French and American Miscalculations at Dien Bien Phu, The

Undetected Enemy: French and American Miscalculations at Dien Bien Phu, The

Currey, Cecil B

John R. Nordell, Jr., The Undetected Enemy: French and American Miscalculations at Dien Bien Phu, 1953. College Station, TX: Texas A & M University Press, 1995. 217 pp.

The struggle had been long and costly, the battles bloody in the years from 1945 to 1953 as the French government poured men, money and materiel into Indochina in an attempt to subdue the stubborn Viet Minh forces of Vo Nguyen Giap as the Vietnamese struggled to maintain the independence Ho Chi Minh had declared in Ha Noi’s Ba Dinh square on 2 September 1945. Both sides were adamant. The French were unwilling to lose control of their profitable colony in southeast Asia; the Viet Minh were foresworn to fight to the death if necessary to rid their nation of their European colonizers.

The French immediately tried to reestablish their control upon the end of World War II, but by that time the Viet Minh had already established an independent government over the whole of Viet Nam. With British help, France regained control in the South, but the northern government stubbornly continued to resist. In the face of French armed might, Giap’s soldiers finally abandoned Ha Noi on 17 February 1947 and the Viet Minh once again retreated into the vastnesses of the jungles north of the capital city.

Successive French generals mounted operations against the Viet Minh hidden away in the Viet Bac but were unable to destroy their enemies. A combat lull occurred between 1948 and 1950, a time used by Giap to build his companies into battalions, his battalions into regiments, his regiments into divisions. In 1950 Giap began to risk pitting his units against French soldiers in head-to-head battles. These continued in 1951 and 1952 with severe setbacks for the Viet Minh. Despite occasional French achievements, they were slowly losing the war. Then, in 1953, General Henri-Eugene Navarre arrived in Viet Ham determined to crush Ho’s Viet Minh. The result was the fateful battle of Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954.

John R. Nordell, Jr., a former professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, has written this book to help us understand the mechanics of the planning that went into the French decision to fight at Dien Bien Phu. He tells of French strategic, logistic, tactical and intelligence decisions that culminated in Navarre’s determination to fight there. He does an excellent job of marshalling his narrative. In his own text and in numerous quotations, he shows the reasoning processes of those responsible for selecting the site and launching the battle. He does not refight Dien Bien Phu. That has been well done elsewhere. Although he speaks of some movements to contact in the fall and winter of 1953-54, Nordell concentrates on the French planning that led up to its opening shots. He clearly shows the extent to which the U.S. government aided and abetted French planning and demonstrates that no one really understood the motivations of Giap and the Vietnamese Politburo. Especially enlightening are the State Department cables from which Nordell quotes at length. Time and again they breathe a particularly heady and unwarranted optimism, matched only by the arrogance of French military and governmental circles that France would be able to put down the ill-clad, ill-fed and inadequately armed minions of the Viet Minh. Anyone who had previous doubts, will never again believe that governmental officials have any sort of grip on reality. This brief book is a jewel. Yet it was published in 1995. Only now, after three years, is it reviewed in this journal. For the sake of both authors and publishers some way must be found to speed up the reviewing process. It is little consolation to an author to receive a good review on a book that has already been remaindered by the publisher.

Cecil B. Currey

University of South Florida

Copyright Association of Third World Studies, Inc. Fall 1999

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