On the evening of May 7, 1954 the last remaining French position, strong point Lily, manned by Moroccan soldiers commanded by a French officer, surrendered to the attacking Vietminh, ending the two-month long siege of Dien Bien Phu and with it the French-Indochina War. The French fought long, hard, and at times effectively, for French Indochina. The U.S. government gave more financial aid to the French cause in Indochina than it gave to France in the Marshall Plan. But in the end Eisenhower refused to send troops to rescue the garrison.
Dien Bien Phu was unquestionably an important event in world history. In a sense it was the last stand of western colonialism in the Far East. The Brits had already fled India and were in the midst of the Malayan Emergency. The Dutch war of reconquest in Indonesia had been futile. Unfortunately for Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people, their Chinese and Soviet allies sold them short at the bargaining table later that year in Geneva. That, mixed with American actions to negate the treaty in subsequent years, set the table for the second Indochina War, known to many Vietnamese as the “American Phase.”
The picture below is probably the most famous of the battle, in reality it was taken after the battle as part of a re-enactment staged by a Russian filmographer…
Vietnam People’s Army, First publish in 1954. – Vietnam People’s Army museum (still from Soviet filmographer Roman Karmen).
During the Vietnam War nothing got under the skin of the war managers– LBJ, Nixon, their generals, top cops and political cronies — more than public criticism from liberal, and sometimes moderate, members of the intelligentsia, college campuses and the media. The war pushers tried every dirty trick in the book, and then some, to shut these voices down– they labeled dissenters as traitors, commies and un-American; used the FBI to spy on them (Cointelpro) and the IRS to audit them; created laws to throw them in jail for protesting, or sent in ringers and police to start riots during peace marches; and in some cases even shot them dead.
But these tactics ultimately failed. Over time the chorus of voices demanding peace steadily grew in strength and in retrospect history has shown that the opposition interpretation of the war was not only more informed, but also much more honest, than that of the establishment. In fact, we know now that, from Tonkin to Cambodia, there was no lie too big for LBJ and Nixon if it served their purposes of continuing a failed policy in the hopes of pulling off a hail Mary pass late in the game–which of course did not happen.
A true turning point in modern American politics, the shady events of the war years marked the beginning of a damaging turn toward cynicism by the American public regarding the honesty and integrity of their government. Prior to Vietnam, people may have disagreed about politics, but they essentially believed their leaders were, for the most part, honest people, public administrators with honorable intentions. But the Vietnam War– with its phony after battle briefings, trumped up body counts, constant false optimism, secret bombing campaigns and duplicitous foreign diplomacy– shattered that glossy veneer. The trend was accelerated by Watergate and then officially codified into right-wing ideology by Ronald Reagan. The fallout from the war, the war at home, started the nation on the path that has left us deeply divided, and apparently paralyzed politically.
Listen to archival broadcasts from the period featuring those who stood up against the war:
Note: with the most recent national military debacle – the Iraq War – flaming out of control again, and the hawks circling above calling for US involvement, these recordings take on a renewed significance, if for nothing else than to remind ourselves that it is possible to speak out and influence events– it’s one of the only real powers “we the people” have.
FDR had stated he was against the re-acquisition of Indochina by the French after WWII. Unfortunately he didn’t make it that long. Truman ignored Ho Chi Minh’s plea for help and backed the French.
Ho Chi Minh had come to power in Vietnam with the assistance of the OSS in the wake of the Japanese surrender in September 1945. He had not yet been tarred with the Communist label– that came later for political reasons. Truman sacrificed Ho in order to keep the French solidly in the Western bloc against the Russians at the end of the war…the rest of course was tragedy….