"The goal of this risky operation will be to defend Laos." He went on to argue that the move would draw the Vietminh into a battle they could not win. France had the advantage of air power. A base at Dien Bien Phu—in the northwest corner of Vietnam, near the Laos border—could be resupplied by air, while guerrilla leader Ho Chi Minh's cadres would be forced to move huge numbers of men and matériel through miles of mountain jungle. Finishing his presentation, Gen. Navarre turned to the group. "What do you think?"

The politicians were onboard—but the officers balked. The military men were "unanimous in objection," one senior officer noted. Building a base in a mountain valley, they told Gen. Navarre, presented formidable challenges. Dropping in paratroopers would be dangerous, resupplying the base difficult, and Dien Bien Phu would drain manpower from more important theaters—all for questionable military gain. Nevertheless, Gen. Navarre got his base. Within months—on May 7, 1954, to be exact—Dien Bien Phu was overrun by the Vietminh. Two years later Gen. Navarre was rewriting history in his memoir of the war. "No unfavorable opinion," he wrote, "was expressed before the battle."

The annals of warfare are of course studded with questionable military decisions and after-battle lies, but for sheer hubris and incompetence it is hard to match what happened before and during the 56-day battle for Dien Bien Phu. Ted Morgan's "Valley of Death" is an authoritative account of those days—but it's also a history of the early U.S. involvement in Indochina. "The words Dien Bien Phu," President Dwight Eisenhower told a conference of newspaper publishers in April 1954, "are no longer just a funny-sounding name to be dismissed from the breakfast conversation because we don't know where it is." Indeed, by then Dien Bien Phu was proving a disaster for the French—one that held warning signs for the U.S.

Nearly every French assumption would be punctured that spring. None proved more disastrous than Gen. Navarre's faith in the power of air supremacy. The Vietnamese, led by the brilliant general Vo Nguyen Giap (whom the Americans would face a decade later), moved a seemingly limitless supply of men and munitions through the jungle to Dien Bien Phu. It was a mind-bending feat, and it gave the Vietminh high ground above the French base. In a memorable analysis, Ho Chi Minh turned a helmet upside down, pointed to the bottom and said: "That's where the French are." Fingering the helmet's rim, he added, "that's where we are. They will never get out."

Ho was right—and his forces held other advantages. China sent the Vietminh food, medicine and heavy weaponry. As a guerrilla force, the Vietminh enjoyed the edge in motivation and in knowledge of terrain. As Mr. Morgan writes: "The French had an air force. The Vietminh had home-field advantage and could count on the support of the rural population."

In the meantime, French blunders multiplied. France's commissioner general for Indochina was "better known for his champagne dinners in Saigon than his military knowledge." As soldiers died waiting for fresh supplies of food and medicine, parachute teams were delayed because they lacked training certificates. All the while, horrors accumulated on the battlefield. Wounded men languished in overcrowded wards; trenches filled with corpses; monsoon rains flooded the French camp. As conditions deteriorated, evacuation became nearly impossible. Mr. Morgan draws a stirring portrait of the French medic Paul Grauwin, who worked in soaked-through, maggot-infested tents handling "an unending procession of blinded eyes, broken jaws, chests blown open and fractured limbs." Certainly courage was not lacking at Dien Bien Phu.

For years, Indochina had been a geopolitical sideshow for the U.S. After World War II, Washington stood with the region's liberation movements— and so, as a gesture of friendship, a small contingent of American paratroopers was dropped into Ho Chi Minh's forward base in July 1945. Mr. Morgan gives a fascinating account of the meeting: The paratroopers are greeted by a banner hailing "our American friends," and a U.S. medic treats Ho for a dangerously high fever. Says Mr. Morgan: "It is entirely possible that the life of the future president of North Vietnam was saved by an American medic."

Of course the early friendship frayed as anticommunism gripped 1950s Washington. No fewer than seven U.S. presidents and would-be presidents appear in Mr. Morgan's book, and their words make compelling reading, given what was to come. As Dien Bien Phu nears collapse, Eisenhower worries about falling dominoes in Southeast Asia but remains steadfast against intervening on France's behalf. "No one could be more bitterly opposed to ever getting the U.S. involved in a hot war in that region than I am." John F. Kennedy, a senator from Masschusetts at the time, is just as firm: "To pour money, matériel and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile and self-destructive." Among future commanders in chief, only Richard Nixon stands unabashedly for intervention.

Still, as the French plight worsened, American diplomats searched for ways to help. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles pressed Congress and the British for a muscular response, but Dulles found few takers. "No more Koreas, with the U.S. furnishing 90% of the manpower," vowed Senate Majority Leader William Knowland, a Republican from California. As monsoons turned Dien Bien Phu to muck, diplomacy bogged down in its own way. No reinforcements would be forthcoming. In the end, the Vietminh laid siege to the French positions, swarming the valley and capturing thousands of prisoners. For France, the catastrophe meant the end of an era, the loss of a jewel in its colonial realm. For Vietnam, it meant partition into North and South. And for the U.S.—though no one knew it then—it meant the seeds had been sown for another Indochina war.

"Valley of Death" draws deeply on documentary evidence from all sides—French and Vietnamese, American and British, Russian and Chinese. Mr. Morgan's chronicle is exhaustive— sometimes overly so. There are nearly 200 pages of buildup before Dien Bien Phu is mentioned. On the diplomatic front, though one marvels at Mr. Morgan's ability to bring the reader into the negotiating rooms, after a while one finds oneself eager to leave.

Much has been made of Dien Bien Phu's lessons—lessons that the U.S. perhaps should have heeded in Vietnam: the tenacity of the country's indigenous forces, their passion and organization, and the difficulties posed by climate and terrain. But the descriptions of battle in "Valley of Death" are instructive for any military endeavor. At its best, the book is a blistering indictment of commanders whose missteps and arrogance condemn young soldiers to terrible fates. Mr. Morgan tells the haunting story of a French colonel who takes his own life after the fall of a key position. A few days later a young officer reflects: "If all those responsible for what's happening decide to kill themselves, it's going to be quite a crowd in Paris as well as Dien Bien Phu."

By Tom Nagorski - The Wall Street Journal - February 20, 2010

"Valley of Death" by Ted Morgan - Random House - $35 : read an excerpt at http://2gu8.sl.pt