Books: ‘Valley of Death’ and Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu

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Look for a former French lieutenant’s tale of pre-Vietnam War, Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War (Random House hardcover, 752 pages, available February 23 for $ 35) by Ted Morgan. The New York City-based writer and journalist, who fought in the French Army in Algeria, has produced an epic account of the contest that ended French colonial rule in Indochina, the 1954 battle between France and a Communist-backed “people’s army” in Vietnam.

Using French military archives and exclusive firsthand reports, and tracking countless errors by the American government, Morgan reframes the six-week battle for Dien Bien Phu, a remote valley on the border of Laos along a rural trade route, which was fueled by Communism’s rise following World War 2, particularly by Chinese dictator Mao Tse-tung and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who were already waging a proxy war with the West in the Korean peninsula. Morgan, a Vietnam reporter who knew the late David Halberstam, provides facts according to his research, which point to the West’s chronic ignorance and appeasement of Communism, though he is more focused on what happened than how and why it happened.

Morgan, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has written biographies of Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), Winston Churchill, and Somerset Maugham (The Painted Veil). In the fully annotated and indexed Valley of Death, he provides an important perspective on the West’s foreign policy in mid-20th century. That America’s ineffectual war in Vietnam began with this climactic battle, and has continued with decades of lost battles and wars, culminating in our current debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, is unmistakable.

As Morgan writes on page 172, some opposed American involvement in Vietnam, including Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a Republican who, Morgan writes, “called for an amendment that no funds should be given to the French until they ‘set a target date for … complete independence … the people of Indochina … have been fighting for the same thing for which 177 years ago the people of the American colonies fought.” Morgan notes that “this was the man whom [President] Lyndon Johnson called ‘trigger-happy’ when he ran against him in 1964.” Sen. Goldwater went on, observing that, by aiding France, “we are saying to the great men who penned the document and whose ghosts must haunt these walls, that we do not believe entirely in the Declaration of Independence.” Despite Sen. Goldwater’s warning that “as surely as day follows night our boys will follow this $400 million [aid to France]”, Congress defeated his amendment, approved President Eisenhower’s 1953 aid package, and soon entered the Vietnam War, one of several wars in Korea, Iran, and Iraq, that the United States neither declared nor won.