As Fat Man and Little Boy brought World War II to its nuclear end, former colonial powers elbowed their way through coalitions of tribal, sectarian and nationalist interests to fill the power vacuum left by the defeated Japanese throughout the Far East. In Vietnam, France found itself violently opposed by the Viet Minh, a nationalist force that had resisted the Japanese with the hope of simultaneously kicking out their colonialist overlords. Led by Ho Chi Minh, an inspirational leader trained in both Paris and Moscow, the Viet Minh were old-school communists, and thoroughly accustomed to the self-sacrifice demanded by a common weal. With the legendary Vo Nguyen Giap as their military commander, and a stubborn reluctance to be bullied, the Viet Minh evolved into a field army capable of bringing their enemy to battle almost where and whenever they chose. Dien Bien Phu was the climax of their seven-year war.
Dien Bien Phu was ‘the key to Laos’, a crossroads in the mountainous northwest of Vietnam. As soon as the French began to fortify it, Giap saw his chance. The battle – essentially between outmoded Staff College tactics and what we now recognize as ‘modern’, combined operations based on information and close support – included ambush, hit-and-run, artillery siege, extended trench warfare, and brilliantly extemporized opportunism.
It lasted 55 days. Giap’s military genius won a decisive victory that Ho Chi Minh, in the Geneva Accords of 1954, was able to translate into France’s permanent withdrawal from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
France’s military and political disaster was eventually equalled by Vietnam’s. The Accords also partitioned the country at the 17th parallel, handing South Vietnam to one of history’s most corrupt figures, US-backed President Diem. By 1959, Giap and Ho Chi Minh had it all to do again. And they did.
When: March 13 to May 7 1954
Where: Dien Bien Phu, northwestern Vietnam
Death toll: Only 70 French soldiers escaped Dien Bien Phu to Laos, leaving 2,293 killed, 5,195 wounded, and 10,998 captured (of whom only 3,290 were ever repatriated). Viet Minh casualties were (estimated) at 23,000.
You should know: For all their public protestations, the US was covertly and intimately involved with French military and political strategy at Dien Bien Phu. There is French evidence to suggest the US discussed ‘lending atomic bombs’ in their support; and in 2004-2005 it became known that at least 37 US pilots flew 682 missions, and two were killed in action during the battle. On February 25 2005 the seven US pilots still living were invested as members of the Legion d’Honneur by the French Ambassador to the USA.