Dien Bien Phu's importance transcends national borders, delivering a warning against undue interference in other nations' affairs as well as a universal message of peace, says French historian Alain Ruscio
Early this May, Viet Nam will celebrate the 60th anniversary of a stunning victory that brought an abrupt end to French colonial rule throughout Indochina. French historian Alain Ruscio feels France should not forget the lessons of history: that there is no justification for interfering in the affairs of other countries. But this episode also sends a message of peace, Ruscio tells the Vietnam News Agency.
Inner Sanctum: The troops of the French Expeditionary Corps suffered a crushing defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Do you think that France will hold a commemorative ceremony or recall history on the 60th anniversary of this event?
For official France, for the French government, ministries and those who remain in the registry of colonial nostalgia, Dien Bien Phu is really a defeat.
They have no reason to celebrate this event. But for the French people, Dien Bien Phu is above all a defeat for colonialism and not of France as such. France led a war in Indochina which had no foundation, no national justification. Personally, I consider Dien Biên Phu a defeat of the French political and military circles who had understood nothing of the desire for independence among the Vietnamese people, and who had tried till the end to maintain the colonial regime, even at the cost of the lives of thousands of French soldiers.
So I think that there will be no official celebration, but there will be a reflection, among historians, for example, about the significance of Dien Bien Phu. The conference on General Vo Nguyen Giap and the 60th anniversary of the battle of Dien Bien Phu held at the Museum of Living History is an example. The account given by Claude Blanchemaison, former ambassador of France to Viet Nam, about his meetings with Gen Giap falls within this perspective. Gen Giap hoped Viet Nam and France will strengthen their friendship. It should be understood that the man who was the commander-in-chief of the Viet Nam People's Army at the battle was also very attached to friendship with France. This proves that our two peoples are not enemies; they both love peace and justice.
Inner Sanctum: Do you think that the French still retain some complex vis-a-vis this debacle? Could you tell us about the support of the French people for the Vietnamese people's struggle for freedom?
During the 1946-1954 period, French policy was facing several orientations (political movements and opinions). Some wanted to remain in Indochina at any cost. But the majority of the French population disapproved of colonialist manoeuvres and felt friendship towards the Vietnamese people. As early as 1948, there were demonstrations, leafleting, rallies, protests and, later, strikes where people refused to load weapons on ships to Indochina.
This struggle was symbolized by communists like Henri Martin and Raymonde Dien, and also by leftist intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre. They are among those who denounced most vigorously the colonial war in Viet Nam.
Inner Sanctum: What is the significance of the Dien Bien Phu victory, in your opinion?
The battle of Dien Bien Phu triggered in the world the awareness of a great people's movement. Before Dien Bien Phu, the struggles of the Vietnamese people were only observed closely by the colonised peoples, especially those of the French empire, namely Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians and Africans in general. They looked at Viet Nam with great hope because it seemed to them that what was at stake here went far beyond the borders of Viet Nam. Dien Bien Phu was proof for these people that it was possible to defeat French colonialism, militarily or politically. This victory was greeted, joyfully welcomed by peoples colonised by France and received as the announcement of an upcoming liberation in their homelands.
There are widespread testimonies; the uprising in Algeria started just six months after Dien Biên Phu. This battle had a global impact.
Inner Sanctum: What is it that has really impressed you about the battle of Dien Bien Phu?
What really impressed me is the ability of the Viet Nam People's Army to surmount the challenge raised by the French army, the ability of the Vietnamese people to cope with all assumptions, all eventualities, in particular thanks to the strategic adaptation genius of Gen Giap.
Dien Bien Phu was chosen by the General Staff of the French army, who wanted to set a trap for adversaries. All French experts, military or political, believed Dien Bien Phu was impregnable because the French army had a clear superiority in men and weapons, with hundreds of cannons, thousands of shells, thousands of soldiers. No French strategist at that time could imagine that Vietnamese porters could get artillery pieces to the top of the mountains surrounding the valley, that the supplies to Bo doi (Vietnamese foot soldiers) could be done by tens of thousands of people.
Almost the entire French government and political world underestimated the stamina and strength of the Vietnamese people. Colonialists and their spokesmen thought one only had to hit very hard to crush the Vietnamese people. But they did not just understand that people's war could mobilise large enough energies to thwart those plans. Sixty years later, this is still the most prominent factor.
Inner Sanctum: Sixty years is a long time in history that allows us to see better what to do and what to avoid. What do you think of the absurdity of war and the importance of preserving peace in the world?
The struggle for peace is as important today as ever. We must never accept wars whatever they may be. There are of course just wars, for example the wars of national liberation and the wars of resistance against colonialism and imperialism. In today's world, there are still threats, interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, or threats of intervention in Syria. We must do everything to preserve peace in the world.
As for relations with Viet Nam, I can say the French and Vietnamese people have never wanted this war, and that I am very pleased to see that 60 years later, relations between the two countries, the two peoples are excellent. There is now a strategic partnership between France and Viet Nam.
However, France must remember history, especially its colonial history. In this sense, Dien Bien Phu is a warning against any attempt to interfere in the affairs of others. At the same time it sends a message of peace. It encourages us to make every effort to work for better relations between peoples and nations in the future. — VNS