FIFTY YEARS AGO this month the siege of Dien Bien Phu ended with the surrender of the French garrison there, a defeat that led to the French withdrawal from Indo-China, and, indirectly, to the American involvement in Vietnam, which itself would end twenty years later in a far more humiliating scuttle. Unlike the Americans, the French went down fighting, repelling their attackers with extraordinary courage until further resistance became impossible. Dien Bien Phu was ultimately a disaster, but an honourable one.
The place was a fortified camp in the far north of Vietnam. In retrospect, the decision to occupy it and invite an attack from the Viet Minh has seemed foolhardy to the point of stupidity. Yet retrospection may decide. As Martin Windrow writes in this detailed and enthralling study of