DIEN BIEN PHU: 50 YEARS ON

A battle for ‘the fate of the world’

by Mark Schreiber

At approximately 6:20 p.m. on May 7, 1954, the shooting had stopped everywhere but at one last outpost, called strongpoint Lily, where a handful of Moroccan soldiers under a French major, Jean Nicolas, still held out.

In his landmark 1966 work on Dien Bien Phu, “Hell in a Very Small Place,” the late French historian Bernard B. Fall described how the end came:

. . . as Nicholas looked out . . . from a slit trench near his command post, a small white flag, probably a handkerchief, appeared on top of a rifle hardly 50 feet [16 meters] away from his, followed by the flat-helmeted head of a Viet-Minh soldier.

“You’re not going to shoot any more?” said the Viet-Minh in French.

“No, I am not going to shoot any more,” said Nicholas.

“C’est fini?” said the Viet-Minh.

“Oui, c’est fini,” said the French major.

And all around them, as on some gruesome Judgment Day, mud-covered soldiers, French and enemy alike, began to crawl out of their trenches and stand erect as firing ceased everywhere.

The silence was deafening.

In November 1953, Gen. Henri Navarre, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of French forces in Indochina, had sought to quell a growing guerrilla insurgency by the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam), or Viet-Minh for short, which had been gaining strength since Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France on Sept. 2, 1945.

“Operation Castor” called for the securing of a remote valley 11 km from the Laotian border in an attempt to entice the enemy to come out of the jungle and fight. Its name: Dien Bien Phu (meaning, “Seat of the Border County Prefecture”).

Six paratroop battalions took the valley, and within a week the garrison reached 10,000 men, fewer than 40 percent of whom were French, the others being Foreign Legionnaires and colonial soldiers from Algeria, Morocco, other African countries and Indochina. Equipped with tanks and artillery, and supplied by an airstrip, the base appeared impregnable.

Over a period of 56 days, a Viet-Minh force numbering 50,000, brilliantly led by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, surrounded the French stronghold and shelled it with heavy artillery transported from China over torturous mountain trails, while fending off French air attacks and attempts to resupply the base with fierce barrages of antiaircraft fire.

Closing in from protective trenches, the Viet-Minh attackers cut off and overran successive outposts. By the time Maj. Nicolas’ troops laid down their weapons on May 7, as many as 15,000 men had perished.

In what many see as one of the key events in post-World War II history, a guerrilla army, relying on primitive logistics and with no modern communications or air support, had prevailed over classic military-school tactics and veteran European soldiers, putting an end to France’s rule after 93 years in Saigon and 71 in Hue and Hanoi.

For Chu Tuan Cap, who was 11 in 1954, the victory at Dien Bien Phu not only signified fulfillment of his country’s struggle for independence; it also meant he could return to Hanoi and proceed with his education. This led him to train as an engineer in the former German Democratic Republic, before becoming a career diplomat. Today, Chu serves as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s ambassador to Japan.

“I learned of the victory at Dien Bien Phu two days afterward,” Chu recalls. “I was staying in the jungle in Phu Tho Province and no one in the community had a radio. So we had to wait until the news arrived from the province by word of mouth. But during the 56-day campaign, reports of victory came to our village one after another, so we knew about developments.

“When they learned of the victory, the people of the village were overjoyed. At that time, we only regarded it as a big victory, and hadn’t yet realized its scope and significance.”

Like many families of resistance fighters, the Chu family had moved constantly to avoid French troops, and lived under very difficult conditions. Up to then, Chu had only seen his father once a year.

“He would arrive on horseback, accompanied by a liaison officer armed with a rifle,” Chu recalls. “Whenever he visited home, we killed a chicken for him.

“But then, two months after the Geneva treaty was signed [on July 21, 1954], my family returned to Hanoi. You can imagine how happy I was, after living so long in the jungle. The city was decked out in red flags, and the mood was ecstatic.”

Still, it was not until September 2003, just prior to his posting to Tokyo, that Chu first visited his country’s historic battlefield.

“I saw the command posts of Gen. Giap and [French commander] Col. de Castries,” he relates. “I felt so moved, because a little bit of Dien Bien Phu flows in the veins of every Vietnamese.”

According to Ambassador Chu, Vietnam has designated 2004 as the year of Dien Bien Phu tourism. Domestic flights from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu have been increased from three a week to two per day. “New hotels have been built, but still can’t meet the demand, and some tourists are accommodated in local homes,” he says, adding that since January, visa requirements for Japanese visitors have been waived for stays up to 15 days.

On May 8, 1954 — the day after the Viet-Minh victory — representatives of the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France, China, Vietnam, the Viet-Minh, Laos and Cambodia convened a conference in Geneva to determine Indochina’s future. But 21 more years of conflict were to ensue before Vietnam was united after finally prevailing over a massive U.S. war machine.

Among those who died in that Vietnam War was historian Fall, killed in February 1967 while covering the fighting in what was formerly South Vietnam. Obsessed to the very end with Dien Bien Phu — and its implications for the West, that even overwhelming force may succumb to an ill-equipped but highly motivated resistance — he had written:

The men who fought [there] may have done more to shape the fate of the world than the soldiers at Agincourt, Waterloo or Stalingrad.

It’s an observation that historians could test against subsequent events in Algeria, the Congo, Afghanistan and, right now, in Iraq.