America’s war in Vietnam left deep scars, after the United States poured blood and treasure into the struggle against the North Vietnamese. Victory proved elusive, as some 60,000 Americans were killed in the defeat. Many more were wounded in body and spirit. The conflict exacerbated deep racial and class rifts in the U.S., and its dark shadow continues to lie across a divided land. Canadians watched with horror and pity as more and more Americans were sucked into the maelstrom in Southeast Asia and as the Vietnamese people were killed in shocking numbers.
The Road to Dien Bien Phu is centred on the war that came before. In this important book, Christopher Goscha, a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal and the author of several award-winning histories of Vietnam, offers new insight into a post-colonial struggle that emerged from the Second World War.
With the European powers humbled by the initial Japanese victories of 1941 and 1942, the Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh declared independence from France in 1945, carving out the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from Indochina. “Those who have rifles will use their rifles,” he declared. “Those who have swords will use their swords; those who have no swords will use spades, hoes, or sticks. Everyone must endeavor to oppose the French colonialists and save his country!”
But those colonialists were just as determined to regain control of their possession after Japan and Germany surrendered. As Canada and the U.S. moved into a period of prosperity — even while they worried that Communism was undermining the fragile democracies in western Europe and splitting the world into ideological spheres of influence — France attempted to move back into Vietnam.
In the war for independence, Ho led a constellation of Communist, nationalist, and anti-imperialist groups against a stronger and better-armed adversary. The Vietnamese were defeated in several battles in 1946, but Ho refused to surrender. Goscha thoughtfully presents his strategy of transforming society during the long clash — with Communism gradually used to unite diverse groups against the French. It was a steady process, which did not include major land reforms until after 1951, when Ho had developed effective fighting forces, had secured firmer backing from Communist China, and had worn down the French.
The decentralized control over northern Vietnam by Ho and his generals, along with a patchwork of influence throughout the French-controlled south, created, as Goscha characterizes it, an archipelago state of strung-out islands of strength and resistance. To defeat the French, though, Ho needed a professional army, with command-and-control functions, sophisticated weapons, and effective supply lines, as well as less formal partisan militias and guerrilla fighters (including women and children). Experts in communications, weapons, and propaganda were cultivated to build the military infrastructure, and Ho drew heavily on China. He empowered skilled generals, such as Vo Nguyen Giap, to take their fight to the colonizers in a long, drawn-out, multi-year campaign of attrition through political violence, assassinations, and small-scale battles, alternating between the Mekong Delta and the central highlands. There was also deadly combat within the cities, a different and destructive type of warfare that caused havoc in Hanoi, Haiphong, and Saigon.
With multiple battles raging across the archipelagos of hamlets and villages, innocent men, women, and children were forced to navigate survival. “Local people had no choice,” writes Goscha, “but to come up with strategies to protect themselves and their loved ones.” The stakes were brutally high. Massacres, rapes, and mutilations faced those who were caught between sides. In 1947, French soldiers executed 300 civilians in an act of barbarity similar to the My Lai massacre by the Americans in 1968. Ho’s forces were no less ruthless in murdering for political or military advantage. Goscha’s command of French, English, and Vietnamese sources is a great strength in drawing out this neglected history.
With the armistice in Korea in July 1953, when that country was divided between north and south along the thirty-eighth parallel, both China and the U.S. were free to send additional military support — respectively for Communism in northern Vietnam and for an embryonic if flawed democracy in the south. However, after eight years of fighting, there were widespread food shortages, especially among the poor. Facing a collapse of morale and possible defeat, Ho further politicized the peasantry by mobilizing rural forces through the incentivization of land reform and redistribution and by emphasizing a “people’s republic.” This had been his endgame for years, and he used popular desperation to usher in his societal changes.
These reforms were important in raising flagging morale, but it was the creation of an effective Communist army that finally allowed for victory. When that happened at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, it shocked the world.
A smaller but overly confident French force in the low ground was slowly enveloped by Ho’s army, which relentlessly smashed it with shellfire. Humiliated, Paris soon after negotiated a settlement that would divide Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel, between the Communist north and the Western-supported south. Many of the French officers went off to fight in Algeria, another brutal post-colonial struggle, while other revolutionaries and anti-colonialists studied Ho’s success and hoped to replicate it.
Goscha notes, however, that “all wars of decolonization are not alike, and it is time we stop treating them as if they were.” Indeed, his deep research into how Ho forged an army and then used the conditions of war to usher in Communist reforms is explained in minute detail, sometimes more than most readers will need. Goscha nonetheless writes in an engaging manner, with anecdotes to enliven the analysis. Readers are drawn to a 1951 visit to Saigon by John F. Kennedy, at the time a representative in the U.S. Congress, who was accompanied by his brother Robert. RFK wrote an ominous note in his diary: “Cannot go outside city because of guerrillas.”
After the 1954 armistice — widely seen as the French defeat that it was — military and political figures in Washington watched warily. They were aware of many reasons for France’s loss, yet they seemed unable to resist intervening and propping up the corrupt southern leaders. By the end of the 1950s, a trickle of military advisers had expanded to over 1,000, secretly training forces in South Vietnam. The deployment would grow in the coming years, especially under President Kennedy until his assassination in November 1963. The next year, the U.S. would come fully into the war, and the Vietnamese people, having already suffered a million casualties, would endure even more terrible strife. Ho died in September 1969, but the army, ideology, and military infrastructure he created during the first war would be used by the Communists to defeat the Americans in 1975.