The battle of Dien Bien Phu
was a significant turning point in Indochina. The battle was fought
between the French and the Vietminh (Vietnamese Communist and nationalist).
The French wanted to reclaim Vietnam as one of their colonies, while the
Vietnamese wanted their independence. They were lead to independence
by the communist vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, who had declared their
independence from France. The war contiuned for eight year culminating
in the battle known as Dien Bien Phu. The battle was a fifty-four
day seige that ended in a French surrender. The Victory of the Vietminh
at this battle, lead to the end of French colonializtion in Indochina.
World War II had just ended, when on September 2,
1945, Ho Chi Minh, Leader of the Nationalistic Vietminh, (founded in 1941)
declared Vietnam's independence. The Vietminh were seeking their
independence from France and had strong national support in the North,
where as in the South the traditional imperial rule was favored.
The French wanted to reaffirm their control in Indochina. France would only recognize Vietnam as a free state within the French Union. The Vietminh wanted to be recognized as an independent country. Thus, fighting broke out between the French and Vietminh in 1946. The fighting continued until the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Dien Bien Phu was a French garrison located 175miles
inside the jungles of the Vietminh territory. The base was built
in a valley and the surrounding foliage was cleared. The base was
built with the intentions that it would be a foothold for the French and
be a trap for the Vietminh. The French believed it would be impossible
for the simple Vietminh to launch a full-scale attack, as the base was
in the middle of a thick jungle with nothing around for miles. The
French believed that even if the Vietminh did attack they would have limited
firepower, which could easily be neutralized by their artillery and air
strikes. Thus, the French would be able to defend the base
and defeat any Vietminh who would attack. The garrison was also to
block the Vietminh's access to Laos so as to block any incoming supplies
theVietminh might be receiving from this direction. The French Government
wanted favorable publicity on Dien Bien Phu as the French people were growing
ill at ease with the long war. Dien Bien Phu symbolized an anti-Communist
settlement with in the Vietminh territory, as long as it was French the
"free world" prevailed.
The French underestimated the intelligence and military tactics of the Vietminh. Since mid-December of the previous year (1953) the Vietminh had observers watching the base, keeping it under surveillance. While the French were building their base, the Vietminh were watching. The Vietminh were not going to let the French be in their land without a fight, especially one that proved of much importance for the French. While the French were boasting about their success, the Vietminh did the impossible in the eyes of the French, they got ready for a full-scale battle at Dien Bien Phu.
Under General Vo Nguyen Giap's order, the Vietminh moved artillery by hand through the dense jungle. Piece by piece, the Vietminh moved full scale artillery to their position. The General was given complete authority to decide when to begin the battle by Ho Chi Minh on one condition -- they must win the battle (Simpson, 53). This warning rang in General Giap's head as he prepared for combat. His motto was "mobility, flexibility and surprise" (Simpson, 53). If these characteristics could not be met, he did not want to start a battle. His loyal troops had finished carrying the artillery through the jungle by January, but the French had noticed there movement during this time. Giap did not advance right away because he had been detected. Instead, he waited for the perfect time when the French would not expect him to attack. His troops remained dormant in the jungle for weeks. The French believed that Ho Chi Minh or General Giap called off the attack after they had seen the military base, but the French were wrong.
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu officially began on March 13, 1954. The French were ready for an attack, but not as large as was to occur. The Vietminh's attack was much stronger than the French expected. Within twenty-four hours the Vietminh had seized the outposts Beatrice and Gabrielle which left the French garrison unprotected. This left the 12,000 men within the garrison vulnerable. The artillery that the Vietminh had painfully transported by foot was unexpected. With this unexpected artillery the Vietminh destroyed the airfield that was essential to the supply-line of the French garrison. Now the French were both vulnerable and isolated. Ammunition, food and medical supplies were in constant demand. The only way to transport these commodities into Dien Bien Phu after the airfield had been destroyed was by parachute drops. As can be expected these drops were sometimes intercepted and unsuccessful. It seemed that the French needed assistance from the very beginning of the battle.
The military tactics that the Vietminh used were unfamiliar to the French "civilized" army. The Vietminh used guerilla warfare that both surprised and appalled the French. One of the tactics used by the Vietminh, the "human wave" tactic, consisted of forming a human shield and walking into fire for the sake of gaining a few feet of territory. The Vietminh casualties were heavy from using this tactic but the nationalistic spirit of the people to be rid of the colonial power outweighed the heavy death toll. The Vietminh also used tunnels to get close to the French garrison. By digging their way to the camp the Vietminh could sometimes go undetected and surprise the French with their position.
The French officer that commanded the troops at Dien Bien Phu was Colonel Christian Marie Ferdinand de La Croix de Castries. His deputy was Colonel Charles Piroth. As fighting continued the morale of the French troops was being lost. On March 15, 1954, two days after the French outposts were taken by the Vietminh, Colonel Charles Piroth, blew himself to bits by pulling the pin of his grenade. He was quoted as saying two days earlier that he was "completely dishonored" (Karnow, 195). He was dishonored by the inability that the French had in planning for such a battle. This was a terrible beginning to a battle that was suppose to be of much significance to the morale of the French in Vietnam.
The French knew that alone they could not handle such an assault. The French government needed aid. They pleaded for help from the United States. The United States at this time was heavily funding the French involvement, over 40 percent of the war was funded by the U.S (Billings-Yun, 1). But the United States did not know if they wanted to get involved physically in another war so soon. They were still recuperating from World War II and left leery from their involvement with the Korean War. The French pleas for aid became stronger but the United States decided that they would have no intervention unless other allies agreed upon aid as well. The Congress wanted "no more wars like Korea, with the U.S. furnishing 90 percent of the manpower" (Herring, 35). The allies, mainly Britain, did not want to begin a war in a compromising position. Both the U.S. and Britain agreed that they did not want to enter a war unless they knew that they were going to win. The U.S. felt that if they lost such a war it would have devastating implications on the reputation of the U.S. as a world power. The United States knew that the Geneva Conference was quickly approaching and opted not to send addition aid to France for the battle at Dien Bien Phu, but wait for the conference.
The French knew that without additional aid they would not be able to win the battle. Their last hope was that the coming monsoon months would hinder the Vietminh and allow the French to airlift more supplies and launch a better air defense. The monsoon months brought exactly the opposite. The rain flooded their camp and made it more difficult for the airlift and airdrops to occur. Thus, the Vietminh again gained the advantage. They had continual reinforcements and held the hills and outposts surrounding the garrison. It was only a matter of time before the French were out of supplies; they were already out of hope.
After a fifty-five day persistent but futile battle, the French surrendered on May 7, 1954. The battle of Dien Bien Phu seemed over before it began. By placing the garrison in a valley with surrounding hills and by the oversight of the French military to underestimate their enemy, the Vietminh were able to be victorious. General Giap's ability to see the French Military weakness--that of underestimating the Vietminh's ability-- was a strong point that led to the Vietminh's overwhelming ability to attack. The battle ending the day before the Geneva Conference began (May 8,1954) had many implications, as well as the battle being won by the Vietminh.
The Vietminh were at a favorable position heading to the negotiation tables at the Geneva Conference. They had won a battle not of strategic importance, but of psychological importance. This battle showed the strength of the Vietminh forces and their genuine want for independence from France and illustrated a loss of hope to the French. At the Geneva conference it was decided that a temporary partition be made at the seventeenth parallel. The Northern half would belong to the Vietminh and the communists, where as the Southern half belonged to the French and the democratic world.
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was to be decisive of
the French dominance in Indochina. It was to reassure the French
that they were doing the right thing by reaffirming their colonial power.
By losing the battle the French had to reevaluate their position.
The loss of Dien Bien Phu also had the repercussion of national humiliation.
The French had tried to reclaim their glory and failed through a nine-year
war, culminating in a battle where they had underestimated their enemy
and weakly thought through military tactics. After this battle the
French did not want to fight any more and slowly started pulling out their
military. The French citizens who had opposed the war after it began
some nine years earlier, lost faith in their government and its ability
to decide the direction of the nation. This battle contributed to
the downfall of the Fourth Republic in 1958 because of the national humiliation
and lack of support for the government.
The battle for the Vietminh was a great victory. It proved that with diligence and a strong leader a small country could gain independence from a western nation. This battle raised Vietnamese national pride. It proved to many that Ho Chi Minh was a great leader that would lead the Vietnamese to a bright new future. As a direct result Ho gained more followers and strength as a leader which perpetuated his cause as a communist.
The fall of Dien Bien Phu signified to the anti-Communist nations that communism was a threat to the free world and democracy needed to be preserved. The communist nations believed that the victory at Dien Bien Phu showed the emergence of communism and the power that it was and would be capable of possessing.
Billings-Yun, Melanie. Decision Against War. New York; Columbia University Press, 1988.
Fall, Bernard B. Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien
Bien Phu. Philadelphia; J.B.
Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States
and Vietnam 1950-1975. New
York; McGraw-Hill Inc. 1996.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York; The Viking Press, 1983.
Nordell Jr, John R. The Undetected Enemy. Texas; Texas A&M University Press, 1995.
Roy, Jules. The Battle of Dienbienphu. New York; Harper & Row Publishers, 1965.
Simpson, Howard R. Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot.
http://coombs.anu.edu.au/~vern/pv_don/kimdon.html. This website contains art inspired by the battle of Dien Bien Phu.
http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/11/spotlight/. This site is an article on how Dien Bien Phu changed Vietnam history.
http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/11/interviews/giap/. This site has an interview with General Giap, commander of the troops at Diem Bien Phu.
http://www.dienbienphu.org/english/. This site is dedicated to many aspects of the battle such as commemorations, dedications, heroes, badges and other miscellaneous knowledge.
www.hawaii.edu/cseas/pubs/explore/v1/v1n2-art2.html. This is a researched commentary by a history professor who main area of study is Vietnam.
This site contains maps of Dien Bien Phu and illustrates some of the posts
that surrounded the garrison.
Written by Ann Messer