Week of March 17

Week of March 17

In March 1954, one of the most significant battles of the twentieth century began in a remote, mountainous region of northern French Indochina. There, on March 13, just outside the small Vietnamese town of Điện Biên Phủ, a large force of Vietnamese revolutionaries surrounded and attacked a far smaller group of French and colonial Vietnamese troops. When the French forces finally surrendered nearly two months later, after being battered and cut off from resupply on the ground, France was forced to ask for peace negotiations. Soon thereafter, France was forced to give up its colonies in Southeast Asia.

By 1954, the First Indochina War between Ho Chi Minh’s Việt Minh and the colonial French occupation forces had been raging for almost nine years. Things had not gone well for the French armed forces. Attempting to pursue a more aggressive strategy, General Henri Navarre deployed some 12,000 of his troops outside Điện Biên Phủ, hoping to bait the Việt Minh into the open. He got his wish on March 13, 1954, when approximately 50,000 Việt Minh under the command of Võ Nguyên Giáp surrounded the French and colonial Vietnamese troops. After a 55-day battle in which the French could only be resupplied by air, the shattered garrison surrendered, having suffered 5,500 casualties. The battle of Điện Biên Phủ effectively ended the First Indochina War as well as French dominion in Southeast Asia.

Between 1945 and 1954, the United States provided billions of dollars in aid and equipment to the French in their war against the Việt Minh, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower ultimately decided against military intervention to save the French at Điện Biên Phủ. However, Americans were present during the battle. Serving in secret for the CIA, 37 American pilots aboard C-119s with civilian and French markings flew nearly 700 airborne supply sorties in support of the besieged French garrison between March and May. They dropped ammunition and provisions, flew in reinforcements when possible, and evacuated casualties, often braving intense antiaircraft fire from the surrounding Việt Minh. Two of the Americans, James McGovern and his co-pilot Wallace Buford, were killed when ground fire downed their plane on the penultimate day of the battle.

For the United States, the consequences of Điện Biên Phủ proved pivotal. After France left the region, U.S. leaders feared that Vietnam, and eventually all of Southeast Asia, would fall under Communist domination, setting up the Cold War “domino effect” that successive American Presidents from Harry S. Truman to Lyndon B. Johnson feared. Hồ Chí Minh, aided by money and supplies from the Soviet Union and China, was poised to unite Vietnam under a Communist government based in Hanoi. And the final departure of France from its former colony convinced the United States of the need to directly exert its influence in the region to keep the South non-Communist.

The battle of Điện Biên Phủ thus marked the beginning of America’s nation-building efforts in South Vietnam. In the immediate wake of the battle, the CIA opened the Saigon Military Mission in June, under the direction of Colonel Edward G. Lansdale. From August 1954 to April 1955, in Operation PASSAGE TO FREEDOM, the United States employed dozens of Navy and civilian vessels to transport one-third of the nearly 1 million refugees who escaped into the South, fleeing the North’s new regime. In September 1954, the U.S. was central in forming the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. And by early 1956, the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group had assumed full responsibility for expanding and training the South Vietnamese Armed Forces for its looming conflict with North Vietnam. The United States had thus taken its first steps down the road to the Vietnam War—a road that the nation and millions of American servicemen and servicewomen would tread down for over two decades.1

1Alfred T. Cox, Clandestine Services History: Civil Air Transport, A Proprietary Airline, 1946–1955 (declassified and published, 1963), Vol. 3, Tab K, 11–22 (pilot deaths noted p. 17); Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (2nd edition; Santa Barbara, Ca.: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 166–68, 293–95; Herring, America’s Longest War (4th edition) 33–45. Regarding the number of pilots and the nearly 700 missions number, see https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/earthquake-mcgoons-final-flight.html and the heading for Dien Bien Phu. Also Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (2nd revised edition; New York: Penguin Books, 1997); Thomas L. Ahern, Jr., Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency (Lexington, Ky.: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 2010), 27–28; Richard W. Stewart, Deepening Involvement, 1945–1965 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2012); Ronald H. Spector, United States Army in Vietnam: Advice and Support: The Early Years, 1941–1960 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1985).