70 years after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, an “epic clumsiness” of French colonialism in Indochina

At five in the afternoon on May 7, 1954, Vietnam time, Colonel Cristhian de Castries, commander of French forces established at Dien Bien Phu He communicated by radio to his country’s headquarters: “We did everything in our power. At 5:30 p.m., I will send emissaries.” It was surrender. From the barracks, they accepted the inevitable, although they ordered him: “You must not raise the white flag, let the fighting die out on its own.”

One of the French positions, called Isabelle, held out for a few more hours. Until Vietminh forces, an amalgam of Vietnamese communists and nationalists led by General Nguyen von Giap and with the ideological guidance of Ho Chi Minh, proclaimed their victory. A few French and Allied forces managed to escape, but 5,500 were taken prisoner. Half would never return from the Vietnamese concentration “camps,” as ferocious as the Soviet gulags.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu is considered one of the most important of the last century since it practically marked the end of French colonial rule over Indochina. But in strictly military terms, its value has been limited in modern studies.

Max Hastings, a British academic who wrote a recent and monumental book about the Vietnam War (the later one, the one that involved the United States), described that moment: “In Indochina, the French made so many fatal decisions that it would be impossible to highlight just one, but since 1953 any doubt that could remain regarding the who would win and who would be defeated. Dien Bien Phu was a relatively minor battle to which the colonialist side dedicated only one division. But it achieved a determining moral importance because it was fought on a French initiative with the express purpose of engaging in combat with the Viet Minh and was immediately lost due to clumsiness that can only be described as epic.

Vietnam is a country that was subject to the dynasties of Chinese emperors for a thousand years, until they were definitively expelled in 1426. Since then, Vietnam moved with independence and instability, only at the beginning of the 19th century the Emperor Gia Long imposed a stricter regime. However, at the end of that same century and in full expansion of his colonies, France concentrated on Indochina, conquered Vietnam and surrounding areas. According to Hastings himself, “the French adopted such an inflexible attitude towards the Vietnamese that a British visitor described it as identical to any slave aristocracy of that time, treating them with absolute contempt. The Vietnamese lived slightly better than the Congolese exploited by Belgium, but worse than the Indians subjected to the British.

Agriculture, rubber and coal mines were the sources of wealth, but in a hostile climate, where serious dangers had to be faced: malaria, dysentery, opium.

Some Vietnamese revolts were quickly suppressed. During World War II, Vietnam was occupied by the Japanese and in 1944, a drought and floods led to a terrible famine. A million Vietnamese died, there were atrocious scenes and for the older ones “that famine was even worse than the wars that came after.”

French power

Although the decolonization process was approaching on all continents, France decided to maintain its dominance in Indochina and many credit De Gaulle for that decision.

France reestablished its military power, allocating almost 400,000 soldiers, including its own and those recruited from “loyal” Vietnamese and mercenaries. At the same time, he suppressed revolts in places as distant as Madagascar and Algeria. But Vietnam was another story, the Vietminh controlled many areas and had a capacity for mobility and guerrilla warfare that, in the long run, would make French permanence unsustainable. Giap had concentrated 30,000 men in remote regions of the northwest, near the Chinese border. At that time a military victory was not considered but to make “French rule unbearably onerous.”

Both sides “competed” in their cruelty

A dramatic change in the region occurred in 1949, when Mao took power in China.. This meant strong support and encouragement for the Vietminh, which China assisted with weapons, military and ideological advice. On the other hand, the United States – mired in its own debates between Republicans and Democrats – helped the French occupiers financially and militarily, but without getting involved as much. What happened in Korea was a warning for everyone.

Photo from March 1954 shows General Nguyen von Giap explaining the operation plans to his aides next to a military map. AFP Photo

After almost a decade of fighting, France finally decided to occupy Dien Bien Phu and from there use it as a base to liquidate the Vietminh. They considered it to be a strategic site, but it was a complete mistake: Ho and his people knew that this base was ideal to attack the French. “Dien Bien Phu was often described as a fortress but it was always far from being such. It was more of a chain of low hills, on a plain surrounded by forested mountains, where entrenchment was carried out without the slightest rigor,” Hastings described.

The French assigned 12,000 men there, divided into nine mountains, each one baptized with a woman’s name. Giap would end up sending – at a great cost of lives – more than 50 thousand Vietnamese to destroy them. He set up his headquarters just 15 kilometers away, in a group of natural caves protected from bombing.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu began on March 3 and, as soon as the Vietnamese took Mount Beatrice in the middle of a downpour and immediately after the so-called Gabrielle, it was learned that the French forces under the command of De Csatries were heading towards collapse. Discouragement spread among his ranks and his artillery chief, Colonel Charles Piroth, committed suicide after the first defeats. “Starting in December, French bosses received a lot of espionage data that was shared with their superiors in Paris and showed that if they continued like this, a real disaster awaited them. Still they persevered, because a lethal combination of pride, fatalism, stupidity and moral weakness prevented them from recognizing that they had been wrong. If the Dien Bien Phu detachment had been evacuated, no one outside Vietnam would have known anything. It would have been just a normal retreat. The responsibility falls on leaders like Navarre, without this exonerating the entire political and military leadership of France.”

During the First World War, the French army made history in the defense of Verdun in 1916, when the forces of General Philippe Pétain held out thanks to a single – and fragile – supply route that went down in history as the “via sacra”. But on March 22, De Castries wrote in a personal letter to his superior, General Cogny, reporting that “Dien Bien Phu was becoming the Verdun of Indochinawith a critical deficiency: there was no sacral route”

French soldiers captured at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. AFP Photo

While the fight was being fought, all the powers – the USSR and China on the one hand, the US, France and Great Britain on the other, and the North and South Vietnamese – were going to participate in a summit in Geneva to resolve the future of Indochina. It is believed that both France and the Viet Minh forced the prolongation of the fighting to reach that summit in a better position.

Since May 1, the attacks by Giap’s forces intensified, six days later the surrender occurred. “It was an incredible victorye, something we couldn’t even imagine. “No one could explain why we had defeated such a powerful force,” said a statement from the winners.

It did not mean the end of the war, since the Vietminh had been exhausted and France still had large forces. But neither the government nor the people of her country were willing to continue there. News of the surrender spread immediately in Paris and Geneva, where the summit was to begin. Foster Dulles, the dynamic and controversial US Secretary of State, was one of the “hawks”, willing to intervene in Indochina, one of the exponents of the domino theory so in vogue at that time: “China fell into the hands of the communists and if Indochina also falls, they will reach Indonesia.”

But the Geneva Summit, signed on July 21, agreed to the division of Vietnam: the North for the communist victors, the South for a new regime that would have the protection of the United States. A two-year period was also established for Vietnamese on both sides to decide which side they wanted to live on. For Ho Chi Minh and his people it could have been a somewhat bitter result – after what was achieved on the battlefields – but the Chinese delegation led by Chou in Lai ensured that they accepted: the Chinese did not want the threat of American soldiers in its borders.

In any case, it was enough for very little. A decade later with the United States increasingly involved, the war would be even worse. The vietnam war.

Since May 1, the attacks by Giap's forces intensified, six days later the surrender occurred. AP PhotoSince May 1, the attacks by Giap’s forces intensified, six days later the surrender occurred. AP Photo

For the Vietnamese regime, established since 1975 with the withdrawal of American troops and the reunification of the country, and valid until today – claiming socialism in political terms, but with a strong economic opening – “the victory of Dien Bien Phu was a milestone in history. It marked the disintegration of colonialism, while showing significant advances recorded by national liberation movements around the world. This event has become a thing of the past. The vestiges of war are fading from the beloved and dynamic city of Dien Bien Phu, but the value and importance of the victory remains intact.”

Another historian, the Frenchman Ivan Cadeau, author of a book about the battle, explained: “There are many factors that decided that victory. First of all, Vietnamese ingenuity, who knew how to take advantage and mobilize all available resources and the forces of the entire army and people. I want to highlight here the role that military engineers and large-caliber anti-aircraft artillery played in destroying landing strips and cutting reinforcement lines of the French army to Dien Bien Phu. Second, the Vietminh General Staff adopted a very flexible strategy in each attack, which confused the French troops. Another thing is that despite the limitations in weapons, the Vietnamese army used the weapons in its hands very efficiently. It can be said that the victory of Dien Bien Phu embodies the classical military art of the world.”

Seven decades later, it’s all distant history. France and Vietnam maintain strong relations today and a recent meeting between Macron and Premier Pham Minh Chinh was a test. “We have had a strategic partnership for a decade in commercial, scientific and other areas. The results obtained show that both countries have overcome the past to foster friendship and cooperation for the benefit of both peoples,” the Vietnamese reported.

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