The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam; Valley of Decision: The Siege of Khe Sanh

In This Review

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam

By Martin Windrow
Da Capo, 2004
734 pp. $30.00

Valley of Decision: The Siege of Khe Sanh

By John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe
Da Capo, 2004
576 pp. $21.95

Dien Bien Phu remains the most striking example of Western forces being beaten by a "national liberation movement" in a conventional battle rather than guerrilla warfare. In December 1953, a well-equipped force of 15,000 of France's best troops placed themselves astride communist supply routes on the Laos-Vietnam border and dared the Viet Minh to attack them. Led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Minh responded to the challenge and was soon laying siege to the French garrison, putting it under almost constant artillery bombardment. Giap's men used skillfully dug trenches to infiltrate the camp and frustrate French counterattacks. By spring the French had been battered into submission, but they had pushed the enemy to the limits as well. Although there was brief discussion of how U.S. nuclear weapons might break the siege, this was never a serious proposition. Windrow's meticulous, detailed account is an outstanding piece of military history, avoiding aricatures of either French or Vietnamese prowess, bringing out the endurance on all sides without losing sight of the underlying dynamic at work in this tragic drama.

After Windrow it is worth reading another excellent account of a siege that took place 14 years later not far from the Laos-Vietnam border at Khe Sanh, where the communists used similar tactics. This siege ended with a U.S. withdrawal but not a U.S. defeat. Valley of Decision combines the research of Prados with the recollections of Stubbe, the marine chaplain through the siege. First published in 1991, it has recently been released (but not updated) in a paperback edition.

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