Share This Article

Former French officer and war correspondent Morgan toured the field at Dien Bien Phu.

When Ted Morgan set out to write Valley of Death (2010), a history of how the 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu set the stage for American military involvement in Vietnam, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author was able to tell the tale from a unique perspective. Born Comte St. Charles Armand Gabriel de Gramont (Ted Morgan is an anagram of de Gramont), he attended Yale University and saw combat as a French army officer during the Algerian War. After settling in the United States, Morgan became a reporter, and one of his first major assignments was covering the early stages of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

What did the French hope to accomplish at Dien Bien Phu?
Dien Bien Phu was 20 miles from Laos, and one reason the French gave was to protect Laos from Viet Minh incursions. Another was to show that they, the French, were doing some fighting, so they could get American aid. Third, to draw General Vo Nguyen Giap’s troops away from the delta and inflict huge losses on him. The French planned to arm Dien Bien Phu with tanks and aircraft and believed they would outgun the Viet Minh forces.

‘American commanders felt they were John Wayne and the French were Maurice Chevalier. Since the French had lost, the Americans weren’t interested in listening to them’

How did they so underestimate the Viet Minh and Giap?
The French didn’t appreciate Viet Minh expertise in guerrilla warfare, Giap’s grasp of strategy or the level of Chinese support for the Viet Minh. General Navarre, the commander in chief in Indochina who devised the Dien Bien Phu strategy, also didn’t believe Giap’s army would be able to bring heavy artillery 300km through jungle and across rivers from China.

What flaws marred the French plan?
One was establishing a base they could only reach by air. Dien Bien Phu had been a military base for a long time, and it had an airstrip. The idea was that the French would use aircraft-borne troops to establish the base, then resupply it and take out wounded by air. It was planned as an offensive base from which to harass the Viet Minh. But from the beginning it was a purely defensive position. Navarre never considered that Viet Minh artillery would make the airstrip unusable. Once use of the airstrip was denied to them, the only way for the French to bring in men and materiel was by parachute.

What did the French do right during the battle?
That’s a good question. What the French did right, I suppose, was to defend Dien Bien Phu heroically during the battle.

What did the Viet Minh do wrong?
They certainly made mistakes. In April 1954, for example, there was a pause in the battle because Giap was taking such heavy losses that his troops became demoralized, and he had to announce a program of agrarian reform that would give every Viet Minh soldier who’d fought in the battle at Dien Bien Phu some land, to raise morale. He also sent political commissars to give units pep talks.

Did dependence on air resupply doom the French?
Absolutely. Once that airstrip became unusable, the French were isolated and surrounded. They couldn’t get out and couldn’t get their wounded out. Giap used the French wounded as an element of battle; when the French made a humanitarian appeal to him to allow the evacuation of the French wounded, Giap refused, replying “We never signed the Geneva Convention.” He was deliberately keeping the French wounded at Dien Bien Phu to create morale problems.

How critical was artillery to both sides?
It was crucial. The Viet Minh had 75mm and 105mm artillery and rocket launchers, all of which they used to great effect, and they had an inexhaustible supply of ammunition from the Chinese. The French had 155s, but the artillery commander, Lt. Col. Piroth, placed his guns in an open area so they could fire in a 360-degree arc. This left the guns extremely vulnerable to Viet Minh fire and rendered them essentially useless. Piroth ended up killing himself with a hand grenade because he’d failed so miserably.

What tactics did Giap use?
Initially, he attacked one French strongpoint at a time. After two hours of artillery preparation the Viet Minh would storm the outpost. Giap got rid of the whole French northern perimeter that way. This so demoralized the French and so sapped their strength that in the second wave of battles Giap decided to attack all the strongpoints at once. He ordered an extensive network of trenches built all around the French positions so the Viet Minh infantry didn’t have to advance across open ground as the French expected.

What was the U.S. involvement in the battle?
At the beginning, when Navarre outlined his plans in Washington, the Americans thought it was a good and plausible plan.

The United States gave the French billions of dollars in aid and mountains of supplies, probably the most important of which was parachutes—they were going through thousands of parachutes. Then there were the American pilots of China Air Transport, who were flying supply planes, and the U.S. military mission based in Hanoi that was advising the French.

Did the defeat affect France?
It had a huge effect on French domestic politics—when Dien Bien Phu fell, so did the government in Paris. The man who then came to power as premier, Pierre Mendès-France, wanted to end the war in Indochina. The war had become so unpopular that even parts of the army were against it. The defeat at Dien Bien Phu changed the whole perspective of the French government.

Giap’s victory on May 7, 1954, came one day before the beginning of the international conference in Geneva at which the future of Indochina was being discussed. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu thus resulted in the end of French rule in Indochina and the partition of Vietnam.

Did Geneva give the Viet Minh all they wanted?
Not at all. Ho Chi Minh felt he and his movement had been robbed, because they’d been coerced by the Chinese into accepting the partition of Vietnam. The Chinese were afraid if there were no settlement at Geneva, the Americans would enter the conflict, so they pressured Ho. As a result, he felt he’d achieved only half a victory and thereafter was hostile to any suggestion he stop on the road to total control of all Vietnam.

How did the French defeat lead the United States into the Vietnam War?
There were supposed to be elections in 1956 that would unify Vietnam one way or the other. In the south, Ngo Dinh Diem had formed a government and gotten rid of the remaining French. He didn’t abide by the election results, fearing that the more heavily populated and communist-controlled North would take control of the entire country. In an effort to help Diem retain control in the south, the Americans began to send him advisers and a small number of troops, as well as increasing amounts of military aid.

What lessons did the Americans learn from the French?
I was in Vietnam as a journalist in 1963 and 1965, and it seemed to me that American commanders felt they were John Wayne and the French were Maurice Chevalier. Since the French had lost, the Americans weren’t interested in listening to them.

The single most important lesson the Americans should have learned was to never underestimate Vietnamese nationalism. They were ignorant of Vietnam’s history, and as my friend Stanley Karnow [Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Vietnam: A History] said, the Americans should never have been in Vietnam in the first place.

What has the world forgotten about Dien Bien Phu?
First, fewer than half the “French” troops at Dien Bien Phu were actually French. There were Algerian battalions, West Africans, lots of Germans and others in the Foreign Legion units, and many Vietnamese in the elite paratroop battalions.

And second is the fate of the French who were taken prisoner after the battle. The Viet Minh captured some 10,000 French troops, about half of whom were wounded. Those who couldn’t walk were kept at Dien Bien Phu, while the others were forced to walk hundreds of miles to POW camps. In the end, some 7,000 of the French died on the march or in the camps—more than were killed during the battle.