Remembering Dien Bien Phu

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST



Vietnam celebrates the 50th anniversary of its victory over France in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, a victory that provided tremendous impetus to anti-colonial struggles the world over.

THE 50th anniversary of one of the greatest battles of the 20th century is being commemorated in Vietnam and other countries. The battle of Dien Bien Phu, which saw the defeat of France at the hands of the Vietnamese, is a milestone in the decolonisation struggle worldwide. In the battle, which lasted 55 days (from March 13 to May 7, 1954), the Vietnamese were led by the legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap. Giap was later to play a crucial role in the war against U.S. occupation in South Vietnam.

Indo-China, comprising Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, was the jewel in the crown of imperial France. When the Japanese invaded Indo-China in 1940, most of the French colonial administrators and settlers chose to cooperate with the occupiers. The Japanese had shown to the people of South-East Asia that the white colonisers were not invincible. The political vacuum created in South-East Asia by the defeat of the Japanese in the Second World War was soon filled by nationalists who demanded freedom from colonial rule and exploitation. The French, like the Dutch in Indonesia, however, thought that they could re-establish their empire. They were encouraged in the re-colonisation endeavours by the United States. Ho Chi Minh, an avowed communist who led the Vietnamese, was viewed by the West as an agent of Moscow and Beijing. In those days, Washington firmly adhered to the "domino" theory in international politics. The argument was that if Vietnam was to be taken over by the communists, the neighbouring countries would fall like dominos to the advancing tide of socialism.

The People's Army of Vietnam (Viet Minh), formed after the Second World War, began giving the French a tough time. Its guerilla tactics coupled with the political sagacity of Ho Chi Minh forced the French to start negotiations. By 1953, the French had agreed to hold talks with the Vietnamese at Geneva. The French leadership calculated that a decisive military victory over the Viet Minh would give the French a stronger bargaining position at the talks, which were scheduled to start in April 1954. The French military commanders picked Dien Bien Phu, a picturesque village located in a river valley about 18-km long in northwestern Vietnam, near the border with Laos and China. It was also located along the access routes to Laos.

The French military leaders thought that if they succeeded in drawing the guerillas into a conventional battle, they could be easily defeated. There was also the intention to stop the flow of supplies and reinforcement by interdicting the Viet Minh's rear area. The bulk of the French troops and equipment were supplied by air. The main French garrison at Dien Bien Phu was supported by strong artillery positions on surrounding hilltops. The French forces, under the command of Gen. Christian de Castries, were confident that guns on the hilltops would neutralise any mass assault by the Viet Minh. By March 1954, the French troop strength at Dien Bien Phu had risen to 16,000. 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 Indo-China. Navarre's brief from Paris was to show to the Viet Minh that a military victory against his forces was impossible.

"The valley of Dien Bien Phu was fairly large but completely surrounded by high mountains. Our troops are already grouped around the valley. The enemy could no longer pull out without incurring major losses. They were entirely isolated as far as roads and airborne communications and supplies were concerned," wrote Gen. Giap in a book on the war published this year. Two U.S. airmen helping in the re-supply effort for the French were killed by anti-aircraft fire. They became the first Americans killed in combat in Vietnam. Washington had shouldered around 80 per cent of the cost of the French military effort in Indo-China.

Giap was given full control over the conduct of the war by Ho Chi Minh. "As field commander you have full authority on everything. This battle is vital and must be won at all costs. Fight only when you are sure of victory," Ho Chi Minh instructed Giap. Giap has also acknowledged that the "invaluable" experience of allies like China stood the Vietnamese in good stead. Much of the equipment, especially artillery pieces, were provided by the Chinese. The equipment was captured by the Chinese in the Korean War between 1950 and 1952.

The initial plan of the Vietnamese was to launch a full-scale frontal assault - "Swift attack, swift victory" was the strategy to be employed. But after studying the situation more closely, Giap devised the new strategy of "steady attack, steady advance". The general had concluded that the enemy was no longer in a state of "provisional defence" but had converted its base into "a fortified entrenched camp". Giap had decided to attack only if victory was guaranteed. "This battle will be very important, we must attack to win. Attack only when sure of victory, if not, don't attack," Ho Chi Minh had told Giap.

Giap recounted that new preparations were made in accordance with the changed strategy. New systems of fortifications were made, completely surrounding the French base with hundreds of kilometres of trenches "so that our fighters could wage combat both day and night under enemy bombardment". The French Expeditionary Corps had expected the Vietnamese troops 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. The Vietnamese strategy was so successful that the French supply line to the base in Dien Bien Phu was strangled by early March. Giap wrote that when his troops opened fire on March 13, 1954, on Dien Bien Phu, 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. On May 7, 1954, the flag of victory was raised over the bunker of the French commander. About 10,000 enemy troops surrendered to the triumphant Vietnamese Army. At least 2,200 French soldiers were killed during the 55 days of siege. About 11,000 French soldiers were taken prisoner by the Vietnamese. There was an eleventh-hour appeal from the French for U.S. intervention. The plea was rejected by the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration. John Foster Dulles, the hawkish U.S. Secretary of State, is said to have offered two atomic bombs to the French government to stave of a military defeat. The French government politely refused that offer.

THE battle of Dien Bien Phu was a decisive moment for the Vietnamese. The French were forced to cede control of North Vietnam at the Geneva Conference that followed. The Geneva Agreement recognised the principles of independence, unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Vietnam. Although the country was temporarily divided along the 17th Parallel, a vote on unification was promised in 1956.

Giap, who is now more than 90 years old, said recently that Dien Bien Phu, besides being the biggest victory over a French expeditionary force, also foiled the U.S. plan to intervene in Vietnam at that time. "It later helped liberate the capital city of Hanoi and northern Vietnam. Northern Vietnam served as a firm and decisive guerilla base for southern Vietnam in its resistance war against the American aggressors, thereafter liberating the whole country," said Giap. The period from 1945 to1954 is described in Vietnamese history books as the "first resistance". The heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people against the Americans from 1954-75 is known as the "second resistance". The lessons drawn from the struggle against the French enriched the theory and practice of Vietnamese military combat. It was put to good use during the war waged against the Vietnamese people by the U.S.

The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu provided a tremendous impetus to liberation movements the world over. A small Asian country had defeated a powerful European colonial power.

Immediately after the climactic battle, the Algerian people rose in revolt against French colonial rule. It took six years for the Algerian revolution to succeed. The French colonies in West Africa also became independent by 1960. The wars in Vietnam and Algeria had exhausted the French state. In the eight years of war, France spent over two billion francs and had committed more than 450,000 troops in Indo-China.

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