The Light That Failed 10

Navarre flew to Paris in July to present his project to the French government, whose prime minister, Joseph Laniel, had just been re¬volved into office on the Fourth Republic’s political turnstile. The two men failed to understand each other. Though Navarre had arrived with what he regarded to be a formula for victory, Laniel never made it plain to him that he was hoping for a truce of the kind that had recently been declared in Korea. Nor did Laniel explain clearly that he would abandon Laos if the cost of its defense were too high. So, as he returned to the field, Navarre assumed that Laniel had approved his plan to block Giap from invading Laos. But his surmise was not without foundation. In October 1953, France implied in a treaty with the king of Laos that it would protect his land, a member of the French Union, as the French colonial empire had been renamed following World War II. A month later, Navarre ordered preparations for Op¬eration Castor, under which five French battalions would retake Dien¬bienphu.
Colonel Jean-Louis Nicot, the chief of France’s air transport unit, immediately objected on the grounds that bad weather would hamper the endeavor. Assigned to command the assault, Cogney had also changed his mind. Dienbienphu, he now cautioned, would become a “meat grinder” of French troops rather than a “mooring point” from which they could pursue the Vietminh. But Navarre, by then wedded to his strategy, disregarded their misgivings. Besides, he was per¬suaded that Giap could not respond in strength.
Giap had deliberately created that impression by staging diversion¬ary actions around the country. His scattered assaults prevented the French from reinforcing one spot without leaving another open to attack. Squads of Vietminh guerrillas ambushed French convoys car¬rying materiel inland from the port of Haiphong, and terrorists in¬tensified their assassinations of pro-French officials. Vietminh regulars stepped up their raids along the coast of central Vietnam, crossed the border to besiege towns in the southern Laotian panhandle and seized areas of Cambodia.
“At that point,” Giap recalled to me, “I had no idea where—or even whether—a major battle might take place.” Early in October 1953, he rode by horseback to Ho Chi Minh’s headquarters, a bamboo shack located in a hilltop village in northern Vietnam. Ho chain¬smoked and interrupted with questions as Giap, referring to a map, briefed him on the situation. Dienbienphu never came up in the dis¬cussion. “The art of war is flexibility,” Ho said. They would watch the French maneuvers and wait before making a decision.
As Navarre poured troops into Dienbienphu, however, Giap in¬creasingly felt that this was the place to stand. The French, he ob¬served, were “completely isolated” in the valley and dependent on airlifted supplies, which meant that they could be strangled. By con¬trast, their domination of the surrounding mountains gave the Viet- minh forces both the advantage of height for their cannon and a way to bring food and equipment in from the rear. Giap had not yet formulated a plan, nor did he have Ho’s approval of Dienbienphu as the battleground. But, starting in November, he began to move thirty- three infantry battalions, six artillery regiments and a regiment of engineers into the region, some over long distances. Reflecting afterr ward on the massive deployment, military historians judged that, in a conflict like the Indochina war, the mobility of individual soldiers outweighs the mobility of armies. That principle guided Giap in his struggles against France and, later, America. As he told me in 1990, his voice bursting with conviction, “In war there are two factors— human beings and weapons. Ultimately, though, human beings are the decisive factor. Human beings! Human beings!”
Thus the ground was laid for Dienbienphu, which would equal Waterloo, Gettysburg and Stalingrad as one of the decisive battles of history. It was also Giap’s epiphany.
Years before, I interviewed Cao Xuan Nghia, a Vietminh veteran, whose recollections underscored Giap’s point. He had trekked with his infantry company for forty-five days from their camp in Thai Nguyen, north of Hanoi, reaching the highlands above Dienbienphu late in December 1953.
We had to cross mountains and jungles, marching at night and sleeping by day to avoid enemy bombing. We slept in foxholes, or simply alongside the trail. We each carried a rifle, ammunition and hand grenades, and our packs contained a blanket, a mosquito net and a change of clothes. We each had a week’s supply of rice, which we refilled at depots along the way. We ate greens and bamboo shoots, picked in the jungle, and occasionally villagers would give us a bit of meat. By then I had been in the Vietminh for nine years, and I was accustomed to it.
Meanwhile, Giap had been carefully studying the terrain at Dien¬bienphu and concluded that it would require at least fifty thousand troops to annihilate the French garrison. He conferred again with Ho at the end of December, recommended launching the offensive on January 25, 1954, and predicted victory in about six weeks. After posing a few questions, Ho agreed and granted him “full power” as field commander. “This engagement must be won,” he exhorted Giap, adding, “But don’t begin it unless you are sure of winning.”
As French and Vietminh troops prepared to slaughter each other at Dienbienphu, fresh factors added a sense of urgency to their confron¬tation. After three years of bitter fighting in Korea, an armistice had finally been reached, and the notion swiftly spread among the big powers that the Indochina conflict should be settled as well. Following the death of Stalin in March 1953, the new Soviet leaders were also seeking to relax world tensions. And the French were sick of war. Mendes-France, who had consistently called for negotiations, was joined by influential figures like Albert Sarraut, the former colonial governor of Indochina. Even Georges Bidault, once intransigent, said on July 13, 1953, two weeks before the signing of the Korean cease¬fire, that France would be in an “untenable position” if “peace were reestablished in Korea while the war continued in Indochina.” In No¬vember, Prime Minister Laniel made what amounted to an offer: “If an honorable settlement were in sight, on either the local or the in¬ternational level, France would be happy to accept a diplomatic so¬lution to the conflict.”

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