Fall of French Indochina

On this day 70 years ago, a French garrison of nearly 12,000 French soldiers surrendered to a much larger Vietnamese army in Dien Bien Phu. This decisive engagement sent shockwaves across the world, marking one of the largest defeats a colonial power suffered at the hands of their subjects. For Vietnam though, it stands as one of their greatest victories, allowing them to throw off the shackles of their colonizers.

Fight for Incochina

For most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the nations of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were all placed under French jurisdiction in an entity called French Indochina. For close to a century, the French would brutally exploit the locals, taking the resources and establishing a monopoly over goods like rice, salt, and opium to force the population to obey them.

This left the population angry and longing for freedom from their French oppressors. During WWII when France was overrun by the German armies and Indochina was occupied by the Japanese. This provided the locals an opportunity to gain their independence.

Resistance movements spread all across the region, including one led by the communist revolutionary Hồ Chí Minh who managed to wrestle parts of North Vietnam away from Japanese control. By the end of the war, he had managed to carve out a small state for himself and attempted to gain recognition from the US who had advocated for decolonization and the right of self-determination.

However, the French were not so willing to simply lose their colony and pressured the US to not recognize the new Vietnamese state and to allow them to reassert control over Indochina. Rather than return to their status as a colony, the Viet Minh launched an attack against the French, sparking the First Indochina War in 1946.

Full-scale war erupted after a series of violent clashes with the French occupying major cities like Hanoi to establish a puppet government to counter the Viet Minh’s influence in rural areas. Rather than face the French army head-on, the Viet Minh adopted guerrilla tactics, using hit-and-run attacks against French forces, which proved to be effective given the difficult terrain of Vietnam.

As the war dragged on, the Viet Minh’s guerilla war proved to be a major nuisance against the French forces. By 1953, there was increasing pressure to end the war. For that reason, French General Henri Navarre set up a fortified base at Dien Bien Phu in northwestern Vietnam. The was meant to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into Laos and to draw the Viet Minh into a large-scale battle where the French hoped to crush them using superior firepower.

Unfortunately, the French got their wish as the Viet Minh General Vo Nguyen Giap gave them that battle. He spent months gathering a large force including heavy artillery to challenge the French. This required him to drag the weapons through rugged terrain and place them in the hills overlooking the French positions.

With his weapons in place, Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded the French, cutting off their supply lines, and began a continuous artillery bombardment on French positions, something the French did not believe was possible. These were followed up by repeated Viet Minh attacks to further weaken the French defenses.

These included human wave attacks that resulted in heavy losses, but the results were the steady weakening of French defenses.

After several weeks of fierce fighting, the French defenses gradually deteriorated, leaving them surrounded and barely able to receive any supplies. The Viet Minh launched a final massive assault on May 7, 1954, which overwhelmed the remaining French forces.

With this defeat, the French were forced to surrender, resulting in the capture of almost a tenth of the French army in this region. This meant the French no longer had the means to continue the war and were forced to sue for peace. This resulted in the Geneva Accords which the French were forced to leave Indochina, ending almost a century of French colonial rule.

“The latest news from Dien Bien Phu is serious. The French forces, which have; now been under attack for 37 days, have withdrawn into a perimeter of less than three-quarters of a mile square. This “radical reorganization”, as it is called, lias meant the abandonment of all but one of the outposts around the airstrip. The airstrip itself has been useless for some time because of the artillery and mortar fire which the Vietminh have been able to bring to bear on it. Part of the strip is now occupied by the Vietminh. Their forward troops are reported to be only 700 yards from the main French positions. The French are still able to reinforce and supply the garrison by parachute and they have also been able to step up their striking power in the air. Nevertheless, their withdrawal into a ‘do or die’ position has brought the battle, to a critical stage, French military men in Hanoi appear to believe that the Vietminh will not attempt a final assault until after the Geneva Conference has opened next week.”

-Clipping from the Advertiser.

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