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This article by the late Bernard B. Fall is an account of one of the most significant battles to take place in Vietnam. A conflict between Communist Viet Minh forces and a French-established garrison, it occurred in a town called 'Seat of the Border County Prefecture or, in Vietnamese, Dien Bien Phu. Bernard Fall wrote that in comparison with other world battles, Dien Bien Phu could hardly qualify as a major battle, let alone a decisive one. Yet, he said, that is exactly what it was. The siege occurred while the 1954 Geneva Conference was ironing out agreements between the major powers, including the future of Indochina. When Viet Minh forces overran Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954, it was, according to Fall, the end of French military influence in Asia.
Fall was born in 1926 and grew up in France. Both his parents were killed by the Nazis in World War II. He gained firsthand guerrilla warfare experience while fighting in the French Underground from 1942 to 1944. With the Allied invasion of Europe, Fall joined the French army, serving in the infantry and pack artillery of the 4th Moroccan Mountain Division.
Following World War II, Fall worked as a research analyst at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. He first came to the United States in 1951 as a Fulbright Scholar, receiving his Master of Arts and Ph.D. in political science at Syracuse University. In 1953, in order to engage in field research for his doctoral dissertation, he traveled to war-torn Indochina. As a former French soldier he was allowed to accompany French forces on combat operations in all sectors of the country. In 1957 Fall joined the faculty of Howard University as professor of international relations, and he spent the summer of that year in South Vietnam. Awarded a grant from the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) for field study of Communist infiltration in Southeast Asia, Fall witnessed the outbreak of Communist hostilities in Laos. He spent the 1961-62 academic year in Cambodia on a Rockefeller Foundation grant. It was during that time that he succeeded in visiting Communist North Vietnam and interviewing Ho Chi Minh. In 1965 Fall again spent the summer with American and Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam.
Among his most important works are Street Without Joy, which became essential military reading about the war with no front lines, and Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu. In the latter epic, Fall describes in extraordinary detail not only the failures but also the heroism that took place in what he calls one of the most decisive battles of the 20th century.
During his last trip to Vietnam in February 1967, Fall chose to accompany a platoon of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, on Operation Chinook II, a search-and-destroy mission. From Phu Bai the group moved along the area the French had named La Rue Sans Joie, or Street Without Joy. It was here, in the area that he had written about with much emotion, that Bernard Fall was killed by the explosion of a land mine, along with Gunnery Sergeant Byron Highland, a Marine combat photographer.
Bernard B. Fall will be remembered by history as one of the foremost authorities on the Vietnam War. He wrote this article in 1964, prior to the publication of Hell in a Very Small Place.
On May 7, 1954, the end of the battle for the jungle fortress of Dien Bien Phu marked the end of French military influence in Asia, just as the sieges of Port Arthur, Corregidor and Singapore had, to a certain extent, broken the spell of Russian, American and British hegemony in Asia.
The Asians, after centuries of subjugation, had beaten the white man at his own game. Today, 10 years after Dien Bien Phu, Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam again challenge the West's ability to withstand a potent combination of political and military pressure in a totally alien environment.
On that day in May 1954 it had become apparent by 10 a.m. that Dien Bien Phu's position was hopeless. French artillery and mortars had been progressively silenced by murderously accurate Communist Viet Minh artillery fire, and the monsoon rains had slowed down supply drops to a trickle and transformed the French trenches and dugouts into bottomless quagmires. The surviving officers and men, many of whom had lived for 54 days on a steady diet of instant coffee and cigarettes, were in a catatonic state of exhaustion.
While their commander, Brig. Gen. Christian de la Croix de Castries, reported the situation over the radiotelephone to General René Cogny, his theater commander 220 miles away in Hanoi, in a high-pitched but curiously impersonal voice, the end obviously had come for the fortress. De Castries ticked off a long list of 800-man battalions, which had been reduced to companies of 80 men, and of companies that were reduced to the size of weak platoons. All he could hope for was to hold out until nightfall in order to give the surviving members of his command a chance to break out into the jungle under the cover of darkness, while he himself would stay with the more than 5,000 severely wounded (out of a total of 15,094 men inside the valley) and face the enemy.
By 3 p.m., however, it had become obvious that the fortress would not last until nightfall. Communist forces, in human-wave attacks, were swarming over the last remaining defenses. De Castries polled the surviving unit commanders within reach, and the consensus was that a breakout would only lead to a senseless piecemeal massacre in the jungle. The decision was made then to fight on to the end, as long as the ammunition lasted, and let individual units be overrun after destruction of their heavy weapons. This was approved by the French senior commander in Hanoi at about 5 p.m., but with the proviso that the men in Isabelle, the southernmost strongpoint closest to the jungle, and to friendly forces in Laos, should be given a chance to make a break for it.
Cogny's last conversation with de Castries dealt with the problem of what to do with the wounded piled up under the incredible conditions in the various strongpoints and in the fortress' central hospital — originally built to contain 42 wounded. There had been suggestions that an orderly surrender be arranged, to save the wounded the added anguish of falling into enemy hands as isolated individuals. But Cogny was adamant on that point: Mon vieux, of course you have to finish the whole thing now. But what you have done until now surely is magnificent. Don't spoil it by hoisting the white flag. You are going to be submerged [by the enemy], but no surrender, no white flag.
All right, mon général, I only wanted to preserve the wounded.
Yes, I know. Well, do as best you can, leaving it to your [static: subordinate units?] to act for themselves. What you have done is too magnificent to do such a thing. You understand, mon vieux.
There was a silence. Then de Castries said his final words: Bien, mon général.
Well, good-bye, mon vieux, said Cogny. I'll see you soon.
A few minutes later, de Castries' radio operator methodically smashed his set with the butt of his Colt .45 pistol. Thus the last word to come out of the main fortress, as it was being overrun, came at 5:50 p.m. from the radio operator of the 31st Combat Engineer Battalion, using his code name: This is Yankee Metro. We're blowing up everything around here. Au revoir.
Strongpoint Isabelle never had a chance. While the main defenses of Dien Bien Phu were being mopped up, strong Viet Minh forces already had tightened their grip around the 1,000 Legionnaires, Algerians and Frenchmen preparing their breakout. At 9:40 p.m., a French surveillance aircraft reported to Hanoi that it saw the strongpoint's depots blowing up and that heavy artillery fire was visible close by. The breakout had been detected. At 1:50 a.m. on May 8, 1954, came the last message from the doomed garrison, relayed by the watchdog aircraft to Hanoi: Sortie failed — Stop — Can no longer communicate with you — Stop and end.
The great battle in the valley of Dien Bien Phu was over. Close to 10,000 captured troops were to begin the grim death march to the Viet Minh prison camps 300 miles to the east. Few would survive. About 2,000 lay dead all over the battlefield in graves left unmarked to this day. Only 73 made good their escape from the various shattered strongpoints to be rescued by the pro-French guerrilla units awaiting them in the Laotian jungle. Eight thousand miles away, in Geneva, the Vietnamese and Red Chinese delegations attending the nine-power conference that was supposed to settle both the Korean and the Indochinese conflicts toasted the event with pink Chinese champagne.
What had happened at Dien Bien Phu was simply that a momentous gamble had been attempted by the French high command and had backfired badly. The Indochina War, which had broken out in December 1946 after Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh forces felt that France would not agree to Vietnam's eventual independence, had bogged down into a hopeless seesaw.
Until Red China's victorious forces arrived on Vietnam's borders in December 1949, there had been at least a small hope that the French-supported Vietnamese nationalist government, headed by ex-emperor Bao Dai, could wean away from the Communist-led Viet Minh the allegiance of much of Vietnam's population. But with the existence of a Red Chinese sanctuary for the Viet Minh forces, that became militarily impossible. By October 1950, 23 regular Viet Minh battalions, equipped with excellent American artillery coming from Chinese Nationalist stocks left on the mainland, smashed the French defense lines along the Chinese border and inflicted on France its biggest colonial defeat since Montcalm died before Quebec in 1759. Within weeks, the French position in northern Vietnam had shrunk to a fortified perimeter around the Red River Delta, a continuous belt of Communist-held territory from the Chinese border to within 100 miles of Saigon. For all practical purposes the Indochina War was lost then and there.
What changed the aspect of the war for a time was the influx of American aid, which began with the onset of the Korean War. With communism now a menace at both ends of the Far Eastern arc, the Indochina War changed from a colonial war into a crusade — but a crusade without a real cause. Independence, given too grudgingly to the Vietnamese nationalist regime, remained the catchword of the adversary.
Militarily, disaster had temporarily been averted. The key Red River Delta was more or less held by the French — at least during the daytime, for at night the enemy was everywhere — and the rice-rich Mekong Delta in South Vietnam, where anti-Communist Buddhist sects were fighting on the French side, was held more solidly by Western forces in 1953-54 than in 1963-64.
In Laos the situation was just as grim then as it is now: The Laotian and French forces held the Mekong valley and the airfields of the Plain of Jars, and the enemy held the rest. Only Cambodia, then as now, was almost at peace: Prince Sihanouk (then king) had received independence from France in 1953 and galvanized his people into fighting against the guerrillas. They were so successful that, at the ensuing Geneva cease-fire conference, Cambodia did not have to surrender a province as a regroupment area for Communist forces.
This totally stalemated situation required the French to create a military situation that would permit cease-fire negotiations on a basis of equality with the enemy. To achieve this, the French commander in chief, General Henri Navarre, had to win a victory over the hard core of Communist regular divisions, whose continued existence posed a constant threat of invasion to the Laotian kingdom and to the vital Red River Delta with its capital city of Hanoi and the thriving port of Haiphong. And to destroy those divisions and prevent their invasions into Laos, one had to, in American military parlance, find 'em and fix 'em.
General Navarre felt that the way to achieve this was by offering the Communists a target sufficiently tempting for their regular divisions to pounce at, but sufficiently strong to resist the onslaught once it came. That was the rationale for the creation of a garrison at Dien Bien Phu and for the battle that took place there.
There were other considerations also. Laos had signed a treaty with France in which the latter promised to defend it. Dien Bien Phu was to be the lock on the back door leading into Laos. Dien Bien Phu was also to be the test for a new theory of Navarre's. Rather than defend immobile lines, he wanted to create throughout Indochina land-air bases from which highly mobile units would sally forth and decimate the enemy in his own rear areas, just as the Viet Minh guerrillas were doing in French rear areas. All of that rode on Dien Bien Phu: the freedom of Laos, a senior commander's reputation, the survival of some of France's best troops and — above all — a last chance to come out of that frustrating eight-year-long jungle war with something other than a total defeat.
But Navarre, an armor officer formed on the European battlefields, apparently (this was the judgment of the French government committee that later investigated the disaster) had failed to realize that there are no blocking positions in [a] country lacking European-type roads. Since the Viet Minh relied largely on human porters for their frontline units, they could easily bypass such bottlenecks as Dien Bien Phu or the Plain of Jars while bottling up the forces contained in those strongholds.
The results were evident. Soon after French forces arrived at Dien Bien Phu on November 20, 1953, two of General Vo Nguyen Giap's regular 10,000-man divisions blocked the Dien Bien Phu garrison, while a third bypassed Dien Bien Phu and smashed deep into Laos. On Christmas Day 1953, Indochina, for the first time in the eight-year war, was literally cut in two. The offensive stabs for which Dien Bien Phu had been specifically planned became little else but desperate sorties against an invisible enemy. By the time the battle started in earnest on March 13, 1954, the garrison already had suffered 1,037 casualties without any tangible result.
Inside the fortress, the charming tribal village by the Nam Yum River had soon disappeared along with all the bushes and trees in the valley, to be used either as firewood or as construction materials for the bunkers. Even the residence of the French governor was dismantled in order to make use of the bricks, for engineering materials were desperately short from the beginning.
Major André Sudrat, the chief engineer at Dien Bien Phu, was faced with a problem that he knew to be mathematically unsolvable. By normal military engineering standards, the materials necessary to protect a battalion against the fire of the 105mm howitzers the Viet Minh now possessed amounted to 2,550 tons, plus 500 tons of barbed wire. He estimated that to protect the 12 battalions there initially (five others were parachuted in during the battle), he would need 36,000 tons of engineering materials — which would mean using all available transport aircraft for a period of five months. When he was told that he was allocated a total of about 3,300 tons of airlifted materials, Sudrat simply shrugged his shoulders. In that case, I'll fortify the command post, the signal center, and the X-ray room in the hospital; and let's hope that the Viet has no artillery.
As it turned out, the Viet Minh had more than 200 artillery pieces, reinforced during the last week of the siege by Russian Katyusha multiple rocket launchers. Soon the combination of monsoon rains, which set in around mid-April, and Viet Minh artillery fire smashed to rubble the neatly arranged dugouts and trenches shown to eminent visitors and journalists during the early days of the siege. Essentially, the battle of Dien Bien Phu degenerated into a brutal artillery duel, which the enemy would have won sooner or later. The French gun crews and artillery pieces, working entirely in the open so as to allow the pieces all-around fields of fire, were destroyed one by one; replaced, they were destroyed once more, and at last fell silent.
The artillery duel became the great tragedy of the battle. Colonel Charles Piroth, the jovial one-armed commander of the French artillery inside the fortress, had guaranteed that his 24 105mm light howitzers could match anything the Communists had, and that his battery of four 155mm medium field howitzers would definitely muzzle whatever would not be destroyed by the lighter pieces and the fighter-bombers. As it turned out, the Viet Minh artillery was so superbly camouflaged that to this day it is doubtful whether French counterbattery fire silenced more than a handful of the enemy's fieldpieces.
When, on March 13, 1954, at 5:10 p.m., Communist artillery smothered strongpoint Beatrice without noticeable damage from French counterbattery fire, Piroth knew the fortress was doomed. And as deputy to General de Castries, he felt he had contributed to the air of overconfidence that had prevailed in the valley prior to the attack. (Had not de Castries, in the manner of his ducal forebears, sent a written challenge to enemy commander Giap?)
I am responsible. I am responsible, he was heard to murmur as he went about his duties. During the night of March 14-15, he committed suicide by blowing himself up with a hand grenade, since he could not charge his pistol with one hand.
Originally, the fortress had been designed to protect its main airstrip against marauding Viet Minh units, not to withstand the onslaught of four Communist divisions. There never was, as press maps of the time erroneously showed, a continuous battle line covering the whole valley. Four of the eight strongpoints were from one to three miles away from the center of the position. The interlocking fire of their artillery and mortars, supplemented by a squadron of 10 tanks (flown in piecemeal and reassembled on the spot), was to prevent them from being picked off one by one.
This also proved to be an illusion. General Vo Nguyen Giap decided to take Dien Bien Phu by an extremely efficient mixture of 19th-century siege techniques (sinking TNT-laden mineshafts under French bunkers, for example) and modern artillery patterns plus human-wave attacks. The outlying posts, which protected the key airfield, were captured within the first few days of the battle. French losses proved so great that the reinforcements parachuted in after the airfield was destroyed for good on March 27 never sufficed to mount the counterattacks necessary to reconquer the outposts.
From then onward the struggle for Dien Bien Phu became a battle of attrition. The garrison's only hope lay in the breakthrough of a relief column from Laos or Hanoi (a hopeless concept in view of the terrain and distances involved) or in the destruction of the siege force through massive aerial bombardment. For a time, a U.S. Air Force strike was considered, but the idea was dropped for about the same reasons that make a similar attack against North Vietnam today rather risky.
Like Stalingrad, Dien Bien Phu slowly starved on its airlift tonnage. When the siege began, it had about eight days' worth of supplies on hand but required 200 tons a day to maintain minimum levels. The sheer magnitude of preparing that mass of supplies for parachuting was solved only by superhuman feats of the airborne supply units on the outside — efforts more than matched by the heroism of the soldiers inside the valley, who had to crawl into the open, under fire, to collect the containers.
But as the position shrank every day (it finally was the size of a ballpark), the bulk of the supplies fell into Communist hands. Even de Castries' new general's stars, dropped to him by General Cogny with a bottle of champagne, landed in enemy territory.
The airdrops were a harrowing experience in that narrow valley, which permitted only straight approaches. Communist anti-aircraft artillery played havoc among the lumbering transport planes as they slowly disgorged their loads. A few figures tell how murderous the air war around Dien Bien Phu was: Of the 420 aircraft available in all of Indochina then, 62 were lost in connection with Dien Bien Phu and 167 sustained hits. Some of the American civilian pilots who flew the run said that Viet Minh flak was as dense as anything encountered during World War II over the Ruhr River. When the battle ended, the 82,926 parachutes expended in supplying the fortress covered the battlefield like freshly fallen snow — or like a burial shroud.
The net effect of Dien Bien Phu on France's military posture in Indochina could not be measured in losses alone. It was to little avail to say that France had lost only 5 percent of its battle force, that the equipment losses had already been more than made good by American supplies funneled in while the battle was raging and that even the manpower losses had been made up by reinforcements from France and new drafts of Vietnamese. Even the fact, which the unfortunate Navarre invoked later, that the attack on Dien Bien Phu cost the enemy close to 25,000 casualties and delayed its attack on the vital Red River Delta by four months, held little water in the face of the wave of defeatism that swept not only French public opinion at home but also that of her allies.
Historically, Dien Bien Phu was, as one French senior officer masterfully understated, never more than an unfortunate accident. It proved little else but that an encircled force, no matter how valiant, will succumb if its support system fails. But as other revolutionary wars — from Algeria to the British defeats in Cyprus and Palestine — have conclusively shown, it does not take pitched, set-piece battles to lose such wars. They can be lost just as conclusively through a series of very small engagements, such as those now fought in South Vietnam, if the local government and its population lose confidence in the eventual outcome of the contest — and that was the case both for the French and for their Vietnamese allies after Dien Bien Phu.
Still, as the French themselves demonstrated in Algeria, where they never again let themselves be maneuvered into such desperate military straits, revolutionary wars are fought for political objectives, and big showdown battles are necessary neither for victory nor for defeat in that case. This now seems finally to have been understood in the South Vietnam war as well, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara may well have thought of Dien Bien Phu when he stated in his major Vietnam policy speech of March 26, 1964, that we have learned that in Vietnam, political and economic progress are the sine qua non of military success…. One may only hope that the lesson has been learned in time.
On May 7, 1954, however, the struggle for Indochina was almost over for France. As a French colonel surveyed the battlefield from a slit trench near his command post, a small white flag, probably a handkerchief, appeared on top of a rifle hardly 50 feet away from him, followed by the flat-helmeted head of a Viet Minh soldier.
You're not going to shoot anymore? said the Viet Minh in French.
No, I'm not going to shoot anymore, said the colonel.
C'est fini? said the Viet Minh.
Oui, c'est fini, said the colonel.
And all around them, as on some gruesome Judgment Day, soldiers, French and enemy alike, began to crawl out of their trenches and stand erect for the first time in 54 days, as firing ceased everywhere.
The sudden silence was deafening.
At his untimely death in 1967, Bernard B. Fall was widely considered the greatest civilian expert on the war in Vietnam. His Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu and Street Without Joy are still on the short list of the most essential books about the French phase of the war, and are indispensable to understanding the American phase. A Web site about Bernard Fall is at www.geocities.com/bernardbfall.
This article was originally published in the April 2004 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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