Monday, June 28, 2010

Dien Bien Phu by Ted Morgan

Valley of Death; The Tragedy At Dien Bien Phu That Led America Into The Vietnam War by Ted Morgan; Random House, 2010

In Paris the news of the defeat arrived at noon 7 May, 1954. At The National Assembly, so bitterly divided over the war, the deputies discussed the disaster in hushed tones as they filed into the main chamber. Premier Laniel asked for a minute of silence, the entire six-hundred-odd assembly, except for the Communists, rose in a collective gesture of regard for the garrison.

“... The enemy wanted to obtain the fall of Dien Bien Phu before the [Indochina part of the ] Geneva Convention opened. He thought that this would be as decisive blow to French morale. . . The enemy has sacrificed thousands of men to defeat the heroes who in fifty-five days have won the admiration of the world and covered themselves in glory. . . “

A front-page editorial in Le Figaro the next day, signed by its editor in chief, Pierre Brisson, judged the conduct of the war severely: “The men of Dien Bien Phu died because we lied to ourselves. They died because we did not know how to fight this war and because we were incapable of not fighting it. During these nine years of war, opportunities to win, as well as opportunities to negotiate, were lost because of our weakness. By giving in to Communist blackmail, we fought this war shamefully. The conduct of operations was a series of excuses.”

This harsh though credible appraisal was the exception, however, for in their collective self-regard, the French were compelled to turn defeat into an act of heroism. Dien Bien Phu was a perfect failure that had to be converted into an admirable feat of arms. The feel-good outlets in the media sounded the trumpet. The popular weekly Paris Match said : “ A clearing in the Indochina jungle has become the capital of heroism." Dien Bien Phu was compared to Verdun, the most celebrated victory of World War I, an absurd comparison. It was forgotten that a poll of the French public in February showed only 8 percent in favor of the war. Heroism at Dien Bien Phu became a bumper to absorb the shock of defeat, and the “honor of the soldiers” was a way of hiding political cowardice.

But were the thousands of men who died there heroes? Victims, rather, ignored by a government of bunglers in Paris and a high command in Saigon too divided to do its job. On May 9, General Navarre adopted the requisite tone of heroism in a message to the troops: “The glorious conduct of our army gives us new reason to fight. The war will continue.” He expounded on the aid the Vietminh had received from China, which had changed the nature of the war, for which Narvarre had made no adjustments in strategy or tactics.

The previous day, Ho Chi Minh had congratulated his troops by asking for the avoidance of hubris: “Our victory is brilliant but it is not decisive. We must not be too proud of our success. We must not underestimate the enemy.”

Back in the defeated valley, the Vietminh were facing the dilemma of victory, which mainly had to do with numbers: a total of 10,261 prisoners – 2,257 French, the rest Moroccans, Algerians, Africans, Legionnaires ( mostly German veterans of W.W. II) Vietnamese and Thais. Roughly half of whom were wounded.

The Vietnimh were unprepared to deal with these numbers. The victory had come more suddenly than General Giap had imagined. Never before had the Vietnimh anywhere near that many prisoners and the number of wounded was far in excess of anything Giap had imagined, even though he had prevented their evacuation as a way of breaking down morale. He proceeded to remove the wounded from their filthy trenches and place them under tents made from parachutes in groups of twenty. The emerged from their burrows blinded by the light of day. Giap's plan was to disperse his divisions quickly, leaving only a regiment of the 308th to take care of the seriously wounded. The 316th Division would take the POWS on foot to Vietminh camps hundreds of miles away.

In their haste to get moving, the Vietnimh conducted a triage of captured French forces that was far too simplistic. Those wounded below the waist who couldn't walk would be kept in the tents. Those wounded above the waist were presumed to be capable of walking. In the process, many who were near death with chest or abdominal wounds compounded with gangrene and dysentery were forced to join the long march. It was a form of cruelty based on haste and indifference to suffering.

Even while air evacuation of the severely wounded proceeded at Dien Bien Phu, Vietminh combat divisions dispersed to the north delta and the POW columns wound their way to camps near Giap's main bases of supply along the northern border with China, French forces continued to bombard critical junctures of their routes. Faced with the belligerent intransigence of John Foster Dulles, at Geneva, and the instability of the French government the fate of the POWs did not prove to be much of a bargaining chip.

For weeks after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the trails leading to the highlands were crowded with a pitiful procession of prisoners, who reached the camps with fatalities of up to 30 percent. These were not the camps of World War II movies, with tidy barracks, barbed-wire enclosures, watchtowers and searchlights. They were ramshackle bamboo huts in the jungle. “Nature and the population are our guard,” the can bos said. There was no need for walls – the jungle did the job.

The men arrived in a state of exhaustion. Subsisting on a ration of one pound of rice daily and perhaps an occasional banana if they were lucky, all had suffered severe weight loss. Among the diseases incurred on the march or then in the camps themselves, where rats as big as rabbits carried typhus in their urine, were amoebic dysentery, which led to dehydration and dead; beriberi, where the extremities swelled, the lungs filled with fluid, and people died looking like a fairground doll; nematode worms that came up from the intestines into the larynx, bring death by suffocation; and the skin disease called yaws. There was no medical care to speak of – the infirmary was known as 'the morgue'”. Men went there to die, with their foul smelling bandages that were never changed and their abdominal wounds that burst open.

The diet was rice and more rice. A soldier needs twenty-five hundred calories a day, and their rice rations delivered a thousand, so the men's bodies fed on themselves. And, in any case, for a Frenchman, a day without bread was a calamity. The men spent hours each day delousing themselves. The mornings were taken up by rice and wood details, for the rice depots were miles away. In the afternoons the prisoners attended brainwashing sessions, called reeducation. One of the reasons the men had been separated from their officers was to end all hierarchical influence and make them more amenable. They soon learned to go along to get along, and obediently recited the catechism:

“What do you think of this war?”

“It is an unjust and criminal war.”

“Why is this a criminal war?”

“ Because it is an armed aggression against the Vietnamese people.”

They said in unison, “We are all murderers,” and sang “The Internationale”

From the start of the war until the armistice, the French lost 45,013 captured or missing. In the final prisoner exchange, 10,752 were turned over. That left 34,261 unaccounted for. Of the surviving 10,752, 3,290 were from Dien Bien Phu, out of the 10,863 taken prisoner there.

The French military came to believe that the towering mortality rate among the POWs was due to a deliberate policy that amounted to a refinement of the Nazi death camps. Comparisons were made: at camps like Dachau or Buchenwald, 80% had died; among the Dien Bien Phu prisoners, 70 percent perished. Instead of the gas chamber, the men died of malnutrition, disease, and their neglected wounds. Colonel Bonafous, however, who wrote the authoritative study on the prisoners, concluded: “ It cannot be established that this was a deliberate plan.” It was Bonafous who obtained the documents showing that nine thousand Vietnimh prisoners of the French – handed over to their Vietnamese allies-were killed the camps with no nutritional or medical problems. Most were simply executed.

{ But who cares about “authoritative studies”? Too inconvenient for the high opinion we must necessarily maintain about ourselves]


  1. President Eisenhower had a binary mind about Indochina. Neither China nor the Soviet Union had any interest in the Communist domination of Indochina , they were primarily focused on their domestic affairs and what they perceived as the real and potential threat of aggression by the U.S. in the region. They earnestly negotiated a cease fire agreement that was disadvantageous to the nationalist aims of Ho Chi Minh, who would have won any election at the time by a wide margin. While Eisenhower, clearly recognizing its popular appeal among some Republicans (aka 'The China Lobby)- supported John Foster Dulles' “domino theory” many times in press statements, privately and in his ultimate directives to the Secretary of State, he remained skeptical and was determined to act only in accordance with the wishes of the leaders of Congress, who would only commit ground troops to secure Vietnam's independence from colonial rule, or, better, in recognition of the wish of the American people at the time, to avoid another fiasco like the Korean War.

    The author concludes:

    President Eisenhower's achievement was keeping ground troops out of Indochina,. “The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration,” he later said, “We kept the peace. People asked how it happened – by God, it didn't just happen, I'll tell you that. Eisenhower remains America's wisest post- World War II president because he understood that there were limits to the deployment of U.S. Power.

  2. One of the most interesting lines of narratives in this book is the one that juxtaposes the narrative of the Indochina war and the siege with the diplomatic maneuvering focused on the lengthy Five Power negotiations at Geneva. Although the U.S. delegation, initially led by John Foster Dulles refused in many informal ways to recognized China as a legitimate participant, Chou En Lai and his huge staff (over two hundred) played a crucial role, vaulting the Chinese government onto the world scene for the first time.

    As I mentioned, neither China nor the Soviet Union had aggressive intentions towards the West at the time. The goals of “International Communism” had gone by the boards even before the outbreak of W.W. II, after the death of Lenin and the overthrow of Trotsky. Molotov's chief concern was to prevent the re-armament of Germany and the formation of an all European military alliance which might have threatened the Post-War settlement in Eastern Europe . The pre-occupation of France in Indochina was viewed as a positive factor in the pursuit of this aim ( along with the strength, but not predominance, of the communist party in their National assembly), though subject to lengthy, formal denunciations. Mao, still reeling from the effects of the long civil war, was looking for breathing room to develop his domestic economy and to forestall American aggression both respect to the Nationalists in Taiwan but Indochina as well, where it wished to preserve “buffer states”- whether 'royalist' or not.

    Britain wanted to protect its then successful counter-insurgency campaign in Malaysia but was constrained not to antagonize India which was , at that time, strongly anti-colonial. They did not view France's enterprise in Vietnam as something that they could either afford to support or would help them achieve their goals. Foreign Minister Anthony Eden played the key role in bringing all the parties together for the eventual agreement, which provided at least a temporary pause in the fighting. Although once against Prime Minister, Churchill's powers- mental as well as political- were flagging, so British policy remained in Eden's hands, on a cabinet rather than Parliamentary Committee level, as usual.

    The book covers the machinations of John Foster Dulles who was convinced that the Communists were bent on taking over the world. His presence at Geneva was extremely disruptive as he was constantly trying to strike private deals with various parties to the conference in ways that were often contrary to any of the direct mandates he was receiving from Washington. This made it very difficult for all the parties to gain confidence in the negotiation process, until Dulles was frozen out of the back-room deal making which eventually produced an agreement.

    Of particular interest was the number of times Dulles floated the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons- either against general Giap or Chinese bases. In fact the Pentagon had drawn up a plan that included the use of such weapons and they were deployed with the American fleet.
    This was, of course, one of the earliest uses of “all options are on the table”. Dulles considered that this threat played an important role in “forcing” China to agree to a ceasefire in Korea. Evidence suggests, however, that this was not the case.

  3. Neither the Chinese nor the Soviets considered a credible threat or believed that such bombs could be used decisively in the either conflict. This was also the view of Eisenhower who, in the first place, deplored such weapons and, in the second place, considered that their use would- at worse widen the war- at best require the deployment of ground forces to finally achieve any strategic aim their use might envision. The military justification for their use against Japan at the end of World War II was tenuous enough, any subsequent use would probably damage U.S. prestige beyond any reasonable expectation of immediate repair.

    In my view, this remains the case to this very day; “all options are on the table” remains a feature of the United States' tattered global policies- a tragedy of the 20th century which looks like its going to work its destruction of good will towards America well into the 21st.