The lessons from Dien Bien Phu

Print edition : June 04, 2004

The historic defeat of the French colonial forces in Dien Bien Phu 50 years ago, seen by the people of the Third World as a significant event in the struggle against colonialism, offers valuable lessons to the United States which faces strong resistance in Iraq.

SPEAKING on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the legendary Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap reminded the world that we can learn many lessons from Vietnam's unbreakable and indomitable will. Fifty years after the event, it is necessary to recall the significance of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and Communist Party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of Vietnam's victory over France, in Hanoi on May 5.-AP

Dien Bien Phu is located in the valley bordering Laos and Vietnam. As part of a grand strategy, the Vietminh forces laid a trap in Dien Bien Phu while striking simultaneously at the French forces in Laos and central Vietnam. Outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, the French garrison surrendered on May 7, 1954. It represented one of the most glorious moments in Asia's anti-colonial struggles. It struck the death knell of French colonialism in Indo-China. As Professor Tran Quoc Vong, who in 1954, as a student volunteer in the Vietminh, brought rice to the soldiers in the front, told a British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent that Dien Bien Phu became a "metaphor for great victory" in many languages.

The fall of Dien Bien Phu unfortunately did not usher in an era of peace and stability in South-East Asia. It set in motion a series of events that made South-East Asia, especially Indo-China, a cockpit of superpower rivalry. During the first Indo-China conflict, which lasted from 1945 to 1954, there was the inevitable confrontation between the forces of French colonialism and the resurgent nationalist aspirations of the Indo-Chinese peoples. The ideological conflict and Washington's refusal to reconcile itself to political realities led to the Second Indo-China War (1959-1975), which began first in Vietnam and later on spread in Laos and Cambodia. It was rationalised as an attempt to defend the "free world" against "monolithic communism"; however, it gradually turned out to be a bitter conflict between the United States and its allies and the radical nationalist forces in Indo-China, supported for their own reasons by China and the Soviet Union. On April 29, 1975, the curtain finally came down on the U.S. misadventure in Indo-China, when the last American soldier was airlifted from Saigon.

During the Third Indo-China War, there was a vicious attempt in the U.S. and the rest of the Western world to distort the true nature of the Vietnamese revolution. The U.S. protagonists maligned and vilified the Vietnamese as war-mongers and tried to legitimise, in retrospect, the U.S. military intervention in Indo-China. We must be on our guard against this distortion of history. The revolution in Vietnam, under the dynamic leadership of Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap and Phan Van Dong, forms one of the most brilliant chapters in modern history. With support both from the Soviet Union and China, but only with their reluctant assent and occasionally even against their wishes, the heroic people of Vietnam humbled the U.S. and struck a death blow to imperialism and neocolonialism. No amount of mudslinging and distortion can erase the glory of the Vietnamese revolution.

During the summer of 1975, Nayan Chanda, the well-known journalist, visited Hanoi. Nayan Chanda has given an account of the jubilant mood that prevailed in the Vietnamese capital at that time. After going through the ordeal of fire and defeating the most powerful nation on earth, Vietnam was ready to take its rightful place in the world. A senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted a fifteenth century poem written after the last of the Ming invaders had been driven out of the country:

There are no more sharks in the sea There are no more beasts on earth The sky is serene Time is now to build peace for ten thousand years.

Cambodia suffered the most during the Third Indo-China War. The Pol Pot regime embarked on a revolution that led to the evacuation of urban areas and establishment of forced labour sites and an extensive network of torture camps. It was a spectacle of violence and genocide unparalleled in history. It turned Cambodia into "killing fields"; nearly 1.5 million people (out of eight-million population) were tortured or starved to death. The government alienated the people and weakened the country so much that it could offer little resistance when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and installed Heng Samrin in power. Heng Samrin, who was a close associate of Pol Pot earlier, had got disenchanted with the leadership and sought political asylum in Vietnam.

The ideological pronouncements of the Khmer revolution, as Karl Jackson has pointed out, mirrored radical Maoism, especially the primacy of human will over machine and weapons, the superiority of the wisdom of the common people over academic learning and the power of heroic labour to overcome all natural and material obstacles. Apparently, Mao Zedong was delighted with Pol Pot's "achievements"; he told Pol Pot that "you have achieved with one stroke what we failed with our masses". The moderate section of Chinese leadership was, however, unhappy with Khmer adventurism. In his absorbing book, The Brother Enemy, Nayan Chanda has written that Zhou Enlai, from his deathbed, entreated Kieu Samphan: "Please go slowly towards communism. You cannot reach communism in one step, but step by step. Please take many steps, slowly and surely." Even more poignant was his advice: "Do not follow our example of the Great Leap Forward."

The new configuration of forces kept not only the Heng Samrin government out of the United Nations, it also provided legitimacy to the genocidal Pol Pot regime. Except India and, later on Australia, no country pointed an accusing finger at the Khmer Rouge. It was a strange paradox that three decades after going to war in Vietnam to fight "Chinese expansionism", the U.S. became a silent partner in China's war against Vietnam. The end of the Cold War led to the gradual disengagement of the U.S. from South-East Asia. The bases in the Philippines were closed down and political commentators pointed out that the U.S. would no longer deploy its forces in South-East Asia.

Like the Bourbons of France, the U.S. does not learn from history, and Washington once gain has embarked on a policy of expansionism in different parts of the world. As part of the global war on terrorism Washington has enhanced its military presence in South-East Asian countries. After September 11, the Bush Administration has rapidly seized the opportunity; it has opened a "second front" in South-East Asia. Security links with the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have been stepped up.

It is in this context that Vo Ngueyn Giap's prophetic words assume great significance. Giap said: "Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence." He added that powerful countries should not underestimate weaker nations' desire for independence. Giap said that he had not visited Iraq, so he could not comment specifically on the war strategy of the coalition forces led by the U.S. But he had one piece of advice: "Any force that wishes to impose its will on other nations will certainly face failure."

General Vo Nguyen Giap, right, seen with Ho Chi Minh, centre, in 1954 before starting the Dien Bien Phu campaign.-VNA/REUTERS

Giap's ringing words should be analysed in the backdrop of one major factor that has contributed to the rise and fall of great powers. Paul Kennedy, the Yale University historian, in his monumental book Rise and Fall of the Great Powers has analysed how imperial powers reached a point of over-reach that eventually carried seeds of their own destruction. Too much obsession with security and disproportionate spending on defence were associated with the fall of all empires, including more recently, the Soviet Union. Is the U.S. embarking on a policy of over-reach? Will the over-reach have similar effects that led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union? Time alone will provide the answer.

Dr. V. Suryanarayan is former Director and Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.

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