Today marks the 60th anniversary of the fall of Dien Bien Phu. I shared thisw article four years ago that I still find interesting, so I’ll repost an abridged version today:
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.
…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.”
…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.
…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.
…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.