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Marching Toward War, Through The 'Valley Of Death'

by Michael Schaub
Mar 12, 2010

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On March 12, 1954, the day before Vietnamese nationalist forces attacked the French military base at Dien Bien Phu, Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap proclaimed, "It is not Dien Bien Phu or Hanoi, but the whole of Vietnam that is the prize of this battle."

History, of course, proved Giap right — the French loss at Dien Bien Phu resulted in both the end of the First Indochina War and the end of French rule in Vietnam. It also resulted in the division of Vietnam into two countries, an arrangement that was supposed to be temporary, but which ended up causing the Vietnam War.

The story of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu is frustrating and heartbreaking — thousands were killed, thousands wounded — but it's key to understanding the events in Vietnam that would transfix the world in the decades to come. In his new history of the battle, Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War, Ted Morgan provides a compelling, detailed and extremely readable account of how Dien Bien Phu came to pass and what it meant for Indochina, France and the United States. Morgan, a French-born American citizen, French army veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, proves uniquely suited to the task of explaining the battle and its impact on the midcentury world.

The First Indochina War broke out shortly after World War II, when France attempted to re-establish its colonial rule in Indochina, which it had lost to Japan. The French plan wasn't universally popular — there were detractors in Vietnam, France and the United States (including the anti-colonialist Franklin D. Roosevelt). A nationalist movement led by Ho Chi Minh began to catch on in Vietnam, but the French, backed by the British (and, later, the U.S.) refused to give up their colony.

The war culminated at Dien Bien Phu, where the French established an airhead and base in an attempt to draw the Viet Minh liberation army away from the Red River Delta and prevent any Viet Minh attacks on Laos. But the plan was flawed from the start — the assumption that the base could repel a Viet Minh attack proved tragically wrong; the French troops in the valley were sitting ducks, surrounded on all sides by Vietnamese fighters in the jungles and mountains, who knew the terrain intimately. The battle lasted two months; the fallout, sadly, lasted decades.

Morgan's skills at reporting and research are matched only by the quality of his writing — Valley of Death is as absorbing as any great novel; it's not a book that requires an extensive knowledge of military history to read. It's incredibly detailed, not only in the mechanics of the battle (and the worldwide political maneuvering that led to it) but in the testimony of the soldiers, commanders and witnesses who saw it firsthand. Maybe nobody can fully explain what happened at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, but Morgan comes impressively close, and the result is this fascinating, remarkable book.

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