NOVEMBER 20, 1953. 10:30 a.m. The morning mist had just burned away to reveal the village of Muong Thanh in northwestern Vietnam near the Laos border. It was situated in a valley eleven miles long and five miles wide bisected by the Nam Yum River. All around could be seen “lush green mountains” rising to six thousand feet. On these slopes lived Meo tribesmen who harvested poppies to produce opium. On the valley floor were ethnic Thai, simple farmers living in “stilted, peak-roofed huts built of thick bamboo and thatched with woven leaf.” They were going about their usual routine, harvesting rice with short sickles amid the “clucking of poultry and the grunting of little black pigs.” For the Vietminh troop stationed there it was a day of field exercises. They were setting up their mortars and machine guns around a dirt airstrip when they noticed a flight of two-engine aircraft high above. Later a peasant recalled how the aircraft spread “clouds of white specks that looked like cotton seeds. But soon they opened up and we saw that soldiers were hanging from them.”
Inside the American-made C-47s, the same cargo aircraft that had delivered the Chindits to the jungles of Burma nine years earlier, the jumpmasters were shouting, “Go! Go! Go!” Two battalions of crack French paratroopers were swiftly out the door. One of the battalions was dropped too far south. That left responsibility for securing the area around the village to the Sixth Colonial Parachute Battalion. Its 621 men—mostly French but also including 200 Vietnamese—were led by Major Marcel Bigeard. He was only thirty-seven years old but already a legend—a modern-day cavalier whose lack of fear and love of combat were reminiscent of warriors as disparate as Shamil, George Armstrong Custer, and Orde Wingate. Everyone in Indochina, it seemed, “knew his high forehead, his fair crew-cut hair, his bird-of-prey profile, his touchy independence”—and his extraordinary combat record, which would one day earn him four-star rank without benefit of a Saint Cyr education or the war college.
Born in 1916 to a railway worker, he had left school at fourteen to work in a bank and joined the army in 1936 as an enlisted man. He was still a lowly warrant officer when he was captured on the Maginot Line in 1940. The following year, after two failed attempts, he escaped from a German prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag 12A, and made his way to French West Africa to join the Free French. In 1944, using the call sign Bruno, which would become his lifelong moniker, he parachuted back into France to work with the Resistance and help the invading Allied armies—work for which he won both the French Legion of Honor and the British Distinguished Service Order.
In 1945, by now a captain, he first came to Indochina. By 1953 he was on his third tour after too many close escapes to recall. The worst of all had come the preceding year. He and his paras had been dropped into the village of Tu-Lê in the northern highlands to stop a Vietminh offensive and allow the evacuation of French garrisons in the region. His battalion was soon encircled by an enemy division. They had to fight their way out, walking nonstop for days through the jungle while carrying their wounded. Entire companies were wiped out en route, but Bigeard and a small group of survivors somehow managed to elude an enemy that outnumbered them ten to one.
Such setbacks did not sate Bigeard’s thirst for battle. The peacocky personification of paratrooper panache, he still entered battle without a personal weapon and always led Bataillon Bigeard from the front. “If it’s possible, it’s done,” he said. And if it’s impossible? That “will be done” too.
The landing near Muong Thanh was certainly possible, almost routine, except for the presence of more Vietminh troops than expected around the drop zone. The battalion’s medical officer was killed by a fluke shot to the head as he was fluttering to earth. Many of the paratroopers were scattered, and most of their radio sets were shattered. But Bigeard improvised successfully. While bullets “whistled” by his head in the thick elephant grass, he gathered groups of paratroopers and mounted an assault on the Vietminh, who fought fiercely and successfully to shield the escape of their regimental staff. Eventually he was able to contact B-26 bombers circling overhead. With the help of their air strikes and another battalion of paratroops inserted in the afternoon, Bigeard was able to secure the battlefield by nightfall. The French had lost fifteen men, the Vietminh more than a hundred.
It was one of the few victories the French forces were ever to win in this valley, whose name they would soon curse: Dien Bien Phu.70
BY 1953 THE French Far East Expeditionary Corps had been fighting for more than seven years to regain control of Indochina from the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, or Vietminh). Ostensibly a nationalist alliance, the Vietminh was in fact dominated by the Communists and their charismatic leader, Ho Chi Minh. Just as Mao’s path to power was paved by the Japanese, so too was Ho’s. The Japanese occupied Indochina in 1940. The French Vichy regime remained in existence until 1945, but colonial control had weakened enough by 1941 to allow Ho and some other comrades to sneak back into northern Vietnam from across the Chinese border. It was the first time in thirty years that he had lived in his homeland.
Nguyen Tat Thanh had been born in 1890 to a poor Confucian scholar in central Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh (He Who Enlightens) was simply the most enduring of the many aliases he adopted. Expelled from school for anti-French activities, he left the country in 1911 as a lowly cook’s helper aboard a steamship. After sailing around the world, he settled in France and, while supporting himself with menial work, became involved in anticolonial agitation. In 1920 he was present at the founding of the French Communist Party. Three years later he moved to Moscow to work for the Comintern’s Far Eastern Bureau as “their token colonial.” He would spend the next two decades as a Comintern operative. In this capacity he helped organize the Indochinese Communist Party in Hong Kong in 1930—an act for which he paid with a year and a half in a British prison.
Although “an accomplished Stalinist,” in the words of one of his biographers, Ho projected an image of “frankness . . . and humility,” “goodness and simplicity” that would eventually make him a beloved figure known as Bac Ho (Uncle Ho). He never became a megalomaniacal hedonist like Mao. Even as Vietnam’s supreme leader, he would live in a small cottage on the grounds of the presidential palace, which was too opulent for his taste, and when forced to stay in a luxury hotel he would sleep on the floor. (Today Mao’s modest cottage is a popular tourist attraction, located next to the grandiose mausoleum where Ho’s embalmed corpse is on display—something he would have hated.) That was still a considerable step up from the cold, damp cave in Pac Bo, where he lived on first returning to Vietnam in 1941. Ho appeared thin and insubstantial, even fragile—“a wisp of a man,” in the words of one visitor—and he wore a wispy goatee that gave him the mien of a scholar, but he was impressively inured to hardship.
From Pac Bo, just a mile from the Chinese frontier, Ho and his small band of followers began to build guerrilla bases and organize what would eventually become the People’s Army. In 1942 he walked back to China hoping to win more support. Instead he was imprisoned for eighteen months by the Nationalist regime. Once he was released, Ho made contact with the OSS, which agreed to send a small team to his headquarters to facilitate anti-Japanese operations. The Americans provided arms and training and, more importantly, treated Ho when he contracted malaria and dysentery. Quite possibly they saved the life of this future foe.
Later this wartime cooperation would give rise to a myth that Ho could have become an American ally if only the United States, in the grip of Cold War paranoia, had not spurned him. The OSS was particularly taken with him; one of its reports described Ho as a “convinced Democrat” who “firmly advocates American methods for the economic development of his country.” In fact, like Mao, about whom similar hopes were expressed by the likes of Edgar Snow, he was a dedicated Communist while being an equally dedicated nationalist. He was simply making use of his American contacts to divide the “capitalist camp” while creating a one-party state aligned with the “socialist bloc.” He actually quoted from the U.S. Declaration of Independence when, in his Mao-style jacket and rubber sandals, he announced the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam amid a sea of red flags fluttering over the colonial grandeur of Hanoi on September 2, 1945, the capital having been left open by Japan’s defeat.71
Elections were subsequently held, which led to the formation of a coalition government. But the Communists held all the key positions, with Ho himself as president and minister of foreign affairs. Before long non-Communist politicians were being killed and jailed by the secret police amid what a CIA report described as a “pervading sense of fear.”72
Vietminh attempts to consolidate power suffered a major setback when Allied troops arrived to accept the Japanese surrender—Chinese in the north, British in the south. And not far behind were the French seeking to reestablish their empire. In 1945 British and French troops cleared the Vietminh out of Saigon. On November 23, 1946, after having demanded that all Vietminh vacate the old colonial port of Haiphong, the French commander ordered his warships, aircraft, and artillery to open fire on the city, inflicting thousands of civilian casualties. On December 19, the Vietminh staged an uprising in Hanoi, but the French were on their guard and managed to drive them out. Thus they secured control of Vietnam’s major urban centers, but much of the countryside, where most of the 24 million people lived, remained outside their grasp.73 The Vietminh leaders retreated to their impenetrable lairs in the far north—an area known as the Viet Bac where, in the mountainous jungle, they established training camps, barracks, schools, even crude arms factories.
Not until October 7, 1947, did the French launch a major offensive against the Viet Bac. Operation Lea began with an airdrop by 1,137 paratroopers straight onto the Vietminh headquarters followed by motorized pincer movements designed to trap the insurgents. Ho Chi Minh barely managed to escape. But the armored thrusts bogged down along the narrow, winding roads as the Vietminh felled trees, planted mines, dropped bridges, and dug trenches. Within a month the offensive was called off, and the French were forced to retreat with little to show for their efforts: a pattern that would be repeated many times in the following years.74
Ho Chi Minh had outlined his strategy to an American reporter in 1946. He realized that the French had more firepower but, he said, “We have a weapon every bit as powerful as the most modern cannon: nationalism!” He compared the coming conflict to a “war between a tiger and an elephant”: “If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges by night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death.”75
It was an uncannily accurate forecast.
HO’S ELEPHANT KILLER was Vo Nguyen Giap, who was destined to be remembered as a military strategist of the first rank. Although Giap, born in 1911, was two decades younger than Ho, the two men had much in common, which helps to explain why they hit it off after meeting in China in 1940. Unlike Mao or Tito, neither was a peasant; both came from the impoverished if respectable mandarin class. They were even expelled for anti-French activities from the same high school—also the alma mater of their future nemesis Ngo Dinh Diem. Ho was kicked out in 1908, Giap in 1927. But, unlike Ho, Giap stayed in Vietnam and managed to complete his education after serving a two-year prison term.
He earned a law degree in 1937, the same year he joined the Communist Party, then went to work as a history teacher while publishing anti-French newspapers. In 1940, in order to avoid arrest, he left for China. He left behind his wife and sister-in-law, fellow Communists who were captured by the French and tortured to death. The same fate awaited Giap’s father in 1947. Ho’s ex-wife also died in a French jail. This gave both men, although part of the French-speaking elite, intensely personal reasons for detesting colonial rule.
Ho was impressed by his young follower’s intelligence and determination and directed him to take charge of military affairs despite his complete lack of formal training. “The only academy I ever attended was the bush,” Giap later said. Like T. E. Lawrence, whose works he cited as his “fighting gospel,” Giap was a self-taught soldier of genius. His first influence was Napoleon, whose campaigns he knew by heart. He was also familiar with the guerrilla wars waged by Vietnamese heroes of the distant past against Chinese and Mongol invaders. But perhaps his greatest influence was Mao Zedong, whose strategy, developed to defeat a domestic opponent, he copied slavishly and successfully to fight against first one foreign foe, then another. Although the Nationalist regime that Mao faced had more legitimacy and staying power than the French or Americans in Vietnam, Giap’s adversaries could bring more resources and sheer military competence against him. Thus he faced a challenge at least as daunting as that which confronted Mao and his marshals during the Chinese civil war.76
Like Mao, Giap planned a three-stage struggle—first “localized guerrilla war,” then “war of movement,” finally “general uprising”77—that would be waged by a three-tier force: a regular army, supplemented by regional forces of full-time fighters and a much larger village militia that carried out occasional acts of sabotage but whose most important contribution was to provide intelligence and logistical support. Ho and Giap also borrowed from Maoist tactics when they sent their cadres to mobilize villages with instructions not to “behave arrogantly” and even to pitch in to help with the rice harvest.78 Once they had won over a majority of the villagers, cadres would liquidate “collaborators” and “landlords.” Their lands were then to be distributed to the poorest farmers, who in turn were subject to Vietminh taxation and conscription.
THESE TACTICS PROVED highly effective except in villages populated by Roman Catholics, who composed 10 percent of the population, or by adherents of the indigenous Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects. Some ethnic minorities living in the mountains, such as the Thais and Meo, also proved resistant to Vietminh organizing. Some fifteen thousand of these Montagnards joined irregular units organized by enterprising French intelligence officers such as Major Roger Trinquier, later an influential counterinsurgency theorist, to employ guerrilla tactics against the Vietminh. The French also made common cause with the Binh Xuyen gangsters who ran Saigon’s underworld.79
But—and this was the fatal weakness of the French war effort—for most Vietnamese the colonial cause held no appeal. In 1949 France granted Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos nominal independence as “associated states” of the French Union, but French representatives continued to hold the levers of power. The French accepted considerable American aid: by 1954 more than 30,000 tons of matériel a month was arriving, including everything from bombers and bombs to helmets and flak vests.80 But they consistently rebuffed American advice to offer full-fledged independence—the only thing that might have won the support of non-Communist Vietnamese.
French tactics did not help. “Rape, beating, burning, torturing, of entirely harmless peasants and villages were of common occurrence,” wrote an English Foreign Legionnaire. His fellow soldiers, many of them Germans too young to have fought in World War II, often boasted “of the number of murders or rapes they had committed or the means of torture they had applied or the cash, jewels, or possessions they had stolen.” Locally recruited auxiliaries, often thugs or Vietminh deserters who had “stiff prices on their heads,” were even worse—they were “feared and hated by the local population on account of their thieving, blackmailing, racketeering propensities.”81
The French reaction to attacks was particularly brutal. A former French paratrooper reported what happened in 1946 after a unit came under fire in the Mekong Delta, the major rice-producing area of the south: “Before we resumed our march the soldiers set fire to the hamlet. One match was all it took to set the straw roofs alight. The water buffalo left behind by the peasants were shot.”82 For the peasants the loss of “these draft animals,” a Vietnamese writer notes, meant “losing their livelihood.”83
In his book Street without Joy, the French-American writer Bernard B. Fall, a respected expert on Indochina, remembered being in a C-119 Flying Boxcar aircraft in 1953 that took some ground fire. On his intercom he could hear the following conversation between two fighter aircraft flying in escort as they swooped toward a village far below:
“Can’t see a darn thing. Do you see anything?”
“Can’t see anything either, but let’s give it to them just for good measure.”
Another swoop by the two little birds and all of a sudden a big black billow behind them. It was napalm—jellied gasoline, one of the nicer horrors developed in World War II. It beats the conventional incendiaries by the fact that it sticks so much better to everything it touches.
“Ah, see the bastards run now?”
Now the village was burning furiously. The two fighters swooped down in turn and raked the area with machine guns. As we veered off, the black cloud just reached our height. Scratch one Lao village—and we don’t even know whether the village was pro-Communist or not.84
If the village wasn’t Communist before this unprovoked attack, it would have been after.
The Vietcong played rough too; captured French soldiers were “impaled on bamboo stakes with their testicles stuffed in their mouths.”85 But their violence was usually directed against those who actually opposed them, whereas the French were often indiscriminate in their wrath. “We thank the French,” wrote a senior Communist Party strategist, “for having helped ‘Viet Minhize the Vietnamese people’ by their words and deeds.”86
As a result the Vietminh had no problem finding informers “willing to pass on . . . the slightest piece of information”87—or fighters willing to act on that intelligence. But training and arming them was harder—until the Communist triumph in China. After 1949 the Vietminh had access to Chinese training camps, weapons, and advisers, including some of Mao’s most capable generals. This hastened the Vietminh’s transformation from a ragtag guerrilla force into an army armed with its own artillery if not aircraft or tanks—a transformation that Mao’s own forces had made just a few years earlier with Russian help.88
USING HIS NEW troops, Giap launched an offensive in the fall of 1950 against the French outposts scattered precariously near the Chinese border along Colonial Route 4. The French tried to evacuate their fort at Caobang, but both the retreating troops and a relieving force were annihilated, costing them more than 4,500 soldiers and enough equipment to outfit an entire Vietminh division.
With the area north of Hanoi entirely under his control, Giap became overconfident. He may have been one of the most successful insurgent commanders of the twentieth-century—the general who humbled both a great power and a superpower—but he was also prone to disastrous miscalculations. The most famous of these was the 1968 Tet Offensive, which, despite its military failure, became a political success. There was no such silver lining to Giap’s decision in early 1951 to launch an offensive designed to end the war quickly. Its target was the Red River Delta, the economic and population hub of the north.
The job of stopping Giap fell to the imperious and demanding newly arrived French commander, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, who had once served under Lyautey in Morocco and was dubbed the “French MacArthur” by the American press.89Proclaiming, “We shall not yield another inch of territory,”90 he rallied the demoralized Expeditionary Corps and repelled the Vietminh assault. Caught in the flat, open delta, the attackers were literally roasted alive by newly arrived shipments of American-provided napalm, which burns at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit—the first of many uses in Vietnam of this hellacious chemical weapon that would be widely employed by U.S. forces in the 1960s. A Vietminh officer recalled, “Hell comes in the form of large, egg-shaped containers. . . . There is no way of holding out under this torrent of fire which flows in all directions and burns everything on its passage.”91
By the time Giap called off his offensive in the summer of 1951, he had lost over 20,000 killed and wounded. The Vietminh now moved back to a guerrilla-focused strategy, as they were to do again after the Tet Offensive. The French were ill prepared to deal with this eventuality, if only because they were spread so thin.
In 1953 the Expeditionary Corps had 228,000 soldiers and auxiliaries of whom only 52,000 were French. The largest component was 70,000 Vietnamese followed by 48,000 North and West Africans and 19,000 Foreign Legionnaires, 60 percent of them Germans. (Contrary to legend, most were not former Nazis: official policy was to exclude former SS men.) The Vietnamese National Army under Emperor Bao Dai contributed another 160,000 soldiers and auxiliaries, but most were ill trained and unmotivated to fight for a colonial power. The French and Vietnamese forces still outnumbered the Vietminh, who had 250,000 regulars and regionals, along with 2 million local militia, but a large portion of French manpower was tied down in static posts. Some 82,000 soldiers manned the De Lattre Line of more than nine hundred forts enclosing the Red River Delta. That left precious few troops to go after insurgent strongholds or to prevent Communist cadres from extending their grip across the countryside.92 By the French military’s own estimates, in 1953 it controlled only 25 percent of Vietnam.93 Even venturing a few miles outside Saigon wasn’t safe after dark.94
Giap boasted, “Our guerrillas and government take over within gunshot of their strong-points.” 95 He wasn’t exaggerating. A Newsweek correspondent reported from the Red River Delta in early 1953 that French forts were attacked almost every night. In the morning the troops had to sweep the roads for mines, which accounted for 60 percent of their casualties. “The French rule by day and the Reds by night,” the article noted, adding that the defenders could not locate elusive attackers who took refuge in tunnels “only to pop up again half an hour after the French have pulled out.”96
Acutely conscious of their inability to keep the guerrillas out of the villages, a revolving cast of French commanders sought to lure the Vietminh into a conventional battle where heavier French firepower might prevail. This was the genesis of the fateful decision in 1953 to launch Operation Castor by establishing a base at Dien Bien Phu, 180 miles from Hanoi and reachable only by air. Lieutenant General Henri-Eugène Navarre, the senior French commander, hoped that this “aero-terrestrial” outpost, similar to those established by the Chindits, could be used to stop the Communists from infiltrating Laos and from capturing the opium crop, a lucrative source of financing for both sides.97
In Navarre’s estimation, Giap would then have no choice but to attack this “hedgehog,” leading the Viets to slaughter on the valley floor. What Navarre could not envisage was that the Vietminh would actually have the firepower advantage because they would be able to transport artillery through hundreds of miles of “impenetrable” jungle.98 But that is what happened.
AS SOON AS he received intelligence in late November 1953 that the French were fortifying Dien Bien Phu, Giap began to marshal his forces. Eventually, on the slopes around Dien Bien Phu, he would assemble four of his six regular divisions, a total of 50,000 combat soldiers and 50,000 support personnel. Transporting their equipment and supplies was a heroic undertaking, with few parallels in modern military history, that necessitated the marshaling of hundreds of thousands of peasants. Roads had to be hacked out of the jungle to allow Russian-made Molotova trucks to move heavy equipment. But most of the supplies were hauled by what Giap described as “an endless, linked human chain,” their loads resting on hand-pushed “pack bikes” or on shoulder-borne bamboo yokes.
Artillery pieces were disassembled and hauled over many nights up the mountains around Dien Bien Phu, where they were positioned in carefully camouflaged gun pits. One Vietminh soldier recalled, “To climb a slope, hundreds of men crept in front of the gun, tugging on long ropes, pulling it up inch by inch. . . . Whole nights were spent toiling by torchlight to move a gun 500 or 1,000 meters.” When a gun was in danger of sliding into a ravine, one soldier threw his own body under the wheel. Through such heroic exertions, the Vietminh managed to surround Dien Bien Phu with 206 field guns and mortars, including 105-millimeter howitzers and 37-millimeter antiaircraft cannons.
The French were hardly idle during the Vietminh buildup. Although they had little idea of the size of the threat they would shortly face, they had been working frantically to fortify their own positions under the command of Colonel (soon Brigadier General) Christian de Castries, who was seldom without a flat red kepi on his head and a riding crop in his hand. A cavalryman and world high-jump champion, he had once said he wanted nothing more than “a horse to ride, an enemy to kill, and a woman in bed.” Legend had it that he named various strongpoints located on the low hills around Dien Bien Phu after his current and former mistresses. More likely, if prosaically, he employed random women’s names in alphabetical order.
Grouped closely around the airstrip and command bunkers were Dominique, Eliane, Huguette, and Claudine. Farther north were Beatrice, Anne-Marie, and Gabrielle. Each “center of resistance” was made up of smaller outposts (Eliane 1, 2, 3, 4) with interlocking fields of fire and protective belts of barbed wire and mines. More than three miles south was an airstrip protected by Isabelle—too far from the others to contribute much to their defense. The French troops, assisted by prisoners who were employed as forced laborers, did the best they could to dig trenches and construct bunkers, but there were not enough engineers or materials to go around, so not all of the entrenchments could withstand a heavy barrage.
The primary French firepower consisted of twenty-four 105-millimeter guns and four 155-millimeter howitzers, the latter capable of hurling a 95-pound shell more than ten miles. The Vietminh had nothing comparable to the 155s, but in total number of artillery tubes they outnumbered the French by two or three to one.
Occupying these defensive positions were 10,813 men, a figure that would grow to 15,090 after the siege started and reinforcements, many of them volunteers, were parachuted in. In combat they consumed 180 tons of supplies a day, which also had to be flown in—including wine and cheese. The French even airlifted in two Mobile Field Brothels, “an all-important institution,” staffed by Vietnamese and African prostitutes. Giap, by contrast, lived a Spartan life in his forward command post twelve miles to the north, sleeping on a grass mat and subsisting on rice and a few chunks of meat or fish.
Almost alone among French officers, Bruno Bigeard, a physical fitness buff, shared Giap’s abstemiousness. Visitors to his mess could expect “a thin slice of ham and one small, isolated boiled potato” washed down with “steaming tea” rather than the multicourse banquets accompanied by copious quantities of wine and brandy that were de rigueur in most French messes.
INTERMITTENT FIGHTING HAD been going on ever since French forces had first arrived at Dien Bien Phu. Units that ventured outside the wire were mauled. Those on the inside took casualties from intermittent shelling. A thousand men, or 10 percent of the garrison, were killed or wounded during this preliminary skirmishing. The siege started in earnest on the afternoon of March 13, 1954. “Shells rained down on us without stopping like a hailstorm on a fall evening,” recalled a Foreign Legion sergeant. “Bunker after bunker, trench after trench, collapsed, burying under them men and weapons.”
The fire was especially intense around Beatrice, which was held by 437 legionnaires. In command was Lieutenant Colonel Jules Gaucher, a legend within the legion who had served in Indochina since 1940. Around 7:30 p.m. a shell penetrated his command bunker, smashing his arms and legs and tearing open his chest. He died soon thereafter. The same fate befell many of his officers. The defense was left in the hands of sergeants and junior officers as wave after wave of Viet attackers emerged from surreptitiously dug “approach” trenches. The vanguard employed Bangalore torpedoes to open holes through the barbed wire and minefields. Then came the rest of the Viets with a frenzied disregard for the defenders’ firepower. One Viet squad leader became a legend for throwing his body in front of a bunker’s slit to momentarily block the machine gun, allowing his comrades to advance. The legionnaires fought valiantly, but after midnight a captain radioed, “It’s all over—the Viets are here. Fire upon my position. Out.”
Within days the Vietminh artillery closed down the exposed airstrip. From then on reinforcements and supplies could arrive only by parachute, and even this was increasingly hazardous—forty-eight planes were shot down. The lack of a safe landing strip also meant that the wounded could not be evacuated. Mutilated men overflowed the aid stations, their misery increased by the heat, stench, dirt, rain, mud, even maggots. A doctor described their “slow, gentle groans like a song full of sadness.” Outside lay a growing pile of amputated limbs—“shriveled legs, arms, and hands, grotesque feet, all mixed up as in some witches’ cauldron.”
A number of Vietnamese, Thai, and African troops became internal deserters, taking refuge along the banks of the Nam Yum River. But morale remained strong among the paras and legionnaires, the elite forces. Bigeard and his battalion, which had been dropped into Dien Bien Phu for a second time after the siege began, mounted a particularly heroic effort on April 10 to retake Eliane 1. Hobbled by a pulled leg muscle, Bigeard directed the operation from a dugout in Eliane 4 equipped with eight radio sets, which he worked like an orchestra conductor.
The attack began at 6 a.m. with a ten-minute barrage that dropped 1,800 shells on the enemy positions. As soon as the shelling ended, the paras moved up the hill in small teams, going as fast as possible, bypassing pockets of resistance that were to be mopped up by the next wave. A flamethrower finished off the last blockhouse “in a river of flame” that left “the smell of charred human flesh.” By 2 p.m. the attackers were at the summit, having lost nearly half of their ranks killed or wounded—77 out of 160 men. “It was necessary to annihilate the Viets to the last man. Not one withdrew,” Bigeard recalled. “What marvelous combatants, these men trained by Giap.”
More “marvelous combatants,” two thousand of them, attacked again within hours. Bigeard, in turn, committed his only reserves—a few hundred legionnaires and Vietnamese paratroopers. The former advanced singing a German marching song, the latter the “Marseillaise.” By 2 a.m., after hours of hand-to-hand fighting in trenches “filled with rotting corpses,” amid “an overpowering stench,” “blinded by dust and deafened by artillery fire,” the Vietminh had been forced to retreat, leaving behind at least four hundred dead. Eliane 1 would be held for the next twenty days against relentless, World War I–style attacks that chewed up company after company of defenders.
Bigeard’s hard-earned triumph only postponed for a bit the garrison’s slow strangulation. The strongholds with their feminine names fell one by one, as if each were a virginal maiden succumbing to the advances of a brutish paramour. Each advance allowed the Vietminh to edge their artillery closer to the main camp. By early May, with, in the words of the historian Martin Windrow, “one-legged French soldiers manning machine guns in the blockhouses, being fed ammunition by one-armed and one-eyed comrades,” the end was in sight. The last French hope was that the U.S. Air Force would come to the rescue (there was even talk of using atomic bombs), but President Eisenhower refused. On May 7, 1954, with Giap’s troops nearing his command bunker, Castries received permission to stop fighting. The last message from the main camp went out at 5:50 p.m.: “We’re blowing everything up. Adieu.”99
FOLLOWING THIS FIFTY-FIVE-DAY siege a total of 10,261 defenders out of 15,090 were still alive to surrender. Many of them were in bad shape, weakened by weeks of reduced rations and nonstop exertion. More than half would not survive a hellish captivity during which they were forced to march five hundred miles, subjected to political indoctrination, and denied by Western standards adequate food and medical care—which, in fairness, were also denied to the Vietminh’s own troops. In all the eight-year war cost French forces 92,000 men killed, while the Associated States lost another 27,000. The Vietminh suffered even more heavily, losing an estimated 25,000 regulars killed and wounded at Dien Bien Phu and perhaps 250,000 men during the entire war.
In theory the French could have continued fighting, having lost at Dien Bien Phu only 3 percent of the total strength of the French Union armies in Indochina. In the same way the British could have continued fighting in North America after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 or in Northern Ireland notwithstanding Michael Collins’s success in blinding their intelligence apparatus by 1921. But politically the continuation of these unpopular wars was impossible for parliamentary governments that depended for survival on the approval of the voters. Even before the fall of Dien Bien Phu, a May 1953 poll in France had shown that only 15 percent of those surveyed wanted to stay in Indochina.100 Part of the reason for the war’s unpopularity was its financial cost: it consumed fully a third of the entire French defense budget.101 For an impoverished, war-weary nation, the loss of Dien Bien Phu represented the breaking point. It was a crippling psychological blow and one that resonated far beyond Southeast Asia. The worst defeat suffered by a modern Western empire in a colonial war—the equivalent of Custer’s Last Stand fifty-seven times over—it confirmed the lesson of Singapore’s fall by showing that “black,” “brown,” and “yellow” combatants were no longer inferior to the Caucasians who had dominated them on the assumption that they were a “superior race.” The bluff and bluster that had underpinned European empires, which allowed them to be maintained on the cheap (the only way they would be tolerated by domestic public opinion), had now been exposed once and for all. The remaining colonial holdings, beginning with French Indochina, could not last much longer. The age of Western empire, which had begun in the fifteenth century, was nearly over.
Ho Chi Minh had foreseen the eventual defeat of his enemies in 1946 when he told a French diplomat, “You will kill ten of my men while we will kill one of yours. But you will be the ones to end up exhausted.”102 His prophecy had now come true. In a development reminiscent of the Whig takeover of Parliament after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, a new French prime minister, Pierre Mendès-France, took office in June 1954 committed to leading a humiliated nation into a new era of peace. The following month an agreement was reached at Geneva under which Vietnam would be split, at least temporarily, along the seventeenth parallel with the Vietminh in control of the north and a new, noncommunist government under Ngo Dinh Diem in the south.
That the French lost despite having considerably more resources than the Vietminh should hardly be surprising. Their war effort, like that of the Americans who fought in Vietnam a decade later, violated nearly every precept of what became known as population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine by adopting a conventional, big-unit, firepower-intensive strategy that alienated the populace while failing to trap the Vietminh. Moreover they could not cut off the insurgency from outside support—perhaps the most reliable indicator of an uprising’s prospects. Its importance was underlined by the fact that in 1948, following his break with Stalin, Tito closed Yugoslavia’s territory to the Greek Communists. They were soon defeated. By contrast, Mao stepped up his support to the Vietminh the following year. They were soon victorious.
As part of the Geneva Accords, the Vietminh returned 3,900 prisoners taken at Dien Bien Phu. After only four months’ captivity, they already resembled concentration camp survivors. But most remained defiant—determined, as Bigeard said, to “continue the struggle” and do better “next time.”103 That opportunity was to arrive sooner than they could have imagined in, of all places, Algeria, a part of France since 1830.