Book Discussion: The Road to Dien Bien Phu
In addition to regular posts, I’m going to occasionally post discussions of books I’ve been reading. Today’s post is on The Road to Dien Bien Phu by Christopher Goscha, on the First Indochina War, for which I’ve written up my notes into chapter summaries followed by a discussion. If you’re interested, you can find it here. Hope you enjoy!
The book shows how the Vietnamese communists under Ho Chi Minh used what the author calls “Vietnamese War Communism” to win independence from the French. War was waged not only against the colonial administration, but also against rivals within the independence movement, and entailed the total mobilization of society against its enemies. The book frames the war in the broader context of Soviet and especially Chinese communism, showing how Ho Chi Minh had already laid the groundwork for stage 3 of Maoist revolutionary war—conventional armed struggle—by the time the Chinese communists began providing material support in 1950. This culminated in the victory of several regular Vietnamese divisions over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Chapter 1: The Rise of the Archipelago State. This chapter covered the rise of Ho Chi Minh’s independent Vietnamese state and its geographical arrangement.
The Viet Minh declare independence in September 1945, just before Chinese (ROC) and British troops move in to accept the Japanese surrender: the British south of the 16th Parallel, the Chinese to the north.
Chinese refusal to admit the French back into the territory under their control allows the communists to set up their own administration.
After French move into the north in December 1946, Vietnamese territory is fragmented into three “islands”:
Northern Vietnam outside the Red River Delta. This initially excludes the borderlands with China until 1947
Central Vietnam outside certain coastal cities such as Hue and Da Nang. The area between the north and center is contested, but the center is not completely cut off.
Southern Vietnam around the Mekong Delta. Completely cut off from the rest of communist-controlled territory.
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Chapter 2: Building Military Force. The Viet Minh, the united anticolonial front, was created in 1941 and began building a “Vietnamese Liberation Army”—which became the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN)—a month later.
The General Staff created officer training schools north of the 16th Parallel and recruited from among former colonial soldiers.
PAVN was 85k men strong by late 1946, 100k a year later. Several regiments formed by 1949, but until 1950 most operations were at the battalion or company level.
Two types of guerrillas in addition to VLA regulars:
Village militias and people’s guerrillas, tasked with local defense and provisioning army
Regional troop, part-time soldiers called up to support army operations with hit-and-run attacks
Arms manufacturing: small arms, grenades, mines, bazookas throughout VM-controlled areas
Chinese aid: from May 1950 to July 1954, provided 155k rifles, 58M bullets, 3692 artillery pieces, 840k grenades, 1231 vehicles, 1.4M uniform, 12 MLRS. Also helped train forces on both sides of the border
1 division created in 1949, 2 in 1950, 3 and an artillery division in 1951—a total of 166,452 men.
1950 saw capture of Cao Bang, town controlling border w/ China. French attack against VM-controlled towns in the north in October nearly captured VM leadership, but left Cao Bang exposed—PAVN blocked the roads and attacked. French were reluctant to counterattack so close to the border in view of China’s recent entry into Korea, assuring the Vietnamese an open supply line from China.
Chapter 3: The Asian Routes of War. The Vietnamese communists made many efforts to supply their movement from neighboring sympathetic countries
French navy cut off large-scale shipping from Thailand early on.
HCM had extensive experience in Russia and China, used his contacts there to move supplies from south China by land into north Vietnam.
Attempts to supply central Vietnam by small boats from Hainan Island after the Chinese communists won the Civil War—had intermittent success against the naval blockade.
Until 1950, Thailand provided supplies by small boats along the coast and overland through Cambodia and Laos; after that point, Americans put pressure to shut down that activity.
Only reliable route was by land from China: this left the south critically undersupplied.
Chapter 4: The City at War. Large-scale urban combat in Saigon, Haiphong, and Hanoi early in the war, followed by extensive underground activity.
Starting in 1945, the communists began a campaign of massacres and bombings in Saigon which the French Expeditionary Corps (arrived that autumn) swiftly put down.
After Chinese troops evacuated zone north of 16th Parallel in 1946, French shelled and bombed Haiphong (Hanoi’s port) to drive the independent Vietnamese out. French then moved inland to besiege Hanoi and occupied coastal cities in central Vietnam (e.g. Hue, Da Nang)
Siege of Hanoi: beginning in December 1946, Vietnamese made a stand in narrow streets of Old Quarter to give time for HCM and leadership to escape to a new capital at Thai Nguyen. By February 1947, French were moving in to the Old Quarter—defenders given order to evacuate.
Vietnamese took many tons of useful equipment—radios, printing presses, generators, etc.—out of cities before French moved in.
Underground cities: agents in French-controlled cities bought vital supplies (medicine, clothes, food), smuggled it to countryside. Also recruited civil servants and technicians to work in Vietnamese bureaucracy in “special urban zones”.
French security services did the same, trying to recruit/turn Vietnamese administrators.
Saigon offensive, 1946-49: sabotage & intimidation campaign in the south. Lots of bombs, grenades, attacks, often several a night.
Chapter 5: Wiring War. The Vietnamese invested a lot in their communications network, a combination of radios, phone lines, and couriers delivering typewritten messages.
Wireless radio service was very developed—radio technicians a major target for recruitment. Allowed communication across archipelago, coordination of strategy.
Vietnamese established training schools for radio technicians. Aided in this by mass literacy (itself helped by French-introduced roman script).
Long-range broadcasts used by diplomats and agents abroad to pass messages and collect info.
Broadcast propaganda by radio across the country, which the French unsuccessfully jammed.
French were able to intercept comms, especially with diplomats abroad. Only after 1950 did the Vietnamese get encrypted comms.
Hand couriers were also important, especially between zones in the archipelago. Moved through isolated country routes to avoid checkpoints.
Chapter 6: Policing War. The Vietnamese learned from colonial authorities when establishing their own security services.
French security depended heavily on locals for assembling and organizing dossiers—many of them were double-agents for the Vietnamese.
Many Vietnamese security chiefs spent long sentences in prison, where they networked with communists and criminal organizations.
Security Bureau established in September 1945, set up intel-gathering offices throughout Vietnam.
Bureau was useful against other anticolonial groups which were also anticommunist—their Hanoi offices were raided in July 1946—but these kinds of moves pushed many groups into the arms of the colonial authorities.
French aware of this activity, leaked fake information about moles, prompting a destabilizing overreaction.
Chapter 7: Trickle Economics. How the Vietnamese managed the economy under a tight blockade.
Vietnamese shipped many tons of stockpiled rice from the south to the north in September 1946—knew food security was a major issue.
French took control of rice production in Mekong Delta—the most productive region—and banned its export to Viet Minh-controlled areas.
Vietnamese established cottage industries: not just weapons, but paper, coal, tin, textiles, and other essentials.
Vietnamese had their own currency, the dong—tried to ban use of colonial piaster, but these were needed for purchasing essentials in French-held territory and foreign goods.
State tried to raise revenues through combination of taxation, bond issuance, asking for contributions, and printing money (the latter especially).
Economic warfare: French introduced fake dongs to exacerbate inflation, engaged in bombing campaign against agriculture in communist-held territory.
Chapter 8: The Levée en Masse and War Communism. Following Mao’s recognition of Vietnamese independence in January 1950, the Vietnamese communists decided to transition to conventional war.
Vietnamese communists forged strong links w/ Chinese counterparts starting in the 1920s. They translated and studied many Maoist texts, especially Protracted Warfare, in which Mao posited three stages of revolutionary war:
Building up base areas while waging guerrilla war to keep up morale and recruitment
Bog down opponents and force them to consolidate while expanding own territory (this was state of things in 1949 when French created Associated States of Indochina, recognizing Vietnam as an associated state under leadership of former Vietnamese emperor).
Fight a conventional war (initiated by the General Mobilization signed February 1950, a levée en masse of soldiers and conscription of civilians to serve as porters and workers.
Communists increasingly took control over non-communist organizations in the anticolonial movement, created a loyal ideologically-aligned bureaucracy.
Chapter 9: Of Rice and War. Mobilization of vast numbers of soldiers and civil servants created a huge demand for rice, while taking away labor from the peasantry to grow/harvest it.
Consolidation of territory in the north aided Vietnamese supply from China, but this did not include food: the French locked down the Red River Delta and its rice crops.
Americans began providing French arms in 1950 as part of broader anti-communist strategy w/ Korean War starting that year—when PAVN attacked the Delta in 1951, they were beaten back w/ artillery and napalm.
By 1952 PAVN had grown to 150k men, government was 100k civil servants. Since mid-51 had adopted strategy of using guerrillas to subvert villages in the Delta one-by-one.
French responded by creating Vietnamese force for local policing so the Expeditionary Corps could take the fight to the highlands. By August 1953, this was 100-125k strong: used to guard harvests and help bring it in, depriving the communists.
Economic offensive: from mid-1952, French attacked agricultural infrastructure in communist-held areas while creating a 10km buffer zone around the Delta. Bombed dikes, dams, canals, killed draft animals, destroyed grain storage.
Inflation, blockade, economic warfare, plus the growing manpower demand imposed a crushing burden on the peasantry. HCM ordered PAVN soldiers to help w/ the harvest, rice became an effective form of currency.
Chapter 10: The Road to Dien Bien Phu. Vietnamese adaptation to their initial failures in the General Offensive, and the strategy which led to Dien Bien Phu.
After initial failures of General Counteroffensive in 1951, HCM withdrew divisions to the highlands and sent battalions to support guerrillas in the Delta. Allowed communists to calibrate operations: while French were busy w/ guerrillas, regular army had free rein elsewhere, and vice-versa.
French occupied Hoa Binh in November 1951 to cut off rice corridor from central Vietnam. HCM sent 3 divisions against it, but failed to take it and nearly ran out of food while suffering high casualties (>10k). But by February French were forced to w/draw to deal with Delta.
Spring 1952 Vietnamese & Chinese decided to move deep into highlands to control mountains running from Yunnan province in China through Laotian-Vietnamese border.
October 1952 French occupy & fortify Na San in highlands, refurbishing airstrip to resupply by air. Vietnamese suffer even higher casualties than at Hoa Binh in week-long battle that fails to overrun base; French again withdraw to deal w/ Delta.
HCM feels he lacks competent cadres: in mid-52 ramps up “rectification” campaign to align non-communists in the anticolonial movement, take over training of all security services.
Chapter 11: Imperial Dust. Ho Chi Minh attempted to create a communist “Associated States of Indochina” by spreading into Laos and Cambodia, building upon Vietnam’s imperial past.
Vietnam itself was imperial creation that spread over many centuries from Red River Delta south down the coast.
French used Vietnamese as colonial administrators in Cambodia and Laos—a majority of civil service, often majority population of cities.
This caused problems for Vietnamese communists when they tried to expand—reliance on other Vietnamese stirred resentment of local anticolonials.
French creation of Associated Union of Indochina diffused some of this nationalist pressure, brought Laotian royal family to their side.
HCM dissolved the Indochinese Communist Party in early 1951 to instead focus on building up local Laotian & Cambodian parties, while Vietnamese carried on w/ their more advanced revolutionary movement.
Managed to suborn a Laotian prince and Cambodian anticolonial leaders to take lead in local communist movements, using Vietnamese cadres only for training.
Spread of communism in Indochina created zones which straddled the Vietnamese border, making mutual aid and movement of supplies easier.
Chapter 12: Dien Bien Phu: The Changing of Heaven and Earth. The strategic considerations which led to a major battle in the highlands.
Vietnamese advances in northwest highlands in support of Laotian communists compelled French to deploy forces there, as at Hoa Binh & Na San.
Navarre plan, named after French general who took over in 1953, envisioned retaking initiative to secure “honorable exit”:
Continue to build up Associated State of Vietnam’s forces—200k strong by 1954.
All-out effort to pacify Red River Delta
Only in later 1954 go into the highlands w/ the Expeditionary Corps
Simultaneous offensive to secure central Vietnam, which was suffering from blockade and was major source of rice for north.
PAVN intelligence discovered outlines of the plan, decided to split efforts: sent one division into Delta while rest prepared for campaign in NW.
Delta offensive failed, suffering >1k casualties, causing Vietnamese to pull back to highlands. French changed plans, sought out battle there along lines of Na San.
International context was changing: Stalin’s death in 1953 and Korean War armistice led to US, USSR, China desiring an end to international conflict to focus on domestic issues. Talks btw the big three plus Britain, France, Vietnamese agreed for spring 1954—both French & Vietnamese needed a big victory to gain leverage at negotiating table.
French occupied Dien Bien Phu to block communist westward expansion & cut off routes to Laos. Turned it into “super Na San” reinforceable by airstrip.
Vietnamese saw opportunity for attack on DBP: more remote than Na San, they controlled all territory btw it and the Delta, close to Chinese supply routes. By end of December, began installing artillery & AD guns in surrounding hills.
January 1954 Vietnamese Politburo approved attack, by mid-February 51k PAVN regulars faced 12k French Union troops. Despite inevitability of decisive clash there, Navarre proceeded w/ parallel invasion of central Vietnam.
November 1953 HCM instituted land reform, breaking up all larger holdings & distributing them to peasants. Was seen as vital part of coming battle, to reward peasants who had suffered from economic warfare, taxes, and forced labor, even thought this broke the anticolonial coalition which brought the communists to that point—the full realization of Vietnamese War Communism, mobilizing all society for war.
First attack launched 13 March, soon took 2 positions & destroyed airstrip. French realized the quantity of Vietnamese artillery would make it much harder fight, sent bombers to inflict heavy casualties. Vietnamese commandos managed to destroy 12 B-26s in Hanoi & Haiphong.
Second attack on 30 March, lasted a week. After this French parachuted 4k more soldiers in, HCM called up 25k more recruits.
Third attack began on 26 April, the same day talks began in Geneva. Pressure on PAVN to win quickly, overran DBP on 7 May.
Vietnamese casualties were 32% in first attack, 25% in second, 22% in third, in addition to heavy losses from French bombing supply convoys.
Goscha emphasizes how the Indochina War was unique among wars of decolonization in pushing the colonial power out via conventional means. Much of this came down to Chinese supply of equipment, but the only reason that could have such an effect was that Ho Chi Minh had already built up a state that could make good use of it—one which was prepared to advance to the third stage of Mao’s protracted war. For this reason, he emphasizes the central role of “War Communism”—the mobilization of all society for military aims—which distinguished the Vietnamese anticolonial movement from its Algerian, Kenyan, Indonesian counterparts. Even the Cuban revolutionaries did not implement communist policies until after they won: the Vietnamese victory instead followed the Chinese and Korean examples, a distinctly Asian model of communism.
Yet Dien Bien Phu was also a qualified victory. The French had already more-or-less decided to give Indochina its independence, the only open question was the terms on which they would leave (I’ve written about their strategic calculations here). Their defeat did not force them out of the country, it only decided the framework of discussion at the Geneva Conference. Indeed, Ho Chi Minh accepted only a partial victory (control north of the 17th Parallel) in the knowledge that he could not conquer Vietnam outright and to avoid provoking American intervention.
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In this sense, Vietnamese War Communism was even closer to the Chinese example. Mao developed his theory of protracted war specifically to fight the Japanese, yet it was the Americans, not the communists, who ultimately defeated them. What they did accomplish was to expand their base areas and prepare for the inevitable civil conflict with the KMT. Although Goscha does not quite make this connection explicit, he is clear that it was the larger international context which made both communist victories possible.
This raises interesting questions about how much military capacity is dependent on social organization. In the past it was common for military demands to dictate social organization, or at least to square it with economic necessities: Mongol clan structure, European feudalism, the centralized bureaucracies of modern states, etc. Vietnamese War Communism was a natural extension of this. Yet the qualified nature of the Vietnamese victory, even with the supply of Chinese arms, shows how a large and sophisticated technological base is the most important form of social organization for modern warfare: either a state must produce advanced weapons on its own, or it must be part of an alliance structure that provides them.
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