Lessons from History: The Battle of Dien Bien Phu
A lesson in underestimating the enemy

As the world settled into its new geopolitical reality after World War ii, many of the Allied Powers began to watch their colonial possessions push for independence. The development of the People’s Republic of China caused great concern as Communism began to spread across the Asian continent like a contagious disease. In Vietnam, France went to war against a group of Communist freedom fighters called the Viet Minh. The war ended with France’s failure at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu eight years later. Dien Bien Phu offers us a pertinent lesson about what happens when you underestimate the enemy.

The Viet Minh was formed by communist leader Ho Chi Minh in 1941. Between 1941 and 1945, the group swept through Vietnam, gaining more control over the territory every day. Their influence also began to spread across the border into Laos, another country occupied by the French.

In an attempt to subdue the freedom fighters, the French launched an assault on the city of Haiphong in 1946. In response, the Viet Minh attacked the French in Hanoi on December 19, 1946. This was the beginning of the First Indochina War.

The war quickly turned into a stalemate, with neither side winning the decisive victories needed to end the war. The fighting wasn’t done conventionally, where one side faces off against the other in an open field or opposing trenches. Instead, little groups of fighters attacked each other throughout the day, usually sneaking up on each other and attacking when it was least expected. This battle tactic is known as guerilla warfare.

In 1953, after seven years of fighting, the French and Laotian governments tried to block Viet Minh supply lines into Laos by setting up a secure base in Dien Bien Phu—a town in the heart of Viet Minh territory.

Dien Bien Phu was located in northwest Vietnam, near the border of Laos. Inside the town was a small air base that had been built and used by the Japanese in World War II. The French hoped that the mere presence of their troops at this base would intimidate the Viet Minh enough to stop any further forward progression into Laos.

French troops first moved into Dien Bien Phu on November 20, 1953. By the end of the month, 9,000 soldiers and six parachute battalions had moved in, and they set to work building eight strong points around the old airstrip. Ultimately, 15,000 French troops occupied the base.

French premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to command the French troops stationed Dien Bien Phu. Navarre’s plan was to lure Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap into the same trap he had fallen into when he had attacked the French base in Na San. During the Battle of Na San, Giap’s strategy of frontal assaults cost him countless lives, and he was forced to withdraw his troops. Although the similar strategy behind Dien Bien Phu seemed somewhat risky, Navarre believed that the Viet Minh weren’t powerful enough to pose much of a threat. To him, a French victory seemed almost guaranteed.

There was one thing Navarre did not consider, however: Na San had given the French the higher ground. Dien Bien Phu, on the other hand, was located in a valley, which made it much easier for Giap’s troops to surround the base. Once they had surrounded the base, the jungle also provided a nice camouflage for the Viet Minh’s artillery, which meant that they could fire upon the base any time they wanted—all the while remaining hidden themselves.

Since they controlled the jungle, the Viet Minh blocked the roads to Dien Bien Phu. This meant that the French had to rely solely on air support for needed supplies. This also meant that oftentimes, they had to go without their supplies, since they lost a great number of their planes to the large anti-aircraft guns the Viet Minh had hidden in the forest.

The Viet Minh first began firing on Dien Bien Phu on January 31, 1954, although their first major assault didn’t take place until mid-March. When they did launch their massive assault on March 13, it took only one day of heavy artillery fire for the Viet Minh to capture one of the seven strongholds that surrounded the base. Over the next two days, two more strongholds fell, and the French lost possession of their airstrip.

From that point on, all supplies had to be parachuted inside the base—but it wasn’t long before the Viet Minh overran the parachute field too. Also, the T’ai troops who had been loyal to the French decided to desert, resulting in another stronghold falling into the hands of the Viet Minh. One by one, each of the eight strongholds fell into the hands of the enemy—until the base had been completely surrounded near the end of March.

Now the Viet Minh began a siege on the base, and the French began to lose their confidence. No matter how many times they attacked the Viet Minh, they were always met with a stronger, more effective counter-attack.

The Viet Minh launched two successful offensives against the French on May 1 and 6, and they ultimately defeated the French on May 7. 8,000 of the initial 15,000 French soldiers were taken captive, and fewer than half survived their imprisonment. The Viet Minh also suffered casualties: approximately 8,000 of the initial 40,000 Viet Minh fighters were killed, and 15,000 were wounded.

In the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the French found themselves captives to the enemy that they had deemed inferior. Their defeat caused them great embarrassment and humiliation. After the battle, the French gave up their control of Vietnam and lost all the power they once had in Indochina.

Sun Tzu, a Chinese general and military strategist, wrote, “The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.”

The French did the exact opposite of this. They entered into a war lacking understanding of both their enemy and their surroundings. Instead of making themselves ready to battle against a real enemy, they assumed their enemy to be weak and inferior. When they planned accordingly, they failed utterly.

Unlike the French, we must not underestimate the power of our adversary, Satan. The lesson from Dien Bien Phu, when applied to our spiritual battle against the devil, makes it clear that we have to hold the higher ground and always be alert for whatever course of action our enemy may take against us. But unlike the French, we can also have full confidence in defeating our enemy—if we rely on God (James 4:7). Never forget that we have an assured path to victory if we trust and have confidence in the superior power of Almighty God.