To commemorate the Viet Minh victory over France in the First Indochina War I published part 1 of this history a few weeks ago. Here is part 2, covering the period from the outset of that war up to Dien Bien Phu.
(The story below is largely derived from my books Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life, and Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era, as well as other articles and edited collections).
The First Indochina War Begins
Following the French shelling of Haiphong, the Viet Minh war against the French had begun. Though the Vietnamese would ultimately focus on a strategy of guerrilla warfare, protracted war, a long grind to erode the morale and fighting strength of the enemy, the war did not begin that way.
In 1950 Giap, though a brilliant guerrilla war strategist, began large-scale engagements with the French. In October the Viet Minh attacked enemy forts along the Chinese border, with the French losing 6000 troops and large numbers of mortars, trucks, machine guns, and rifles. Hoping to build on that success, Giap, in January 1951, began a general offensive, hoping for a Tet victory. About 15,000 Viet Minh who had been hiding in the mountains outside the Red River delta launched a “human wave” attack on French garrisons at Vinh Yen, near Hanoi.
But the French repulsed that attack with 6000 Viet Minh killed. Giap did not retreat, though, striking French positions along the delta. In the spring, the situation worsened when Giap tried to cut off the French by sea by occupying Haiphong. The battle, “Operation Hoang Hoa Tham II,” ended in another defeat. Just two months later, in the battle of “Ha Nam Ninh,” French aircraft and armor blunted Giap’s charges. By mid-June, the Viet Minh was backtracking and bloodied.
Many Viet Minh called for Giap to be fired, but Ho intervened on behalf of hiscommander, and he and Giap also shifted to a strategy of protracted war–from then on, the Viet Minh would try to spread out French forces in defensive positions throughout the country so that they could be attacked in smaller engagements and, in time, French morale would collapse. When the time and conditions were right, Giap could then conduct big-unit engagements to gain decisive victories.
Beginning in mid-1951, the Viet Minh, working with local tribes, sucessfully struck at many French district capitals in the mountains of the northwest, and did the same in league with Communit Pathet Lao guerrillas in Laos. Also at this time Chinese Communist forces, flush off their 1949 victory in their civil war, sent larger quantities of arms, equipment, and supplies to Ho–thousands of tons monthly by the end of the war–while a quarter million Chinese troops along the border served as a warning to the French and others against expanded warfare.
The French were thus concerned about the Viet Minh’s growing capabilities, so General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, their commander, directed his troops to seize the town of Hoa Binh, at the southern edge of the Red River delta, to disrupt Giap’s communications network and reduce the movement of supplies and troops. The Viet Minh took huge losses–over fifty percent of its 40,000 troops were killed or wounded–but managed to blunt the offensive, infiltrate the entire delta area, and move freely in and out of liberated zones. Finally frustrated and weary from chasing Viet Minh troops, the French withdrew from Hoa Binh in February 1952.
French morale began to slip, as their enemy infiltrated or bypassed supposedly secure points along the “de Lattre Line.” Indeed, French soldiers had so much difficulty clearing Viet Minh from the major north-south route, Highway 1, that they began to bitterly refer to it as “la rue sans joi,” the street without joy.
By 1953, French prospects were fading. Their new commander, General Henri Navarre, proposed a major expansion of the Vietnamese National Army, reinforcing French forces in Indochina and attacking Viet Minh positions in the delta. The United States backed the“Navarre Concept” with about $400 million in aid, the first significant American commitment to destroy the Left in Vietnam and an immense sum in light of the non-importance of Indochina up to that point.
Navarre, however, blundered terribly. To secure access to the delta and cut enemy supply routes into Laos, Navarre established a base at an isolated mountain valley near the Laotian border in northwest Vietnam. It was Dien Bien Phu, and it was destined to become one of the more memorable battle scenes in the twentieth century. Navarre committed 12 battalions [about 15,000 soldiers], ten tanks, and six aircraft to Dien Bien Phu. In the surrounding hills the local commander, Colonel Christian de Castries, had further protected the main base by establishing strongpoints in the surrounding hills and, with typical élan, had named them after his mistresses: Beatrice, Gabrielle, Dominique, Elaine, and Claudine. The French, it seemed, were confident and daring the Viet Minh to attack.
Giap took his time, though. The area near Dien Bien Phu seemed impassable, but thousands of Vietnamese peasants cut trails by hand, laid roads, and moved supplies as much as 500 miles to the front by bicycle and on foot. As four divisions of combat troops [about 50,000 men] moved on the base, they were daily bombed and napalmed by the French Air Force, but the advance continued. At times dragging heavy artillery by rope for fifty miles, the Viet Minh’s dedication and willingness to sacrifice was decisive. At one point, a veteran of the Dien Bien Phu campaign related, a rope being used to pull a heavy artillery piece broke and a Vietnamese soldier dove in front of it to prevent it from rolling downhill, dying in the process.
Meanwhile, de Castries, legend has it, was bringing in local prostitutes for his troops. The Viet Minh, to be sure, was emotionally and physically prepared for battle and was positioned to attack in the early months of 1954. When they reached Dien Bien Phu, Giap’s men and material disappeared into caves they had dug into the hillsides, and they encroached on the French via the hundreds of miles of tunnels and trenches they had dug clandestinely.
For the French, the waiting was the hardest part, with Navarre even dropping leaflets on the Vietnamese daring them to fight. Giap moved according to his own pace, however, and finally struck on 13 March 1954. Initially Giap advanced his units en masse to try to overrun French positions on the perimeter, but such tactics cost him dearly, with about 2000 Viet Minh lost in the first few days of battle alone. At that point, the commander became patient, digging and operating out of trenches while raining artillery on the French in the valley below. In time, French forces began to take heavy casualties, and the airfield at Dien Bien Phu became inoperable.
By April, the Viet Minh were successfully assaulting fire bases along the perimeter as Giap’s strategy of “steady attack and steady advance” was paying off. The commander pressed the attack throughout April and the French, taking heavy losses and short on supplies, were in dire straits. On 6 May, Dien Bien Phu fell. Ho Chi Minh, it once more seemed, wasprimed to become president of an independent Vietnam.
On May 7th, 1954, the Viet Minh, combined Communist and Nationalist forces fighting a war of liberation to remove their colonial occupier, France, successfully ended their long struggle by defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu, a base in an isolated mountain valley near the border of Laos in northwest Vietnam. The “First Indochina War,” as it became known would allow the Viet Minh, the leading political-military group in Vietnam to claim sovereignty and establish a national government. Those goals, those dreams, however, did not last long as the United States refused to accept Vietnamese independence of Ho Chi Minh, a longtime Communist-Nationalist revolutionary. So while one war ended, another was about to begin.
But understanding the history of Vietnamese resistance to the French that culminated in Dien Bien Phu is essential to learning about the role the Americans assumed, the way they waged that killed millions of Vietnamese and destroyed much of the country, and the nature of the U.S. empire in the Cold War.