IN THE TRENCHES
How Dien Bien Phu Led to America’s War in Vietnam
In 1953, a hard fought battle between French and Vietnamese forces finished off France as a colonial power and eerily presaged the fate of the US in Vietnam a decade later.
In the fall of 1953, the fortunes of the Vietminh Communists looked brighter than ever in their seven-year war against Vietnam’s erstwhile colonial masters, the French. General Vo Nguyen Giap, chief architect and strategist of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), had succeeded brilliantly in dispersing the French Expeditionary Force widely throughout Vietnam and Laos, sapping the strength of its scarce mobile units, and wearing down public support for the “dirty war” in metropolitan France. The schoolteacher-turned-general, who had learned his craft from books and in the bush, had shown audacity and flexibility, as well as a striking ability to control the momentum of a war France’s best generals had anticipated winning before 1950. The percentage of the population under the sway of the Communists’ shadow government in northern Vietnam—Tonkin—had been growing steadily, month by month, and now hovered around 70 percent.
As the senior leaders of the Vietminh met at their command post in a small bamboo house in Thai Nguyen Province in October 1953, a fateful consensus emerged after considerable debate: Their new offensive would not be directed against the well-defended Red River Delta, where the bulk of north Vietnam’s people dwelled, but in the remote northwest of Vietnam and northern Laos.
There, explained strategist Truong Chinh (meaning “Long March” in Vietnamese), “The enemy’s dispositions are relatively weak and exposed, but they cannot abandon these areas . . . If we launch an attack in the Northwest we will certainly force the enemy’s strategically mobile force to disperse to defend against our attack . . . The enemy may only be able to bring in supplies and reinforcements by air. If we can overcome the problems with logistics and supplies, our forces will have many advantages, and we will be capable of attaining and maintaining military superiority throughout the campaign . . . We may be able to win a great victory.”
As Giap prepared to move the bulk of his regular divisions toward the northwest, he had several options: He might seek to annihilate the big French base at Lai Chau, the last island of French military power in the area. He might undertake another invasion of Laos—last year’s incursion had succeeded beyond all expectation, and this time the Vietminh could very well succeed in installing a pro-Communist government there. Another possibility: Wait for the new French commander, Gen. Henri Navarre, to deploy a significant offensive force somewhere in the northwest, and then close in, isolate the enemy garrison with superior PAVN forces, and wipe it out.
On November 20, three battalions of crack French paratroops drifted down into the remote valley of Dien Bien Phu ten miles from the Laotian border, forcing the small detachment of Vietminh troops there into the hills. Quickly Navarre reinforced the paras by dropping in several additional infantry battalions, engineers, and artillery. The French were building an aeroterrestre—a fortified airbase that could serve as a staging area for mobile offensive operations, or as a defensive bastion to block another PAVN invasion into Laos—or so it appeared.
Both Giap and Navarre were well aware, as Giap would later write, that Dien Bien Phu “was a strategic location of the first importance.” This heart shaped valley surrounded by rolling hills and 6,000-foot-high mountains contained a key road nexus leading north to China, south to Laos, and to the huge PAVN supply depot at Tran Giao to the northeast. He who controlled Dien Bien Phu held the key to the entire northwest of Vietnam, and the gateway into Laos.
As the French reinforced their position at Dien Bien Phu, Giap responded definitively: he ordered three divisions, including the 351st heavy division of artillery and engineers, to invest the hills surrounding the valley. Soon after French intelligence picked up on the movement of the PAVN divisions, Gen. Navarre ordered his top commander in Tonkin (northern Vietnam) on December 3 “to accept battle in the northwest” and to center his defense on “Dien Bien Phu, which must be held at all costs.”
Neither Giap nor Navarre realized it at the time, but they were laying the foundation for the Second Indochina War—the tragic struggle the Americans fought against the Vietnamese Communists to preserve a pro-Western state in South Vietnam.
The FEF garrison was quickly brought up to its full complement of 12 battalions of 10,000 men, including a strong contingent of Foreign Legionnaires and elite paras. Ironically, all of Navarre’s senior commanders in Tonkin argued vehemently against mounting “Operation Castor” at all. They didn’t think the FEF had the necessary assets to build the base, let alone mount offensive operations there while simultaneously defending the population centers in the Red River Delta from increasingly aggressive guerrilla attacks. As the senior air force officer pointed out, even if he had every transport plane in Indochina at his disposal, he could not meet the daily needs of 10,000 men in combat at Dien Bien Phu.
Navarre dismissed the naysayers. He was confident Giap could never overcome the logistical problems inherent in supplying a multi-division combat force in so remote an area with limited motor transport and no air force whatsoever.
The bulk of the evidence suggests Giap learned of Navarre’s decision to stand and fight at Dien Bien Phu almost immediately. In any case, around December 6, Giap decided to fight the major set-piece battle he had studiously avoided for the past two years, as he built up PAVN strength, and refitted and retrained his peasant army with a formidable array of artillery and antiaircraft weapons from Communist China. Many of the PAVN’s new artillery pieces were captured American 105mm howitzers from the Korean War.
To defeat a division-size encampment like the French base at Dien Bien Phu, Giap reckoned it would take four or five infantry divisions and virtually all the artillery, engineer, and anti-aircraft assets the Vietminh possessed. He would have to deploy about 45,000 troops, plus 100,000 porters to transport war materiel from depots as far as 500 miles away in southern China. All-weather roads would have to be built and maintained against attacks by the FEF air force, and 300 tons of ammunition would need to be stocked in place at the front before commencing the attack.
By early January PAVN infantry had flooded the valley and FEF reconnaissance patrols outside the perimeter of the French fortress routinely came under withering small arms and mortar fire after progressing a mere 200 or 300 meters. By this point, FEF engineers were just finishing the construction of their fortifications in the valley: the main center of resistance (MCR) consisted of five tightly clustered strongpoints around the main air strip, most of the French artillery, and the underground command post. Ringing the MCR were four widely dispersed satellite strongpoints meant to repel an attacking force from penetrating to the vitals of the base.
The French fortress was a formidable defensive position to be sure, but it suffered from serious deficiencies: Not a single pound of concrete was available for bunker construction. Wood was scarce. Thus, the earthen fortifications were vulnerable to destruction by the PAVN’s 105 mm howitzers. The French artillery was left partially exposed to PAVN artillery fire, on the arrogant assumption that the PAVN cannons would be quickly located and knocked out of action by counterbattery fire before they could do any real damage.
Giap and his Chinese advisers had planned to launch their initial attack—a massive two-division human wave assault meant to sweep over the northwest satellite strongpoint and punch through to the very center of the MCR—on January 25. But as the day approached, Giap grew increasingly worried that the Chinese “swift attack, swift victory” strategy they had agreed to employ would result in massive casualties and a collapse of his troops’ morale on day one of the battle. The French defenses had grown considerably stronger since the decision to launch the human wave assault had been made. Moreover, his own artillery was not yet fully in place.
And so he abandoned the “swift attack, swift victory” for a strategy more in keeping with his own protracted warfare philosophy: “steady attack, steady advance.” Many students of the battle, including this one, think his decision probably averted outright disaster.
Giap’s rationale for the slow squeeze approach is indeed compelling: “If we attack in stages, we will reinforce our positions with each stage. We will keep the initiative, attacking when we want, where we want. But we will attack only when we are ready, and we will only occupy the positions we have taken when necessary. We will exploit the enemy’s essential difficulty—its supply lies. The longer the battle lasts, the more wounded he will have. Supplying the garrison will grow more difficult . . . The enemy is surrounded on the ground, and if its air supply is hampered, it will encounter insurmountable difficulties . . .”
By the time the last of Giap’s divisions had marched into the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu in early March, having returned from a successful diversionary operation in Laos, the PAVN had completed one of the most impressive feats in the history of military logistics. It had taken three months to position five divisions and their support troops and more than 150 artillery pieces in and around the valley. Giap and his engineers had created a vast, efficient logistical network, improving several hundred miles of roads from southern China, to the main PAVN bases in central Tonkin, to the very edge of Dien Bien Phu. And they had done so while under constant bombardment from the French air force. More than 10,000 coolies and construction workers, including several thousand women, used wooden shovels, picks and straw baskets to repair daily damage to the supply network.
The lethal 105mm cannons came down from China via truck as far as Na Nham, six miles from the rim of the valley. Moving these guns from Na Nham to their casements in the rocky hills proved to be a feat of superhuman endurance rarely rivaled in the history of modern warfare. They had to be hauled all of a piece over newly cut mountain trails by 100-man teams using oxen, block and tackles, and ropes. It took a team about a week to get a single gun in position, working in shifts, 24 hours a day.
The initial assault came on March 13, exactly where the French expected: against Beatrice (all the strongpoints were given womens’ names), the northernmost satellite fortified position, and topographically the most difficult to defend. At 1700 hours, after a heavy artillery barrage, six PAVN battalions attacked along three axes, bugles blowing. For five hours, 700 Legionnaires put up fierce resistance against almost 3,000 Vietminh. During the last two hours of the melee, much of the fighting was hand-to-hand. Fewer than 200 Legionnaires managed to make their way to neighboring strongpoints after Beatrice fell.
A French counterattack against Beatrice broke up under deadly accurate PAVN artillery fire the next morning, and in the early evening of March 14, two regiments from Giap’s 308th Iron Division, his best, fought a blistering engagement against a tough Algerian battalion dug in on strongpoint Gabrielle. Attack followed counterattack, with the PAVN prevailing by morning after suffering horrendous casualties—more than 1,000 dead and 1,500 wounded.
The loss of Gabrielle, writes the renowned historian Bernard Fall, “had a devastating effect on the morale of the [French] garrison.” Indeed, on the night of March 16, the Tai tribesman forming the backbone of the defense of the final satellite strongpoint north of the MCR, Anne Marie, slipped away from their positions and headed for the mountains. Their French officers had to withdraw to the MCR, and Anne Marie was quickly occupied by PAVN troops. Meanwhile, Col. Charles Piroth, the artillery commander who’d had promised before the battle to silence the Communist artillery before it could do any damage, felt so dishonored by his failure that he committed suicide with a hand grenade.
Still, among the cadre of para and Legionnaire officers who were leading the French fight, a strong sense of optimism remained. Giap had lost well over 2,500 men killed taking the satellite positions—he would have a much tougher time of it trying to wrest the strongpoints of the MCR from the defenders.
After the fall of Anne Marie, a lull fell over the battlefield. From March 18 until March 30, PAVN troops took up picks and shovels, and under the direction of Chinese engineers, constructed a massive network of trenches and tunnels all around the French encampment. As PAVN soldiers dug day and night under makeshift covers of wood and beams, the trenches approached the French positions, wrote an American correspondent, ‘like the tentacles of some determined, earth-bound devilfish.”
By this point in the siege, PAVN artillery had rendered the airstrip too dangerous for landing reinforcements. The last flight carrying the wounded out of Dien Bien Phu departed on March 26. About that time, the French chief of staff, General Paul Ely, arrived in Washington, where he set in motion intensive discussions between France, the United States, and Britain regarding the impending fate of the garrison at Dien Bien Phu, and indeed, the entire French position in Vietnam. The pressing questions before the house: If the PAVN threatened to overwhelm the garrison, would the Americans intervene directly in the battle? Would they intervene unilaterally, or would a coalition need to be cobbled together? Or would France’s allies stand by and let the battle run its course, and leave the fate of Indochina in the hands of diplomats from all the interested parties slated to attend the peace conference at Geneva in early May?
At precisely 1700 hours on March 30, following the usual blizzard of artillery fire, six or seven PAVN regiments jumped out of their trenches with the objective of seizing five key hills in the eastern sector of the MCR. Two hills were immediately overrun, and a third hill was almost seized. Had it fallen, so too might have the main headquarters bunker and the French commander, Col. Christian de Castries. Disaster was averted at the last minute when a battery of French artillery on a neighboring hill lowered its muzzles and fired directly into the PAVN assault waves, cutting down hundreds of Giap’s men in the vanguard, and forcing a disorderly withdrawal by the follow-up waves.
By dawn of March 31, the French position was extremely perilous, but a series of aggressive counterattacks in the first days of April by a reinforced French garrison marginally improved the defenders’ prospects. The grueling pattern of attack and counterattack continued through the grueling days and nights of early April, as Vietminh regiments ripped into beleaguered French companies, many of which were reduced to the size of mere platoons.
By mid-month, fears of asphyxiation gripped the entire French garrison. By the last week in April, the FEF was compressed inside a circular perimeter only a mile in diameter, greatly diminishing the numbers of reinforcements and the tonnage of supplies that could be dropped in by air. But the Vietnamese were having their own problems. PAVN casualties were so great—6,000 dead and 11,000 wounded, with almost no medical treatment available—that PAVN officers had to force demoralized troops to leave their trenches at gunpoint. Giap organized an intensive indoctrination and “remolding” program right on the edges of the battlefield to reinvigorate fighting spirit.
The end of April brought monsoon rains to the valley, flooding the dilapidated French tunnels and bunkers. The French were low on ammunition, particularly for the artillery, fighting on half rations, and hanging on by a thread.
After a lull of several days to replenish ammunition and rest the assault battalions, Giap launched the final phase of assaults in dramatic form: at 1700 hours on May 1, the entire 312th and 316th divisions stormed over the shambles of the MCR from the east, while elements of the 308th slammed into the dying fortress from the west. In nine hours of desperate fighting, more than 300 French troops died.
Col. Pierre Langlais, who had become de facto commander of the garrison when Col. Christian de Castries fell into a dysfunctional depression, radioed Hanoi: “No more reserves left. Fatigue and wear and tear on units terrible. Supplies and ammunition insufficient. Quite difficult to resist one more such push by Communists. . .”
And yet resist they did. For six more days the agonizing, close-in fighting continued among the stench of hundreds of unburied, bloated corpses. The end finally came at 1730 hours, May 7, when a specially selected assault team under Captain Ta Quang Luat overwhelmed the last French defenders, burst into the command bunker, and took Col. de Castries prisoner. All resistance ceased. French casualties totaled 1,600 dead and 4,800 wounded. The Vietminh lost almost 8,000 killed and 15,000 wounded. Of the 8,000 FEF prisoners of war taken after the battle, fewer than half returned to France alive.
Until the very last days, Paris had held out hope that the United States would intervene with massive airpower—perhaps even tactical nuclear weapons—to save France from a defeat the Eisenhower administration well knew was sure to bring down the government in Paris, and in all likelihood, lead France to shed its colonial empire in Indochina once and for all. The United States, which had bankrolled France’s war in Indochina to the tune of more than $2.5 billion between 1950 and 1954, found itself on the horns of a dilemma. Eisenhower was deeply troubled by the Cold War ramifications of a French exit from Southeast Asia, but he was dead set against unilateral American intervention on the grounds that it would taint the United States with the stigma of French colonialism, and might well provoke the Chinese to intervene directly in the war.
Thus, with Dien Bien Phu on the verge of falling, the Eisenhower administration engaged in harried negotiations with Britain to put together a coalition of Asian allies to intervene, but the British were adamant that diplomacy, not military intervention, should determine the future of Vietnam, along with the rest of Indochina. And so the great fortress in the “valley of death” finally fell, leading rapidly to the fall of the French government, and ultimately, to the decision by a new leftist government in Paris to withdraw from Indochina entirely.
Ironically, it was at the height of the diplomatic crisis prompted by impending French defeat at Dien Bien Phu that Ike put forward for the first time the core rationale American policymakers would use for defending a “free” Vietnam against Communism or the next two decades. Asked about the consequences of French defeat, Ike remarked, “You have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one [Vietnam], and what will happen to the last one is the certainty it will go over very quickly. So you could have the beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound consequences.”
So it was that Dien Bien Phu came to form a fateful bridge between the end of the French war in Indochina and the beginning of the American war there.
Flush from victory at Dien Bien Phu, the Vietminh delegation at the Geneva Conference had high hopes for a favorable negotiated settlement. Because both Russia and China were anxious to court favor with France and the United States for their own reasons, the Vietnamese Communists got less than they might have, given the strength of their position on the battlefield, and the complete collapse of French support for continuing the war at home. Vietnam was temporarily divided into two regimes: the Communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam north of the 17th parallel, and a pro-Western state under Emperor Bao Dai in the south, soon to be known as the Republic of Vietnam, i.e., South Vietnam. A vaguely worded Geneva declaration unsigned by either Bao Dai or the United States called for free elections to unite the country in two years under one government.
The Geneva accords didn’t so much establish a lasting peace as set the stage for another war in Vietnam. Just a few months after the diplomats had departed from Geneva, Hanoi sent orders to the 15,000 clandestine Vietminh political agents who remained in South Vietnam (in violation of the Geneva accords) to begin a subversion campaign against the Bao Dai administration. Meanwhile, the National Security Council in Washington called for the use of “all available means” to undermine the Communist regime in Hanoi, and “to make every possible effort . . . to maintain a friendly noncommunist government in South Vietnam.” As 1954 drew to a close, a CIA team under Col. Edward Lansdale had begun to implement a clandestine subversion program against Ho Chi Minh’s government in North Vietnam. The American crusade against Communism in Vietnam had begun in earnest.
In the minds of the architects of America’s new war, the French defeat in Indochina had very little to do with the strategic prowess and tenacity of the enemy, and everything to do with a lack of political will in Paris, and French military lassitude and incompetence in the field. In retrospect, it’s astonishing how little respect was paid by American decision makers to Ho Chi Minh and Giap’s brilliant “protracted war” strategy against France—to the deft integration of guerrilla warfare, conventional operations, the methodical buildup of a shadow government in the countryside, and a worldwide propaganda campaign against Western imperialism—as their commitment deepened.
There were, of course, a number of reasons for failing to give the Vietnamese Communists their due. Prominent among them was the arrogant and misguided belief that a new American way of war based on air mobility, heavy firepower, and cutting-edge intelligence-gathering and targeting technology would render irrelevant the Communist strategy Ho and Giap had developed over more than a dozen years of fighting for their country.
How wrong the architects of the U.S. war proved to be! For in the end, Giap employed essentially the same highly flexible strategy and force structure to defeat the Americans that he had used to vanquish the French, albeit on a larger scale.