[News] May 7, 1954 Vietnamese victory over French colonialism at Dien Bien Phu

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon May 7 11:07:47 EDT 2012

Interview with Vo Nguyen Giap
Viet Minh Commander

Q: Was Diên Bin Phû a conventional military 
victory or was it a victory for military warfare?

Giap: The victory at Diên Bin Phû was a victory 
for the people. But then, of course, while the 
concept of a people's war and guerrilla warfare 
are not entirely separate, they are separate 
nonetheless. In this case, it was the people's 
war that was victorious. And guerrilla warfare 
was one aspect of that people's war. It's all 
quite complicated.... What is the people's war? 
Well, in a word, it's a war fought for the people 
by the people, whereas guerrilla warfare is 
simply a combat method. The people's war is more 
global in concept. It's a synthesized concept. A 
war which is simultaneously military, economic 
and political, and is what we in France would 
call "synthesized." There's guerrilla warfare and 
there's large-scale tactical warfare, fought by large units.

Q: What was new about the idea of the "People's War"?

Giap: It was a war for the people by the people. 
FOR the people because the war's goals are the 
people's goals -- goals such as independence, a 
unified country, and the happiness of its 
people.... And BY the people -- well that means 
ordinary people -- not just the army but all people.

We know it's the human factor, and not material 
resources, which decide the outcome of war. 
That's why our people's war, led by Ho Chi Minh, 
was on such a large scale. It took in the whole population.

Q: What do you think about the significance of Diên Bin Phû for the world?

Giap: The history of the Vietnamese people goes 
back thousands of years. During that time we've 
repelled thousands of invaders. Only, in former 
times the countries that tried to invade us were 
on the same economic level as we were. Theirs, 
like ours, was a feudal society. That was the 
case, for example, when we fought the Chinese in 
the 13th century. But Diên Bin Phû was a victory 
in another era. What I mean is that in the latter 
half of the 19th century, when western 
imperialism divided the world into colonies, a 
new problem emerged. How could a weak, 
economically backwards people ever hope to regain 
its freedom? How could it hope to take on a 
modern western army, backed by the resources of a 
modern capitalist state? And that's why it took 
us 100 years to fight off the French and French 
imperialism. Diên Bin Phû was the first great 
decisive victory after 100 years of war against 
French imperialism and U.S. interventionism. That 
victory that put an end to the war and marked the 
end of French aggression. From an international 
point of view, it was the first great victory for 
a weak, colonized people struggling against the 
full strength of modern Western forces. This is 
why it was the first great defeat for the West. 
It shook the foundations of colonialism and 
called on people to fight for their freedom -- it 
was the beginning of international civilization.

Q: Was Diên Bin Phû an easy victory because the French made so many mistakes?

Giap: It's not as simple as that. We believed 
that in the French camp, French general staff and 
the military chiefs were well informed. They'd 
weighed up the pros and cons, and according to 
their forecasts, Diên Bin Phû was impregnable. It 
has to be said that at the beginning of the 
autumn of '53, for example, when our political 
headquarters were planning our autumn and winter 
campaigns, there was no mention of Diên Bin Phû. 
Why? Because, the Navarre plan didn't mention it 
either. They had a whole series of maneuvers planned.

For us, the problem was that Navarre wanted to 
retain the initiative whereas we wanted to seize 
it. There is a contradiction that exists in a war 
of aggression whereby you have to disperse your 
forces to occupy a territory but rally your 
mobile forces for offensive action. We took 
advantage of this contradiction and forced 
Navarre to disperse his forces. That's how it all 
started. We ordered our troops to advance in a 
number of directions, directions of key 
importance to the enemy although their presence 
wasn't significant. So the enemy had no choice 
but to disperse their troops. We sent divisions 
north, northwest, toward the center, towards 
Laos; other divisions went in other directions. 
So to safeguard Laos and the northwest, Navarre 
had to parachute troops into Diên Bin Phû, and 
that's what happened at Diên Bin Phû. Before 
then, no one had heard of Diên Bin Phû. But 
afterwards, well that's history, isn't it? French 
General Staff only planned to parachute in 
sufficient troops to stop us advancing on the 
northwest and Laos. Little by little, they 
planned to transform Diên Bin Phû into an 
enormous concentration camp, a fortified camp, 
the most powerful in Indochina. They planned to 
draw our forces, break us, crush us, but the 
opposite took place. They'd wanted a decisive 
battle and that's exactly what they got at Diên 
Bin Phû -- except that it was decisive for the 
Vietnamese and not for the French.

Q: Before Diên Bin Phû, do you think the French 
ever imagined you could defeat them?

Giap: Well, everyone at Diên Bin Phû, from the 
French generals and representatives of the French 
government to the American generals and the 
commanding admiral of the Pacific Fleet, agreed 
that Diên Bin Phû was impregnable. Everyone 
agreed that it was impossible to take. The French 
and then the Americans underestimated our 
strength. They had better weapons and enormous 
military and economic potential. They never 
doubted that victory would be theirs. And yet, 
just when the French believed themselves to be on 
the verge of victory, everything collapsed around 
them. The same happened to the Americans in the 
Spring of '65. Just when Washington was about to 
proclaim victory in the South, the Americans saw 
their expectations crumble. Why? Because it 
wasn't just an army they were up against but an 
entire people -- an entire people.

So the lesson is that however great the military 
and economic potential of your adversary, it will 
never be great enough to defeat a people united 
in the struggle for their fundamental rights. 
That's what we've learned from all this.

Q: Why was the National Liberation Front so 
successful in expanding the areas it controlled between 1960 and 1965?

Giap: Throughout our long history, whenever we've 
felt ourselves to be threatened by the enemy, our 
people have closed in the ranks. Millions of 
people, united, have called for "Unification 
above all," for "Victory above all".... The 
National Liberation Front was victorious because 
it managed to unite most of the people and because its politics were just.

Q: Did you change your tactics at all when the 
American troops began to arrive after 1965?

Giap: Of course, but even so, it was still a 
people's war. And, a people's war is 
characterized by a strategy that is more than 
simply military. There's always a synthesized 
aspect to the strategy, too. Our strategy was at 
once military, political, economic, and 
diplomatic, although it was the military 
component which was the most important one.

In a time of war, you have to take your lead from 
the enemy. You have to know your enemy well. When 
your enemy changes his strategy or tactics, you 
have to do the same. In every war, a strategy is 
always made up of a number of tactics that are 
considered to be of great strategic importance, 
so you have to try to smash those tactics. If we 
took on the cavalry, for example, we'd do 
everything we could to smash that particular 
tactic. It was the same when the enemy made use 
of strategic weapons.... And, when the Americans 
tried to apply their "seek and destroy" tactic, 
we responded with our own particular tactic that 
was to make their objective unattainable and 
destroy them instead. We had to...force the enemy 
to fight the way we wanted them to fight. We had 
to force the enemy to fight on unfamiliar territory.

Q: Was your Têt offensive in 1968 a failure?

Giap: As far as we're concerned, there's no such 
thing as a purely military strategy. So it would 
be wrong to speak of Têt in purely military 
terms. The offensive was three things at the same 
time: military, political, and diplomatic. The 
goal of the war was de-escalation. We were 
looking to de-escalate the war. Thus, it would 
have been impossible to separate our political 
strategy from our military strategy. The truth is 
that we saw things in their entirety and knew 
that in the end, we had to de-escalate the war. 
At that point, the goal of the offensive was to try to de-escalate the war.

Q: And did the de-escalation succeed?

Giap: Your objective in war can either be to wipe 
out the enemy altogether or to leave their forces 
partly intact but their will to fight destroyed. 
It was the American policy to try and escalate 
the war. Our goal in the '68 offensive was to 
force them to de-escalate, to break the American will to remain in the war....

We did this by confronting them with repeated 
military, as well as political and diplomatic 
victories. By bringing the war to practically all 
the occupied towns, we aimed to show the 
Americans and the American people that it would 
be impossible for them to continue with the war. 
Essentially, that's how we did it.

Q: You are familiar with those famous pictures of 
April 1975, of American helicopters flying away 
from the American Embassy. What do those pictures mean to you?

Giap: It was as we expected. It marked the end of 
the American neo-colonial presence in our 
country. And, it proved that when a people are 
united in their fight for freedom, they will always be victorious.

When I was young, I had a dream that one day I'd 
see my country free and united. That day, my 
dream came true. When the political bureau 
reunited Hanoi with Laos, there were first 
reports of evacuation. Then the Saigon government 
capitulated. It was like turning the page on a 
chapter of history. The streets in Hanoi were full of people.

The pictures of the helicopters were, in one way, 
a concrete symbol of the victory of the People's 
war against American aggression. But, looked at 
another way, it's proof that the Pentagon could 
not possibly predict what would happen. It 
revealed the sheer impossibility for the 
Americans to forecast the outcome. Otherwise, 
they would have planned things better, wouldn't they.

The reality of history teaches us that not even 
the most powerful economic and military force can 
overcome a resistance of a united people, a 
people united in their struggle for their 
international rights. There is a limit to power. 
I think the Americans and great superpowers would 
do well to remember that while their power may be 
great, it is inevitably limited.... Since the 
beginning of time, whether in a socialist or a 
capitalist country, the things you do in the 
interests of the people stand you in good stead, 
while those which go against the interest of the 
people will eventually turn against you. History bears out what I say.

We were the ones who won the war and the 
Americans were the ones who were defeated, but 
let's be precise about this. What constitutes 
victory? The Vietnamese people never wanted war; 
they wanted peace. Did the Americans want war? 
No, they wanted peace, too. So, the victory was a 
victory for those people in Vietnam and in the 
USA who wanted peace. Who, then, were the ones 
defeated? Those who were after aggression at any 
price. And that's why we're still friends with 
the people of France and why we've never felt any 
enmity for the people of America....

Q: Who invented the idea of People's war? Whose idea was it originally?

Giap: It was originally a product of the creative 
spirit of the people. Let me tell you the legend 
of Phu Dong...which everyone here knows well. 
It's a legend set in prehistoric times. The enemy 
was set to invade, and there was a three-year-old 
boy called Phu Dong who was growing visibly 
bigger by the minute. He climbed on to an iron 
horse and, brandishing bamboo canes as weapons, 
rallied the people. The peasants, the fisherman, 
everyone answered his call, and they won the war. 
It's just a legend and like popular literature, 
the content is legendary, but it still reflects 
the essence of the people's thinking. So, popular 
warfare existed even in legends, and it remained with us over the centuries.

Q: Why do you think Vietnam is almost the only 
country in the world that has defeated America? Why only Vietnam?

Giap: Speaking as a historian, I'd say that 
Vietnam is rare. As a nation, Vietnam was formed 
very early on. It is said that, in theory, a 
nation can only be formed after the arrival of 
Capitalism -- according to Stalin's theory of the 
formation of nations, for instance. But, our 
nation was formed very early, before the 
Christian era. Why? Because the risk of 
aggression from outside forces led all the 
various tribes to band together. And then there 
was the constant battle against the elements, 
against the harsh winter conditions that prevail 
here. In our legends, this struggle against the 
elements is seen as a unifying factor, a force 
for national cohesion. This, combined with the 
constant risk of invasion, made for greater 
cohesion and created a tradition -- a tradition that gave us strength.

The Vietnamese people in general tend to be 
optimistic. Why? Because they've been facing up 
to vicissitudes for thousands of years, and for 
thousands of years they've been overcoming them.

Q: What was the contribution of Marxism and 
Leninism to your theory of a People's War?

The People's War in Vietnam pre-dated the arrival 
of Marxism and Leninism, both of which 
contributed something when they did arrive, of course.

When the USSR collapsed, we predicted that 60 to 
80 percent of our imports and exports budget 
would be eliminated because we depended upon aid 
from the USSR and other socialist countries. So 
people predicted the collapse of Vietnam. Well, 
we're still hanging on and slowly making 
progress. I was asked what I thought of 
Perestroika, so I answered that I agreed with the 
change and thought it was necessary in political 
relations. But Perestroika is a Russian word, 
made for the Russians. Here we do things the 
Vietnamese way. And we make the most of our hopes 
and the hopes of those in Russia, China, the USA, 
Japan, Great Britain -- but we try to assimilate them all.

As I mentioned, the Vietnamese people have an 
independent spirit, stubborn people, I suppose, 
who do things the Vietnamese way. So now the plan 
is to mobilize the entire population in the fight 
against backwardness and misery. While there are 
the problems of war and the problems of peace, 
there are also concrete laws, social laws, great 
laws, which retain their value whether in peace 
or war. You have to be realistic. You have to 
have a goal. You have to be a realist and use 
reality as a means of analyzing the object laws 
which govern things. To win, you have to act 
according to these laws. If you do the opposite, 
you're being subjective and you're bound to lose. 
So, we learn from the experience, both good and 
bad, of Capitalism. But, we have our own 
Vietnamese idea on things. I'd like to add that 
we are still for independence, that we still 
follow the path shown us by Ho Chi Minh, the path 
of independence and Socialism. I'm still a 
Socialist but what is Socialism? It's 
independence and unity for the country. It's the 
freedom and well-being of the people who live 
there. And, it's peace and friendship between all people.

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