On this day in 1954, the decisive battle of the First Indochina War at Dien Bien Phu ended with a resounding victory for the Viet Minh. The war was fought between the colonial French powers and a group of Vietnamese soldiers led by communist Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese forces had been battling the colonial French since the aftermath of World War Two, with each side being funded by the opposing camps of the Cold War – the Vietnamese from China and France from the United States. The town of Dien Bien Phu lies near the Vietnamese/Laotian border and was a French stronghold for much of the war until it was besieged by Viet Minh communists. The communists were led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, who encircled the town with 40,000 men and heavy artillery. After a fifty-seven day siege, the French defense crumbled and the Viet Minh were victorious.
The decisive battle essentially ended the war, which led to the Geneva Conference to negotiate peace. The Conference, which was attended by most of the major world powers, resulted in the division of Vietnam along the 17th Parallel. It was this division which kept tensions alive between the communist North and US-backed South, which ended in war between the two and heavy US involvement to support the South. In 1975, after the US had retreated, the Southern capital of Saigon fell to the communists and the nation was once again united.
“The Viets are everywhere. The situation is very grave. The combat is confused and goes on all about. I feel the end is approaching, but we will fight to the finish“
– Christian de Castries, French commander at Dien Bien Phu, in the last hours of the siege
60 years ago today