Ever wonder why this made it into Billy Joel’s song? Did you think it was a place or tourist attraction? “Come visit beautiful Dien Bien Phu Falls!”
Rober Messenger explains the magnitude of the event in The Weekly Standard: Theirs But to Do and Die – Dien Bien Phu and the twilight of the warrior. (Extended excerpts below, but the entire piece is worth the time.)
I would like to emphasize that, in my opinion and insofar as the free world is concerned, the French Union forces at Dien Bien Phu are fighting a modern Thermopylae.
—General Walter Bedell Smith, Undersecretary of State, April 19, 1954
…The French in Indochina cooperated with the Japanese during World War II—taking their orders from far-off Vichy. In March 1945, the Japanese, fearing an Allied invasion, suddenly interned the French troops and administrators and took over the country’s defense. Ho Chi Minh had been sent by Mao to build up the Indochinese Communist party in 1941. He conceived of the Viet-Minh (a shortening of the words for “League for the Independence of Vietnam”) as a nationalist front for the Communists to hide behind until the French and Japanese had been defeated.
…Dien Bien Phu was not intended as an all or nothing gamble for the future of Indochina. It was a gesture toward Laos, bait for the Viet-Minh, and a base for offensive operations that might relieve pressure on the delta.
…A captain in the Foreign Legion wrote home to his wife, describing the base as “an immense stadium twenty kilometers long and eight wide. The stadium belongs to us, the bleachers in the mountains to the Viets.”
… Giap initially planned to make an assault on the base in the last week of January, just as soon as his troops and supplies were in place. But he held back. With the encouragement of his Chinese “advisers”—they had to approve every decision Giap made—he concluded that this was now the crucial battleground. The French could not easily evacuate their troops over such a distance. Time was on the Viet side. Giap resolved to concentrate all his forces and materiel in hopes of winning a large conventional battle.
…The French overestimated not only their planes’ ability to supply the base, but much more their ability to hamper the Viet-Minh supply chain.
…Political considerations had completely altered the importance of the battle. Yet another weak French ministry had forced the Americans to agree to include the Chinese at a conference of the big four powers in April where Korea—the war there had just ended—and Indochina would be the main topics. The Geneva Conference was quickly perceived as a deadline for victory. Navarre knew it. Giap knew it, too. The battle for Dien Bien Phu was suddenly for Indochina.
…The French high command’s hope lay in a deus ex machina of direct American intervention, but Eisenhower declined to act. The French at Dien Bien Phu had found their Thermopylae, but there would be no Salamis or Plataea.
…By all military logic, Dien Bien Phu should have fallen. But war happens in the specific and is prey to strange turns. Thanks to the resilience of the defenders, it had survived. With enough men, Langlais and Bigeard could have retaken the lost forts and set the terms for the type of victory earned during 1951’s spring offensives and at Na San—for the Viet-Minh to decide there were better ways to fight than by dying by the thousands in front of heavy French fire. This was the chance to achieve Navarre’s objectives and set the ground for Geneva. Yet the high command in Hanoi dithered. A promised airborne brigade became a battalion, and even that was delivered piecemeal and too late. Giap ordered two divisions of raw troops to come from the Viet bases and doubled-down on Dien Bien Phu, but the French, who had no alternative, did not.
Popular historians tell us the French staked everything on Dien Bien Phu. But just 4 percent of the French troops in Indochina were holding down 60 percent of Giap’s fighting units. Navarre had been searching for a place where the Viet-Minh would not simply retire if they took heavy losses. Despite all the mistakes, he had actually found it. He had 400,000 troops at his command in Indochina. He could have made the decision to reinforce in strength—not just by air, but by setting in motion a mass long-range relief column from Laos. But Navarre weighed too many factors—the general in charge of Tonkin did not want to give up men, and many senior army figures in Hanoi viewed Dien Bien Phu as just an irregulars’ sideshow—and he was actually waging a simultaneous operation in the south using 25,000 troops in a series of amphibious landings. Operation Atalante was indecisive, while at Dien Bien Phu, Bigeard’s troops retook the lost strongpoints but did not have the men to hold them. This was when the battle was lost. The para commanders had redeemed Navarre’s strategy, and he failed to support them.
At 8 p.m. on May 1, a heavy barrage hammered the frontline CRs. Eliane 1 fell that night. Dominique 3 and Huguette 5 on May 2. Huguette 4 held yet one more day. On the night of May 6, Eliane 2 was finally taken, and the following morning Eliane 4. There were fewer than 650 French defenders still fighting, and a ceasefire was organized to save the thousands of wounded in the hospital warrens of the final French bastion: Claudine. The remaining defenders, strung out amongst the destroyed remains of various strongpoints, were too tired and too few to even need to surrender. By all accounts the battle simply stopped. The siege was over, and the war quickly followed. A ceasefire was agreed at Geneva on July 20 and the country partitioned pending elections. Hundreds of thousands of Tonkinese and Annamites headed south overwhelming expectations. (The Viet-Minh made sure to infiltrate a cadre of 6,000 hardcore Communists into the south to continue their war.) The French were simply in a hurry to recover their soldiers and leave.
It’s a truism that conventional armies cannot win revolutionary wars—that for all their resources and firepower, they will be defeated by guerrilla insurgencies. This lesson of Vietnam is rarely questioned, but it is false. Under Johnson and Westmoreland we lost a war the establishment said we were winning. Under Abrams and Nixon we won one they said we were losing. The Vietnam war tells us a lot more about American government and popular perception than it does the quest for a victory of arms. Conventional armies can easily defeat revolutionary ones if they adapt to their means and methods. (We did it in Afghanistan in 2001, for instance.) Our armies lose, though, because our governments are incapable of pursuing victory in revolutionary war—which requires the methods that built the great colonial empires and are no longer palatable to the society that our wealth and relativism have created. What the military can accomplish must be backed by political certainty and national commitment.
The Viet-Minh were successful on both the battlefield and in Paris and Geneva because their leadership was ruthless and unwavering.