The Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the Fall of French Indochina

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Many forget the origins of the American war in Vietnam – formed from a much older story of European colonialism and the resistance of the indigenous population to it. However, the rise of communism throughout South-East Asia added to this; the combination of colonial legacies and the battle of the ideologies created a volatile situation in many countries that would cost millions of lives and would significantly shape the world in the latter half of the 20th century.

When talking about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the scale was incredibly large; a French military base was to be supplied by air and, in theory, draw the Viet Minh to attack and defeat them in a set-piece battle. The soldiers were mostly elite French paratroopers, representing a tenth of those stationed in French Indochina. However, for a myriad of reasons the French attack failed miserable.

With the loss of Dien Bien Phu came negotiations between the Viet Minh, the communist nations which had supported them and Western powers. There was a tenuous division following the peace-deal brought about by the Geneva Accords. The current division was reminiscent of the 17th parallel with a Communist government under Ho Chi Minh in the north and in the south a nationalist government under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The aim was to hold national elections in 1956 with the aim of creating a unified government; French forces were to withdraw from the north and the Viet Minh from the south, which they duly carried out. However, the elections themselves did not occur and ideological tensions continued to rise between north and south.

The U.S., under Eisenhower’s presidency, had supplied the French forces with $1bn in military and logistical support against the Viet Minh. Before this, the U.S. had been reluctant to get involved – it was a matter of supporting either a colonial power or allowing a communist take-over. Cold War politics undermined the principles of America and the practicality of the situation was to support the colonial ruler. The U.S. felt it had no option but to continue supporting Diem’s capitalist government in the south against the communist north to avoid another situation like in Korea.

The Vietnam War was the result of this. The tactics of the Viet Minh were becoming more robust as their methods of guerrilla warfare improved. These were to pay off effectively against the Americans in their own Vietnam War. The result of this was the development of insurgency and military tactics that would successfully discourage U.S. and Western military intervention on such a scale again.

The impact on French and American national politics was profound; the conservative French government at the time, under Joseph Laniel, was overwhelmingly defeated by the Radical Party, under socialist Pierre Mendès France. He was strictly against the notion of French colonialism and attempted peaceful negotiations regarding Moroccan and Algerian independence, and relinquishment from French control. This did not occur in reality, but the sentiment was strong enough to show the support of the people for the government and its objectives. The psychological ramifications of the war manifested themselves in favour of a peaceful move away from an empire and a withdrawal from intervention in countries where communism was emerging – something, arguably, that the U.S. experienced in the aftermath of its own Vietnam War.

The emergence of the ‘domino effect’ theory was to shape the foreign policy of the U.S. and its responses towards the region. Covert, extrajudicial warfare occurred with the president’s authorisation alone – as exposed with the release of Nixon’s White House tapes in the aftermath of Watergate and the involvement of the U.S. military in Cambodia.

The battle against communism was leading to turmoil in the American political system. Western democratic systems were becoming increasingly distorted in their responses to the threat of communism and their judicial / legislative bodies struggled to cope with a legitimate democratic way to enforce the intense militaristic policies of the executive. Undemocratic countries, such as the USSR, could easily support the countries of South-Eastern Asia because legitimate institutions such as these were non-existent within their political system. The checks and balances of Western nations were contradictory to the aims of the executive in tackling the rise of communism.

The power of these institutions needed to change, and this can be seen in the strength of the Supreme Court and Congress in tackling President Nixon and bringing extra powers against the presidency. For example, the War Powers Act of 1973 was in direct response to a presidential veto to prevent this curb on the excessive war powers of the presidency. Military action by the president was prevented for more than sixty days without the approval of Congress. To what extent these powers were effective is arguable; within a short space of time, President Reagan circumnavigated Congress in the Iran-Contra Affair; providing support against a socialist movement in Nicaragua. However, there were clear attempts by the institutions to restrict these powers of the executive, as stated, and a rebalancing was needed in response to the tensions

Mostly forgotten, the impact of women on the front-line of this battle was noted by the world’s media and most powerful figures. Geneviève de Galard was one of 15 nurses providing medical support to the wounded in evacuation planes. She was stranded when the plane was damaged, resulting in her capture when the military base was overrun. After the war, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Eisenhower and toured the U.S. as a hero and a congresswoman labelled her a ‘symbol of heroic femininity in the free world’. At the time, in the mid-1950s, this was an incredible acknowledgement to the role of women, particularly in conflict, at a time when battlefields were seen to be the place of men predominantly.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu and the resulting fall of French Indochina was an event that coloured the second half of the 20th century. The balance of power between communism and capitalism, the blow to US supremacy on an international level and the effects on national politics in Western nations shows its significance, and importance for the succeeding decades of politics in the region, and around the world.

Written by Michael Higgs. Edited by Simon Renwick