What factors enabled the Vietminh forces to
triumph over the French at Dien Bien Phu?
Dien Bien Phu, the climactic battle between
French and Vietnamese Communist forces (called the Vietminh) after World
War Two, took place at the town of Dien Biên in northwestern Vietnam.
The defeat of over twenty-thousand French troops on 7 May 1954 after a fifty-five
day siege of the camp led directly to the division of Vietnam into two
The French defeat led immediately to the surrender
of French claims in Indochina. While the siege was taking place,
representatives of France, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the United States
and several Asian nations met at Geneva to discuss ways to end the fighting.
The conferees decided to divide what had been called French Indochina into
three nations: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (with Vietnam temporarily
divided at the 17th parallel into northern and southern administrative districts
pending unification elections scheduled for July 1956). In its final statement,
the conference recognized the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity
of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The election mandated by the Geneva Conference
was never held, in part because it was accurately feared that the
nationalist-Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, would come to power. Thus,
north of the 17th parallel a new Communist government led by Ho Chi Minh
came into existence, while in the south a semi-democratic regime increasingly
relied on U.S. support.
- 2 March 1946, Ho Chi Minh was
elected president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (France recognized
an autonomous North Vietnam within French-controlled
- 23 November 1946, French navy
bombarded port of Haiphong in order to stop the flow of arms into the
- 28 December 1946, French imposed
martial law in Indochina.
- 19 May 1947, Vietminh troops attacked
- 10 September, 1947 Ho Chi Minh
refused French peace terms.
- 9 October 1947, French troops
- 7 February 1950, Western powers
formally recognized the French-supported regime of Bao Dai in Vietnam (a
week after USSR recognized Ho in the north.).
- by 1951 open war between French
and Vietminh had spread to all of Indochina (10 April 1953 Vietminh invaded
- 29 November 1953, French airborne
troops captured Dien Bien Phu.
- 14 March 1954, Vietminh besieged
Dien Bien Phu. The base was well-fortified and defended by crack troops,
but it could only be reached by air.
- 7 May 1954, Dien base captured,
nearly 20,000 French killed or captured.
- 20 June 1954, armistice agreed
- July 1954, cease-fire in Geneva
provided for the basic division of the country and internationally supervised
elections to decide on reunification. Vietminh to withdraw from Cambodia
Short biographies of Ho
Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap (1912-2014) are available.
Tuan Vo (Summer 2014) created a time capsule timeline of events in Vietnam, 1945-75. It is very well done and very useful.
A reasonably good introduction to the conflict
in Indochina is in the The Pentagon Papers, Chapter 1, "Background to the Conflict,
1940-50". A picture
exhibition of the First Indochina War is very useful.
There are a series of the key texts that determined
the future for Indochina after World War II:
Some other links:
- 28 November 1943, Roosevelt and
Stalin discussed the future of French Rule in
Indochina at the Teheran Conference
- 24 January 1944, Roosevelt sent
a Memorandum to Cordell Hull, Secretary of State, on the issue of French control of
- 23 February 1945, in a press
conference Roosevelt publically addressed the issue of French Rule in
- August 1945, Bao Dai, emperor
of Annam, abdicated
- 2 September 1945, Declaration of
Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (note how the text
began with a quote from the American declaration of
- March 1946, Agreement
on the Independence of Vietnam in which the French Government recognized
the Republic of Vietnam as a free state, forming part of the Indochinese
Federation and the French Union. With regard to the unification of the three
Ky (Nam Ky, or Cochin China, Trung Ky, or Annam, and Bac Ky, or Tonkin),
the French Government undertook to follow the decisions of the people consulted
- 7 February 1950, the United States
Laos and Cambodia and accorded diplomatic recognition to those
- 8 May 1950, the United States
agreed to extend Military and Economic
Aid to the area.
- 24 May 1950, the American Chargé
d'Affaires at Saigon wrote about the Economic aid
- 28 January 1951, President Truman
and the French Prime Minister Plevan held top secret conversations on the
Far East in the Cabinet Room
of the White House
- 20 July 1954, Agreement on
the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam (The Geneva Accords), which
theoretically ended the war between French Union forces and the Vietminh
in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, which were to become fully independent, with
Vietnam partitioned near the 17th parallel into two states pending reunification
through "free elections" to be held by 20 July 1956. The United States and
Vietnam were not sigNatories to these agreements. See also U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on the fall of Dien Bien Phu (May 7th, 1954)
- 21 July 1956, The American Secretary
of State, John Foster Dulles, provided the American Response to the Geneva Declarations.
- 3 November 1954, the White House
issued a statement explaining the purpose of the Mission of the
Special U.S. Representative in Vietnam.
On France's war in Indo-China, see: Philippe
Franchini, Les guerres d'Indochine (1988); J. Dalloz, War in IndoChina,
1945-1954 (?) and Ellen Hammer's The Struggle for Indochina
On the battle, in particular, see: John
Nordell, Jr., The Undetected Enemy: French and American Miscalculations
in Dien Bien Phu, 1953 (1995); Howard Simpson, Dien Bien Phu:
The Epic Battle America Forgot (1994); Peter Batty, Battle for Dien
Bien Phu [videorecording] (1991); Jacques Dalloz, Dien Bien Phu (1991); Denise Artaud and Lawrence Kaplan, eds., Diên Biên
Phu: l'Alliance atlantique et la défense du Sud- Est asiatique (1989); Melanie Billings-Yun, Decision against War: Eisenhower and
Dien Bien Phu, 1954 (1988); Alain Ruscio, Dien Bien Phu: la
fin d'une illusion (1986); Erwan Bergot, Les 170 jours de Diên
Biên Phu (1981); Peter Poole, Dien Bien Phu, 1954: The
Battle That Ended the First Indochina War (1972); Bernard Fall, Hell
in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (1966).
Ho Chi Minh
Gulf of Tonkin
Paris Peace Accords
Fall of Saigon