“I’m blowing up the installations. The ammunition dumps are already exploding. Au revoir.”
— Last report from French Colonel Christian de Castries at the battle of Dien Bien Phu
When the first U.S. military forces entered Afghanistan in October 2001, they were hoping to succeed where the Soviet Union and Great Britain had failed before them.
There was a similar confidence when U.S. forces started fighting in Vietnam in March 1965. Except this time they were hoping to outperform the French… who had exited the country in defeat just a decade earlier.
The U.S. probably assumed it had nothing to learn from France — dismissing it as a nation of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” after it submitted to Germany early in World World War II.
But that reputation ignores a huge swath of bloody French history.
When it came to butchering each other, what the French didn’t know about it probably wasn’t worth knowing.
There were the wars with the Romans and with the English, and religious wars, wars between princes and between kingdoms, wars for no apparent reason. Why not?
A group of Norman French fighters no bigger than a small-town police force invaded and captured all of England. Later, Napoleon Bonaparte took on all of Europe and almost beat them.
Each left its mark. Practically every street in Paris reminds them of a slaughter somewhere. On the Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides and dozens of other piles of stone, the names of towns in Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia or North Africa are inscribed. Each one marks the deaths of thousands of French soldiers — gone early to their graves for who-remembers-what important national purpose.
Even the most remote and forlorn little burg in France has at its center a pillar of granite or marble — with the names of the men whose bodies were torn to bits by flying lead or corroded by some battlefield disease.
In World War I, the French battered themselves against the Germans for two years — and suffered more casualties than America had in all its wars put together — before Pershing ever set foot in France.
Even in World War II, Americans waited until the combatants had been softened up before entering the war with an extraordinary advantage in fresh soldiers and almost unlimited supplies.
Until then, America’s early wars were piddling in comparison to anything the French fought. Its wars against the Mexicans and Spaniards were more sordid than glorious. Even its Revolutionary War was merely a minor engagement compared with the Napoleonic Wars, and only won because the French intervened at a crucial moment to pull Americans’ chestnuts out of the fire.
Military adventurism was the only reason the French were even in Vietnam. It had taken control of the territory during a skirmish with the Chinese in 1885, lumping it with other countries and renaming French Indochina. They strutted around like they owned the place until the Japanese came calling in World War II.
As the war ended, some Vietnamese got the crazy idea that they should run their own country… starting a fresh war to kick the French out.
The French had a number of advantages similar to the advantages Americans would bring to bear in Vietnam 10 years later. They controlled the air. They were also well-armed — driving around in U.S.-made jeeps and carrying U.S.-made arms.
And at first, the French were winning, most notably at Na-San. But as the Figaro’s retrospective on the 50th anniversary explains, the victory set up a major defeat just a year and a half later:
“General Giap, commander of the Vietminh forces, used these 18 months to learn from his defeat. The French high commander, on the other hand, became more sure of himself than ever.”
It all came to a head at Dien Bien Phu… a depressed piece of land surrounded by hills covered in jungle. The French didn’t think General Giap could get artillery close enough to do any damage. So his camouflaged field pieces came as a real shock — quickly rendering French airfields useless. After each barrage, waves of Vietnamese infantry poured in to fight.
After 56 days, the last French holdout was in danger of being overrun. The local field commander decided to destroy what few weapons and supplies were left to deny them to the enemy.
The egregious loss marked the end of France’s resolve. The French agreed to get out of Asia and renounced their “civilizing mission” foreign policy.
Charles de Gaulle would later warn John F. Kennedy that Vietnam would be a graveyard for American soldiers. It was a “rotten country,” he said, unsuitable for Western ways of war.
If only JFK had listened.
Tomorrow, we’ll explore why he didn’t.
Founder, The Financial Reserve