The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (French: Bataille de Diên Biên Phu; Vietnamese: Chiến dịch Điện Biên Phủ) was the climactic confrontation of the First Indochina War between the French Union’s French Far East Expeditionary Corps and Viet Minh communist revolutionaries. The battle occurred between March and May 1954 and culminated in a comprehensive French defeat that effectively ended the war. Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle.”
As a result of blunders in the French decision-making process, the French undertook to create an air-supplied base at Dien Bien Phu, deep in the hills of northwestern Vietnam. Its purpose was to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into the neighboring Kingdom of Laos, a French ally, and draw the Viet Minh into a battle that would cripple them. Instead, the Viet Minh, under Senior General Võ Nguyên Giáp, surrounded and besieged the French, who were unaware of the Viet Minh’s possession of heavy artillery (including anti-aircraft guns) and their ability to move such weapons to the mountain crests overlooking the French encampment. The Viet Minh occupied the highlands around Dien Bien Phu and were able to fire down accurately onto French positions. Tenacious fighting on the ground ensued, reminiscent of the trench warfare of World War I. The French repeatedly repulsed Viet Minh assaults on their positions. Supplies and reinforcements were delivered by air, though as the French positions were overrun and the anti-aircraft fire took its toll, fewer and fewer of those supplies reached them. After a two-month siege, the garrison was overrun and most French forces surrendered, only a few successfully escaping to Laos.
Shortly after the battle, the war ended with the 1954 Geneva Accords, under which France agreed to withdraw from its former Indochinese colonies. The accords partitioned the country in two; fighting later resumed among rival Vietnamese forces in 1959 with the Vietnam (Second Indochina) War.
Further information: Operation Vulture
According to the Mutual Defense Assistance Act the United States provided the French with material aid during the battle aircraft (supplied by the USS Saipan), weapons, mechanics, twenty-four CIA/CAT pilots, and US Air Force maintenance crews.
The United States, however, intentionally avoided public direct intervention. In February 1954, following French occupation of Dien Bien Phu but prior to the battle, Democratic senator Mike Mansfield asked United States Defense Secretary Charles Erwin Wilson whether the U.S. would send naval or air units if the French were subjected to greater pressure there, but Wilson replied that “for the moment there is no justification for raising United States aid above its present level”. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also stated, “Nobody is more opposed to intervention than I am”.
On March 31, following the fall of Beatrice, Gabrielle, and Anne-Marie, a panel of U.S. Senators and House Representatives questioned U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Arthur W. Radford about the possibility of U.S. involvement. Radford concluded it was too late for the U.S. Air Force to save the French garrison. A proposal for direct intervention was unanimously voted down by the panel, which “concluded that intervention was a positive act of war”.
The United States did covertly participate in the battle. Following a request for help from Henri Navarre, Radford provided two squadrons of B-26 Invader bomber aircraft to support the French. Subsequently, 37 U.S. pilots flew 682 sorties over the course of the battle. Earlier, in order to succeed the pre-Dien Bien Phu Operation Castor of November 1953, General Chester McCarty made available 12 additional C-119 Flying Boxcars flown by French crew.
Two of the U.S. pilots, Wallace Buford and James “Earthquake McGoon” McGovern Jr., were killed in action during the siege of Dien Bien Phu. In February 25, 2005, the seven still living U.S. pilots were awarded the French Legion of Honor by Jean-David Levitte, ambassador of France in the United States. The role the U.S. pilots played in the battle had remained little known until 2004; “U.S. historian Erik Kirsinger researched the case for more than a year to establish the facts.”
French author Jules Roy also suggests that Radford discussed with the French the possibility of using nuclear weapons in support of the garrison. Moreover, John Foster Dulles was reported to have mentioned the possibility of lending atomic bombs to the French for use at Dien Bien Phu, and a similar source claims that British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden was aware of the possibility of nuclear weapons use in the region.