DIEN BIEN PHU
..... nearly everyone would agree that France's colonial ambitions in Indochina had been doomed from the start, that her seven-and-a-half year war in the region had been a series of disastrous misjudgments and miscalculations, and that her empire had been little more than a grand illusion since at least the end of World War II. But it wasn't until the total defeat of its forces at the North Vietnamese garrison of Dien Bien Phu in May, 1954, that the French government was forced to drop its blindfold and admit that the game was over. And no sooner had the smoke cleared than the American government crept back to the battlefield, retrieved the blindfold, and tied it securely over its own eyes.
The area now called Vietnam had always been the biggest headache in France's Indochinese empire. The territory was divided, geographically and culturally, into two native kingdoms, Tonkin and Annan, in the north, and a colony, Cochin China, in the south, a fragmentation that made communication difficult and administratiom awkward. What was worse, the peoples of the north, the center of Viet culture, were proud, feisty, and subversive by nature; they had never been ones to bow and smile when outsiders tried to take over their turf. By the time Japan invaded Indochina in 1940, the French had already spent a couple of decades putting down village rebellions, scattered resistance groups had begun to coalesce into a Communist-dominated nationalist underground, and Ho Chi Minh had learned some valuable lessons in organization and strategy. When the Japanese took the keys to the country away from the French, who were too busy keeping up with the war in Europe to put up much of a fight, and turned them over to the Vietnamese, the struggle for control in the north was effectively over, although none of the major powers realized it at the time.
The nationalist Communists, by then known as the Viet Minh, didn't waste any time. Keeping directly out of the way of the Japanese, they spread the faith in the villages and fortified their positions in the countryside. When Japan surrendered in 1945, Ho Chi Minh had consolidated enough power to declare himself head of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
This, however, was not what the Allies had in mind. Determined to restore European equilibrium by boosting France's fractured self-esteem, they decided to give her back her colonies, sending the British to take over Saigon and Chinese troops to recapture the north. Enter, at this point, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, soon-to-be hero, from the nationalists' point of view, of two Vietnamese wars. Giap raided the local arsenals for the weapons left behind by the French and Japanese and made as much trouble as he could for the occupying French and Chinese forces. For the next few years the war in Vietnam consisted of inconclusive skirmishes and lots of military bungling on both sides, with the Viet Minh learning the hard way that conventional warfare was not their strong suit and the French continually trying to launch surprise raids on an enemy they couldn't see.
The nature of the enterprise began to change in 1949, when the Reds took over China. Ho Chi Minh suddenly found himself with an ally at his back and a steady supply of artillery pouring in from both China and the Soviet Union. The United States began to talk about keeping the Communist threat within safe perimeters. Vietnam was suddenly everyone's business. General Giap, for one, was heartened. Ho had long ago declared himself ready to loose ten men for every one of the invaders, and Giap made good the promise, launching a series of ferocious assaults that decimated his own forces but did, at least, have the effect of setting French nerves on edge and driving French troops back to fortified positions. Eventually, it also led them to make their fatal mistake.
In hindsight, the lessons of Dien Bien Phu seemed pretty clear, at least to some people. On the military level, it demonstrated the futility of depending on superior manpower and technology to overcome a well-armed, thoroughly entrenched guerrilla force fighting on difficult terrain and prepared to make outrageous sacrifices to defend a homeland. In terms of global politics, it showed just how much trouble a country could make for itself when it confused grandiosity with ideology.
The United Sates seemed, for a minute or two, to get the message. President Eisenhower had, after all, refused to get directly involved in the Vietnam conflict without the approval of Congress and the Chiefs of Staff had already declared the whole territory of Indochina to be "without decisive military objectives." But U.S. Policy in the region had never been characterized by clear thinking or consistent action. Pretty soon Eisenhower was focusing more on his "falling dominoes" speech and the Red Terror than on what had just happened at Dien Bien Phu - this despite the fact that the Russians and Chinese had already stopped speaking to each other and it was unclear just where the Red Terror would be emanating from. When the Geneva Conference partitioned Vietnam into North and South along the 17th parallel, with the promise of free elections in two years to decide on possible reunification, Eisenhower decided to fight rather than let the Vietnamese, who were solidly behind Ho Chi Minh in the North and simply confused in the south, vote. J.F.K. Compounded the error when he started looking around for a way to reaffirm U.S. Prestige in the wake of Sputnik and save face personally after the Bay of Pigs, and somebody happened to mention that things were not going well in Saigon. By the time Lyndon Johnson got into office, we were headed for Dien Bien Phu all over again. History repeats itself, some people like to point out - and not just in Vietnam.
Reprinted from An Incomplete Education, © 1987, 1995 by Judy Jones and William Wilson, with express written permission of the publisher, Ballantine Books, New York. All rights reserved.