Outmaneuvered by Vo Nguyen Giap during the Viet Minh invasion of Laos in 1953, the French drew all the wrong lessons.
The young Vietnamese general had been bloodied in 1952, but he learned a valuable lesson from his failure. A year later, his French adversaries believed they too had learned a valuable lesson. Unfortunately for the French, they seriously misinterpreted their success, leading them directly into one of the biggest mistakes in the annals of military history—and a violent end to their domination of Indochina. During his two invasions into Laos in 1952 and 1953, Viet Minh General Vo Nguyen Giap became seasoned as a commander and gained knowledge, confidence and battlefield discipline that would contribute to two decades of success, first against the French and then against the Americans.
Phillip Davidson, former U.S. intelligence officer and author of Vietnam at War: The History 1946-1975, wrote about Giap’s 1953 Laos invasion: “His fundamental concept of drawing the French out of the Tonkin Delta by attacking their allies showed the sophistication and surefootedness of an accomplished strategist….The entire Laotian invasion presents an excellent example of how speed of movement can force an opponent into costly mistakes. This was blitzkrieg, Indochinese style, not one executed by thousands of tanks and hundreds of close-support aircraft, but one carried out by thousands of foot soldiers supported by scores of thousands of plodding porters.”
But for Giap, before there was success, there would be failure.
Since July 1949, the Kingdom of Laos had been an associated state within the French Union. France controlled its foreign affairs and defense. The Laotian National Army consisted of 13,000 French-led troops. In mid-November 1952, Giap sent three divisions and an independent regiment across the Black River west of Hanoi and deep into T’ai country, near the Laotian border. Once there, he took the village of Moc Chau and moved northwest to threaten the fortified French post of Na San, and capture lightly defended Dien Bien Phu. Giap proceeded to attack Na San in late November, but was bloodily repulsed. He then decided to forego Na San and in early December launched his first foray into Laos, aiming to take the provincial capital of Sam Neua, just 23 miles from the Vietnamese frontier.
Giap’s first venture into Laos was short-lived. He relied too heavily on thousands of porters largely recruited from the T’ais of western Tonkin, many of whom refused to cooperate or threw down their loads and deserted. Giap had to call off his raid before reaching Sam Neua and pulled back across the border into Tonkin. But December was the dry season, and Giap still had the opportunity to plan for a larger invasion of Laos before the monsoon rains arrived in May 1953. Next time he would be better prepared.
The French were waiting. In early 1953 the French commander in In dochina, General Raoul Salan, was hoping that Giap had abandoned plans for a major spring offensive. But wish ful thinking would not help. About March 24, 1953, even as Salan paid a visit to Laos to plan a de fense against any possible attack, the Viet Minh divi sions near Moc Chau and Dien Bien Phu began ma neuvering for another in vasion. A fourth Viet Minh division was marching from Annam toward the Laotian border along Colo nial Route 7. The govern ment of Laos, France’s staunchest ally among the Indochinese states, was clearly in danger.
In the weeks leading up to the full scale Viet Minh invasion of April 1953, Salan tried to improve his defensive position in Laos, but his resources were limited and French reinforce ments would have to be airlifted into the country. Come the invasion, Giap would possess a substantial numerical advantage and hold the initiative.
Giap had several significant reasons to be interested in Laos. The New York Times noted that the April Viet Minh invasion could be attributed to: 1) a di versionary move to draw off French strength from the Tonkin delta; 2) a Communist show of strength, to be used as a bargaining factor in general Far East negotiations (the Korean War was then winding down); 3) an attempt to establish a puppet regime in Laos; and 4) an effort to bring pressure on Burma and Thailand. Newspaper ac counts from 1953 almost always stressed that Viet Minh operations were part of a greater Communist plan for the Far East, rather than focusing on Giap’s specific motivations within Indochina itself. Another reason for Giap’s decision to invade Laos was that doing so would mark an expan sion of the war just as French popular opinion reflected a general weariness with progress in Indochina.
As Davidson remarked much later, “For Giap, invading Laos was a ‘low risk’operation…. The French, Laotians, and Vietnamese would remember, not that he failed to win a great battle, but that he seriously threatened Laos.”
Despite anticipating an attack for six weeks, the French were unprepared when Giap finally decided to move. During the first week of April, French aerial reconnaissance revealed disturbing news about the Viet Minh buildup in the Moc Chau sector. Giap’s troops began moving toward the Laotian frontier on April 9. On his right flank, the 312th Division and the independent 148th Regiment crossed into Laos from the Dien Bien Phu area, heading for the Nam Ou River Valley, a direct route to the Laotian royal capital of Luang Prabang.
Farther east, the 308th Division, which had suffered a setback at Na San a few months earlier, headed from Moc Chau toward the Nam Suong River Valley, which runs parallel to the Nam Ou and is also a route to Luang Prabang. The 316th Division, also advancing from Moc Chau, drove straight toward Sam Neua, immediately threatening the French-Laotian garrison there. Finally, on Giap’s far left flank, the 304th Division, after an arduous 200-mile trek from Annam, attacked directly down Colonial Route 7 toward Nhonghet. Once past Nhonghet, it could head straight for the key city of Xieng Khouang, near the Plain of Jars in central Laos.
All told, Giap committed about 40,000 troops to the invasion, supported by some 200,000 porters. This time he recruited porters from outside the unreliable T’ai districts of Tonkin. The Viet Minh were also supported by the Liberation Army of Laotian Prince Souphanou Vong, also known as the “Red Prince,” who had entered into an alliance with Ho Chi Minh and the Cambodian Communists in March 1951. Souphanou Vong was a half brother of Laotian Premier Souvanna Phouma and a distant cousin of King Sisavang Vong. His “army” consisted of little more than 1,500 men, but they proved very useful as they pre-positioned rice supplies along the invasion routes and served the Viet Minh as guides and intelligence sources.
A few days after the invasion began, Viet Minh radio proclaimed the avowed purpose of the attack on Laos: “The Workers’Party and the Viet Minh people have the mission of creating a revolution in Cambodia and Laos. We, cadres of the Viet Minh who are the sons of President Ho Chi Minh, have been sent to serve this revolution and to create the union of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.” This alarmed the French, for it marked the first time the Viet Minh publicly admitted their designs on the other states of Indochina.
The Viet Minh troops advanced rapidly on jungle trails through mountainous northern Laos. They moved about 10 miles distance per day, which, on the winding tracks, meant that they actually marched about twice that distance daily. With the Viet Minh 316th Division approaching Sam Neua, General Salan at first intended to reinforce the town but then—as it was in a valley tightly surrounded by hills with only a small airstrip incapable of supporting a besieged force—made a well-advised decision to abandon it. He ordered the garrison of about 2,500 troops to evacuate on the evening of April 12, too late as it turned out. The French-led troops left on foot through the jungle barely ahead of the 316th Division. On April 14, it caught up with the column’s rear guard and the next day overtook the rest of the retreating force and then attacked it in detail. The French-led troops split into fragments but few survived the ordeal. Out of the original Sam Neua defense force of 2,500, only 235 men eventually reached Xieng Khouang.
To the south, the French also fell back from Nhonghet on Route 7. Hoping to force the Viet Minh to overextend themselves, Salan decided on a strategy of concentrating his forces at key points deep within Laos. Xieng Khouang, a city of 85,000 people about 18 miles southeast of the Plain of Jars, was initially considered the most important of these. An exception to the strategy was Muong Khoua, in the Nam Ou River Valley about 85 miles north of Luang Prabang. There, the 300-man French-Laotian garrison held out against the 312th Division for more than a month after attacks began on April 13. To avoid being stalled in front of a small outpost, Giap left two regiments to fight at Muong Khoua and sent the rest of the 312th Division plus the 148th Regiment around it to continue the push on Luang Prabang.
Meanwhile, the center unit in the forces invading Laos from western Tonkin, the 308th Division, advanced steadily down the Nam Suong River Valley toward Luang Prabang, then was diverted by Giap southward to the Plain of Jars. This occurred after Salan decided to move his concentrated units from Xieng Khouang to a better defensive position in a fortified camp on the Plain of Jars some 20 miles away on April 19. Salan flew in substantial reinforcements to the Plain of Jars and prepared for a long siege. Eventually 10 battalions held Jars Camp. The Viet Minh 308th Division’s mission now was to invest the camp from the west, while the 316th Division approached it from the east. By April 21, the Viet Minh had occupied abandoned Xieng Khouang and pushed to within five miles of Jars Camp. An Associated Press report dated April 22 observed: “Strong Viet Minh forces opened a mortar attack tonight on French and Laotian troops entrenched on the broad Plaine des Jarres. This may be the first phase of an all-out assault. The French high command hoped it was.”
Indeed, Salan was hoping for a repeat of Giap’s disastrous attack on Na San in 1952. There, Giap had shown he was willing to repeatedly throw his troops en masse against a strongly held entrenched camp. But Giap learned from his mistakes, and there would be no repeat of Na San on the Plain of Jars.
The French had several advantages to counter Giap’s war of movement in Laos. They had complete control of the air and continually struck Viet Minh troop concentrations and supply lines. All of the available air transport in Indochina was used to fly French reinforcements, supplies and equipment to the defenders. A unit of U.S. Air Force C-119 Flying Boxcars flew into Hanoi from Japan to augment the French resupply effort. But the French remained hard-pressed to meet their requirements. Still, Giap faced the real problem of overextending his own supply lines. Logistics had always been the Viet Minh Achilles Heel. The onset of the monsoon in May promised to further complicate Giap’s logistical difficulties, though it would also severely hamper the French because of their reliance on air power.
As Salan prepared for a set-piece battle on the Plain of Jars, Giap turned the 304th Division southward from Xieng Khouang and sent it toward Paksane on the Mekong River, 70 miles away. That maneuver increased French fears of a possible Viet Minh drive on the Laotian administrative capital of Vientiane, 75 miles farther to the southwest of Paksane. Salan had already been concerned about the southward diversion of the 308th Division, which also posed a threat to Vientiane.
Meanwhile, elements of the 312th Division and 148th Regiment continued to close on Luang Prabang from the north and northeast. The Viet Minh approached the royal capital in three columns, and by late April it appeared to the French that capture of Luang Prabang was one of Giap’s clear objectives. As of April 25, only one Laotian company defended the town of 5,000 inhabitants. Salan did not want to defend it, since it had no tactical significance. But King Sisavang Vong, ailing with gout, refused to leave his palace. So Salan was forced to defend the town, much as he had been obliged to defend the Plain of Jars.
Between April 28 and 30, the French flew in three battalions of Moroccans and Foreign Legionnaires, plus artillery, barbed wire, mines and other equipment needed for fortification. They continued to build up their defenses, and by early May an estimated 10 battalions occupied positions in and around Luang Prabang, awaiting the expected Viet Minh attack. Giap’s forces had pressed their advance during the last week of April, and on May 3 the United Press reported: “The enemy vanguard was drawn up in an arc about 10 miles from Luang Prabang awaiting the arrival of the main Viet Minh forces. Reconnaissance placed the Viet Minh about 20 miles away in the north and east, possibly a day and a half’s march through the jungles.”
Time magazine noted in early May that the French now considered defense of Luang Prabang “a matter of prestige.” Time correspondent John Dowling flew into the city on French transport and reported, “On the way in, we saw Hellcat and Bearcat fighters filling the tight green valleys with the orange-red bursts and the sootblack smoke of napalm. Now the sound of bursting bombs comes like slow thunder from the distant valleys.” The magazine reported that it was exactly 500 years since Luang Prabang had last been invaded.
But if Giap ever was intending to capture the royal capital, by early May he had changed his mind. He steadfastly refused to give the French another Na San. Likewise, at Jars Camp, which he had surrounded April 26, Giap refused to launch a concentrated attack. At Muong Khoua, far to the north, the small French-Laotian garrison continued to hold out well into May, but the post would eventually fall to the Viet Minh. Giap was otherwise content to let the French bottle themselves up in the two large camps.
By May 5, after less than a month of campaigning, Giap had achieved his real goals. The French defensive strategy had played into his hands, allowing the Viet Minh to occupy 20,000 square miles of northern Laos, a significant amount of territory in a country about the size of Oregon. General Salan and his staff had somehow failed to understand that a retreat into fortified camps allowed the Viet Minh to roam the countryside virtually at will, despite French air power.
The invasion of Laos, in fact, proved the bankruptcy of French strategy for the entire Indochina war. It came as little surprise that in early May General Henri Navarre was named to replace Salan as commander in chief in Indochina.
Despite their best efforts, the French proved unable to move enough troops into Laos fast enough. Commitments elsewhere in Indochina limited the availability of reinforcements. Out of nearly 30 battalions potentially available for movement to Laos, the French managed to airlift in only about 15. Ultimately, because of Salan’s defensive mindset and Giap’s unwillingness to engage in major combat, the shortfall probably didn’t matter, except to weigh on the minds of the French. Giap held such control over the initiative that the French literally did not know what he was going to do next.
Even without attacking Luang Prabang or Jars Camp, Giap was able to achieve notable political gains. Prince Souphanou Vong set up a Communist government at Sam Neua, and on Viet Minh radio on April 27 declared it to be the only legitimate government in Laos. This was despite the fact that another member of Laotian royalty, Crown Prince Savang Vathana, separately announced “the whole populace is against the Viet Minh and this feeling will make the defense easier.”
Earlier, on April 15, Laos appealed to the United Nations to condemn the invasion, a move supported by the United States but opposed by France, which considered the Indochina conflict an internal matter for the French Union alone. Given the events of the next 20 years, it is fair to say that Laos never recovered politically from the effects of the 1953 Viet Minh invasion.
During the first week of May, Giap made a sensible decision and began to pull most of his units back toward Vietnam. He had found the majority of Laotians to be unwilling hosts and his supply difficulties continued to mount. He left a few scattered elements in place to contest the French reoccupation of much of the captured territory. Beginning May 5 and for some days thereafter, there was no significant ground contact throughout Laos. The French saw that as a positive sign and slowly reestablished lines of communication between their widely separated outposts and encampments. The French retook Xieng Khouang on May 18 and, by early June, the French-led forces advancing northward from Paksane linked up with those moving southward from the Plain of Jars. They encountered little opposition in these operations. For the entire April-May campaign, the French estimated casualties of about 1,000 for each side, but that total is probably low, as the retreat from Sam Neua alone may well have cost the French 2,000 men.
Since Giap had left some units in Laos, and there was nothing substantial to prevent him from going back again in force, it was apparent that Laos would be contested territory for the indefinite future. Giap had succeeded in widening the Indochina war geographically. But the French were falsely encouraged by Giap’s precipitous withdrawal. As early as May 4, the French commander in Northern Indochina, Major General Gonzales de Linares, remarked, “I am beginning to breathe again.” A few days later, a French spokesman in Hanoi added, “It is a negative success, but nevertheless a relative success.”
These sentiments were both premature and misguided. As historian Edgar O’Ballance pointed out: “The French Military Command had nothing to be proud of, as it had again been taken by surprise and out-generalled….It was under the impression that its ability to rapidly set up centers of resistance anywhere was capable of always blocking the Viet Minh divisions, as their lightly armed troops were unable to stand up to heavy fire, and this strengthened the French belief that they could beat the Viet Minh in any positional battle. The war of movement had been wrongly taken as the refusal to fight.”
General Salan seemed to think that his defensive strategy had actually caused Giap’s withdrawal of divisions from Laos. But Paris remained very concerned about the Laotian situation. As one writer noted, “On 24 July 1953, a meeting of the Comité de la Défense Nationale de France held in Paris concluded that France must give highest priority to the defense of Laos and the pro-French government in Vientiane. Failure to contain enemy aggression in Laos, government and military leaders believed, would inevitably lead to the demise of the pro-French governments of Cambodia and Vietnam.”
On October 22, 1953, France granted full independence to Laos, though the country remained within the French Union. It undoubtedly was a move designed to bolster Prince Souvanna Phouma’s government in face of the continuing Communist threat. Indeed, the war inside Laos heated up again in late 1953. In December, a French-Laotian force advancing from Luang Prabang recaptured Muong Khoua.
The Viet Minh struck back after the New Year, retaking that post and once again moving toward Luang Prabang along a 75-mile front. It was, however, a limited repeat of their earlier performance. The royal capital was not reached, and the French reestablished themselves north of Luang Prabang after a short interval. In southern Laos, a large force of Viet Minh advanced from northern Annam toward Thakhek on the Mekong just before Christmas 1953, taking the town on December 26 and effectively blocking all road and river communications between northern and southern Laos. But Giap’s troops held the town for less than a month, allowing the French to reoccupy it without resistance in January. Thus the war in Laos seesawed back and forth without a decisive encounter well into 1954.
Giap’s spring 1953 invasion did have lasting repercussions on the mindset of the new French commander in Indochina, General Navarre. Upon taking command in May 1953 he was intent on assuming an offensive posture, something the French had largely been lacking since the establishment of the de Lattre Line encircling the Red River Delta and Hanoi several years earlier. Navarre embarked on a series of operations within Vietnam. As New York Times military analyst Hanson W. Baldwin put it in late 1953, “It is not enough for the French to hold their own in Indo-China, they must show positive gains.” Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s promise of more American aid in the wake of the Laos invasion had not translated into more battlefield successes for the French. So on November 20, 1953, Navarre took the boldest step of all and launched his disastrous Dien Bien Phu operation.
A misreading of the lessons of both the Na San battle of late 1952 and the Viet Minh invasion of Laos a few months later dictated the logic behind Dien Bien Phu. Navarre expected Giap to fight to regain Dien Bien Phu after it had been seized by French paratroopers, and he was right. The topography was favorable to Giap (the French were in a valley closely ringed with mountains); Dien Bien Phu was closer to Giap’s sources of supply than had been the case when he operated within Laos; the French had insufficient air power to maintain the garrison; and Dien Bien Phu lies close to the Laotian border, deep within territory otherwise controlled by the Viet Minh. Giap could not afford to ignore the bait, and this time, unlike at Na San, he marshaled sufficient strength to overwhelm the French. Dien Bien Phu proved to be a gross miscalculation by Navarre— and it had been fueled in part by concern over a recurrent threat to Laos.
Writing about the French attitude at the time, Phillip Davidson noted: “From their experience at Na San, and to a lesser extent at [Luang Prabang] and Jars Camp, they concluded that a large fortified camp could be established in enemy territory, supplied by air, and made invulnerable to Viet Minh attack… It was this concept of the establishment of a large, fortified, and isolated camp astride the Laotian invasion routes that brought about Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat in Indochina.” In the final analysis, the invasion of Laos was a strategic victory for the Viet Minh. The French grasped the necessity of defending Laos, but never understood that Giap had achieved his essential aims there.
Marc D. Bernstein is the author of Hurricane at Biak and numerous articles on modern military and naval history. For additional reading see Bernard B. Fall’s Street Without Joy, and The Indo-China War 1945- 1954 by Edgar O’Ballance.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.