Military success brings with it new problems for the nlf. The forces of the us and its allies are now concentrated in the cities, the bases, and in the provinces adjacent to the border; vast areas of the country-side have therefore been completely freed. With the Americans abandoning the countryside to the nlf, the latter’s methods of guerrilla and of mobile war, so useful against isolated garrisons and outposts, against convoys and patrols, can have no substantial further application. A different type of warfare then begins—has indeed for some time begun—to show itself: the warfare of positions. The writings of the Vietnamese themselves provide an indication of how the war may now unfold.

In a work entitled The Resistance Will Win, written more than twenty years ago, at a time when the war against the French had hardly emerged from its rudimentary opening stages, Truong Chinh set down the strategy by which the Vietnamese were directing their resistance. The guiding principle of their strategy was to prolong the war—simply because, in terms of immediate military capacity, they were so much weaker than the French. The strategy of lengthening the war, however, by no means affected the tactics of any individual battle or campaign; these consisted in first concentrating their forces, in launching lightning attacks and in then dispersing quickly. If the Viet Minh had to content itself with the methods of guerrilla and of mobile war (the one a method of fighting in small groups which, while harassing the enemy, could merge easily with the local population: the other a method of gathering guerrilla forces into highly manoeuvrable larger groups), it was not because in principle it eschewed the warfare of positions (digging trenches, setting up fortifications); rather that, being underarmed in relation to the French, to apply hastily such a form of war was ‘to doom ourselves to failure’.

The account given by General Giap in 1961 of the fall of Dien Bien Phu describes the manner by which the Viet Minh eventually had recourse to the warfare of positions. The problem arose in the summer of 1953. With the next season of campaigning then not far away, General Navarre and the French and American general staffs examined the position in which the French expeditionary corps had placed itself. Its forces were dispersed in innumerable small posts and garrisons, and no longer retained a sufficiently large and mobile force with which to contain the attacks of the regular army fielded by the Viet Minh. They were faced with a dilemma. If they gathered in their forces and regrouped them in a powerful mobile force, the guerrillas would inevitably profit, and large tracts of the countryside would at once be lost. And if, on the other hand, the forces remained dispersed in their positions they might, for the time being, occupy a more sizeable terrain, but the threat posed by the Viet Minh regulars would continue undiminished.

The solution which Navarre chose has a familiar ring. He would greatly develop the indigenous forces at his disposal, and use them to relieve his superior European and African troops; the latter could then be suitably regrouped. To this end, Navarre established 54 new battalions of Vietnamese auxiliaries, and, with the opening of the winter-spring campaigning season of 1953–54, began to concentrate strong forces in the South. He would take the offensive in a zone in which the Viet Minh might be brought to battle.

The problems faced by the Viet Minh were not easy ones. Should they concentrate their own forces in response, and give battle in the delta? Or should they transfer them elsewhere, and launch an offensive of their own? In particular, should they concentrate against Dien Bien Phu, a fortified encampment not only adjudged impregnable by French and Americans alike, but requiring for its conquest a type of warfare—positional—of which their own forces had small experience—and on a scale of which they had no experience at all? The camp was the strongest in the Indo-Chinese theatre. The considerations which weighed most strongly in favour of its siege, however, were the following: first, the location of the camp, in a region both mountainous and wooded; and second, the dependence of the camp upon supply by air. The enemy could display no initiative at all, and would have to take to the defensive in case of serious attack. Most important, an energetic attack upon the camp would at once render useless all French engagements in the south, as aviation and reinforcements were despatched for operations in the north.