Gen Giap's strategic rethink a decisive factor

Update: May, 04/2014 - 17:36
Onward: Soldiers advance towards the fortified Dien Bien Phu camp. — VNAPhoto

A risky decision based on military intelligence prompted a shift in strategy from ‘Fast Strike, Fast Victory', to ‘Steady Attack, Steady Advance', and General Giap's instincts were proven right.

The Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954 sounded the "death knell for colonialism". (1)

At that time, Colonel Le Trong Nghia, aged 31 headed the Military Intelligence Department for the Battle, for the Indochina Campaign, and for the Party Central Committee. (2)

Colonel Nghia remembers how in 1953 he'd just attended a session on June 23 (3) about troop "re-education" run by Chinese advisors, who had described the French as bourgeois capitalists lacking organization, discipline, and a fighting spirit. When talking about "re-education", the advisors stressed the workers and peasants ‘"revolutionary standpoint" but denigrated Vietnamese officers from the "petit bourgeoisie".

After that meeting, Col Nghia thought his educated background might lead to his dismissal.

Not long thereafter, President Ho Chi Minh asked General Vo Nguyen Giap and Le Trong Nghia to report in person about French General Navarres plan to end the war in eighteen months. Col Nghia hoped to protect his "revolutionary standpoint" during a possible re-education re-organization. He echoed the Chinese advisors assessment by disparaging French Gen Navarre as a "paper tiger".

Mao Zedong held that the enemy's strength was only tactical, and Maoists maintained that a raised assessment of the enemy reflected the petit bourgeoisies fear of fighting against class enemies. Ho Chi Minh had a different perspective.

President Ho "re-educated" Colonel Nghia:

"You are the eyes and ears of the Party Central Committee, he said. You must never underestimate the enemy. It's no problem if you raise your assessment and are proven wrong. But never underestimate the enemy. You are in strategic intelligence. Do you know what's happening in the French National Assembly? What about Navarres status with the Americans? You must examine everything, not just the enemy's military situation. You must look at politics, economics, the French situation at home, the French situation abroad. Intelligence officers must never try to please their commanders. Your duty is to report what is, not what your commander wants to hear". (4)

Col Nghia points out that intelligence work involved ordinary soldiers, ordinary citizens, guards, look-outs, radio operators, cryptographers, decoders, liaison runners, undercover agents, cartographers, interpreters, cultural guides, men, women, adults, elders, youth, children—his list went on. He emphasizes that no one person can be or should be designated a "perfect spy". Rather, good intelligence involves many people, who play many roles and draw on many sources.

On November 30, 1953, members of the Vietnamese advance team arrived at Dien Bien Phu to find the French defences still temporary. They and their Chinese advisors changed the strategy from "Steady Attack, Steady Advance" to "Fast Strike, Fast Victory". The battle would last three nights and two days. On January 12, Gen Giap and the senior leadership team, including Col Nghia, arrived to find everyone supporting "Fast Strike, Fast Victory". Gen Giap was apprehensive.

Then, on January 21, Col Nghia received distressing news: The Vietnamese Radio Interception Team had heard the French announce the Vietnamese attack's Strike Hour and Date (17:00, January 25). The French had captured a 308th Division soldier, had flown him to Ha Noi, and subjected him to severe questioning until the French secured details for the lead assault by Viet Nam's premier division, the 308th. (5)

Lookout: Gen Giap and soldiers survey the Dien Bien Phu battlefield. — VNA photo

Le Trong Nghia and his staff worked day and night on January 22 to confirm details.

On January 23, Col Nghia reported to Gen Giap: The French knew the planned attack's particulars and knew the Vietnamese lacked rice for sustained combat. The enemy planned to counter-attack. That very morning, January 23, a French battalion would parachute into the 308th Division's strike site, F308. A multi-battalion French force would attack from behind. The French pincer would crush Viet Nam's premier division.

"At first," Col Nghia says, "General Giap was silent. He was stunned! He ordered me to double-check. Then he said, You must observe absolute silence. you must not tell anyone, not the Chinese advisors, not even our chief-of-staff. Let the Political Department speak first. Keep your sources hidden". (6)

The Military Intelligence Department drew heavily on French-educated Vietnamese, who were fluent in French and understood regional French accents. They had studied French military history, watching as their high-school teachers drew shifting battle arrays. They were patriots, but from the intelligentsia. They were "petit bourgeoisie". Le Trong Nghia points out that Gen Giap wanted to keep his military-intelligence sources completely hidden, for these officers strength made them vulnerable to the class-struggle jostling that had developed with the presence of Chinese advisors. (7)

Col Nghia climbed to a mountaintop observation post: He saw French paratroopers floating downward, just as his staff had predicted. He reporting his findings to Gen Giap and accompanied him to the radio-intelligence intercepting posts. There, in the hut, Gen Giap questioned each technical-intelligence staff member—radio interceptors Tran Bach, Vuong Minh Tan, and others. He poured over every telegram and radio message, asking questions until he had checked, absorbed, and evaluated every detail. He examined information from the spies who had infiltrated the enemy's ranks and from reconnaissance teams working in the enemy's rearguard. He checked on foot soldiers, artillery, and rice supplies. He reiterated his order to Col Nghia for absolute silence.

In combat, all information is sensitive, but intelligence information is particularly so. Sharing it compromises the identity of sources, rendering them useless for the future and endangering both the sources and those who "feed" them. Sharing this new information could have led to interception and leakage, requiring they change radiotelegraphy codes. That, in turn would slow retrieval rates for new information. Thus, Gen Giap could not reveal this new information to anyone, not even to his senior staff. He had to find other reasons to persuade the Party Committee for the Battle to return to "Steady Attack, Steady Advance".

On January 23, the same morning Col Nghia made his report, Pham Kiet reported that the artillery was exposed and vulnerable. (8) When Gen. Giap published the ‘Hardest Decision', he could not reveal the more complex context Col Nghia describes. Thus, he wrote, "[Pham Kiet] was the first and the only person to recognise any difficulty". In deed, that praise is well-deserved, for Pham Kiet's appraisal came from outside the Military Intelligence Department and could be shared.

Gen Giap's three colleagues in the Party Committee for the Battle were committed to "Fast Strike". The dialogue Gen Giap recounts from the committee's discussion is illuminating. Eventually, the committee did reach unanimity. Six hours before Strike Hour, Gen Giap implemented his "hardest decision as a military commander". He withdrew the Vietnamese front-line forces in Dien Bien Phu.

Remembering that time, Col Nghia notes that intercepted French messages, which his staff decoded, provided the best information. He is quick to say that, in standing up at the decisive moment, he relied on Ho Chi Minh counsel: "Intelligence officers must never try to please their commanders. Your duty is to report what is, not what your commander wants to hear."

Col Nghia adds that Gen Giap's scrutiny illustrates his acuity and versatility. Gen Giap was always on the look-out for undesired reality. He had an extraordinary ability to listen and to absorb any information forecasting an unexpected challenge. Further, Gen Giap could switch strategy and tactics, and he could quickly build consensus for a new, shared decision.


(1) Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu: Rendezvous with History, translated by Lady Borton (Ha Noi: Nxb The Gioi [World Publishers], 2014), "Prologue", 2. Vietnamese edition: Dien Bien Phu: Diem hen lich su (Ha Noi: Nxb. Quan doi Nhan dan, 2000), "De thay ket luan" (Changing the Conclusion), 443.

(2) For an interviews with Le Trong Nghia in Vietnamese, see: Duong Trung Quoc's, "Gap vi Cuc truong Cuc Quan bao trong Chien dich Dien Bien Phu — Mot don mo dau hao hung va ngoan muc" (A Meeting with the Head of the Intelligence Department at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu—A Spectacular and Heroic Opening Strike), Xua & Nay (Then and Now), April 2004, 12-15. Excerpts from this interview are on the website of the Ministry of Public Security, May 7, 2011: . Accessed April 20, 2014. See also: Nhieu tac gia (Many Authors), Chuyen nhung nguoi lam nen lich su: Hoi uc Dien Bien Phu, 1954-2009 (Stories from People Who Made History: Memories of Dien Bien Phu, 1954-2009) (Ha Noi: Nxb Chinh tri Quoc gia [National Political Publishing House], 2009), 47, 68, 83.

(3) Hoc vien Chinh tri - Hanh chinh Quoc gia Ho Chi Minh and Vien Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh National Institute for Politics and Administration and the Ho Chi Minh Academy), Ho Chi Minh: Bien nien Tieu su (Ho Chi Minh: Biographical Chronology), vol. 5, 1951-1954, (Ha Noi: Nxb. Chinh tri Quoc gia [National Political Publishing House], 1995), 357-58; (2007 edition), 334-35.

(4) Le Trong Nghia, interview, Ha Noi, January 1, 2004; Ha Noi, December 17, 2008.

(5) Le Trong Nghia interviewed by Vietnamese historian, Duong Trung Quoc, ‘Mot don mo dau hao hung va ngoan muc' (A Spectacular and Heroic Opening Strike), May 7, 2011, Ministry of Public Security webpage, . Interview with Le Trong Nghia, Ha Noi, April 10, 2014.

(6) Interview with Colonel Le Trong Nghia, Ha Noi, January 1, 2009.

(7) Interview with Colonel Le Trong Nghia, Ha Noi, April 10, 2014 for this and for the paragraphs that follow.

(8)i Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu: Rendezvous with History, Chapter IV, "The Hardest Decision", 202; Vietnamese, 102.