The Siege of Dien Bien Phu
The victory of Ho Chi Min's peasant army in battle at Dien Bien Phu shook the world. Prof Julian Jackson recounts how French soldiers lost an empire in the Vietnamese jungle.
After the humiliations of WW2 France was insistent on reasserting itself as a world power. In their Vietnamese colony the nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh were just as determined to gain independence. The showdown to a seven-year guerrilla war came in 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Survivors, politicians and historians explain how the horrors of a 56-day siege ended with the French garrison being virtually wiped out. In Paris desperate politicians even considered using American atomic weapons to try to save Dien Bien Phu.
Julian Jackson, Professor of Modern French History at Queen Mary, London, recounts how French soldiers lost an empire in the mountains of Vietnam and how 60 years later the defeat still resonates in contemporary France. For the other European powers it marked the beginning of the end for their colonies in Africa and the Far East. Dien Bien Phu was the first time native forces had defeated a modern well-equipped army. The lessons were not lost on rebels from Kenya to Malaya.
It also had profound implications for the onset of the Cold War. In Washington the battle led to President Eisenhower's first articulation of the domino theory about the possible expansion of communism. For Moscow and Beijing, Dien Bien Phu represented a great leap forward. For the USA the political vacuum left by the French abandonment of Indochina was to lead to their own 10-year war in Vietnam.
Produced by Keith Wheatley
A Terrier Radio production for BBC Radio 4.