On May 7, people from the world over will gather at Dien Bien Phu to commemorate one of the most important battles of the twentieth century. On that date in 1954, the People’s Army of Vietnam (Vietminh) inflicted a decisive military defeat on the French army.
The battlefield is located in a river valley 500 km northwest of the capital, Hanoi, near the border with Laos and China. The history of struggle is ingrained in Vietnamese character. And, for more than a thousand years, Hanoi symbolized their resistance to Chinese domination. Then, in 1873, a French expeditionary force sacked Hanoi’s citadel, and expropriated Hanoi into the seat of France’s Indochina Empire.
In 1953, as the colonial era drew to a close, the French began to negotiate the terms of their withdrawal with the Vietnamese at Geneva. To strengthen their bargaining position, the French sought to defeat the Vietminh on the battlefield.
By March of the following year, French Col. Christian de Castries had gathered a force of 16,000 soldiers at Dien Bien Phu. The architect of the new strategy was Gen. Henri Navarre, who had taken over as the commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Corps in Indochina. Navarre wanted to defend northern Vietnam and Laos, but he also hoped to draw Giap’s elusive Vietminh into a large-scale confrontation. He believed that his paratroopers, foreign legionnaires, armored vehicles, and fighter-bombers would destroy the communist Vietminh once and for all. Navarre, however, had overestimated his force’s strength and underestimated the tenacity of the Vietminh.
General Vo Nguyen Giap, destined to become America’s nemesis, commanded the Vietminh forces. In time for the 50th anniversary celebrations, Giap has released an updated edition of his book about the battle. “We must attack to win. Attack only when sure of victory; if not, don’t attack,” Ho Chi Minh told Giap. Giap recalls that the valley of Dien Bien Phu was fairly large but completely surrounded by high mountains. He had carefully deployed his troops so that the French could no longer pull out without incurring major losses. The French garrison was cut off from all outside supplies, whether arriving by road or air.
Contrary to the recent divergence between France and the U.S., the two nations were close allies in 1954 and the U.S. bore the lion’s share of the cost of the French military operation in Indochina. On April 21, it airlifted a battalion of French paratroopers from Paris to Vietnam. Two U.S. airmen helping in the re-supply effort were killed by anti-aircraft fire and became the first Americans killed in combat in Vietnam.
The initial plan of the Vietnamese was to launch a full-scale frontal assault but after studying the fortified French position, Giap devised a new strategy. He encircled the French base with hundreds of trenches “so that our fighters could wage combat both day and night under enemy bombardment.”
The French Expeditionary Corps had expected the Vietminh guerillas to engage in all-out lightning clashes. Instead Giap preferred to destroy French pockets of resistance one at a time, choosing the timing as well as the location. Giap’s strategy was so successful that the French supply line to the base in Dien Bien Phu was strangled by early March. When Giap’s troops opened fire on March 13, 1954, the French deputy commander of the base, who was responsible for artillery, killed himself because he was powerless in stopping the heavy Vietnamese barrage.
The French watched helplessly as the mightiest points of the base fell in the face of assaults by bare-footed Vietnamese shock units. “Our system of trenches ran from the high mountains down to the plains, further sealing the fate of the base with each passing day,” writes Giap. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower turned down an eleventh-hour appeal from the French for U.S. intervention. In place of American ground troops, Eisenhower’s hawkish Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, offered two atomic bombs to the French government which the French refused politely.
The last words Col. de Castries radioed his superior in Hanoi, General René Cogny, were understated, “I’m blowing up the installations. The ammunition dumps are already exploding. Au revoir.” Cogny replied, “Well, then, au revoir, mon vieux.” On May 7, 1954, the Vietminh raised the flag of victory over the bunker of the French commander. In the 56-day siege, about 3,000 French soldiers were killed and another 10,000 French troops taken prisoner.
The defeat led to the death of French colonialism in Indochina and provided a tremendous impetus to liberation movements the world over. It showed that a small Asian country could defeat a powerful European colonial power. Soon thereafter, the Algerian people rose in revolt against French colonial rule and freed themselves after a protracted struggle lasting six years. The French colonies in West Africa became independent by 1960. The wars in Vietnam and Algeria had exhausted the French state. It had spent over two billion francs and committed more than 450,000 troops in Indochina for no obvious gain.
The Americans, oblivious to the fall of colonialism around the globe, convinced of the morality of their capitalistic ideology and cocksure about their military prowess, marched into Vietnam just eleven years after Dien Bien Phu. At the height of their occupation, a half million U.S. soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen were stationed in Vietnam. When they left in 1975, they had won all their battles and lost the war. In other words, there was no Dien Bien Phu for the Americans.
However, according to General Giap, the seeds of the American defeat were sown in Dien Bien Phu. It allowed Northern Vietnam to serve “as a firm and decisive guerilla base for southern Vietnam in its resistance war against the American aggressors, thereafter liberating the whole country.”
The Vietnamese call their war against the French the first resistance and the war against the Americans the second resistance. In their long history, both wars represent but a moment in time. This moment in time, pregnant with military lessons, should give pause to generals everywhere who think they can subjugate weaker nations at the point of a gun.
Speaking on April 30, 2004, at the 29th anniversary of the fall of Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City), a frail but defiant 93-year old General Giap said, “Any forces that seek to impose their will on other nations will surely fail.” While diplomatic niceties did not allow him to comment directly on the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the old warrior’s reference to the new predicament of his former foes was unmistakable.
AHMAD FARUQUI is an economist who writes frequently on Asian security issues. This article was originally published in Daily Times, Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org