Monday, May 19, 2014

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu Reconsidered

      Throughout history some battles have had tremendous strategic effects beyond those of immediate tactical success.  For example, the German defeat at the battle of Stalingrad placed the Germans on the strategic defensive for the remainder of the war.  Germany never conducted large-scale offensives after Stalingrad.  

       Was Dien Bien Phu an example of a battle achieving large strategic ends?  On the one hand the victory succeeded in removing the French from Vietnam.  On the other hand its success ultimately led to the American intervention, furthering the conflict for another twenty years.  If the Viet Minh had not achieved such a decisive military victory over them, the French, whose goals were vastly overambitious given both available resources and national will, would have eventually withdrawn their forces and acceded to the Viet Minh's quest for independence as they subsequently did in Algeria.  It is worthy to note that in Algeria there was no Dien Bien Phu equivalent, the French withdrew, and there was no American intervention. 

      I contend that Dien Bien Phu, while being a great tactical victory, was a strategic failure because it created more problems for the Viet Minh than it solved as battlefield success led to strategic failure, i.e., American involvement.  I analyze this hypothesis by:  (1) briefly reviewing the strategic setting that led to the battle of Dien Bien Phu; (2) reviewing the strategic setting after the battle which led to the subsequent American involvement; and (3) based on the previous analysis, provide an alternative outcome that might have led to a resolution of the conflict instead of trading one outside power for a stronger one.

      In reviewing the French strategic setting of the battle of Dien Bien Phu prior to the battle, the situation had changed considerably after 1949 with the advent of Communist China.  "Especially damaging was the loss of French outposts along the Chinese border."[1]  In particular, the Chinese overland routes gave the Viet Minh access to a free flow of Chinese supplies and establishment of base areas.  "It brought a fundamental change in the nature of the war - henceforth, any expansion of Western forces in Vietnam or Laos could be readily offset by Viet Minh force escalation.[2] 

      Thus the French faced a protracted war that they had little chance of winning they had been searching for a situation in which to bring the Viet Minh into battle.  Previously, the Viet Minh had been waging a guerrilla war against the French.  The French hoped to decisively defeat the Viet Minh in conventional operations, destroy it as a political movement, and retain their colonies in Indochina.  The plan they came up with to accomplish was the Navarre Plan of March-April 1953, named after France's last general in Vietnam, General Henri Navarre.  The Navarre Plan envisioned that the "Vietnamese army was to assume a larger role, with the United States assuming the financial burden."[3]  The French forces, with American equipment, would emphasize mobility operations, designed to entrap Giap's forces and engage it in pitched battle.  The French were unable to trap Giap's forces in a series of operations, so Navarre decided to build an airhead in Giap's territory, the mountains of Tonkin.  Navarre believed that he could lure Giap's elite forces into "meat-grinder" battles.  He did lure the Viet Minh into the "meat-grinder" but it was the French that were consumed for the reasons that we discussed during the student presentations.

      The Viet Minh's strategic view and desired end state in seeking battle against the French was that General Giap had become convinced that the protracted people's war being waged by the Vietminh against the French had entered into its third stage, general counterattack.[4]  Giap had now three-hundred thousand troops who were organized along conventional lines into battalions, regiments, and divisions.  These units were well supplied with Russian and Chinese equipment, and O&M supplies which were carried by a stream of peasant porters to the operational divisions.  Their objective was simple:  destroy the garrison at Dien Bien Phu and drive the French out of Indochina.  General Giap's message to his troops on the eve of the battle said:  "Master fear and pain, overcome obstacles, unite your efforts, fight to the very end, annihilate the enemy at Dien Bien Phu, win a great victory!"[5]

     The strategic setting after battle as a result of the Geneva Accords was only a military ceasefire between France and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).  Vietnam remained divided along the 17th parallel, and only vision of a political future that the DRV received was a promise of elections in two years.  The French had the opportunity to regroup their forces below the 17th parallel, and expected to continue to exert their influence on South Vietnam, but their involvement in Vietnam was finished.  The ultimate result of the Geneva Conference was the beginning of direct American involvement in Vietnam.

      The United States became involved in Vietnam because it saw France's defeat as a blow to the West and a victory for communism.  In the aftermath of the Chinese Revolution and the Korean War, the French military defeat at Dien Bien Phu signified a victory for Chinese communism over the West.  This Chinese Communist expansion could not be tolerated, thus the US did not support the outcome of the Geneva Conference.  What the US did do was to "embark on a course designed to make the purely military arrangements serve as the basis of a de facto political settlement."[6]   The US also did not promise to observe the promised elections but rather not to use force to break them up.  Effectively vetoing the elections through this clause, the US sought to shore up Ngo Dihn Diem's government in South Vietnam, and thereby making Vietnam's division permanent.  The US believed that France pusillanimous policy in Vietnam, poor military planning, and colonial past had been the reasons for their defeat.  Not burdened by any of the above sins, the US sought to fight communism in Vietnam through Diem.

      Given the political accords reached as a result of Dien Bien Phu, clearly it did not produce a great strategic result or victory:  Vietnam remained divided, and the US became directly involved taking the place of France.   One may argue that the Vietnamese might have been able to achieve more at the conference table had it not been for American intransigence and duplicity.  On the other hand, it can be equally argued that it was the benign nature of the political demands that the accords placed on France (and the US) that led to the agreement in the first place.  This remains conjectural but if the demands had been the immediate reunification of Vietnam under DRV rule, the accords might have not been signed.  The point here is that the military victory of the Viet Minh over the French at Dien Bien Phu did not translate into a political victory but a great political defeat for the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh.

      An alternative outcome occurred in the Algerian War of independence where there were no French defeats in large-scale military operations, but France subsequently withdrew and there was no American involvement although Ben Bella was also espousing a 'socialist program', employing Marxist rhetoric, and enticing the Soviet-bloc nations for political and material aid.  Why did the US not become involved in the Algerian case which was similar in nature to the Vietnamese case, and in an area which was, geographically, much closer to vital American security interests such as Europe?[7]  The answer to this issue lies in the political perspective that a military defeat may result in.  In Dien Bien Phu, the French were ignominiously defeated and humiliated.  As perceived by the Americans, their defeat was a result of the lack of military prowess, an inability to supply troops in the field, and lack of aircraft and technology; essentially a managerial problem subject to a quick resolution if one is tough to see it through.  This is was a national security issue which the United States viewed as tailor-made for its foreign policy due to its ability to manage and solve technological problems, which this was if seen through this prism, in an expeditious and efficient manner.  Addition-ally, the policy of containment had recently become the motive force behind American rhyme and reason, and led to the Truman Administration's decision to begin military aid to Indochina was taken in "more or less" within the overall policy of containment in the world without evaluating the merit of each individual case.[8]

      In the Algerian case, as France did not suffer any major military defeats of note, the American's viewed French operations there as ongoing, and when the negotiated settlement did occur in 1962 there was no stigma of a military defeat for France (although in fact it was a great strategic defeat), and the US did not perceive the communists as being able to pummel the West politically through another Western military disaster.

      In conclusion, I posit that the battle of Dien Bien Phu was not the great strategic victory but rather a failure.  The reasons for its strategic failure are that the Americans did not want to see the French humiliated by a "communist" movement; did not want another "communist" government in Asia; the outcome of Dien Bien Phu represented Western weakness as opposed if it had been a conscious French choice to withdraw as was in Algeria which did not lead to American involvement.

     Another conclusion, that may be tentatively posited for further observation is that a military victory may not lead to a political victory, or that a military defeat (or a least the absence of victory) may still yield political victory.  The object of war is not to win battles but to win wars; and objectives of wars are defined in political terms.

By:  Gonzalo I. Vergara, Lt. Col., USAF (Ret.)

     [1] Bruce Palmer, Jr. The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam (New York:  Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1984), p. 5.
     [2]  Ibid.
     [3]  Edward Doyle, et. al., Passing the Torch.  The Vietnam Experience Series. (Boston:  Boston Publishing Company, 1981), p. 62.
     [4]  The other two phases of Mao Zedong's people's war, adapted by Giap to Vietnamese conditions, are:  (1) defensive phase where the survival of the revolutionary forces is the prime objective; (2) the second phase's objective is to further demoralize the enemy and increase the ranks of the guerrillas.    Cited in Ibid., pp 48-49.
     [5]  Giap, in Doyle, op. cit., p. 65.
     [6]  Ibid., p. 84.
     [7]  Cold-war security interests.
     [8]  Palmer, p. 5.