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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.

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