Battle that Changed the World

In the rest of the world, May 7 might pass without celebration. But in Vietnam, May 7 is the anniversary of a great victory, and is a public holiday. This date is also celebrated with functions at Vietnamese embassies around the world.

The victory celebrated is the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu, between French colonial forces and the nationalist Vieminh. The book, Battles That Changed History (Regan, 2002)  includes the battle of DBP because it ended French colonial rule in Indo China. In global terms, DBP also signaled the end of white colonialism and the misconception that the military might of the west was unassailable.

The battle was fought between approximately 16,000 French troops, including elite paratroop regiments and French Foreign Legion battalions. The Viet Minh numbered around 50,000 regular troops, including the 351st Heavy Division with Russian and Chinese artillery that outnumbered the French four to one.

After the battle, only 3,290 French prisoners were repatriated out of the total of 10,863 prisoners taken.

The Vietminh general leading the communist forces, General Giap, was a former history teacher with a law degree, whose wife had died in a French prison. Giap was self-taught, who learned the art of war by fighting against the Japanese occupation and later, by studying the writings of Mao Zedong on guerrilla warfare in China.

Ironically, Giap's supply line at DBP had consisted largely of peasants who used Peugeot bicycles purchased from prewar French shops. Each bicycle could carry up to 500 pounds of supplies and equipment. Peasant power, combined with overwhelming military power, was the key to the Vietminh victory at Die Bien Phu. Also, the French had seriously underestimated the ability and determination of the Vietnamese.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu is a cautionary tale that is still studied in military academies around the world.

This battle also shook the foundations of the myth of white superiority.