Contrary to the popular and unfortunate American image of the French as surrender-prone, their nation has a long and impressive history of military success. They did the lion's share of the fighting against the Germans in World War I, helped the U.S. defeat Britain in the Revolution and routinely beat other European nations to a pulp when Napoleon was at the helm. Viet Minh victory against France was thus no sure bet. With military aid from the U.S. and Britain, the French initially saw a good deal of success against the Viet Minh and drove them into small rural pockets from 1947 through 1948. The French position was so strong that France felt confident enough to re-divide Indochina into three states – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – and to grant each limited independence with France remaining in control of foreign relations and military affairs.
A Friend to the North
The French position was so strong that France felt confident enough to redivide Indochina into three states – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – and to grant each limited independence.
However, the situation changed in 1949 when communist revolutionary forces conquered China. Suddenly, Ho Chi Minh had a friendly ally directly along the northern border and significant military aid was now flowing to his side too. General Giap had also perfected his skills in guerilla warfare. Viet Minh forces grew increasingly skillful at hitting isolated French military posts before fading away into the heavily forested terrain or blending in with the sympathetic local population. The Viet Minh also liked to operate in the darkness. They had a popular saying "The French rule by day, the Viet Minh rule by night."
A popular saying was, "The French rule by day, the Viet Minh rule by night."
Earlier, back in 1945 Ho Chi Minh had issued a "Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Vietnam," which was heavily influenced by Jefferson's earlier work. Consider its first few lines …
"'All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.' This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776."
What followed in the Vietnamese version of the Declaration of Independence is a familiar list of grievances, not against George III, but against French colonialism. The document was a brilliant piece of political statesmanship but because of communist allegiances, it failed to win many friends in Jefferson's homeland.
What followed in the Vietnamese version is a familiar list of grievances, not against George III, but rather against French colonialism. The document was a brilliant piece of political statesmanship by Ho Chi Minh, but … because of his communist allegiances, it failed to win him many friends in Jefferson's homeland. Keep in mind that the U.S. Declaration of Independence did not mean much on the international scene until Benedict Arnold won the key Battle of Saratoga. That victory was a turning point for the American War of Independence.
What Ho Chi Minh still needed eight years later was a Saratoga. Giap was anxious to give him one.
By 1953 the fighting in Vietnam had been dragging on for six years. The French had won several significant victories and were maintaining control over much of the country: particularly its southern half where the French puppet-Emperor, Bao Dai enjoyed some support. However, the Viet Minh continued to cling tenaciously to the heavily forested highlands along the border of China in the northwestern corner of the country.
It's a Bold Strategy
An aggressive new French general, Henri Navarre, decided to try and end the conflict once and for all with a daring plan called Operation Castor, launched in November of that year. French forces occupied a remote crossroads village called Dien Bien Phu located deep in Viet Minh-held territory.
Picking such a location seemed idiotic on the surface since it lay on low ground in a valley surrounded by high hills, but Navarre hoped this apparent vulnerability would tempt Giap into making an attack and thus fall into a French trap. The French Foreign Legion would almost certainly be outnumbered, but they built extensive defensive fortifications and artillery emplacements. When the Viet Minh showed up to fight, the plan was that this artillery, supported by French airpower, would inflict heavy losses on Giap's forces. The possibility that Giap would be able to bring his own artillery into play was dismissed. Surely the heavy forestation on the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu would prevent the Vietnamese from deploying cumbersome, heavy artillery, oui?
The possibility that Giap would be able to bring his own artillery into play was dismissed. Surely the heavy forestation on the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu would prevent the Vietnamese from deploying cumbersome, heavy artillery, oui?
What Navarre did not count on was how significantly outnumbered his 13,000-man garrison was. Giap quietly assembled approximately 50,000 men to attack Dien Bien Phu. Furthermore, thousands of rural Vietnamese villagers volunteered to help the Viet Minh. Over the next several months, heavy Soviet-donated artillery was dismantled and the volunteers carried the component parts, piece-by-piece up to the tops of the rugged hills around Dien Bien Phu. The components were reassembled and, in short order, French forces were surrounded by a ring of powerful weaponry that began bombarding them on March 13, 1954.
Over several months, heavy Soviet-donated artillery was dismantled and the volunteers carried the components piece-by-piece up to the tops of the rugged hills around Dien Bien Phu. They were reassembled and, in short order, French forces were surrounded by a ring of powerful weaponry.
The French tried to bomb the Viet Minh positions from the air, but the heavy forest obscured their view and the air attacks were largely ineffective. Their own artillery in Dien Bien Phu, likewise, had similar trouble finding targets. There was little chance of assaulting the hills with French infantry since they were so badly outnumbered on the ground.
The U.S. began flying covert support missions for the entrapped French but was afraid to be seen directly supporting the conflict. The Americans considered a variety of more direct military options but eventually decided on keeping a low profile. In a final act of desperation, the French tried parachuting additional forces into Dien Bien Phu, but these men found themselves in the same snare and were destined merely to become additional future prisoners.
In a final act of desperation, the French tried parachuting additional forces into Dien Bien Phu, but these men found themselves in the same snare and were destined merely to become additional future prisoners.
By May 7, it was over. Fifteen-thousand French (4,000 of whom were wounded) were now prisoners of war being held by the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Viet Minh forces were still weak in the south, but now they dominated the north.
France was already suffering from war weariness and this humiliating defeat was the final straw. The French were ready to give up the fight in Vietnam. To whom would they pass on the torch?
For further reading, consider these sources:
- Giap,Vo Nguyen. The Military Art of People's War. Monthly Review, 1970.
- Hammer, Ellen The Struggle for Indochina, 1940-1955. Stanford, 1955.
- History Matters: Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
"The Vietnam War," directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, airing Sept. 17-21 and Sept. 24-28 at 7 each night.