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Vietnam Observes Battle of Dien Bien Phu Anniversary - 2004-03-13

Fifty years ago, one of the defining military battles of the 20th Century began near a remote village called Dien Bien Phu, in the northwestern corner of North Vietnam. The battle led to France's withdrawal from Indochina. In 1953, the Vietnamese communists opposing the French colonial regime were gaining steadily in strength, with aid pouring in from Communist China.

The French commander-in-chief in Indochina, General Henri Navarre, believed his only chance was to lure the Vietnamese into the open, and destroy a major part of their main battle force in a set-piece battle.

The location he chose was the village of Dien Bien Phu, 160 kilometers west of Hanoi and close by the border with Laos, in a valley controlled by the Viet Minh, as the communist forces were known.

French forces occupied the valley in November of 1953. On March 13, having surrounded the garrison, the Viet Minh began a siege that lasted 56 days.

Of about 16,500 French troops sent to Dien Bien Phu during the occupation, more than 3,000 were killed in battle, while almost all of the 10,000 men taken prisoner died on the trek away from Dien Bien Phu or in prison camps.

As Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra says, the defeat was the decisive blow to France's colonial ambitions in the region.

"As a result of that battle they defeated French colonialism psychologically," he said. "There were massive numbers of French troops still left in the country, but France lost the will to fight."

The French surrender was also a defining moment in the Vietnamese Communist Party's struggle for independence - and an omen of what the United States would face several years later.

The hero of the battle was Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, a former history teacher. Now 92-years-old, Gen. Giap told a recent seminar marking the anniversary that the battle marked a "glorious end" to the resistance against the French. He said it also provided the "support, confidence and experience" the Vietnamese used against the United States military in the 1960s and '70s.

Mr. Thayer says the lessons of Dien Bien Phu pushed the Vietnamese to extreme lengths against the Americans. "It gave them the strength, the historical knowledge, to carry on, but it also at times pushed them to take risks and accept high casualties when they were fighting a modern American machine, " said Carl Thayer.

On Saturday, a 120-ton bronze monument marking the battle was placed in Dien Bien Phu by the Vietnamese government. But the government is reserving the major commemoration for May 7, the anniversary of the French surrender. Celebrations then will include a feature film and tours of the battlefield.