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Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu

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From the acclaimed scholar and reporter, a thorough and revealing account of the historic turning point in Vietnam's long struggle--the 1954 battle for Dien Bien Phu

Like Gettysburg, Stalingrad, Midway, and Tet, the battle at Dien Bien Phu--a strategic attack launched by France against the Vietnamese in 1954 after eight long years of war--marked a historic turning point. By the end of the 56-day siege, a determined Viet Minh guerrilla force had destroyed a large, tactical French colonial army in the heart of Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese victory would not only end French occupation of Indochina and offer a sobering premonition of the U.S.'s future military defeat in the region, but would also provide a new model of modern warfare on which size and sophistication didn't always dictate victory.

Before his death in Vietnam in 1967, Bernard Fall, a critically acclaimed scholar and reporter, drew upon declassified documents from the French Defense Ministry and interviews with thousands of surviving French and Vietnamese soldiers to weave a compelling account of the key battle of Dien Bien Phu. With maps highlighting the strategic points of conflict, with thirty-two pages of photos, and with Fall's thorough and insightful analysis, Hell in a Very Small Place has become one of the benchmarks in war reportage.

568 pages, Paperback

First published November 1, 1966

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About the author

Bernard B. Fall

45 books50 followers
Bernard B. Fall was a prominent war correspondent, historian, political scientist, and expert on Indochina during the 1950s and 1960s. Born in Austria, he moved with his family to France as a child after Germany's annexation, where he started fighting with the French Resistance at age 16, and later the French Army during World War II.

In 1950 he first came to the United States for graduate studies at Syracuse University and Johns Hopkins University, returning and making his residence there. He taught at Howard University for most of his career and made regular trips to Southeast Asia to learn about changes and the societies. He predicted the failures of France and the United States in the wars in Vietnam because of their tactics and lack of understanding of the societies.

On 21 February 1967, while accompanying a company of the 1st Battalion 9th Marines on Operation Chinook II in the Street Without Joy , Thua Thien Province, Fall stepped on a Bouncing Betty land mine and was killed. He was dictating notes into a tape recorder, which captured his last words: "We've reached one of our phase lines after the fire fight and it smells bad- meaning it's a little bit suspicious... Could be an amb--".

Fall was survived by his wife and three daughters.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 121 reviews
Profile Image for Manray9.
379 reviews101 followers
April 24, 2019
Bernard B. Fall's Hell in a Very Small Place is undeniably a classic of military history. It has at one time or another been an assigned text at the U.S. Naval War College and West Point. Fall had an unusual career as an academic who conducted field research by accompanying first French forces and later Americans into combat in Indochina. Such dedication to his work eventually cost him his life.

Hell in a Very Small Place is the definitive account of the battle at Dien Bien Phu -- a debacle that ended the French empire in Indochina. It is a sad tale of folly. The arrogance and stupidity of French political and military leaders are only partially redeemed by the valor and esprit of their soldiers -- French, Vietnamese, and Legionaires. They made a mistake fatal to many throughout history by underestimating the enemy. French generals believed their firepower, air support, and professional soldiery would allow them to annihilate the Viet Minh in open combat. Vo Nguyen Giap displayed the strategic vision, logistical flexibility, and the tactical determination to turn the tables and instead destroy the French Union's elite forces.

Fall's book is not only well written and readable, but also authoritative. His research is thorough, using both primary and secondary sources. In 1966 David Schoenbrun said of Hell in a Very Small Place that "future historians will be using Fall's book as their main source material." Thirty nine years after publication, that statement is still true.
Profile Image for Stefania Dzhanamova.
527 reviews307 followers
January 7, 2022
Bernard Fall's study is considered a brilliant secondary source on the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Compared to other books about the battle I have read, however, this one failed to impress with anything beyond glib storytelling. 

Fall expands on two main questions: Why did France herself provide not her armed forces at Dien Bien Phu with adequate support? and Why did the United States, knowing full well what was at stake, fail to provide that lacking support? Not that these questions are inappropriate – they are important. However, they are quite self-explanatory, and had Fall posed to think about the issue discussed for longer, he would not have needed to provide long-winded explanations.

Why did not the French send help to their garrison in the valley? The post-WWII recovery of France was slow, especially its economic recovery. Since 1944, its government had begun to hope that it would be able to get its prized colony of Indochina back and reclaim for France a prominent role in the Far East. But instead of recovering their colony, on which they relied for their country's industrial recovery, the French ended up fighting a long, bitter war with it. In 1946, when hostilities broke out, France was already exhausted. Its military capacity depended on the amount of aid provided by the Truman administration. After Truman was succeeded by Eisenhower, who was not as eager to throw American support behind his anti-Communist allies' imperialist ventures in the Third World, the French situation turned even less sunny. They had entertained hopes of potential US intervention in case of an emergency, but the new President did not make his intentions certain. By 1954, the French were exhausted and no closer to prevailing over the Viet Minh than in 1946. Even if they had had any substantial resources, many in the government did not saw the point of deploying them – especially in the face of increasing opposition from the French public. Furthermore, the French were not aware that the Viet Minh had indeed went all-out at Dien Bien Phu; that Ho was using all his forces and the outcome of the battle could make or mar his cause, so the French did not know the full significance of achieving victory there. In a war against elusive guerrillas, all their previous victorious had amounted to nothing. 

All in all, it was economically impossible and politically unwise for the French government to pour resources and men into the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. That's it – explained in one paragraph. 

Now let's analyze why it was that Eisenhower did not risk American lives to secure the continuation of French colonialism in Indochina. 

A firm believer in the domino theory, Ike Eisenhower did view Southeast Asia as an area of high geostrategic importance where one Communist victory could lead to many others. He was especially concerned about Malaya and Indonesia, believing that the loss of either country would jeopardize the island defense chain, cause the fall of the whole region, and force Japan to seek alliances with the Communists. On these points, Eisenhower was in agreement with his predecessor. He believed that the United States had to hold the line in Southeast Asia, specifically in Malaya because it was separated from the Chinese and Vietnamese Communists by one thousand miles of rugged territory, and it had only a small land border to defend. 

However, Eisenhower was more cautious than Truman when deploying American aid and military resources, especially in the Third World. He was less inclined to entangle his country in peripheral areas where Americans would fight from a disadvantageous position. He also relied less heavily on conventional forces than did Truman, preferring instead to use the threat of “massive retaliation” via nuclear warfare to contain Communism. That strategy allowed the Eisenhower administration to reduce military spending, which he hoped would boost domestic economic development and ultimately lead to victory in the Cold War.

While Eisenhower thought that Indochina was worth saving if the American government could save it by sending additional military aid or employing more of its air power, he did not consider the former French colony valuable enough to either warrant sending American combat troops or to threaten China with nuclear devastation for it. He was willing to let Indochina fall even though he knew the United States would lose strategically valuable territory and antagonize France because he knew that brandishing nuclear weapons at the Chinese was significantly more risky. Furthermore, from his estimations, Eisenhower concluded that the state of affairs in Indochina favored France's enemies. The President was discouraged by French inability to muster a strong local  force in Vietnam, which was essential for victory. By the time of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, he, like most in the West, was not aware that the French and their Vietnamese allies had just as big as a chance to win the battle as the Viet Minh. Referring to the use of American troops in Indochina, Eisenhower exclaimed, “I cannot tell you how bitterly opposed I am to such a course of action. This war in Indochina would absorb our troops by divisions!”

All of the aforementioned concisely explains the American policy-makers's decision, despite their knowledge of "what was at stake", to not send combat troops to faraway Indochina in 1954. 

The second reason why I was unimpressed by Bernard Fall's work is his profound fascination with "might-have-beens." There is no such thing as a "might-have-been" in historical non-fiction; it belongs to the world of historical novels. Recently, I saw an adventure story about a samurai fighting alongside a British knight and two Venetian seamen in the War of the Roses. Now that is a fascinating "might-have-been"! Indeed, what might have happened if a samurai army participated in a 15th-century British civil war? I would like to read such a study. But I would not vouch for its realism and historical accuracy. The same goes for Fall's "might-have-beens," to which he dedicates more of his analytical powers than necessary in my opinion. 

Generally, HELL IN A VERY SMALL PLACE fails to deliver in terms of insight and thoroughness. The author's writing is engaging, but the content does not match it. I do not recommend this book to anyone interested in studying the Battle of Dien Bien Phu well. 
Profile Image for Brett C(urrently overseas again).
784 reviews167 followers
December 6, 2022
Bernard B. Fall again wrote a very informative military history of the French Indochina War. It was a detailed account of the seige at Dien Bien Phu. It was highly detailed with logistical planning, time-hacks, military maneuvering, strategic plays, and conflict outcomes.

This was very good but I had a hard time getting into it. Honestly I enjoyed the same author's Street Without Joy probably because it explained a lot more as opposed to a single battle engagement. Either way I would recommend this to anyone interested in the Vietnam conflict. Thanks!
Profile Image for Tom.
396 reviews36 followers
July 10, 2008
According to Michael Herr, author of the popular Dispatches, Fall's account of French defeat at Dien Bien Phu a decade earlier became the secret cult classic text among reporters and some officers for understanding the fate awaiting American mission in Vietnam. Fall, a victim of the war he covered through two decades, was French himself, and in addition to heroically detailed account of the battle -- strategies, stories of individual acts of doomed bravery -- provides insight into same element of national arrogance that came to plague American leaders only ten years later. Though US forces never lost a DBP-type battle (siege of Khe San was thought by some at the time to be an incipient DBP), the French defeat became a kind of metaphorical blue print for American disaster.

Ironic that the two most insightful works on America's tragic folly in Vietnam -- Fall's book and Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American -- were written by foreigners well before the fall of Saigon (in Greene's case, years earlier!) Sadly, these two books complement each other all too well.
Profile Image for Gerry.
246 reviews34 followers
July 5, 2017
This book should be read following a read of "Street Without Joy". The level of detail within this book is nothing short of brilliant. The follow through at the end of this book only adds to the substantial level of work that Dr. Fall placed within the effort. He was truly the first embedded journalist in French-Indochina and this work will remain an important piece of military history for many years yet to come.

Dr. Fall's life was a "book" all unto itself and any person taking on the reading of "Street Without Joy" as well as this book should attempt along the way to understand the life that he himself led and had prior to his professional education.
Profile Image for Sean Chick.
Author 5 books1,041 followers
April 29, 2019
Hell in a Very Small Place is considered a classic piece of military history. It is detailed, personal, and well argued. The book was also written before the Tet Offensive, offering its own time capsule into the battle's consequences and the uncertainties of that time. As they say, in retrospect everything seems inevitable.
Profile Image for Steve.
361 reviews1 follower
December 1, 2019
Given access to a large amount of French military archives, Mr. Fall wrote an extremely detailed account of the Siege of Dien Bien Phu in the standard battle narrative. There are a bounty of names for units, tanks, guns, planes and hills, and ranks of officers and the enlisted, and plenty of villages, and towns unknown to westerners, and code-names, bases and military time. Yet, for all that rhetoric, Dien Bien Phu was an important precursor to America’s intervention in Vietnam, making this volume a worthy read.

As with many things in life, myths and simplifications are easily sprouted and sustained, such is the case with the fall of French Indochina. Mr. Fall’s history provides an understanding that events at Dien Bien Phu were far from pre-ordained, the historical threads quite complex. Of note, the majority of the French combat force consisted of men from outside mainland France; further, only a portion of the entire lot, some 15,000+ troops, survived the battle and the ensuing brutal, 500 mile, death march. Then there were the bordels mobiles de campagne, a French military institution new to me. I have this feeling Mr. Fall intended to describe an honor and virtue in warfare, particularly among the French combatants, which he also very much admired; this rings sadly hollow. It seems that humanity has made great progress of late, for no longer do we send our militias to die by the thousands in battle, rather now the hundreds, or perhaps dozens. Even so, militarism sure seems immortal.

In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote, “The event of the battle of Hadrianople, so fatal to Valens and to the empire, may be described in a few words: the Roman cavalry fled; the infantry was abandoned, surrounded and cut in pieces.” The French forces acquitted themselves with far greater valor than Valens; I'm left to wonder, what would Mr. Gibbon have to say about this débâcle?
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,489 reviews221 followers
August 3, 2019
The next time someone accuses the French of being cheese eating surrender monkeys, I will be forced to slap them. Dien Bien Phu is one of those battles that has shaped the course of history. In 55 days of brutal siege warfare, the Viet Minh under General Giap defeated a French garrison, ending French involvement in Vietnam, and setting the stage for America's bloody war. Published in 1966, this book was required reading in Wasington policy circles, and drove Lyndon Johnson’s obsession that the battle of Khe Sahn not be another 'din bin foo'.

Bernard Fall was an old Indochina hand, and this book mixes a day by day account of the battle with portraits of colorful French Foreign Legion officers and analysis of the mood and thought in Hanoi, Paris, and Washington. At times, the endless descriptions of desperate counter-attacks and airdrops under fire wears on, but a few scenes rise above prosaic reporting to describe the suffering endured by the French, trapped in hastily built trenches, starving, soaked to the bone, and under continual Viet Minh bombardment. The strategic analysis of Eisenhower's decision not to intervene is fairly accurate, especially considering how closely this book was published to the events. Notably, even in 1966 Vietnam experts were obsessed with counter-factuals and might-have-beens.

Ultimately, the French were defeated, but only after days without rations, reinforcement, or resupply. Dien Bien Phu fell only after every bullet was fired, and the last defensive positions overrun. Both sides were ferocious and skilled fighters, but what decided the battle was logistics. The French arrogantly assumed that the base could be supplied by airlift, and that it was impossible to move large numbers of men and supplies through the jungle. Communist flak, and the endurance of coolie porters carrying 200 kg loads on modified bicycles hundreds of miles through the jungle proved them wrong.

Dien Bien Phu was an atypical set-piece of battle, not characteristic of the war as a whole. Long and detailed, Hell in a Very Small Place is too much for a general audience, but vital reading for anybody interested in the origins of the war, or the French colonial forces.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
714 reviews81 followers
December 27, 2019
It's easy to see why this became a classic. Fall's prose flows easily as he maintains an excellent middle ground examination of the failure of the French High Command coupled with both heroic and cowardly deeds of the French, Moroccan, Algerian, T'ai, and Vietnamese on the ground. As it is all to often in war, the men far behind the lines dither and dictate policy while the boots suffer and die for it.

This book I would also argue is paramount to understanding the French army's role and treatment of the populace in the struggle for Algeria. Most of the combatants and leaders were Indo-China and Dien Bien Phu veterans.

One can almost detect a pleading towards the end, Fall writing while his own country (The USA) began to commit more and more to a "conventional war" with the build up of forces in Vietnam passing from the role of adviser to active combatant. Fall hoped we would learn from both our and French mistakes in the 50's, sadly, he died while attached to a unit as a reporter in the jungle. With perfect hindsight, it is plain to see we did not take to heart Fall's excellent work and the lessons available to us.
Profile Image for Jimmy.
Author 6 books206 followers
December 27, 2020
Extremely researched. The great Bernard Fall interviewed all the people he could find all over the world to get the details right. Not a book for everyone to read if you are not interested in those minor details. More for those interested in the military. Quite a remarkable achievement.
Profile Image for Quân Khuê.
294 reviews757 followers
May 3, 2013
Bernard Fall là phóng viên người Pháp gốc Do Thái, viết nhiều sách về Việt Minh và chiến tranh Việt Nam. Ông chết vì mìn năm 1967 trên chiến trường Việt Nam khi đang hành quân cùng một trung đội lính thủy đánh bộ Mỹ.

Cuốn sách của Fall tường thuật chi tiết cuộc chiến Điện Biên Phủ từ góc nhìn người Pháp, với ít nhiều thiện cảm cho Việt Minh (có lẽ là lý do cuốn sách được dịch phát hành tại Việt Nam). Một chi tiết thú vị là tướng De Castries bị bắt nhưng, khác với sách giáo khoa sử, chưa bao giờ giương cờ trắng đầu hàng cả.
Profile Image for William A..
Author 2 books196 followers
June 16, 2021
Review of Street Without Joy and Hell In A Very Small Place by Bernard Fall
When I was in the army, a popular saying was that “the shit always rolls downhill.” By this, it was meant that decisions by the generals were handed off to the colonels, who then downloaded them to the captains, and so on until a group of privates were sacrificed on a suicide mission. That pretty much describes what happened to the cream of the French army at Dien Bin Phu in the First Indochina War. Hell In A Very Small Place, by Bernard Fall, chronicles that defeat in devastating detail. However, to fully understand Dien Bin Phu, it is necessary to read Fall’s prior book, Street Without Joy, which describes the bloody series of debacles the French suffered leading up to that last battle.
The road to Dien Bien Phu began shortly after World War II when French leaders set out to reclaim the country’s colonial empire, starting with Viet Nam. Ho Chi Minh, the communist revolutionary who had battled Japanese forces, wanted Vietnam’s independence. This conflict led to the First Indochina War.
Aided by copious weaponry and advisors from both Russia and China, Ho Chi Minh’s ragtag guerrilla force morphed into a highly disciplined army. With it, he dealt the French a series of blows. General Navarre, the overall theatre commander of French Forces in Vietnam, had no answer to the Viet Minh’s hit and run tactics. His heavy tanks and artillery meant that the French were road-bound while the lightly equipped Viet Minh could flit through the jungle, appearing suddenly to ambush a French column or attack a sitting-duck checkpoint.
Street Without Joy chronicles the tragic fate that befell many French units posted in stationary guard posts in remote areas. As the war dragged on the Viet Minh became masters of camouflage. Their sappers were among the world’s best. They turned Viet Nam’s roads into death traps. Route 1, which French soldiers called “the street without joy,” was the scene of many bloody ambushes.
In the classic Hell In A Very Small Place, Fall describes how Navarre blundered into his final defeat. Hoping to lure the Viet Minh’s main battle forces away from the vital Red River delta, Navarre decided to parachute ten battalions of his best troops into Dien Bin Phu, a small town located in the heart of an indefensible valley. The troops and their equipment were parachuted because the roads, and in fact the entire region, were controlled by the Communists. When coming up with this plan, Navarre failed to consider that parachuting is a one-way affair. Once in, there was no way out for the French.
Soon Navarre had his wish to decoy the Viet Minh away from the delta. The communist commander, General Giap, surrounded the 10,000-man French garrison of Dien Bin Phu with three divisions comprising 40,000 soldiers. This was done in accordance with the military maxim that to succeed, attackers must outnumber defenders by 4-1. Once Giap had his troops and artillery in place, the outcome of the battle was not in doubt.
The Second Indochina War preoccupied much of my youth. Decisions made by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson led America to replicate the French debacle, thus destroying the lives of many of our most promising young people. At the time, Bernard Fall was acknowledged as the expert on Indochina. Street Without Joy and Hell In A Very Small Place were considered must-reads by bright young American officers during the sixties. However, they and their superiors could not shake the idea that the French were the B-team, not quite ready for primetime, while the US army would be like the varsity coming in to kick ass.
But in fact, the Foreign Legion and French paratroopers were among the best professional soldiers in the world. They and their Moroccan, Algerian, and Vietnamese auxiliaries fought bravely and well in a doomed clause. One wonders if Robert MacNamara, William Westmoreland, Dean Rusk, Lyndon Johnson, and other architects of America’s effort in Viet Nam understood this or bothered to read Fall’s books.
Reading Street Without Joy and Hell In A Very Small Place caused me to ponder how generals find the hubris to put their finger on a map and decide to pour the blood of their men on the ground there. In General Giap’s case, it’s understandable that he and his men would fight for their home. By contrast, French soldiers had nothing at stake. Victory for them would only have benefited corporations like Michelin, wealthy French planters, and other beneficiaries of colonialism. So in the end, the side that was fighting off an existential threat to their country beat soldiers who at first were motivated by professional pride and later fought only to save their own and their comrades’ lives.
If you are a history buff, then I would highly recommend Bernard Fall’s work. He assumes that his readers want all the details, so he provides them. But this is not a dry history recitation. Fall introduces us to many intriguing characters on both sides of the conflict and peppers the narrative with their quotes plus telling anecdotes so that we truly get to know them. While Fall is sympathetic to the plight of the French soldiers, he makes sure to honor the bravery, professionalism, and dedication of the Viet Minh and their leaders. Sadly, after documenting the tragic story of France’s Indochina war, Fall went on to write about America’s turn to take on the Vietnamese communists. Never an armchair historian, he was killed by a mine while out on patrol with US marines in 1967.

65 reviews1 follower
October 9, 2022
This book is a 5 for any military historian. I suspect the massive amount of detail about particular units and people would be too much for the average reader. For them I'd say this book is a 3 or 4. A couple of notes before reviewing the book.

First, the author, Bernard Fall, had a unique ability to write a captivating book. He did a fantastic job of weaving small bits of personal information seamlessly into his larger narrative of events. His description of Genevieve de Garland's honorary induction into the Foreign Legion is a good example. It reminds me of Cornelius Ryan's ability to make the history come alive.

A second note to people not familiar with it: French units are properly identified by their abbreviations, BUT for English speakers this sometimes looks backwards. For example, the 4th Colonial Artillery Regiment is 4 RAC and the 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion (1er Bataillon Etranger de Parachutistes) is 1 BEP. Appendix E fortunately spells most of these out. I would recommend reading all the appendices first just to get familiar with terms and the number of units involved.

This book is a VERY detailed description of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the events that led up to it, and the planning and reasons behind the actions that were taken. Just in case you happen to live under a rock,

The ramifications of this battle for France and the United States are discussed very clearly and objectively in my opinion. The planning is gone over, and the failure to anticipate what could go wrong becomes evident early on. The decision to attempt to engage the Viet-Minh in a set piece battle that would result in their defeat is examined thoroughly. Fall said it best with "Henceforth, the planning of the battle of Dien Bien Phu took on the preordained air of a Greek tragedy."

Once the battle is joined in earnest, Fall did an excellent job of describing the individual unit actions in detail. He broke down almost every day of the siege and how the day’s events affected the status of the battle. Ultimately, the book is really about the people involved, the people on the ground there and what they faced. A good example of how Fall brought in fascinating bits and pieces of minute facts to make a compelling story is the counter attack to take back hill E1: Early on 11 April, when French and German Foreign Legionnaire paratroopers started their counter attack up hill E1, they began singing paratrooper songs before being swallowed up in the battle. The last two companies thrown in were from the 5th Vietnamese paratroops. They had no unit songs which could be shouted to give oneself encouragement but as Fall writes, "As the Vietnamese paratroopers in turn emerged on the fire-beaten saddle between the hills there suddenly arose, for the first and last time in the Indochina war, the Marseillaise. It was sung the way it was written to be sung in the days of the French Revolution, as a battle hymn of the French Republic. It was sung that night on the blood stained slopes of Hill Elaine 1 by Vietnamese fighting other Vietnamese in the last battle France fought as an Asian power."

Fall also did a good job of bringing to the reader's attention how this battle affects things that are happening "now" in 1966, which is when the book was written. He mentioned how the Viet Cong learned lessons, but the Americans did not. Twelve years later, for instance, the VC made sure to have deep bunkers. So the lessons of Dien Bien Phu were remembered by at least one side. The description of Lyndon B. Johnson's caution about getting involved in Vietnam makes one wish that the Johnson of 1954 was still around in 1964.

The author gave all the political and historical details that happened, but at the same time he was never far from the soldier on the ground, presumably because he spent so much time in the 1950s and 60s out in the field with the French, Cambodian colonial troops, Foreign Legionaries, South Vietnamese, and American soldiers/marines. That gives this book a certain "feel" that resonates; it "clicks". I didn't feel like I was reading someone whose observations were made from a distance, but more like they were coming from someone who was there. It's fair to say I'm not sure how much of that is due to shared experience, or because I agree with most of his observations of the political and military leadership. At any rate, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know about this important piece of history.
Profile Image for Aaron Crofut.
356 reviews36 followers
August 9, 2015
Bernard Fall knew how to write an excellent history book, even if it was basically a current events book at the time. In analyzing the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, he perfectly balances the strategic, tactical, and personal stories of the siege. The strategic aspect is the most important for voters, as it is the one we are most likely to have an influence upon. I could easily imagine the tactical considerations important for study by anyone going into combat. The personal facet is perhaps the least likely to improve us as informed citizens, but it is paradoxically the most important part of Fall's (or any historian's) work: it reminds us that these we honest to God people who paid the price for all of the decisions made at all levels.

And the personal stories are harrowing. One factor I had not considered, nor apparently had the French High Command, was that Dien Bien Phu, like most of Asia, was subject to monsoons. Placing a base in the middle of a valley during monsoon season meant the soldiers and civilians (including brothel workers who somehow endured this 56 day siege) lived in a veritable quagmire. One fought, ate, slept, performed surgery, and died in the mud, where, with some luck, one might receive a proper burial if one's body could be retrieved. Many were not that fortunate, and combined with a second meteorological factor, the heat, thousands of bodies that were churned into the mud by over 200,000 artillery shells began to rot, producing plagues of maggots that seeped into the French dugouts, nearly all of which were converted into makeshift hospitals.

Both sides displayed incredible feats of bravery and endurance, and I was genuinely shocked at how well the French forces held up and that the Viet Minh forces, despite constantly outnumbering an enemy whose perimeter was always shrinking, nearly broke first due to their excessive casualties. Even to the end, French commanders within the base carried out counterattacks of incredible savagery and decimated enemy infantry with artillery.

But here is another paradox: the French, Algerian, African, Vietnamese, and Foreign Legion fighters put up an outstanding defense in the cause of an industrial European power but were ultimately wiped out by a colonial resistance group. How was this possible?

Fall correctly states that Dien Bien Phu was not lost in the valley bordering Laos, but in the colonial capital of Hanoi, in Paris, and in Washington, D.C. Paratroopers began landing in Dien Bien Phu before an adequate reason was stated for their being there; the leading Generals, Navarre (commanding all of Vietnam) and Cogny (commanding the forces in North Vietnam) were at odds as to the purpose of the base. Worse yet, the government was uncertain what they wanted the base to be, ultimately telling Navarre it need not "close the door" to Laos weeks after the base was already constructed. Perhaps most amazingly, the operation of unclear objectives was approved with the proviso that the forces required may not be available.

This conflicted leadership led to a conflicted use of Dien Bien Phu. On the one hand, it was seen as a base to launch attacks into the enemies rear areas; as such, it was not prepared with adequate defense measures for a siege. This alone all but doomed the base when it was, indeed, besieged. On the other hand, the base was seen as an opportunity to be a juicy bait to draw the enemy out into the open and away from the more populated Red River Delta. Once in the open, air and artillery could be used to devastating impact.

That is, if there was an air force. Which, for all practical purposes, there wasn't. The French actually had more planes than they did trained pilots. This base, located in the depths of the jungle hundreds of kilometers away, could only be supplied by air, tying up a huge percentage of France's available airpower throughout the region. The one type of plane that could have saved them, the heavy bomber, was the one type France lacked, largely because their role in NATO left the heavy bombing to the Brits and the Americans.

So before the shooting even began, the base lacked proper defense structures, was located in a bog, breathed through an easily severed windepipe, and predicated its defense on an air wing that wasn't there. Their saving grace was their artillery and the belief that the Viet Minh could never haul so many guns and sufficient ammunition through the jungle without being destroyed by French aircraft or jungle conditions.

They were unhappily surprised by the determination of General Vo Nguyen Giap, who brought more guns to the party than the French. And not just artillery to blast the base, but antiaircraft guns, enough to make WWII veterans swear Dien Bien Phu was better defended than many Nazi cities.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing reading the book is that the French intelligence, as Fall stresses, did not fail. They knew the guns existed; they knew the enemy divisions were surrounding the base; they must have known their own inability to supply such a far away base surrounded by heavy flak. But the generals never really put the pieces together until it was way too late.

After that, France was limited to hoping geopolitical forces would come to the rescue in a way reminiscent of the Confederacy's strategic goals during our Civil War. If DBP could hold out until the Geneva Conference began, perhaps a cease-fire could be declared. If the United States would come in with air forces alone, they could bomb the concentrated Viet Minh forces back to the stone age. And that was a very real possibility during the month of April. But for a variety of reasons, we didn't come in.

The most obvious impact of this battle was the division of Vietnam into a now victorious North and a weak South which the United States would come to defend ten years later. The implications were wider, however. France, after being basically betrayed by the Allies in WWII and really again here, began to distrust the United States and push for an independent foreign policy that has impacted our policy to the modern day. And France would be rocked by another colonial war far closer to home in Algeria just as the Indochina conflict came to an end. Many of the foreign fighters would join the Algerians against France, while many French soldiers (including a former Commander in Chief of Indochina, Salan), disgusted by having lost a second war due to their politicians, would participate in a putsch against their own civilian government.

An outstanding book, dense in wisdom. Bernard's style was particularly good. The man builds a story of incredible detail but always manages to close in a small concluding chapter with the force and clarity of a lawyer, leaving no room for doubt as to the certitude of his well-stated conclusions. The interaction of the strategic, tactical, and personal is on display here better than any book of theory ever could present it.
Profile Image for Liam || Books 'n Beards.
535 reviews48 followers
January 8, 2018
...[General] Giap had decided to accept trial by battle at Dien Bien Phu, it remained only for 15,000 French and 50,000 Viet Minh troops to act out the drama in pain and blood and death.

Dien Bien Phu is a battle which holds a surprising amount of interest to me - much like Stalingrad, it's an example of the desperate heroism that humans are capable of when their back is to the wall and they have nowhere else to turn.

Martin Windrow's excellent accounting of the siege, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, sparked my original interest in Dien Bien Phu and the Indochinese War, and by extension the Vietnam War, a period I know frightfully little about. Windrow's book draws heavily on Hell in a Very Small Place, and the author credits this book with sparking his own interest in Dien Bien Phu, much like his did mine, and so it immediately became a must-read.

Hell in a Very Small Place is a much more focused book - the first third of The Last Valley is spent discussing the leadup to Dien Bien Phu, the battles and combatants, whilst this book is in the valley within the first 100 pages. Perhaps this is due to it originally being published in 1966, 12 years after the battle itself, and it's assumed that most readers would be familiar with the events - regardless, had I not read Last Valley first I would have been a lot more confused.

After that however, the two unfold more or less the same, with Last Valley glossing over the occupation and fortification (or the lack thereof) of the valley in favour of a focus on the preceding events. Fall and Windrow's opinions on the outcome and the conduct of the siege are also in line with one another - as to be expected, I suppose, when one introduced the other to the event.

All over again I found myself agonising over the fate of the thousands of French paratroopers and others who were trapped in the hellhole - their desperate defense of a mudhole in the middle of nowhere, far from home - and putting paid to the ridiculous modern myth of the Frenchman's propensity to surrender.

It would now be their task [...] to make yet one more desperate effort to finish off the grimly determined French resistance on the blood-soaked hills and filth-laden valley bottom...

Whereas Windrow focuses mostly on a play-by-play of the battle itself, Fall goes into detail on the political situation throughout - specifically France's pleas to the United States to provide air support in the face of an increasingly disastrous siege battle, and Britain's stubborn refusal to throw their support behind France. As it was written in the midst of America's own disastrous adventure in Vietnam, this book also draws very clear and painful parallels between the French experience and the ongoing war - and how the latter may have been easily avoided with American assistance in the former.

There can be no doubt that Dien Bien Phu, far from being a purely French defeat, became an American defeat as well [...] From 1965 onward, the United States was willing to go to work for the sake of preserving what her President calls her 'national honor'. In 1954, one hundred airplanes could not be found to save 15,000 French troops at Dien Bien Phu.

Following the battle, Fall's book does a slightly better job of explaining the POW situation and the grueling march they were forced on - the attempts of the French to repatriate their dead, scattered across the valley, ultimately unsuccessful due to clashes between the Viet Minh and French diplomats - the fate of the few dozen who managed to escape the encirclement at the end of the siege and flee into the jungle - and where most of the significant players of the battle were when the book was written in 1966. As it was, the majority of these people were still alive to give eyewitness accounts to Fall for his book, whereas Windrow did not have this luxury.

A very enjoyable read, I could not pick between it and Last Valley which I preferred. Both are incredible works of historical storytelling which I would heartily recommend to anyone.

Colonel Bastiani states that "the defenders of Dien Bien Phu have up to now covered themselves in glory and are an object of admiration for the Free World."

The price of that unsullied glory came to 5000 dead, 10,000 prisoners, and a lost war.
Profile Image for Jon Frankel.
Author 8 books22 followers
September 8, 2017
Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall is a masterpiece of military history. Fall was born in Austria and moved as a child to France, where as a teenager he fought in the Resistance. His mother was murdered in Auschwitz. After the war he moved to the US to study and taught at Howard University. He traveled extensively in Vietnam starting in 1953 and was a frequent war correspondent. He wrote about the French Indochina War in Street Without Joy. That book was handed out in the early sixties to American advisors arriving to try their hand at a hopeless neo-colonial enterprise. Fall had started out as pro French but eventually concluded that the war was unwinnable. He was also optimistic about the American effort at first but by the time he came to write Hell in a Very Small Place in 1966 he understood that the war was again unwinnable.
Hell in a Very Small Place is the story of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, an isolated valley near the Laotian border in northwest Vietnam. General Henri Navarre, commander of French forces in Indochina, decided a set piece battle in the valley would lure Viet Minh troops away from the Red River Delta and allow the French to take back territory lost. General Giap obliged him. From December of 1953 to May 8th 1954 the two sides faced off in the mud and pouring rain. Dien Bien Phu was almost devoid of vegetation. It was bound by mountains and high ground. It had an airstrip and a series of small outposts. There was a subterranean hospital, a small corps of prostitutes, and a force of soldiers cobbled together from the paratroops, the Foreign Legion and a some Laotian and Vietnamese forces. The French Commander of the north, Cogny, never liked Navarre's plan and the entire siege was worsened by the continuous bureaucratic bickering of two pompous generals cut off from the horror they were creating.
From the start the situation was dire. The French were under supplied. Air drops of materiel landed often in enemy territory. The Viet Minh had the advantage of high ground, continuous supply and superiority in artillery. After a few spectacular battles early on, one of which the French decisively won, Giap started a siege, encroaching steadily via tunnels on the 'fort'. Casualties were appalling. Thousands of French led troops sank into the mud and rotted. Soldiers climbed over the bodies of the dead fleeing through flak and fire.
Fall's book is in a category with Thucydides. This is a masterful work of military history, granular, funky with the smell of battle, claustrophobic and detailed. He balances narration of fighting with thumbnail sketches of the combatants. As in all wars the ultimate objectives of generals and politicians vaporize in the reality survival. There are cowards enough but both sides displayed heroism and at times grace. Brutality and understanding proceed hand in hand. Fall's analysis, present throughout, but most pointed in the concluding chapters, is elegant and nuanced, the work of a true historian who has witnessed the events he is narrating, who cares deeply abut the country and people of Vietnam but also of France. This analysis is sobering indeed. At no point was the battle winnable. He concludes that massive American air strikes would have saved Dien Bien Phu, but he vividly demonstrates why such air power could not have won the war itself, and reminds readers that it will not work in the present (1966) either. It also emerges from these pages why assertions that with sufficient support the South Vietnamese army could have beat the North and the NLF in the 70s are wrong. South Vietnamese forces NEVER had the motivation or skills to defeat Giap, not in the 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s, and to say otherwise is to give in to the delusions that fueled the wars from the start.
Fall's book is indispensable reading.
Profile Image for Amy.
32 reviews
July 6, 2018
Bernard Fall was a remarkable man. He had a master's degree in political science with additional post-graduate work in international relations. He became a professor at Howard Univ, but in 1953 he began traveling in Vietnam, accompanying French troops. He made several trips to Indochina during both the French and American wars in Vietnam. His books combine history of the events he saw with the analysis and perspective of his education. The result was a set of invaluable books. He died in 1967 when he stepped on a land mine.

The French battle at Dien Bien Phu had many parallels with the American battle at Huế. In both cases, the battles were turning points in their respective wars. (Opinions differ, of course). Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu is the story of the French battle in 1954.

The conduct of the battle was described in great detail and it could be dry at times. On the other hand, I had a strong sense of being there. Well, actually I found myself wanting to scream and shake people. It's not an easy read, but there's so much to know. The book shows a slice of the big picture— one that Americans seldom see. Already in 1954 there was occasional limited US air & naval involvement. They even considered nukes (well before the day of Curtis LeMay)

All in all, the book is an eye opener— definitely worth the time & effort
Profile Image for Jim Barber.
Author 6 books10 followers
November 25, 2020
So I loved detailed books about battles in the Vietnam War. This is about what happened to the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. It was awful on so many levels. The book is really amazing and deserving of four stars, if not five. But as good as it is, it was almost too detailed, and it lacked the narrative drive that other battle books I've read about the American experience in Vietnam possessed. From a research perspective, however, this is incredible. And the ending really puts the entire siege into perspective in a way that you don't realize just reading the book itself, and even in a way that word of mouth and TV specials have failed to convey over the years. When I visited Southeast Asia in 2017, my daughter and I considered a trip to Dien Bien Phu but we opted to miss that one. Still think that was the right decision but it would have been sobering to walk on that ground where so much suffering took place.
Profile Image for Matthew Gleason.
28 reviews
September 28, 2018
Hell in A Very Small Place is often considered to be the seminal work of Bernard Fall...and I can state that it is indeed an incredible piece of literature. While Street Without Joy is equally compelling as a narrative of the French Struggle in Indochina, Fall masterfully weaves in the grand strategic importance of Dien Bien Phu. It is really two tales in one, a tale of the gallant men who defended the French position, and one of the strategic players that put the “fortress” on death ground.

As an American the true tragedy of this book is that it was published in January of 1966, and Street Without Joy was published in 1961...The lessons available then about a war amongst the people/revolutionary warfare are germane now.
Profile Image for Matt S.
92 reviews12 followers
April 30, 2018
It is shameful that people have no knowledge or only mere cursory knowledge of the name, of Dien Bien Phu. Why firebase operations continued and continue to this day as a manner of conducting operations other than war or warfare operations is an astounding denial of hard learned knowledge by people who have not experienced 57 days of shelling. I fear many who read this lack context to sufficient sympathize or imagine what an environment like this would be like, but I hope that the concentration camp comparisons are enough to open people's eyes. I read this because my details on the event were fuzzy. I doubt I'll soon forget what I've read.
Profile Image for Rich Hasler.
212 reviews1 follower
April 21, 2020
An exhausting and heart wrenching account of the horrors of military combat. It certainly provides many insights into the context in which the US became embroiled in the conflict in Indochina at the time. It would be well for many of todays critics to pay attention more to historical context. This is a very good one!
Profile Image for Al Berry.
338 reviews2 followers
December 31, 2017
'In 1940 the French didn't know how to use tanks, in 1954 they didn't know how to use planes' is Fall's quick and dirty summation. While not quite as good as his 'Street without Joy' Hell in a very small place is still a very good read on the most important battle fought since World War 2. Fall is an excellent writer with keen insight, a must read for any student of history.
391 reviews
January 17, 2018
To read Fall today is to be struck by his deep understanding of French counterinsurgency efforts in Indochina and other parts of the empire and their clear relevance for what the Americans sought to achieve in Vietnam. Results [of counterinsurgency] could be measured only over a period of many years, and success required an effective host government that in the end could carry the burden on its own. Moreover, notwithstanding counterinsurgency theory’s emphasis on nonmilitary measures, large-scale and brutal firepower would almost certainly be used, resulting in the widespread killing of civilians and heightening local resentments. And therein lay a problem, Fall concluded, for the support of that local populace was absolutely vital.--- NYT "Bernard Fall: The Man Who Knew the War" by Fredrik Logevall)

Fifty years ago today, on Feb. 21, 1967, the journalist Bernard Fall stepped on a land mine while accompanying Marines on a mission near Hue, in South Vietnam. He died instantly. He was 40 years old.

The literature on the Vietnam War is enormous and growing, but Fall’s work still stands out for its insight and sagacity. He remains our greatest writer on the struggle, despite the fact that he died before the period of heavy American military involvement had reached its halfway point.

Fall wrote six books on the Indochina conflict, along with more than 100 articles in popular publications like The New York Times Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post and The New Republic, as well as academic journals. Many an officer who shipped out to Saigon carried with him a dog-eared copy of “Street Without Joy: Indochina at War, 1946–1954,” published in 1961. In early 1968, when it seemed possible that American forces could be in for a disastrous siege at Khe Sanh, officers scrambled to get their hands on “Hell in a Very Small Place,” Fall’s searing account of the siege at Dien Bien Phu, 14 years earlier, in which the French suffered the decisive loss in their own struggle to control the country.

Born in Vienna in 1926, Fall moved to Paris after Germany annexed Austria, and as a teenager he fought for the French resistance. (His father, who also fought for the resistance, was executed by the Germans; his mother died at Auschwitz.) He came to the United States for graduate school in international relations and eventually became a professor at Howard University. He also began traveling to Vietnam in the 1950s and writing about what he saw. Passionate, tireless, intensely ambitious, Fall set out to become, as he put it, “the foremost military writer of my generation.”

Arguably, he succeeded, or came close. Always wishing to be seen as a soldier’s historian, from early on he earned the respect of French and American servicemen and their superiors for his close attention to their experiences, and for his penetrating and dispassionate analyses of strategic and tactical matters. Journalists and Foreign Service officers seeking to make sense of the war likewise devoured his books and articles, as did general readers drawn in by this transplanted Frenchman’s acute powers of observation and robust and engaging English prose.

To read Fall today is to be struck by his deep understanding of French counterinsurgency efforts in Indochina and other parts of the empire and their clear relevance for what the Americans sought to achieve in Vietnam. Counterinsurgency, that French experience taught, was extremely hard going. Results could be measured only over a period of many years, and success required an effective host government that in the end could carry the burden on its own. Moreover, notwithstanding counterinsurgency theory’s emphasis on nonmilitary measures, large-scale and brutal firepower would almost certainly be used, resulting in the widespread killing of civilians and heightening local resentments.

And therein lay a problem, Fall concluded, for the support of that local populace was absolutely vital.
“In revolutionary war,” he wrote, “the allegiance of the civilian population becomes one of the most vital objectives of the whole struggle. This is indeed the key message that Trinquier” (the French military theorist) “seeks to impress upon his reader: Military tactics and hardware are all well and good, but they are quite useless if one has lost the confidence of the population among whom one is fighting.”

For that matter, was it even possible to keep the people’s confidence? Could a local population ever come to see an occupying force as its friend? Fall was skeptical. His own experience with the French underground had given him a taste of what it meant to fight a guerrilla war against such a force, and he saw the phenomenon again when, as a doctoral student at Syracuse University, he first visited Indochina in 1953 to conduct research for a dissertation on the nature and evolution of Ho Chi Minh’s regime (which he completed the following year and published as his first book in 1956).

Still, Fall was not at that point pro-Viet Minh, and indeed he felt an affinity for the fellow Frenchmen he encountered in the field, and for what they sought to achieve. (Establishing a pattern he would follow on all his trips to Indochina, he accompanied units on combat operations, attended lunches and dinners with officers and kept his eyes and ears open.) A cold warrior at heart, he in this period endorsed the domino theory, much to his later regret. France was doing its part for the West, he believed. When, after France’s defeat, the United States took up the challenge to thwart Ho’s revolution and to build up a non-Communist bastion in South Vietnam, Fall expressed support.

The task would be anything but easy, he knew. From his research and his battlefield observations he developed a genuine, if initially grudging, admiration for Ho and his fighters — for their tenacity, their fighting skill, their commitment to their cause. He did not hesitate to level criticisms against the harshness of the regime (notably regarding the excesses of its land reform campaign in 1953-1956), but he grasped that the Communists were no mere puppets of Beijing or Moscow, that they had a nationalist ambition as well as an ideological one. And he saw, crucially, that they had support where it counted, in the villages where a vast majority of Vietnamese lived.

The evidence was everywhere. In 1953, having been assured by French officials that the Red River Delta was firmly in the control of the French-backed government, a suspicious Fall decided to take a close look at teacher-assignment data: In a school system where teachers were supposedly designated by the central government, he found that scores of villages were not being assigned teachers from Hanoi. Fall produced a map that showed a picture of control “frighteningly different” from what French authorities were claiming. He concluded that the Viet Minh dominated 70 percent of the delta inside the French perimeter — more or less everywhere except Hanoi, Haiphong and the other large garrison areas.

When American officials later offered similar assurances about the security situation in the Mekong Delta in the south, Fall ran similar tests and found similar results. Just as the French had lost the battle for the control of the population, so the Americans were now in the process of doing the same.

True, Fall acknowledged, the power differential between the two Western powers was immense, and he rejected as simplistic the casual way some critics of Johnson’s escalation in 1965 invoked the French analogy. The United States, after all, was hugely more powerful than her ally had ever been, especially in the air. “Before Dien Bien Phu,” he pointed out, “the French Air Force had for all of Indochina (i.e., Cambodia, Laos and North and South Vietnam) a total of 112 fighters and 68 bombers. On Sept. 24, 1965, the United States flew 167 bombers against North Vietnamese targets alone, dropping 235 tons of bombs, and simultaneously flew 317 bomber sorties ‘in country’ ” — South Vietnam — “dropping 270 tons of bombs.”

Even as he marveled at America’s military capacity, however, Fall doubted it would ultimately make a decisive difference. The unleashing of such awesome high-tech weaponry might make the war “militarily unlosable” in the short term, but at profound cost: the destruction of Vietnam. He quoted Tacitus: “They have made a desert, and called it peace.” Even then the enemy would not be vanquished, for in this conflict military supremacy mattered only so much — the struggle had to be won politically if it was to be won at all. To Fall there was little indication that this was happening, either in late 1965 or in the year that followed.

He grew more and more despondent. He called for negotiations, for treating the National Liberation Front for what it was: a political force in South Vietnam that could not simply be obliterated by American firepower. But he feared the violence would only increase. “The incredible thing about Viet-Nam is that the worst is yet to come,” he wrote. “We have been bombing for a relatively short time and the results are devastating. The United States is probably only operating at 1 percent capacity in Viet-Nam. Everything could be escalated vastly — in the North, major industrial targets, major towns, and then the irrigation dams; in the South, more powerful bombs on more vulnerable targets.”

As he prepared to depart on his fateful final trip to Vietnam, Fall felt a sense of foreboding about his own mortality (he suffered from a serious kidney disorder), and dejection about what was happening to the Vietnam he loved. “It’s always very sad,” he told a radio interviewer, “when you come back to a place and you sort of wonder what they have done with it.”

On Feb. 20, 1967, Fall headed out on an operation with a battalion from the Third Marine Division along the “Street Without Joy” — the same road, northwest of Hue, that he had written so powerfully about in his 1961 book. A haven for the Viet Minh during the French war, the area was now the home territory of the 802nd Viet Cong battalion.

The next day Fall spoke into his tape recorder as he walked, sixth in the line of men:

“First in the afternoon about 4:30 — shadows are lengthening and we’ve reached one of our phase lines after the firefight and it smells bad — meaning it’s a little bit suspicious … Could be an amb —.”

Those were Bernard Fall’s last words.

Profile Image for CD .
663 reviews67 followers
September 14, 2008
The standard of how modern military reportage should be written. A book that some translations lack the punch of the original in French and further lose a bit of the flow, still is better than any other work of the period and is the equal or better any other coverage of a battle.

Bernard Fall's almost sparse prose details the evolution of the modern post WWII battlefield through the events of one engagement that effectively ended French involvement in Viet-Nam. The reader also meets for the first time in journalism/literature the seminal genius of the SE Asian wars, General Giap.

If you can find and read this in parallel with a copy in the original language you will be stunned by the foresight the author brings to the table about what the United States would ultimately face, and themselves not understand or effectively deal with on the battle field.

I try to reread this every 5 years or so to keep it fresh in my mind, and each time I find a new detail or understand more . A twenty five year acquaintance with this book and Fall's other masterpiece, Street Without Joy continue to yield new reasons to read Fall's work.
1 review
March 21, 2021
This book, hell in a very small place, is a very one sided book ,the French side, Fall unfortunately did not have access to Vietnamese archive , so he was not able to write about the side of the Vietnamese army. Fall also constantly preferred the Chinese helping the Vietnamese but he did not once mentioned about how the French got all the help from the Americans. And to say that the French lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu was due to non white soldiers in the French force? What about the Vietnamese army , they are 100% yellow and they won the war. Of course he has to save his relative’s face of loosing the battle to the yellow foes. The Vietnamese government have now open their archives to the westerners . I hope someone else writes a more balance approach to Dien Bien Phu

Fall also overstated the amount of ammunition Viet Minh had, again he wrote this book with not all the information available to him at the time . He is dead now , the Viet Minh got him
25 reviews6 followers
August 3, 2021
This is an excellent narrative account of the battle that decided the fate of Indochina and the French colonial project. When I read about the French forces surrounded in their fortified positions I couldn't help but think of the current situation in Afghanistan. As I am writing this, the Taliba is assaulting 3 major Afghan cities with mixed results. Its funny how a history book about a conflict that ended 70 years ago can still have relavance in another war where a modern Western army was beaten by a vastly inferior guerilla force.
Profile Image for Joseph Fuller.
42 reviews
December 10, 2017
Excellent and well documented campaign history. Not for the casually interested. Good catalogue of every mistake military leaders can commit— unrealistic objectives, untested assumptions, divided/rivalrous commands, chauvinistic assumptions, poor communications. The reader will gain respect for the courage of many of the participants.
Profile Image for Stephen Morrissey.
412 reviews7 followers
July 1, 2018
Great books can transport a reader from an armchair to any place in the universe, and Bernard Fall succeeds in parachuting the reader into the hellish battlescape of Dien Bien Phu. Fall's book is impressively stuffed with information, objectively related, about the French forces, troops, and politicians behind the scheme to send a large contingent of troops into the far northwestern reaches of Vietnam and strike a decisive blow against the nascent communist-nationalist forces under Ho Chi Minh.

The troop terminology and intimate descriptions of the battlefield are downright byzantine at first, though as one marches through the book the narrative of events on the many hills and positions inside Dien Bien Phu build upon the landscape as it appeared. Moreover, the personalities, triumphs, and failings of the French are relayed in heartbreaking detail: one becomes attached to the likes of de Castries and Langlais; upset at Navarre; and bewildered by the politicians back at the Matignon and even across the Atlantic in Washington, DC. Over the course of 400+ pages, the noose tightens around the French, as the wear and tear of weeks and months of intimate combat unleash a hell that is, in many respects, as dire as any of the sorry episodes of the Korean and two World Wars.

Fall is masterful in drawing the changing lines of the battle, but the book truly shines in painting the horrors of the fighting in the valley. In one episode, a North African serving with the French forces is, upon being captured, forced to step across the battlefield on top of deceased comrades and enemies, and even has to land his foot atop a Viet-Minh fighter still clinging to life at the instigation of his captors, who remark that the dying man about to be stepped upon has done his duty. There are the frustrations, framed in aristocratic mannerisms, of de Castries; the gung-ho drive of Bigeard and Langlais; and the daily hell endured by all the soldiers.

Moreover, Fall presents this story in objective, fair-minded military terms, though there are hints throughout that the author (writing during the American Vietnam War) sees the Americans repeating the strategic, if not the tactical, follies of the French in the 1950s: fighting against an enemy fundamentally committed to a struggle for independence.

During the Amerivan Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman remarked that "war is all hell." Humanity did not appreciate the general's remark, as the nightmare of Dien Bien Phu shows in so many tragic respects.
Profile Image for Bobby24.
124 reviews1 follower
October 2, 2021
I read a lot of history and often you read a book and ask yourself how is it possible to understand so much about a subject or the individuals involved. The men that fought at DBP must surely have picked up this book and thought to themselves "ahhhh, so thats what happened when...". Although this book was written in the mid 1960's unlike some reviewers i did not think it had aged or that the writing style was outdated at all.

It is fair to say it is very,very detailed, to some it might be to much but i found that pretty much every page was very educational, and frankly i am very reluctant ever to be critical to such an author who shares so much knowledge.

Although i had heard of Giap i had no real knowledge of him or Ho chi min, but they were without doubt incredible leaders of men, and Giap would have to be considered as one of the finest General in History...Alexander the Great,Caesar, Hannibal and Scipio and Giap. The fact the Americans repeated this a decade later is a travesty....and then to do it again in 2021 in Afghanistan is surely military and political incompetence bordering on criminal..

How could the French be so stupid as to place a base in the bottom of a valley far away from air or road support?. its because they underestimated those little brown men! My own opinion is this if America ever went to war with China now it would lose, 100%. The west still has this unshakable racism that they will defeat the "lesser peoples" even though history now suggest otherwise.

The author of this book actually died in Vietnam in 1967, if only the likes of JFK or LBJ had asked him to impart his knowledge of this country he would surely have saved America a lot of hurt. Do world leaders ever consult people like this??????????????????????????
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