The Light That Failed 9

By late 1952, French dead, wounded, missing and captured totaled more than ninety thousand since the war had begun six years earlier, and France had spent twice the sum it had received in U.S. aid under the Marshall Plan. Public enthusiasm for la sale guerre, the dirty war, had long before waned in France, and a mood of uneasiness had pen¬etrated the National Assembly—the “house without windows,” as the French mocked it. There, in December 1952, a debate over fresh appropriations for the Indochina conflict sounded much like a con¬troversy of seventy years earlier, when Georges Clemenceau accused Jules Ferry of squandering funds in Indochina to the detriment of France’s domestic needs and commitments in Europe. Now a foremost critic was Pierre Mendes-France, a maverick respected for his courage. He warned that the soaring cost of the war threatened “rising prices and further social unrest” that would be exploited by the Communists: “You will never succeed in organizing our defenses in Europe if you continue to send all your cadres to Asia, to sacrifice them every year without any result. …”
It was clear by then that the Vietminh could outlast the French, even though Giap had expended thousands of lives in his reckless campaigns. Ho Chi Minh worked tirelessly to mobilize the population by emphasizing the nationalist character of the war: he changed the name of the Communist party to the Lao Dong, or Workers party, and he merged it with the Lien Viet, the National United Front, a movement designed to attract wide support; he introduced land re¬form, education, health care and other programs in the areas under Vietminh control that would broaden participation in the struggle. Even so, he knew that only a spectacular military victory would make the French negotiate on his terms.
By 1952, Giap had partly regained his momentum by compelling the new French commander, General Raoul Salan, to withdraw from Haobinh, a pivotal position southeast of Hanoi. Though he had suf¬fered heavy losses, Giap now dreamed of a more ambitious target, and he contemplated different regions in which to launch a major offensive. Laos looked promising, since he could depend on its moun¬tain tribes, many of them related to the ethnic minorities he had cultivated in northwestern Vietnam. The French garrisons in Laos, outside of the main towns, like Vientiane and Luang Prabang, were also dispersed and vulnerable. Giap reckoned that the French would fight to protect Laos, whose king sided with them, largely out of an atavistic hatred for Vietnamese. He concluded, however, that Laos would better serve him as bait to snare the French, whose supply lines in the area along the Laotian border were stretched thin.
In October 1952, he began to deploy three divisions in the vicinity of a wretched frontier village that had been evacuated by a Laotian battalion employed by the French for garrison duties. The village, located in a valley eleven miles long and five miles wide, belonged to the Thai, an ethnic minority that grew rice and marketed opium brought down from the surrounding mountains by Hmong tribes. The Thai called the place Muong Thanh. To the Vietnamese, whose traders bought opium there, it was known as Dienbienphu.
After a series of clashes in the sector, Giap probed into Laos in April 1953. He skirted the French posts on the Plain of Jars, a plateau strewn with prehistoric urns, and reached the outskirts of Luangprabang, the quaint royal capital, most of whose inhabitants had fled, having been alerted in advance by a blind soothsayer. Then, just as he was poised to capture the town, Giap pulled his troops out of Laos as well as from the area near Dienbienphu. In 1990, explaining the tactic, he told me, “I never intended to remain in Laos. It was a feint designed to distract the French, and it worked.” He had shown that he could march into Laos with relative impunity, and might attack again at the end of the rainy season. Henceforth the French were to fasten on Dienbienphu as the crucial barrier where they would bar the Viet- minh’s future access to Laos.
General Salan was supplanted soon afterward by General Henri Navarre, a peculiar choice as French commander. A career veteran of two world wars, Navarre was cold and solitary—“physically and morally feline,” as a French writer described him. Exuding optimism, he forecast eventual success with an image that was to be his sardonic epitaph—which, during the years ahead in Vietnam, would be re¬peated as the symbol of punctured dreams: “Now we can see it clearly, like the light at the end of a tunnel.”
Navarre’s chief subordinate, Major General Rene Cogny, was a towering figure with degrees in law and political science, who tended to dispute his boss. Another adviser, Colonel Louis Berteil, was a jovial theorist with literary aspirations. They outlined a grand design for Navarre, promising that it would regain the initiative for the French. It included the concept of moles d’amarrages, or “mooring points,” from which French troops and their native auxiliaries could strike at the Vietminh’s rear areas. Cogny proposed Dienbienphu as such a base, arguing that the Thai and Hmong tribes could be per¬suaded—or paid—to fight against the Vietminh. But first Dienbien¬phu would have to be recaptured from Giap’s forces.

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