THE LAST VALLEY:
Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat in Vietnam
By Martin Windrow
Weidenfeld and Nicholson, RRP: $59.95
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the fall of Dien Bien Phu. On May 7, 1954, French troops surrendered to the communist Viet Minh, triggering the decolonisation of Vietnam by the French.
Martin Windrow’s book gives a useful background of the events preceding the establishment of the French stronghold at Dien Bien Phu, the subsequent battle, the surrender of the French and its aftermath.
The Japanese occupation had spurred on many south-east Asian nations to seek independence after the war. Vietnam was no exception. But its attempt to establish an independent state was quashed by the French in 1946 when they reoccupied Hanoi.
During the next seven years, the communist Viet Minh, under the command of General Giap, increased their strength. Although they had lost significant engagements with French forces, they had nevertheless been able, through the use of guerrilla warfare tactics, to increase gradually their sphere of influence in North Vietnam.
Although both sides were edging towards a peace conference to determine Vietnam’s future, the French sought to gain a tactical advantage so as to be able to negotiate from a position of strength. They therefore decided to draw the Viet Minh into a conventional battle, with the aim of destroying them. Dien Bien Phu became the realisation of this plan.
Inspired partly by similar successful British operations in Burma against the Japanese, the French established a base behind enemy lines, that included a runway so that they could supply the fortress from the air and evacuate wounded troops. The operation began on November 20, 1953, when troops were parachuted into the area. They secured it and spent the next few months fortifying the valley base against certain enemy attack, which duly commenced on the evening of March 13, 1954.
While the Viet Minh sustained critical losses, they were not – contrary to French hopes – destroyed. The communist forces, by gradually picking off French defences, were able to reduce the size of the French-controlled area, thereby making air-drops more difficult for the French to co-ordinate. The result was that many French supplies ended up in enemy hands.
Despite renewed pleas for assistance and some attempts to break out, the French surrendered on May 7, 1954. It is impossible to estimate accurately the number of those who surrendered. Many of the Vietnamese serving alongside the French deserted prior to the fall. Those captured were massacred.
The Last Valley not only provides the details of the campaign, but also the political background to it. The author argues that the French situation was hampered by the French Government’s failure to define a clear role for itself in Indochina after World War II.
Windrow argues that Dien Bien Phu was a tactical rather than a strategic failure. Nevertheless, the defeat had a profound psychological impact on the French who, as a result of it, granted generous concessions to the communists.
The peace that was negotiated paved the way for American (and Australian) involvement in Vietnam.
This work is an extremely detailed account of one of the significant, but often overlooked, turning-points of 20th century history. The author has drawn extensively upon an array of sources, including many not available in English.