March 13, 2014–Sixty years ago today the Viet Minh opened their siege of Dien Bien Phu. A revolutionary movement, mostly communists but with some nationalists too, the Viet Minh were fighting for their independence from France, which had held the three states of Indochina as a French colony since the nineteenth century. The siege of Dien Bien Phu, a French entrenched camp in the northern Vietnamese mountains would go on for nearly two months, the biggest battle of the Franco-Vietnamese war, and it would mark the end of the era of French dominance in Vietnam.
I was just a kid then and had no idea of these events, much less that they would impact my life. But fast forward a decade and more and America’s Vietnam war forced everyone of my generation to take a position, to deal with a conflict that had embroiled the United States. For me that meant trying to understand how and where the Vietnam war came from and that meant starting with the French. My first serious book project–never completed–was to fashion a history of the French war in Vietnam. I chose a college I knew would afford me access to new sources on French Indochina. I learned a lot about the epochal battle of Dien Bien Phu. One of my earliest boardgame projects similarly modeled the French war. A later game, also never published, specifically centered on the battle. America had a large and mostly hidden role in the events surrounding Dien Bien Phu and I made that the subject of my second book, which I have brought back and completely updated for this occasion.
As this anniversary unfolds I shall post occasional pieces on the events of that time and some of their consequences. One of the items in my “Downloadable” section, “The Working Class Hero,” concerns one of the French military heroes of Dien Bien Phu, Marcel Bigeard, who went on to controversy in the Algerian war and ultimately rose to become chief of staff of the French army. There may be more of these pieces as well. The French honor their fallen and mark the tragic end of their Indochina adventure. Americans largely ignore “Operation Vulture” and our almost-war of that time. The Vietnamese celebrate their independence and venerate their own heroes. At a certain level Dien Bien Phu represents a last stand of the imperial powers on the road to the end of colonialism. The lessons of that time still need to be appreciated.