Year
1954

French fall to Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu falls to the Viet Minh. In March, a force of 40,000 Viet Minh troops with heavy artillery had surrounded 15,000 French soldiers, holding the French position under siege. The Viet Minh guerrillas had been fighting a long and bloody war with French colonial interests for control of Vietnam since 1946. In an attempt to score a decisive victory, French General Henri Navarre had positioned the large French force 200 miles behind enemy lines in a remote area adjacent to the Laotian border. He had planned to draw the communists into a set-piece battle in which he hoped superior French firepower would destroy the enemy, but he vastly underestimated his foe.

Viet Minh General Vo Nguyen Giap entrenched artillery in the surrounding mountains and massed five divisions around the French positions. The battle, which far exceeded the size and scope of anything to date in the war between the French and the Viet Minh, began with a massive Viet Minh artillery barrage and was followed by an infantry assault. The tide of the battle quickly turned against the French.

U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and other members of the Eisenhower administration were stunned at the turn of events and discussions were held to decide on a course of action. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Arthur Radford proposed the use of nuclear strikes against the Viet Minh. Other options included massive conventional air strikes, paratrooper drops, and the mining of Haiphong Harbor. In the end, President Eisenhower decided that the situation was too far gone and ordered no action to be taken to aid the French.

Fierce fighting continued to rage until this day, when the Viet Minh overran the last French positions. During the siege, 1,600 French troops were killed, 4,800 were wounded, and 1,600 missing. The Viet Minh captured 8,000 French and marched them off on foot on a 500-mile trek to prison camps; fewer than half survived the march. Viet Minh casualties were estimated at approximately 7,900 killed and 15,000 wounded.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu marked the end of the French involvement in Southeast Asia. France had lost more than 35,000 men and 48,000 had been wounded in a war that was considered financially and militarily humiliating. The shock of the defeat at Dien Bien Phu led the French government, already plagued by public opposition to the war, to agree to the independence of Vietnam at the Geneva Conference in 1954.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Pontiac’s Rebellion begins

Pontiac’s Rebellion begins when a confederacy of Native American warriors under Ottawa chief Pontiac attacks the British force at Detroit. After failing to take the fort in their initial assault, Pontiac’s forces, made up of Ottawas and reinforced by Wyandots, Ojibwas, and ...read more

Lusitania sinks

On the afternoon of May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner Lusitania is torpedoed without warning by a German submarine off the south coast of Ireland. Within 20 minutes, the vessel sank into the Celtic Sea. Of 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 people were drowned, including 128 ...read more

French defeated at Dien Bien Phu

In northwest Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces decisively defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu, a French stronghold besieged by the Vietnamese communists for 57 days. The Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu signaled the end of French colonial influence in Indochina and cleared ...read more

The Scream recovered

On May 7, 1994, Norway’s most famous painting, “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, was recovered almost three months after it was stolen from a museum in Oslo. Thefragile painting was recovered undamaged at a hotel in Asgardstrand, about 40 miles south of Oslo, police said. The iconic ...read more

German submarine sinks Lusitania

The earlier German attacks on merchant ships off the south coast of Ireland prompted the British Admiralty to warn the Lusitania to avoid the area or take simple evasive action, such as zigzagging to confuse U-boats plotting the vessel’s course. The captain of the Lusitania ...read more

George Washington attends inaugural ball

On this day in 1789, President George Washington attends a ball in his honor. The event provided a model for the first official inaugural ball, held to celebrate James Madison’s ascension to the office ten years later, which then became an annual tradition. Washington was sworn ...read more

Gary Cooper is born

Gary Cooper, the star of High Noon and other classic Westerns, is born in Helena, Montana. Born Frank James Cooper, he was the son of well-to-do lawyer who eventually won election to the Montana Supreme Court Justice. The family owned a 500-acre ranch near Helena, where Cooper ...read more

Gary Cooper born

On this day in 1901, Gary Cooper, who will become famous for his performances in such movies as High Noon and The Pride of the Yankees, is born in Helena, Montana. Cooper grew up on the ranch owned by his wealthy father, a Montana Supreme Court Justice. He was educated largely in ...read more

Volcanic eruption buries Caribbean city

On this day in 1902, Martinique’s Mount Pele begins the deadliest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. The following day, the city of Saint Pierre, which some called the Paris of the Caribbean, was virtually wiped off the map. Mount Pele, the name meaning bald in French, ...read more

A serial killer is hanged

Dr. H. H. Holmes, one of America’s first well-known serial killers, is hanged to death in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although his criminal exploits were just as extensive and occurred during the same time period as Jack the Ripper, the Arch Fiend–as Holmes was known–has not ...read more

Grant leaves the Wilderness for Spotsylvania

Following two days of intense fighting in Virginia’s Wilderness forest, the Army of the Potomac, under the command of Union General Ulysses S. Grant, moves south. Grant’s forces had clashed with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a pitched and ...read more

Brezhnev becomes president of the USSR

Leonid Brezhnev, one of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s most trusted proteges, is selected as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet—the Soviet equivalent to the presidency. This was another important step in Brezhnev’s rise to power in Russia, a rise that he later ...read more

Pontiac’s plot is foiled

On this day in 1763, Major Henry Gladwin, British commander of Fort Detroit, foils Ottawa Chief Pontiac’s attempt at a surprise attack. Romantic lore holds that Gladwin’s Seneca mistress informed him of the western Indians’ plans for an uprising. When Pontiac arrived at the fort ...read more