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Historical Dictionary

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LAOS, FIRST BATTLE OF (13 April–18 May 1953)

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s (DRV) High Command launched a major attack into northern Laos in April and May 1953 in a bid to open a land route to supply Inter-Zones IV and V and to boost the Lao Resistance Government as part of its wider Indochinese ambitions. As General Vo Nguyen Giap put it at the time: “Our strategic aim is to take all of Indochina, that is Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia…” Elements of the 308th, 312th and 316th divisions attacked upper Laos from mid-April, moving into Sam Neua and Xieng Khouang before threatening to move on Luang Prabang. Whereas the French pulled out of the first two places, they held solid in Luang Prabang and counter-attacked from 9 May, retaking Xieng Khouang. While the battle ended for the Vietnamese on 18 May, the DRV’s army occupied Sam Neau and large parts of Xieng Khouang and Phongsaly. The Vietnamese installed the Pathet Lao in these areas. Thanks to the DRV, Prince Suphānuvong established his resistance capital in Sam Neua.

At the international level, the spectacular Vietnamese invasion of Laos set off warning bells in Washington. Many American strategists worried that the DRV’s Indochinese ambitions hid wider Southeast Asian ones. The Americans were also increasingly disappointed by General Raoul Salan’s defensive strategy, urging him to take the initiative in the battlefield instead of letting the Vietnamese do it for him. Even voices in the French public took notice of the Vietnamese invasion into Laos and the fact that the DRV was not a simple hit-and-run guerrilla movement but a remarkably modern army, now on the move in western Indochina. French leaders had also been caught off guard by the DRV’s threat to Luang Prabang, an ally whose defense the French were now obligated to defend by treaty commitments. This concern influenced the French decision to occupy and hold Dien Bien Phu in order to prevent the DRV from moving on Laos again in 1954. Lastly, the DRV’s Indochina strategy had forced the French to commit and disperse more troops to defend western Indochina and the highlands.

Although this does not appear to have been one of the goals of the spring 1953 attack on upper Laos, DRV strategists understood the significance of what they had done and identified drawing the French into the highlands and across Indochina as one of the main aims of their 1953–1954 campaign leading to the victory at Dien Bien Phu. See also DIEN BIEN PHU, BATTLE PREPARATION AND CONTEXT; LAOS, SECOND BATTLE OF.