The Last Valley – Book Review
The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and The French Defeat In Viet Nam
De Capo Press
734 pages with maps and photographs
In every war there is a battle that seems to mark the pivot point of that particular conflict and stands out from other events. It is the yardstick that is used to measure the war in question, where the mistakes were made, what the repercussions are and what lessons were learned. The battle of Dien Bien Phu is just such a battle. It marked the end of the French Empire and the beginning of the 20-year American involvement in Viet Nam.
When the Viet Cong and NVA forces surrounded the26th Marines at Khe Sanh in 1968, it is the battle of Dien Bien Phu that so occupied the Johnson Administration during the Tet Offensive. The similarities between the two were uncanny, from the location of the bases down to the tactics and troops used there. Both were garrisoned by elite units- the French Foreign Legion paras and the U.S. Marine 26th Regiment at Khe Sanh in 1968- defeat of which would cause much disillusionment at home and in the forces in country.
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Mr. Windrow’s book is several books in one. It is a meticulous study of the political, military and psychological make up of all the players in the story of the First Indochina War. He gives us a description of the terrain that the two forces will be forced to operate in as well as the tactics that the fledgling Viet Minh would use against the French Colonial Forces. He examines the battles that led to the French strategy of setting up outposts in the Viet Minh occupied area of what was called then Tokin. This area would later be known as North Viet Nam.
It is a well researched book, drawing from Official French Army archives, interviews with surviving veterans of the French Colonial Forces and the Viet Minh and U. S. archives as well as numerous journals and books. He lists in 4 excellently researched appendices the French Chain of Command, Order of Battle, Air Units and Vietnamese People’s Army Order of Battle and Table of Equipment that was used during the war and at Dien Bien Phu.
The Last Valley is a major attempt to cover not only the battle itself but also the political and psychological make up of the two adversaries. In part one, Mr. Windlow takes us back into the early centuries when what is now Viet Nam began its struggle to separate from the Chinese Empires. He gives a detail account of the terrain and geography of the country where the battles would soon be fought. He tells of the beginnings of the Viet Minh army and the tactics that Giap would use to wear down the French. For example General Giap did not start out as a military man but as a minor official in the Communist government. But he used Mao Tse Tung’s teachings on guerrilla warfare to begin fighting the better equipped and supplied French Colonial forces. As he continued this irregular warfare, he began to recruit and build more conventional forces to face the enemy.
He also goes into the make up of the French governments and the army. This was a force that was still reeling from being defeated by the Nazi Blitzkrieg in 1940 and the subsequent occupation and co-operation with the Axis forces not only in France itself but also under the Japanese occupation of Indochina. He details the French desire to resume its position as a world power and as a colonial power as well as the earliest beginnings of the United States involvement as an interested bystander. (The U.S. gave France military supplies such as surplus armor, aircraft and munitions. Pictures taken of the French soldiers during this period show many looking almost like their US counterparts.)
Part two delves into the battle itself as Giap begins to muster his forces around the hills surrounding the French outpost and beginning the siege. He details the table of organization of both sides in such detail that one can almost see the Viet Minh gunners lining up their targets on “CASTOR” and the French digging further into their trenches trying to hold on as they wait for relief only to be forced to surrender their half starved force. He also extends the story out to cover the effect that the loss had on latter operations during the Algerian Colonial War in 1961. As well as the U.S.influence on the post war conference that set the stage for the 20 year nightmare that followed as the United States tried to support the Republic of South Viet Nam against the Viet Cong and later North Viet Nam Army offensives.
One of the things that I came away with after reading the book is how similar was the French action were to the United States actions 20 years later. For example the battle of Khe Sanh so similar to the former battle, an isolated outpost, surrounded and cut off from ground resupply was kept operating via the use of an “air bridge”. The difference was that the French were forced to airdrop supplies and reinforcements by parachute, much of which fell into Viet Minh hands when drop zones were overun, where the 26th Marines were resupplied by helicopter and C-130s. The C-130s would come in low and use a parachute to drag the pallets out of the aircraft, thus avoiding having to land and take off under NVA mortar bombardment. The base was kept open and defeat of the NVA was assured.
Mr. Windlow has included 9 pages of combat photographs and 21 detailed maps covering several major battles as well as Dien Bien Phu. These maps are well drawn and show all tactical movements clearly. The major complaint is where they are placed in the book- at the front instead of in the chapters on the fighting. This makes the reader have to flip pages to the correct map and back, slowing and distracting the reader. Otherwise it is a well laid out book.
It is, however, not without flaws. It begins slowly and the writing is hard to get into unlike other histories of Viet Nam. It reads more like a college textbook and can get to be a bit dry. It took me about 2 weeks to finish and yet it accomplished what the author wanted to do- a thorough study of a war not many know much about even today 30 years after the fall of Saigon. If future generations are to learn why the United States decided to intervene in a small third world country in a war that no one understood, then we must learn about the French experience and how their loss dragged a Super Power into the morass that was Viet Nam.
In summing this book up, I would have to say it is an important addition to the Viet Nam scholar and worth having.