The French debacle in Dien Bien Phu

| September 2, 2010 | 0 Comments
Vo Nguyen Giap, now 90 years old, is a former Hanoi high-school teacher whose father had died in one of the French colonial prisons. He was the military brains behind Vietnam’s liberation movement.

Vo Nguyen Giap, now 90 years old, is a former Hanoi high-school teacher whose father had died in one of the French colonial prisons. He was the military brains behind Vietnam’s liberation movement.

Dien Bien Phu is a market town in an almost preposterously remote corner of northwest Vietnam. Today it has a population of about 9,000. In 1953, however, it was so small it wasn’t even considered a community and, in fact, didn’t have a name. The phrase Dien Bien Phu translates roughly as “border-area administrative post.” Few outsiders had ever heard of it. By the spring of 1954, though, it was a place very much in the news internationally.
What was commonly called Indochina consisted of colonies that the French built up in Southeast Asia in the latter half of the 19th Century. They had different names and configurations at various times but are now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The Japanese had occupied them during the Second World War, but in 1946 the French were eager to resume their rather lucrative control. The ambition was stymied by a growing nationalist movement known as the Viet Mihn. The most important figure of the force was a professional revolutionary, an intellectual who had been educated in France, the U.S. and the Soviet Union and who had spent more half his life living in exile under various names. The alias that stuck was Ho the Enlightened, or Ho Chi Mihn. He was the political brain of the liberation movement. The military brain was Vo Nguyen Giap, a former Hanoi high-school history teacher whose father had died in one of the French colonial prisons.
Ted Morgan writes of him as “a man of action with a chess player’s mind.”
Mr. Morgan, a senior American journalist and biographer, is himself a pseudonymous individual. Until he chose to become an American in the 1970s, he was Sanche de Gramont, a minor member of the lingering French nobility. (He selected “Ted Morgan” because it is an anagram of “de Gramont”.) As a young man, he was an intelligence officer in the French Army, serving during the war in Algeria, where he knew fellow soldiers who had survived the horrible battle at Dien Bien Phu, the encounter at which General Giap drove the French out of Indochina (just as he would later drive out the Americans).
Few battles of the 20th Century were more resoundingly decisive or remain such powerful cautionary tales. What took place at Dien Bien Phu has become the subject of a vast literature in both celebratory Vietnamese and exculpatory French. In English, too, the topic keeps recurring in new books. Some are as scholarly as The First Vietnam War: Colonial Conflict and Cold War Crisis edited by Mark Atwood Lawrence and Fredrik Logevall (Harvard University Press, US$22.95 paper); others are as relentlessly pop as Voices of the Foreign Legion: The History of the World’s Most Famous Fighting Corps by Adrian D. Gilbert (Skyhorse Publishing, $31.50).
Until now the foremost work in English has been Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall. It was published in 1966, the year before its author was killed by a landmine in (the Second) Vietnam War while reporting for the New York Times. But now comes Mr. Morgan’s Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War (Random House of Canada, $43). His subtitle says a great deal. I suppose he is still so French that his former nation’s defeat seems a tragedy in more than just loss of life. It also probably indicates that he has become so American that, like many others in the United States, he continues to seek precedents for what happened between 1965 and 1975. In any case, the two books are quite different. Mr. Fall loved military jargon and put far more effort into explaining logistics, for example, than ideology. By contrast, Mr. Morgan writes excellent journalistic prose and attempts the difficult task of giving us the serious political context for the battle narrative and vice versa.
What exactly went so wretchedly wrong for the French? Cultural condescension, certainly, but impatience as well. There were 50,000 French people—the colons—in Vietnam and 23 million Vietnamese. The latter had stereotypes of the former: for instance, that of the fat French officials and businessmen, growing rich and cruel on exorbitant taxation, rigidly imperial economics and military might while living with their Vietnamese mistresses (congai). For their part, the French saw the local population as backward and ignorant.
For a number of years, the Viet Mihn had been using standard guerrilla and terrorist tactics in both the cities and the rural areas, as David Kilcullen analyses in his highly important new study Counterinsurgency (Oxford University Press, $19.95 paper). By 1953, however, the former ragtag guerrillas had become a formidable and highly disciplined army. We all know the cliché about the tendency of generals to refight the previous war. In this case, the previous war was the recently concluded one in Korea. As historian Bruce Cummings reminds us in his own new work The Korean War: A History (Random House of Canada, $28), the war’s most glaring feature came right at the beginning, in June 1950, when the North invaded the South by suddenly sending a “human wave” of 213,000 across the 38th Parallel.
In Vietnam, the French, tired of the standard anti-colonial scrapping, and fearful that the Viet Mihn would expand the war into neighbouring Laos, came up with a plan. They would fortify a strange misty valley a few miles from the Lao border. It was, and is, an elliptical plain made of red clay and surrounded on all sides by thick jungle and very high mountains. Such a tempting target was supposed to lure the Viet Mihn into making a human-wave attack. The French imagined tens of thousands, maybe scores of thousands, of lightly armed bo dois in those conical straw hats called condong charging over open ground, only to be mowed down by French artillery and air power in a single coup. The French believed they were well prepared for their mission. They had even brought along two field-brothels (bordels militaires de campagne) staffed with Algerian and Vietnamese women. But French G-2 work was very poor at best and at worst almost non-existent. They didn’t know how many Vietnamese they were facing or where exactly these enemies were or even how they were armed. They knew only that the Viet Mihn, which admittedly had no air force, likewise had no artillery to speak of or the skill to use it effectively if they had. These assumptions were mistaken. It was the French who became the sitting ducks.
The commander in Indochina was General Henri Navarre, who came from NATO headquarters in Europe. In his ignorance of Indochina, some saw the promise of a fresh perspective. He gave field command at Dien Bien Phu to an officer who had served under him in Italy during the Second World War: Colonel (but now, instantly, General) Christian Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries, a cavalryman, had chosen to work his way up through the ranks rather than profit from the influence of his ancient military family. One of the officers Castries himself would most rely on at Dien Bien Phu was Colonel Charles Piroth. He too was a veteran of the Italian campaign, during which he had lost his left arm at the shoulder. He was an artilleryman whose task was to keep the Vietnamese human wave at bay until the optimal moment.
There were 13,000 French troops in all. Most of the rank-and-file were Algerians, Moroccans or members of the Légion Étrangère. Of this last group, many, perhaps a majority, were ex-Nazis who considered questions about the previous decade somewhat impertinent. There were also some loyal tribal people, whom the French called Autochthones. The French weren’t fully aware that there were 50,000 Vietnamese with as many again in reserve.
When the first French troops arrived by parachute in November 1953, during the dry season, they began building an airstrip and then, on either side of the Nam Yum River, nine defensive positions, what Mr. Morgan calls “this network of overlapping little fortresses, this labyrinth of barbed wire and sandbags….” The strongholds were given feminine forenames, beginning with Anne-Marie and extending down the alphabet to Isabelle (and, contrary to legend, these were not the names of Castries’—or anybody else’s — mistresses back in Paris). They were made of earth, concrete and barbed wire, and were connected to one another by communication trenches. The building materials for these and for the all-important airstrip, not to mention all the weapons, ammunition, food, medical supplies — everything — had to be flown in, for although Hanoi was only 185 miles away, it was 16 hours distant by road: a road controlled by the Viet Mihn in any case. The airlift involved cargo planes acquired from the United States: C-47 Dakotas (in the early stages, they made 80 flights a day) and C-117 Flying Boxcars. This is when the trouble began.
The French foresaw no danger in occupying the lower ground rather than the higher, because they doubted that the Viet Mihn had much artillery. The French possessed 60 guns. Although none of the Viet Mihn pieces was as large as the heaviest French ones, they numbered 200 in all, many of them from China. Similarly, the French couldn’t accept that their enemy could move their big guns to the rugged mountaintops that surrounded the plain. But that’s precisely what General Giap did. He disassembled the field pieces as much as possible, cordelling them with ropes, dragging them inch by inch and foot by foot, using thousands of ungloved hands and sandaled feet; for “although the French had tanks and airpower,” the author writes, “it turned out that long lines of coolies were more dependable.” The Viet Mihn dug heavily disguised caves in which to conceal the cannon, bringing them out of hiding just long enough to do their work, before retracting them again. Also, they dug dummy caves at which they set off tiny explosions that mimicked muzzle flash, tricking Colonel Piroth into wasting ammunition.
With terrible and inexorable efficiency, the guns in the mountains destroyed the fix-winged aircraft of the French as well as helicopters and tanks. Food, ammunition and medical supplies were running out as the casualties piled up, with no way to transport the wounded to Hanoi where they could be treated effectively. “By the end of March,” Mr. Morgan writes, “Dien Bien Phu was surrounded. The only way in was by parachute, and there was no way out.” And as the cannon in the mountains pounded away, the Viet Mihn down in the valley continually dug trenches of their own, moving ever closer. “Here, nine years into the nuclear age, was a return to siege warfare that went back to medieval times.” General Giap was a close student of the military classics — Napoleon, Clausewitz and, most tellingly of all, the Marquis de Vauban (1633−1707), the father of modern siege tactics. For his part, Castries asked Hanoi to air-drop him four copies of the official manual of siege warfare published during the First World War.
The siege became a daily melodrama in the eyes of the world, including of course the United States, which, then as later, saw Ho Chi Mihn not as a nationalist primarily but as a tool of the Third International, bent on propagating global communism. When General Navarre took over in the region, insisting that the purpose of the campaign was to prevent the Viet Mihn from attacking Luang Prabang, the old royal capital of Laos, he told a subordinate: “We’ve had American generals, veterans of Korea, tell us how satisfied they were with our deployment. They invested a lot of money here and they didn’t want us to lose.” His listener replied tactfully: “My only desire is to believe you, General.” At one point Washington considered using nuclear weapons but decided against the plan, fearing it would lead to sending U.S. ground troops into Vietnam.
A few French troops were getting in by parachute, but only a few. One sergeant wrote to his brother back home: “The Viets are two hundred metres from our barbed wire, hiding in trenches. They look at us. We look at them.” He added: “On top of everything, we’ve run out of wine.” A major with a safe desk job in Saigon learned that his wife was lost at sea en route from France by steamship. In despair, he asked to be dropped into Dien Bien Phu. He was volunteering to commit suicide or, as he put it, “doing Camerone”. The reference was to a famous 19th-century battle in which an entire Légionnaire command was wiped out, down to the last man. Colonel Piroth no longer counted enough pieces of artillery to keep the enemy away and or enough gunners left alive to man the guns if he still had them. He retreated to his bunker. Having only one arm, he found it difficult to load and cock his pistol, so he committed suicide by using his teeth to pull the pin on a grenade. Castries was, in the author’s words, “marinated in despondence.” (Mr. Morgan enjoys culinary metaphors. A few pages on, a certain section of the battlefield is “truffled” with landmines.)
Most of the French strongholds were quite low, but there was one, code-named Dominique, that was 1,500 feet high and 300 yards long. Indeed, it is still the dominant geographical feature of Dien Bien Phu, overlooking the town. A full battalion was needed to defend it properly. Towards the end, it was manned by only two thin companies of Algerians, whom Castries considered unreliable in any case. “Better to obliterate a company than rout a battalion,” Giap observed, as he tightened his stranglehold on each of the sorry outposts in turn. In Paris, the government began to look a bit shaky. In Dien Bien Phu, the monsoon had begun. Mushrooms sprouted on the soldiers’ boots after only twenty-four hours. The troops were out of almost everything. Both the living and the dead were sucked down into the mud.
On May 7, 1954, after 56 days of actual siege, General Castries surrendered. The most famous photograph of this First Vietnam War is one of Viet Mihn soldiers standing atop the round corrugated-iron roof of the general’s bunker, waving their flag. Of the thousands of French troops taken prisoner, relatively few survived captivity and made it back to Europe or North Africa. Today, Dien Bien Phu’s principal boulevard is named May Seventh Street.
The lessons of Dien Bien Phu are numerous and altogether obvious. At the end of his book, Mr. Morgan writes: “When he later read that some of Castries’ men had died without showing any apparent wounds, Giap concluded that ‘their endurance had failed, because they did not know what they were fighting for.’ Navarre’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Giap believed, had come from ‘an error in judgment in that he did not understand his adversary. He didn’t realise it was a people’s war.’ For the French elite troops, war was their profession. But what were they fighting for? Navarre’s mistake was that he couldn’t believe illiterate peasants could become good artillerymen, or that cadres who hadn’t graduated from Saint-Cyr could solve strategic and tactical problems.”
As I write these words, Vo Nguyen Giap is still alive, age 99. He is, to say the least, his country’s greatest living hero.

George Fetherling is the author Walt Whitman’s Secret, a novel (Random House Canada).

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