Battle of Dien Bien Phu

By ousting a colonial power from within its borders, the communist forces of Ho Chi Minh returned some of the country’s pride, as well as some of its land, to the Vietnamese people. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was the final, defining conflict of the First Indochinese War, and led to the Geneva Accords, which divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel into communist North Vietnam and pro-west South Vietnam.

French paratroopers dash for cover

Nearly 7,000 French soldiers eventually lost their lives in a "sitting target" battle between November 20, 1953, and May 7, 1954, with the final, decisive siege beginning on March 13.

Background

The French presence in Indochina began when Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in the early- to mid-1800s. After Emperor Napoleon III heard that some of the missionaries had been killed, he sent an expedition to avenge the murders.

Through a series of treaties beginning in the mid- to late 1800s, France began a colonization of Vietnam. As the French presence in Indochina increased, they set up protectorates in Cochin China (southern Vietnam), Annam (central Vietnam), and Tonkin (northern Vietnam).

By 1893, France had set up protectorates, first in Cambodia (1863) and then in Laos (1893).

When France surrendered to Germany in 1940, the Japanese arrived in an attempt to sway Vietnamese leadership toward sympathizing with Japan.

At the end of World War II, British forces eliminated the remaining Japanese influence in the southern portion of the country. Forces directed by Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Minh, rooted out the Japanese from the northern territory.

The French persuaded leaders from Laos and Cambodia to declare themselves as self-governing and joined the French Union.

At the same time, another independent government, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), led by Ho Chi Minh, was organized.

Despite trying to work out their differences, France and the Viet Minh failed to reach an agreement, and war between the two factions broke out in December 1946.

France and the communists clashed during frequent, guerrilla-style skirmishes, which the French had difficulty defending or retaliating against, until 1953.

Prelude to the end

On March 13th, 1954, as both sides ostensibly readied for peace talks, the French selected Dien Bien Phu, a village in northwestern Vietnam, near the Chinese and Laotion borders, as the place for a showdown with the Viet Minh.

The French built a large airstrip with fortifications, called firebases, on eight hills named after French General Henri Navarre's former mistresses. Troops numbered between 13,000 and 16,000.

During the buildup, in a maneuver that astounded the French leaders, the Viet Minh had managed to transport scores of anti-aircraft guns and mortars through heavily-forested terrain previously dismissed by the French as “impassable.”

The end

From March 13, Viet Minh General Vo Nguyen Giap conducted a “tactic of combined nibbling and full-scale attack,” gaining ground in the 10-mile-long, six-mile-wide river valley. Firebases were overrun, and a constant shelling of the French ensued.

Viet Minh forces destroyed the airstrip and forced resupply planes to a higher altitude, affecting the accuracy of the resupply effort to such an extent that food, ammunition, and vital intelligence information often landed in areas controlled by the Viet Minh.

Compounding the difficulties for the French were the monsoon rains pelting the area. As the casualties overflowed the garrison’s hospital, conditions became intolerable and forced a surrender.

---- Selected Quotes ----

Quotes regarding Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

By Dean Acheson
They were engaged in the most dangerous of all activities – deceiving themselves...France was engaged in a task beyond her strength, indeed, beyond the strength of any external power unless it was acting in support of the dominant local will and purpose.

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Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War by Ted Morgan.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ted Morgan has now written a rich and definitive account of the fateful battle that ended French rule in Indochina--and ...

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