Dien Bien Phu–A Battle That Changed the World

May 8, 2018


Dien Bien Phu–A Battle That Changed the World

 by Mike Minehan


Image result for Ho Chi Minh.

In the rest of the world, May 7 may have passed as just another day. But in Vietnam, May 7 is the anniversary of a great victory. This is the victory of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, when in 1954, the French garrison surrendered to the Vietminh, a communist-led nationalist movement headed by a former London pastry cook, Ho Chi Minh.

The book, Battles That Changed History (Regfan, Geoffrey, 2002, Carlton Books) includes the Battle of Dien Bien Phu because this was the battle that ended French colonial rule in Indo China, leading to a resurgent North Vietnam that eventually prevailed against the might of the world’s greatest fighting machine, the US military.

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The USA stil likes to believe that its retreat from Vietnam was not a military defeat, and that it retreated its forces from Indo China only as the result of domestic pressure from home. But as anyone trying to escape from Saigon in 1975 as the North Vietnamese approached the outskirts of the city will testify, this retreat was a rout that not only led to the victory of the North Vietnamese, but also changed the face of South East Asia and led to far reaching changes in how war is waged and how information about war is managed.

The Vietminh general who led the communist forces at Dien Bien Phu, General Vo Nguyen Giap, was a former history teacher with a law degree. He was motivated at least in part by the death of his wife, who had died in a French prison. Giap was a self-taught soldier who learned the art of war first by fighting against the Japanese occupation of Vietnam and later, by reading Mao Zedong’s writings on guerrilla warfare.

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Giap was helped by the arrogance of the French. The French rationale was to create an outpost that would act as a lure to entice the Vietminh into an open battle, where French artillery and tanks would annihilate the communists. Navarre believed erroneously that poorly trained and badly supplied Vietminh forces would not be a match for 13,000 professional French soldiers and the air power supporting them.

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But because the choice of the site had been based on out-of-date French maps, the terrain ended up favoring the Vietminh instead of the French.

In preparations for the battle, Giap managed to not only outnumber the French, he outgunned them by having heavy artillery manhandled up mountains and into commanding positions dug into the surrounding heights.

The Giap supply line consisted of thousands of peasants who used Peugeot bicycles purchased from prewar French shops. Each bicycle could carry up to 500 pounds of supplies and equipment.

Eventually, the French were completely surrounded and could only be supplied by air – that is, when the monsoon weather permitted. Also, the surrounding jungle and the soft ground rendered the tanks useless and they were sometimes abandoned in the mud.

The French artillery commander, Charles Pirot, had boasted that the Vietminh artillery would be destroyed by his own after they had fired only three rounds. Navarre also believed that most of the Vietminh’s artillery rounds were defective and would fail to explode. But the Vietminh had been supplied by China, and these new artillery rounds not only exploded, but devastated the French positions.

The battle itself was a bloodbath that ended with the Vietminh finally using tunnels and tranches to breach the defenses. The artillery commander Piroth killed himself by pulling the pin on a hand grenade in his quarters. Finally, the French were forced to surrender.

The following video was produced by Russia:

Of the 10,863 prisoners taken, including Vietnamese fighting for the French, only 3,290 were officially repatriated four months later.


According to the book Jump Up, Victorious Insurgencies: Four Rebellions that Shaped Our World (Jones, Anthony James, 2010. University Press of Kentucky), France’s defeat in Indo China seriously damaged its prestige elsewhere in its colonial empire, as well as with its NATO allies, most importantly, the United States.

Within the remaining French empire, the French defeat in Indo China served to accelerate independence movements in other colonies, notably the North African territories which had been a recruiting ground for many of the troops who fought at Dien Bien Phu (Ibid.)

Dien Bien Phu was also a springboard for a resurgent South East Asia, and the 7th May 1954 victory ended the misconception that the military might of the west was unassailable.

The lessons from Dien Bien Phu are studied today in military  academies around the world.

Self Determination– The Who, Where, and When of Secession

October 5, 2017

Self Determination–The Who, Where, and When of Secession

Joseph S. Nye

by Joseph S. Nye@ http://www.project-syndicate.org

National self-determination, the principle that US President Woodrow Wilson put on the international agenda in 1918, is generally defined as the right of a people to form its own state. The independence referendums in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia are the latest examples showing why that principle is so often difficult to apply.

CAMBRIDGE – Kurds in northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence for the country’s Kurdistan Region. With some 30 million Kurds divided among four states (Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran), nationalists argue that they deserve the world’s recognition. In Spain, some 7.5 million Catalans have raised the same question.

Does it matter that polls show Catalans, unlike Kurds, to be closely divided on the issue? Does it matter that the states bordering Iraqi Kurdistan might use force to resist secession?

National self-determination, the principle that US President Woodrow Wilson put on the international agenda in 1918, is generally defined as the right of a people to form its own state. But who is the “self” that makes this determination?

Consider Somalia, whose people, unlike those of most other newly independent African states, had roughly the same linguistic and ethnic background. Neighboring Kenya was formed by colonial rule from dozens of peoples or tribes. Somalia claimed that the self-determination principle should allow Somalis in northeastern Kenya and southern Ethiopia to secede. Kenya and Ethiopia refused, resulting in a number of regional wars over the Somali national question.

The ironic sequel was that Somalia itself later fragmented in a civil war among its clans and warlord leaders. Today, its northern region, Somaliland, exists as a de facto independent state, though it lacks international recognition or United Nations membership.

Voting does not always solve problems of self-determination. First, there is the question of where one votes. In Ireland, for example, Catholics objected for many years that if a vote were held within the political area of Northern Ireland, the two-thirds Protestant majority would rule. Protestants replied that if a vote were held within the geographical area of the entire island, the Catholic majority would rule. Eventually, after decades of strife, outside mediation helped bring peace to Northern Ireland.

There is also the question of when one votes? In the 1960s, the Somalis wanted to vote immediately; Kenya wanted to wait 40 or 50 years while it reshaped tribal allegiances and forged a Kenyan identity.

Image result for CataloniaCatalonia–For Independence for Spain

Another problem is how one weighs the interests of those left behind. Does secession harm them, by taking resources away or causing other disruption? Iraqi Kurdistan holds significant oil reserves, and Catalonia is estimated to account for a fifth of Spain’s GDP. Spain’s government argues that the upcoming independence vote in Catalonia is illegal under the Spanish constitution.

History is not encouraging. After the Habsburg Empire was dismantled in 1918, the Sudetenland was incorporated into Czechoslovakia, even though most people there spoke German. After the agreement reached in Munich with Adolf Hitler in 1938, the Sudeten Germans seceded from Czechoslovakia and joined Germany. But the loss of the mountainous frontier where they lived was a terrible setback for Czech defenses. Was it right to allow self-determination for the Sudeten Germans, even if it meant stripping Czechoslovakia (which Germany dismembered six months later) of its military defenses?

To take another African example, when the people of eastern Nigeria decided to secede and form the state of Biafra in the 1960s, other Nigerians resisted, in part because Biafra included most of Nigeria’s oil. They argued that the oil belonged to all the people of Nigeria, not just the eastern area.

After the Cold War ended, self-determination became an acute issue in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In the Caucasus, Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, Abkhazians, and Chechens all demanded states of their own.

In Yugoslavia, Slovenes, Serbs, and Croats managed to carve out independent republics, but the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina were less successful, and were subjected to a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” by both Croatian and Serb forces.

In 1995, a NATO peacekeeping force was sent to the troubled area, but when NATO intervened militarily in Kosovo in 1999, Russia backed Serbia’s objections to secession, and Kosovo has still not been admitted to the UN. In turn, Russia invoked self-determination to support Abkhazia’s secession from Georgia in 2008, and its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Self-determination turns out to be an ambiguous moral principle. Wilson thought it would bring stability to Central Europe; instead, Hitler used the principle to undermine the region’s fragile new states in the 1930s.

The lesson remains valid today. Given that less than 10% of the world’s states are homogeneous, treating self-determination as a primary rather than secondary moral principle could have disastrous consequences in many parts of the world. Indeed, hostile ethnic groups are often mixed like a marble cake, rather than neatly separable like a layer cake. That makes partition difficult, as India discovered in 1947. Perhaps that is why only a few new states have been admitted to the UN in this century. After it seceded from Sudan, ethnic turmoil inside South Sudan continued, practically unabated.

The best hope for the future is to ask what is being determined as well as who determines it. In cases where groups cohabit a state uneasily, it may be possible to allow a degree of autonomy in the determination of internal affairs. Countries like Switzerland or Belgium provide considerable cultural, economic, and political autonomy to their constitutive groups.

Where autonomy is not enough, it may be possible to arrange an amicable divorce, as when Czechoslovakia peacefully divided into two sovereign countries. But absolute demands for self-determination are more likely to become a source of violence, which is why they must be handled extremely carefully. Before invoking self-determination as a moral principle, one must heed the diplomatic version of the Hippocratic Oath: Primum non nocere (first, do no harm).