Dien Bien Phu – A Fatal Gamble

By Scott Parrino 03 Jan 2004 0

Just Another War in IndoChina


From 1947 onward, France was at war with Vietnam, then known as French Indochina. After World War II, France had sought to retain its colonial hold on the country. All of Southeast Asia was a rich prize in minerals, oil, and other materials essential to an industrialized world.

Many of the Vietnamese people had tired of being ruled by one country and then another. They yearned for autonomy, even to the point of giving their lives for it. This, of course, meant the throwing off of the yoke of bondage the French government sought to impose upon them.

One of the strongest factions in the bid for internal control was the communist party of Indochina. Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh ("he who enlightens"), the members became active combatants and formed an army of resistance, known as the Viet Minh. Using the strategies of Mao Tse Tung of China, the Communists maintained guerilla style warfare.

It was a sinister game of hit and run. The elusiveness of the Viet Minh was frustrating to the French. It was like trying to pin down a slick watermelon seed. Every time the French thought they had them, they would slip away.

As the years passed, the Viet Minh were developing into an army of consequence. With the Communist triumph in China in 1949, the comrade forces in Indochina began receiving copious amounts of weapons and supplies. This included all types of artillery, giving them a new and more powerful force.

A young Giap gives orders.

General Giap, chosen by Ho Chi Minh as top military commander of the guerrilla forces, became emboldened by the sudden strengthening of his army and went to direct confrontation with French. He would greatly regret it. His troops were not quite ready for that phase of the overthrow and were soundly beaten. This meant a return to the old hit and run tactics as before. The French people, however, were tiring of a war some 8,000 miles from the homeland. It seemed distant and unimportant. Increased pressure was placed upon the French government, especially by communist sympathizers in France to end the war.

By the end of 1953, the Viet Minh had rebuilt their forces and were even stronger than before. They could now field six infantry divisions, and a heavy artillery division (the 351st). Many of The cannoneers had been trained in China, and almost all the infantry were fighting veterans. In fact, large numbers of Chinese and Russian instructors were within Vietnam preparing Ho's soldiers for war. They were now better armed, better trained and highly motivated. Their stoic, Spartan lifestyle could not be successfully imitated by the French troops.

The French government failed to grasp the seriousness of the developing situation. The military and the politicians continually underestimated the Viet Minh, and took the task of defeating them half-heartedly. Unrest in Algeria and political upheaval in France itself caused the struggle in Indochina to take a lesser place of importance in the list of commitments.



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