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Theirs But To Do and Die

Dien Bien Phu and the twilight of the warrior.

Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
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The French in Indochina cooperated with the Japanese during World War II—taking their orders from far-off Vichy. In March 1945, the Japanese, fearing an Allied invasion, suddenly interned the French troops and administrators and took over the country’s defense. Ho Chi Minh had been sent by Mao to build up the Indochinese Communist party in 1941. He conceived of the Viet-Minh (a shortening of the words for “League for the Independence of Vietnam”) as a nationalist front for the Communists to hide behind until the French and Japanese had been defeated. Ho got arms from OSS operatives by promising to fight the Japanese, but all his efforts went toward organizing his cadres and assassinating nationalists who might potentially prove a rival to the Communists. They moved swiftly when the war ended, marching armed bands into Hanoi and proclaiming themselves the national government. The French had no trouble reestablishing themselves in the south of the country and outright war between the Viet-Minh and the French broke out in December 1946, when Ho ordered his troops to attack the French installations in Hanoi. He based his calculations on the Socialist party, which he assumed would be sympathetic to his aims, having come to power in Paris. He was wrong, and French troops rapidly routed the Viet-Minh in and around Hanoi.

So began the first phase of the war. The fighting was bloody and constant, but by 1948 the insurgency was waning. Ho and his main general, Vo Nguyen Giap, were reduced to hit-and-run tactics and acts of terror, but they weren’t wiped out and were invigorated with the Communist victory in China. Mao and Stalin both offered full support to the insurgency. Materiel and advisers poured in, and Viet-Minh soldiers were trained in China and organized into real divisions. In 1949, French troops were suddenly facing soldiers in steel helmets and armed with light artillery. That was the year, moreover, that the war became controversial in France itself. The Fourth Republic was unstable—20 heads of state between 1947 and 1958 and periods without any executive at all. In the wake of Mao’s victory, France’s powerful Communist party began to organize opposition to the war in Indochina: Stories of supposed French atrocities ran in its papers; dock workers refused to load ships bound for Indochina; and the party-adopted slogan—“Not one man, not one sou”—appeared as graffiti. 

In the fall of 1950, Giap’s troops scored their first victories in a sequence of attacks on the French forts along the border with China. Vietnam was a difficult battleground for a modern army. The country had a primitive road network, much of which dissolved during the long rainy season. It became dense jungle just a few miles outside of even the largest cities. The hills were vast canopies of forest, and the unforested plains networks of streams and rivers. French troops and supply columns could not leave the roads and made easy targets for all-but-invisible guerrillas. The battles around Cao Bang were products of this environment—and of martinet French generals far away in Hanoi who kept insisting that preset plans be followed despite the changing circumstances. Of the 5,807 French troops in action, only 1,338 survived. The French pulled back completely from the border, giving the Viet-Minh control of Northern Tonkin. This proved the most disastrous decision of the war, allowing the free flow of arms and aid from China to the Viet-Minh.

So began the second phase of the war, and France’s response was to appoint its best general (though the third offered the command), Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. Presented with the job by the defense minister, de Lattre replied, “I have nothing to gain and everything to lose, and that is why I accept.” He set up a fortified line defending the Red River Delta—home to the vast majority of the people in the north—to deny the Viet-Minh access to the villages where they collected supplies and money while creating mobile columns to hunt down the insurgents. De Lattre also set about building a self-sufficient local army. By 1953, the Vietnamese National Army would be 200,000 strong and holding down much of the south (with a further 128,000 people serving in the militias and police). There were also 100,000 native Vietnamese in the French army itself as de Lattre focused initially on recruiting them into regular French units as a way of training soldiers who could form the backbone of a disciplined force. (Such troops would make up a third of the soldiers fighting at Dien Bien Phu.)

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