By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam; Martin Windrow; Da Capo Press.
One can argue that nearly all the major international pressures of the second half of the Twentieth Century can be traced back to the brief and pivotal period immediately after the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, and virtually every war since, right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union—from the tiniest to the most intense—was seen in the contemporary view as part of that Cold War era process: the interests of the United States and its allies among the capitalist nations, versus the prime directives of the Soviet Union and its satellites among the Marxist-Leninist countries. Prior to the first Gulf War (Desert Storm), the U.S. fought two “hot” wars; one, an eventual deadlock on the Korean peninsula; the other, an infamously protracted and costly war in Vietnam which would eventually take the lives of over 58,000 Americans.
But Southeast Asia was, in fact, not the place where the first post-War American strategists saw themselves making that all-important stand against Communism, and after the surrender of the Japanese, the smart U.S. and British thinkers at Potsdam had hoped—among other things—for the French to abandon their colonial interests in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, a region of little value politically or economically to the new and dangerous superpower template then aligning itself around the globe. The French powers-that-be, however, wanted to keep their outposts in Indo-China, and this prideful decision pitted the French almost immediately against the remnants of the reorganized regional resistance—the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi—or the Viet Minh, as they became widely known, the same ragtag of regular army and civilian insurgency who had fought during the Japanese occupation and had waited, watching carefully, as the great rivalries in China struggled for control in the political power vacuum. Thus, the stage was set for costly heartache for the French empire.
In his sweeping and comprehensive book The Last Valley, Martin Windrow, a British historian, traces the entire epic tragedy of the French downfall, from the early (and modestly successful) attempts to establish geographic parameters and safe zones, up to the development of a line of control around the most vital of French interests at Hanoi and Haiphong, to the inevitable deadly taunting and provocation by the Viet Minh and the communist forces which led the French army into deeper and deeper forays into the dense jungles of the Tonkin region. Frustrated by the continued harassment and day-to-day costs, in late 1953 the French commanders launched a huge search-and-destroy campaign, called Operation Castor, sending heavily armed, elite paratroopers (using modern, mostly American equipment) into the northwestern reaches of North Vietnam near the borders of Laos and China—their mission: to once and for all eliminate the core of Ho Chi Minh’s growing resistance army using a tactic known as “the hedgehog” approach, whereby small, select groups of French could dig-in along Viet Minh supply lines and disrupt communist operations.
But the French paratroopers and commandos found themselves outgunned and outmaneuvered in the heavy jungle terrain, and their commanders in the field called for a tactical retreat and regrouping effort. French forces withdrew into their small, heavily fortified outpost at Dien Bien Phu to await instructions on how to proceed. There, amidst barracks, air strips and small artillery bunkers, they dug in, while, all around them the Vietnamese forces—under the command of a young General Giap—begin a slow, painstaking encirclement of the French garrison.
Thus begins one of the most pivotal battles of the Twentieth Century. Windrow takes the reader carefully and thoughtfully through the slowly unfolding confrontation, a battle often over-simplified as mere French under-preparedness and under-training, but which, in the larger context of the period after World War II, seems in hindsight the very textbook definition of a strategic lost cause. Unwilling to tolerate failure, and determined to make their stand, the French fought with bravery and tenacity. But the Vietnamese forces soon outnumbered the French by over five-to-one, and, with painstaking struggle, General Giap moved hundreds of pieces of heavy artillery—often by hand and by ox—into the mountains and hills which surround the French outpost. Giap eventually launches a campaign to make life intolerable inside the battlements of the French garrison now surrounded on the floor of the valley.
There are all the predictable French responses and escalations as reinforcements are flown in and additional paratroopers dropped-in over the course of five months, along with more equipment and supplies. The base turns slowly into a garish, nightmarish vision of muddy trenches, deeply dug bunkers, bloody underground surgery centers, burnt-out structures, scorched and eviscerated trees, bomb craters and pockmarks, and slippery sandbag berms. Outnumbered, the French must fight night and day, virtually around the clock, for months, as the shelling continues without a break. Meanwhile General Giap tightens the noose, his soldiers and guerrillas digging their own trenches ever-closer, and moving his heavy artillery so close that even the French airfield becomes dangerous.
Windrow also guides the reader through the military personalities and the political machinations—from Colonel Christian de Castries to General Henri Navarre, from Defense Minister Rene Plevin to Lt. Colonel Pierre Langlais. Despite French requests, the United States is not eager to involve itself directly, but provides what it can in terms of intelligence. There is pleading by the French to Washington, as well as U.S. decision-making (both coldly analytical and anguished) over how far American support should go. In the darkest hours of the siege, a few among the top U.S. brass consider the use of heavy airpower, including a brief consideration of tactical nuclear weapons. These proposals, however, never bear fruit. Highly skilled American pilots, many of them civilians, are contracted to fly supply missions to the small airfield. But continuous shelling and constant anti-aircraft fire lead most of those hired-gun pilots to refuse further missions into the cramped valley base.
Nevertheless, more equipment is sent; more men; more materials; all to little avail. Windrow takes us into the bunkers and dugouts and caves as the battle draws toward its inevitable end and the fighting comes to within a few hundred yards of the perimeter of the base. At the top military echelons indecision and panic set in, and back in France—citizens largely unaware of the deteriorating situation are shocked and stunned by news of the eventual French defeat. The political fallout in Paris is disastrous and visceral, and among American allies the reality of this communist victory brings a strategic jolt: a largely amateur army with only minimal equipment had defeated a heavily-armed major western power—only a few short years after the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War.
The French pulled up their stakes and removed themselves from Southeast Asia, and the Americans drew a line at roughly the 16th Parallel, dividing Vietnam into two autonomous sections—the north, now under Ho Chi Minh and the communists, and the south, now more-or-less self-governing but under the heavy influence of western guidance, American military presence and anti-Communist political controls. The line drawn along that 16th parallel takes on a new meaning, and ushers in a roughly 20 year period in which war becomes the central fact of life in Southeast Asia. The U.S. then becomes slowly drawn in as a matter of defending the newly christened Republic of South Vietnam.
Windrow’s book is one of several which attempt to offer a complete and detailed assessment of French involvement and defeat in Vietnam, but his closest rival comes from an earlier book, Hell in a Very Small Place, by Bernard Fall, a French-born soldier and academic who later moved to the United States. As a young French writer, Fall had in fact spent time in the field in Vietnam as a researcher and military analyst even before Dien Bien Phu, embedded among commandos deep in communist-controlled areas. His book is less magisterial than Windrow’s, but just as compelling, and takes the reader even deeper into the horrors and day-to-day grind of the sleepless fighting that took place in those final months before the French defeat. But Fall’s book, while comprehensive, is prone to melodrama and hyperbole, perhaps because it is a more emotionally felt book for the French-born writer. Windrow offers a more cautious and detached retelling of what may have been the most intensely fought modern battle since Stalingrad, and the unforeseen consequences for the United States.
Windrow also gives us highly detailed maps of the overall battlefield and each of the major engagements around the base, including the crucial battles for control of the landmarks, readouts and foothills surrounding the garrison. The book also contains comprehensive notes on sources—books, interviews, papers, military files—as well as a full bibliography.
Contemporary accounts of the numbers killed were deliberately vague—especially those of the French government, which feared the full impact of negative public reaction and even political violence—and many of the figures remain inconclusive even to this day, almost sixty years later (December 2013 will mark the 60th Anniversary of the start of the battle). French units consisted of a wide, complex variety of personnel, including French regulars, Foreign Legion, and volunteers and conscripts from the wider French-speaking world—Africans, Middle Easterners, Asians, and thousands of Vietnamese soldiers fighting alongside the French. But most modern estimates show that the French lost over 92,000 lives in what is referred to in French and European history as the First Indochina War, and perhaps as many as 2300 died in the battle at Dien Bien Phu. French wounded at Dien Bien Phu numbered well over 5000, and as many as 11,000 captured (on the day of the French surrender, the garrison numbered over 11,000). Viet Minh battle casualties are usually estimated at 23,000.*
The French defeat had enormous consequences at home, and played a pivotal role in dividing opinion when political and military crises emerged in French Algeria. The French army, long the home to a professional class of warriors, felt betrayed by their political sponsors. The French public developed distaste for military confrontation, and the French press—both Rightist and Leftist—pilloried those in charge of the campaign. Of even larger importance was the total loss of French empire, and a long series of independence movements through the 1950s and 60s as the European powers let loose their colonial interests in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
Most of all, Windrow’s book—like Bernard Fall’s—sets the stage for the inevitable Cold War template to continue to lure the western powers, and especially the United States. The list of ironies about Vietnam is one of the longest in modern history, and history repeats itself, sometimes with grim certainty. American involvement began almost from the moment of the French defeat, and escalated through the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon years. American entanglement ended 20 years after the French defeat in those surreal film images of U.S. Marines shepherding civilians aboard helicopters atop the embassy roof in Saigon as the downtown streets turned to chaos and troops of General Giap entered the outskirts of the city. By that date, U.S. casualties in Vietnam had exceeded 58,000, or nearly one seventh of all U.S. war dead from War World II.
*Sources for casualties and captured: Bernard Fall, “Hell in a Very Small Place”; Martin Windrow, “The Last Valley”; militaryhistory.com; dienbienphu.org; history.com. Note: there was considerable disagreement between the various sources as to the actual final numbers, and the French government has never released “official” totals.