In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Battle of Dien Bien Phu

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sources and Bibliographies
  • General History of the Indochina War (First Vietnam War)
  • The Context of the Cold War
  • The 1954 Crisis between France and the United States of America
  • The Geneva Agreements
  • Toward the Vietnam War, from Na San to Khe Sanh

Military History Battle of Dien Bien Phu
Jean-Jacques Arzalier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0174


The First Vietnam War, or Indochina War (1946–1954), was the result of hostilities between the communist Vietnamese and the French who were reluctant to give full independence to their former colonies. This war of national liberation has to be interpreted within the general contexts of World War II, decolonization, Cold War, and affirmations of communist political powers in China and Korea (giving this conflict its political characteristics as a revolutionary war). The French defeat in Dien Bien Phu was the decisive event of the war, ended by the Geneva Agreements (20 July 1954). After their success in Na San (1952) against the Vietminh—the Revolutionary League for the Independence of Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh (b. 1890–d. 1969)—the French decided to build a similar air-land base in Dien Bien Phu. What was initially a limited operation (20 November 1953), aiming to protect Laos, became a decisive battle, lasting fifty-five days from 13 March to 7 May 1954. When the Vietminh, under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap (b. 1911–d. 2013), took two important outposts, the French failure was inevitable. Actually, essential factors of the defense—destroying the Vietminh artillery and keeping the airstrip opened—were both defective. The Geneva accords, concluded within the context of detente in the Cold War and after the end of the Korean War, were disappointing to the Vietminh. Vietnam was divided by the 17th parallel into two parts, North Vietnam under communist rule and South Vietnam ruled by former Emperor Bao Dai (b. 1913–d. 1997), and then by President Ngo Dinh Diem (b. 1901–d. 1963). Both opponents wanted a unified Vietnam, sowing the seeds of the Vietnam War (1955–1975). Vietnam was reunified in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, today Ho Chi Minh City.

General Overviews

Only a handful of French- or English-language books offer a comprehensive general overview of the battle in Dien Bien Phu. Two of them, Fall 1967 and Rocolle 1968, oddly were published at the same time on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. More recently, Windrow 2004 and Boylan and Olivier 2018 continue in the same vein by adding new perspectives decades after the events. Beyond a simple account of the battle, Morgan 2010 and Journoud 2019 offer a broader perspective. The latter analyzes in depth the battle as a turning point of the colonial history of France. These comprehensive publications tell the whole story from a Western point of view. Hastings 2018 offers a British look at thirty years of war in Vietnam. On the Vietnamese side, nothing is comparable to these books that respect historical research standards. However, Giàp 2004 is a Vietnamese narrative of the campaign in 1953–1954 by a revolutionary general who won this decisive battle using the Western model of warfare. William J. Duiker, a former US Foreign Service officer, and an academic historian, published two major works, Duiker 1996 and Duiker 2000.

  • Boylan, Kevin, and Luc Olivier. Valley of the Shadow: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu. Oxford: Osprey, 2018.

    This publication is the most comprehensive and up-to-date detailed history of the battle. It is probably the book to read first, especially without having time to go further. Beyond academic history, its American and French authors share the same interest in wargaming simulations.

  • Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.

    In this comprehensive analysis of the Vietnamese struggle for independence (a revised and updated edition), the chapter “The Franco-Vietminh War (1947–1954)” contains a section titled, “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu.” First edition was in 1981.

  • Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh: A Life. New York: Hyperion, 2000.

    This important biography of Ho Chi Minh, using also sources from Vietnam, contains a chapter, titled “A Place Called Dien Bien Phu,” although only ten pages are dedicated to the battle itself.

  • Fall, Bernard B. Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1967.

    Bernard B. Fall was a political scientist with a versatile background from World War II to the Vietnam War, where he died from a mine explosion in 1967. Marcel Bigeard, in command of a parachute battalion in Dien Bien Phu, celebrated this book. Published during the Vietnam War, it offers an historical narrative by an author with both French and American roots.

  • Giàp, Võ Nguyên. Mémoires, 1946–1954. Vol. 3, Dien Bien Phu: Le rendez-vous de l’histoire. Fontenay-sous-Bois, France: Anako, 2004.

    This third volume of the memoirs of General Vo Nguyen Giap, translated from Vietnamese into French, covers the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The original edition was published in 2001 in Hanoi under the title Điện Biên Phủ, Điểm hẹn lịch sử. An English version is available under the title Fighting under Siege: Reminiscences as Recorded by Hữu Mai (Hanoi, Vietnam: Gioi, 2004).

  • Hastings, Max. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975. London: William Collins, 2018.

    The book of this British journalist and military historian covers the two wars in Vietnam. Only two short chapters tell the story of Dien Bien Phu, one of them titled “The Fortress That Never Existed.” Easy to read, sometimes far from a scholarly style, Hastings is very critical of political choices on both sides.

  • Journoud, Pierre. Diên Biên Phu: La fin d’un monde. Paris: Vendémiaire, 2019.

    The most recent work written in French by an academic scholar specializing in the history of Vietnam. The author explains how the battle was a milestone: an obsolete European order was replaced by a new one within the scope of the Cold War.

  • Morgan, Ted. Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War. New York: Random House, 2010.

    Winner of a Pulitzer Prize, the journalist Ted Morgan, born in France, was a conscript within the French Army in Algeria. He wrote an overview book relating the battle, with two particular perspectives: firstly, telling the story of the war before the battle itself occurred, and secondly, explaining the international context resulting in the Geneva Agreements.

  • Rocolle, Pierre. Pourquoi Dien Bien Phu? Paris: Flammarion, 1968.

    This book is the publication of the history PhD dissertation (1967) of a French army officer. The work is probably the most extensive and balanced of all of those published in French. It is impossible to find it today, except for public and academic libraries.

  • Windrow, Martin. The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004.

    This book, a synthesis of secondary sources, is however one of the most recent works of such a scale, mainly based on French sources.

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