Dien Bien Phu

Viet Minh fighters raise their flag over French positions at Dien Bien Phu. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

On March 13th, 1954, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu began between the French Far East Expeditionary Forces and members of the communist Viet Minh (guerilla fighters). The battle was the climax of the First Indochina War (Indochina being the colonial name given to Vietnam). A former French colony, Vietnam had sought independence from France following WWII during which the country was brutally occupied by the Japanese. Despite the best wishes of Ho Chi Minh – leader of the Viet Minh – the French attempted to fully reclaim Vietnam in the late 1940s.

ASAP: Heavily-armed Viet Minh guerillas beat the French at their own game and (temporarily) gained control of their country.

Read on for details!
Guerilla fighters of the Viet Minh or Cong infiltrating a position. Notice their lack of uniforms. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The main stereotype about the Viet Minh (and later Viet Cong) guerilla fighters is that they avoided confrontation with conventional troops of powerful nations like France and the US, preferring ambushes and hit-and-run style attacks. This is largely truth, and after years of difficult jungle fighting against an elusive enemy, the French wanted to draw the Viet Minh into the open and destroy them with a large set-piece battle (a clash at a predetermined location and time). French paratroopers occupied the hilly terrain at Dien Bien Phu expecting resupply by the air; they were being resupplied jointly by the French Air Force as well as the US Air Force (who, as we’ll find out in 1965, had a vested interest in keeping Vietnam free of communists). The Viet Minh, however, worked for months carrying in vast quantities of artillery guns and shells through the jungle on small footpaths. When the battle finally took place, the French were suppressed by crushing (unexpected) artillery fire directed by the Viet Minh’s leader Vō Nguyên Giáp. The Vietnamese forces relentlessly assaulted French positions while their anti-aircraft weapons took out French and American supply planes. After months of siege warfare reminiscent of WWI, the French position was overrun in May of 1954.

Map of the area. Dien Bien Phu is located in the Northwest of Vietnam, far from resupply routes by sea. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Psychologically, Dien Bien Phu was a massive shock to the French and the West at large. Vō Nguyên Giáp’s militia had proven that a “3rd world” force made up of irregular guerillas could take on an elite force of French paratroopers – and win, on the superpower’s terms. It also provided a symbolic win for the Communist Bloc. If Dien Bien Phu proved anything, it’s that massive, seemingly invulnerable superpowers could be repeatedly beaten during the Cold War by small forces of highly motivated guerillas (see the Vietnam War and the Soviet War in Afghanistan). To borrow a phrase used by US President Eisenhower during the siege at Dien Bien Phu, when the French lost Indochina the first domino had fallen; communism was bound to spread further before the end of the Cold War.

Main Points

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? The French Far East Expeditionary Forces (20,000) vs the Viet Minh (64,500).
  • Where? Dien Bien Phu, a hilly spot in Northwestern Vietnam. It could only be resupplied by air, but French forces believed it didn’t matter. The dense jungle and significant footpaths enabled the Viet Minh to secretly move many tonnes of artillery munitions and guns into position.
  • When? From March 13th to May 7th, 1954.
  • What? The French troops dug in on Dien Bien Phu expecting a weak militia attack. They were quickly surprised by heavy artillery fire and a relentless siege reminiscent of WWI trench battles. Despite resupply by French and American planes and helicopters, the French were unable to hold on for long. After nearly two months of fighting, they surrendered to the unexpectedly tenacious Viet Minh.
  • Why? French planners wanted to beat the Viet Minh in a “set-piece” battle after being subjected to guerilla ambushes for months. They had tried for years to get “French Indochina” back. Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh also recognized the significance of Dien Bien Phu and believed (correctly) that victory would push the French out of his country for good.
  • Result: The Vietnamese finally rid themselves of their former French colonial masters. The battle was a big blow to France’s prestige, compounding the trauma of WWII in some ways. The French defeat provoked increased American presence in the region.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • Were the French ever in a position to keep control over Vietnam?
  • How does Dien Bien Phu relate to the “Domino Theory?” Does it fit into that argument?
  • Why did the US provide so much aid to the French during Dien Bien Phu?
  • Assess Ho Chi Minh’s intentions. Was a military confrontation his first choice? (Hint: he appealed to the United States for support in the late 1940s).
  • Relate Dien Bien Phu to other confrontations between superpowers and small guerilla forces. What are some common themes?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Stanley, George F. G. “Dien Bien Phu in Retrospect.” International Journal 10, no. 1 (1954): 38-50.
  • Frederic F. Clairmont. “Dien Bien Phu: A Personal Memoir.” Economic and Political Weekly 39, no. 35 (2004): 3889-892.
  • MOISI, Dominique. “LA DIPLOMATIE AMÉRICAINE ET LA CRISE DE DIEN BIEN PHU.” Politique étrangère 44, no. 2 (1979): 293-305.
  • Funnell, Victor. “Vietnam – Decision against War: Eisenhower and Dien Bien Phu, 1954. By Melanie Billings-Yun. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Pp. Xiv, 199. Notes, Bibliography, Index.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 21, no. 2 (1990): 522–23. 
  • Fischer, Ruth. “Ho Chi Minh: Disciplined Communist.” Foreign Affairs 33, no. 1 (1954): 86-97. 

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