Forty years ago, a coalition of Vietnamese nationalists and Communists defeated the flower of the French army at Dien Bien Phu. The United States later paid a high price in blood and treasure for ignoring the lesson of that debacle.
Fighting gallantly against heavy odds, the besieged French garrison held out for 56 heroic, blood-soaked days, then surrendered.Some influential Americans advocated dropping the atom bomb on the Viet Minh to stop the onslaught. President Eisenhower overruled them.
The defeat on May 7, 1954, signaled the end of French colonialism in Indochina. The Geneva Conference divided Vietnam into a communist northern zone and an American-backed southern one, and the slide toward U.S. military involvement began.
Ultimately, like the French at Dien Bien Phu, the Americans were unable to defeat communist North Vietnam.
Faced with a stalemate, mounting casualties and anti-war protests at home, the United States opted for a political settlement. It signed the Paris Peace Agreement, which ended American military involvement, in January 1973. The war between the Vietnamese dragged on for two more years, until the North overran the South in April 1975.
The inability of the French and Americans to prevail underscored the difficulty for a foreign army, however well-armed, of fighting a highly motivated force on its native ground.
Dien Bien Phu was the first military milestone in the Vietnam conflict.
A few months after World War II, France had undertaken to restore its unpopular, discredited colonial rule in Indochina. President Truman lent a hand, reversing the anti-imperialist policy of his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Thus encouraged, the French threw nearly a million men into the struggle. After a series of military failures, they staked everything on the defense of Dien Bien Phu, a fortified village surrounded by mountains in the remote northwest highlands.
Dien Bien Phu was of little strategic importance, but it had an airstrip and controlled routes into Laos. From this valley, the French hoped to block the Viet Minh - the communist Vietnamese - from invading Laos.
According to the late historian Bernard B. Fall, the French strategy was to offer their own troops as bait, draw the Vietnamese into a set-piece battle and destroy a large part of the growing communist army. The gamble backfired. The Vietnamese avoided main-force confrontations, striking French positions one by one at their own choosing.
American mercenaries flying cargo planes were shot down by Chinese gunners while trying to supply the garrison.
The large corps of foreign correspondents in Vietnam reported the siege of Dien Bien Phu from their hotel rooms 180 miles away, using questionable French briefings and communist broadcasts. None was allowed on the scene. After the cease-fire, they got the ghastly inside story from survivors.
Two weeks later, the victorious Viet Minh marched in disciplined ranks, on shoes made from rubber tires, into Hanoi, which was to become their capital. Communism, gray and oppressive, replaced the languor and Gallic confusion of life under the French.
When I moved to Haiphong, then still in French hands, and reported that life there was free and untrammeled, the food and wine superb, and love, in its commercial and romantic forms, very much alive, the Communists denounced me for preferring bourgeois decadence. They were right. I did.
Life in the South, under its new anti-communist president, Ngo Dinh Diem, flourished economically for seven years. But politically, by his persecution of Buddhists, Diem embarrassed President Kennedy.
The United States let it be known that it would not mind a coup. The military promptly overthrew Diem, then murdered him and his brother.
Military rule, amateurish, corrupt and unimaginative, made matters worse. Diem had scored victories in the field by using guerrilla tactics. The military floundered, relegated to an inferior role by the Americans.
Washington made the mistake of committing its own army to fight in Vietnam. The Chinese and Russians, at loggerheads politically and ideologically, settled for moral support and a steady supply of arms to their Vietnamese client.
Had the United States trained its Vietnamese allies to match the Viet Cong's guerrilla methods, the result might have been different. Instead, it assumed the brunt of the fighting, employing trucks, tanks, helicopters and naval vessels in a massive assault on elusive, well-concealed targets.
The U.S. military dropped more bombs on Vietnam than it had used in World War II, yet the enemy survived and continued to fight.
As a senator, Kennedy told me through a mutual friend in 1954 that he recognized the danger of involvement in Vietnam. But as president, he and his successors in the White House appeared to believe the victory denied the French at Dien Bien Phu could be theirs. It was a fatal mistake.