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ĐIỆN BIÊN PHỦ, SIGNIFICANCE OF

The significance of the battle of Dien Bien Phu manifests itself in many ways. First, it was a modern military engagement, a set-piece battle, and a victory for what had only a few years earlier been the guerrilla army of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). It was not so much that the French Expeditionary Corps was weak in 1954 – indeed, the Americans had almost been overrun in Korea by Chinese and North Korean wave tactics – but rather that the DRV had put together a professional army and succeeded in executing a modern battle, using artillery and anti-aircraft weapons in a coordinated fashion. The DRV case sheds light on how a war state makes the transition from a guerrilla force to a modern army. It also shows how a Western colonial power’s own “colonized” enemy borrowed foreign military knowledge and aid from abroad to defeat that power in a classic military battle. In this sense, the DRV’s defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 is as important as the Japanese defeat of the Russians at Tsushima in 1905.

The DRV victory at Dien Bien Phu also resonated far and wide in the global South, providing hope and inspiration to other colonized peoples fighting colonial domination. The message seemed to be clear: the colonized could develop modern “military force” and use it against the colonizer to achieve national independence. On 1 November 1954, hardly three months after the Geneva Accords had been signed on Indochina, the Front de libération national (FLN) began their own independence struggle for control of Algeria. At the military level, Dien Bien Phu is a case study in the dangers of underestimating a non-Western adversary, whatever its origin, and its capacity to battle with lethal force. General Henri Navarre was not the only one to commit this error.

However, the DRV’s military victory at Dien Bien Phu did not ensure diplomatic success at Geneva. Unlike the Indonesians and the Algerians, the communist core of the DRV prevented the Viet Minh from playing the Americans against the colonial power on the diplomatic front. What worried the American strategists most at Dien Bien Phu was the fear that Sino-Soviet communism would spread throughout the region if the West did not take a stand. As the battle raged at Dien Bien Phu in April 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced the domino theory and the American desire to stop the spread of communism into Asia at the Indochinese pass. The DRV may have won the battle at Dien Bien Phu but they did not win diplomatically at the negotiating table in Geneva. In July 1954, the DRV only obtained half of the Vietnam declared independent by Ho Chi Minh in September 1945, as the Americans threw their weight behind the State of Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem.

Lastly, the battle of Dien Bien Phu was not just a “French” battle, but rather a multi-national, imperial and international mobilization of manpower and resources. Almost 70% of the troops fighting the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu were not French. They were Legionnaires, Africans, North Africans, and most importantly Vietnamese, who accounted for 33% of the total number of troops. And while the Americans and the Chinese did not send combat troops into Indochina as in Korea, each of them was directly involved in the planning and financing of this epic battle. The end of the French empire in Indochina in mid-1954 was a profoundly international affair, both militarily and diplomatically. See also ALGERIAN WAR; DIEN BIEN PHU, BATTLE OF; DIEN BIEN PHU, BATTLE PREPARATION AND CONTEXT; DIEN BIEN PHU, CANCELLATION OF FIRST ATTACK; DIEN BIEN PHU, EXPERIENCE OF BATTLE; DIEN BIEN PHU, FILM.