New Book Details How One Battle in Vietnam Changed U.S. Minds

Posted March 1, 2010 at 3:27pm

‘This book is for the soldiers who were sent to die in battle by politicians who have never seen combat,” defiant author Ted Morgan wrote in the dedication for his new book, “Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America Into the Vietnam War.”

Morgan knows what he talks about. A native of France, the longtime author was conscripted into the French army and fought during 1956 and 1957 in the Battle of Algiers (prompting his 2006 book, “My Battle of Algiers: A Memoir”). He later moved to the U.S. and changed his name. He became a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, working from Paris and Cuba and covering the Katanga crisis in the Congo and the Vietnam War. Though Morgan left the newspaper in 1964 (and it folded in 1966), he published his first book in 1962.

“Valley of Death” is Morgan’s 19th book. Among his best-known earlier books are biographies of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and 1930s writer Somerset Maugham. The new book’s focus is similar to the military history focus of several of his previous works, but he said it provides a different perspective from other books on Vietnam.

“My book is different because I’m focusing on one aspect,” he explained, “which is one battle which started out as an insignificant battle in a distant valley and turned out to be a decisive battle that ended French rule in Indochina.”

Though “Valley of Death” focuses primarily on the 1954 battle at Dien Bien Phu, the story is divided into five acts and doesn’t reach the battle itself until Act 4. The rest of the book sets up the five-month struggle. The story starts during World War II and takes a “kaleidoscopic” look at the way each of the governments involved dealt with the peninsula. The American government, reluctant to intervene to help a colonial power after coming to England’s aid during World War II, only became involved when the impending French defeat at Dien Bien Phu became obvious. President Dwight Eisenhower saw it as the beginning of something more dramatic.

“Insulated by Congress and its refusal to intervene, the president had the luxury of giving vent to a frightening scenario based on the catchy but fallacious notion that nations were dominoes,” Morgan wrote. “Widely popular, it became a bipartisan fallacy, with Adlai Stevenson warning that ‘all Asia would slide behind the Iron Curtain’ should Indochina be ‘absorbed into the Moscow-Peking empire.'”

The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu signaled the beginning of the escalation that would become the Vietnam War. But even with that understanding, Morgan’s book is best for readers who have some background in military history and the period during which the war took place.

As he researched the book, Morgan returned to Dien Bien Phu with his wife. Her pictures from the visit, which show a green and peaceful land, are included in “Valley of Death.”

“The funny thing about going to Dien Bien Phu now it’s a very thriving little commercial town of 9,000 people, but the Vietnamese have kept some of those battle sites exactly as they were,” Morgan said.