Cards, Spades, and the High Ground


One of the most socially and militarily traumatic events in

American history was the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The failures there left scars that affect military decisions even into the twenty-first century. The United States had to and did make a lot of mistakes to lose their part of that war, but the real mistake that started it all wasn’t one any American made. It was made by a Frenchman. A French general to be exact. His name was Henri Navarre, and he hated to lose. Normally that is a good trait in a general, but in this case it led him to make a mistake that cost thousands of French lives and later ensured there would be tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese dead.

General Navarre was in charge of the pacification of Vietnam after World War II. When that war had ended, the French returned to their former colony of French Indochina after the defeated occupying Japanese departed. There was some expectation by the French who returned that things would go back to normal when the French plantation owners and managers returned home. But times had changed. There was no normal to return to.

The Japanese had not only defeated but also embarrassed the European nations, taking away the entire subcontinent with impressive ease. During the war, the Allies had encouraged local guerrilla movements to resist the Japanese, training a few and arming many. The communists joined in this, fielding their own resistance movements. When the French returned, the Vietnamese refused to trade the new master for the old one. The French resisted. After nine years of insurrection, the French government accepted that they were not going to turn back the clock. Also, until Navarre made his mistake, there was a good chance that Võ Nguyên Giáp, leader of the Viet Minh, would accept a coalition government or similar compromise so long as it gave Vietnam self-rule. Though the Viet Minh likely had a further expectation of taking over once the French were gone.

It was a fact that both sides had started talking and that actually spurred General Navarre to look for his own victory. He may even have seen the talks as a sign of his failure. His job had been to reassert total French control and that had not happened. He had not done his job. Navarre certainly realized that once the diplomats had reached any agreement, there would be no way for him to retrieve the situation. But a major victory that dramatically broke the rebellion would not only vindicate his efforts and the sacrifices his soldiers had made already but would also ensure a favorable settlement. What Navarre wanted is a phrase that has appeared before: He sought a decisive battle that would win his war. Unfortunately, to quote a cartoon squirrel popular at that time, “that trick never works.”

The problem with fighting any insurgency is how to bring them to battle. Navarre needed the Viet Minh to fight him in a standup battle. But they had so far been wiser than to do that. With air support, artillery, and tanks, there was every expectation that the French would dominate any conventional fight. But the French general thought of a way to force just such a battle. And he was correct: The plan worked and the battle occurred, just not how and when he expected.

The idea was to set up a target that was such a challenge and so enticing that Giáp had to take the bait. To offer this, the French established a base near the town of Dien Bien Phu. This was in the far western part of Vietnam, near nothing except the Laotian border and across trackless jungle from just about anything else. Then, to sweeten its appeal as a target, Navarre built his base in a valley surrounded by steep mountains and did not occupy the mountains. Then Navarre moved most of his army there.

This location seemed to so favor the Viet Minh that they had to attack or lose credibility. Navarre also thought that it really favored him. He saw the battle in his mind and was sure how Giáp would react. Since the French flew in all of their supplies and reinforcements, it wasn’t too inconvenient to be far from everyone else. But the French general’s expectation was that the dense jungles and distances would limit Giáp to troops armed with only what they could bring with them. This would be men with rifles and little else. It was a long walk.

The Vietnamese had shown a liking, as they later did against the Americans, for human wave attacks. Navarre expected Giáp to rush thousands of his rifle-armed guerrillas in suicidal charges at the base to be slaughtered by his planes, tanks, and artillery. Then, once the strength of the Viet Minh had been wasted, Navarre’s army could easily pacify the rest of the country. His decisive battle would win the war, retrieve French honor, and provide an ideal position for the negotiators. And it would work if Giáp did as expected.

But of course Giáp did not do what Navarre wanted. He did summon every Vietnamese he could muster, but not for suicidal attacks. For months, the French would get glimpses of the guerrillas in the mountains around them, but they would vanish before the French airplanes could be called in for a strike. Viet Minh snipers regularly took shots into the camp, most at maximum range. But other than harassment, nothing happened for months at the French base in Dien Bien Phu.

What General Henri Navarre did not see was that during all those months of seeming inactivity, tens of thousands of peasants and guerrillas were hauling on their backs ammunition, artillery pieces broken down into parts, and everything else needed to win a modern battle against the arrogant French in the valley. Villagers would put one artillery shell weighing seventy or eighty pounds in a sling and spend weeks carrying it along jungle paths, which were invisible under the trees, to deliver them to caves cut into the mountains. Finally, the heights on every side of Dien Bien Phu were covered with dug-in artillery and mortar positions. Shells were stockpiled, and when the rainy season arrived, Giáp was ready.

With the rain came the clouds. The clouds were so constant and thick that the French airplanes could not be used effectively. And the rain came on like a monsoon, because it was one. Soon the French tanks could not even move in the deep mud. Everything rusted and had mold. Then the Viet Minh attacked. The French camp was first subjected to a round-the-clock barrage. Thousands of artillery shells were fired. French casualties mounted, and the survivors began shooting blindly into the mountains. There was nothing Navarre’s men could do. After several days of bombardment, the human wave attacks did begin. Yes, the Viet Minh losses were high, but the attacks succeeded. Section by section, building by building, the French perimeter contracted. Brave French Foreign Legionnaires attempted to parachute into the diminishing French-controlled area by jumping blindly through the clouds. This was before the era of controllable parachutes, and almost all of those volunteers were either killed or captured. When the airstrip was lost, there was no more hope. A short time later, the French command bunker was overrun. The decisive battle was over with a decisive result. The French had lost, and lost badly.

The peace talks had stalled for months, awaiting the results of the battle at Dien Bien Phu. Once it was apparent just how greatly the Viet Minh had won, they were able to drive a hard bargain. The French agreed to split the country, ceding the northern half to the Viet Minh and setting up a friendly government in the south. The North Vietnamese waited to unite the country under their control.

The Viet Minh were communists and so Western nations began to support and assist the South Vietnamese government even as the Viet Minh, now known as the Vietcong, began an insurgency. Had Navarre not lost at Dien Bien Phu, the settlement might not have split Vietnam. A more peaceful resolution might have been reached: one in which the two halves of Vietnam were actually joined under a single government.

The Western fear was that Vietnam would become a Chinese satellite. But we know now that the Vietnamese were never willingly going to become pawns of the Chinese. After the United States pulled out, and the country was united, Vietnam and China fought three little-publicized but vicious wars. Relations even today are chilly.

But in the name of containing communism, America sent some “military advisers” and began their involvement in Vietnam. And whole books have been written about the mistakes made by the United States. But the entire mess started because a brave French general wanted a decisive battle so badly that he was willing to put his army in a position from which it could not win. Had he not, there would have been no American Vietnam War.

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