In the Senate, lively debate erupted when the Arizona Republican Barry M. Goldwater, who later became a self-described shoot-from-the-hip champion of U.S. victory in Vietnam, called for an amendment that no funds should be given to the French until they “set a target date for … complete independence.… The people of Indochina … have been fighting for the same thing for which 177 years ago the people of the American colonies fought.” This was the man whom Lyndon Johnson called “trigger-happy” when he ran against him in 1964.
By supporting France,” Goldwater went on, “we are saying to the great men who penned the document and whose ghosts must haunt these walls, that we do not believe entirely in the Declaration of Independence.” Otherwise, as “surely as day follows night our boys will follow this $400 million.
Navarre’s goal was not to defeat the Vietminh, but “to create military conditions that would allow the government to negotiate a satisfactory, honorable solution to the Indochinese affair.” He had to show the Vietminh it had no chance of winning by force of arms, in order to prod it toward the negotiating table.
“Navarre was even more distraught on July 30 when he saw in the weekly France-Observateur that the top-secret minutes of the Committee for National Defense meeting had been leaked to one of its reporters. Navarre was quoted as saying that during the time it took to launch his plan, he would be unable to defend Laos. Providing military secrets to the Vietminh, he felt, was like giving away the combination to the safe.
Upon his return to Saigon, Navarre was faced with another shocking article, this time in the American press. The August 3, 1953, issue of Life ran text and pictures by the noted photographer of the Korean War David Douglas Duncan, who had spent eight weeks roaming around Vietnam. At Lai Chau, a key post in the northwest, forty-five miles from the Chinese border, Duncan shot empty desks under a wall clock that said 3 P.M., to show that the siesta was the order of the day. Near the Haiphong airport, he shot long rows of U.S. bombs resting unused on carriers, and in Saigon he found a transport depot filled with inactive vehicles. In the text, he described a “languid” war fought on “banker’s hours,” where “many rear area officers have been joined by their wives and families.” He concluded that “ineffective French tactics and the ebbing French will make it seem that Indochina is all but lost to the Communist world.
Thruston B. Morton, a popular former House member from Kentucky, was now assistant secretary of state for congressional relations. Morton conferred with the ranking senators on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, Walter George and Richard Russell, both Georgia Democrats. Morton reported that George “just accepted it and never asked a question and was very gracious.” But Russell said: “You are pouring money down a rat hole. The worst mess we ever got into, this Vietnam. The president has decided it.… I’ll keep my mouth shut … but this is going to be one of the worst things this country ever got into.
President Eisenhower, having allocated $385 million in additional aid for Indochina, tried to find reasons for optimism. General John W. “Iron Mike” O’Daniel had toured Indochina from June 20 to July 10, and sent a copy of the Navarre Plan to Washington. The plan was seen as a marked improvement in military thinking. On August 4, 1953, Eisenhower addressed the Governors’ Conference in Seattle and said: “When the United States votes $400 million to help that war, we are not voting for a giveaway program. We are looking for the cheapest way we can to prevent the occurrence of something that would be of terrible significance for the United States of America—our security, our power and ability to get certain things we need.
As it happened, the 910th Battalion of the 148th Vietminh Regiment, armed with mortars and 75mm recoilless cannons, was garrisoned in the village of Dien Bien Phu. That morning, at the exact location of Drop Zone Natasha, near the airstrip, two Vietminh companies were deployed for a training exercise with mortars. DZ Natasha was covered with rice paddies separated by low dikes and fields of elephant grass that looked flat from the air but were six feet high. It took about two and a half minutes to land, and the Viets started firing while Bigeard’s men were still in the air. The battalion doctor, Captain Jean Raymond, was killed by small-arms fire before he landed, becoming the first French fatality at Dien Bien Phu.
Another explanation for the castor operation came from the London Times on November 23. Dien Bien Phu was “the center of a fertile opium-growing district which has been the Vietminh’s most important source of revenue.” The Vietminh paid for many of its expenses by selling opium, The Times asserted, collecting a million dollars a year from the area to pay its troops, buy medical supplies and U.S. weapons, and reimburse the Chinese for equipment.
President Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs: “Finally, they came along with this Dien Bien Phu plan. 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.… I don’t think anything of this scheme.’” At the time, however, he had no other option but to help the French.
The mood in Congress was “no troops for Indochina,” even though anti-China feelings ran high. When John Foster Dulles appeared in executive session before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on January 19, the Georgia Democrat Henderson Lanham asked: Are we ready to go to war with China or are we simply going to slap them on the wrist with a blockade? … Are we going to run a colossal bluff, or do we really mean to back it up?
Later that day, Eisenhower approved sending the mechanics. A first installment of 9 officers and 136 men from the 8081st Quartermaster Air Supply and Packaging Company was sent to Da Nang with seven hundred tons of equipment, aboard a squadron of C-119s painted gray and flown by two dozen pilots under contract to the CIA-owned Civil Air Transport Company. The mechanics built their own headquarters, repair shops, and testing stands.
Congress had not been consulted, and when the export of mechanics was leaked to the press, there was an uproar. On January 29, the Mississippi Democrat John Stennis, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson: “As always, when we send one group we shall have to send another to protect the first and we shall be fully involved.
It was unusual for Eisenhower to act without consulting Congress, but he didn’t like to be second-guessed on military matters.
Valley of Death reveals how World War II drove FDR to establish a wedge between the colonial views of France and Britain. FDR worked during the war for a free IndoChina. France was bled white in World War II. England supported the French call to re-install colonial power as they looked to reclaim their own former oil rich lands across southern Asia.
Morgan writes short powerful stories of French (and Viet Minh) battle deaths that prove how detached French leadership in Hanoi and politicians in Paris failed to find peace. This was all set against a background of the wavering French Fourth Republic.
Yet at the same time Morgan shows a depressing and horrific events and positions of a failing empire with a American President and Congress determined to stay out of IndoChina….communicating to the French all the reasons why the US military would not assist in their battle in 1953. We would take over fighting the communists just over a year later. Our military commitment would last to 1974.
The long buildup to peace at Geneva continued to cost many more men their lives without any consequence to their politicians. Negotiations before, during and after to determine the short-term future of IndoChina and Morgan begins showing Americans the emerging Ngo Dinh Diem along with Chinese efforts to keep the American military outside of IndoChina.
Yet Zhou Enlai played a strong role in China’s first conference as a world power at Geneva. In the end Enlai look at Vietnam simply as a buffer for China. This would change after America left Vietnam and China opened the third IndoChina war against Vietnam.
Perhaps the harshest story were outlined in the epilogue as Morgan painfully reveals how French society as America would follow 15 years later, shunned their veterans upon their return home. The ultimate loss by a dying empire was to stone and protesting the dedicated service of their military:
On October 9, 1954, French troops under the command of General Salan crossed the Paul Doumer Bridge and exited Hanoi on their way south. Their departure precipitated the flight of Vietnamese Catholics and French businessmen. Signs went up in store windows: 50% off entire stock. Some regiments were sent directly to North Africa, which was in a state of rebellion. They were professional soldiers. Their duty was to fight colonial wars, one after the other.
The survivors of Dien Bien Phu and the prison camps returned to France aboard troop transports, except for some officers and wounded who were flown home. Aboard the ships, a sense of relief—“the nightmare is over”—mixed with a sense of failure and sorrow for those left behind. An officer said: “France treated Indochina as a colonial problem, without enlisting the enthusiasm of the nation.
Upon arrival, they found a nation more divided over the war than when they had left. Many of the transports docked at Marseille, where the longshoremen’s union was militantly antiwar. As they descended the gangplanks, they were met with curses and rocks, and needed a police escort to leave the harbor for their transit camp, where they were given civilian clothes for travel by rail. In some cases they were disembarked at night.
In their home towns, they were made to feel unwelcome. In the street, antiwar activists insulted men in uniform. In a restaurant, a waiter told an officer: “The tip is not included. Have you forgotten the customs of your country?” The officer wondered whether “this rotten soulless place is still my country.” It took time to readapt, in spite of the baguettes, the Camembert, the frites. It took time, as Bigeard put it, “to learn to be civilized again.
Even in their families, they felt isolated and estranged. In some cases marriages broke up. In others, there was a point where questions posed about their captivity began to feel like voyeurism. Misunderstood themselves, they stopped trying to understand. One officer said, “The kids leaving school, the women shopping, the traffic cop, the delivery boy on his bicycle whistling, the taxi driver honking his horn, I tuned them all out.” They trusted only their comrades in arms, who knew what they had been through.
The way the army treated them was scandalous. Their combat bonuses were withheld for the time they had been prisoners. Many of them were no longer fit to serve, but when they filled out the forms for a medical discharge, they were asked for documentary evidence of how their disease was contracted—as if the Vietminh kept records. One man suffering from dysentery was told, “After all, you could have contracted it while touring the country on leave.
Major Dr. Martin, who had written a report based on his questioning of the wounded, had to remind the military bureaucrats that “every single surviving prisoner is suffering from malaria, amoebic dysentery, intestinal parasites, or some other form of deficiency. This must be taken into consideration in responding to the indemnities solicited by former prisoners lacking the paperwork concerning their infirmities.
Many of those who could no longer serve were crippled for life by physical and psychic wounds. They had recurring attacks of malaria, intestinal infections, and rheumatism, and had to be repeatedly hospitalized. There were mental traumas that never healed. What we now know of as post-traumatic stress disorder had not yet been identified. The army doctors had neither the understanding nor the antidepressants to treat it. Men suffered from combat flashbacks, insomnia, hallucinations, and fits of rage. Some began to drink heavily, and kept weapons at home, and some used those weapons on themselves.
Again stunned by the course of human history to repeat itself….with even greater consequences as new military technologies were unleashed by the American military across IndoChina.