THE FIRST BATTLES
The French had laid out their defense of Dien Bien Phu in the following fashion, with the strongpoints supposedly named after Castries’s various mistresses. The northernmost bastion, Gabrielle, lay approximately a mile and a half to the north of the runway on a hill that rose one thousand feet above the valley floor. The Algerians held Gabrielle, and they had made the most of their defensive preparations to hold the strongpoint. Southeast of Gabrielle was Beatrice, also separated from the main defensive positions by a considerable distance. Making its defense more difficult was the fact that the French had not removed the jungle directly to its north, which provided the Viet Minh with the cover to approach close to the strongpoint’s defensive positions. Although Beatrice’s garrison had not worked as hard at preparing its defensive positions as had the Algerians, its legionnaires were among the toughest troops in the garrison. Yet even before the fighting began, the Foreign Legion battalion holding Beatrice had lost nearly 30 percent of its men in keeping the road open to the main positions.
To the east of the Nam Yum River, which ran through the center of the valley and the garrison, lay strongpoints Dominique—to the southwest of Beatrice—and Elaine. The former contained several hillocks that made the position particularly important, because it overlooked the main airstrip from the east. Algerians and Moroccans defended these two positions. Here the leadership of French officers and NCOs was critical, because when it was weak or when leaders went down, the North Africans usually lost cohesion and discipline. Across the Nam Yum lay the heart of Dien Bien Phu: the airstrip, the ammunition and supply bunkers, the hospital, Castries’s command center, and the main artillery positions. North of the runway was Anne-Marie, an area easily flooded during the monsoon and defended primarily by unreliable mountain tribesmen. To the west were the Huguette and Claudine positions, neither one of which was on recognizable geographic features, but portions of which became considerably important later in the battle. Finally, well to the south lay Isabelle, located over three miles from the main base in the midst of a fetid swamp. The French had sited Isabelle to provide supporting artillery fire for the main garrison, but its location as well as its drain on the strength of the main garrison made little sense.
On March 13, the French discovered how wrong they were. By this point, increasing Viet Minh shelling of the airstrip had rendered it almost unusable, thereby knocking out one of the basic assumptions on which the defense of Dien Bien Phu rested—namely, that immediate air support would be available from the aircraft on the garrison’s airstrip. But that proved the least of French assumptions to go up in smoke on March 13. At 5:00 P.M., Viet Minh artillery opened up with a fierce bombardment of Beatrice, while interdiction fires hit most of Dien Bien Phu’s other major positions. An hour and a half later, a shell took out Beatrice’s command bunker as waves of Viet Minh infantry surged through its outer defenses. But worse followed. Two hours later, another shell killed Lieutenant Colonel Jean Gaucher, commander of the central sector, and most of his staff. Castries called Langlais (who was alive only because a Viet shell had failed to explode after piercing his bunker) to assume command of the fight.
By now the defense of Beatrice was nearly over. Despite the delivery of what is now called “danger close” artillery fire, the Viet Minh swarmed over the position, while only a few centers of resistance were still holding out. At 8:30 P.M., the company defending the strongpoint’s northeast corner no longer answered efforts to contact it. Half an hour later, another company desperately reported: “Viets all over the place.” Shortly after midnight, contact ended with the last group of defenders; a few survivors made it back to French lines the following morning. Perhaps even more depressing than Beatrice’s fall was the fact that the garrison’s artillery had used up a quarter of its ammunition supply over the night. Moreover, French counterbattery fire had achieved virtually no success in suppressing Giap’s guns. By the next morning, Viet Minh artillery had made the airstrip largely unusable. Nevertheless, in midafternoon Major André Botella’s 5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion jumped into Dien Bien Phu to make up for some of the garrison’s losses simply in keeping open the roads to Beatrice, Gabrielle, and Isabelle.
Gabrielle was obviously next, and its Algerian defenders steeled themselves for what they knew was coming. At 6:00 P.M. on the dot, the Viet Minh opened up with a massive bombardment that covered all of Gabrielle. The first wave of attackers came close to breaking through both defensive lines the Algerians had constructed, but intense French artillery fire—along with a timely counterattack led by a sergeant who had been the getaway driver for a gangster with the wonderful name of Pierrot-le-Fou (“Pierre the Crazy One”) before joining the army to escape the long arms of French justice—drove the Viet Minh off Gabrielle. The success was short-lived. A second mass barrage began at 3:30 A.M. and took out the command post with the strongpoint’s senior officers. A counterattack collapsed when the Viet Minh sprang an ambush on the tanks, legionnaires, and Vietnamese paratroopers. By morning it was over, although a few escaped. When an Algerian being led away to prison camp balked at walking on a wounded soldier, the Viet Minh officer casually commented: “You can step on him. He has done his duty for the People’s Army.”
The twin defeats on Beatrice and Gabrielle devastated the French. The garrison’s artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, who had lost an arm in Italy in 1943, retired to his bunker, pressed a hand grenade against his chest, and pulled its pin. Castries’s chief of staff suffered a psychological collapse, while Hanoi sank into despair at the shattering of its illusions. The immediate question should have been, What to do now? There were only two answers: Allow the garrison to go down in defeat in the imminent future or massively reinforce the French forces still holding out. However, senior officers in Hanoi and Saigon dithered, quarreled, and refused to make a decision. Cogny assured his staff that with the monsoon season close at hand, the Viet Minh would have a more difficult time supplying their forces than the French. In fact, with a delicate air bridge supporting the garrison, the opposite was true. Troubles were also occurring within the garrison’s command element. Shortly after the fall of Beatrice and Gabrielle, Langlais, a mere lieutenant colonel, assumed tactical command of the battle and a garrison that numbered ten thousand soldiers. Bernard Fall pointed out the situation’s irony in his magnificent classic, Hell in a Very Small Place: “The opposing forces in the battle of Dien Bien Phu were finally led by a French lieutenant colonel who, in effect, commanded a whole division, and by a Vietnamese history professor who, in effect, commanded a whole army.”
With Viet Minh control of Gabrielle, the enemy could now position his flak directly in the path of French aircraft attempting to land on the main airstrip. That ended the airstrip as a means of reinforcing the defenders. From this point, the French would have to drop by parachute everything required to keep the garrison fighting—reinforcements, food, ammunition, supplies, blood, and medicine. And as the area controlled by the French shrank and Viet Minh antiaircraft fire became more proficient, aerial resupply became increasingly difficult. So serious did the problem become that Castries had to ask Bigeard to take out the Viet Minh’s flak positions to the west of the airfield. In the early morning hours of March 28, Bigeard, a major commanding a battalion, orchestrated a combined-arms attack by the garrison’s artillery, five of its elite battalions, and a portion of the garrison’s small force of American Chaffee tanks. The attack caught the Communist infantry by surprise and smashed them. When it was over, the French had killed at least 350 Viet Minh and captured large amounts of weapons, including 20 mm antiaircraft guns. But despite that momentary victory, the French could not afford the losses. Cogny and his staff in Hanoi were refusing to feed the paratroop battalions at their disposal into Castries’s diminishing ranks, while the airborne bureaucrats in Hanoi refused to allow anyone to jump into Dien Bien Phu who did not possess the mandatory five training jumps, despite a desperate situation and large numbers of volunteers willing to jump without training.
Langlais calculated that Giap’s next target would be the small hills on the east bank of the Nam Yum. Thus the French made desperate attempts to strengthen the defenses of the strongpoints on Elaine and Dominique as well as to provide substantial numbers of paratroopers to buttress the units holding these key positions. In the early evening hours of March 30, the Viet Minh fired off another intensive artillery barrage. What the French termed “the fight for the five hills” had begun. Strongpoints Dominique 1 (D1) and D2 fell almost immediately to waves of Viet Minh infantry as the Algerians and mountain tribesmen collapsed. The paratroopers and French NCOs fought to the last and bought time for the other strongpoints on Dominique. It was now a matter of whether D3 could hold or not, because if Giap’s troops captured the position, they would have a clear run into the unprotected heart of the Dien Bien fortress. While the Algerians on D3 were on the brink of collapse, the African gunners on the main artillery positions on the other side of the Nam Yum depressed their guns and at almost point-blank range, along with the garrison’s quadfifties, blasted the attacking Viet Minh.
The fight for the positions on Elaine was just as fierce: waves of Viet Minh infantry seized E1 as well as a portion of E2. French counterattacks supported by the Chaffees drove the Viet Minh back from the summit of E2, but E1 remained in Giap’s hands the following morning. Unwilling to allow the Viet Minh to hold on to that position, Langlais ordered a counterattack that afternoon. The French retook what had been strongpoint D2, while Vietnamese paratroopers retook E1. Nevertheless, both positions were unrecognizable, with hundreds of the dead from both sides already moldering in the hot sun and humidity. Despite the French success, the cost of the two days of fighting had been extraordinarily heavy: nearly 20 percent of the garrison dead, wounded, or missing.
Langlais and Castries had mounted the counterattacks in the belief that the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Parachute Regiment would jump into Dien Bien Phu that night. It did not. Cogny had social engagements, and no one in his headquarters would make the decision to authorize a night drop of the whole battalion. On succeeding days, Cogny would refuse to authorize major drops into the garrison; yet at the same time, he continued to mount major operations around the Red River Delta. For his part, Navarre failed to intervene in the tactical decision making of his subordinate. In effect, the French high command had settled the garrison’s fate. The battle now quieted down as the Viet Minh rebuilt their forces after the terrible losses they had suffered during the last two weeks of March. Nevertheless, Giap continued to nibble away at French positions. Thus the engagement turned into a battle of attrition, one the French had no hope of winning, especially considering Hanoi’s unwillingness to allow significant reinforcements to jump into the valley. Despite the desperate situation, the commander of the airborne replacement force, Colonel Henri Sauvagnac, continued to demand that paratroopers drop into properly marked jump zones and that only those who had passed the full curriculum of jump qualifications be allowed to parachute into Dien Bien Phu.
By mid-April, the conditions under which the defenders and the Viet Minh were fighting had reached a point that resembled the worst one can imagine, a landscape of horror Hieronymus Bosch might have painted. The monsoon rains had turned everything into a morass of mud in which the disintegrating, maggot-infested dead of past battles were exposed; within a matter of hours, the recent killed were already rotting; the living had to relieve themselves in flooded trenches, the whole permeated by the combined stench of the smells of death and a sea of floating sewerage. The garrison’s wounded suffered immensely in the fetid bunkers of what was supposed to be a hospital, while many lay in the open, awaiting death. Food was out of cans; by this point Viet Minh artillery had taken out the water purification plants, so troops had to drink water drawn from the fetid and disease-ridden Nam Yum.
THE FRENCH DEFEAT
Considering the heavy losses the Viet Minh had suffered, Giap pulled back to a strategy of asphyxiation. As he noted after the battle, his approach aimed at “advanc[ing] our attack and encirclement lines …; progressively tighten[ing] our stranglehold so as to completely intercept reinforcements and supplies … utilizing trenches that have been driven forward until they touch the enemy lines, the tactic of gnawing away at the enemy piecemeal.” Yet Viet Minh losses continued to mount, while French forces, including the Vietnamese paratroopers, hung on. However, the unwillingness of Cogny to commit substantial reinforcements told against the French chances to hold out. Significantly, while French fighters and bombers inflicted serious losses on the Viet Minh, weather and distance from Hanoi prevented the kind of airpower success the French had expected initially.
By April 21, the Viet Minh had taken much of Huguette and the northern portion of the airfield. With fewer paratroopers and legionnaires available, French counterattacks became less effective. The battle had by now settled into death by a thousand cuts. But the Viet Minh suffered as heavily as the French. By April 24, Giap’s soldiers had taken the last of the Huguettes; the fighting over what a French officer had derisively called a bunch of rice fields had cost the Viet Minh three regiments and the French five hundred soldiers. But the Viet Minh could afford those losses; the French could not. Nevertheless, dangerous signs of wavering from the revolutionary path were appearing. As Giap later noted, “Our forces had not been able to avoid decimation, which requires rapid reorganization and reinforcement.… Among our cadres and combatants there appear[ed] negative rightist tendencies, whose manifestations [were] the fear of having many killed, the fear of suffering casualties, of facing up to fatigue, difficulties and privations.…”
The end came over the first week of May. A series of Viet Minh attacks steadily consumed the ground the French held; desperate efforts to fend off the Viet Minh led the surviving artillery to fire its supply of shells at a rate that rapidly used up ammunition reserves; and the effect of masses of Viet Minh antiaircraft fire made it increasingly difficult for resupply aircraft to drop their loads within areas that the garrison’s soldiers could reach. On the night of May 6, the Viet Minh blew up a massive mine under Elaine 2, which eliminated that position. The survivors held out until morning, when they were overwhelmed. Over the course of May 7, the remains of the garrison slowly disintegrated under the pressure of constant Viet Minh attacks. At 5:30 P.M., the radio operator in Castries’s headquarters signed off. It was over.
While the French were going down to defeat, the administration of Dwight Eisenhower had wrung its hands as it attempted to decide what to do. The U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Arthur Radford, had strongly favored intervention via American airpower. On the other hand, two of the leading American paratrooper generals of World War II, General Matthew Ridgway, now army chief of staff, and Lieutenant General James Gavin, both argued forcefully against the commitment of American airpower. They maintained that once in the war, the United States would find itself in an open-ended commitment. In their view, Vietnam would not be worth the resources that a war in that country would entail. In the end, Eisenhower agreed with them, and the United States refused to support the French struggle against Vietnamese nationalism, even if it was cloaked in Communism.
The defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu led to the fall of the government in Paris. A new government under Pierre Mendès-France then agreed to a settlement that divided Vietnam in half, with the Viet Minh to control the north and a separate government in the south. The latter soon came under the control of Ngo Dinh Diem, who although a committed nationalist was also strongly anti-Communist. While the French quickly left Vietnam, the Americans just as quickly moved in to support what lower-ranking officials and military officers believed to be a crucial strategic element in preventing Southeast Asia from collapsing like a string of dominoes. Yet the Viet Minh’s victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu was clearly the catalyst for the independence of not only the Communist regime in the north, but the regime in the south as well. In the broader sense, it marked the rise of a new kind of conflict and a new mode of warfare and balance of power that would reverberate into the twenty-first century.
By refusing to commit its forces to prevent a French defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese, the Eisenhower administration had determined that the defense of Vietnam did not merit the cost in American lives or treasure. Ten years later, another American regime calculated otherwise, despite what its strategic war games suggested. In 1964, Charles de Gaulle, recognizing that the administration of Lyndon Johnson was hell-bent on intervening in South Vietnam to crush an increasingly successful insurgency, dispatched to the Pentagon the French government’s top-secret after-action report on the Dien Bien Phu defeat, its causes, the French mistakes, and the lessons learned. Not even bothering to translate the report into English, the bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of Defense sent the report over to the classified library at the National War College, where it remains to this day.
Perhaps even more depressing is the fact that after the debacle of 1972–1975, the American military decided that it was no longer worth studying insurgencies, including America’s Vietnam War, in its staff and war colleges. Thus, having prepared almost exclusively to fight a conventional war, the American military in the “post-conflict” phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom managed to repeat not only virtually every mistake the French had made in Vietnam, but every mistake the United States had made as well. It was as if the two wars in Vietnam had never occurred. As that great American philosopher Yogi Berra once noted, it was “déjà vu all over again,” but the price that was paid was in the lives of young Americans.