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Posted on Nov 4, 2004 in War College

We Support Ourselves

By Steven McWilliams

Despite several glaring examples, none of the French military or civil administration in Hanoi give serious consideration to the VCP or the National Liberation Front (NLF). They consider the guerrilla forces to be wholly incapable of defeating French forces in the field. Accepting the risk to supply columns, they set up several fortified outposts in the wilds of Vietnam, including a relatively new one at a settlement named Dien Bien Phu. Located in a valley surrounded by high rocky hills, the French consider this emplacement impregnable and the rocky crags impassable.

In February 1954, as Ho pursues a diplomatic settlement with the French, Giap determines that capture of Dien Bien Phu will aid the case of the DRV. On 13 March 1954, the siege of Dien Bien Phu, or "head town of border administration" began.


Among the comments heard at French military HQ in Hanoi was that Giap "was an NCO learning to handle regiments." The leadership were contemptuous of NLF/VM mobility and logistics. Giap’s staff officers believe that battle must be joined at Dien Bien Phu, but are uncertain how to provoke the French in an attack. On 6 December 1953, Giap issues a mobilization order in accordance with a directive of the Party Central Committee. In part, it says this:

     "You must prepare roads, overcome all obstacles, surmount all difficulties, fight unflinchingly, defeat cold & hunger, carry heavy loads across mountains and valleys and strike right into the enemy’s camp to destroy him and free our fellow countrymen . . . . Comrades, forward!"

His counterpart, General Navarre, is aware that he loses nothing if he declines battle at Dien Bien Phu, but is certain that the fortified camp can hold out until the rains force Giap and the NLF/VM to move to summer quarters. Apparently, Gen. Navarre has no awareness that if Dien Bien Phu falls, he is defeated. Pursuing Operation Atlante into the South and Central Highlands, he resolves to act at Dien Bien Phu. Another General, Cogny, "[hopes] for a battle at Dien Bien Phu", declaring that he will silence the NLF/VM artillery, that Giap cannot "go to Laos" and that Giap is "obliged to attack". On 12 March 1954, the eve of the battle, Giap declares, "Hoi toan the can bo va chien si, tran Dienbienphu sup bat dau . . ." ("Officers and troops, the Battle of Dienbienphu is about to begin. The hour has come for you to go into action . . . ")

As the forces ratchet up, General Navarre refuses to admit that his fixation with Operation Atlante had clouded his vision on Dien Bien Phu.

For this epic, Giap employs more than 50,000 troops, 55,000 support forces, and more than 100,000 transport workers concentrated above Dien Bien Phu. By 27 Mar 1954, French troops in Dien Bien Phu are isolated. To guard against French air attacks, NLF/VM workers dig elaborate system of tunnels to hide their artillery. On 7 May 1954, it is all over, French troops surrender after a mass human wave attack breaches inner strongpoints. Estimated Losses are 25,000 Vietnamese and 1,500 French. Giap has proven his doctrine and his ability. Over nearly the next 20 years, he will prove his mettle again against a more mighty opponent, the United States.

Throughout his command of the Vietnamese Forces, Giap recalls the motto of the NLF, "Tu luc can sinh!" ("We support ourselves!") This refers to the NLF’s work at food production, agitatation-propaganda, indoctrination. The only units excused from these extra duties were the "thoat ly", or "cut off" units – these are elite units.

In 1982, Giap is retired as Defense Minister, a post he has held continuously since 1946. He continues on the Central Committee, but is retired from all offices by the end of the 1980s. He is apparently living out his retirement in ease, nearing age 95. It is certain that the man who bested two modern, powerful, technologically advanced Western armies will never be forgotten.

Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap

HANOI, Vietnam – (left) Adm. Dennis C. Blair, commander in chief, U.S. Pacific Command, meets Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, at the general’s residence Feb. 1, 2002.

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