Historical Dictionary



On 5 January 1954, General Vo Nguyen Giap went to the hills overlooking the valley of Dien Bien Phu in the company of his main Chinese advisor, Wei Guoqing, in order to make final preparations before launching the attack on French Union Forces entrenched in the valley below him. Ho Chi Minh had told his commanding general that the battle of Dien Bien Phu had to be won at all costs; defeat was not an option. If there was any doubt that it could not be a 100 percent victory, then Vo Nguyen Giap had orders from the Politburo to postpone the attack. As of 14 January, all in the General Staff were still agreed to attack swiftly in order to wipe out entirely the French encampment. The Vietnamese attack on Dien Bien Phu was set for 25 January at 17H00, as dusk set in.

However, on 24 January, a Vietnamese soldier of the 312th Division fell into French hands, allowing military intelligence to learn of the exact time and date of the imminent attack. The Viet Minh intercepted French radio communications indicating that the French were now aware of the attack time. The Army’s Security Department (Cuc Bao Ve Quan Doi) informed Vo Nguyen Giap of this and the attack was postponed for 24 hours. Those 24 hours were fateful. Vo Nguyen Giap was under pressure from his Chinese advisors, his own mobilized troops and officers, and some of his General Staff to attack resolutely – and now. They argued that everything was in place and that a cancellation of the attack would seed dissension among the troops and the tens of thousands of exhausted porters. Vo Nguyen Giap, however, was not sure that the Vietnamese could win at 100 percent. For him – and apparently for Ho Chi Minh as well – that was enough to call off the January attack. And that is what he did.

Vo Nguyen Giap later cited the three main reasons for his fateful decision. First, the Vietnamese army had never taken on such a huge position, manned by so many French Union battalions and protected by tanks, heavy artillery, and air power (the Vietnamese had suffered a stinging defeat at Na San in 1952). Second, this would have been the first time that Vietnamese artillery would have to execute coordinated calibration and firing on a grand scale from protected but unfavourable aiming sites. He was worried by the fact that one artillery regiment commander had recently admitted that he did not know how to use his cannon. Third, Vietnamese soldiers had never attacked in waves in broad daylight over what would be an extended period of time. The French camp at Dien Bien Phu stretched over 15 km in length and 67 km in width. Accurate and coordinated artillery fire would thus be crucial to knocking out French positions and allowing Vietnamese troops to attack. Not all of the Vietnamese artillery had arrived in place by the January attack date; and in the meantime the French had considerably reinforced their fortifications in the valley. The stakes were even higher as the Berlin Conference opened at the same time, on 25 January; military defeat would have had catastrophic consequences for the DRV at the diplomatic table. Vo Nguyen Giap cancelled the attack, switching the plan to “attack surely and advance surely” (Danh Chac, Tien Chac). His Chinese advisor, Wei Guoqing, agreed.

In March, Vo Nguyen Giap threw his best divisions against the French Union hunkered down in Dien Bien Phu and won in a set-piece battle. See also DIEN BIEN PHU, BATTLE OF; DIEN BIEN PHU, BATTLE PREPARATION AND CONTEXT; DIEN BIEN PHU, EXPERIENCE OF BATTLE; DIEN BIEN PHU, FILM; DIEN BIEN PHU, SIGNIFICANCE OF.