The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 6 No 3 - June 1984

The American Reaction to Dien Bien Phu

by N.C. Smith BA, M Ed

Until 1954 Vietnam was a part of French Indo-China, which included Laos and Cambodia, the latter which is now known as Kampuchea. French Catholic missionaries had first gone to Vietnam in the seventeenth century. Subsequent persecution of French missionaries in the 1860s induced the Emperor Napoleon III to send naval forces to seize Saigon and Cochin China (Southern Vietnam) which were colonized in 1864, Annam (Central Vietnam) and Tonkin (Northern Vietnam) were added in the ensuing twenty years.

The French remained in control of Vietnam until after World War II despite the fact that during the war the French colonials in Vietnam had supported the Vichy Regime and allowed the Japanese to occupy the territory. Following the war an agitation for independence developed, in response to which the French made vague promises which however, were unsatisfactory to the Viet Minh (a Communist backed organization) which then began armed resistance, The Viet Minh was led hy Ho Chi Minh, a native of Northern Vietnam, who was born on 19 May 1890. In 1911 he was engaged as a galley hand on a French passenger liner. In France he joined the Socialist Party but left it in 1920 when he realized that the organization was not likely to hasten decolonization. Having left the Socialist Party, Ho was instrumental in the formation of the French Communist Party and later, in 1941, he helped to organize the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Viet Minh). During World War II he had received aid from the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to fight the Japanese. On 3 September 1969 Ho died while his armies were fighting his former ally - the United States.

Ho was assisted in the campaign against the French and, later, the Americans, by Vo Nguyen Giap, a general of remarkable ability. Giap was horn in 1912 in Northern Vietnam. He began his career as a history teacher. In the early 1930s he joined the Vietnam Communist Party and was made responsible for raising guerilla units.

Because the French had little or no political base in Vietnam they were obliged to react to the Viet Minh threat militarily and in this respect enjoyed considerable success in the early stages. The advent in 1949 of a Communist regime in China (which bordered on Northern Vietnam) ensured the Viet Minh of aid on a large scale.

In spite of Chinese aid the Viet Minh continued to suffer severe losses at the hands of the French and, after having been defeated on several occasions in the south where the French had strongly fortified positions, decided to concentrate their efforts in the northern areas.

Marshal de Lattre, the French commander in Vietnam from 1950 to 1951, prepared a series of strongpoints in the Tonkin Delta in which he deployed mobile troops who, it was hoped, could relieve any remote area under attack. De Lattre was succeeded by Lt Gen Raoul Salan who, in turn, was succeeded on 28 May 1953, by Gen Henri Navarre a 54 years old cavalry officer who had served in both world wars. Navarre continued his predecessors' strategy, the efficacy of which was reduced by the fact that an insufficient number of mobile troops were available to reinforce the strongpoints, which meant that the French were increasingly restricted to defensive action. Giap, taking advantage of this, changed his strategy and concentrated his operations in the remote regions which were thinly defended. For political and psychological reasons, the French deemed it necessary to make a token defence of these regions and, consequently, in November 1953, decided to fortify Dien Bien Phu which lay in a valley in Lai-Chan Province 16 kilometres to the east of the Laotian border.(1) The French intention was to relieve pressure on the garrisons in the Red River delta and to block communist infiltration of Laos. Reasoning that since Viet-Minh attacks against strongly defended positions had been unsuccessful in the past, they would continue to be so, the French seriously underestimated their enemy. Their error in this regard was compounded by the geographical position of Dien Bien Phu which was 'a poorly chosen place in which to make a stand, a valley exposed on all sides to the enemy artillery in the hills and impossible to supply except by air'.(2) The French supply bases at Hanoi and Vietiane were over 320km away (3), a distance which took transport aircraft carrying a payload of only a ton or two of supplies seventy five minutes to cover.(4) To add to these disadvantages the French garrison had no outside artillery support. The Viet Minh on the other hand, had been well supplied by Communist China ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953 and had artillery superiority over the French, including anti-aircraft guns which were deployed around Dien Bien Phu.

On 20 November 1953 French Dakotas dropped paratroopers into Dien Bien Phu. Although the French garrison eventually numbered about 15 000 troops including Moroccans, Algerians, Vietnamese, T'si (mountain tribesmen loyal to the French) and Foreign Legionnaires, being outgunned by the Communist artillery and surrounded by anti-aircraft guns, it was unable to avoid being squeezed into an ever tightening circle.

The French predicament at Dien Bien Phu placed the Eisenhower Administration (1953-1961) on the horns of a dilemma with regard to what course of action it should take. The United States was anxious to prevent communist expansion not only in Europe but also in Asia and for that reason had committed its forces in the Korean War (1950-1953), and also, provided France with 2,6 billion dollars in the form of military materiel towards her military effort in Indo-China from 1950 to 1954.(5) Until the French situation at Dien Bien Phu became virtually hopeless, the American Government believed that the provision of military materiel alone would be sufficient to ensure a French success.

Early in 1954 Eisenhower stated, 'I cannot conceive of a greater tragedy for America than to get involved now in an all-out war in any of those regions, particularly with large units'.(6) Aware nevertheless that direct American intervention might be necessary, Eisenhower formulated three requirements that would have to be met before such intervention could be contemplated. Firstly, it would have to be justifiable in terms of international law. Secondly, Free World opinion would have to be favourably disposed towards it, and, finally, it would have to have Congressional approval. Eisenhower furthermore believed that the United States would require the assurance of help from other countries (if only as a token) to prevent possible accusations of naked American imperialism. In pursuance of this belief he mooted an American, British, and French coalition to lend moral weight to an intervention, and at the same time sought to convince both the Vietnamese and the world that it was France's sincere intention to grant the Associated States (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) their independence in the shortest possible time. American aid to France was in the meantime continued, including the despatch to Vietnam in February 1954, of B-26 bombers and 200 technicians, the latter to serve on a temporary basis until the middle of June. Congress would not sanction the service of United States Air Force personnel in Vietnam on a permanent basis.(7)

On 25 January 1954 the Berlin Conference opened with the United States, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union participating. At the time Dien Bien Phu had just been resupplied and although an estimated force of 24 000 Viet Minh surrounded the French garrison of 11 000 men, the fort was in no danger of falling.

Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, attempted to have Asia included in the agenda and to secure a seat in the deliberations for communist China. These attempts were opposed by the United States. As a result of popular pressure on the Laniel government in France, Foreign Minister George Bidault was eager to negotiate a settlement of the Indo-China imbroglio. The American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles urged the French to delay negotiations and proposed a four power conference on the Far East at a later date. He also warned Bidault that the Communists would seek a major military gain so that they could engage in future negotiations from a position of strength.

The Berlin Conference ended on 18 February 1954 with no concrete results. Geneva was to be the venue of the next meeting which was scheduled for 26 April.

True to Dulles' prediction, heavily reinforced Viet Minh units launched the first large scale assault against Dien Bien Phu on 13 March. On 15 March the French airstrips were bombarded by enemy artillery and rendered unusable.

Casualties on both sides were heavy, the Viet Minh having lost five battalions while the French lost two, the latter being replaced by air drop. American intelligence services gave the beleaguered garrison an even chance of holding out.(8)

A further heavy Viet Minh offensive followed on 30 March and concern arose that it would be accompanied by Chinese airstrikes. In spite of this, Eisenhower did not consider the possibility of sending American troops to serve under French command nor would he commit the United States to the war without Congressional approval (unless a sudden, unforseen emergency occurred).(9) He did nevertheless write to Churchill on 4 April urging him to support a united front against communist advances in Southeast Asia. Britain, however, did not share the American anxiety that Northern Vietnam might fall under communist domination and was reluctant to become involved in a land war on the Asian continent. Furthermore she did not wish to antagonize the communist Chinese government to which she had granted recognition in 1950.

Without the assurance of British help Congress refused to sanction any American action in Southeast Asia and besides insisting on joint intervention, demanded that the French accelerate their independence programme for the Associated States lest the United States be accused of supporting French colonialism. Congress also required the assurance that the French would not withdraw their forces should American forces be committed.(10) Eisenhower agreed with Congress' position and together with Dulles endeavoured to gain the necessary foreign support.

Pressured by world opinion, France made noteworthy concessions to both Laos and Vietnam, concluding a satisfactory treaty with the former and granting the latter independence on the understanding that friendly relations would continue.

Notwithstanding these concessions, Britain would not join a coalition in support of the French and, indeed, was prepared to countenance a negotiated peace of any sort. Eisenhower could not understand the British position and declared, 'To my knowledge the fact that the Communists were to participate in any international conference never implied that they would either make concessions or keep promises'.(11)

On 5 April Secretary of State Dulles received an urgent cable from the American Ambassador to France, Douglas Dillon, which read:

Secretary of State Dulles immediately replied to the cable from Dillon.

American aircraft from two carriers of the US Seventh Fleet which was cruising in the Gulf of Tonkin had already reconnoitred Dien Bien Phu. The French believed that sixty B-29 bombers each loaded with eight tons of bombs and escorted by 150 fighters could lift the siege of Dien Bien Phu in three nights of bombing. By 5 April, however, this belief was altered to one which held that the siege could not be lifted unless the Americans activated 'Operation Vulture' which included the use of atomic bombs.(14) No mention of this expedient was ever made to Congressional leaders who would obviously have been horrified at the notion. As it was, influential senators such as Richard Russell of Georgia, John Stennis of Mississippi and Lyndon Johnson of Texas were voicing misgivings about US involvement in Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile the situation in Indo-China deteriorated. The French perimeter was shrinking rapidly and air drops were becoming increasingly difficult. From an altitude of 1 800 - 2 400 metres transport aircraft were able to drop only fifty per cent of their cargo into the French perimeter. Flying at lower altitudes, which would have ensured a more accurate drop, exposed the aircraft to Communist anti-aircraft fire.(15) When the parachute drops missed their targets 'the brooding French could hear the Vietnamese shout and laugh as they opened packages filled with mortar shells and machine gun parts and wine'.(16)

Meanwhile Washington had still not found a solution to the impending French disaster. On 17 April Vice President Richard Nixon told a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors that 'The United States as leader of the free world cannot afford further retreat in Asia. It is hoped the United States will not have to send troops there, but if this Government cannot avoid it, the Administration must face up to the situation and despatch forces' (17)

When Dulles arrived in Paris for talks prior to the Geneva Conference, he received the disturbing news that Dien Bien Phu was about to fall. French Foreign Minister Bidault and Gen Ely once again stated that only massive American airstrikes could save the situation.

Anxious reports from the surrounded garrison meanwhile continued to be received. Dulles sent two cables to Eisenhower on 23 April informing him that the fall of Dien Bien Phu was imminent and that the French had suggested massive American airstrikes.

Dulles then made an all out attempt to secure British co-operation and tried to persuade Britain's Foreign Secretary, Sir Anthony Eden, to join a unified front against communist advances in Southeast Asia. On Sunday, 25 April, Eden reported to the British Cabinet. Again the British refused to make any commitment until all avenues of negotiation had been explored.

General de Castries, in command at Dien Bien Phu, in the meantime asked for reinforcements which General Navarre refused to send him on the grounds that to do so would deplete his reserve.

As the Geneva Conference opened on 26 April the French were still strong in the hope that the United States would authorize airstrikes against the communist positions at Dien Bien Phu where the plight of the defenders was desperate. The Viet Minh had succeeded in reducing the French defence perimeter to an area with a diameter of no more than 1 400m making it extremely difficult for aircraft to resupply the garrison whose effective strength had dwindled to 9 700 men. A relief column of 3 000 native troops made an unsuccessful attempt to break through the cordon of over 40 000 Viet Minh with which Dien Bien Phu was surrounded.

The American Joint Chiefs of Staff were divided over the question whether or not American aircraft should be committed to operations in Indo-China. Chief of Staff of the Army, Matthew Ridgway (who had previously been the commander of all United Nations troops in Korea) was strongly opposed to American intervention. Air Force Chief of Staff Nathan Twining, in contrast, was in favour of an airstrike and was later to comment,

Eisenhower had serious doubts about the airstrikes. He stated:

The Viet Minh launched a third major assault against Dien Bien Phu on 1 May. The following day, after fierce fighting, three more strongpoints fell to them and by 6 May the French force was reduced to a mere 4 000 effective troops.

Dien Bien Phu fell on 7 May with the final French perimeter no larger than that of a baseball field.(20) The Viet Minh had accomplished what many Western military experts had at first believed impossible, the defeat of a modern European army. They had hacked roads and trails through the jungle to bring up men and supplies to their positions surrounding Dien Bien Phu and over these roads, thousands of porters had pushed bicycles loaded with weapons, ammunition and spare parts. Artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns were disassembled and the parts carried to positions surrounding Dien Bien Phu where they were reassembled. In addition the Viet Minh tunnelled constantly and with determination towards the French positions. In short, they had adhered to the doctrine which Giap had described on the assault of a fortress which was, 'after opening the first breach immediately penetrate into the interior of the enemy's fortified system and hold that penetration to the bitter end ....'(21)

Although only five per cent of the French force in Indo-China was lost at Dien Bien Phu, the battle broke French morale. Approximately 2 000 French troops had been killed whereas the Viet Minh lost 8 000. Furthermore, approximately two-thirds of the 9 100 - 9 500 French prisoners-of-war died, either on the march to the PW camps or while in captivity.(22) Bernard Fall claims that the forty day forced march to PW camps undertaken by French prisoners from Dien Bien Fhu, 'caused more losses than any single battle of the whole Indo-China war'.(23) The fall of Dien Bien Phu also released Viet Minh forces engaged there for operations in other areas, e.g. the Red River delta. The military situation vis-a-vis the French as a result, deteriorated in the whole northern region.

On 12 June the Laniel Government in France fell. It was succeeded by an administration under the Premiership of Pierre Mendes-France who pledged to bring peace to Indo-China; not, however, at the expense of a French surrender to the Viet Minh.

In Geneva the communists, aware of the military situation in Vietnam, contrived to prolong the conference. The French Premier undertook to resign were an Indo-Chinese peace treaty not signed by 20 July. Fearing that his government might be replaced by one more obdurate, the Communists agreed to a treaty on 20 July, the terms of which were, broadly, as follows:

Laos and Cambodia were to be recognized as neutral, independent countries. Vietnam was to be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel with the proviso that free elections, to determine whether or not the two sides should unite, would be held in July 1956. The area to the north of the 17th parallel was to be administered by a communist government while the area to the south was not, nor indeed, was it to be an independent state. The United States did not sign the Geneva Accord as it was felt that to be party to an agreement in which half of Vietnam was to be placed under communist rule would not enjoy popular approval. South Vietnam likewise, although not an independent state, did not sign the accord.

General William C. Westmoreland, Commander of US Forces in Vietnam from 1964-1968, later commented on Giap and the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu: