Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Was Dien Bien Phu One of the Great Strategic Battles of History?

As an American Baby Boomer, it is near impossible to not have been impacted by the two major crises of the 1960s: the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Each has left our generation divided and disturbed.

When Ken Burns' documentary on the Vietnam War was shared on Public Television it made an impact on all who watched it. It was impressive how Burns was able to reveal such diverse perspectives without being judgmental, his aim being to make it easier for us to dialogue, to express our thoughts, feelings and experiences, an act that takes courage when we're coming from such antithetical spaces.

This week I discovered that there is an audiobook version of this historical narrative, also produced by Ken Burns. Whereas the documentary begins with the U.S. deployment of advisors (see Graham Greene's The Quiet American), the audiobook goes into a little more depth explaining the history that preceded U.S. involvement.

* * * *
French exploration in Vietnam began in the 17th century after French missionaries took a toehold in Southeast Asia. This eventually evolved into territorial conquest and France becoming a Colonial overlord in the 19th century.

At the end of World War I, when the Paris Peace Talks were taking place and many other nations under Colonial rule were becoming free countries, a young Ho Chi Minh was in France trying to make a case for liberty for his people of Vietnam. Ho failed, and the French maintained control until 1954, at which time Dien Bien Phu became the decisive battle that broke the backbone of the beast.

As I listened to the strategic initiative that demolished the French resolve to continue, it seemed worthy of being shared. It seemed worthy of be considered as one of the great battles of military history. It was brilliantly conceived, and decisive in its significance.

* * * *
Several years ago when I read James R. Arnold's book Grant Wins the War, I was struck by the introduction in which the author stated that of the 20 greatest military battles in history, 12 were devised by Napoleon and only two were from the Civil War. These were Jackson's Shenandoah Campaign and Grant's victory at the Battle of Vicksburg.

General Giap presents his plan to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh leadership.
As Ken Burns detailed the action of the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu I couldn't help but consider this to be as remarkable a story as Grant's maneuvering that led to the siege and victory at Vicksburg.

The French were seeking to bring a decisive end to the conflict that had been taking place for years with the Viet Minh communist revolutionaries. General Henri Navarre chose Dien Bien Phu as the insertion point for their French Expeditionary Corps. Geographically it was a bowl-shaped zone where the French could fly in troops, artillery and everything needed to set up a base of operations and destroy the Viet Minh with superior firepower.

This French overconfidence would be repeated ten years later in the prolonged war that stained several U.S. presidencies. French generals hoped to draw the Vietnamese into a major confrontation that would crush their will to keep fighting. Little did they know how prepared their adversaries were. The plan devised by General Võ Nguyên Giáp unfolded like this.

Viet Minh on the attack.
First, the peoples of Vietnam were weary of French rule, so it wasn't just the army that went to war. It was a nation--the masses--who longed for liberty and pitched in to obtain it. What they did, unbeknownst to the French, was dismantle all their armaments, artillery, everything, and carry it through the jungles 100 miles to the rim of the bowl where the French were assembling. The Viet Minh dug tunnels through the mountain to place all these massive cannons so that even though the French controlled the skies, they could not see how many armaments were being brought in, piece by piece, and concealed on the high ground surrounding the airstrip and French encampments.

Once the shelling began the French were stunned. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. General Giap compared it to a "rice bowl" with his troops occupying the rim and the French below. It didn't take long for the French to realize the Viet Minh artillery far exceeded what they thought they were up against.

Viet Minh flag being waved over the French camp.
The Battle of Điện Biên Phủ was decisive. Shortly after, the war was over. The 1954 Geneva Accords were signed.

A second feature of this rout was the use of Viet Minh volunteers who essentially took an inventory of what the French had assembled. General Giap knew exactly what he was up against and where the French artillery was located. The French, on the other hand, were clueless. They had no idea how many guns were raining shells down on them once the fighting began.

General Giap also bombarded the runway with shells so the French had no way to fly in reinforcements once things were underway. Nor an easy escape route.

Whether it be in war or in business, the biggest failures occur when we don't know what we do not know. Those unknowns can really bite us. And in the end, this battle was a decisive defeat for the French. General Navarre was told that his plan "carried very little risk." Surprise, surprise, surprise.

Not only was this a disaster for the French, it was a disaster for the U.S. as well. As it turns out the U.S. was underwriting 80% of the French expenditures. We probably thought that if we provided the ammo, we wouldn't have to send our own boys to die over there. Somehow we failed to learn from our ally's mistakes.

Shortly after this humiliating loss, the French government sought to end the fighting by signing the Geneva Accords of 1954. For the U.S. it was only the beginning.

Related Links 
My first blog post on The Cold War Killing Fields

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