1954 – Divided

Two striking, unanticipated yet connected events in 1954 threw a dramatic light on delusions of empires, peoples’ never-ending search for independence, and the enduring practices of colonial exploitation and control.  European empire building in the East had followed a rather predictable pattern, one that begins with merchants travelling to new parts of the world.  First they had been to Africa and South America, next to the east for spices and silk, to India and  the Moluccas, and finally moving on to what is now Cambodia and Vietnam.  Missionaries followed merchants, seeking to convert ‘savages’; trade became subordinated to acquisition; maps were redrawn; an administration was imposed; and the process ended with a slew of new colonies established.

So it was in the second half of the 19th Century, when, using the usual excuse of the persecution of missionaries, the French Navy intervened in the trade with Vietnam.  With assistance from the Spanish, the French brought together Cochinchina (southern Vietnam and part of Cambodia), Annam, the central part of the country, and Tonkin (the northern part of modern Vietnam, which also embraced parts of Laos) to create Indochina.  It didn’t take long for the French colonists to settle down, happily overseeing the growth and export of tobacco, tea, coffee and indigo.

The natives might have been restless, but the French kept control of the country, right up until the Japanese invaded in 1940, conquering the whole of Indochina by early 1945.  However, a few months later WW2 was over, and the Japanese defeated.  In the ensuing chaotic mess the Việt Minh occupied Hanoi, and declared a new national government.  Their claims were ignored.  The Allies had wanted to divide Indochina at the 16th parallel, to allow the Republic of China to receive the Japanese surrender in the north, and the British in the south.  Confusion continued, with tensions between the north and the south.  Eventually, the Allies agreed that Indochina was still a French colony, and helped them re-establish control during the short 1945-1946 War.

The leader of the Việt Minh, Hồ Chí Minh, initially took a moderate stance to avoid military conflict with France, but his requests for independence were ignored. The Việt Minh launched a guerrilla campaign against the French in late 1946, and so began the First Indochina War.  It reached its climax with the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ, which took place between 13 March and 7 May 1954, fought between the French Far East Expeditionary Force and the Việt Minh communist revolutionaries.  The battle proved to be a textbook example of warfare, a contrast between traditional big army strategy and guerilla tactics combined with brilliant thinking.

After nearly eight years of fighting, the French were determined to crush the Việt Minh.  They  began a major tactical operation, placing and then supporting their soldiers at Điện Biên Phủ, deep in the hills of northwestern Vietnam.  The operation’s purpose was to cut off Việt Minh supply lines into the neighboring Kingdom of Laos.  Laos was a French ally, and it needed defending.  At the same time, their plan had a second objective, it was intended to draw the Việt Minh into a major confrontation in order to cripple them.

French military forces had committed 10,800 troops, including elite paratrooper units and artillery units, together with reinforcements comprising colonial troops from North Africa and local soldiers recruited in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, a total of nearly 16,000 men, all to the defense of a monsoon-affected valley surrounded by heavily-wooded hills, leaving this largely impenetrable high ground un secured. Artillery as well light tanks were moved to the garrison.  The plan was to resupply the military position by air, based on French forces’ confident assessment the Việt Minh had no effective anti-aircraft capability.  The French had set their trap.

As the Việt Minh saw the French maneuvers, they realised this was going to be a crucial battle.  Initially General Võ Nguyên Giáp planned the Việt Minh response based on the Chinese “Fast Strike, Fast Victory” model, using all the available soldiers to power through to the central command of the opposing force to secure victory.  The battle plan was to start at 5pm on 25 January and to finish three nights and two days later.  However, on 21 January Việt Minh intelligence indicated that the French knew what they were intending.  The assault was canceled, and on 26 January Giáp began to design a new battle plan with a new start date.  Looking at his approach, it could have been drawn from one of the great books on military strategy.

That book was known to the French.  More than 150 years earlier, in 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte had established a military academy, the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr.  Napoleon was an outstanding strategist, and Saint Cyr was to provide teaching on battle strategy for commissioned officers, as it still does today.  In its early days, military strategy was largely understood in terms learning the tactics of warfare through studying Europe’s great battles.  However, among the many books available for study was Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  Among other matters, the traditional version of book’s thirteen chapters covered such topics as assessing and waging battle; planning, including the use of strategic positioning and strategic advantage; adapting to contingencies; the importance of terrain; and spying.  Still considered to be one of history’s greatest analyses of military strategy, The Art of War was translated into French and published in 1772, and added to the Saint-Cyr library collection soon after.

By the 20th Century, the majority of battles that preoccupied the French (as well as the Germans, British and Russians) were largely set pieces, with massive armies facing each other, each trying to find a weakness in the opposing side.  Sun Tzu was seen of less relevance, even when the allies found themselves in the East, fighting Japan, where terrain, military conduct, and views about military deployments were often very different from those in Europe.  Handicapped by past French and German  experience, little time was spent analysing Sun Tzu’s insights.  As a result, the First Indochinese War found the French battling against guerilla tactics, and an enemy that simply disappeared as quickly as it struck (the British had faced these same problems in the Asian theatre of the Second World War, especially in Burma and Malaysia).

In 1954, the Việt Minh, under General Giáp, had decided on their new approach, and surrounded the French, ready to besiege them.  They moved around 50,000 regular troops into the hills around the French-held valley, in five divisions, including an artillery division equipped with medium howitzers and heavier field-guns, as well as anti-aircraft artillery.  They didn’t just bring in these vast quantities of heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns, but they were determined to move the bulky weapons through the difficult terrain up the rear slopes of the mountains. Once there, the Việt Minh set about digging tunnels through the mountains, and placing the artillery pieces so that they overlooked the French position.  The French were completely surrounded.  The trap had been turned around, and now the Việt Minh were ready to spring it.

There are many books describing the ensuing battle. [i]  Briefly, the Việt Minh assault began in earnest on 13 March 1954 with an attack on a French northeastern outpost.  By early the next morning, the outpost was crushed, with some 350 French soldiers killed, many wounded, and 600 Việt Minh dead.  Much to French amazement, the Viet Minh had employed direct artillery fire, in which each gun crew did its own targeting (as opposed to the more traditional use of indirect fire, in which guns are out of direct line of sight, and rely on a forward artillery spotter).  Navarre wrote, “Under the influence of Chinese advisers, the Viet Minh commanders had used processes quite different from the classic methods. The artillery had been dug in by single pieces …They were installed in shellproof dugouts, and fired point-blank from portholes… This way of using artillery and AA guns was possible only with the expansive ant holes at the disposal of the Vietminh and was to make shambles of all the estimates of our own artillerymen’. [ii]

Massive bombardment by the Việt Minh continued. The diffuse positioning of their heavy artillery made attempts to silence their guns almost impossible.  Ground fighting was, according to reports, more like early 20th Century trench warfare.  The French pushed back at times, but, as key positions were overrun, the perimeter contracted, and air resupply, on which the French had relied, became impossible. Việt Minh anti-aircraft fire took its toll, and the garrison was overrun in May.  Most of the French forces surrendered, some escaped.  The Battle of Điện Biên Phủ was a stunning victory.  The French government resigned, agreeing to withdrawal from Indochina.

If you want to learn about General Giáp’s thinking, you can turn to The Art of War, and review Sun Tzu’s comments in Chapters V and VI, on Strategic Advantage, and Strong Points and Weak Points, together with Chapter X on Terrain.  So much is relevant.  Perhaps this one quote from Chapter VI summarises it well: “One is weak because he makes preparations against others; he has strength because he makes others prepare against him”.  You can almost see Giáp looking at the French preparations for battle, like pieces on a chessboard.  He hid artillery in the hillsides, without any obvious concentrations of equipment and soldiers, “The ultimate skill in taking up a strategic position is to have no form.  If your position is formless, the most carefully concealed spies will not be able to get a look at it, and the wisest counsellors will not be able to lay plans against it.” [iii]  Sun Tzu’s insights counteracted the more conventional French big battle tactics.

The Việt Minh victory at Điện Biên Phủ on 7 May 1954, was followed, a day later with the first meeting on Vietnam at the Geneva Convention.  There are several photographs you can find, showing the delegations sitting round an open square table.  It was crowded.  There were representatives of the British, French, USA, China (PRC), Việt Minh and Russia (USSR); in addition the State of Vietnam took part, this representing the residual southern part of the French state of Indochina.  The Việt Minh had a clear outcome in mind – independence.  The UK favoured a negotiated settlement, while the French delegation wanted preserve France’s control of Indochina, to justify past warfare and losses, even as the nation’s military dominance had collapsed.  The US was struggling with two issues, its role in supporting the French in Indochina for many years, and its fear of losing Indochina to the Communists.  That approach had been the dominant issue at the Convention in its earlier discussions on the partitioning of Korea.

The Korean War had begun in 1950, and came to an end when an armistice was signed on 27 July 1953, which was designed to “ensure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.”  As would be a key issue in relation to Vietnam, the US wanted to prevent communism slowly extending south, the ‘domino theory’.  The Chinese wanted a peace treaty implemented on the Korean peninsula, but the US, through Secretary of State John Dulles, didn’t agree, and a peace settlement has never been agreed.  The signed armistice established Korean Demilitarized Zone, close to the 38th Parallel, the de facto border between the North and South Korea. This was a bad omen for Vietnam.

Despite the Korean plan, defeating the French had given the Việt Minh confidence, but they had under-estimated the concerns around the table.  The French had lost the war, but surely not their colony, too.  The Americans were obsessed by the advance of communism, observing the Việt Minh with the Chinese delegation sitting next to them, and the Russians in support.  To add to the problems, the U.S. did not recognize the PRC at the conference.  Dulles, a rigid anti-communist, refused any contact with the Chinese delegation, not even to shake hands with Zhou Enlai, the leading Chinese negotiator.  The discussions were hobbled from the start.

Today, the Geneva Conference reads like something from the 19th Century, with ‘great power’ negotiators deciding the fate of a colony, paying virtually no attention to the people under consideration, their aspirations, or the fact they had won a major war.  Yet again, it was racist and imperialistic men played chess:  keep the communists out, give something to the French, and above all, control the natives.  The eventual Geneva Accords promised elections in 1956 to determine a national government for a united Vietnam, but neither the United States nor the State of Vietnam signed anything. The non-communist Vietnamese delegation objected to any division of Vietnam, but lost out when the French accepted the proposal of the Việt Minh delegation that Vietnam eventually be united by elections under the supervision of ‘local commissions’.  The United States responded with an ‘American Plan’, supported by South Vietnam and the UK, with unification elections to be held under the supervision of the UN, but that was  rejected by the USSR.  Ngô Đình Diệm, with American support, declare himself the president of the Republic of Vietnam.  Việt Minh began fighting in the south,  and events escalated into the Vietnam War.

The consequences of the decisions taken at the Conference lingered on for 19 years, years that would see US troops killed and wounded in Vietnam, as they, like the French, lost to smart guerilla tactics and huge numbers on the ground.  The scale and cost of this second Vietnam War was terrible, and the scale of the forces involved were staggering.  By 1970, the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam in the south) was the world’s fourth largest army with approximately one million regular soldiers, and the PAVN (Peoples’ Army of Vietnam, which included the Viet Cong in the north), was not far behind.  The figures for the nineteen years of conflict are still not fully known:   estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed range from 1m to nearly 4m, together with around 300,000 Cambodians.   58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, 304,000 were wounded; even today over 1,600 remain missing-in-action. [iv]   After nearly two decades of a pointless war, the Americans withdrew in 1973, their anti-communist ambitions finally crumbling.  At last, after 150 years of occupation and no longer divided, Vietnam was able to become an independent self-governing nation.

[i] For this blog, I have relied on Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly, Random House, 1985; Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, Picador, 1989;, and Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dien_Bien_Phu

[ii] Henri Navarre, Agonie de l’Indochina 1958 Paris: Plon., page 225, cited in Wikipedia, op cit

[iii] From the Ames Translation, republished by The Folio Society, page 99.

[iv] In comparison, Australia got off lightly: 521 died in action, and 5,000 were wounded.