Recently I finished reading Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu by Bernard B. Fall. Fall was a noted historian of the Vietnamese wars of the mid-20th century, and Hell . . . is his famous work on the French defeat that ended their rule in Southeast Asia.
All failures, especially ones as massive as Dien Bien Phu, breed blame, and every mistake seems to glow in the dark in hindsight. Most of the time I take these critiques with a grain of salt, since they are rarely obvious in the moment; if they could see the cliff ahead of them, who in their right mind would choose to keep walking?
Dienn Bien Phu, however, bucks that trend.
It isn't that the French chose to build their camp on the floor of a valley, surrendering the high ground to the enemy. It isn't that the base was in the middle of nowhere, making reinforcement and supply dependent on air power, which in turn relied on an air force that was short on numbers. It isn't that the rationale behind building the camp expired before the battle began. It isn't that the French refused to properly fortify the base, or that they knew going in they’d be radically outnumbered. It isn't that the two senior generals in charge of the effort hated one another, or that the base was built, not only on a valley floor, but on a valley floor subject to up to 5 feet – feet! – of rain during part of the year.
It’s all of the above, and more. Hindsight, schmindsight, this promised disaster from the start, and it delivered.
And yet . . . .
Against incredible odds, the base held from mid-March of 1954 to the first week of May, inflicting terrific losses on the Viet-Minh. The leadership on the ground – excluding the debacle of the first attack – was largely superb, given the situation, and the determination and grit of the garrison won my respect. For seven weeks they fought pitched infantry battles nearly non-stop, sometimes losing and regaining a hill in the same night. They fought on short rations and under an unending artillery barrage, sometimes in water and mud up to their waist. The battlefield was a stinking cesspool layered with thousands of dead. The military hospital, built to accommodate forty-four wounded, now serviced a thousand or more at a time. A wound was not a guaranty of rest; given the dire situation and the manpower shortage men fought on having lost a limb or an eye.
When the battle was over, the suffering was not; they were marched to prison camps that amounted to death camps. In the end, less than 20% of the POW’s survived to return home.
Fall makes a convincing case that American intervention, in the form of massive air strikes, could have, if not forced a victory, at least staved off defeat. Written in the ‘60’s, he is contemptuous of Eisenhower’s refusal to intervene and imparts a strong moralistic tone to his argument. I think he is wrong.
Perhaps an American intervention could have stemmed the tide. But having just exited the Korean War, intervening on behalf of a colonial power (one with no viable strategy for success) and risking another shooting war with China did not, and does not, give the appearance of sound policy. The fact that it “may” have eliminated the need for America’s war a decade later is irrelevant; not only is that far from certain, it presupposes that the American conflict was inevitable or necessary. I’m with Ike on this one.
A great book. I strongly recommend it.