Fortress of Broken Dreams: Strategic Lessons of Dien Bien Phu

The word “catastrophe” has an interesting history.  When it was first introduced into the English language, it carried the meaning of sudden dramatic change; something like a plot twist.  Over the centuries, it developed a darker significance as “a sudden disaster, widespread and very fatal.”1  For six months in 1953-54, the French Army fought Viet Minh forces in a remote mountain valley of northwest Indochina known as Dien Bien Phu and the battle came to exemplify both meanings of the word.  For the Viet Minh, the result was a catastrophe in the obsolete sense of the word; an unexpected victory that surprisingly and suddenly rang down the curtain on the French war in Indochina.  For the French, it was a catastrophe in the modern sense of the word; a certain and very fatal disaster.  Within two months of the fall of Dien Bien Phu, French Prime Minister Joseph Laniel and General Henri Navarre, the commander of all French forces in Indochina, had lost their jobs.  Within six months, the French were being swept forever from Vietnam.  A sudden dramatic change, indeed.

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