The Vietminh won, not only because of Mao Zedong's victory in China, but also because the French military believed that there would be no way the Vietminh could defeat them at the valley of Dien Bien Phu. The fact of the matter is that the Valley of Dien Bien Phu may have been a great location if the French were not fighting the Vietnamese in their own country.
For over eighty years, the French ruled Vietnam as three separate districts: Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China. For the entire period, the Vietnamese have struggled against French rule in sporadic uprisings. In 1940 when France surrendered to Germany, Japan seized control of Vietnam's economic resources leaving daily administration in the hands of the French. In their five year tenure in Vietnam, Japanese policies devastated the economy, creating a famine in the North that killed between 1.5 and 2 million people (Young, 2)
Early in 1941, Ho Chi Minh, sensing change disguised himself as a Chinese journalist, went by foot and sampan into southern China, there he met confederates like Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap. He told them to form a broad front of "patriots of all ages and all types, peasants, workers, merchants and soldiers," to fight both the Japanese and the French then collaborating with Japan (Karnow,126). This new organization, was called the Viet Nam Dong Minh, or the Vietminh.
On August 15, 1945, news of the Japanese surrender reached Vietnam, a few days later, the Viet Minh called for mass rallies in Hanoi and later in Hue and Saigon. Thousands of peasants poured into the cities from the countryside, demonstrating
their support for the Viet Minh in huge rallies On the evening of March 9, 1945, they instructed the French governor to place his army under their command. When he failed to respond, they struck at French garrisons. On September 2, 1945, Ho faced a crowd of half a million people and proclaimed Vietnam's independence in the words of the American declaration of Independence "All men are created equal. The Creator has given us certain inviolable rights: the right to life, the right to be free, and the right to achieve happiness." (Young,11). The French were unwilling to concede independence and in October drove the Viet Minh out of the South.
For over a year, the French and the Viet Minh negotiated a solution. They failed to resolve their differences and in December 1946 war broke out. The Viet Minh retreated into the hills to build up their forces. The army, under Giap's command expanded from several thousand in September 1945 to over sixty thousand in December 1946 when the order for "nationwide resistance" was broadcast. In addition to the army, there were support organizations of youth (1 million Vanguard Youth), peasants(820,000), the Viet Minh itself (500,000).
The French formed a rival Vietnamese government under Emperor Bao Dai, the last ruler of the Nguyen dynasty, in areas along the coast. In 1946, the Truman administration gave the French $160 million in direct credit. The United States supplied the French with war materials of all sort, including transport planes and American crews to service them.
Viet Minh forces lacked the strength to defeat the French and generally restricted their activities to warfare. A long struggle required soldiers and civilian supporters braced for enormous losses. The Communists felt that they had time on their side, along with a willingness to bear sacrifices. Their troops were not superhuman. They missed their families, whom they would often not hear from for years. They suffered from malaria, dysentery, and other diseases, like anyone, they were scared. Their basic unit consisted of three, four, or five men responsible to one another - a system designed so that each would fight, not for ideological abstractions, but to gain the respect of his comrades (Karnow,182)
The situation changed drastically in 1949 with Mao Zedong's victory in China. Now the Viet Minh not only had an ally but the Chinese Communists had reached the Vietnamese border. China provided the Viet Minh with automatic weapons, mortars and howitzers, most of it, American arms captured from Chinese Nationalist troops during the Chinese Civil War. Chinese advisers joined Viet Minh detachments, and Viet Viet Minh crossed into China to train at camps near Nanning and Ching His. Giap's battalions were now expanded into regiments, at this point Giap was commanding a real army, backed by China. Over the next few years, American military and economic aid enabled France to allocate resources for pursuing the war in Indochina that otherwise would have been used at home. Between 1950 and 1954, the US expended $2.6 billion in a increasingly frustrating effort to save Vietnam (Chaffe, 257)
In 1953, in a flat valley surrounded by high hills close to the Lao border, General Henri Navarre positioned twelve well supplied battalions of troops in the heavily fortified
village of Dien Bien Phu (Young,31). The French military believed that the valley of Dien Bien Phu, 19 kilometers long and 13 kilometer wide, would be safe from attacks by the Viet Minh. Navarre dared Giap to attack. The Viet Minh would eventually attack, but not before they were 100% prepared to win.
For the next three months, 200,000 peasants hacked trails, laid thousands of miles of roads and moved supplies as far as 500 miles to the battlefront. They dismantled their and carried them by way of should pole and bicycle. They attached jungle foliage to camouflage themselves and scattered whenever they heard the engines of the French planes searching for them. The combat troops, carried their own weapons, a thirty pound bag of rice as well as salt and water. Upon reaching the French base, they reassembled their weapons and set them up in huge caves that were dug deep into the hillsides, so that they were invisible from the air. In addition, hundreds of kilometers of trenches and tunnels reached to the very edges of the French position (Young,33).
On March 13, 1954, the Viet Minh begin their attack, by midnight, the first strongpoint, Beatrice had fallen. On May 7, 1954, the French command at Dien Bien Phu surrendered. The Viet Minh won because General Navarre:
1. Underestimated Giap's ability to move a huge troop rapidly, so that his own troops were outnumbered.
2. failed to anticipate that Giap's howitzers, positioned within easy range of his airstrip, would cut off flights in and out of the valley
3. presumed that Dien Bien Phu was suitable for tanks, but its thick bush entangled armored vehicles and its monsoon rains flooded the plain at that time of year.
4. anticipated a quick and headlong Viet Minh charge, he had no clue that Giap was getting it all together.
Chafe, William H. The Unfinished Journey
Oxford University Press, 1995
Harrison, James P. The Endless War
Columbia University Press, 1989
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam A History
The Viking Press, 1983
Young, Marilyn. The Vietnam Wars