Book review: ‘Valley of Death’
by Ted Morgan
12:00 AM CST on Sunday, March 7, 2010
By 1954, French colonial rule in Indochina was dying. An eight-year insurrection by the communist Viet Minh had forced the weary French military to make a stand at Dien Bien Phu, a village intercepting a key supply line to Laos.
Rather than stop the enemy’s supplies, the French found themselves besieged by Viet Minh troops in the highlands. When the French garrison was overwhelmed and overrun in May, it led to the end of the Lanier government in Paris and the creation of the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the northern part of the country.
Many Americans think our country’s involvement in Vietnam began 10 years later with the Gulf of Tonkin. But in a groundbreaking new book, Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Morgan argues that America’s interest and concern began with Dien Bien Phu.
Morgan begins Valley of Death with a concise, compelling account of the French defeat in May 1954. Yet he plunges beneath this familiar stream to explore deep currents of fresh insight. Drawing on new sources and on his own time in the French army, he creates vivid images of French generals Henri Navarre and Christian de Castries as well as Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, who led the guerrilla campaign that drove the French out of Dien Bien Phu and eventually out of Indochina.
But the book’s strength is found in the author’s careful re-creation of how Washington policymakers closely monitored Dien Bien Phu. A cast of famous historical figures, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Sen. Lyndon Johnson, emerges on the pages of this book, debating what America should do about the likely French defeat.
The main figure in these Washington discussions â€“ and the man who perhaps had the clearest view and the shrewdest sense â€“ was President Dwight Eisenhower. In April 1954, he mocked the inept French military effort and prophetically told an aide: “You can’t go in and win unless the people want you. The French would win in six months if the people were with them.”
As a staunch anti-communist, Ike did consider helping the French. In some ways, he served as metaphor for the division in Washington: opposed to the communists’ winning, but not willing to help save French imperialism with U.S. troops.
If the United States intervened, the president feared it would “lay us open to the charge of imperialism and colonialism … ” Yet he feared that the French would not be able to save themselves: “No military victory was possible in that type of theater.”
The president considered a proposal from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to use airstrikes to support the French on the condition that there be united action and involvement from allies. But he deferred to Congress and didn’t press the plan. When Dulles met with congressional leaders, Johnson asked whether he had secured any commitment of troops from other countries. After Dulles admitted he had not, Johnson and the others were unwilling to move forward.
Not that this displeased the president. Already realizing that all the options confronting him were bad ones, “he seemed to want Congress to block any unilateral American action,” Morgan notes. America’s main entry into Vietnam would not come until 10 years later. Given the outcome of that endeavor, the decision to keep America out of Vietnam in the 1950s looks even wiser.
In the end, Morgan’s well-researched and well-written new book shows that presidential leadership matters. After all, presidents don’t just lead by fighting and winning wars; sometimes they lead by staying out of them.
Kasey S. Pipes, the author of Ike’s Final Battle, is the Norris research fellow at the Eisenhower Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Building Community.
Valley of Death
The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America Into the Vietnam War
(Random House, $35)