On the 50th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu

DIEN BIEN PHU, Vietnam (AP) – Smiling and waving flags, thousands of Vietnamese paraded May 7 on the 50th anniversary of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, celebrating a victory that ended France’s colonial ambitions in Indochina and set the stage for America’s ill-fated involvement in the conflict.

“I’ve been expecting this event for a long time,” said Nguyen Van Quy, 74, a veteran who proudly displayed the faded green backpack he carried into battle. “At that time … we were all slaves and we had nothing to lose. We had to stand up for ourselves, and we were willing to die for independence.”

Performers dressed as the father of modern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap – the commander of Vietnam’s rebel forces – were the stars of a grand show that included 2,500 participants re-enacting the story of how the better-equipped French soldiers were defeated by a ragtag Vietnamese army with an unbreakable will.

The celebration brought out Vietnam’s top leader, Nong Duc Manh, who heads the Communist Party. Defense Minister Pham Van Tra also made the 310-mile trip from Hanoi, visiting a war cemetery where nearly 650 Dien Bien Phu veterans rest. He said many lessons from Vietnam’s victory over France, and later America, still apply today in war-torn countries like Iraq.

“When a country realizes that national independence is above all, no other forces can oppose them,” Tra said in an earlier interview. “For the Iraqi people, national independence is the most important thing. For those who go against this human right, I think they will all lose.”

Inside the town’s small soccer stadium, hundreds of gold star-on-red flags flew as some 2,500 young men and women in green and white uniforms marched around the field during a victory parade.

A steady drizzle failed to dampen the spirits of some 15,000 spectators who packed into the stands. The beat of revolutionary songs pounded, the drums symbolizing an unstoppable march of soldiers and civilians who played a part in the defeat that spurred the collapse of colonialism in Indochina and sparked anti-colonial uprisings around the world.

The mist-shrouded mountains surrounding this tiny border town served as the backdrop for Vietnam’s strategic 56-day siege that’s still being studied by military historians.

Gen. Giap, now 92, was selected to lead the army by the late former President Ho Chi Minh, despite not having any military training or background.

Advised by the Chinese to attack French units fast and hard, Giap changed his plans at the last minute: The Viet Minh army would instead lay slow and steady ambush.

They dug miles of trenches and dragged heavy artillery over steep mountain passes until the enemy was surrounded. Women and the elderly ferried food and supplies to the troops on bicycles and by foot, often going hungry themselves to avoid using up the precious rations.

On this May 7, camouflaged toy tanks blasted smoke on the soccer field as Vietnamese troops closed in. Spectators cheered and clapped as a performer dressed as French commander Col. Christian de Castries eventually emerged from his bunker, waving a white flag just as he did 50 years ago on May 7, 1954.

Michel Marszalek, 73, remembers that day well. As a French pilot who dropped supplies at night to the infantry, he vividly recalled the brutal battle that left more than 2,000 French soldiers dead and buried three times as many Vietnamese. He swore back then if he lived to see the 50th anniversary, he would return to Dien Bien Phu.

“The government decided to go to war, and the soldiers obeyed,” said Marszalek, of Metz, France, who made the trip with his wife. “There is a winner, there is a loser and then we shake hands.”

Marszalek crossed paths with many other snowy-haired Vietnamese veterans, who had also returned to the battle site for the first time since the war – their stories filled with the same pain and loss.

Clad in their original uniforms, the old Vietnamese soldiers laughed and cried during their reunions. Thin, small men with feathery whiskers dangling from their chins, some walked with limps or missing limbs, but they remained full of spirit.

Soon after the French were gone, Vietnam was divided in half and the Americans came – sending Vietnam spiraling into yet another bloody war. But the momentum from the victory at Dien Bien Phu continued, and, in 1975, the Communists ousted U.S. forces from South Vietnam and reunified the country.

Veteran Quy, who still has shards of shrapnel in his head from Dien Bien Phu, said Vietnam would never have given up its fight for independence and the resistance lives on today.

“I still keep the spirit of a Dien Bien Phu soldier,” he said, grinning. “I’m ready if the country needs me again.”
* (See related stories below)

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For life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …

The following is excerpted from Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence, modeled on that of the United States and written by revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh:

All men are created equal; they are endowed

by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”

Those are undeniable truths. Nevertheless, for more than 80 years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty. … They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood. … In the field of economics, they have fleeced us to the backbone, impoverished our people and devastated our land.

They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials. They have monopolized the issuing of bank notes and the export trade. They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people, especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty. They have hampered the prospering of our national bourgeoisie; they have mercilessly exploited our workers. …

For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government, representing the whole Vietnamese people, declare that from now on we break off all relations of a colonial character with France … and we abolish all the special rights the French have unlawfully acquired in our Fatherland.

A people who have courageously opposed French domination for more than 80 years, a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the fascists during these last years, such a people must be free and independent.

– Ho Chi Minh, Sept. 2, 1945

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Gen. Giap recalls long road to independence

By Tini Tran

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) – The legendary military general who led Vietnam to decisive victories over the French and Americans has words of warning for the U.S. effort in Iraq.

“Any forces that would impose their will on other nations will certainly face defeat. And all nations fighting for their legitimate interests and sovereignty will surely win,” said Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap during a rare interview April 30 on the anniversary of Saigon’s fall, just days before the 50th anniversary of the French surrender in the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

The man considered one of history’s foremost war strategists refused to draw parallels between the present-day conflict in Iraq and the decades-long war in Vietnam, saying he doesn’t know specifics about the situation there.

However, Giap emphasized that powerful countries today should not underestimate weaker opponents’ desire for independence – pointing to Vietnam’s own example.

“It proves that if a nation is determined to stand up, it is very strong,” he said. “We are very proud that Vietnam was the first colony that could stand up and gain independence on its own with the victory of Dien Bien Phu.”

Tiny, frail and white-haired, the uniformed Giap, 92, was animated during a two-hour session where he reminisced on his days as a revolutionary and Vietnam’s lengthy struggle for independence against foreign invaders.

Chosen to command the Viet Minh army by former president Ho Chi Minh, Giap had no military background or training. But his gut instincts and natural talent were proven during the pivotal battle at the border outpost of Dien Bien Phu.

Giap held back even as his Chinese advisers told him to strike hard and fast. Instead, he decided slow and steady ambushes would ensure victory. His troops dragged heavy artillery over steep mountain passes and then dug trenches to surround the French.

“I think that was the most difficult decision I had to make in my life, my military career,” Giap said of changing his military strategy.

The 56-day siege ended with the French surrender on May 7, 1954, ultimately ending France’s rule in Indochina and inspiring uprisings in other colonies around the world. But peace would remain elusive for Vietnam.

The day after Giap’s victory at Dien Bien Phu, he received a telegram from Ho Chi Minh congratulating the forces and foreshadowing another struggle to come.

“I still recall one sentence in the letter: ‘The victory is really great, but it’s just the beginning,’” he said. “Only Ho Chi Minh could write such a sentence at this time.”

Giap went on to fight a long and bloody war with the Americans that ended in defeat once again for the foreign occupiers on April 30, 1975, when Saigon, the capital of U.S.-backed South Vietnam, fell to communist forces.

On April 30, Giap recalled a meeting in 1997 with Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary who led the U.S. into war.

“I told McNamara … the U.S. lost in Vietnam because the U.S. did not understand Vietnam,” Giap said, adding thanks for the antiwar movement. “During the Vietnam War, the American people supported Vietnam. I thank the American people for that.”

As revolutionaries fighting in the jungle, Giap said he and Ho Chi Minh simply dreamed of a country free of foreign domination.

“Vietnam was an enslaved country. The only free place was in the jungles and behind our enemy’s back. Modern Vietnam is much different. Vietnam today is a country of freedom, unity, independence, democracy and peace,” he said.

Holding court in the ornate French colonial government guesthouse, where he once had meetings with Ho Chi Minh, Giap only had to look out to see Vietnam’s other changes. The country of 80 million remains politically communist but capitalism has made strong inroads.

Streets once filled with bicycles are now clogged with cellphone-wielding youths on motorbikes. Neon signs and flashy billboards have sprouted next to colonial-era buildings. Internet cafes and trendy restaurants dot the capital of Hanoi.

Vietnam needs to work harder to pull itself out of poverty and become more worldly, but Giap expressed hope for the future.

“All my life, I remembered two things,” he said. “You have to put the public first and if you have the people, you have everything.”

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